The practice of Yoga is a continuous journey of being present for all things that arise. In cultivating this presence, we are able to more skillfully wade through the tricky quagmire that is life. To steer away from sensation and presence is to eschew reality and further disconnect us from our surroundings and our contribution to them. My teacher Jack Kornfield says that to live without a practice is to try and steer a boat without a rudder- it may work but more in a haphazard than deliberate way.
The pose of this month is Surya Yantrasana- Sundial or Compass pose. This has always been one of my favorites because of its rich symbolism and powerful energetic effects. A sundial is always in line with the sun as it moves across the sky from high to low, east to west, and so on. It is completely uninterrupted and unremitting in its commitment for that which guides it. Surya Yantrasana reflects the power of a deeply committed practice. A yoga practice which creates a strong rudder that guides us through both joy and sorrow, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, and all else that comes with our precious moments each day.
In the early 1990s, during the siege of Sarajevo, there was a man named Vedran Smailovic who became known as the “Cellist of Sarajevo.” During this time, as his beloved city was under attack, Vedran would take his cello through the war torn streets and neighborhoods to play beautiful music. While a city hid in fear, shaken and distraught, Vedran played every day for months bringing glimmers of hope and beauty to an otherwise dim landscape. He captured the imagination of the world in his unshakable commitment to music and joy.
I write about Vedran because in each of us lies this same capacity of dedication to being present with our hearts and bodies even as things occasionally crumble around us. Note that Vedran did not leave Sarajevo to play but rather stepped deeper inside the city to play his music. This is the power of a committed practice or a strong rudder. To be aligned in each moment- ceaselessly, with love and passion. This is the Sundial of the heart.
Surya Yantrasana is quite challenging. In fact, its common to feel as though you’ve been trapped in a small box when first performing this Asana. Before attempting Surya Yantrasana, several parts of the body must be thoroughly warm and stretched including the hamstrings (particularly), the spine, and shoulders. Good poses to prepare these parts of the body for Sundial include Hanumanasana, Bada Parsvokanasana, Parivrtta Parsvokanasana, and Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana.
To perform the pose, begin seated in Dandasana. Pick your right leg up and hold the pinky toe edge of the foot with your left hand and draw the knee back. Keep your right shoulder inside the knee and place your right palm underneath the right calf. Using the leverage between your right palm and calf, draw the right knee as far back as possible and then swing the leg over your shoulder as though you were throwing a purse over your shoulder. Squeeze the leg into the shoulder and release your right hand flat to the floor beside your hip (or a foot or two to the right of the hip). Maintain the firm grip with your left on the right foot. Lean into the right hand and begin to straighten the right leg. As the leg straightens, pull on the foot with your left hand and spin your chest, belly, and gaze to the left and underneath your left armpit.
For beginners, you may either begin in the preparatory stages of the pose or take several options. The first would be to hold a strap connected to the foot with the left hand which would ease the amount of openness in the shoulder and hamstring required. Or, you can try before straightening the top leg, leaning onto the right hand, picking your right butt up of the ground, sticking it out as far as you can while you straighten the leg, and then revolve your spine and twist as you place your sit bone back down (this action, although strange, tremendously frees the low back and tight hamstrings and allows for a greater extension).
For more advanced practitioners, the classical form of the pose is not the one pictured above where one leg is in Sundial and the other is in Dandasana. For those adept with this posture, in the preparatory stages, put the leg that isn’t going into Sundial into Arda Virasana. This is significantly deeper and should only be attempted when the first stage (as described above) is mastered.
Contraindications for Surya Yantrasana include torn hamstrings or adductors, rotator cuff injuries, MCL sensitivity, and herniated/bulged discs in the lumbar spine. These are addressed below
For those with knee problems, ensure that the leg that is in Sundial (being extended) has an active ankle and shin. Typically as one pulls on the foot, the ankle will sickle and put strain on the outer knee. Be sure to flex the pinky toe and engage the Peroneal muscle which will help stabilize the knee.
For rotator cuff problems, make sure that the top shoulder (the one holding the foot) is pulling on the foot while it is kicking. If one kicks and straightens the leg without pulling on the foot, it is possible the leg will overpower the arm and strain it. By pulling on the foot while extending it, you ensure a more secure connection of the arm bone and shoulder girdle. For the bottom shoulder, be sure to press the shoulder into the leg. Without this action, the leg will push the shoulder forward and strain the neck and chest.
For lower back issues, make sure you don’t attempt this pose if you cannot first establish a curve in your lumbar spine. For severely herniated discs or other low back and SI problems, avoid this pose completely or work toward it only in the presence of a seasoned teacher.
For hamstring issues, it will depend on where and how severe the hamstring or adductor tear is. If bad, don’t attempt straightening the leg. Stay in the bent knee position. Otherwise, be sure to squeeze the buttock and firm the hamstring as you slowly straighten the leg.
Sean’s classes are noted for their humor and depth. Focusing on alignment, students wishing to learn about their bodies and the different concepts of yoga philosophy in detail will enjoy his public classes. Click here to see his weekly class schedule. Sean will also be teaching a Yoga for Low Back Care workshop this month. Register here!
Photography by Ryan Scott. firstname.lastname@example.org