Get prepared to welcome a New Year & New You with Good Yoga!
I hope everyone is ready for the great adventures that await us in the year 2019. To help you maintain your calm during all the changes that are most certainly going to occur this year and to help you keep focused on your goals and desires, there is always Yoga. Yoga is a holistic science that works with many different aspects of our lives. Hatha Yoga works specifically with the body via the endocrine and nervous system to affect and improve both mental and emotional function so that we can experience the clarity and calm we are all looking for.
Hatha Yoga offers another way. The science of Hatha Yoga is explained with a different vocabulary from that of western medicine but the theory is the same. The endocrine system as outlined in western medicine is centered purely around a physical approach whereas in Yoga both the physical and energetic components of these glands are taken into consideration and outlined in the chakra system of Yoga science. By aligning and releasing energy blocks in the body, otherwise known as chakras in Yoga, physical and psychological problems associated with various parts of the endocrine system, can be released and relieved. This article summarizes how the chakras correspond with the major glands in the body (the endocrine system) and how certain postures interact with their functioning. Or you can experience for yourself the great benefits of a full Hatha Yoga practice with an all day workshop of Good Yoga to start the holidays off right!
Christmas Yoga Workshop
The Koshas and their connection to the Chakras
The first part of Yoga science to understand are the koshas and their connection with the chakras and consequently the endocrine system. Yoga philosophy states that everything is energy, our bodies included, and that the differences we observe in appearance and texture are simply points of energy vibrating at different frequencies. Nothing is fixed or solid. Quantum Physicas now confirms this. The mind-body complex is both united and seperated by different frequencies. In the tradition of Ayurveda (the medical branch of Yoga) these different frequencies have the name of Kosha or ´layer/sheath´. There are 5 different layers (koshas) that vibrate at different frequencies. The idea is that if there is an imbalance or block somewhere along these different layers or frequencies, other layers will also be affected. For example, a block along the manomaya kosha (mind layer) will not only manifest at the level of the mind but will also be reflected at the layer of both the breath (Pranamaya Kosha) and the physical body (Annamaya Kosha). One can see this connection by observing how both the breath and physical body change in reaction to stress stimuli that first primarily affects the mind (Manomaya kosha). It is this mental stress response that is the culprit behind so many modern day physical ailments.
Inside this system of Koshas there are the chakras. Chakra in Sanskrit literally means ´wheel´. Chakras are therefore seen as wheels of energy located along the spinal column. One of the purposes of Hatha Yoga is to open the blocks in these wheels of energy first at a physical level and then going deeper into the Pranamaya kosha, the Manomaya kosha and eventually all the way to the Anandamaya kosha.
The Chakras and the Endocrine System
Each chakra is associated with physical and psychological characteristics as well as different sounds and colors. The science of Yoga shows that the location of each chakra is associated with certain glands of the endocrine systems. The endocrine system acts as a great network of communication between brain and body and is in charge of various metabolic functions that facilitate cellular communication as well as stimulation and hormone release. In order for the entire human organism to function well it is necessary that these endocrine glands produce and maintain a balance of these various fluids and hormones.
Samsara & Anja Chakras: The balance and release of the various hormones throughout the body is controlled mainly by the hypothalamus as well as the pituitary gland which is associated with the crown chakra, or Samsara chakra at the top of the skull. These same chakras are also closely related to the pineal gland which is often associated with the Third Eye/Ajna (associated with intuition and spirituality…as well as the release of DMT). Headstand/Sirsasana is the most beneficial in activating these glands/chakras, hence why it is considered the King of Asanas. Nonetheless any kind of inversion is useful for activating and balancing these chakras. It is not necessary to hurt your cervical spine to active the crown or third chakra. Look for modifications of the pose if you have any physical discomfort along the neck or spine.
Vishuddha Chakra: Moving down to the Thyroid and Parathyroid glands. The Thyroid is located in the throat and associated with the Vishuddha chakra (throat chakra). It is responsible for controlling metabolic rate, growth and therefore, cell processes. Functioning of the Parathyroid determines how much calcium and phosphate are in the blood and if you regularly do the shoulder stand/Sarvangasana (Queen of Asanas) and the fish pose/Matsyasana you might just find your teeth are stronger, your sleep and appetite regulated as well as an increase in energy levels.
Anahata Chakra: Below the Vishuddha Chakra in the location of the heart resides the Anahata Chakra. This chakra is associated with the thymus gland that produces cells for the immune system. Postures that open the chest and increase oxygen intake in this area help to activate this chakra. Virsasana, Ustrasana and Virabhandrasana I, II are good examples. With these postures you also have the added benefit of working with the Root/Muladhara chakra as well as the solar plexus/ Manipura chakra.
Manipura & Muladhara Chakras: Below these glands we then come into contact with the Pancreatic and Adrenal Glands which are associated with the Solar Plexus/Manipura and the Root/Muladhara chakra, respectively. (These glands work closely together so I put them in the same paragraph and left the Sacral/Svadhisthana chakra for the end). The pancreas aids in digestion while the adrenal glands guide our ‘fight or flight’ response. It is said that due to high stress levels and diet the majority of people nowadays have low functioning adrenals that result in a sense of fatigue and foggy thinking. Doing postures that massage these glands as well as the spleen and pancreas helps to regulate blood sugar levels, which has a huge impact upon both physical and emotional well-being. Working with these chakras can also help with weight-loss due to the regulation of insulin that occurs as a result of massaging the aforementioned glands. Mayurasana, or the Peacock, is great for this, but often too advanced. Doing twists such as Ardha Matsyendrasana or back bends like Dhanurasana (The Bow), as well as Supta Virasana are very useful in activing these glands as well.
Svadhisthana Chakra: Finally, we move to the ovaries and testes where the Sacral/Svadhisthana chakra resides. Postures such as Samakonasana, Uppavista Konnasana, Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (pigeon pose) or variations thereof, that open the pelvis and and/or work pelvic floor are usually quite beneficial as they bring blood flow to this area and can help with issues of fertility and/or menstruation. On an emotional level, Ana Forrest claims in her book Fierce Medicine that hip openers, especially if maintained for extended periods of time tend to get into really deep seeded emotional baggage that can have their roots in issues of security and/or sexual/emotional repression or abuse. Breathing through the pose will help you to release the baggage.
Yoga is a Personal Journey
This is a VERY brief summary of certain Yoga postures and their associated chakras (aka glands) as well their connection to the koshas of Ayurveda medicine. Yoga is a holistic practice and like the body it cannot be separated into parts and pieces nor can it be isolated into one specific approach. One pose will almost definitely work with more than one gland and to maintain balance in body and mind, each gland deserves your breath and attention. For that reason it is important to participate in a complete Hatha Yoga practice that addresses the activation of each of these chakras without causing harm at either a physical or psychological level. Look for an experienced and trained instructor to help you and enjoy the great benefits of this ancient practice.
As we continue to get through the colder, darker and more sedative months of winter, inversions and backbends are a fantastic and holistic way to combat the symptoms of SAD (seasonal affective disorder), exhale out the stress of the holidays and warm up the body and soul. Below is a little introduction to the physical and neurobiological mechanics of backbends and inversions. I also offer some insight and instruction on how one can correctly execute these great mood enhancing poses that not only help to relieve lethargy but are also great for releasing neck and shoulder tension.
The nervous system, back bends and inversions:
One cannot discuss the nervous system without introducing the Vagus Nerve. This is a fascinating nerve that is linked to everything from digestion to depression. Dr. Levine and Dr. Kolk in their research hypothesize that there is a direct connection with the poor functioning of the vagus nerve and its associated organs with anxiety and depression. Simply put, the hypothesis is that anxiety has it´s root in an overactive fight/flight response and depression is then the result of the frustrated fight/flight response. In other words, when the nervous system perceives that there is no way out of a perceived threat, the biological defense response is a kind system shut-down that results in what researchers call ´freeze´ and what would be experienced on the emotional level as depression.
Levine and Kolk argue that these sensations of stress, anxiety and depression occur first in the body and are then interpreted in the brain. The primary path of this communication from body to brain is the vagus nerve. There is more and more literature discussing the importance of a good ´vagal tone´ to maintain both mental and physical health. In fact, pharmaceutical giants Glaxo-Smith-Kline are trying to make profit out of this fact by investing over 50 million dollars in researching a device that would provide vagus nerve stimulation (Medicine Beyond, p. 235). Lucky for humanity, Vagus nerve stimulation is something that Yoga provides naturally and free.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
Vagus is Latin for ´to wander´ and that is exactly what this nerve does. It starts up behind the ear moves down the neck and continues to spread out it´s tentacles along the chest, around the heart and into the gut. 70-80% of the information that is passed along the vagus nerve moves from the bottom up and only 20-30% of it moves from the top down. This is why some people say the second brain is in the gut. All those sensations that are experienced in the gut (which has as many neurons as a cat´s brain) and along the organs connected to the Vagus Nerve are sent up to the brain to be analyzed and interpreted by the pre-frontal cortex, language centers and amygdala. That means working with the vagus nerve and the organs connected to it can modify messages sent to the brain about sensations that are experienced in the body.
Cuddy, Kolk, Levine and other renown researchers like Dr. Steve porges are demonstrating how direct work with the body influences our energy levels, sexual desire, sleep patterns and digestion…and working with the body to control the mind and increase quality of life IS precisely the theory behind the practices and postures of Hatha Yoga.
Poses for Vagus Nerve Tone: Examples and why they work
Due to the physical form of these poses backbends work directly with the vagus nerve. Backbends, or back extensions as they are also known, work by opening and toning the front of the belly, chest, sternum and throat which, as mentioned earlier is home to that wandering vagus nerve. Via breath, pressure, stretching and by holding back bends CORRECTLY while breathing into the pose the organs associated with the vagus nerve and the nerve itself is activated, toned and strengthened. A well ´toned´ vagus nerve and the attached organs means that the brain receives biological signals of relaxation such as a regulated digestive tract, slower heart rate and deeper breath. It signals to the brain, via the Vagus Nerve, that all is well and there is no need for fighting, running way or freezing up.
It is important that when practicing backbends that one take great care around the lumbar spine. The most common mistake in these poses is to clench the buttocks-which can result in compressing the lumbar spine. Also, when going up into poses like bridge (urdva danurasa), compression of the lumbar occurs when one pushes straight up through the public bone or belly button rather than lengthening the lumbar and lifting through the sternum. My advice in all back bends is, to think about internal rotation of the thigh bone and activation of the abductors…the muscles on the inside of the thighs. This action will automatically open the space around the lumbar and activate the abdominals which need to be strong to protect the lumbar. Always start slow and gain real awareness of what the space around the lumbar, stretch across the chest and strength in the abdominals FEELS like. Look for the correct sensation, not just the correction formation.
For thousands of years human beings have practiced inversions and now in various physical therapy clinics, props like inversion tables are common.
The ´Yoga Form´ mechanics of inversions are fantastic not only for decompressing the entire spine, which is of course has its effect on the entire nervous system both posteriorly (along the spinal cord) and anteriorly (vagus nerve) but is also great for increasing lung capacity, activating digestive organs, strengthening the immune system (by helping to activate the lymphatic system), regulating hormone release and increasing the production of all those feel good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
All this neuro-biological activity that occurs during inversions results an overall more balanced state of emotional, mental and physical well-being.
Just like with back extensions, one must be very
aware of doing these poses correctly
to avoid causing damage to the cervical AND lumbar spine. The most common mistake in inversions is putting too much pressure on the neck and not bringing the weight of the body into the shoulder girdle. Again, look for the correct sensation, not just the correction formation. One should feel activation in the triceps, the dorsal spine and the pectorals NOT the neck or lumbar spine. Think about pushing the shoulder blades up towards the hips, the elbows and wrists towards the ground and maintain the aforementioned rotation of the thighs, like you would in a back extension, to keep the core active and the lumbar spine protected.
Every yoga pose (asana) should be done with awareness and with careful internal observation-after all asana means ´seat of awareness´ – and this awareness even more important for backbends and inversions.