Monthly Archives: August 2012

Can I buy a semivowel?

Have you ever traced the outline of your feet when you stand with the legs together? Neither had I, until I decided to try keeping them together in sun salutations. “Let’s play Twister!” I’ve never actually played Twister, the Hokey Pokey for swingin’ singles, but the cheesy 1960s commercials often pop into my head while moving through some of the goofier poses. Looking at the outline of my feet, I thought, hmm, that looks like a heart. Sweet. Then it turned into a molar. Then the gluteal region. Anyway, I measured out my distance from tadasana to adho mukha svanasana, tried a few lunges and thought, I am not going to like this. Plus, I had fuschia-colored Sharpie ink around my feet.

Home base for my feet

Sagittal plane (what’s that again?), internal rotation, adduction. Moving through spinal extension and flexion, backward and forward, feet together when appropriate. There are many variations of surya namaskar. I prefer to keep my feet hip-width apart, which seems natural and more hip- and sacrum-friendly. However. I was curious to find out whether this is my habit simply because it is easier or whether it is valid for my body. The Iyengars and, I suppose, teachers in other traditions say that tadasana, or mountain pose, can be done classically, with the feet together, or hip-width apart, for those of us with uteruses or contraindications. For folks who are knock-kneed, for example, their thighs are already beyond normal internal rotation, so “feet together” is not an appropriate route for them to take.

I wanted to try moving through this dynamic, flowing sequence in a focused and compact way rather than spreading energy out to the sides, which is also a valid way to practice. I was in a class this week in which the teacher emphasized doing the salutations with front-to-back motion — arms out in front and up, not out to the sides and up. I know that’s a common variation, but it’s not my thing, so when she said *why* she was teaching it that way — to contain the energy — aha. Of course. That made sense. So on my own, I was curious to see whether it would be grounding: Will sweeping my arms out in front and not in a “swan dive” make me feel more centered, or claustrophobic and irritated? Will I be able to keep my feet together through plank, chaturanga and cobra, back to downward-facing dog, and then — this is the really hard part — stepping forward into the lunge?

Hence the feet tracings, like the paper turkeys that kids, at least American kids, make at Thanksgiving by tracing their hands.

I also wanted to play around with a mind-blowing concept presented in an online yoga anatomy course I’m taking led by Leslie Kaminoff. Week 9 is about the vocal diaphragm and the anatomy of sound. He explained that in Sanskrit, the language of yoga, there are five kinds of consonants and that they can be mapped inside the mouth, based on where their sounds originate (guttural ones come from the throat, etc., and labial ones from the lips). Here is the mind-blowing part: semivowels as vinyasas, or connecting movements between the asanas of the root vowels (which are steady, unchanging, continuous sounds, like AA, EE, OO). Semivowels are the sounds that have to be made when moving from one vowel to another, the in-betweens. He compared this to what has to happen in a vinyasa such as a sun salutation: There are movements that have to fill the spaces between the fixed, firm poses of, for example, tadasana and chaturanga. They aren’t poses in themselves but are still necessary.

Mind. Blown.

So which came first: The Sanskrit chicken or the asana egg?

Furthermore, the sounds that are created by combining the root vowels and semivowels are diphthongs (as in any language, presumably — just because I took a linguistics class in college doesn’t mean I remember a lick of it). So diphthongs are like the breath, the necessary bridges between poses. They are links that fill the empty spaces, connective phonic tissue that brings and holds two sounds together — eliminating duality! and creating a whole new sound, propelling a word or a sun salutation forward. An interesting idea, as opposed to the notion of not rushing to fill in the gaps between poses, or the breathing practice of waiting at the bottom of an exhalation for a few beats before inhaling. It’s nice to be able to take the sense of calm that comes with stillness and ease in a held pose into an energetic, flowing sun salutation, mindfully filling the pauses and creating the supportive net as you go.

My landing strip

Back to the mat. My experience in about 20 minutes of these flows was … interesting. I didn’t always neatly fill my footprints in front and back, but it was nice to have them there as a guide, like markers on runway. I felt wobbly at times, which is not unusual. I felt my asymmetries become more pronounced, especially how “out” and recessed my left hip is. My diphthongy breath grew louder as I began to sweat (and also to realize that maybe I should not forgo deodorant just because my husband is out of town for the week). I sometimes lost track of which side I was on, also not unusual. I caught myself taking my arms out to the sides while inhaling up into the low lunge. Oops. None of these are critical errors, but as I caught myself flubbing I just tried to refocus and start over from wherever I was. This was an experiment in going against my grain, after all, so no big deal. As Kaminoff also says in a handout accompanying the Week 9 lesson: “Either the goal of yoga is to be free, or the goal of yoga is to get it right — choose now, because you can’t have it both ways.”

So the sagittal sun salutations were an interesting experiment in energy, how to move in a linear, non-scattered way with the breath, my own breath. Noticing what I noticed. Trying to find tricks (there aren’t any) to help me stay on track, and then not worrying about it.

Just playing with the language of yoga.