Thursday, July 28, 2011

Oh, pity us, the lumbering sleepwalkers!

eIn the introduction to Will Johnson's "Yoga of the Mahamudra", he discusses the idea of correlation between degree of human consciousness and how straight and upright the spine is. The straighter we become the more conscious we become.

You might be saying, "hey, well now, aren't we all standing up pretty straight?" No, well, some of us more then others but no. We are much straighter then our ancient ancestors but evolutionarliy speaking, we have more work to do. "What?!" Yes! Check your posture. Even after six years of sleeping, eating, breathing, teaching, living, constantly seeking yoga I am still day by day discovering a new degree of alignment and a new degree of awakening consciousness, and I think that I may have quite a ways to go.

Thankfully, yoga and the awakening of consciousness (and the awakening of alignment, for that matter), is a process-oriented experience-- their isn't a need to struggle or race to the goal, because the goal is the process.

I am not an engineer, but if we talk in basic terms about the body as a structure, we can feel and understand this concept. Think of the four-leggeds, the quadripedal animals. Imagine them standing up onto two legs and prancing around. Oh, isn't the idea of prancing doggies and kitty-cats so cute? :) But seriously, whenever meow-meow and woof-woof come up, they can't stay long, because their entire structure is designed for their four-legged lifestyle. For humans to make the jump from knuckle-dragging apes (said with love) to bipedal beings was nothing short of radical, revolutionary and maybe even random.

Coming from that vision of humankind's two-leggedness, we can now shift to contemplating gravity- a force that we have to work to overcome, or that can effortlessly stabilize us, depending on our alignment. Posture has gone by the wayside, sacrificied to the frantic multi-tasking monster devouring our society. In ages long past, parents consistently worked on their children's last good nerve with postural reminders. Even if it was done just out of ettiquette or tradition or habit, it was quite beneficial. In the last century and especially last few decades, people don't seem to pay attention to their own banana-like posture, let alone their children's, we have just forgotten to care. We plod along like dinosaurs, with the posture of a jumbo shrimp.

There are many factors compounding the Western constellation of issues- illness, unhappiness and unconsciousness- one of which is poor posture. While we stopped paying attention, or where we never thought to pay attention, we have left our bodies to fall slowly into gravity. Most people don't actually think much about posture and bodily structure, how they sit or relax or stand or sleep. To stand in poor alignment increases structural pressure to 150% and to sit slouching increases that preasure to 200% or more. This constant, daily pressure is the equivalent of carrying that much extra weight, it prematurely grinds down joints like the spine and knees. It chokes circulation to a minimum, it starves the major organs very, very slowly. It pinches nerves and diminuishes their ability to function profoundly. It also makes our torso distend, get bloated, feel heavy and look much bigger then it is, making us feel very uncomfortable and unhappy with ourselves. It can cause major digestive issues, including contributing to IBS. We are paying a heavy price for our ignorance and laziness.
If we don't give any thought or attention to how we sit, stand and move, then we are relying on unconscious support, gravity is having its way with us, and we actually spend a lot more energy whenever we sit, stand or move just to stay up. Proper alignment takes months of transition to make it past getting some sore muscles (because they have to strengthen in new ways), and years of transtion to newer and newer levels of straightness and lightness. But its only work for a short while. Once we reach a critical mass point, we suddenly feel horribly uncomfortable if we slouch and have to stand up straight because it just feels so much better.

Consequently, since it takes reminding ourselves every time we notice postural deviation, we also strengthen our ability to be conscious. We have to develop a level of mindfulness, a low-level watching that monitors at least the body position, if not the body's other senses and signals as well. This is where the mind-body consciousness connection becomes clear. As we develop posturally, we develop a clearer and clearer level of consciousness.

So how should we be using our body, to stay well and evolve our brains in all our true bipedal glory?

step by step...
Whatever part of us touches the ground is our foundation- feet or feet and hips when sitting. Feet should be flat (watch how you may be habitually shifting weight to the side of one or both feet!), and especially when standing, should apply a gentle to moderate amount of pressure downward into the earth. Pushing down just a little activates the legs, and those big muscles do the majority of the work of overcoming gravity for us. Next, point the tailbone down toward the earth a little, drawing the lower-belly diagonally up and in, navel toward spine. Continue the gentle lifting upward through the chest, and allow your heart to be held high and openly, shoulders opened out to each side. The muscles in the upper-center area of the back will become much stronger and the chest muscles will need to get a bit looser. Slide the ribs back a bit to place them over the hips, and I know, it feels like leaning back at first, it's okay, it just takes practice.
So, to recap, feet (and hips when sitting) push downward, which encourages a lifting motion. Engage navel to spine and lift and open the chest high, allowing the ribs to slide back over the hips.
The stranger this feels the more important it is that you patiently and dilligently practice EVERYDAY, even weekends and holidays. The more you practice the more quickly it becomes natural. Practicing yoga poses helps speed this process tremendously and make it more comfortable. Working out usually makes it harder, because unconsciously, or maybe unavoidably, when we do resistance training we tend to strengthen our muscles in the same imbalanced patterns we hold all day- in other words the imbalanced tightness-looseness of the muscles is what causes improper posture, so working them out gets them stronger, but at the same level of imbalance- unless you work with a very exceptional personal trainer. ( I can help you with that, actually.)

To work on building proper posture similtaneously stimulates the opening of awareness. When we pay attention to our posture and regularly check in on it, we begin to develop body awareness. We hear the body's signals more clearly, we may even start to listen. In time we have found greater all-over health, we eat better because we feel the effects of junk food, we are more joyful because we are better taken care of, we have less stress because we feel better. Just by practicing better posture, we have practiced better mindfulness. We transition from unconcious living slowly to more and eventually fully conscious living, enlightenment.

So physically and mentally, practicing proper posture is one of the most powerful and important endevors possible. It is crucial. It is the work needed in our times. Through the doorway of the body we become more truly human, more alive, fully conscious. In this very lifetime we make a huge leap in evolution. By finding bodily peace we find mental/emotional peace, and with that, our desire to harm or hate others melts away. We become peace.

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