Looking up at the breezy clouds moving across a bright blue sky through the massive marble pillars- I felt like I was a character in a movie, temporarily transported back to ancient times. I felt rooted to the ground beneath me almost as firmly as those columns I was standing under. My gaze lifted up to the sky, which seemed suddenly more majestic through the filter of the structure I was contemplating: an energy of connectedness to the earth and the sky, the old, and the new moved through me in a powerful way and I felt the full meaning of the word, awe.
I was at the entry of the Pantheon in Rome, originally built in 27 BC, and while a little worse for wear (it could us a good scrubbing) still standing so sturdily that it really feels like it was built a few hundred years ago instead of a few thousand years ago. Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon's dome is still the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. I left contemplating the importance of building strong foundations and bringing that contemplation into my yoga practice by diving into the pillars of the asanas- the physical yoga practice- which are the standing poses.
Tadasana (mountain pose), Trikonasana (triangle pose), Virabhadrasana 1, 2, and 3 (the Warriors), Vrksasana (tree pose)…and all the poses that require us to connect to our feet are the standing poses. They aren’t as glamourous or exciting as bakasana (crow) or handstand (adkho mukha vrksasana) but they are the fundamental, essential, poses that build a strong foundation in our bodies and minds to allow us to build to the more “fancy” asanas we often strive for with so much drive.
The great master, BKS Iyengar said: “In each asana, if the contact between the body and the floor- the foundation- is good, the asana will be performed well…Always watch your base. The standing poses are meant to begin providing this foundation for life…These postures teach one how to stand straight so that the brain can float in its position.”
The foundation at the pantheon is so solid that the minute you walk in you are super aware of your feet and connection to the floor, the ground, earth underneath you. At the same time, the columns are SO high, and there is an oculus in the dome (a circular opening) that allows the glory of the sky to come through from above. It is a great inspiration for yoga asana, that connection to the ground, that building from the bottom up, which in turn allows for and encourages the upper body to elevate.
A great example of this is Tadasana also known as Mountain pose, the mother and father of all yoga poses. In this apparently simple standing shape, your lower body from the waist down should feel like there are roots from your feet going into the earth like the base of the mountain, your legs should have life and energy- so much so that you feel the skin of your flesh stretch across the muscles, while your upper body, waist, ribs and chest and especially the crown of your head, reaches up for the sky like the peak of the mountain. These elements, the opposing energy of rooting down to rise up, so evident in structures like the Pantheon which elevates up to the heavens from a strong base- repeat in our body, and in yoga. We learn to cultivate that awareness through building connection and strength in the standing poses.
The foundational poses require concentration, focus, and discipline. And the benefits extend way beyond the physical.
Master Iyengar goes on to say: “When a person is mentally disturbed or dejected, you’ll notice he can’t stand straight on his feet…These postures help one to maintain stability in times of difficulty and even when catastrophes occur. When stability becomes a habit, maturity and clarity follow. Stability requires balance…Balance in the body is the foundation for balance in life.”
That saying that Rome wasn’t built in a day becomes very meaningful and clear when you visit a structure as perfect and enduring as the Pantheon. Our yoga practice is something we build over time, with attention, awareness, dedication, and discipline. It requires a commitment beyond the physical to hold Warrior 2 more than 5 breaths and to notice where you need to adjust your feet, engage your legs, support your hips and core, open the front of the body and elevate the upper body, all while maintaining the most fundamental foundation of ALL - your breathing- and not thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner after class.
And that’s the practice. The standing poses are how we build that endurance and perfection in our bodies and minds (and hearts). Not in one day, but day by day. And building solid foundations within ourselves allows us to build just as sturdy foundations in our relationships, goals, and in our lives.
One of my favorite movie scenes is the one from the Catherine Zeta Jones and Sean Connery flick, Entrapment. The one where they recreate the laser beams of the museum where the heist will take place and after weeks of practicing and studying she moves through the whole maze, blindfolded. Her movements are so graceful, and she is breathing so audibly the entire time, sensing as much as she is remembering and feeling as much as she is thinking. She has complete faith in herself because she is completely centered and integrating movement with breath.
This is what we strive for in our asana yoga practice. It is the fine art and practice of linking our breath to our movement. Easier said than done, but without it we might as well be doing Indian calisthenics.
The miracle of our practice is also the miracle of our lives. We go to bed every night and wake up everyday without giving our breath a second thought... we have blind faith that our breath will happen whether we are aware or conscious of it or not, and usually we are not, but we trust that it will keep us going, keep us alive.
Our breath is our unique spark and stamp on this universe. In sanskrit, it is called Prana and means life force energy. It is the essence of who we are and the most beautiful metaphor for faith and divinity: we can't see it, or touch it, but we can feel it and we know it is there. Our breath is the bridge between our physical body and our mind, heart and spirit. It is what binds all the parts of ourselves together.
In the yoga sutras, Ishvara Pranidhana is surrender or devotion to the divine. In our asana practice and in our meditation practice, we bring our full awareness to the beauty and mystery of our breath and if we are practicing yoga, we consciously surrender with faith to it's power, to that spark of our OWN divinity. We are literally building faith in ourselves through devotion in our practice. That is what yoga does. The pose is just the vehicle we use to go inwards and explore.
When we refine this crucial aspect of our practice, and let the breath reveal every sensation, every wound and blessing, every opening and closing, every strength and challenge, and embrace it all as part of our sacred, beautiful selves...we create a revolutionary self acceptance, self love, self confidence and self empowerment which we can then radiate to others. This is how we change ourselves and the world.
So remember in your asana practice to let the breath lead the movement, in your meditation practice to follow the breath and not the thought, and to honor your prana with every inhale and exhale In so doing, you are honoring and building the divine within yourself.
“Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn. The spiritual journey is the unlearning of fear and prejudices and the acceptance of love back in our hearts. Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth. To be consciously aware of it, to experience love in ourselves and others, is the meaning of life. Meaning does not lie in things. Meaning lies in us.”