Guest post by Christian Leeby
Yoga is wholeness. It is a word, practice, and realization that describes our true nature, oneness. Yet the best way to experience the whole is to know the parts, so a deep Yoga practice involves delving into the parts to better know the whole. It’s an artful balance because when you focus on the parts it’s easy to forget that the value lies in bringing that into the larger perspective, and if you only think about the whole then you’ll certainly miss important pieces of the puzzle.
In the big picture this translates to the 8 limbs of Yoga. Many people think that Yoga is just asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathing). Now if you’re nodding to yourself thinking “Yes, there’s also meditation” you’re absolutely right, but in addition to those 3 branches there are still 5 more! If that’s news to you then google “8 limbs of Yoga” and you’ll be pleased to see there are plenty of excellent articles describing all 8 steps. In the West many yogis focus only on one or two of the stages mentioned, but when that happens we’re less likely to reach the ultimate goal of Yoga because the whole has been lost to a few of the parts.
If you approach your practice with this understanding, then concentrating on individual parts will give you great gains toward achieving the whole, and one of the best examples of this is how you use your hands in your asana practice.
The hands are extremely unique for many reasons, and how you activate them in your asanas has a profound impact on the results you get. One of the most unusual qualities of the hands is how much you can stretch them. Try it. Open your hand and stretch the fingers apart. Now ask yourself if there’s any other part of your body than you can move with such effect. There isn’t, in fact no part of the body even comes close. This isn’t just interesting, it’s also very useful, because stretching the hands directly relates to what happens in your mind, as well as your whole body.
When you first try my suggestion of stretching your fingers apart, it’s a fairly common action that is not new to you. However, if you take your time and really concentrate, you’ll be surprised to see how much more you can do. The first step is to stretch your fingers apart, which means make as much space between each finger as possible. Look at your hands as you do this, and you’ll see that some fingers have much more distance between them than others. Without loosing any of the space you have between the ones that open easily, make the ones that are closer together move farther apart from each other. Maintain that, don’t loose any of the stretch, and now imagine you can extend each finger from it’s root, where it meets the hand, through it’s tip.
Take your time to get the best extension you can in each finger. Now, without loosing any of those actions, spread the skin of the palm of the hand from the center outwards.
These instructions go from easy and obvious to subtle and not so obvious, but if you concentrate you will realize that although someone looking at your hand might not see you spreading the skin of the palms outwards, you can certainly feel it. It’s a remarkable ability that the hands alone have, to stretch and extend with such physical and subtle action.
If you play with this a bit you’ll see that the mind doesn’t really have to focus much on the easiest movement, stretching the fingers apart, but you can’t do the next step of making more space between the fingers that don’t move apart as easily without focusing. Then to extend the fingers through the tips, your mind has to remain right where it is and become even sharper. To proceed, you simply cannot spread the skin of the palms without further concentration. The hands provide perhaps the best opportunity to see how working the parts of the body with precision demands one-pointed focus, which is at the heart of Yoga and is instrumental in calming the mind that is always jumping here and there.
Physically this practice also has great effects. Straighten your arm and follow the same instructions with the hand. It’s immediately obvious that each action engages the forearm more and more deeply, and with continued practice and you will soon be able to see how the actions of the hands also awaken the upper arms, the shoulders and shoulder blades, and even the upper back and spine. Stretch the hands with precision and intense focus in any straight-armed asana like Downward Facing Dog or Tadasana with the arms overhead and you will begin to see that working this individual part of the body, the hand, has a direct effect on the whole body, as well as the mind!
Focus on the parts to awaken the whole. Your Yoga will go deeper and deeper and move you towards the realization that you are not a part of this world but are actually the whole that is the root of all that is; pure consciousness.
Christian Leeby has been teaching Yoga for over 20 years. He has studied in India with the world’s greatest Yoga master, BKS Iyengar, 5 times. Visit him at www.miracleofyoga.com