Open Your Heart
To help you stay open and grounded, we asked Anusara yoga teachers Sianna Sherman and Rebecca Benenati to develop this complete practice. Do the poses in the sequence shown here two to three times a week starting now, or--if you're short on time--immediately before any stressful situation to instantly shift your energy.
San Francisco Bay Area college professor Michael D'Aloisio, 39, has learned to cope with family stress through Anusara yoga, an increasingly popular style that teaches practitioners to develop compassion by opening the heart physically and spiritually.
The Heart of the Matter
"ANUSARA FOCUSES ON THE HEART because it's the center of our being," says Anthony Benenati, a certified Anusara instructor and co-owner, with his wife, Rebecca, of City Yoga in Los Angeles. "The body is a physical manifestation of our emotions, so when you do heart-opening poses, you may experience emotional release."
Anusara, which in Sanskrit means "to flow from grace," was founded in 1997 by John Friend, who based it on his belief that human beings realize their true potential when they are open to the divine energy in the universe. "To be in the flow," explains Friend, "is to feel the moment fully, and then to choose to act in ways that celebrate the essence of life, Spirit, and our hearts."
D'Aloisio certainly credits his discovery of Anusara with his ability to go with the flow, stay joyful, and look for the good in every circumstance. "Anusara's heart-opening aspect, along with its focus on spirals of energy moving through the limbs, creates more space in my body--and consequently allows for more spaciousness with my family," he says.
The Anusara style is characterized by a set of biomechanics known as the "universal principles of alignment," which apply to each pose. Key concepts include softening the inner body ("opening to grace"), drawing the body's peripheral energy inward ("muscular energy"), sending its inner energy outward ("organic energy"), and opening it up through a series of energetic loops and spirals that all work together like interlocking gears. (For more details, visit anusara.com.)
When the body is aligned, the flow of energy improves, creating an overall sense of well-being. "Physical poses shift energy," explains Elena Brower, a certified Anusara teacher and co-owner of Virayoga in New York City. "They help quiet the mind and bring you closer to your heart's wisdom, which is expressed through the breath."
Heart to Heart
HOW CAN A HANDFUL of simple yoga moves help you deal with the complexities of life? Once the body finds its optimal alignment, says Sianna Sherman, a certified Anusura teacher in Berkeley, Calif., the heart expands--allowing you to stay emotionally available, even in the face of challenging situations.
Over time, she notes, a regular practice such as the one offered here will provide a cumulative benefit. But you can also try this on-the-spot heart opener anytime, anywhere: Soften the inner body, bring the shoulder blades down the back, keep the sides of the body long, and draw the throat backward. This stance allows for an opening where qualities of fullness, acceptance, and thankfulness can come pouring through.
Two years ago, D'Aloisio showed his then 86-year-old grandmother how to do Child's Pose, and taught his skeptical father how to meditate. Instead of seeing him as the perpetually offbeat offspring, his family now understands him a little better. "Whereas I once felt that yoga was another thing separating me from my family, I now realize it has united us," he says.
Anusara vs. Anxiety
Feeling anxious before the soup is even served? At your next family gathering, try these two simple relaxation techniques for quick relief.
1. If you notice that your shoulders are creeping up toward your ears and your neck is beginning to ache, Sianna Sherman recommends taking a moment to breathe and consciously soften your inner body. Lower your shoulders and release your jaw. Relax any part of your body that has contracted or tightened. Ground your feet, and widen and lift your chest. From this place, you'll be better able to approach a tough situation with openheartedness rather than knee-jerk annoyance.
2. Pay attention to your breath, suggests Elena Brower. When it shortens, try to be silent and slowly deepen your inhalations and exhalations. After a few moments, your breath will become long and smooth, which will trigger a sense of relaxation and help you feel calm and collected.