The Huangdi Neijing, (The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon) is a 2,000-year-old text on traditional Chinese medicine. Organized as a Q&A between the Yellow Emperor and Taoist master Qi Bo, one exchange between the two involves longevity. The emperor asks: “I am told the people in ancient times could all survive to more than 100 years old, and they appeared to be quite healthy and strong, but the people at present time are different, they are not so nimble in action when they are only 50. What is the reason?”
Qi Bo replies: “Those who knew the way of keeping good health in ancient times always kept their behavior in daily life in accordance with nature. Their behaviors in daily life were all kept in regular patterns such as their food and drink were of fixed quantity. They never overworked. In this way, they could maintain both in the body and in the spirit substantiality, and were able to live to the old age of more than 100 years.”
While I can’t verify that the ancients were “nimble in action” well into their 100s, I have to say that Qi Bo’s words are as prescient for the 21st century as they were for the first century BCE. While we hear these commonsense recommendations again and again, we continue to test them every day.
This sage advice is especially important as fall transitions to winter. In fall and winter Earth’s energy—and our bodies’ energies—move inward and downward. Living in accordance with nature makes sense; however, our lives often do not support natural seasonal flow. Shorter daylight hours encourage us to rest more, but our work schedules remain just as busy as they were in the summer. As the holidays approach our food intake is hardly of a “fixed quantity.”
When I think of ways I might live more harmoniously with the downward and inward flow of fall, Yoga poses that ground the body and encourage meditation come to mind. For this reason, I’ve chosen Virasana (Hero or Heroine Pose) as this month’s pose. Virasana stretches the thighs and ankles, strengthens the arches, improves digestion and relieves gas, and can be therapeutic for high blood pressure. It also increases circulation to the lower body, rooting the energy in the pelvic floor and legs. With its digestive benefits and grounding qualities, it is the perfect pose to help us make the transition from fall to winter.
To practice Virasana, gather a yoga mat, at least two blankets and a yoga block. Before you start, practice a simple standing forward bend (Uttanasana) to stretch out the backs of your legs. Place a folded blanket over your mat. Start on your hands and knees. Place your knees an inch or so apart and separate the feet a little wider than hip-width. Place your palms on your calf muscles and press them down into the bones. Still pressing, slide your hands back toward your ankles as you sit your hips down between your feet.
Many, if not most, people can’t sit on the floor between their knees in the pose, at least initially. If you have a known knee injury or if your knees feel ANY discomfort, please roll up your blanket and place it under your hips so that you are sitting higher. Keep adding height—blankets or a block—until you can sit comfortably. You might also try rolling up two thin washcloths or socks and placing one behind each knee as you sit down into Virasana. This can create a bit of space behind your knees that might relieve discomfort.
Donna Farhi says, “There’s no good knee pain.” The knees are strung together with ligaments. Any feeling of stretching or discomfort means that ligaments are stretching. Ligaments do not have the “memory” of muscles—they do not rebound when they are stretched. Over time, this stretching can destabilize your knee joints. Virasana can help keep your knees nimble, but it is important to approach it with caution and respect. It can take years for some people’s hips to reach the floor, and if they never do that’s okay too. It’s far better to sit on blankets and enjoy healthy knees in the rest of your life than to force yourself to the floor and risk injury. An experienced teacher can help you find your healthiest position.
Once you have found a comfortable position, sit in Virasana for five breaths. Settle your hips down into your blankets or the floor. Feed your sit bones into the earth. If you like, you can clasp your fingers and raise your arms over head. Turn your palms up and reach upward as you root your hips. Breathe and expand your torso. After a few breaths return your palms to your thighs. Over time, you can increase your stay—as long as you are comfortable. When you are ready, move back to all fours and then into a standing forward bend (Uttanasana).
Virasana’s circulatory benefits make it a great defense against frigid feet. Its digestive benefits help counteract the effects of too much holiday food and drink. It’s a great alternative to sitting cross-legged in meditation—as long as you give your body plenty of blanket or block support. Virasana invigorates our legs as it calms our body/mind energies. Virasana will help you stay warm, relaxed and rooted throughout the winter.