Learn and enjoy the freedom of a Yoga practice using your own body weight and ropes fixed to the wall to provide greater traction and stability in various Yoga poses allowing the student to experience and enter more deeply into their practice and enjoy even more the great benefits of a Yoga than they could do alone.
Sign up soon to relieve joint tension as well as pain along the spine and hips while increasing overall flexability from your toes to the top of your head.
Learn and enjoy the freedom of a Yoga practice using your own body weight and ropes fixed to the wall to provide greater traction and stability in various Yoga poses allowing the student to experience and enter more deeply into their practice and enjoy even more the great benefits of a Yoga than they could do alone.
Sign up soon to relieve joint tension as well as pain along the spine and hips while increasing overall flexability from your toes to the top of your head.
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.
The Psycholgoy of Hatha Yoga: Part 1 Locus of Control
The Joy of Freedom
Attachment and aversion towards the past or the future is what makes us resist the freedom and joy found in the present. Physical or psychological resistance is what ties us like slaves to external opinions, conditions and experiences and as western psychology has shown with measurements like Locus of Control, being tied to external conditions lowers our level of well-being. When we accept our reality just as it is, without getting ourselves stuck in the game of blame, we are free to move ourselves in whatever direction suits us and with an energy that propels us forward from the inside rather than feeling pushed or pulled in one direction or another by external motivations or conditions. A conscious and consistent practice of Hatha Yoga can help us in this path toward freedom and joy.
Attachment, Aversion & our perception.
´Attachement is that which dwells on pleasure. Aversion is that which dwells on pain…both result in suffering.´ (Patanjali/Vivakananda 2: 7-8)
In his translation and commentary of Patanjali, Swami Vivekananda explains that all suffering comes from an attachment that gives us pleasure and aversion to what does not give us pleasure. Meditating over these sutras the psychological concept of Locus of Control(LOC) came to mind once again. It is a concept that always comes up when I find myself contemplating the themes of psychology, Yoga and happiness. I believe that I always return to this concept because our perception of control is an important key to our sense of well-being. Basically, the theory behind Locus of Control states that if you believe you are responsible for the things that occur in your life you will have a high internal Locus of Control score and if not, if you believe that things just happen due to fate or luck than you will have a high external Locus of Control score. According to the Rotters Scale, there is a highly statistically significant correlation que shows that a high score of internal Locus of Control is highly associated with higher levels of well-being and satisfaction while a high score of external Locus of Control is highly associated with higher incidences (and I say incidences because this can be overcome) of depression and anxiety. The concept of internal vs. external control can help us to understand from a western psychological perspective why attachment and aversion tocan cause us to suffer.
Attachment and Aversion: Two sides of the same coin of suffering
Suffering is in the desire to prolong or continue something external that gives us pleasure-even though sometimes, ´we find pleasure in strange things…´ (Patanjali/Vivakananda 2:7). All of us would like to continue indefinately the things we would define as pleasurable. However, if we observe nature, we can observe that the only thing constant in life is change. If we start to have a perspective of life as if it were a continuous experience, we can start to leave behind the pain of resistance that can come up with each new ending of a pleasurable experience. We can start to live in the present.
On the other side of the coin of resistance we have aversion. Aversion makes us suffer because we want to avoid something that we believe will cause us pain. We have a fear of something and in order to not confront it, we resist what is by avoiding it. Maybe it is a conversation that we should have with someone, maybe it is a lifestyle change or starting a new activity. When we go into avoiding any type of experience we create resistance and we lose lots of energy in the construction of walls built of excuses and fear. Furthermore, like attachment, we lose out on the joy found in the present moment.
In this cycle of attachment and aversion one loses the perception of control over their life and runs the risk of becoming a slave of externally conditioned desires and fears instead of their master. Often this slavery to such conditioned responses is what drives addiction. This perception of control is exactly what Locus of Control measures.
In spite of the psychological reality that we are happier when we take responsibility for our lives, we are all guilty of playing the victim role and leaving that responsibility of our own lives and experience in the hands of others. Patanjali states that this surrender to the victim mentality is a result of ignorance on our part and our own inability to see and accept just how powerful we truly are.
When we integrate the concepts of non-attachment and non-aversion in our daily philosophy we increase levels of internal Locus Of Control and lower levels of external LOC because our happiness is not tied to external conditions. These external conditions come in many forms. Some of the most common are the opinions of others (good & bad), work worries, the fear of being alone or losing someone we love and/or the desire for fame, money and external beauty. By letting go of our aversion or attachment to these external conditions we can brush off the dust of ignorance and we can begin to enjoy the creative power and joy that is our nature.
You are free
´You were never bound by laws, Nature never had a bond for you´ (Patanjali/Vivakananda 2:18)
With this entry Vivekananda is explaining that we don´t have to be the victims of our biology, genetics or culture. Because Yoga asana is the philosophy of Yoga in action, with a constant and disciplined practice of Hatha Yoga we can increase our perception of internal LOC. With every asana carried out with intention and conscious observation we let go of the stress that gets stuck in the musculature of the body and we practice being witnesses of our experience, being both the observed and observer. With each asana and observation of that asana we learn that this union between mind and body responds to our intention and breath. We have total control over that intention and breath. With a conscious practice of Hatha Yoga we can understand on both a visceral and psychological level what Patanjali says throughout the Yoga sutras-we are not victims nor slaves of any kind to an external force. Everything starts from the inside. With this awareness recorded in the cells of our body and the neurons of our brain, we can leave behind the suffering associated with the both the psychologcial and physiologcial signs of resistance (aversion/attachement) and transform ourselves into free and blissful beings.
This is a question I get a lot. I would define Hatha Yoga as a practice which via physical postures (asana), breathing exercises (pranayama) and the observation of them (meditation) the practitioner gains balance and control over their physical body as well as their nervous system. In other words, it is a way to balance mind and body. I teach and practice Hatha Yoga. Good Yoga is simply a name made up to help differentiate what I offer from other styles of Hatha Yoga, and there are as many styles of Hatha Yoga as there are teachers. I seek to follow the guidance of Patanjali and make every asana accessible to each student no matter their level, age or experience. A more descriptive name might be Patanjali Good Yoga Hatha. If it wasn´t such a long name, perhaps I would change it. Either way, I hope the following explanation of Hatha and Yoga serve to help clarify the questions that I have received.
Hatha Yoga literally means ¨Sun and Moon¨ and Yoga means the union between the two. Through the union of both these forms we become free. Translated directly from Sanskrit to English this translation of Hatha Yoga might not make a lot of sense. However, when one starts to reflect over what the sun and moon traditionally represent within mythology throughout the world, the wisdom of the combination of these two opposites in one word begins to manifest.
In the world of Hindu mythology (and most world mythologies) traditionally the symbol of the sun is related to the masculine and the moon with the feminine. These two energies work and exist together to create and maintain a delicate balance of life on this planet.
It is easy to observe that without the sun we would all die due to the cold and lack of nutrition that comes from its rays. What we do not see is that if the moon did not exist, life as we know it would cease to exist as well. If it were not for the ocean tides that the moon produces with its gravitational pull we would not be here. Primordial life started in the small tide pools that stay behind at the exiting of every tide. Without the moon the tide pools, which are like the petri dishes of creation, would not exist. I don´t think it is pure coincidence that there are many creation myths that start with a goddess or god coming out of the water. In fact, in the story of Genesis, land comes out of the ocean depths, not the other way around and the creation of the human being comes from a mix of both dirt and water (ie. Mud) not simply one or the other.
Furthermore, without the moon, the entire orbit of our planet would be different. Without the moon there would be total chaos in the seasonal patterns that we depend on to raise crops and cattle. The loss of the moon´s mass and its gravitational pull would put an almost complete end to the ocean tides. This would negatively affect marine life as well as life on land and result in certain death of most plant and animal species who depend upon the nutrients that are distributed throughout the world via the ocean and the constant ebb and flow of her waters. Our eco-system, like our mind-body system, is very integrated and everything is connected. If one part isn´t completing its function, the entire organism, the entire system, suffers. To learn more about the importance of the relationship between the moon and the earth click here.
The sun, the moon and the human body
Men and women, we are different biologically. Women have vaginas and men have a penis, obviously. In Sanskrit, the word Yoni (origin of creation) is used and Shishna respectively. Focusing only on the physical we can say that the female sexual organs exist inside the body whereas the male sexual organs exist outside. The sexual act of the male is external and that of the female is internal. Furthermore, although both men and women do have hormonal cycles, the menstrual cycle of the woman usually follows a 28 day rhythm, which syncs up with the rhythm of the moon. In fact, the root of the word menstruation comes from the Greek meaning moon. My opinion is that due to biology the things that we can see and feel clearly, like the light and heat of the sun are associated with masculine energy where as the things in nature that are less visible, like the gravitational pull of the moon, are associated with the feminine. This does not mean that one or the other is more important or more powerful than the other. As I have already explained, without the moon or sun we would not have the conditions necessary to sustain life on this planet.
This balance between the masculine and feminine is necessary as well to maintain a healthy mind-body system. In Yoga this balance is reflected in the energetic descriptions of the body-specifically in the representation of the channels (nadis) of energy (prana) known as Ida (moon/mental strength/Yin/feminine/internal/cool) and the pingala (sun/vital strength/yang/masculine/external/heat). These channels of complementary and opposing energies spiral up the center of the spine (shushumna). They start at the base of the sacrum and rise up to the top of the skull. A constant practice of asana, pranayama and meditation offers a way to develop and maintain a balanced flow of these two energies. A lack of balance between these two energies is what can cause pain on both physical and psychological levels.
For example, physical strength is important. Physical strength would be a characteristic traditionally associated with masculinity. However, too much strength without flexibility, for example in the hamstrings, can pull on the pelvis out of alignment and cause lumbar pain. Likewise, an imbalance between strength and flexibility in the upper part of the body can cause lots of tension in the shoulders and problems with the cervical spine. Also, too much flexibility (a traditionally feminine characteristic) without strength can create painful problems of hyper-extension in the joints and a lack of bone density.
The human body functions at it´s optimum mode when we are both strong and flexible and are able to react with both strength and agility. This principal of balance amongst two opposing forces within the body is also applicable we discuss psychological health as well.
The sun, the moon and the human mind
Traditionally one could say that masculine energy is associated with words like aggression, extroversion, logic, control and ambition. Whereas, the feminine is often associated with words like submission, introversion, emotion, chaos and empathy. The philosophy of Yoga teaches us that each one of us has the responsibility of developing both these types of energy that exist within us independent of our gender or biology.
On a psychological level, a lack of balance between masculine and feminine energies can result in anger problems and abuse or being the victim of these. Likewise, a person who puts too much emphasis on emotion and creative chaos without using logic or the strength necessary to confront life challenges will live life without much direction resulting in many dreams but with few results. On the other hand, a person who does everything from a logical perspective, with lots of ambition, without empathy, without thinking in the experience or suffering of others would be tagged as a psychopath. This type of hyper-masculine energy not only represents a danger for others but also diminishes the great opportunity and joy that is available when we connect with other human beings on a psychological-emotional level.
We are biological machines made up of both mind and body, of thoughts and emotions. Emotion starts first in the body and is then later interpreted by the mind. For example, the famous example of the snake and stick. If you go walking in the forest and see a stick that looks like a snake, the first physical reaction is a great surge of adrenaline that then moves blood to our exterminates away from our heart, lungs and digestive organs so that we can run away quickly. It actives the brain stem and shuts down activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the seat of logic. If we stay in that mode without using the mind to re-interpret reality, we could very well end up running and screaming away from a stick. On the other hand, if we didn´t have these quick instinctual reactions, we run the risk of reacting too slow, thereby increasing our risk of being attacked by a snake or any other creature.
It is important to know when it is a stick and when it is a snake. The stress response triggered by fear is not bad in and of itself. As mentioned, this stress response could save our lives. What causes us harm is if this stress response simply continues and does not shut-off. In fact, most of the illnesses today have their root in this chronic stress response that is constantly putting out high levels of adrenaline and cortisol. Due to the movement of blood and oxygen moving continuously to our exterminates instead of providing and exporting important nutrients to our most vital parts such as our heart, lungs, digestive system and brain, eventually these chronic states of stress result in a compromised immune system and diseases like cancer, heart disease and inflammation of the brain that has been associated with depression and Alzheimer’s.
Finding balance betweeen the energies of the Sun and Moon
Chronic stress and its associated illnesses are the result of a great lack of self-observation. If your boss yells at you, you are in a major traffic jam or you end up sitting next to someone whom you don´t particularly like, normally our habit is a stress driven response instead of a logical one that would help us to maintain our calm. A yelling boss is not going to kill you, a traffic jam is not going to kill you and even though the person sitting next to you talks a lot or smells bad, most like they are not going to kill you either. Many of our stress responses have their base in past conditioning. It could be that we had a traumatic experience that makes us react in an illogical manner or simply, it could be that we are reacting with a pattern we learned, unconsciously from our parents or culture. Within the practice of Yoga asana (posture) maintaining the pose for more than just a few breaths can help the student to learn how to enter their bodies, observe and let go (NOT ignore) of the emotions and sensations that appear with these instinctual stress responses. Entering and observing the body, where this unconscious information is stored, we have the ability to redirect our energy to our more vital organs, including our brain, giving us the chance to use our logic to search for a solution.
Nonetheless, it is important to state that we cannot only live in our heads. There is a balance. By observing the body without judging or interpreting the millions of sensations that occur, we start to be able to enjoy more and more the simple things in life like food, the movement of our feet upon the land and the physical connection of a hug, a caress, a kiss or the act of making love without an objective, motive or end goal.
Today this type of observation of sensation without interpretation has the brand name of Mindfullness. I would say that the practice of mindfulness is the practice of yoga. The practice of Yoga is the union of mind and body, the union between sensation and interpretation, the union between the masculine and feminine, between the associated energies of the sun and moon, the ida and pingala, the yin and yang. Between the Ha and Tha. This union can only happen when one practices constant observation of both mind and body and Hatha Yoga practice offers a way to do that. The mind is an invisible thing that can be difficult to observe and guide whereas the body is tangible and can be much more accessible to observe and guide.
It is for that reason that a consistent and conscious practice of Hatha Yoga we have the opportunity to enjoy a life of balance that comes with a connected mind and body. In the observation of our thoughts and body we become free from our animal instincts and conditioned thoughts. We have the chance to be free and live in bliss which in the end, is the true purpose of Yoga. To help you remember you are already free.
Portugal Impressions: Every time I come to Portugal, especially the north, I am always cradled and calmed by the sweet serene stillness and the tranquila tristeza that permeates the rocks, the whoosh of the wind and the wary rhythm of the ocean waves.
There is a gentleness and sweetness in the people here that is not found in Spain. It is English propriety softened by latin warmth and tampered by a sweet silent melancholy.
As I walked along the coast and in between streets and in and out of shops, I felt my entire nervous system take a deep breath and cleansing exhale. This sweet sadness that the portugués are so famous for is found in their folk music of Fado and the gentle attachment to the past. A attachment on display amongst old worn buildings made of unoffending pastel tiles of greens, pinks and blues, nothing too obnoxious or ostentatious-a stark contrast to the many bright and bold palates of Spain with its intricate and gothic facades.
There is almost a shyness to the way the buildings are constructed. Old and worn yet still enchanting and alluring, a timeless spirit etched not only on the buildings and streets, but also on the faces of both old fishermen and young timid men. There is a mystery to Portugal and it´s subtle expression of existence I believe is what gives it´s mystery. Even the coffee goes down smooth, in contrast to the bitter punch in the face and racing heart beat you get with your morning coffee in a Spanish café.
The wind is relentless, strong and cool-but there is a communication with Mother Nature here that touches my heart and calms my soul. I see it in the faces of the residents, the way the paths are built along natural curves rather through them with places to stop off for contemplation or rest. As I sat on one of these rest posts looking out over the sea I pondered how her location between that of the Anglo-Saxon islands of England and Ireland and that of Latin Europe, France, Spain and Itlay, along with the constant and consistent winds of the Atlantic has forced and caressed Portugal to expose and lay bare an ego that would be challenged by constant trade and interaction as well as exposure to the indominable elements of La Mar.
And so I sit here on this coast, nearing what was once believed, to be the end of world, contemplating my return after a five year absence, back home. In opening myself to the possabilities across the ocean and the chill of the Atlantic ocean, I find myself tasting just a bit of what the ancient Hindu tradition described as Kali-Ma. An energy form that is responsible for both destruction and liberation. I breathe deep and relish the scent of rock and salt and marvel and give gratitude to feel my own ego disappearing, dispersing-carried away by the ocean wind and transformed into something new and mysterious amidst Her Waters, the waters of chaos and creation.
A person can go for days without eating food a day or two without water and only a few minutes without breath. The breath is the foundation of life and without it, you die and when it is restricted, your life energy is also restricted. This is why all of the practices of Yoga center around creating more space for the breath. Asana works with posture so that can happen and Pranayama teaches us how to control the energy breath provideswhen there is correct posture.
Pranayama is composed of two different Sanskrit words. Prana, commonly interpreted as energy but has a more direct translation of nutrition and/or food, and Ama, meaning breath. Therefore, one might define Pranayma as ´breath nutrition´. Therefore, by practicing Pranayama one is practicing how to give proper oxygen nutrition the both the brain and body.
In addition to proper oxygen nutrition, Pranayma is also the practice of controlling the breath to still the mind. The quiet mind is found when the breath ceases, which this ceasing of breath is called, retention. So any pranayama must include retention. This retention is the difference between breathing Kriyas and Pranyama. Furthermore, controlling of the rhythm of the breath also calms the Chitta (mindstuff) and activates the para-sympathetic nervous system, especially when extending the exhale. This is why the extension of the exhale is used during various relaxation practices, the most obvious being the Lamaze birthing breath.
Pranayama, when correctly practiced, has a plethora of mental and physical benefits. These benefits include, but are not limited to, improved posture, digestion, respiratory and metabolic functions (due to the Bohr effect) which of course translate into improved sleep, physical fitness, mood, energy levels, complexion of skin and concentration.
Basics of Pranayama practice:
In theory practicing Pranayama is simple and straight forward. The problem is that many of us have deeply integrated, incorrect breathing and posture habits that prevent us from understanding how to practice correctly. It is recommended to find a qualified teacher who can correct and observe you in your practice before practicing on your own.
The traditional form of practicing pranayama involves sitting with a firm base. This entails the sitbones being placed on a firm surface with a 30 degree angle between lumbar spine and pelvic floor. Sitting like this helps to maintain the natural curvature of the spine. However, if hip flexibility is reduced and sitting in such a pose hurts, it is better to find comfort (Sukha) and stability (Sthira) by sitting in a chair or in supported Virasana (Hero´s Pose) with a block between the feet and under the sit bones. Avoid sitting on a soft surface as this will cause the spine to collapse and restrict breath movement.
Open Chest, Strong core:
Slightly lifting the rib cage and activating the intercostal muscles of around the rib cage and under the armpits creates more space for the lungs to move in and out in 360 degrees as well as the diaphragm to move down towards the pubic bone, thereby creating greater space for greater breath and intake of oxygen. The most helpful que I have received for becoming aware of these muscles around the ribcage is pressing the shoulder blades back in towards each other, move them down away from the ears, and then maintain that space around the clavicle bones and then push the shoulder blades out and way from each other without collapsing forward.
In combination with the open chest, it is also important to keep the bottom abdominal muscles engaged to support the lumbar spine. The breath in Pranayama is not the same breath practiced in Savasana (Corpse Pose) where the belly is completely relaxed. The belly still expands in Pranayama but with practice one will notice how the active rib cage and active abdominals increase the internal pressure of the torso and help to expand and maintain voluntary control over the breath.
Ratio of Breath:
In the beginning it is advised that the practitioner aims for a ratio of 1:1. Inhale (Puraka) equal to exhale (Rechaka). Slowly this can increase until the exhale is twice as long as the inhale. Than retention (Kumbhaka) and eventual Bandhas can be included for a ratio of 1 (Puraka): 4 (Kumbhaka): 2 (Rechaka). Move gradually. Yoga is not a discipline of force and it according to Yoga sutra it can take up to 12 years of consistent practice for one to perfect the practice of pranayama. But don´t let that discourage you from starting and experiencing the benefits of this discipline. Most practitioners notice the benefits within 3 months.
According to Hatha Yoga Pradipika these are the basic forms of Pranayama:
Surya Bedi: Inhale via right nostril and exhale via left. Associated with the sun. Left Brain. Heating breath.
Chandra Bhedana: Inhale via left nostril and exhale via right. Associated with the moon. Right Brain. Cooling breath.
Ujjayi: Slight tightening of the Glottis in the throat. That tension will create a sound as you inhale and exhale via the nose. It also automatically activates the deep core muscles and is the only pranayama that can be performed doing other activities such as walking, standing or practicing asana, which is done in Ashtanga Yoga. Breath should remain smooth and unforced.
Sitkari: Cooling breath (Great for Sevilla!!!). Spread tongue against the bottom front teeth. Open the mouth and keep teeth slightly parted, like you were smiling a big Cheshire cat grin, and breath in via the mouth and exhale via the nose.
Shitali: Similar to Sitkari. Also a cooling breath but the tongue is rolled up on both sides and breath is taken in via the small space between both sides of the tongue.
Bastrika with retention: This means ´Bellows Breath´. Like the bellows used to feed the fire of a silver smith, this breath also increases the fire within the mind and body and cleanses it of impurities. Both the exhale and inhale are active, deliberate and complete. It is different from hyperventilation since hyper ventilation involves shorter quicker breaths that are not complete and do not fill the torso cavity. At the end of each round inhale via the right nostril, retain the breath, than exhale via the left. See Kriyas about possible counter indications for this breath.
Bhramari: Bumble bee breath. This is a great breath for bring attention and focus inside and improving the immunity system. A sound like a bumble bee is made from inside of the throat (that sound you make at the end of the question, ¨eh?¨is what you want to aim for) and there is an option of closing the ears with the thumbs and placing the fingers on top of the head to increase the effect.
Murcha: Advanced practice. Retention of breath to an almost unconscious state.
Plavani: Advanced practice. Filling the stomach and lungs completely full of air to reach the visceral borders of both. Supposedly allows one to float on water…
Nadi Shoni with retention:
There is confusion between what is Nadi Shoni and Anulom Vilom. From my own studies and questions I have come to understand Nadi Shoni to be name of the breath and Anulom Vilom the technique. Nadi Shoni is a Kriya unless retention is added. When retention is added the practices goes like this:
Inhale left nostril, hold and close both nostrils, exhale through the right, than inhale through the right, retain the breath and exhale through the left than inhale through the right, retain the breath and exhale through the left. Continue the breath with the same constant rhythm/count in both nostrils and finishing by exhaling through the left. Eventually the goal is to reach a ratio of 1 (inhale):4 (retention):2 (exhale).
Recently I saw the opera Othello in the beautiful Plaza de España and I felt inspired to write the following concerning the difference between love and fear. I have seen opera once before in my life and this was the confirmation that I am not the opera type. It was good. By all means the acting and voices were amazing but my bum was numb after the first act, my leg started to twitch in the second and I was reminded again why I am such a bad movie date. But I digress.
I am currently living the philosophy (among others) that there are two motivating factors in life: Love and Fear. Everything else is just a shade and coloring of these two.
The question I now ask myself every day and with every decision I make, is which of these are driving my life decisions and actions. To help with this, it is important to know the difference between love and possession. Often times the two get confused thanks to a cultural education that paints obsessive and co-dependent relations as the idealized definition of love.
For example, Othello, a great and admired warrior and captain, lost it all because he allowed it to be planted into his head that Desmonde, his beloved and new wife, had a pre-wedding fling with his right hand man Cassidy. Jealousy consumed and eventually killed him and his innocent wife. It goes without saying that this whole story reeks of issues of domestic violence and abuse, but again, what is abuse but the lack of love? Othello confused his love for Desmonde with possession.
If he had truly loved her as a human being and not some entity to be possessed, than the jealousy never would have taken root, for jealousy is just the fear of losing someone or something to another.
Love is never lost and therefore can never be jealous.
I would venture to say that the desire to possess another is rooted in the fear of being alone. This is why so many unhealthy relationships continue on without ending or resolving. There is a fear of being alone of losing the other to another and this fear attracts more of the same fear. The result is a combination of repulsion and attraction and a relationship that appears to be somewhat scizophrenic. It is a vicious cycle that repeats itself again and again because energy moves in a circle and is never linear.The circular movement of energy is basic physics (and I am no Einstein…but this I understand). Sooner or later it comes back to the one sending it out.
The ideal of love might be what drives people to seek out relationships but often it is the emotion of fear that controls the dance. It can be fear that begins the relationship (fear of being alone) and it can be fear that terminates a relationship. For example, when a disagreement or miscommunication arises and ends a relationship. This often happens simply because somewhere in the midst of that argument the possession of some form of identity is being threatened and becomes more important than love and connection.
i.e….¨Oh it hurt your feelings that I didn´t call you when you returned home from two months abroad? Well…that is just the way I am. I like my space.´
´Just the way I am´ is a cop out for identifying with and possessing a particular behavior, and refusing to analyze it objectively when confronted about it´s negative effects. That fear kills the opportunity to heal and communicate. (In the same breath, the one hearing this reply is somehow sending out the energy required to recieve it…but that is a different post)
Biologically, fear is destructive because it creates tunnel vision whereas love allows for a universal perspective. There is a reason why Yogic Philosophy discusses cultivating a sense of universal love and calm amidst apparent stressful and hateful situations. It is the emotion of love that creates the calm corporeal reactions necessary for a much wider and all inclusive view. A wider view equates to more information and greater understanding. This greater understanding often dispels fear increases love and encourages one to understand and connect more rather than withdraw or fight, which of course, in that desire for connection and communication, increases even more the experience of love.
Do you see how that feedback loop works?
Fear creates more fear by biologically creating less vision and perspective. This then limits our ability to choose. Limiting options creates more fear as we see our escape options dwindling.
Love is the opposite. Biologically when love is felt, the ability to take in more information increases. Increasing perspective allows one to see situations and relations from many different perspectives. Multiple perspectives increase ones choice and control over any given situation.
We have a choice. We can choose positive feedback loops or negative ones.
How do we know when we are falling into a negative vs. positive feedback loop?
It is really quite simple, check your vitals. Do you feel calm and content or do you feel anxious and distracted? Scan your body. Your body is always speaking to you and helping you to understand where you are emotionally so you can take action to further the emotion or neutralize it. Your emotions are not you, but they are communicating to you via breath, heartbeat and muscle tone.
This is what Yoga teaches.
Be the observer so that you can control the observed.
Every pose is a mini laboratory helping us to notice the sensations of fear and the sensations of love. All of this is done by observing alignment of the bone, the tone of the muscle and the rhythm of the breath. As we progress in our practice those skills of observation can be taken off the mat and into real life.
Applied in real life we can take what we learn on the mat and notice how something as simple as correcting your posture in a meeting makes you feel more awake and maybe even more confident. In an argument you start to notice a clenched jaw and by the mere release of it, you find yourself relaxing into the argument and finding a solution rather than leaning into it with two upraised fists ready to defend an identity that is nothing more than a bunch of fleeting experiences and social conditioning. Noticing your breath as you stand up to speak or perform in front of others helps you to bring it under control and dissipate the fear that otherwise might twist your tongue and cause your words to stutter over each other.
Love is not such a difficult concept to grasp and is even less difficult to feel. Love is universal and always there waiting for us to stop, breathe and observe its existence. She is the most beautiful creature in the universe that is never possessed but always exists in you, in me and every being. Her universal existence and the observation of it leaves no room for fear and its fellow colors of possession and jealousy.
Yoga helps us to feel and to understand exactly which of these two concepts are driving our behaviors and it isn´t so hard to know. It just takes a moment, a breath, a simple space of observation to know which emotion is taking control. With that same moment, that same breath and space of observation we are then able to choose the current and end result (remember that feedback loop).
I decide. You decide. We each decide with each observed breath which experience we want coming back to us- Love or Fear.
In meditation today I was reminded of the Yoga of gratitude and growth. I had such a wonderful sweet and deep experience of gratitude I felt the need to share it with all those whom I have had the privilege to connect with in my life. I will never be able to codify all of the knowledge and wisdom I learned in India, but I can say that the experience has changed my life.
My time in India has changed my perspective, changed the way I move, the way I sit the way I breathe and even more incredible, how I think and how those thoughts affect the way I feel.
Every morning, as I sit in meditation, I still feel the presence of my teacher walking past. With this memory present, automatically I feel my spine lengthen and my breath deepen. I feel both the apana and prana striking and connecting. As I go into my asana practice I feel his eyes, with one eyebrow cocked, critiquing my laziness and bringing me back into the present and into the awareness of the pose.
One can never underestimate or over-value the worth of a good teacher. I feel so blessed and privileged to have had some very wonderful and incredible teachers in my life. Each one has helped to guide me along my path as I stumbled and fell over branches, rocks and my own two feet.
I am not the same person I was two months ago and I am certainly not the same person I was four years ago. Taking an even bigger jump back, I don´t even know who that scared, angry and uncertain girl was who packed up her backpack so many years ago, left her homeland and never looked back.
Reviewing the past with impartial, non-judgemental awareness always provides 20/20 vision but I have learned that doing the same in the present also provides 20/20 vision. This realization has flipped my former worldviews on their head and removed yet another covering off the inner light that burns inside. Pantanjali speaks often about how the practice of Yoga removes the layers off the candle flame of the soul. I can now feel that flame.
I feel it spinning located just below my rib cage, lifting my chest, powering my breath and moving my feet. There is a sense of courage and fearlessness combined with a calm and relaxed awareness that I cannot ever remember feeling so clearly in my life.
As I let this gratitude wash over me, I felt again the deep truth that I had to lose myself to find myself.I have spent many years lost both physically and metaphysically. (I don´t know how I ever travelled without google maps!!)
Fortunately, there were sign posts and guides along the way to point me further up my evolutionary path. I certainly could not have done it alone.
Thanks to teachers that came in the form of Yoga instructors, friends, enemies, lovers, books and travel I was moved along my evolutionary path towards the joy I always knew was supposed to be my existence.
I am still finding myself but with a sense of love and curiosity rather than one of urgency and uncertainty. I find myself speaking my truth more readily with less fear and more humor.
This switch in perspective changes everything. I know I could never have arrived to this little spot of Joy in one jump.
There were many layers of conditioning and programing I had to face and peel away so that light within could finally shine.
The process hurt, but I now know it hurt because of my own resistance to it. Whatever we resist truly does persist and in letting go of the resistance, (which as my teacher would say, ´is just the fear of death´…he loved to remind us of this) life can start to truly be lived.
So I want to say thanks to all of you who have cried, laughed and argued with me, loved me, danced with me, sweated with me (call out to all of my YogPeeth Yogis!!) and even belittled and hated me because without you I would not have kept moving and growing – and as my first teacher knows (my mom!) I am happiest when moving.
Hatha Yoga is composed of more than just asanas (postures) although the correct practice of asanas is essential to Hatha Yoga, this is only part of the complete picture. In opening the body and removing both physical and energetic blocks located in corporeal form, asana practice acts as preparation for the practices of Kriya and Pranayama.
Kriya is a word that is used to include various practices that cleanse the body from the inside out so that one can breathe better, digest better and therefore think and exist better. There are many kinds and forms of Kriya but in this entry I am going to focus upon the basics that are appropriate for most all levels.
Please note: I do not want to discourage anyone from participating and enjoying the benefits of these practices, but please find a qualified instructor to guide you through it. The breath is a very powerful mechanism of transformation, but with this power comes great responsibility the possibility of personal harm and/or danger. If too much too soon is practiced than a danger of psychological disassociation, physical fainting or even stroke (if high blood pressure is an issue) could occur.
There is a common misconception that all breathing exercises are forms of Pranayama. This misunderstanding is understandable as Prana is often translated into energy and energy is associated with breath. However, before reaching the level of Pranayama where one is able to truly feel and understand the movement of Prana throughout the body, breathing and non-breathing Kriyas that clean the respiratory and digestive tracts, should be performed and practiced.
Why is this cleaning necessary? Just visualize a pipe. If that that pipe is full of gunk it will be difficult to send air through it. However, if it is clean, than air is able to flow in and out with ease. Two of the great practices that allows this ease of air flow through the body is Asana (that supports and strengthens correct posture) and Kriyas (that clean out the air ducts of the body´s respiratory and digestive mechanism).
The following Kriyas work on the opening of the nasal passage way and the cleansing of the digestive tract so more energy (a TON of energy is dedicated towards digestion and elimination of substances from the body) can be dedicated toward maintaining correct posture and deep controlled breathing. Here is a list of the basics:
Kapal Bhati: Literally translated means ´shining skull´. It is also known as the breath of fire. This is a great practice for achieving clarity of thought and increasing heat within the body. The practice of Kapal Bhati involves an active and forceful exhale through the nose and a passive inhale through the nose. The abdominal muscles are involved and help to expel excess stagnant air so new air can enter. Keep the facial muscles relaxed. The key here is PASSIVE inhalation. Active inhalation is a different Kriya.
Bhastrika: This means ´Bellows Breath´. Like the bellows used to feed the fire of a silver smith, this breath also increases the fire within the mind and body and cleanses it of impurities. Both the exhale and inhale are active, deliberate and complete. It is different from hyperventilation since hyper ventilation involves shorter quicker breaths that are not complete and do not fill the torso cavity.
NOTE: After visiting an ayurvedic doctor I was informed that those who have a strong Pitta (fire) or Vata (air) constitution should limit their practice of both Kapal Bhati and Bhastrika as this can irritate these elements and create imbalance. On the other hand it can be very useful for Kapha types who find it hard to get moving.
Nodi Shoni: Without retention, Nadi Shoni is used to train for Pranayama and it is a way to balance both parts of the brain. If you observe your breath and close one nostril or the other, you will notice that it is easier to breathe through one or the other. Depending on the time of time we all have one side that is more dominant. The left nostril is associated with the right brain activity and the right nostril with the left brain activity. First thing in the morning and in cycles throughout the day there are times when we can breathe through both nostrils equally and therefore have equal access to the entire brain, not just one side or the other.
Practicing Nadi Shoni helps to extend that period of equilibrium between nostrils and the two halves of the brain. It is practiced by closing the right nostril, breathing in through the left, than closing the left and exhaling through the right than inhaling through the right and exhaling through the left. Continue the breath with the same constant rhythm/count in both nostrils and finishing by exhaling through the left.
Uddiyana Bandha: Bandhas are difficult to explain and really need the guidance of a teacher. With Uddiyana Bhandha the practicioner exhales completely so then they activate the deep abdominal muscles suck everything up towards the rib cage from the pelvic floor. Hold for as long as is comfortable, than release. Great all digestive problems as well as increasing lung capacity.
Nauli: Nauli is an extension of Uddiyana Bandha. With hands placed on the knees, either standing or sitting, one performs Uddiyana Bandha then by switching the body weight from one hand to the other, the abdominal wall is pushed out and the movement back and forth provides a massage to the internal organs. For this reason it is great also for digestive problems as well as menstruation issues, though it is not recommended to practice this or Uddiyana during menstruation. I leave that decision to each woman to decide according to her own intuition.
Non Breathing Kriyas:
Jala Neti: This Kriya involves using a solution of salt water (consistency of a human tear) and then using a neti pot, pouring it through one nostril and letting it drip out the other. Excess mucus is then removed.
Sutra Neti: This is also known as the gold thread and involved threading either a small rubber string or thread through the nasal passage and then pulling it out via the throat. It is complicated and again, really should be done with supervision.
Both the Sutra Neti and the Jala Neti should be done before breathing Kriyas and/or Pranayama as they both work to clean the upper respiratory tract. They also help to increase the sense of smell and taste as well as sensitivity to temperature and pressure changes. They both help with sinus problems, relaxation and increased awareness by increasing the balance and intake of breath through both nostrils.