Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Leonardo da Vinci and Contrapposti


At Triyoga, London

Leonardo da Vinci - mathematician, engineer, architect, anatomist, sculptor and painter, also a bastard born out of wedlock, vegetarian and gay - did not paint anything significant, nothing to commend him as a genius, until he was in his 30s. In comparison, the other two geniuses had done their lifework and died just when Leonardo got started as a painter: Raphael at 37 and Caravaggio, also gay, at 39. But when Leonardo did paint Cecilia, the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Regent of Milan, he didn't only paint a brilliant painting, he invented a new style of portraiture.
Up until then, the subjects were traditionally painted in profile or in quarter turn. Leonardo put Cecilia in contrapposto, an asymmetrical turn of the body and the head. This Cecilia, an astonishing achievement with idolised features, is in Krakow's Czartoryskich Museum for any aesthete to admire.

Contrapposti in yoga
There are contrapposti also in yoga. The contrapposto I am showing above does not, to the best of my knowledge, have a Sanskrit name (Sanskrit is the traditional language of yoga). Yet, the pose is practised in yoga classes across the world, having all the elements of a typical yoga pose: a twist, standing stretch and balance. Twisting cleanses the internal organs and is particularly beneficial if you take drugs (anti-depressants, sleeping drugs, etc), eat animal products or drink a lot of alcohol; balancing strengthens the ligaments and tendons and helps steady the mind, and stretching keeps the body graceful, supple and youthful.

Four options:
I am listing four options from which you can choose the right one for yourself. Please remember that yoga is not a competition, so choose an option that is right for your body. Yoga flows from the heart; western sports with its competitive emphasis from the ego. The difference is huge.

Option one (beginners)
1. Stand on your left leg. Make it strong and connect with the floor. Spread out the toes.
2. Pull the right knee against your chest with both hands wrapped around it.
3. Spend a moment here and find the inner point of balance. Do not move on until you have found it.
4. Stretch your left arm up. There should be a straight line from your left foot all the way up to the left fingers. Hold your right knee against your chest with your right hand.
5. Look ahead, relax your shoulders and face.
6. Take 10 deep breaths into your stomach. If you fall over, just come back to the pose with grace.
7. Repeat the exercise on the other side.

Option two (intermediate)
1. Stand on your left leg. Make it strong and connect with the floor. Spread out the toes.
2. Pull your right knee against your chest with both hands. Take a moment to steady yourself.
3. Lift your right arm up and stretch it towards the ceiling. The right knee stays bent. Hold it with your left hand.
4. Pull the right arm back, as I have done on the photo. Energise the arm and hand. It will help you balance better if the arm is not flapping around.
5. You can either look to the front or turn your head to look behind you, but only to the point where it feels comfortable.
6. Relax your shoulders and face.
7. Take 10 very deep breaths into your stomach. If you fall over, just come back to the pose with grace.
8. Repeat the exercise on the other side.

Option three (advanced)
1. Stand on your left leg. Make it strong and connect with the floor. Spread out the toes.
2. Pull your right knee against your chest with both hands. Take a moment to steady yourself.
3. Then wrap your left hand around the outer edge of your right foot and stretch out the leg.
4. Lift your right arm, take a moment to steady yourself and then pull it back behind you as I am demonstrating on the photo.
5. Turn your head, but only to the point where your neck feels comfortable.
6. Check whether you are sitting on your left hip. Lift yourself up. You should gain an inch in height.
7. Relax your shoulders and face.
8. Take 10 very deep breaths into your stomach. If you fall over, just come back to the pose with grace.
9. With every other breath try to twist a little further.
10. With every other breath try to lift your leg a little higher. You will feel a deep stretch on the outside of the leg.
11. Repeat the exercise on the other side.

Option four (advanced Vinyasa flow)
My preferred yoga style is Vinyasa. Vinyasa means to "flow". In my daily practice, I connect one yoga pose with the next one and create sequences that flow seamlessly. Breath is always - always - the guiding light. The following sequence is one of my favourites.
1. Option three.
2. After 10 breaths turn to the front and let go of the leg. Don't let it fall on the floor, instead hold it up in front of you at about 90 degrees. Point your foot, then flex your toes towards you. Stretch both arms up. Take 5 very deep breaths.
3. Without dropping the leg, swing it slowly and with control behind you. At the same time bring your upper body and arms forward. You should find yourself in Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III). Take 10 very deep breaths and then come to the standing position with control.
4. Shake your legs and arms and repeat the sequence on the other side.
 

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