Shaped like a Bonsai
I’ll admit it right upfront. I don’t have the best posture. It’s been a “thing” several of my yoga teachers and trainers have noticed and commented on over the years. Maybe you can relate?
Similar to the way a bonsai tree is shaped by the daily incremental bending of the copper wires, our bodies form to the shapes we occupy over time. Most of us spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, driving a bus, cutting hair, making machine parts. When we work with our hands, in any kind of way, we are leaning forward in a rounded form of some variation.
Each moment compounds this shape and your body takes on a modified physical landscape. Bad posture! Then something more profound happens. That new shape informs and impacts your mental and emotional landscapes. Fear, worry, anxiety, depression? It’s hard to track exactly what is happening but Amy Cuddy’s work around power poses is a start.
When the body takes the shape of a hunch, there is a pulling in and shielding of the heart. At first, that may not seem like such a bad thing if you believe the world is a hard knocks kind of place. Yet, the contracted collar bones and the weight of the rib cage pressing in on the lungs, and the heart, is not a position that allows the heart to function well. When the heart is not working well, it’s a slippery slope. Problems with the heart? Not much else matters.
In yoga, there are a series of poses called heart openers. They are not designed to open your heart literally, but to help balance the time you spend in your “working position” with time spent in the opposite shape. Poses like bridge and wheel are rather obvious as heart openers. You can see the open arc of the front body. These poses help to stretch and strengthen the muscles that get contacted in your working position. These are the muscles across the chest, the muscles between your ribs and your abdominal muscles. But these poses are not accessible to everyone. Sometimes these can feel a bit too open and vulnerable. It’s too big of a step to go from hunched to wide open on some days.
There is a pose that I think is perfect as an everyday, accessible heart opener. It has the odd common name of Knees, Chest and Chin. (The fancy Sanskrit name is Astanga Namaskara.) It is a pose that you can hold and it also is a segment of a vinyasa sequence to get from downward facing dog to the ground. This posture deserves some more serious consideration because of the unique pressing and grounding of the heart in a way unlike any other pose.
Let’s get real first, however, before we go any further. This is perhaps the most awkward pose of them ALL. Yes, as you can see from the photo, your beautiful bottom gets to stay up in the air as the heart descends. Downward facing dog also has a bottom-up position, however for some reason, this pose feels more awkward. Every. Single. Time.
Ah, yet here is another of the beautiful and mysterious offerings of yoga. Yes, it feels awkward. You could just skip it. (And don’t worry if you are doing our chair Yoga@Work classes this week. You won’t have to try this one in class. This is a try-at-home invitation!) Or, you could get brave and say yes to this opportunity for some serious courage training. Most of the time, in life, stretching to new possibilities feels awkward and uncomfortable and terrifying. We need a training ground to develop the mental muscles of courage and resilience.
Each time you nudge yourself forward into the place of slight discomfort and get a bit more comfortable in that shimmering space of potential growth, you are closer to uncovering rewards that you can’t even imagine at this moment.
What might those rewards be? More space to breathe is the first. When you find ease of breath in your new posture. When you are not getting full deep breaths, your heart is working harder because oxygen is the body’s most important resource. With good posture and an unshielded heart, the spine is tall and the heart can work more easily. Also, your back is begging to be more engaged. As you hold a more upright posture over time, the muscles in the upper, middle and lower back get stronger.
Strong back, soft front, wild heart
One of my favorite phrases of Brene Brown is strong back, soft front, wild heart. Brown’s reference comes from a quote by Roshi Joan Halifax.
All too often our so–called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open, representing choiceless compassion. The place in your body where these two meet — strong back and soft front — is the brave, tender ground in which to root our caring deeply when we begin the process of being with dying.
How can we give and accept care with strong-back, soft front compassion, moving past fear into a place of genuine tenderness? I believe it comes about when we can be truly transparent, seeing the world clearly — and letting the world see into us.
Wait. How did we go from having a strong back, soft front and wild heart to the process of being with dying? In the worlds of wisdom texts and most modern psychology, it is believed that death is the biggest fear for most people. It should be a fear. It will happen. There is no avoiding it. One day it will happen. More than likely, however, there are a whole bunch more days in store for you and me before that happens. And a whole lot more magnificent, joyous moments are available if our hearts are in a position to notice and receive.
So with the hopes of those kinds of rewards, I’m willing to get on my yoga mat, get uncomfortable and spend some time to practice Knees, Chest and Chin. I hope you will too.
p.s. Adriene is a great guide. Let her show you the way.