Something big and special is in our midst, according to the world’s astronomers and astrologers. You might even have seen one of the many online articles about it – ‘it’ being the November 2016 Supermoon. This full moon, we’re told, will be one of the best for a long time to come due to its proximity to the earth.
For Ashtanga yoga practitioners, a full moon will always be worth observing. New moons, too. Ashtangis practising in the traditional way (as taught by Sri K Pattabhi Jois) consider moon days as holidays. Guruji, as the tradition’s founding father was affectionately known by his students, told his students that when the earth, sun and moon are all in a straight line in space, universal energy is much stronger, and the possibility of injury is greater – hence, asana practice should be avoided.
The Jois family has a strong background in Vedic astrology, which should be taken into consideration when we speak about the importance of the phase of the moon to Ashtanga yoga. It’s worth noting, too, that Guruji himself was born on a full moon, giving him the ability to “bring consciousness to bear on the hidden dimensions of life”, according to one astrology website. Why not find out what phase of the moon you were born in?
But it’s not just in the Ashtanga yoga world, where we find respect for the phase of the moon, and encouragement to slow down and adapt our practice. Hatha yoga, which we can consider as the umbrella term for all forms of physical yoga practice, including Ashtanga vinyasa, is all about balancing heightened and subdued energy – whether these are brought about by the phase of the moon, or the time of the year.
What goes up…
According to Satyananda Saraswati, author of the popular contemporary text on Hatha yoga, ‘Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha’, during the full moon cycle, pranic energy (prana vayu) is dominant. This pranic energy is upward moving – through the spine and towards the head. When this happens, we tend to experience an increase of internal fluid, physical energy and mental activity.
During the new Moon cycle, apranic energy (apana vayu) is said to be dominant. Apranic energy is downward moving – towards the base of the spine – making this period one of elimination and reduction. People will often notice a loss of internal fluid, dry, stiff muscles and joints, decreased physical and mental energy, and a sense of lethargy and moodiness.
The ebb and flow of nature
Western science is pretty much on board with the idea that the phase of the moon can affect our energy levels. We know that our bodies are made of 70% water, and that this makes us vulnerable to the gravitational pull of the sun and moon, much like our oceans and seas. The science doesn’t end there, either, with yogic notions of energy and the movement of energy corresponding with Western medicine’s understanding of the nervous system.
The energetic body
In yoga, we have the concept of nadis, which are believed to carry this life force known as ‘prana’ (in Sanskrit) or ‘qi’ in Chinese-based systems. We can think of nadis as invisible veins running throughout the body. The most important ‘vein’ is the shushumna nadi, which corresponds with the spine and is the vessel for awakened Kundalini energy – energy which rises and leads to enlightenment!
Two other significant nadis are the Ida and Pingala nadis – and these are often compared to the two hemispheres of the brain; Ida reflecting the left side, and Pingala the right. Prana (active energy) circulates inside Pingala, while apana (passive energy) flows through Ida. For optimum health and spiritual wellbeing, Hatha yoga tells us we must ensure that these energies work in harmony with each other.
The physical body
The autonomic nervous system (which we can sum up as ‘all the things our bodies do without our conscious involvement’ – a beating heart or a perspiring forehead, for example), is comprised of two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic system prepares the body for ‘fight or flight’ during stressful situations, by raising the heart rate, releasing adrenalin and firing up the muscles. The parasympathetic system, on the other hand, operates during normal situations and is there for responsible for things like digestion and the conservation of energy.
If we’re constantly stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, be it with activity, stressful situations, or a full moon, we’re at risk of activating the parasympathetic nervous system so much so, that it becomes the norm. And as a result, so too does high blood pressure, inability to sleep, and a damaging expenditure of energy. Conversely, if we’re only ever in a state of rest, we will never get anything done! And so it is that we must find a balance between the two.
Yoga for a full moon
In Ashtanga yoga, many practitioners will gladly take a day off during a full moon, such as the one on November 14th – and understandably so, since they do generally commit themselves to six early morning practices a week! Many others will adapt their practice, often taking their lead from a ‘moon sequence’ devised by world-renowned Ashtangi, Matthew Sweeney (see video, below).
In our classes this week, we will observe the Supermoon and bring about energetic balance by focusing on twists, and along with postures which give us a sense of being grounded – tethered and resistant to the unbalancing, upward pull of the full moon. We’ll also utilise Anuloma Viloma and spend time in Tratak meditation – a way of focusing the mind, whilst honouring the light in our Selves and the light of the sun, reflected on the surface of the full moon.