While there are as many hatha yoga styles as there are dog breeds (#yearofthedog), I keep coming back to Anusara for its holistic approach to aligning the body with Spirit. Back at the turn of the century, I began my yoga journey with the path of meditation. Through the meditation master with whom I studied, I found Anusara yoga.
As much as I enjoy and value other styles of hatha yoga, coming from Iyengar yoga and classical hatha, Anusara resonates most because it unifies different methods of aligning the body under a consistently applicable set of principles. Beyond the unification of disparate alignment cues, the principles neatly align with the teachings of non-dual Tantra, a philosophy dear to me ever since being initiated into its teachings. Tantra literally means a tool to stretch or expand consciousness. It can also mean a revealed scripture.
Here are five reasons why the Anusara method resonates with me:
- The word Anusara is cool. The story goes that Douglas Brooks, a scholar of the Tantric philosophy and John Friend, Anusara founder, were having breakfast at the ashram of a meditation master. Friend says that as they were eating, he began sharing with Brooks the new hatha yoga method that he was developing out of the profound insights he was having at the ashram.
Afterward, Brooks exclaimed that he had just been studying a verse from the Kularnava Tantra that may contain the perfect name for the method: Shaktipata-anusarena shishyo ‘nugraham arhati (Kularnava Tantra 14.38).
By entering into the current of the Divine Shakti’s descent into the Heart, the true disciple becomes capable of receiving Grace.
The word Anusara referenced in the sutra literally means to step into the current of Grace. Grace or Anugraha is the awakening power of Consciousness or the Divine in this system.
In modern parlance, the word Anusara is like the flow state of happiness psychology or the zone in sports.
- The non-dual tantric philosophy adds another dimension to the practice. Anusara yoga draws much of its philosophical framework from non-dual Shaiva Tantra. In a nutshell, Consciousness, denoted by Shiva (Shaiva) in this instance, has manifested this whole universe on itself like a movie projected onto a screen. The difference being the movie, the screen, the audience and everything in between is made up of Consciousness. Shiva in Sanskrit means auspiciousness or the highest good. Another key aspect of this Consciousness is that it is supremely free (Svatantrya). It is so free in fact that it can choose to cloak or limit itself. This limitation of Consciousness gives rise to the everyday world we experience.
- One focus of the practice is seeing the Good in everything. As stated above, the word Shiva in Sanskrit directly translates as auspiciousness or goodness. As teachers we are trained to look for the Good in a student and their poses first. From there it's about enhancing what is already a perfect manifestation of the Divine. Since everything is made up of shimmering Consciousness, the practice becomes about recognizing this truth in ourselves, in others and in our world. I see my role as a practitioner and teacher to be somewhat like an instrument tuner, fine tuning an already perfect instrument to remember, resonate with and re-cognize this truth.
- The elegant and cohesive nature of the Anusara Universal Principles of Alignment have always amazed me--especially how they fit into the whole framework of nondual Tantric philosophy. A fundamental tenet of non-dual Tantra is the notion that even though all is one, Consciousness is supremely free--so free that it can even intentionally limit itself. This seeming contradiction exists only in the bifurcating nature of the mind. As Consciousness contracts, the phenomenal world appears like a projection onto a screen. Yet the screen itself is made of the same stuff--Consciousness. To and from oneness, Consciousness pulses the play of opposites into and out of existence: light-dark, stable-free, earth-sky, yin-yang, light-dark, etc.
To recognize our truth as non-dual Consciousness, Tantra teaches us to engage with the play of the world instead of isolating ourselves from it. In Sanskrit the play pulsing in and out of form is called Spanda: infinitesimal and simultaneously infinite pulsation.
The Universal Principles of Alignment reflect this Divine pulsation. The first principle is called Open to Grace. We first set a clear foundation for every pose and start with the intention to open to our own awakening power--Grace or Anugraha. This principle holds space for the play of opposites in the microcosm of the body, opening us to a higher wisdom. The next four principles pulse in contrary complements.
The next two main alignment principles create stability and expansion within the space of first principle. They are Muscular Energy and Organic Energy, respectively.
Muscular Energy stabilizes limbs and connective tissue, drawing us back to the source of the body:the core line of each limb, the origin of each muscle and eventually back to the axial skeleton, into a focal point. We move from periphery back to core and in doing so, realign the body with what Anusara calls the Optimal Blueprint, a subtle energetic form of our body that is similar to the form of our childhood body.
Organic Energy then expands everything back to spaciousness, stretching and opening us to optimize energy flow from stability and the literal centeredness created by Muscular Energy.
Practically speaking, Muscular Energy protects ligaments and tendons from overstretching while stabilizing joints. Paradoxically, engaging muscles first sends signals to specialized nerve cells called Golgi tendon organs signaling that it is safe to release more deeply into a stretch.
In all the poses there is a balanced dance between Muscular and Organic Energy. The secondary principles of alignment called Inner and Outer Spiral and the fine tuning alignment Loops also work in contrary complements.
At a subtle level of practice, finding the pause between pairs of opposites is actually an important Tantric meditation technique. By following the Spanda of the body into a pause, the practice becomes a moving meditation.
- There is lighthearted playfulness in the practice. Since Consciousness expands and contracts from oneness to duality in a never ending Play of Consciousness (Chitshakti Vilas), Anusara teachers seek to sync up or co-create with this play. In doing so, the practice becomes playful creative expression rather rather than serious Tapasya (austerity). While play may sound frivolous, think of play like a virtuoso playing her violin.
The great thing about the journey of transformation is that there are many approaches to reconnect with Source. For me Anusara yoga has been a great tool for aligning and healing the body. It also comes bundled with a great philosophical framework for understanding reality, an aspect that I find very compelling - both intellectually and practically.
By Bo Srey