Experimentation and Pranayam: what do you do with “prohibitions”?

My Very Last Breath

Photo credit: Wikipedia

 

I started thinking about this last December when I was reading a lot about Brahmari, or “Bumble Bee Breath.” I read in several places to always practice Brahmari sitting upright, but never any reason for avoiding other postures. So I asked the writers and what I heard back was that they were simply repeating what they’d read or been taught.

 

I thought a lot about why practicing Brahmari supine or even prone or twisted or inverted might be cautioned against and wondered if it was because of the mid-forehead focus and pranic flow, or because of the deep, seemingly skeletal vibration, it creates in the torso – or some combination.

Memento Mori

Memento Mori (Photo credit: Reini68)

Many of my students use this technique to power down at night or even to encourage deep sleep and some have asked about doing it in bed. While I know that the ideal for all pranayam and meditation practices is to remain alert, when these techniques are used for what might be considered their “side” effects – calming, relaxing, stress release, anti-insomnia – it makes sense not to fight the very thing you’re courting, right?

 

After consulting the many and varied sources – primary and secondary, dog eared beloved books and websites – and finding no discussion of “Why not,” I decided that the only way to tell was to run the experiment. After all, I thought, I was taught Kapalabhati as a seated practice, but I’ve experienced power and kundalini classes in which we combined with Fierce (or chair) pose and even Ardha Navasana (or half-boat).

 

I practiced Brahmari in corpse (modified for hand position) and Viparita Karani primarily, in bed, on the mat, with a cat and in a hat. (Not really; I don’t have a cat.) Having my back on the floor dissipated and dampened the torso vibration more rapidly, so my guess is this is the source of prohibitions against doing so. However, it also released tension in my neck and shoulders (massive for me) and was the perfect pre-sleep ritual.

 

Going back to my students and reporting my findings after several weeks of practice and experimentation, they told me they’d been secretly doing it, too -and loving it – reporting the same findings.

 

Hence my question: what do you do when you hear a pose or technique is “contra-indicated” for you or a position or whatever? Inversions are verboten women menstruating, goes the common wisdom, but many report loving the practice.

 

I’m all for respecting the wisdom of the ages, it’s part of what led me to yoga after all. But the discipline of heeding instruction is balanced by the wisdom of listening to my body, in my experience. How do you maintain this balance? Is there a line you won’t cross?

 

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Today at Sarvodaya's Early Morning meditation

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

3 part yogic breath: meditation between abundance and stillness

 

Dirgha, or three part yogic breath, is the basis for pranayam. The first portion initiates the body’s relaxation response, and the entire thing is an exercise in observation and transformation through attention. We start every class with this meditation and I’ve finally produced a recording I’m willing to share. It has audio issues, so don’t expect pro quality – it’s my first one! Let me know how you enjoy the content and I’ll continue to post as I become more comfortable and my equipment gets better. Comment below to let me know how this works for you.

 

 

Home yoga practice: it’s the simple things that matter

“Just do it” doesn’t  usually work when it comes to the home practice of yoga. Chances are, if you have an established home practice, you are “just doing it” and not spending time wondering how to get there, and what gets you to the mat every morning (or evening or lunch or saturday or whatever) isn’t some grunting force of will, but a draw born of experience: the experience of how you feel when you’re there, how you feel on days when you get there, how you felt that day when you didn’t.

 

English: All Solutions By Yogi Tamby Chuckrava...

You don’t have to look like this guy to do yoga at home. Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

If you’re wondering how to start – or start again, though, white knuckling it could undermine the very reason you’re planning to do yoga at all. Try these actions instead and find out how good life is when you yoga on your own:

  • If you’re practicing in the morning, bring  your morning cuppa into the yoga space with you. Whether it’s water, coffee, tea or vodka (just kidding, really… yoga before drinking) sometimes this can create a nice transition. Instead of having to finish your current routine before you roll out the mat, use your current routine to find comfort with the one you’re creating. You can sit and take a sip or two of hot morning yumminess while on your mat and absorb the loveliness of your new practice. 
  • Choose a simple signal to begin and end your practice. Whether you have a fancy bell to ring or start the same music every time, simply having a repetitive action that you associate only with coming to your mat can be powerfully settling. I have come to look forward to ringing the lovely bell of compassion my MIL sent for Christmas at the start and end of practice. It sends a wave of “Okay, you’re here now, until this bell rings again” and allows me to sink in to simply doing the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing and letting that be fresh  and new and not pre-planned.
  • Plan the beginning and end of each practice. This creates a container of sorts and can free you up in between. I begin sitting in vajrasana with breath observation (also how I begin all classes) and end with a selected sequence of finishing poses (as a recovering Ashtanga Yogi there are a few things I’m incapable of doing without). You can begin in  Mountain Pose and end with Bridge before Corpse Pose 
      If you know what you’re going to begin and end with, you may find it easier to let go.
  • Use a template. There’s no reason you can’t plan or have your practice planned for you. Wondering “what am I supposed to do???” or “what should I do next???” or whether you’ll remember that great pose from class can all trigger a massive round of monkey bars for the mind and before you know it you’re a stress ball instead of a bliss monkey. Choose three to five poses you want to focus on and write the names or draw stick figures out before hand. A note from yourself, to yourself. If you want examples, I posted some early versions on this blog, and if you want help just leave a comment. This is one of my favorite things 🙂

Leave me a comment below with your favorite tip for making it to the mat or letting me know how these tips work for you! Home practice is my passion and I’d love to know about yours. Namaste.

 

 

 

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.

Mula Bandha

Thanks to Alisa who left a comment on the Jalandara Bandha post and asked about Mula and Uddiyana. I loved her description of the method she’d been using and tried it:

“So far, the best practice I know if is putting my hands on a sticky mat and my feet on a tray and sliding the tray backwards and forwards without bending my knees.”

What a fantastic idea! I think this process really gets to the feeling of the bandha, but maybe isn’t ideal for discriminating among the deeper layers that reveal themselves over time. David Life has  great article on the layers and how Mula Bandha relates to two distinct mudras in the same area on the Yoga Journal Page under “Practice”, called “To Infinity and Beyond!”

I usually begin to teach Mula Bandha as part of a breathing practice called kalabhati, rapid and forceful exhalations generated from rapid contractions of the low belly. When you compress the transverse abdominus which runs laterally between the pelvic crests, you naturally also lift the pelvic floor from pressure and attachments (not the egoic kind, the connective tissue kind).

From there we work imaginitively, because the most important and difficult part of this process is to actually feel with nuance this area of your own body. Most people don’t, thank you very much, and it can feel uncomfortable to refer to these areas when you’re unused to feeling them.

I begin with the usual references to Kegel Excercises, with the caveat that this is starting place. Mula Bandha begins with a contraction of the pelvic floor which is an intricate network of fascia, other connective tissue and muscles with either two or three openings, depending upon your gender. Kegel gets to the front opening. “Contract Uranus!” gets to the posterior. What we’re aiming for is a subtle lifting sensation above the perineum, and when you engage it you’ll feel instantaneously bright minded. It’s like your energy just bounced up from a trampoline.

And that is the final image I like with this exercise, usually performed sitting in Sukhasana or Virasana. Imagine a flat drum stretched from sitting bone to sitting bone, and from your tailbone up to the front of your pelvis. As your breath lands gently on this drum, it snaps gently back into the body, sending the breath upward. If in Virasana, press the knees together gently to tug the sitting bones slightly and tighten the trampoline.

Breathe, Love, Live!

Yoga Asana & Weight Loss

Yes, it’s January and the usual topics rear their heads. I’ve railed against marketing yoga for weight loss as much as a stretching routine. I’ve waxed mildly philosophical about contentment & acceptance as more transformative focuses than self-improvement. And yet… And yet.

Weight loss is no superficial matter. Being overweight increases infalmmatory processes in the body, as well as risks for all the major causes of death and disability: heart disease, vascular disease, stroke, diabetes.

Moreover, feeling overweight compromises how we are in the world, what we allow for ourselves and what we imagine. I’ve written here about quitting smoking, I’m writing a memoir about sober vinophilia, and I still write occasionally about my icey fascination with adreneline and extremes. So why not write about my experience with yoga and weight?

Weight has always been a sensitive topic for me. I started serious weightlifting when I was a young teenager & still feel safest, most at home in a spare, bright room full of metal and benches and bars and sweat. When things go really bad, I go to the gym. Because of having built a physique more muscular than the average woman, I’ve often heard extreme assessments of my appearance. Whether appreciative or derisive, it’s always felt intrusive, like someone commenting on your religion.

And of course through the years age, divorce, career change, night shift & the poignant stresses of living have taken their own tolls adding padding here & there, only to be shed as I process the emotions and memories they embody.

And this is where yoga comes in. My practice has given me the structure to observe the relationships between the shapes I embody and ideas, emotions, sensations and experiences I am processing. Yoga specifically addresses how we process and digest energy, specifically our food, emotions, rest and desire. Through breathing, circulation, motion and rest we can intentionally influence the efficiency with which we process our life experience. And this is the most important thing about weight, because even yogis die and in the end it’s always the heart that stops. Even yogis age, and in the end the face is never the same as it was when we were born. Even yogis struggle, and in the end stress shares the same physical processes regardless of where it is born.

From my own observation, weight stores emotion. Sometimes this is benevolent: we may not be ready or have the resources to process it we will soon possess. And the more thouroughly we process, the more time it can take, but the more we will understand and the freer we will be. When I was raped during my teacher training three years ago, I began a slow weight gain that was resistent to all my diet and exercise attempts. As that weight dissolved this last year, I was sometimes awash in emotions that were clearly out of context for my current existence. They were remnants washed out in the process of renewal. Cultivating witness consciousness (which is palpably and functionally different than disassociating), staying connected to breath and listening to my body for the poses and seats that would best support my activity were crucial in caring for and supporting this part of my process.

The weight that I carried wasn’t always comfortable, but it was often comforting. Loosing it wasn’t always comfortable, but my lighter body feels at home in my world. I lost thirty pounds during 2008, which is a steady & sustainable rate.  As important as the physical activity in yoga is the constructive rest and meditation. The eight limbs (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi) are as necessary to yoga practice as to an octupus.

Overall, daily practice and meditation are crucial. Even if it’s just a moment on the mat, the imprint that I carried into my day was sustaining. What I did on a given day was based on a general structure which I refined over the course of time, but tailored each day to my needs. My sleep patterns were stabilizing, my food habits were changing, my practice varied depending on my health, my cycle, the time I had set aside, emotions, work demands and classes I was prepping.

What I recommend for students who are designing a practice with weight stabilization in mind is first to be clear about what emotions and meanings you anticipate processing. Be open for change, and stay grounded in your overall process. For some drawing and journalling help with putting a particular day’s events in the larger context of their life. Remember that your practice is ultimately supporting you in digesting your experience and that no emotion, no day or night or wash of feeling is definitive of anything. It is information, it is color and you can be present for it and be the space and awareness of it.

I begin my own practice with breathing and pranayama. Kalabhati & Stomach Churning are particularly mind clearing and energy producing. They are also helpful for generating warmth on a cold morning, or on a camping trip. I follow these with 20-30 minutes of sun salutations beginning slowly and meditatively, feeling every centimeter of motion exquisitely with every cell of my body and working up to crisp motion in concert with breath.

Standing postures with lots of twists and revolved poses felt integrative, strong and cleansing, and by Fall I was closing with Sarvangasana, or shoulderstand, for 5 minutes each day, followed by Halasana, or Plow, a final twist & squeeze. After a luscious Savasana I like to practice Nadi Shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, before silent meditation, focusing on my breath. Some chanting brings me nicely into the rest of my day.

That’s what I’ve devised. I’ve recently read Deepak Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga with great pleasure and he has a routine at the end which has many of the same elements. I wouldn’t recommend diving in without a teacher, because no amount of reading will enable you to transition between postures or guage your readiness like a teacher. But if you have experience or a teacher to guide you, either through private or group lessons, it’s a well rounded program, and regardless, the thoughtful first chapters are valuable for the clarity & simplicity of his explanation.

I continue to observe the changes of my body and mind through my practice and while I’m now at the weight I was before, my body continues to grow slimmer and more muscular, though of a different  density than my 145# benching days. (Yeah, I actually used to loose boyfriends because I could bench more.)  I regard this as evolution, information, experience and contribution to the wisdom I seek. I invite you to share your story, plan, experience or struggle through comments or email. Remember, it’s all Gunas acting on Gunas (Bhagavad Gita) or loosely translated, “It ain’t nothin’ but a thing. Another thing.”

Roam the Hub of All Sacred Places….

“The light which shines above this heaven, above all the worlds, above everything, in the highest worlds not excelled by any other worlds, that’s the same light  which is in you.” ~Chhandogya Upanishad

What if all the thinking, all the words, ideas aren’t our minds? What if they’re the covering over our minds? Don’t get me wrong – they’re great tools. But what’s overseeing the job site? They’re not the tools you’ll need if you’re looking for your true self or for a steady place to stand.

Science tells us our minds are decentralized in the body. Yoga helps us settle into our heart, where wisdom and intelligence reside. Of course when we talk about heart in yoga, we’re not just talking about the juicy pumping muscle to the left of center in our ribcages. There are a lot of bits housed around there – chemoreceptors, baraoreceptors, lungs, thymus, arteries, lymph nodes, spine, circulating blood and air, esophagus, diaphragm. When we bring our attention to this area, when we just feel what comes up, we are contacting the heart of yoga. Our yoga.

Bringing ease to the muscles and joints around this area can be the beginning or development of this process. This is where many of us Western Yogis start, with asana. Maybe a little breathing practice. Then we might start calling that pranayama. Maybe we meditate for stress reduction. Somewhere along the way we realize these pesky emotions are less pesky, the aches are less achey, the mind is less muddled.

“The heart is the resting place of the pranas, the senses and the mind. It’s your true self, which is identified with intelligence and which finds repose in the space within your heart.” ~Nikhilananada’s Intro to The Principal Upanishads

So then we explore pratyahara – sense withdrawal. But then, where do the senses go? Niky above, says to the space within your heart, your true self. Makes some sense – it’s quieter there than the head or stomach. The feelings come up, but maybe we’re in a place where we can uncouple them enough from the words and judgments to just let them be a bit.

Now we’re practicing saucha in our hearts. Saucha – cleanliness, purity. We don’t often think of it in regard to our hearts, but after we’ve gotten glimpses of the Love that lives there, it makes sense not to store our crap on the porch. If we keep the windows clean maybe it will shine more brightly. The Sanskrit word for this place – Anahata – can be translated “unstruck”. “The space within your heart  is omnipresent and unchanging.” (~Chhandogya Upanishad ) Always with us, always available for us to touch and feel is a place that is unstruck by the blows of life, unmoved by the compliments and criticisms, the lost jobs and the awards. It is always what it is. We are always who we are. Sometimes we just cover it up with judgments, which are really old experiences in new clothes. Film on our windows.

Maybe this is the impetus to poke our noses into the pesky ethical side of yoga.  But if you’ve been cleaning your windows all by yourself, and someone gives you a step ladder and an extension for your sponge, you’ll be pretty glad to pay attention. And they’re pretty simple, deceptively so. Love, Truth, Conserve your energy, Be quiet, Be fierce, Stay Open, Be present, Learn you’re not in control, Study your experience, Respect Others’ Boundaries. But Wow! try to practice ’em all at once! That’ll give any college Ethics Professor a run for her money.

So you keep coming back to the place of quiet stillness to which your mat has become the doorway. “The heart is the hub of all sacred places; go there and roam.” ~Bhagavan Nityananda