The Art of Centering in Yoga and Massage
In 1970, when I took a ceramics class at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, I quickly discovered that I could not center clay on the pottery wheel. Over the next few years I was also studying tai chi and ten years later my studies took me into the heart of Kenpo Karate and White Crane Kung Fu. It was those movement systems that taught me about finding one’s center, also called hara or tan tien.
The hara, also called “one point”, is said to be located just below the navel and about an inch inside the body. It is a protected area and considered by many to be a sacred space. It is not surprising that this is the womb area, and that it is immediateley below where the umbilical cord connects mother and infant. Another factor that makes this area important is that the psoas, a major walking muscle and the only muscle to connect the lumbar spine, is nearby. Also the digestive tract, especially the intestines, is where 95% of the serotonin (feel good transmitter) is manufactured. In fact the gut area has its own nervous system, often called the mini-brain.
As a yoga/movement instructor I help students become centered through mat work, stretching, conscious breathing and attention inward. By focusing on our centers, yoga practitioners are able to generate heat and healing energy throughout their body, at the same time bringing the person into the here and now, with less focus on worries.
The squat, the Iyengar standing and balance poses, dog pose, seated forward bends, and many other positions stretch the legs and open the hips to develop strength and flexibility in the lower body. This allows us to root or ground and supports our extending and opening our upper body. And what is the connector here? Our center — of gravity, balance and equilibrium.
An alarming number of people, especially over sixty years old, have suffered from falls, and even more alarming is how many people die as a result of complications from the injuries. It is urgently important for people to stay in touch with their center as their anchor, thus I highly recommend yoga for people from early years to one hundred years old or more. And while they are at it, they can learn how to give massages!
Most forms of movement originate from our center, and that includes doing bodywork. The minds of skilled bodyworkers are focussed and free of distraction so they are able to be totally in the present with their clients. They may reach this state before beginning a session by consciously inhaling and consciously exhaling, and using energy awareness techniqes such as yoga, meditation or focusing on a mandala. This creates a free flow of healing energy so that the massage recipient experiences more than simply the physical sensations of having muscles rubbed. They often experience a renewed sense of wholeness.
Peter Levine, a well-known trauma recovery therapist and author of Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, believes that trauma is not in the event but in the nervous system. Thus everything we can do to enhance the functioning of the parasympathetic nervous system will help us stay calm even while external events attempt to un-hinge us.
Not only is awareness of our center or hara an essential part of everyday balance and agility, it is a component of subtle and often spiritual ways of healing. We transmit healing energy from the same center that we use in an emergency, such as when a mother rescues her child pinned under a car. Our “chi” or life force, hyper activated in this instance, is also available to sooth us.
One of my favorite poses for bringing awareness to our center is called constructive rest pose. Lying on your back with knees bent,
legs hip width apart, feet flat on the floor and arms resting on your abdomen, across your chest or relaxed with palms up by your head, relax into gravity. This is a passive release of the psoas, encourages good alignment of the spine and full and deep respiration. Inhale, focus on your center, then exhale, internally sensing your breath move your energy or chi through your body, to release tension. After several breaths, allow your breathing to simply happen. After five, ten or twenty minues, roll onto your side, prop yourself up slowly, and re-enter the world.
“Holding the breath is like holding the soul.” BKS Iyengar
“Energy is the real substance behind the appearance of matter anad forms.” Randolph Stone, D.O., D.C., founder of Polarity Therapy
“If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred.” Walt Whitman
“Movement never lies.” Martha Graham