Becoming the Cup
Alchemy is everywhere. The word is used so freely these days, it often becomes unmoored from its meaning and certainly from actual work in a laboratory. But for the student of yoga, alchemy is not some hip new way to describe transformation; rather, alchemy has deep roots in the history of the practice, roots that can be traced back to the Tantrikas in the medieval period (for further reading I would suggest David Gordon White’s The Alchemical Body). Having a strong understanding of the alchemical aspects of yoga allows us to see our bodies as the crucibles that they are. We become more in touch with the transmutation that lies at the heart of all alchemical work: the movement from the gross to the subtle. Yin, because it is a quiet practice where our bodies are focused and still, serves as the ideal laboratory for alchemical work. All you need to practice is a few props, silence, and the willingness to become the cup.
One of the simplest ways to access the alchemical potential in the body is by focusing on the chakras and their relationship to the elements. As Swami Satysangananda Saraswati writes in The Ascent, most of us need help realizing our true nature. Our identification with the mind makes it difficult for us to separate what is not real (our thoughts) from what is real (our true, divine nature). Much of yoga practice–from the chakras, to the breath work, to the poses themselves—works as a kind of a crutch or support for our journey. The goal of yoga is transcendence, but most of us won’t get there in this lifetime. We need help. She writes, “The rays of light emanating from the sun and the heat produced from the sun are essential aspects of the sun, but they are not the sun itself.” In the same way, when we work with the Tantric body by visualizing the chakras, energy centers, we are getting in touch with these subtle energies but the visualization is not transcendence itself. She says later, “Your son, born of your body, is not you.” So we want to approach the entire practice—from breath to body—as a way to get us closer to reality, possibly even experience transcendence, but not confuse the sadhana, the work or practice of yoga, with the goal of yoga: union.
Move Toward, Not Away
Alchemy, like yoga, embraces the difficult. Like yin, alchemy moves toward rather than away. As a process in a laboratory, it begins with fermentation, decay, stench. The alchemist knows that what is most difficult in our lives offers the possibility for the greatest transformation. Therefore, in our alchemical yin practice, we will begin at the base and transmute that which is most heavy (tamasic) into that which is most filled with light (sattvic).
75 minute practice. You might consider not playing music for this practice so that you can be entirely with your inner landscape.
Centering (5-10 minutes)
Begin in sukhasana, easy-seated pose, with palms face down on your legs. Perhaps sit on the edge of a blanket, or you may prefer to sit on a block in thunderbolt pose. Close your eyes and soften through the face and the heart. Feel the energy of the earth moving from the tailbone along the back body and out the crown of the head. Part of you is soft and open, while part is alert and aware. Both are true. If you open your practice with chanting, begin that practice. If not, move directly to a deepening awareness of the breath. Find a yogic breath to explore the full capacity of your lungs. On inhalation fill from the belly, through the ribs, to the collarbone; then on exhalation empty from the collarbones, down through the ribs, to the very bottom of the lungs. Enjoy both the u-turn at the top of the inhalation and the void at the bottom of the exhalation. Stay here for three to five minutes before choosing a more formal pranayama, the one that will become the anchor for your practice, your place of perpetual return. I personally like 4/6 count breathing. For this practice, breathe in softly through both nostrils to an even count of four and then breathe out to a longer count of six. Allow the exhalation to carve ever deeper paths for prana in your body.
Legs Up the Wall (5 minutes)
From here, depending on how much time you have for your practice, you might move to legs up the wall. This is optional, but it allows you to be fully in touch with your breath. Because you are on your back body, you can more readily feel the prana enter the body and roll like a wave up its shore. To come into the pose, take your right hip to the wall and gently bring your legs up the wall. They can be bent, a little or a lot. Release muscle engagement in your legs so that they are loose against the wall. Keep buoyancy in the back of your knees. Perhaps place your left hand on your belly and the right hand on the heart so you really feel the architecture of each breath. Let the wall have your legs; let the floor have your body. Stay here at least five minutes, trying to be present for the arrival and shape of every inhalation and the sweet surrender of every exhalation. Eventually, let the legs slide down the wall and come to rest on the belly. Try not to reach with your arms but just let the knees settle against your chest. Feel the rebound. Then roll to your right side, opening the lunar side of the body, and breathe here for at least three, long yogic breaths.
Child’s Pose: Earth (5 minutes)
Now come to child’s pose. Toes are together and knees are wide. You can support yourself on a bolster placed lengthwise beneath your body or a stack of two blankets. You may need to add a blanket behind your knees as well. Alternatively, you might place the bolster on two blocks and bring the floor closer to you. This pose resembles the fetal pose that we all took in our mother’s womb. Our bodies and our awareness turn inward. Here bring the focus to the first chakra, muladhara, located roughly at the perineum. Don’t worry about where it is in your body; instead be in touch with its elemental resonance. In this case: earth. Feel the qualities of earth in your body, its stability and groundedness. Know that your basic needs are met, and that you are enough. No more is required. You have everything that you need already. If you are practicing a 4/6 count breath, then really allow the long exhalation to carry you closer to the ground. You might even explore the sensation of your body as earth, the idea that you are the dust of the stars. Alchemy begins at the base. Here in child’s pose saturate yourself in the darkness and heaviness of earth. Stay for five minutes.
Before leaving child’s pose, release the deepest exhalation of your practice thus far, moving ever further in and down. After reaching the very base, begin to ascend. Know that you are moving up toward water, and imagine your earth body starting to liquify. Come to all fours. Pause. Notice the energetic sensations in your body. From here, ever so slowly begin to roll through cat/cow. The body is an undulation, a wave, Keep your eyes closed and just feel your body move. Practice several cat/cows or whatever organic movements feel watery and right.
Caterpiller: Water (5 minutes)
Open your eyes and come to caterpillar. Begin by sitting on the edge of a blanket to tip the pelvis forward. Begin to bend forward. Ideally, you want your head to be supported, so you may need to add blocks or bolsters to support your body as it bends over the second chakra, svadhsitana, located at the tip of the pubic bone. Variations are shown below. Our second chakra, the place of emotion, creativity and sexuality, is wed to the element of water. In this pose, take your awareness to the bowl of the pelvis and imagine it as a watery well, filled and even overflowing. On inhalation, the back body will lift from the ground and on exhalation the top half of the body will settle toward the earth. Feel this movement as a wave, and imagine your body being irrigated with every breath. Water will mold to any shape; it is willing, flexible, and all-embracing. Let your body become a water body. You might even repeat a simple mantra like “I step into the flow.” Stay in caterpillar for five minutes. As you come out, be sure to pause first when your shoulders arrive above your hips and then, second, when you first bend your knees and release your legs. Windshield wiper your legs after the rebound.
Yin Lizard: Fire (Five minutes)
Let the feathery edges of the water in your body start to turn to flame as you move to the third chakra, the manipura chakra, and fire. For this set up, place one block at the back of the mat at the highest level and the second closer in at the lowest level. Then place the bolster, angled, on the blocks. You may choose to let your shins rest on the bolster or place the length of both of your legs on the bolster. The bolster will hold you; trust it. Let your legs be soft on the bolster. Feel the energy move toward the solar plexus, the location of manipura; everything funnels toward the fire of the belly. You might rest your forehead on your hands or you can turn you head in one direction for half the pose and then switch. Often when we think of fire, we think of something that devours and consumes. And certainly the fires of alchemy are not quiet. Calcination burns the substance to the whitest of ash. But here, think of fire as your inner illumination, a warm glowing. It does not need to ravage; it can reveal. Let the inner fire take whatever it needs to take. Because your legs are elevated, dross will be moving toward the cauldron of your belly. Welcome the cleansing. Stay in this yin lizard for five minutes before allowing the legs to drop to the sides of the bolster. You might remain on your belly for a few minutes before removing the props and rolling to one side. Be sure to remain curled in on yourself for a few beats, then start to follow the smoke from the flames up the body. You are headed to the element of air.
Lateral Butterfly: Air (5 minutes each side)
The heart chakra, anahata, is the gateway chakra. It is symbolized by two interlocking triangles, one pointing up and the other down. The heart chakra keeps us in touch with the world around us through love (downward pointing), while the love we have for one another and for the world then inspires us to move upward toward the divine or the unmanifest. The heart chakra is connected with the air element. Air is like love. There is more than enough for everyone, and it has no end. To be in touch with the heart chakra, it works well to open the lung meridians. Lateral butterfly is a nice pose for this. Again, sit on a folded blanket to lift your pelvis. Bring the left foot into your body and extend the right out to the side. Place the bolster or a block on the outside edge of the straight leg. From here, inhale your arms to the sky and on exhalation let the right arm come to the support. You may want to raise the support with more props. The left arm can either come over the head and rest on the head, or you can hook it to your right shoulder, or simply let it rest in front of you. Take the breath to the left side of the body and allow your ribs to experience the stress. Once you have moved your breath to your ribs, consider breathing through less obvious parts of your body. For example, your cheeks or your toes. Iyengar taught that every pore in the body rings with the practice of yoga. Feel every cell inhaling and exhaling. Prana is both gross breath and cosmic breath. In those pose, you can explore that truth, letting your whole body breathe. Take lateral butterfly on one side of the body for five minutes. Then slowly bring yourself back to center: shoulders over hips. Feel what is happening in the body before moving any further. After that rebound, lean back on both arms and take the legs straight out, Jiggle them or rub your hands up and down their length. Take the pose on the other side, moving your props.
Supported Fish: Ether (5 minutes)
The fifth element in alchemy is called quintessence. In yoga, we use the word ether. It is the space between the molecules of air, something so subtle we don’t really have a name for it. The fifth chakra is related to ether and is located at the base of the throat. To explore this chakra and the feeling of spaciousness, bring yourself into supported fish. You can use a bolster or a block beneath your heart space, but make sure to support your head if it doesn’t reach the ground. You can use a folded blanket for this. Take your arms out to the side, palms up. Legs can be straight or tented together. You may also take the pose with the soles of the feet together. Your focus is on the front of the throat, the location of the vishuddha chakra. To help you visualize the spaciousness of ether and the power of this chakra you can think to yourself that you are inhaling air and exhaling sky. Let your body melt around the prop, especially on exhalation. Vishuddha translates to exceedingly pure. We have arrived at the subtlest of elements, far beyond anything that is physical. In this pose, let your intuition be as open as your throat. Receive whatever you are there to receive.
Full Pranam (3-5 minutes)
Finally, complete your alchemical transmutation with gratitude. Take your body to full pranam. You cannot be more humble, nor closer to the ground. Lay on your belly, face down, forehead (third eye) to the mat. Extend your arms overhead (unless this is uncomfortable, in which case let them remain by your sides or in cactus arms, palms down). If your arms are overhead, then open your palms. Offer gratitude to this incredible world that teaches us how to change with grace every minute of the day. Stay here for as long as it feels right. Then move to any version of savasana, your body hopefully now less dross and more gold.