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Staying Grounded: Not Just Another Yoga Cliche

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Yoga teachers often use the word grounded. It's a verb (to ground through the feet) and an adjective (a grounded feeling). But what does that really mean? It's a yoga cliche, a phrase that's used so often it's lost some of its punch. And most of us didn't know the definition to begin with.

Taking it literally, we can start by feeling our physical connection to the ground. Feel all the different points on your feet that are touching the ground right now. (Or, more often, feel the points resting into your shoe, onto the floor.) Try to be as specific as you can: is each and every toe tip touching? Is the heel resting on its inner edge, or its outer edge, or the cushy middle? Is the ankle tipping to one side or the other, putting weight on a certain side of the arch? Take notes, without judging.

From there, let the rest of your body relax into the ground, through this connection to the floor. Feel the heaviness of the shins and calves resting onto the ankle. Feel the weight of the knee and thigh bones resting down into gravity. Feel the weight of the hips, and the abdomen, resting into the ground (or your chair). If there are any other points of contact with the ground, slowly locate them and settle them into their seats. You can nestle the two sitbones downward, as if you're plugging a light plug into its socket. Let the spine and the head rest down towards this stable base.

Now you might start to feel "grounded." For a minute, you were paying attention to the sensations in your lower extremities instead of your head. The energy of the mind had a place to rest.

Grounding is not always a feeling of heaviness, however. It's also energizing. With both feet on the floor, notice how the ground holds firm and doesn't sink. Imagine your feet resting on a feather pillow, and then feel the comparative hardness of the actual floor. It supports you, in a literal way. It even pushes back. The "ground reaction force" is studied by runners; it's the shock you feel in your joints (due more to vertical movement of the torso than to shoe cushioning, it turns out). It's the rebound of your action against the ground. The harder the surface, the greater the force. So as you feel your chair, or the grass, or a rock, feel the pressure of that particular ground pushing back. A harder chair might remind us to sit up straight; we can also imagine it pushing us there.

Feeling grounded is important not just physically, but psychologically. When we find a connection to the earth, we connect to something much, much larger than ourselves. (Any twelve-step program includes this idea.) We remember that we're not isolated egos, floating in space; we're glued to a huge planet that feeds us and shelters us. Our problems seem smaller; we're part of an ecosystem, and an expansive timeline. So, rest into gravity, and feel it pulling you down not just to the floor, but to the Earth, two or ten stories down. If you have a chance, take a walk in nature, where there's less architecture between you and the earth. Treat your nature deficit disorder with some mud.

The idea of grounding is a mental shift; we might not even feel it when practicing yoga. Standing and balancing poses, even the seated poses, can focus on lifting off and pushing away from the floor. Sports and good posture do the same. We have to welcome the floor, with our feet or legs, and lift off from there. Then our posture will have a stable foundation.

Focusing our energy downward can be a strange change. Who wants to move down in the world? Our cultural ideals are to go forward, move up, grow up, wake up, or transcend. But I learned a new perspective in a yoga workshop with Amanda Zapanta last weekend. Most yoga practices are focused on liberating energy, moving it up the spine to enlightenment. But that's not the direction of birth, or digestion. To make things happen, to put something into the world, we move downward. Starting with an idea in our heads, we visualize it in our mind's eye. We verbalize the story, and start to build relationships from our heart. We center ourselves (in the solar plexus), begin to create, and finally see the physical object in the world.

So, just like a tree, we grow both upward and downward. There's an interesting anatomical visualization, in the sciatic nerve. (You might be unfortunate enough to know it through sciatica: pain along the length of the leg due to nerve compression in the lower back.) I used to picture the sciatic nerve as one long extension cord, running from my lower back to my heel. But it really looks more like the roots of a tree, branching throughout the leg. So, when you go through these grounding exercises, awakening the hips and legs, the sensations are coming from your anatomical roots.

Obviously it's important to have strong, healthy roots. The Ayurvedic system of medicine says that "root" issues (like family and security) often show up in their physical equivalents. So we might get ungrounded (or sciatica) when our finances are out of whack, our home is in disarray or our family is in conflict. Here on the Huffington Post, journalist Wray Herbert just wrote about residential mobility's effect on health: it might increase our sense of satisfaction with life, but it reduces our sense of community identity and often increases health problems.

So take another minute to ground yourself. Feel the strength and security in your legs and hips. You're a part of the Earth, you're fully supported. Feel the energy of creation moving downward, through billions of branches. Connect to your roots.

In the next few weeks, I'll explore a few more yoga cliches. Share your favorites in the comments below!