I have often heard my yoga teacher, Sofia Diaz, offer the following instructions: bring your feet to a hip distance stance, sink down into a half-squat, so your thighs are parallel to the ground, put your hands on either side of your feet. The appearance of this is something like a ball with hands and feet. A turtle with human limbs. A mushroom. However we view the beloved half-squat, this forward bending pose offers the back body a powerful sense of opening and is deeply grounding.
For the first twenty-seconds to three-minutes, depending on the day, this pose feels to me like a great yawn from tailbone to crown. My connection to the earth is emphasized, and I experience a deep sigh of relief. Allowing my head to hang is like letting my troubles go.
After this delicious honeymoon phase, my hip flexors, and possibly my quads, start offering utterances. The content can change from day to day, but my frontal hip muscles often provide the following set of lyrics: Move, please. It would be our strong preference at this juncture that you move. Sofia will ask us to invite the heat into our legs and pelvic body. She will suggest that we invite the exact sensation of our experience. I will breathe. In. out. In. out.
After several breaths, my quad/hip flexor region will offer new lyrics: Nikki, this situation is no longer agreeable. Do MOVE. Sofia will remind us that it’s impossible to hurt ourselves in this position, as all of our joints are bent. I will breathe and focus on the quilted square micro-pattern of my olive green yoga mat. I will find the mat to be a strange material. I will recall Sofia once saying in a jocular manner that yoga mats are made from pterodactyl skin. I will realize that I have no idea what a pterodactyl looks like. Why was I not introduced to the pterodactyl as a child? What happened with my education? Does everyone else know what a pterodactyl looks like? If Sofia isn’t nearby, I will rise a few inches away from the ground, hoping for relief.
But it is too late. Regardless of whether I move a few inches or not, my quad/hip region will now burst into a sound that has the intense presence a semi evokes when the driver is honking to back up: MOVE! I SAID MOVE! DID YOU HEAR ME? MOVE YOUR BUTT NOW!
In accord, I will take in long powerful inhales, as if my breath is an ocean that can save me. My hip flexors will perform small twirling explosions. On a particularly intense day, I will pray. Dear God. Please save me. Dear God. Please be here now. Now. Yes, now. Mmm hmm, yes, Right Now!
Sofia will speak about the soles of my feet – am I noticing the feeling sensation in the soles of my feet? I DON’T KNOW. Can I marvel at how challenging such a simple posture can be? I DON’T CARE. She might come over to push my sacrum just a tad closer to the earth. Though I will remain verbally silent, I will now speak directly to her. ENOUGH! GET US OUT OF HERE SOFIA! I’M SERIOUS!
I will recall Sofia saying that enlightenment is who we are at our very worst moments. I will notice this thought while I beg at her for relief and pray to come out of the pose. I will see that I am not enlightened. In this moment, I will care more about my hip flexors than I will about enlightenment. Like every practice with my teacher, I will be humbled by the fact that at the root, I remain punky and ornery and resistant. Sadly, I will still care more in this moment about getting out of the pose.
At no time that any student can predict, Sofia will calmly instruct us to gently lengthen our legs and roll our spines up until we are standing. Sounds of relief will permeate our shared space. Sensation will ooze through our bodies. Feelings of gratitude and love will likely infuse us – a body-mind-heart resuscitation. We are apt to feel more alive. I will have an urge to leap over to Sofia and to engulf her with a whole body hug in gratitude for bringing me, once again, to a place of vulnerability that few others can bring me to, that I cannot will myself into, and that no one else has yet guided me to feel through the practice of yoga.
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In yoga, the term vayu is used to describe the winds or energetic directions within our bodies. One of the vayus is the apana vayu, which guides the downward flow. As such, the apana vayu is the “seat” of elimination, which means everything from physical elimination to letting go of a loved one to serving others to death. From a physical perspective, the apana vayu governs the lower pelvic body, the legs and the feet. In short, Sofia’s teaching of the half-squat is an ode to the downward flow.
In his book, Mirror on Yoga, Richard Freeman likens this vayu to a tree’s trunk and roots, which reach downward and gather nourishment, allowing the tree to expand and blossom. Thus, everything connected to the earth is connected through the apana energy. Without this energy, we evaporate – we don’t even exist.
In our culture, we share a common tendency to prefer not to focus on the apana, or downward flow. We’d rather spend time looking upwards, focusing on achievement, gathering insight, reeling in the satisfaction of productivity, as if we were dependent on nothing (and no one). Sound familiar?
* * *
After 3-4 years of practice with Sofia, she started to help me notice the apana in me by saying with serious presence – “Be your lower body, Nikki! You MUST learn to BE your lower body!” I looked down. Legs, thighs, cooch, knees, feet. How could I be that? I wanted to learn. But what or who was my lower body? If anything, this was just the main site of cause for worldly rejection – home to my Big Ass American Thighs.
Around this time, in 2005 perhaps, I became ill the night before I had to work an 80–hour workweek. Paralyzed in fear, I couldn’t sleep. I was horrified at being ill. I had to start work at 6:00 am the next morning. I might fail. After some hours, in defeat, or hope, I drew a hot bath and got inside to soften the intensity of the chills running through me. Looking at my naked body, I felt my usual disgust, but something else became present – a realization that I‘d always felt grossness and disgust at the mere gazing of my own female body. How could I be my lower body if I hated my lower body?
I forced myself to keep looking. I noticed the particulars, imagining this moment as an experiment – I had as much to learn as Darwin did. Could this world open to me? Watching in the bathtub, it struck me that what I was looking at was actually beautiful. Immaculately formed and full of life. I continued to look – rather shocked by my beauty. I began to cry.
* * *
When we unearth our particular resistance to our lower body, and connect to our roots and to our downward flow, we gain a more enlivened sense of upward and outward flow. Thus, we are quite literally more able to open, to manifest our gifts and goals, to blossom. We need to be grounded to do much of anything. So why do we resist the downward flow with such aplomb?
For one, it’s vulnerable as hell. The downward flow speaks strongly of our dependence, of the fact that in truth, we cannot do anything alone. A part of us must surrender – to eating, to sleeping, to breathing, to shitting, to loving, to ending. This surrender is a constant subtle reminder that we are not in control – that no matter what we do, the complexity of life in a body comes with no designs to meet our particular way – and even, our particular way is not something we can contain.
Richard Freeman eloquently suggests that it’s “perfectly normal that as we exhale, a feeling of anxiety – an overwhelming sense that is akin to the fear of death – arises because the apanic pattern stimulates physical sensation associated with change and dissolution.” Not only are we not in control of our living, we are not in control of our dying. We are also not in control of what will die around us – relationships, careers, friends, parents, lovers. Surrendering to a naturally grounding energy includes allowing this truth in our bodies.
On a bodily level, resistance to the downward flow shows up in compression and jammed musculature in our pelvic body and legs. Though we may feel fine much of the time, a few good hip opening poses can show most people where they are holding tension in the pelvic body. The practice of the half-squat truly does open up the channels of the legs, allowing for a more regular and conscious relationship to the downward flow.
May the apana flow in you.
Apana Yoga Practice, as inspired by my teacher, Sofia Diaz
Stand with feet hip distance apart. Close your eyes. Feel your feet connecting to the earth. Notice the soles of your feet. Lift your toes off the earth and root down through both sides of the feet. Gently soften your toes to the earth without losing this sense of rooting. Sink down into a half-squat. Breathe for 2-5 minutes. Allow the process. Notice your sensation. Notice your feeling. Notice that energy rises upwards from the earth, through the feet. Gently and slowly come up. Notice the presence in your legs, pelvic body and feet.
What’s Hot for Nicole Right Now…
Currently Reading: The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde
Practice Focus: Forgiveness.
Currently Watching: Not One Less
Shadow Element or Emotion Discovered While Writing This: Punky rebellion as in, “I don’t wanna even try.”
Link of the Week: Women in Community
Nicole Dunas is an Integral Chicks contributor. She has been practicing yoga and meditation since 1994, and has been a devoted student of Sofia Diaz since 2003. She is also a student of Zen, in the tradition of Zentatsu Baker Roshi. Nicole has taught yoga in Colorado and Indonesia, worked as a Yoga Journal Conference Work Exchange Coordinator, and tutors college students for Pearson Education. She’s written essays and articles for several online publications, and recently published the essay, “The Feeling of Beauty – A Yoga Project,” in the book, Yoga – Philosophy For Everyone. She’s the creator of The Real Beauty Yoga Project, and she received her M.F.A. from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Currently, she writes, practices, tutors and teaches in Colorado.