Subtle talk, subtle body

I’m  just back from my walk today and had to share this talk with you.

This podcast, “The Subtle Body,” is from Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico – worth a visit in and of itself. The peace and dignity palpable there are food for the heart.

The speaker, Tias Little, is a deeply accomplished yogi and teacher from the area. In this talk he illuminates the subtle body and gives eminently practical advice on how yoga poses, meditation, breathing, touch and attention interact with the subtle body to obstruct or allow healing and optimum function.

When you hold your breath…. The 3 causes and 1 Solution

A sober message about competitive breath holding.

Image by cristyndc via Flickr

You may not realize you were holding your breath until you let it go. And in that great whoosh of exhalation you have an amazing opportunity: what was going on in your internal environment leading to that impressive subversion of sustaining rhythms?

Breath holding, as the sign says, can be detrimental, though perhaps not often deadly. Because of the interruption of normal exchange of nurturing and toxic gasses, you’re retaining the very stuff your body so wisely was prepared to let go. More importantly, you can’t receive the next breath. Mind rides breath, so you remain stuck in that moment, unable to move forward because like the monkey with a peanut in his fist, you can’t get your hand out of the jar.

Whether you’re on your mat or in traffic with that near miss, or in a meeting  – “Yeah, those words just came out of his mouth…” – the moment when you let your breath go, give yourself the gift of wondering what that was all about. I’ll wager a week of yoga class that in every case it’s a reaction to one of three things: novelty, fright or exertion.

Novelty: ever been taken by surprise, even a pleasant surprise? A room full of unexpected people, a man on one knee with a diamond ring or an unexpected visit from a friend: any of these can trigger a rapid, rushing intake of air with a potent pause.

Fear: the unexpected discharge of a gun; a rapid, unexpected motion when you are either very relaxed or very wary; watching the car in front of you spin out of control all can trigger a frozen or elongated moment and the breath can become hostage to the halting motion of time.

Exertion: You didn’t wait for help to move that massive walnut bureau, and so it’s no surprise when you’re over matched and noticed the squealing grunt of strain. And in some forms of exercise, such as kettlebells and boxing, breath holding is a technique – but accompanied by specific and intentional exhalation. This kind of breath holding creates an internally stabilizing pressure in the center of the torso which is then converted to force with a rapid and full exhalation. The key is intentionality.

Solution: Awareness and Intent The next time you find yourself holding your breath, treat yourself and your breath gently, kindly release and exhale fully and completely. Wonder: was I scared, surprised or exerting?  Bring your awareness and intent to the moment, ask yourself the question, and then just listen. You’re extra lucky if you have a chance to practice this on the mat, because you have a great chance to notice and loosen a pattern, referred to in yogic circles as samskara. Samskara are the ant hills of repeatedly going around a place of resistance, rather than investigating and remaining with the resistance itself.  Noticing breath holding is one way down the center of hill to find the source of the resistance, the source of the work around, and clear an open path for moving forward, letting go of the residue of prior experience and becoming present for all that this moment holds.

jalandara bhanda

For the last few months I’ve been experimenting with methods for teaching bhandas. I’ve experimented with asana (standing, hands on thighs, sitting in virasana, downdog, uttanasana), whether to focus on the abdominal motion or the chest wall in uddiyana, whether or not to mention mula bhanda concurrently (because it is involved, but conceptually seems to overload folks while learning), what terms to use for the pelvic floor when teaching mula bhanda, how to describe the “false inbreath” of non-ventillatory chest wall expansion.

Simple is best, of course, but since the point is to direct another person’s attention to the sensations produced for them with muscular actions not commonly felt, much less intentionally induced, points of reference are both crucial and tricky. For my own part, I feel the effects of uddiyana bhanda most acutely between my shoulder blades, in front of my thoracic vertebrae. But for others, this isn’t even on their sensation map; they might feel it between particular ribs. The point is not to feel anything particularly, but to develop refined awareness of what is there for you to feel.

I used to think the best way to approach bhandas was bottom up: mula, uddiyana, then jalandara. Truthfully, I’ve had precious little connection to jalandara. Conceptually, I understand why a “top” on the cooking pot is important. My experience has been lackluster, however.

Until I read a description that added the chest wall expansion of  “false inbreath” to the external action of flexion of the upper cervical vertebrae.  This one little addition lit up the sensation of the lock so that it made sense to me. The idea of  jalandara bhanda is to touch your chin to the notch just above your sternum, not by hunching the shoulders & whilst keeping the front of the chest broad. This is done by rotating the skull & jaw around the top of the cervical vertebrae while keeping the neck long.

What lit up this experience was after engaging jalandara, exhale, close the glottis (like the beginning of a swallow, it prevents air from moving into the chest), and then expand the chest as if to inhale. Indeed, I felt lit from within.

Because this passively activates the lower bhandas, I’ve decided to use this as an initial forray into bhandas, moving to uddi & finally to mula. Of course, like the yamas & niyamas, we learn about these layers concurrently, it’s only in theory that there’s any seperation. 

What are your experiences with learning the bhandas? Or with teaching? I’d love to hear your bhanda stories!