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A Celebration of the Heart: Talking Anusara with Todd Norian

by Tresca Weinstein

Anusara Yoga® now claims 200,000 students in 70 countries, with some 1,200 teachers licensed by founder John Friend. Anusara can sound mysterious if you’ve never practiced it—what exactly are the “Universal Principles of Alignment,” and how do those spirals work, anyway? For demystification, Kripalu Editorial Consultant Tresca Weinstein spoke with Todd Norian, who has been studying with John Friend since 1997 and credits Anusara with transforming his life by opening him to greater joy.

Q In a nutshell, what are the defining principles of Anusara Yoga?
Todd Anusara is a hatha yoga school that unifies what we call the Universal Principles of Alignment with a philosophy that is described by John Friend as a celebration of the heart. We work from the premise that everything in life happens for your awakening. This shifts the perspective of life as a burden or a problem to be solved to the idea that life is a gift, a celebration. We acknowledge that suffering occurs but it is not the ground of our being. What I teach my students is how to honor their true nature as well as the problems that arise in life, because problems always bring new solutions, new growth.

Anusara teachers are not trying to fix students; they’re helping to reveal the divine qualities that are already present. The poses are heart-oriented, practiced from the inside out. We emphasize the spiritual purpose of hatha yoga, which is the remembrance of our true nature, which is joy. Asanas are the expression of our divinity and intrinsic beauty.

Q What distinguishes Anusara’s approach to asana practice?
Todd What makes Anusara unique is not only its heart-centered philosophy but also the five Universal Principles of Alignment, which can be applied to the underlying structure of every posture. The first principle is Setting the Foundation and Opening to Grace. The first step in an Anusara class is to soften and become receptive to a bigger energy. This might entail releasing stress or self-limiting beliefs and the veils that cover the heart. With the heart open and spacious, we’re able to listen to our deeper longings.

The Universal Principles are based on two opposite forces in nature: contraction and expansion. The second principle is Muscular Energy, the contractive force, which creates strength and stability. For example, you want to engage and create strength in a posture by hugging the muscles to the bones. Organic energy, the fifth principle, creates expansion and freedom. The goal in Anusara Yoga is to make these opposites complementary so that every joint has an equal measure of stability and freedom. The fifth principle is the deep, innate urge to evolve; it comes when the preceding four principles have been applied in balance—now you’re ready to stretch.

Q Speaking of which, what are the third and fourth principles?
Todd The third and fourth principles are the refinement dials to those two basic forces of expansion and contraction.

The third principle is called the Inner Spiral or Expanding Spiral. For example, when you’re standing in Tadasana, practicing the Inner Spiral means turning the thighs in; they then move back and widen apart. This broadens the back of the pelvis and creates a curve in the low back, which is necessary for healthy back function.

To create balance, you need to apply the fourth principle, which is called the Outer Spiral or Contracting Spiral, the mirror reflection of the Inner Spiral. So in Tadasana again, keeping the Inner Spiral, you apply the Outer Spiral, which includes scooping the tailbone under and turning the thighs out, forward, and together. When the two spirals are practiced in balance, the opposites become complementary, producing the optimal curve and length in the low back that can relieve many common back problems, such as sciatica, disc problems, tight psoas, and piriformis syndrome.

On a deeper level, when you find the place in the middle, pain dissolves, a gateway to the heart opens, and you get a hit of your true nature—joy.

Q You’re an accomplished musician as well as a yoga teacher. How has your music influenced your yoga teaching, and vice versa?
Todd My music studies are what brought me to yoga. There’s the sensitivity training—how to listen, how to distinguish multiple layers in the music. Then there’s the discipline of the scales, the steadiness of practice, and the sense of beauty. Anusara contains all this. In turn, yoga has influenced me to further refine my ability to appreciate music, and it’s helped me make music that is an expression of the awakening of my heart.

Todd Norian is one of Anusara’s most openhearted and inspirational teachers. He offers workshops internationally and directs 200-hour Anusara Yoga teacher trainings.

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