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Bridge Pose as creating a bridge up to Higher Knowledge

PRE-AMBLE

       Knowledge is two fold, lower and higher.
       Realise the Self: for all else is lower.

               Verse 17 Amritabindu Upanishad1


In the Upanishads there is a concept of higher and lower knowledge. The idea is that lower knowledge relates to worldly matters, material things and scholarly studies. There is also “higher knowledge”, which one could consider to be ultimate knowledge:

       “But did you ask for that wisdom which enables you to hear the unheard,
       think the unthought, and know the unknown?”
       “What is that wisdom, Father?” asked the son.

               From Verses 1.2 to 1.3 of Chapter VI of Chandogya Upanishad1

       “As by knowing one tool of iron, dear one, we come to know all things made out of iron:
       That they differ only in name and form, while the stuff of which all are made is iron-
       So through that spiritual wisdom, dear one, we come to know that all of life is one.”

               Verse 1.6 of Chapter VI of Chandogya Upanishad1


So, realizing the ‘Self’ is highly recommended in the Upanishads – the problem is that our usual methods of gaining new knowledge don’t seem to work when trying to gain “higher” knowledge. Usually one gains new knowledge by building on and connecting with knowledge one already has – but the Upanishads are quite explicit that this won’t work with gaining understanding of the Self as it is so different or ‘other’ to any conventional knowledge one might have.

       The ignorant think the Self can be known by the intellect,
       but the illumined know he is beyond the duality of the knower and the known.

               Verse 3 of [II] of Kena Upanishad1

       The Self cannot be known through study of the scriptures,
       nor through the intellect, nor through hearing learned discourses.
       The Self can be attained only by those whom the Self chooses.
       Verily unto them does the Self reveal himself.

               Verse 23 [2] of Part I of Katha Upanishad1


Which makes trying to realize the Self seem a bit hopeless or at least something one can do nothing to achieve. There is however also advice in the Upanishads on realizing the Self – one of which is to develop a “pure heart”. (The other key one seems to be to still the mind through meditation practice).

In the practice that is offered here, the metaphor is one of creating a Bridge between different parts of “lower” knowledge and, in the process, finding that one has lifted the heart out of the “lower” things and thus has become “pure” and receptive to “higher” knowledge.


THE PRACTICE

Settle in semi-supine
Lie on your back with your legs in the crooked position – that is with your knees flexed and pointing upwards and the soles of your feet resting on the floor. Place your feet close to your bottom, with your knees and feet about hip-width apart. Check the position of your feet and knees. In this pose it is important for your knee’s health that your feet are parallel and that your knees point upwards rather than inwards or outwards. Bring your attention to your neck – use your hands to gently lift and lower your head to make sure the back of your neck is elongated. Return your arms to your sides with your palms facing downwards and pull your shoulders down away from your ears; then relax.

Tuning into yourself as a bridge between different aspects of “lower” knowledge
Imagine your feet, legs and pelvic girdle represent your worldly concerns, interests and material possessions and all your physical and practical needs and understanding of the world. Imagine your head, neck and shoulders represent your intellectual understanding and your interest in study, learning, and also your intellectual aspirations and dreams. Imagine your arms and hands represent your actions as experienced by others. And imagine that you are what connects, bridges, intellectual knowledge and understanding with the material world, enabling intellectual knowledge to be channeled to meet worldly concerns and enabling worldly concerns to be guided by intellectual knowledge and understanding.

Start the posture by bringing your awareness to your feet
Bring your awareness to your feet and imagine that, the more you are pressing your feet down into the ground, the more skillfully you are attending to worldly concerns and interests. Consciously and slowly press your feet down into the ground so that your pelvic girdle just begins to tilt or lift and observe your abdomen – how relaxed your abdomen and the rest of your lower trunk has become. Enjoy this relaxed feeling in your lower trunk – enjoy feeling relaxed about your worldly concerns and interests. After a few breaths, gradually press your feet even more firmly into the floor (as though you have found you are able to be even more skillful in how you attend to worldly matters) until your lower back begins to peel off the floor. Again notice relaxed feelings in the trunk and also that, as you attend more effectively with worldly concerns, your interests are beginning to be tilted towards more intellectual matters as you feel more and more materially satisfied. Enjoy relaxed feelings in your trunk and your smooth breathing. After a few breaths, very gradually press your feet even more firmly into the floor (as though you have found you are able to be even more skillful in how you attend to worldly matters) – observing your spine peeling off the floor and your hips lifting perhaps to the same height as your knees. Imagine that, just as your hips have become raised, so your worldly concerns have become “lifted” from personal worldly concerns to include those regarding one’s near family and friends, one’s local community and the world as a whole.

Continue the posture by bringing your awareness to your shoulders, arms and hands
Bring your awareness to your shoulders and imagine that, the more you are pressing your shoulders down into the ground, the more skillful you are being in developing and applying your intellectual capacity and attending to your dreams and aspirations. Consciously and actively press your shoulders and observe how this encourages a lift in your upper trunk. Imagine that, the more you press your arms and hands down, the more skillfully you are attending to the effects of your actions on the world – press the whole of the length of your arms and hands down into the ground. Feel your trunk lift up higher, and enjoy feeling your breath flow smoothly.

Continue the posture with awareness in your feet, shoulders, arms and hands
Bring your awareness back to your feet and imagine you can draw down your intellectual learning to increase your skillfulness in attending to worldly concerns and press your feet even more firmly into the ground. Similarly imagine you can bring your practical understanding of worldly concerns to help guide your intellectual learning and thus increase your skillfulness in attending to the effects of your actions in the world and press your hands, arms and shoulders down even more firmly. Spend a few breaths seeing how firmly your can press your feet, shoulders, arms and hands down into the ground.

Continue the posture with awareness in your heart centre
Bring your awareness to your heart centre: notice it has become lifted up away from the ground as though lifted out of being concerned with “worldly” matters and knowledge – and thus is, in a sense, “pure” of worldly things. Notice your heart centre is also open as though receptive to “higher” knowledge. And wait. Let your awareness rest in your heart centre and watch the breath gently flow in and out.

       Beyond the reach of words and works is he,
       But not beyond the reach of a pure heart
       Freed from the sway of the senses.

               Verse 9 of [1] Part III of Mundaka Upanishad1


To release the posture
Bring your awareness to your shoulders, arms and hands. Slowly release the pressing down of your hands and arms – and allow the upper trunk to sink a little as you do this. Then very slowly release the pressing down of your shoulders – and allow the upper trunk to sink a little more as you do this. Bring your awareness to your feet – and very, very slowly release the pressing down of your feet so that the trunk sinks to the ground slowly from the neck down to the pelvic girdle. When the trunk is fully resting on the ground, allow yourself to relax completely. Imagine that although your are not pressing your feet, shoulders and arms down you are still skillful in attending to your worldly concerns, studies and actions – it is just that you are relaxed and thus not actively working at being skillful. Bring your awareness to your heart centre and notice that it is still open, receptive and expanded – observe the sensations, feelings, and understanding currently within your heart centre. After a few breaths, place your hands on your heart centre, one hand on top of the other. Leave your hands resting over your heart centre for a few breaths with a sense that the gentle pressure from your hands is closing your heart centre so that it remains expanded and spacious, but also sufficiently protected from the currents flowing around it in the world.


COUNTER-POSING PHYSICAL ASPECTS OF THE PRACTICE

In this version of the bridge pose, the hamstrings and buttock muscles work very hard – thus to avoid tension building up in these muscles and to avoid muscle shortening, it is best to follow the pose with something that will stretch these muscles a little. So I usually follow practice of the pose with bringing my knees to my chest and gentle squeezing of them towards my chest with the exhalation (helps to release the buttock muscles and the lower back). Then I will straighten one leg up into the air and use my hands to gently pull the leg as close to my chest as comfortable. Then I slowly straighten the other leg along the floor until I feel a pleasant stretch in my hamstrings and hold for 5 breaths or so. I then bring the heel of the leg that is straight along the floor to my buttock, next bringing the knee of that leg to my chest and then releasing the other leg so its knee also moves to my chest. Repeat this hamstring stretch on the other side. Then, to encourage any surplus blood and tissue fluid out of the legs, I would do a little “leg dangling in the air” or upside down cycling.

In this version of the bridge pose, there is also a need to release the upper back, upper arms and shoulders a little. I find that gentle supine twists involving arm movements work well for this.


FURTHER NOTES


REFERENCE

1        “The Upanishads”, trans. by Eknath Easwaran, Pub: Arkana, Penguin Books.



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