It’s not uncommon to hear Anusara Yoga founder John Friend describe yoga using casual lingo (he calls the Hindu sage Vasistha “the man”) and in the next moment reveal his deep knowledge of esoteric spirituality. It’s no surprise, then, that his system of yoga mixes serious spiritual intention and playfulness. Anusara is a unique mélange of precise physical alignment, ancient Tantric philosophy and Friend’s lively personality. The postures are taught using his Universal Principles of Alignment, which guide proper positioning while encouraging strength and fluidity.
Knowledge of the physical is layered with Friend’s interpretation of Tantra. In class you’ll often hear him allude to one of the system’s central tenets: the belief that there is no separation between the physical body and the spirit. “This body is not only a vessel for spirit; it is also the Supreme itself. Each pose celebrates the embodied spirit,” Friend says. Watch Friend or any of his devotees (like Anusara teacher Sianna Sherman, above) hold a challenging pose, and you’ll see that radiant inner spirit manifest in a glowing smile.
Vasisthasana is, in Friend’s opinion, an ideal pose to put Anusara’s alignment and philosophical principles into action. The sage Vasistha represents the highest level of integrity, Friend says. “He taught the dharma [the right path] and how to align with nature.” When Friend practices the pose, then, he likes to honour Vasistha by paying his respects to everyone he’s learned from. “When I do the pose, I remember my teachers. And then I want to do it really beautifully, to acknowledge that I have great teachers and am reflecting that in the excellence of the pose.”
Friend says that an Anusara sequence should feel like a wave in the body. To experience this in the sequence that follows, try to establish an intensely awake awareness throughout each pose. “Every pose leading up to Vasisthasana is going to have some embodiment of the feelings that we want to ultimately physicalise. So when you place your hands for Down Dog, keep a high level of integrity. You’re not going to space out or be haphazard. Extend through Down Dog with the full glory and power of the guru.”
1 Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
You’ll begin by using Downward-Facing Dog Pose to open and warm the shoulders and to loosen the hamstrings and hips—essential preparation for Vasisthasana. You may have practiced Down Dog hundreds, or even thousands, of times. But basic as the pose may seem, Friend says it deserves your continued attention. Finding proper alignment in Down Dog is fundamental to creating a stable Vasisthasana, where you’ll use the same actions to lift your energy from the palms away from the floor.
For this sequence, the key element of Downward-Facing Dog is in the hands. Start on all fours, palms on the floor, with the creases of your wrists facing forward, parallel to the front edge of your mat. From the centre of your wrist, spread your fingers, extending through the finger joints equally. Next, press the pads of your fingers into the floor and pull them back isometrically. Press down on the ridge of the palm (where the fingers meet the palm). The knuckles may bend slightly so that your hand becomes like a claw. Protect your wrists by drawing up from the centre of the palms (they may become slightly concave). Keep your shoulders over your wrists, your knees behind the hips, sitting bone distance apart, and your elbow creases facing each other.
Then start working with the first principle of Anusara Yoga—to “Remember the Universal”—using Friend’s concept of “inner body bright.” As he explains it, “The idea is that, in remembrance of something bigger, you let go of smaller ideas of yourself and let inner light fill you.” For this practice, let the remembrance of your teachers and all that you’ve learned spark that inner light. So, with that in mind, lengthen your side body from your waistline to your armpits so that your shoulders rise toward your ears. Tuck your tailbone, keeping the natural curve in your low back.
Then integrate the shoulders by melting your heart toward the floor as you press the shoulder blades flat on the back. Be sure you don’t sink into your shoulders. Instead, lift the centre of your armpits away from the floor to protect your shoulder joint. “The game is to extend through your shoulders only as much as you can keep integrating them,” Friend says. “Then you get stability and freedom—which is balanced action.”
Now, maintaining these actions, tuck your toes under and straighten your legs into Down Dog. In Anusara, there are three possible Focal Points for each pose. Whichever part of the body bears the most weight is typically the key Focal Point. As you settle into Down Dog, focus on moving energy from the Focal Point at the centre of the upper back down into the hands and through the legs. The idea of moving energy may feel vague or hard to comprehend. Says Friend: “This comes in stages of understanding. You’ll gradually learn how to extend physically and energetically without disengaging.”
Maintain the pose for 5 to 10 rounds of breath, using soft Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath). Then exhale and, moving with consciousness, return to all fours.
2 Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)
To establish a balanced stance for Triangle Pose, stand with the feet a little over one metre apart, or less if you’re small in stature. In general, says Friend, when you stretch your arms out to the sides, your wrists should be directly above your ankles.
Then focus on these Anusara actions: pull into your core energetically from your feet and hands, so you have tone in the limbs and you aren’t just passively hanging out. Point your right foot toward the top of the mat, and breathe as you reach your right hand down to touch the floor behind the right leg. Contrary to the way many of us learn Triangle (where the body stays in a single plane), Friend encourages less flexible students to let their groins move back so the fingers can reach the floor.
Next, you’ll bring your attention to the five Universal Principles of Alignment that apply to the rest of the sequence. First, Remember the Universal, which in this case means remembering the true purpose of the practice: to let your body and soul be an expression of gratitude to your teachers. Next, engage what Friend calls Muscular Energy, so all the muscles in your legs and hips are integrated and working; none are slack. Then apply the Inner Spiral, an energetic and physical action that starts at the feet and wraps internally around the legs, rotating the legs inward. Keep your feet where they are as you pull the thighbones back in space toward the hamstrings. Squeeze your shins toward the midline of your body.
Keeping these actions, engage Friend’s Outer Spiral, which creates an outer rotation in the legs. Start at the top of the hips and roll externally all the way down to the feet. When you practice Inner and Outer Spiral together, the tailbone gently tucks, creating Mula Bandha (Root Lock). Finally, bring in Organic Energy by extending from the Focal Point (in this case, the pelvis) down to the foundation of the pose, then up and out through the core lines of the body. Engage Organic Energy only when you have the prior actions intact, or you’ll risk hyperextending your hips and knees, which can strain the surrounding muscles and ligaments.
Actively press the bottom hand into the floor as you reach the top arm up, extending evenly through all five fingers. Keep the upper palate in your mouth spacious as you twist the head and belly up. Keep the heads of the arm bones back, and press the shoulder blades into the rib cage (as you would in Down Dog).
Hold the pose for 5 to 10 breaths, then inhale as you come up, turn the legs and do the other side. Exhale into the pose, building the same strong foundation and engaging each action in its sequence.
3 Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
Next, you’ll create the same form while lying on your mat, using the floor to help you sense where your back body is. Take Tadasana (Mountain Pose) lying down and tuck your tailbone without flattening your back. Reconnect to Friend’s principles: Remember your teacher, and hug in with Muscular Energy to the midline of your body, maintaining a feeling of offering.
Then, bend the right knee and reach the right hand to grab on to the outer edge of the foot. Straighten the leg and focus on pushing the right thighbone toward the back of the leg (rather than simply pulling on the foot), which will move the thigh away from your belly and set the femur properly in your hip socket. As you straighten your leg, you can allow your shoulder to lift off the floor if necessary, but be sure to keep your right arm bone back in the socket. If you can’t completely follow these alignment instructions, wrap a strap around the mound of the foot (not the arch) and press evenly through the inner and outer foot.
From there, draw energy into the Focal Point of the pelvis from the hands and the top of your head, and then energetically extend out from the pelvis through the spine and limbs. Then engage Inner and Outer Spiral in both legs to create a dynamic symmetry of action through the body. Use Muscular Energy to hug your muscles in to the bones, integrating the leg bone into the hip socket. Keeping that focus, press the left thigh into the floor and open the right leg out to the right.
As you breathe and hold the pose, Friend encourages complete attention: “Invite total radiance from the very core of your pelvis. Full-on crank it, shine it out!” Then, he says, ask yourself, “Are you remembering your teachers? Are you mindfully aligned to the midline or has your bottom foot just scooted over to the side? Have you forgotten your bottom leg? Are you maintaining balanced action of drawing in and out?”
Come out of the pose on an exhalation, and breathe steadily as you work the other side, moving with the same alignment and attitude. Finally, “pause and feel before running off to the next pose,” Friend says. “Remind yourself of what this is about. Let the shakti, the divine energy, flow through you.”
4 Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
This pose is the same shape as Supta Padangusthasana, but it is done while standing. Begin by standing tall in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Draw in to the midline energetically and muscularly, and allow the inner body to lighten as the side body grows long, so that the arms are “floating on your inner light,” Friend instructs. “Soften your skin and soften yourself humbly to what you’ve been given by your teacher.”
Bring your energy to the Focal Point of the pelvis as you lift your right leg and bend the knee toward your chest. Hook the right hand around the outer edge of the foot (or use a strap). First, engage Inner Spiral to get the supporting leg fully into its socket, and while keeping the femur pressing toward your back body, scoop the tailbone. Then, exhaling, stretch the right leg out and slowly bring it over to the right side. Press your left hand down on the top of your left hipbone to root through the pelvis into the supporting leg and to generate a rebounding action of rising up out of the pelvis.
Stay for five to 10 deep breaths. When you feel your balance wavering, draw in even more intensely to the midline, but don’t harden against the wobbling. Your drishti, or gaze, should be soft. It’s OK to choose a spot to gently focus on, or you could try Friend’s preferred method—a Tantric technique known as Shambhavi Mudra: “Instead of taking the gaze outside of yourself, keep the gaze inside, but keep the eyes open, without becoming hard.”
On an inhalation, bring the leg back to your centre and then, exhaling, release it. Breathe steadily as you lift the left leg with the same care.
5 Vasisthasana (Side Plank Pose)
Come into Downward Dog, establishing your hands and arms. While exhaling, turn onto the outer edge of the right foot, with the legs stacked on each other and lift the left arm off the floor. Activate the feet, draw the toes back and lift the hips away from the floor. Press the thighbones back and tuck the tailbone under. The right wrist should be slightly closer to the top of your mat than your shoulders are.
Now, bend the left leg and grab the outer edge of the left foot. Then stretch the leg up, moving the femur toward the back of the leg (Inner Spiral), just as in Supta Padangusthasana. Use Outer Spiral to tuck the tailbone strongly and to lengthen the left side of the waistline, but protect your hamstrings by keeping the femur firmly in its socket.
Use Friend’s concept of “inner body bright” to engender lightness and spaciousness. Keep the side body lifted, pull the heads of the arm bones back, and broaden the shoulders. Press the top arm and foot into each other. Extend out while you simultaneously draw in, creating a broad, open, beautiful form.
Once you’ve established your alignment in the pose, slowly turn your head to look up at the sky, letting your soft gaze instill what Friend describes as an “uplifting, victorious, expansive vision.” But, he warns, “don’t look too far out into the distance—or you may lose your balance.” To stay grounded, focus on the midline. If you lose your balance, immediately release the left foot and touch it to the ground.
Like the sequence, each pose can itself be thought of as a wave, Friend says. “At the highest part of the wave is the most refined beauty. So keep increasing the crescendo of the pose and make it as beautiful as possible. Your face should be open and shining, as if you’re giving a beautiful gift to your teacher.” Release gracefully and rest for a moment in Child’s Pose, “where you literally bow to your teacher.”
As you try the other side, Friend asks that you incorporate one of the central tenets of the ancient Tantric teachings: unity between the physical and the spiritual. To cultivate this, reflect on the people who have helped you become open and fluid, as Vasistha may have done for his students. “Consider those who got you going on the path of yoga. Hold these people in your heart,” Friend says. “When you do that, and when you appreciate what you’ve been given, gratitude naturally arises. And when you want to honour your teachers and your mentors, performing the pose becomes about excellence and beauty—to show that you’ve learned.”
Benefits: Builds core strength; Improves balance; Opens hamstrings and hips; Increases strength and flexibility in arms and legs. Contraindications: Wrist, elbow or shoulder injury (With application of Friend’s alignment principles, however, these poses can be therapeutic for such injuries.)