Monday, April 15, 2019

Core Qualities of Yoga: Part 1

Stanley Whitney, Wonderland, 2009
by Elizabeth Gibbs

This post is part of a series that explores a variety of core qualities and suggested practices to consider for inclusion in your classes and private sessions (whether on a mat, in a chair, or a combination of both).

What are core qualities and how can we integrate them into our yoga classes? A core quality is a specific characteristic, strength, skill, or essence that is already part of one’s being. Examples of these might be clarity, alignment, moderation, openness, endurance, integration, balance, contentment, or surrender.

We may think that these qualities are external and are goals we need to work for but consider this phrase: “To see the world in a grain of sand...” from the poem Auguries of Innocence by Robert Blake. If we are that grain of sand, we are also the world and everything that is in the world, including core qualities in us. Yoga recognizes this and suggests that the way we experience our lives, and its joys and problems, can be attributed to how we realize and activate that understanding.

Qualities can be expressed in positive or unhelpful ways. For instance, openness without boundaries can be unhealthy, surrender without wisdom can be premature, and endurance without balance may lead to exhaustion. However, when consciously realized and viewed through our yoga practice, qualities are more likely to be expressed in positive ways.

Of course, this is easier said than done since the journey to Self-Realization is long and often difficult. Our job as yoga teachers is to find ways of helping ourselves and our students understand this. Linking core qualities to our yoga practices is an effective way to help students experience the deeper aspects of yoga. It brings in elements of the energetic and psychological benefits inherent in all yoga practices. Here are a few examples.

Asana: Anodea Judith, in her book Chakra Yoga, offers Tadasana (Mountain Pose) as a way to embody, sense, and feel the core quality of alignment in both the physical and the energy body. She explains that when the body is vertically aligned from the feet to the crown of the head, our energy anatomy (the chakras, for example) aligns with the physical body. When practitioners find physical ease in holding the pose it is possible to sense the quality of alignment physically and energetically.

Pranayama: In The Breathing Book, Donna Farhi suggests using a four-part breath inquiry, that she calls The Essential Breath, as a way to explore the quality of surrendering into the pauses at the end of inhaling and exhaling. 

Here is how to do it:

1. Come to a comfortable seated position.
2. Bring your awareness to your breath.
3. Notice that at the end of your inhalation there is a slight pause, or gap, before you exhale.
4. Notice that at the end of your exhalation there is a slight pause, or gap, before you inhale.
5. Let your breath come and go naturally---don’t try to change it in any way.

6. Simply observe the ebb and flow of the natural, essential breath.

Mudra: Mudras can be thought of as a global positioning system for realizing a desired quality. In Mudras for Healing and Transformation, Joseph and Lilian LePage highlight the core quality of integration, loosely defined as sensing and feeling that all the separate parts of self are integrated into the whole, which is the ultimate goal of Yoga. Here are instructions on how to do Hakini Mudra (see image at top of post).

1. Sit with your spine comfortably aligned and soften your chest and shoulders.
2. Hold your hands facing each other a few inches away from your solar plexus.
3. Touch the tips of the fingers and thumb of your left hand to the corresponding fingers and thumb of your right hand.
4. Create space between your hands as though you are holding a ball.
5. Relax your hands in your lap, with the pinky sides of your hands, your wrists, and your forearms on your thighs or in your lap.

6. Close your eyes or keep them slightly open and gaze down at the floor.
7. Hold the mudra and sit quietly for 2 - 5 minutes as long as you are comfortable.
8. Focus on your natural breathing process.
9. When you are ready to come out, release the mudra, and stretch your body in any way that your body needs to stretch.

We can add a core quality to classes we design for students of all abilities to help them experience yoga on all levels of being. Introducing a core quality with a clear focus requires creativity and flexibility. As Carey Sims pointed out in his post on this blog "Yoga and Advanced Aging: Teaching in Assisted Living, Skilled Nursing, and Memory Care Spaces, Part 1":

“The majority of my classes take place within a larger communal room and the energy outside of our yoga bubble is often frenzied and chaotic. We may hear the TV blasting from a resident’s room down the hall, or nurses and staff holding conversations within earshot, other times a confused resident roams about anxiously, or a family member arrives to take a loved one out of class for a visit or doctor’s appointment.”

This rang SO true! I teach several of these classes and recently had very different experiences with two separate classes on the same day when I decided to work with the core quality of grounding. I prepared a three-minute presentation that ended with a short poem to inform and hopefully inspire. Here’s how creativity and flexibility showed up.

At the Large Residential Rehab Center: In spite of the distractions, late arrivals, and vocalizations from one resident that might have been a symptom of Tourette’s syndrome, I shared the information and then reinforced the importance of grounding with postures, breathwork, and guided relaxation. One resident acknowledged after class that she needed to work on grounding because often felt distracted and ‘outside’ of herself.

At the Small Nursing Care Center, a half hour later: When I arrived, the energy in the room felt distant and distracted. Taking time to do the educational piece did not feel appropriate. So I internally set an intention and presented the core quality of grounding through my selection of postures, breathwork, verbal comments, and guided relaxation.

Yoga practices can be presented with more than one core quality. It depends on who our students are, what they need, and how we facilitate the class to meet those needs. Let’s take Balasana (Child’s Pose) as an example. Depending on our intention, we can present the posture with the core qualities of grounding, surrender, alignment, support, protection, or restoration. We might ask students to:

  • Hold the pose with prop support to sense grounding, protection, support, or surrender;
  • Facilitate a step-by-step process to enter and exit the pose to sense physical alignment; or
  • Offer several modifications to help students find the one that is most restorative for them.

Placing focus on one or more core qualities offers students an opportunity to deepen their experience of yoga and perhaps move them a bit further along on the path to Self-Realization.

Elizabeth (Beth) Gibbs, MA, C-IAYT, is a certified yoga therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapists and is a faculty member of the Kripalu School of Integrative Yoga Therapy. Her masters’ degree in Yoga Therapy and Mind/Body Health is from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She is the author of Ogi Bogi, The Elephant Yogi, a therapeutic yoga book for children that is available through her website at:

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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