On the way to Wijiji, Easternmost Great House of the Chacoan Center.
Revolution is a powerful word, and well applied to Dr. Herbert Benson‘s work. As a Harvard Medical Center researcher, it is indeed a revolution for him to mention yoga as frequently as he does in his advancement on the Relaxation Response, published more than 3 decades ago. You can watch him in a bookstore talk here, or listen to a wonderful interview by Diane Rehm here. Newest science is overturning the notion that genes are destiny. We powerfully affect gene expression with practices such as yoga, meditation and chi gong.
You’ve heard of the fight or flight response of your sympathetic nervous system, and probably know that stress increases cortisol levels and has detrimental effects on your whole body. Dr. Benson is championing the opposite system indigenous to us all, the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the relaxation response.
Yoga can be described as one big compendium of methods for invoking the relaxation response. What Dr. Benson stresses and what has been too little stressed in our popular understanding of yoga and ourselves, is this fact: relaxation does not equal passivity. Relaxation does not mean passivity. True, if you relax and you are uber-sleep deprived, you’ll fall asleep, because that’s what your body needs most. Relaxation is an alert and effortless, open expansion of the mind, allowing you to respond in the moment to what is actually arising.
In a state of true relaxation, you respond to the nature of the moment, to what is true in that place and time. If your body-mind is so fatigued that what you actually need is rest, then that response will occur. Similarly, if what arises is profound and deep emotion that you’ve been avoiding with busyness, that is what will arise. Allowing these intense needs to surface and be addressed rapidly brings about a state of equilibrium. Once relaxation has systematically surfaced remnants of stress, injury and pain, you will encounter a clear field, and enter a state more usually associated with relaxation.
For most people this response is nearly immediate, because as much as most of us like to play the stress-monkey,we really crave the alert, openness of true relaxation. Dr. Benson’s work is emphasizing how simple and close the experience can be. It’s truly one yoga practice away. What are you waiting for? Your practice is as close as your breath.
- The Effects of Yoga on Hypertension (brighthub.com)
“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
Love, Truth, Beauty: Here, Now
weekly newsletter: inspiration and tips for including bliss in your day, every day
“Why do you run towards that which you have never taken a step away from?” ~Dogen
New yoga class times – different locations!
Sunday evening at YogaNow! 6pm, stay after for Sangha, chanting and mediatiom (Sangha suggested donation of $10)
Starting 5/17: Saturday Morning Mixed Level class at YogaNow! 7:30
Starting 5/19: M-W-F Morning Mixed Level classes at Ripple Effect 7:00
Starting 5/30: Friday Slow Restorative at YogaNow! 4:15
Send me your yoga class wish list!
I’m adding classes and locations starting in late May. I already have some newly scheduled classes listed above, but I want to know about your dream class: time, place and format. Be as general or specific as you want!
off the mat:
Office Yoga: Once an hour stop for a moment of breath. Remember the heart opening exercise from last week, roll your shoulders onto your back, relax your eyes, temples, jaw, tongue and neck. Find a rhythm and depth in your breath, expanding your belly, chest and shoulders, releasing in the reverse order, and observing the pause at the top and bottom. Return to work with increased clarity and vigor!
A New Earth:Chapter 7 “Finding Who You Truly Are”
Gnothi Seauton: Know Thyself
Eckhart Tolle’s newest book is called A New Earth. I have been asked to host one of the discussion groups for his ongoing web class in conjunction with Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. You can find my official site at YogaEveryDay.Gather.com with articles and comments. You can write your own article and respond to others on this website as well as join the live discussions held Tuesdays on ANewEarth.Gather.com (you do have to be a member… it’s free to sign up). I’m leading discussion this coming Tuesday, April the 8th at 10am MDT and then again Tuesday , April the 22nd and 29th 5pm MDT.
Asana of the week: or in this case, lots of ’em!
Surya Namaskar: Begin in mountain, standing with your hands folded, thumbs touching your heart. Exhale, drop hands, Inhale circle overhead, perhaps lifting your heart for a gentle standing backbend. Exhale, dive forward into a forward fold, knees bent so your belly rests on your thighs. Inhale, extend your head away from your tailbone, rolling shoulders onto your back looking forward. Exhale, step back with your right foot into a lunge (drop your right knee for more ease in the pose). Inhale, lengthen the rib cage away from the pelvis. Exhale, step the left leg back to plank, top of a pushup. Drop your sternum between your shoulder girdles, bringing your shoulderblades together on your back (again, drop knees for more ease). Inhale length, bringing belly toward spine, exhale down to knees – chest – chin (inchworm).Inhale, roll your shoulderblades up and onto your back, pressing your low belly and tops of feet into ground, raise your head and shoulders away from the ground for cobra. Exhale, pressing into the thumb sides of your hands & rolling your toes under, lift the hips back and up, turning your sitting bones to the sky for downward facing dog. Take five, luxurious breaths and on your fifth exhalation, bring the right foot forward between your hands for a lunge on the other side. Inhale lengthen your tailbone away from your head. Exhale step left foot forward next to right for a forward fold. Inhale, circling the arms up and out come up with a flat back (belly toward spine!) to upward hands, looking up, open heart. Exhale hands back down midline to your heart. Stay here until your breath normalizes, repeat, starting with left foot back, ending with left foot up.
Try 20 minutes of sun salutations in the morning and see how supple and energized you feel!
Take ten minutes tonight and try one or two of these poses. All are restorative, meaning you support yourself in a position facilitating physical release and you surrender to the pose over time, usually about five minutes. Prepare your surroundings with candles, music, scent. Use a folded hand towel for an eye pillow. Focus on your breath. Begin by allowing the belly to expand in every direction, opening the abdomen to allow room for your organs as your diaphragm pulls downward. After a few minutes of focusing on your belly, imagine your breath beginning just in front of your sacrum, inhaling the breath rises along a channel in front of your spine until it swirls in your head. Exhale, the breath flows down the same channel, exiting in front of your sacrum.
Supported Balasana (Child’s Pose): sit with your feet folded under your buttocks, knees wide. With a bolster or blankets folded in front of you for support, hinge your torso forward and lie your belly and chest on the support, arms alongside. Turn your head to one side. Feel your body move as you breathe.
Supported Bridge: Lie on your back, knees bent, feet on the floor hip width apart. Raise your pelvis up, having support (bolster, stack of blankets, block) handy to place under your sacrum or pelvis. Allow your torso to slant gently toward your shoulders on the ground. Arms angle down from shoulders to hands open to the sky.
Setu Baddha Konasana (Bound angle pose): Sitting upright, perhaps with hips elevated on a blanket, place the soles of the feet together in cobbler or butterfly pose (this was a favorite of mine when I was a little girl… I remember doing it with my Mother). Arrange the bolster, blankets or pillows behind you so that you can recline your torso with your arms opening down from the shoulders, palms releasing upwards. If your knees are above the ground, support them with blocks or soft blankets.
Vitparita Karani (Legs up the wall): Place a bolster or a stack of three folded blankets 6-8 inches away from the wall. Sit on one end with a shoulder toward the wall, facing away from the stack. Place opposite hand on floor and rolling down to your back swing your legs up parallel to the wall. Your tailbone will sink into the space between the support and the wall. You may keep your legs up or open them out to a great “V” or place the soles of the feet together in cobbler or butterfly. Arms angle gently down, again, from the shoulders, hands realeasing toward the sky.
Finish in Savasana, or Corpse pose, on your back, legs apart, feet flopping out, arms out a bit to the side of the hips again, hands open to the sky, eyes closed. Keep returning to breath. Breathe. Breathe. Let breath breathe you. Namaste.
Here is my holiday gift to all of you, available for your pre-holiday stress relief and practice.
Yoga Nidra is an ancient technique sometimes called yogic sleep. It is said that 20 minutes of yogic sleep is as good as three hours of your normal sleep. Now, my sleep isn’t so normal, so I haven’t had a good basis for comparison. However, I can say this 17 minute guided meditation certainly prepares me to be open to my world even if my sleep has not. Students say they use it daily, some others when they need a lift.
I recorded this last year as a gift for my Classes. The voice is mine, the script I wrote reflecting on some of the techniques I’ve learned that help me.
Let me know how you use it and how it works in your life. Most of all, do some yoga every day!
(background music off Tandava)