Yield to Gravity
According to Chinese medicine, late summer, including most of September, is the time when Earth energy rises. Earth energy creates stability, steadiness, nurturing and grounding. Earth season is the time we preserve and store our harvest, and the time when we reflect on and integrate our experiences and memories.
Until Autumn Equinox, the stomach and spleen still rule. Like the Earth, a balanced stomach and spleen bring physical, mental and emotional stability and grounding. When our Earth energy is out of balance, we suffer from agitation, worry and scattered attention—mental states which lead to exhaustion. Predictably, poor digestion and assimilation—often from anxiety or worry—result from an unbalanced stomach and spleen. Unless we integrate the nutrients we take in, those nutrients cannot convert to energy to fuel our bodies.
This month’s pose is Ubhaya Padanghustasana (ubhaya = both, padanghusta = big toes). The pose is named after the big toes, after the “circuit” created in the body by connecting the fingers and toes.
In my classes, I usually teach this pose toward the end of a practice, when I want to ground my students’ energy to prepare them to return to the outside world. This is especially important if we have practiced poses that stimulate the upper body (such as inversions), or poses that bring energy to the surface (such as backbends). Ubhaya Padanghustasana simultaneously engages the core (stomach/spleen), grounds energy, revitalizes the body/mind, and stabilizes and steadies balance, a perfect combination to generate and celebrate late summer’s Earth energy.
Start by sitting on the floor on a mat with your feet stretched straight out in front of you. Bend your knees out to the sides, drawing your feet in toward your groin. Now curl your index and second fingers around the insides of your big toes—right fingers to right toe, left fingers to left toe.
With your knees still bent, rock back onto your bum so that your feet lift off the floor. Now rock slightly forward and back until you feel the back edges of your sit bones against the floor. Balance here and root your sit bones into the floor, simultaneously lengthening your spine. Allow your shoulder blades to slide down your back so that your neck feels long. Lift your heart toward the sky. Balance here with your knees bent for a few breaths until you feel rooted, stable and spacious.
When you feel steady, straighten your knees, continuing to ground your base, and allow your torso and legs to grow up out of your base, like a tree reaching toward the sky from its roots. My students will recognize this instruction as “active yield.” Active yield, a concept I learned from Donna Farhi, is a way of taking advantage of the ever-present force of gravity—the Earth’s strongest energy—to create lightness. Rather than propping yourself up away from the ground by using muscular energy to lift you, let your weight first release into your rear and then actively press your rear down into the floor so that the rest of your body rebounds upward. Reach the feet toward the sky.
If you can’t keep your knees straight without tipping backward or rounding your back, bend your knees and hold onto the backs of your thighs with your shins parallel to the floor. Continue to practice active yield. Another variation that may suit you is to hold the outsides of your feet instead of your big toes. Some people’s toes and fingers can become fatigued in this pose. Even though this pose is named after your toes, it’s okay to hold the outsides of your feet instead. Connecting your hands and feet in this way creates a closed circuit in the body similar to that of holding the toes.
Stay in the pose for five to ten breaths. Then bend your knees, drawing your feet toward you. Place your feet back on the floor with your knees bent and then slide the legs out in front of you. Rest with your legs stretched out and your front thighs, knees and toes facing the ceiling. Relax and feel your hips and legs resting on the floor. You can support your spine by placing your hands on the floor next to your hips if you like.
You can practice Ubhaya Padanghustasana any time, but it is especially balancing at times when you are experiencing anxiety, agitation or that vague spacey state that results from too much computer work. It’s invigorating and calming simultaneously. Longtime Yoga teacher Margaret Hahn says, “The Earth is the guru of the body.” Tap into the Earth’s enduring wisdom this month.