Embodying Middot - Humility / Anava

Humility as Emptying
‘Humility pertains to Keter’ - Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Tomer Devora. 16h Century.

The first quality/middah studied in Mussar practice groups is Anava/Humility, for a very important reason. Keter, the point from which all creation is originally derived, is the first Sefira,[1] but it is the most unknown. Just as Keter, the ineffable source of all being, is the first Sefira, so also must Anava be the place from which we approach an embodied Mussar practice. Keter is associated with Ain Sof, without end, the unknowable aspect of God.  As Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda says, “all virtues and duties are dependent on humility.”[2] Thus, humility is related to the aspect of not knowing. By emptying ourselves of preconceived notions of how we are to practice, we enter the space of not knowing, not assuming, not being in habit. We are starting anew, and this allows us to bring ourselves to our practice with open awareness and curiosity. “A person must teach [her] tongue to say ‘I don’t know’” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 4a).

When we empty ourselves of all that we think we know about our bodies (and its limitations and capabilities) we became like the desert.  As the Sefat Emet[3] teaches, we received the Torah in the desert because we needed to become like the desert to empty ourselves of slave mentality. If we approach our embodied practice each day anew, each new breath, as if we do not know how to move into the asana, we break out of habitual ways of moving through our practice, and this translates to our lives. 

Emptying Using Breath
When we lie upon the mat, before we begin to open our hips, back, neck, shoulders, and limbs, we can bring attention to the dynamic of the breath entering and leaving the body.  When we pay close attention in this way, we are filling (on the inhale, we receive breath into the lungs through the nose or mouth) and emptying (on the exhale, we release breath from the lungs through the nose or mouth) hundreds upon hundreds of times each day.  Lying with our hands on our upper chest, above the collarbone, we can feel the rise and fall of the upper rib basket and sternum. Placing our hands on the bottom of the rib basket at the lower ribs, we can feel the sensation of the descent of the diaphragm that expands the belly on the inhale; and the lift of the diaphragm that empties the belly on the exhale. By simply focusing on the inhalation and exhalation of the breath throughout our entire practice, we can experience the sensation of emptying in the body.

Humility as Truth
Alan Morinis, in his book Everyday Holiness, says the reason we begin with Anava in our Mussar practice is that we need to have an accurate assessment and understanding of self as a foundation and starting point for the work: “Humility is not an extreme quality, but rather a balanced, moderate, accurate understanding of yourself that you act on in your life.”[4]  Although there is great value in emptying preconceived notions or old habits when approaching a pose (or a conversation with a loved one, or many situations in our lives), we must also be safe in the physical practice and this means being aware of what is true for our bodies in the moment.

How do we bring Truth to the embodied practice? We must tune in to the truth of our bodily sensations as we practice.  We are the only ones who know what is safe and best for our unique body-beings in any given moment. Especially if we have injuries, past surgeries, or if we begin to feel pain of any sort - we must listen to ourselves and understand what is true from within. Rav Avraham Isaac Kook says, “I just need to position myself in the posture of deep listening to myself, to listen to the secret discussion of creation in its room of rooms and I will hear and my soul will be alive.”[5]  This level of deep listening to what is true for our bodies, moment to moment as we practice, is another essential aspect of Anava.

The aspect of Emet or Truth in Anava is most applicable and important in the practice of forward bends.  The focus of the practice, especially in forward bends, is an investigation of what is TRUE, not what ‘should be’.  When practitioners focus on a goal -  touching their toes or bringing their head closer to their legs - this, too often, leads to injury. Most of us have tight hamstrings and we compensate for this tightness by overstretching the lower back and hurting ourselves.  What is most important in a forward bend is to keep the front of the spine long and lifted, and to turn the entire pelvis and torso over the heads of the thigh bones (femur) as one unit, only as far as is reasonable for our bodies in the moment. What is true for one person is not true for another.  Looking within for what is true, with deep listening inside our ‘room within rooms’, as Rav Kook so beautifully describes, is essential to the practice, and can be seen as a metaphor for the way we engage with others in the world, day-to-day.

Humility as the Right Amount of Space
Maimonides teaches that humility is not about extreme self-debasement or extreme pride, but about taking up the right amount of space, as is appropriate for who we are.  We need to assess in any moment what amount of space is appropriate for us to take. In some cases, it is appropriate and even necessary for us to step forward, in others, it is right to step back.

There are numerous ways that ‘taking the right amount of space’ applies to an embodied practice. First, in the asana practice, placing our feet a certain distance apart from one another in all of the standing poses brings different levels of comfort and/or benefit to the body. For example, if there is too much space between the feet in a Forward Bend / Uttanasana  (Figure 1), we literally may not be able to turn the pelvis up and over the femur bones - anatomically it is impossible. Or, if we stand with the feet too close to one another in a Triangle Pose / Utthita Trikonasana  (Figure 2), we limit the ability of the torso to comfortably turn up and over the front leg.  Even in Mountain Pose / Tadasana (Figure 3), the amount of space between our feet affects our ability to balance on the inner or outer foot, or upon the base of the toes or circumference of the heel in a way that most effectively supports our unique body’s structure, and the ability of the spine to lift and flow freely up to the sky.

Second, we can look within the body and apply the same principle to the moving joints within the anatomical structure.  For example, there is the matter of space taken by the head of the femur (thigh bone) in the hip joint.  If we move into Trikonasana  (Figure 2) or Uttanasana (Figure 1) with the image of head the femur being centered in the hip joint, spaciously surrounded on all sides by the acetabulum, we create the right amount of space for freedom of movement in the pose, particularly as we move into and out of it. The concavity of the acetabulum moves up and over the head of the femur in the externally rotated front leg with more ease based upon the way in which every single part of the anatomy is placed in space. 

When we practice with full awareness of the amount of space we take up with careful attention to the placement of our limbs or to the alignment of the bones within our limbs, we open our awareness to all of the spaciousness within, to all of the ways in which we inhabit our flesh, muscles, bones, and breath, and as a consequence we are more likely to move into the world and engage with others with conscious awareness of more spaciousness inside.

[1] The Ten Sefirot (Measures or Enumerations), a visual model and map that denotes a dynamic process of finding balance from our mystical tradition. Originally conceived and documented by Rabbi Moshe De Leon (1250-1305 CE), a Spanish rabbi and Kabbalist, the Sefirot map includes manifestations of divine qualities considered to be present within all of us.  When in balance and harmony this body-map can offer a picture of a balanced life.  

[2] Alan Morinis, Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar (Boston and London: Trumpeter, 2007), 46.

[3] Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur Poland (1847 – 1905)

[4] Morinis, Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, 50.          

[5] Rak Avraham Isaac Kook, Orot HaKodesh


Throughout this guide, we will refer to the following poses:

Forward Bend - Uttanasana  (Fig. 1)
Triangle - Utthita Trikonasana (Fig. 2)
Mountain Pose - Tadasana (Fig. 3)
Downward Facing Dog - Adho Mukha Svanasana (Fig. 4)
Seated Twist - Marichyasana III (Fig. 5)
Hand to Big Toe Pose - Supta Padangusthasana (Fig. 6)
Warrior II - Virabhadrasana II (Fig. 7)
Warrior I - Virabhadrasana I (Fig. 8)
Warrior III - Virabhadrasana III (Fig. 9)
Tree Pose - Vrksasana (Fig. 10)
Side Angle - Parsvakonasana (Fig. 11)
Head to Knee Forward Bend - Janu Sirsasana (Fig. 12)
Seated Forward Bend - Paschimottanasana (Fig. 13)

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