Connection is as essential to our well-being and survival as water and air. Humans are social beings; we are literally wired to connect. When we feel a part of family and community we thrive—we not only feel happy in the moment, but we can experience longer-lasting effects, like improved immunity and even a longer life.
Unfortunately, these days many of us are so distracted by the external world that we have become increasingly disconnected from one another. Divided by our politics and beliefs. Separated by our busyness and devices. Physically removed because our family is spread out or, more recently, by having to limit contact because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It always felt sadly ironic to me that even as we gain more access to one another digitally, we seem to be more detached than ever. Sherry Turkle, a social studies professor at MIT who focuses on our relationship to technology, calls this phenomenon “connected, but alone.”
Although separateness can lead to suffering, despite how alone we may feel on the surface, when we slow down and go inward, we realize that we are always connected to everyone and everything. Quieter practices such as meditation, mantra, and asana can help us access this truth. They do so by focusing our attention away from the distractions of the outer world and toward the heart.
This practice aims to viscerally remind us that we are always, truly connected.
Often before yoga class, teachers will invite students to “dedicate” their practice to someone or something. This can seem somewhat esoteric at first, but the idea is that whatever energy you cultivate during your practice can be shared with the rest of the world. By dedicating that energy to someone else, you are consciously directing where that energy goes. From a spiritual perspective, this could be compared to sending prayers. From a practical perspective, this could be thought of as cause and effect. As your practice makes you feel better, you are therefore more likely to be kinder in the world.
Come to sit on a blanket on your mat in sukhasana (easy pose). Cross your right shin in front of your left. Make the blanket high enough for your thighs to release down out of your hips, and your knees are below your hip points. Flex your feet, resting your knees on opposite ankles. Sit up tall so that your spine is elongated from your tailbone through the crown of your head. Bring your hands into anjali mudra (palms together) at the center of your heart and close or soften your eyes.
Take inventory of how you are feeling and where you would like to direct your energy. If you are feeling low, consider dedicating your practice to yourself as a “refueling.” If you feel like sharing your energy outward, dedicate your practice to someone specific, to a particular population (like your town or country), or to the whole world.
Om is considered a universal sound, meaning it’s omnipresent. It’s the sound the planets make from space. The sound of a conch shell held against our ear. The sound of the wind humming through the trees. When we chant this mantra, we are synching up with the world around us. It is important to note that om is actually made up of four parts—a - u - m - silence. “A” represents the waking state, “u” the dream state and imagination, and “m” deep sleep, where only pure consciousness exists. And the silence at the end represents everything—all life and all existence.
Remain seated in a cross-legged position, but switch the cross of your legs so that your left shin is in front. Place one hand on your heart and the other hand on your belly. Close or soften your eyes again.
Begin to listen to the sounds farther away. What do you hear? Birds chirping? Horns honking? Rather than tuning the sounds out, imagine that each sound is its own instrument. Now begin to hear what is happening closer to you. If you are indoors, you may hear the hum of the refrigerator. Or a family member, roommate, or pet. Let all the sounds come together like an orchestra. Take an inhale, and on an exhale begin to sound out the four syllables of aum. Emphasize opening your mouth wide for the “ah.” Form a circle with your mouth for “oooh.” Close your lips to hum the “mmm,” and pause in the silence afterward. Chant aum 10 full times. It can be fun to play with volume, beginning strong and loud and getting softer as you come to the last round.
Twisting prayer is a great pose to feel the cause and effect of connection. It is especially powerful because it uses anjali mudra, which can be used to “synch” the right and left hemispheres of the brain. (This happens in any cross-lateral movement, when the limbs come to or past the midline of the body.) Also, keeping the palms together can actually be even more effective at opening the chest than arms wide, giving us bonus heart-opening within the twist.
Come to downward facing dog and step your right foot between your hands. Lower your left knee to the floor. If your knee is sensitive, curl your back toes under or pad your knee with a blanket. Bring your torso upright and place your hands in prayer at the center of your chest. On an inhale lengthen your spine, and as you exhale begin to twist toward the right, hooking your left elbow outside your right thigh.
If you're pregnant, or if it feels better in your body to do so, you can keep your hands in prayer and your torso upright and twist to the other side.
You may also twist to the right without hooking the elbow outside of the knee (as shown).
You may also need to widen your base if your body is larger or if you’re pregnant. Twists work with breath. Use inhales for length and as you exhale, press your top hand strongly into your bottom hand to deepen the turning of your chest. Keep your neck in line with the rest of your spine by looking toward the side wall you’re twisting toward.
Hold for 10 breaths. Come out on an exhale, placing both hands on either side of your front foot and stepping back to downward facing dog before switching sides.
This version of side angle pose teaches us how to hold our own hand when things get hard. It is not unusual to want to disconnect in times of challenge. It may seem easier to avoid or “numb out,” but this is actually when we need connection the most. Learning to be present in difficult moments can not only get us through those patches more gracefully, it also heightens our ability to be present in times of calm.
Facing the long side of your mat, step your feet wide apart. Turn your left leg out 90 degrees and slightly angle your back foot inward. Align your heels to start, but widen or narrow your foot position as needed to accommodate your proportions. Bend your front knee to about 90 degrees, stacking it over your ankle. Inhale your arms wide, and on an exhale clasp your hands behind your back, interlacing your fingers. You can use a strap to adapt this variation for tight shoulders or an injury.
Keeping your torso facing to the side, begin to lean toward your front leg on an exhale. Keep your waist long. Reach your clasped hands away from your back to open your chest. Lengthen the back of your skull, creating a long line from your tailbone to the top of your head.
Hold here for 10 full breaths. Coming out, ground your feet and inhale your torso to upright. Release your hand clasp, straighten your right leg, and parallel your feet. Once you’re set up for the second side, clasp your hands with the opposite thumb on top.
It seems only fitting to do a heart-opener during a connection-focused practice, but this particular version of camel pose is not just any backbend. For this variation, we will draw upon the earlier work of the hand clasp in side angle pose, reminding us that although we may not be able to physically feel touched in the moment, we are always held. This pose also asks us to lean the body backward without knowing what is behind us, teaching us to trust in our own strength for support. The overall lesson of the pose is that when we feel alone and adrift, we always have our own backs.
Come onto your shins so your knees are hip-width apart and your shins are parallel to each other. Reach your arms straight back behind you, so your hands are at about the level of your hips. Without actually bringing your palms together, hug your outer arms in toward your midline as if you are holding a beach ball behind you, and lift your chest. (Hugging your arms toward your midline behind your back without clasping helps isolate the upper-body opening to the chest.) Keep your arms in this active position throughout the pose.
Lengthen through your tailbone, and on an inhale begin to coil your chest up toward the ceiling. Root through your shins, and on an exhale begin to lean your body back, with your thighs and torso in one line as if you wanted to touch your fingertips to your heels. Gaze up at the ceiling or look down your nose if that feels better on your neck.
Take five deep breaths. Come out slowly on an inhale, pressing into your shins and realigning your torso over your knees. Let your head come up last. Sit on your heels and repeat one more time.
We will end this practice with the ultimate connection “mudra” (if you will)–a hug. Being close to the earth helps us to feel the pulse of the world, grounding us in the moment. The position of the legs provides a passive release for the psoas, which connects the upper torso to the legs. The psoas is closely tied to our nervous system and tends to tighten when we are under stress or feel unsafe. We are not only releasing it through the position of the body in this pose, but the overall practice as well. Finally, the cross of the arms helps coordinate the right and left side of the brain, while energetically giving us the feeling of being held.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor, underneath the knees. Close or soften your eyes. Keeping your feet wide, bring your knees together. How wide you want your feet is up to you—they should feel stable and there should be space for your inner thighs to release down and forward.
Inhale your arms wide, and on an exhale cross your right arm over your left, wrapping your arms around your chest in a “hug.” Imagine pulling (or you may actually be able to pull) your shoulder blades apart, widening the back of your heart. Prevent your shoulders from lifting up toward your ears by softening the tops of your shoulders. Let the back of your head be heavy against the floor.
Take 20 long breaths, or stay as long as you would like, then switch the cross of your arms.
When you are ready to come out, inhale your arms wide and hug your knees into your chest. Give yourself a literal hug. Roll to your right and press up to sit. Place one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly. Pause in any comfortable seat for a moment and absorb the effects of your practice.
Yoga Means to Connect
We do not need to be in physical proximity to other people to feel connected. Nor do we need a thousand friends. Connection is an internal experience and our yoga practice is a great way to strengthen that experience. After all, the root word for yoga is yuj, which means to come together.
Photography: Andrea Killam