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Inside Out and Upside Down: A Yoga Journey

Inside Out and Upside Down: A Yoga Journey

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Inside Out and Upside Down: A Yoga Journey

385 pagine
5 ore
Dec 1, 2018


Inside Out and Upside Down offers a personal journey into the heart of yoga through the eyes of longtime student and teacher Claudia Cummins. This collection of essays - written throughout more than 25 years of practice and study - shares a taste of the many gifts of yoga, and offers clear-minded guidance for anyone seeking health and happiness in body, mind and spirit. Essay topics range from explorations of yoga postures to strategies for starting a meditation practice all way to cultivating loving presence in the world. This rich exploration of ancient wisdom brought to modern life offers insight and inspiration for those who yearn for greater vitality and ease, both on the yoga mat and beyond.
Dec 1, 2018

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Inside Out and Upside Down - Claudia Cummins



Thank you so much for picking up this book. I am thrilled to share these stories with you, and I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I have loved putting them down on paper.

Inside Out and Upside Down is a collection of articles, essays, musings and teachings I have written since I started practicing yoga in 1992. My life has been deeply enriched by this ancient practice, and I have loved writing my way into deeper clarity and understanding of the mystery and magic of yoga.

I have been inspired to pull these stories together for my sons, in the hope that someday they may want to understand just what was going on whenever they found me standing on my head or contorting myself into a backbend or sitting as still as a rock. Their mother’s yoga has been a constant in their lives.

Since they were infants they have been left behind with a parade of babysitters - sometimes they have even been schlepped along to class - and their patience has been admirable. I have resisted the urge to force yoga upon them, yet I secretly hope that someday they may dare to roll out a yoga mat of their own. Or maybe they will just pick up this book and discover a little ease, understanding and inspiration.

Writing is my way of making sense of the world, so it has been natural for me to share my yogic explorations on paper. I have been fortunate to have my stories land in the willing arms of both Yoga Journal and Yoga International magazines, and much of what you find here was first shared in those pages. In more recent years, I have written for my students and friends, and have included those essays here, too.

As a result, the book is rather loosely held together. If there is any thread that weaves through, it is my own journey as a yoga student and teacher. The stories are offered roughly in the order I wrote them, which means they trace the arc of my understanding of yoga in action.

Looking through these stories now, it appears that yoga has worked its magic in my life just as the ancients predicted: from the gross to the subtle, from outer toward inner, and from self to the greater whole. I started out loving the big bang of yoga poses and then became fascinated by the wonders of the breath. And that led me straight into the balm of meditative stillness, and then toward communion with the greater spirit of universal life.

In addition, I see clearly in these stories that I have forever been on the lookout for ways that yoga can serve us not just on our mats but in our greater lives. Who cares if we master the basics of triangle pose, after all, unless we learn something along the way that helps us grow into wiser, kinder and more loving creatures?

And what is the point of balancing on one foot in tree pose, unless we can find a way to let the pose teach us to cultivate emotional, mental and spiritual balance, too? Always, I am in awe of how perfectly yoga can serve as a practice ground for managing both the joys and the challenges we face in our greater lives.

And finally, my children have woven themselves into both my yoga practice and this book in many marvelous ways. Looking back, it seems obvious that motherhood has profoundly influenced my understanding and exploration of yoga. And, of course, these ancient contemplative practices have played a monumental role in shaping who I am as a mother. I am not sure how I would have made it through those early years of parenthood without yoga to lean on - sometimes to fall upon - and to offer a little light to show me the way.

It is my deep pleasure to share these words with you. If you practice yoga, I hope this book strikes a chord and brings a smile of understanding here and there. I would be thrilled if you find a few nuggets of inspiration in these pages that deepen your own exploration of the practice and that also encourage you to shine.

And if you have never stood in tree pose before, I do hope this book helps you understand what yoga is all about and maybe even prompts you to give the practice a try. And even if it does not, I hope you find inspiration here that guides you toward some practice of your own that fosters wisdom, love and peace.

Yoga has cultivated wholeness and happiness in body, mind and spirit for people all around the world for centuries. It is offered freely and with good heart. Yoga can change your life, offering both illumination and deep peace. Please join me!

The Gift of Yoga

I still remember sitting in Starbucks that afternoon, with a skeptical friend sipping her latte and grinning bemusedly at me. On and on I rambled about that blissed-out, washed-clean feeling I’d stumbled upon during my first yoga class, where I’d contorted myself into pretzel shapes with crazy Sanskrit names.

Why? she kept asking me. All I could muster up in response seemed simplistic and underwhelming.

I really don’t get it, I said, but somehow yoga helps me feel alive again.

And here I am, thousands of dog poses and hundreds of headstands later, still at a loss when I try to explain the mysterious gift of yoga. I’ve poured over ancient texts, climbed into asanas, settled into pranayama, and struggled with sutras and bandhas and mudras. I’ve read Patanjali and Eliade and Iyengar and more, and I have studied with many of the world’s greatest teachers from a range of yoga traditions. After all this deliberate study, It helps me feel alive is still the truest answer I can offer.

Yoga means yoking, or union. It aims to show us that we are all one. Breath by breath, the practice reveals to us that the boundaries we create within and around ourselves are only illusions, and that the little self of the body is just a vessel for the vast and beautiful self of the whole wide world.

I don’t want to know this only in my brain, I want to feel it in every cell of my body, too. And climbing onto my mat each morning, and then playing around with the energy I find, helps me settle into that expansive big-sky goodness that reminds me we’re all in this together and we might as well help each other out along the way.


I practice yoga because life’s difficulties sometimes conspire to shut me down, and I want to stay open and shiny instead. Fears, tears, yearnings and worries have a tendency to freeze us up, pull us in, spin us out. When life comes along and whacks me in the gut until I feel all my rivers damming up inside, I twist and bend and roll and stretch my way back into my own skin. Yoga is my balm, my way of remembering how to bloom again.

I’ve heard Buddhists talk about monkey-mind, and I have more than just monkeys in my brain. I have a whole jungle full of wild and whirling beasts that rarely stop screeching and screaming and swirling inside. The ancient sage Patanjali defined yoga as the intentional stilling of the mind-stuff, and those cryptic Sanskrit words that explain this - yogas citta vrtti nirodhah - give me great hope. Perhaps there is a way to calm those beasts inside my brain, to climb back into the peace and stillness I know is my birthright. I’m faithful that if I keep digging deeper and unraveling farther, I’ll peel away enough of the busy-ness that I can find my way back to the unshakeable ease of someone who knows they are at home inside, where ever they may be.

I practice yoga because when I was five years old my best friend taught me how to do a cartwheel. That cartwheel became a handspring and then the splits and then a back flip. Some of my happiest childhood memories are of spinning around in the green summer grass, flipping and flopping alone and with friends, exploring the limits and possibilities of our bodies, daring ourselves not to flip again. Cartwheels were my childhood magic, and sometimes I feel yoga is just a grown-up excuse to spin in the grass like a child. It’s magic still.

I practice yoga because I spent too many adolescent years waging war against my body. For too long my body was only an enemy to be battled into a form the world called ideal. It wasn’t until I started practicing yoga that I realized I am my body just as much as my brain and my spirit, and that battling one’s own shape is just another form of violence against one’s self. Yoga helps me feel strong and supple and fluid and agile. And that helps me feel full and content and grateful for a body that feels healthy, shiny and alive.

Yoga isn’t about how things look from the outside, and I love that. I’m thankful that in yoga there are no mirrors, that our sense of beauty and vitality is gained not from how we look on the outside but how we feel within. It’s the inner experience that makes yoga what it is, whether we’re lying flat on the floor or bending unfathomably backward. No one else can judge our experience, because the practice emerges from within. The rewards, too.


I practice yoga because on too many days the din of outside noise drowns out the song of life inside. The world is so loud, so fast, so crowded that without at least a few moments on my own - alone, quiet and internally focused - I never quite feel on my mark. My morning yoga ritual helps keep my attention and intention focused on what I know on the inside to be important and real.

I love the fact that yoga is so versatile, like a stretch suit that can be worn inside out or right side in or backwards or even upside down. Some days I live in a more physical world and my yoga reflects that, as I focus on easing an achy shoulder or mastering a new and demanding pose. Some days I’m more emotionally focused, and my practice becomes about learning to make friends with all those stirred up feelings inside, as I lie quietly and let my emotional weather roll through.

Some days I’m nothing more than energy unbound, and I find myself spiraling through movements no yogi has ever named. And some days I just breathe. I let the breath’s oceanic pulse carry me through my morning practice.

I love that I can approach yoga from all these different angles and still feel welcome here. Because of yoga’s immensity and versatility, the scientist and artist and mystic and pragmatist inside me all feel welcomed and nurtured. I have faith that yoga is big enough for each of us to find our own way, while still walking down those cosmic happy trails together.


I don’t want to march through life. I’m not content to skim along the surface or let life’s aches and fears freeze my inner rivers of curiosity and delight. I want to fly and sing and make a joyful noise instead. And although sometimes I’m not sure what I think about those exotic visions of chakras whirling and kundalini rising and apana falling, I do know there is a deeper form of life that pulses through each of us. Call it god or prana or chi or universal spirit or just plain old love. It’s there, I feel it.

I know I was made to sparkle with it, and you are, too. I know that each of us was born to be a vessel for that pulsing shooting star of life. The name of the spiritual game is to find our way back to that childlike flowering that comes when we dissolve our self-imposed and self-imprisoning boundaries. And when this happens, life happily pours in and through and out beyond us back into the world again, carrying with it all the shiny resonances of those who’ve ever lived.

Yoga brings me back to this open and unbounded feeling of vitality - breath after breath, day after day, and year after year. And so each day I settle onto my mat with a smile, knowing that yoga will surely work its magic again, plugging me back into the heart of the world, bringing me right back home.


Spring sends me out into the garden, where I’m eager and enthusiastic but not particularly experienced. I love to feel the grass tickling my toes and the dirt slipping through my fingers. I love fresh air, pink cheeks and brilliant colors.

Until recently, though, my gardening has been a little haphazard. Generally, my approach has gone something like this: Wander through a local greenhouse in search of a bright plant that makes my heart skip a beat. Bring it home, rip it out of the pot and plop it into a vacant spot of hard earth in the yard. No mess, no fuss, no preparation and no follow through. If a plant doesn’t survive my random care and spotty doses of dirt and water, then perhaps it just wasn’t meant to live in my garden of tough love.

Only recently have I figured out that beautiful gardens aren’t born of such reckless and innocent passion. I’ve decided that if I’m going to lavish such time and attention on my new summer obsession, I might as well be a little less half-witted and a little more whole-hearted about how I go about it. Through experienced friends and a growing collection of gardening books, I’ve learned about dividing and deadheading. About bone-meal and bloom builder. About importing ladybugs and exporting slugs.


This spring in particular, I’ve learned that the most important work goes into a good garden even before the first flower blooms. I’ve finally figured out that it’s the dirt beneath the plant that lays the groundwork for its fertility and flourish.

Of course, this means I’ve finally done the inevitable, a task that a year ago would have left me rolling my eyes and shaking my head at the insanity of gardeners: I’ve bought my first big batch of cow manure. I’m hoping that along with a little compost and peat, this investment will replenish my garden’s tired old soil and send my spring buds spiraling into radiant summer blossoms.

All this helps explain why these days when I settle onto my yoga mat and take my first deep breaths of the morning, I inevitably think of dirt. It’s surely not the most prosaic image and I try not to linger there long. But there’s no doubt that my adventures in gardening have reinforced for me the value of preparing well. They have inspired me to be just a little more careful and methodical, not just in my garden but also in my exploration of yoga.

That means that as I surrender to the ground beneath me, as I nestle in for my daily bloom, I consider all the ways I can lay the groundwork for the play and poses to come. For the first few moments of my practice, I do nothing more than check back into life, asking myself what I can do today to nourish and nurture my spirit so that I may flourish fully.

These few moments of resting quietly, of breathing easily, of letting go, seem to add a healthy dose of ease and breathability to the poses that follow. I’ve learned that if I can find that gentle, inner pulse of life before I begin to move, then when I do finally dip into a few whiz-bang asanas, they are far less likely to strain my body and far more likely to touch my soul.

And I’ve learned that just a few moments of quiet contemplation - reading a poem or settling into an image that helps me remember who I am - helps place my triangles and dogs and pigeons into the bigger picture of my life. I remember that yoga isn’t about popping through a string of poses just for the fun of it. Rather, it is about finding ways to bloom more fully, to breathe more freely, and to add instead of subtract from the care that keeps the world joyfully spinning along.


I guess you could say that just as I’m growing a little smarter about my garden, I’m growing wiser about my yoga, too. I’m learning that, especially in our caffeinated culture, one of yoga’s greatest gifts is its reminder to slow down, to be attentive, to take greater care of life. Yoga is supposedly about stilling the disturbances of the mind, and although I can’t say I’ve mastered that trick yet, the fact that I’m slowing down means at least I’m moving in the right direction.

This means that lately I’ve come to appreciate teachers who are particularly slow and methodical in their approach, who are just as willing to hold us back as they are to push us forward. They know the profound benefits of laying the groundwork, of training in the preliminaries as the Buddhists say, of re-sensitizing our bodies to the feeling of life itself. They understand how important it is to allow our bodies to open and settle enough to move through postures in an even and wholesome way. And they offer us a chance to settle, to rest, to find our home inside, so we can emerge with greater vitality and wisdom.

There’s just one big problem with all this mindful preparation, whether for a garden or a yoga practice or a life: It requires time, care and wisdom. It requires patience and maturity, and a willingness to keep at least one eye trained on the big-picture, long-haul view of life.


All this makes me just a little worried as a teacher, since sometimes I’m not sure whether my students will be as eager to slow down as I am. I worry that if I go slowly, if I focus on the small and simple, if I prepare our bodies and minds with quiet breathing and reflection, my students will grow impatient. They won’t like my yoga, or they’ll think I’m boring, or they’ll wonder why we’re not dashing into those exotic postures offered up by the super-yogis in glitzy magazines.

But then I look back at my garden and remember how much delight I take in the slow unraveling of the flowers’ buds, in the faithful unfolding they share. No one hurries them along. No one questions their progress. And no one knows which day they’ll choose to shock us by overflowing into joyous bloom.

They spend months deep in the earth preparing for their short and showy spring. And then with just a little bit of help - a little sun, a touch of spring, and an occasional dose of cow manure - they stun us with their effortless unfolding.

Maybe it’s the same for us. Maybe our job is to prepare ourselves well, to lay the groundwork with care and heart. And then to step back, with full faith and patience, letting life unfold in its own mysterious and remarkable way.

Yoga Pose:

Warrior One

In the beginning, yoga seems to be all about body parts. Postures are like puzzles, and figuring out how to position the arms, legs, hips and shoulders is challenge enough to keep us focused and engaged. A satisfying sense of exhilaration arises simply from stretching the body in new and different ways.

As one’s practice evolves, yoga takes on a richer flavor. Feelings of integration develop as we begin to sense a deeper connection among various aspects of our lives. We feel less like a machine made up of fragmented body parts and more like a wholesome, authentic and expressive creature. We begin to move and breathe with a satisfying sense of harmony and accord. And this invites grace and beauty to reveal themselves in even the simplest of our daily tasks.

One of the most magnificent of all yoga postures, virabhadrasana one, or warrior pose, offers a perfect opportunity to explore this rewarding sense of integration and unity within. Both earthy and exhilarating, this asana cultivates balance, agility and coordination. It also invites deep concentration, encouraging the scattered pieces of ourselves to be transformed into a radiant and tranquil vessel for the heartfelt expression of life. Who wouldn’t say yes to an opportunity to feel harmonious and at ease in one’s skin at least once every day?

Before we explore the rich and expansive qualities of virabhadrasana, we do need to focus on a few essentials. Form is important, after all, and careful attention will lay the foundation for buoyant vitality to flow freely through us.


We’ll consider the top half of warrior pose first. Stand with your feet wide enough apart so that when you stretch out your arms at shoulder height your ankles are directly beneath your wrists. Place your hands on your hips, pausing to gently massage the bony points at the top front of your pelvis. If necessary, adjust the pelvis so these hip points are even - one shouldn’t be much higher than the other or closer to the wall in front of you.

Invite a sense of enthusiasm to trickle upward from the deep belly as you gently release your tailbone in the opposite direction toward the earth. Imagine your spine is filled with champagne bubbles, and let that effervescence kindle feelings of ease and exhilaration within. Inhale as you joyfully stretch the arms overhead, hands shoulder-distance apart and palms facing one another.

Breathe steadily as you invite the heart to gaze upward, fueling a sense of liveliness in your core. Let the arms feel rooted in the belly so you reach upward not just with your fingers but the entire length of your upper body. Note the graceful symmetry and extension from the hips all the way up through the fingertips. Remain here for a few breaths and then exhale as you settle your arms back down to your sides. Do you feel a little longer in your spine and lighter in your heart than a few moments ago?

Now let’s try the same exploration with the legs in a more challenging, asymmetrical stance. With your hands on your waist and your legs still wide, begin revolving your upper body toward the left. At some point along the way, you’ll notice that the position of your legs impedes your progress. When this happens, turn the left leg outward 90 degrees and the right leg inward so you can spin your torso more fully to face the left wall. Take a small step outward with your back foot to give your hips a little more freedom and ease.

Rise up onto the toes of your back foot and readjust the body so that the chest faces toward the wall beyond your left toes. Breathe comfortably and easily as you acclimate to this new position. Maintain a sense of elegance in the upper body as you slowly release the back heel toward the ground.


Yogis like to argue about just how position the pelvis in virabhadrasana. Some insist that we keep the two sides of the pelvis equidistant from the wall in front of us, moving the hips, spine and shoulders as one single unit. Others suggest that in order to preserve the integrity of the spine and keep the sacroiliac joints in the lower back happy, it is best to let the pelvis rotate toward the right a bit, following the lead of the back leg.

I like to focus on keeping the chest evenly looking forward, and let my hips arrange themselves in an open, organic and steady way. Letting the back hip release open a bit feels steady and satisfying to me. Feel free to do the homework in your own body and see what works best for you.

Now return to your earlier exploration of the effervescent upper body, extending the arms enthusiastically overhead. Let the arms be long and buoyant, hands shoulder-distance apart and palms facing one another. Pause here for a few breaths, releasing your tailbone toward the back heel while inviting your heart to grow light. Trace a smooth line from the deep belly up through the fingertips as if those champagne bubbles in your spine could float all the way up to the sky.

Do you sense any wrinkles or kinks distorting an even, graceful arc in the spine? If so, nudge the hip points upward toward the heart while inviting the deep belly to slide gently inward to support the front spine. At the same time unclench your lower back and release your tailbone downward. Let the back body be broad and unwrinkled, and nestle the front body into its welcoming support. As you do this, keep the heels fully grounded and the fingertips uplifted.

We now need to add just one more piece of the puzzle to complete warrior pose. With the heart and head still looking forward beyond the left toes, bend your front leg to a 90-degree angle, bringing that thigh parallel to the floor. If, as you do this, your left knee ends up over the toes instead of the ankle, widen your stance a few inches. If, on the other hand, you have difficulty bending your knee a full 90 degrees, don’t worry - this is a

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