Tag Archives: breathing

Explore the Body as Energy with Yoga Grand Master Tao Porchon-Lynch

Tao Porchon-Lynch is teaching a workshop at Strala Yoga next Saturday. She’s 91, and teaches yoga every day. Inspiring!


Explore the Body as Energy
with Yoga Grand Master Tao Porchon-Lynch

Saturday, July 24th, 2010
1:00pm – 4:00pm

$25 on-line registration
$20 in person at Strala
$30 same day (if space is available)

In this workshop with Westchester’s matriarch of yoga, you will become aware of the energy that invigorates your life. Utilizing the various breathing techniques of Pranayama you will learn how to control vital energy. By using special hand positions know as Mudras, you will be able to channel the flow of energy throughout your being. Engaging the body’s Bhandas (also known as locks), you can focus and store your energy. Through an understanding of the Chakra system you will attain a working knowledge of your body’s vital energy centers. The workshop will end with a deeply absorbing meditation.

Register online at www.stralayoga.com

Full on Breathing

I’m still chewing on an idea from yoga this morning, a delicious treat. Even better than weekend pastries.

Tara Glazier, the owner of Abhaya Yoga in Dumbo, was teaching us the concept of arm spirals. (It’s an alignment refinement she said she just figured out last week, after 10 years of practice.) We would internally rotate the arms, rounding the shoulders, to feel the width across the upper back, the spreading between the shoulder blades, and the expansion of the breath in the back of the body.

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Yoga for the Not-Totally-Self-Absorbed

Image courtesy of Flickr

It’s sometimes hard to justify a yoga class. The day-to-day challenges of life in NYC are pretty time-consuming, and the bigger picture is full of oil spills and underprivileged children and other important causes that need help. How is a full two-hour practice, or even a five-minute routine, really going to make the world a better place?

Tina Fey, for example, has “thought about yoga, even done it a couple times” but says “While it would be great to work out an hour a day, there is something inherently sort of selfish about it. I can’t do it.” [quoted on YogaDork]

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How to Cure the Hiccups!

The CureDrink from the far side of a glass of water. Eat a spoonful of sugar. Get someone to scare you. Then pour the sugar water on your friend’s head, and come here to stop your hiccups.

Hiccups are caused by a spasm of the diaphragm, the breathing muscle that runs across the base of your ribcage like a trampoline. So, to stop the hiccups you have to get the muscle to relax. You can cure them in one deep breath.

Read the whole thing on the Huffington Post: How to Cure the Hiccups!

Take a Cigarette Breath

Take a Cigarette Breath
Take a Cigarette Breath

I’ve always said that smoking is the American meditation. (Maybe the European one, too?) Taking a moment for yourself, focusing completely on your breath, noticing all the little sensations in your lungs, skin, and brain — isn’t that what meditation is all about? Yes, you could choose nicer companions than tar and ammonia. But let’s not neglect the little health routine that you’ve learned from smoking…

Read the whole thing at the Huffington Post: Take a Cigarette Breath

Magic Stress Destroyer

Joe BtfsplkYoga is full of so many tips and new habits that it’s sometimes hard to remember them all, and put them into practice in your actual day-to-day existence. But this is what we mean when we say it’s a lifestyle.

Case in point. I was really really busy a while back, and remember having something close to a panic attack as I raced up Sixth Avenue. My mind was flooded and fixated with all the things I wanted to get done; I can’t even tell you what I was physically feeling because I was so up in my head. I take that back; I was tense as a rock, and ready to cry.

Unconsciously, I started exhaling, with force, through pursed lips. It made a little sighing whisper, and made me feel better as I walked.

Two blocks later, my stress had disappeared like a cloud in the sky. I stopped, in disbelief; I was like a different person. I couldn’t understand how something so paralyzing had just floated away. The only thing I could ascribe it to was the breathing; nothing else had changed in those two blocks.

I’m not saying this is some special technique that you should memorize and practice. I’m saying these kind of practices arise naturally when you think or hear about them more and more. They become part of your person, not some outside list to which you refer.

But it is a great technique, because it’s one of the few yogic breaths you can do on the street without looking like a lunatic :)

The Blissful Spine

This came from some notes for a class I recently gave — thought I’d share.

What does Bliss feel like? Is it extreme pleasure, or is it (as Swami Satyananda Saraswati, among others, says) more accurately defined as the absence of pleasure or pain, a state beyond mere pleasure and pain, a pure merging with all that is.

So, what does this mean for our yoga practice? That yoga is not practiced to make us FEEL anything — although certainly both agony and ecstasy can be induced. It is all too tempting at times for some of us to push for a feeling (of ecstasy) and through pushing too hard, wind up in agony. The reverse can be true, too……that by enduring a bit of agony, ecstasy may come as the reward. Then again sometimes, for some of us, it’s just about feeling something, ANYTHING (see my earlier post, The Yoga Addict :).  However, this is not the true goal in asana.

The nature of the spine is to be blissful.  The nature of the spine is to be a channel for force to flow through. It is not for force to act on. THIS IS SO IMPORTANT! Sadly, so many of us are so accustomed to feelings of pain in the spine that the mere absence of pain may translate as pleasure. To be an effective channel, the spine should not be obstructed. It should not be disturbed. The spine should be supported, but not locked in a vice grip. The spine should feel free.

Of course, this is not to say that the spine does not move in yoga and in life! As we know, the spine has an incredible range of movement. Healthy mobility and healthy stability are not mutually exclusive. They always coexist. They rely on one another.

If there is an obstruction to the flow of energy through the spine, how can we remove the blockage without putting force on the spine? We utilize the breath to unclog the channel. We use the breath to access the force behind the breath — prana, chi, life-force, mojo.  This is the key: movement of the spine, whether slight or extreme, is always initiated from the inside, from a base of support and freedom.  Movement of energy through the channel of the spine  inspires the outward movement of the body, rather than forcing movement of the outer body in hopes of clearing the spine.  So, from a practical perspective, what does this mean? How do we support the spine in an authentic way, through a wide variety of movements?

Let’s first re-think the spine. What are some words we would use to describe the spine? Perhaps what comes to mind first is the skeletal spine. Which is, of course, important, but over-emphasis on this one system may lead us into a narrow experience of the spine described by words like “bony”,”fragile”, “segmented” …all of these are accurate descriptions of the spine in a sense, but they are not the whole story. The spine, like the rest of the body, is multi-dimensional. All of the body’s systems operate through movement of energy through the channel of the spine. And all of the body’s systems support one another, not just the skeleton supporting everything else.

What about the digestive system? My current yoga teacher Lisa Clark poetically refers to the digestive tract as the “serpentine spine”, and emphasizes using the digestive tract as support for the skeletal spine in asana practice. This has been incredibly effective for me in finding not just fluidity but also strength in my practice, as I learn to source strength from the dense, buoyant and moist quality that the organs offer. In fact, developmentally, the organs form before the skeleton. The spine and ribcage grow around and in response to the organs. So it makes sense to move from the organs and allow the skeleton to follow, thinking of the body as a suspension in the matrix of gravity and levity, rather than letting the organs just “hang” from the outer structure. Considering the entire digestive tract — from mouth and soft palate to the anus — as an aspect of spine is a powerful tool for rethinking the axis of the body and where movement comes from, which in turn can profoundly affect the quality and experience of movement itself.

What are some other aspects of the spine? There is the nervous system, that delicate and sensitive passageway for electrical impulses and cerebro-spinal fluid, that precious transmitter of movement from the brain to the body at large, of sensation from the rest of the body to the brain. What are the qualities of this dimension of spinal awareness? How does awareness of these qualities affect movement?

A useful exercise may be to practice a simple movement (like rolling up from uttanasana to tadasana, or good old cat/cow) initiating movement of the spine from different systems — from bones, from the jelly-like disks between the vertebrae, from the lungs, from the nervous system, from the organs, etc. To take it a step further, allow the movement to evolve carried by whatever system is being focused on. See what asanas may spontaneously arise from awareness of the different aspects of “spine”. I have found that by allowing the bony spine to be supported and “carried by” other systems, instead of trying to use the bony spine and muscles to support and “carry” the other systems, the inner channel of the spine is liberated, and energy may flow more freely, thereby inspiring further movement (or stillness).  When the spine is calm in asana and we are not distracted by extreme physical sensations, we can attune ourselves more fully to our breath and the  subtle sensations of prana  moving through sushumna, the etheric level of spine, the true “core” of the body. When the central channel of the body has been cleansed this way, gently and  from the inside, that is when the illusive feeling (or non-feeling) of Bliss is likely to spontaneously arise.  That “pure merging with all that is.” And that’s what it’s all about, right?

Class Notes on Individualized, Breath-Centered Yoga Practice

Leslie Kaminoff, owner of The Breathing Project and my current anatomy teacher, just shared some notes from his workshop at the SYTAR (Symposium for Yoga Therapy and Research) yoga conference in Los Angeles:

Some Suggestions for Individualized, Breath-Centered Yoga Practice

Finding our individual form of asana practice is something we all need to do, even the most strict Ashtangi. Our body proportions are all different, so we can’t force ourselves into our image of the pose. If your femurs have short necks, you won’t reach Lotus easily or at all. (And if you keep forcing it, you will wreck your knees.) If your spinous processes are long, your backbend will be limited to the space before they touch. Certain shapes can only be made by certain skeletons. This doesn’t mean we’re not “doing” the pose if we vary from its most popular depiction; the DIRECTION of our limbs and centers creates the space or compression that defines the asana.

This relates to one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from Leslie: work from a SPINAL perspective, not a SPATIAL perspective. The silohuette of your pose doesn’t matter; the inner relationships do. Are your vertebrae actually rotating in your twist, or are you just moving the arms and shoulders to appear more rotated? I’d say asanas are an arrangement of joints more than limbs. Work from the inside out, and let your breathing evaluate the “success” of a pose.

40 Days Without Breathing

Two-score days ago I started a little New Year’s Resolution, and guess what? Today is day 40! I did it!

“It” was a simple daily practice of Navel Lock with breath retention for 10–40 seconds. In most cases it was about twenty or twenty-five seconds; I’ve always had trouble with retentions on exhales more than inhales. Of course, I wasn’t using a metronome to count, just “Om 1, Om 2, Om 3…” like they do at Sivananda… so the actual times were who knows what. I started off doing it in bed, right after I sat up, but I felt like I had no capacity at all. Plus, I was sick for the first few days of this practice, and couldn’t breathe so well. So, after a few days I went for shower, clothing, makeup, pranayama, breakfast as my routine. (It is kind of bizarre to put on makeup before yoga, but it feels like part of my “getting dressed” bit.) This also created a nice pause if any rushing-to-get-ready feelings had built up.

This kriya/pranayama is called a Golden Nugget, one of the most powerful yoga practices (according to the excellent blog/resource Mastery of Meditation, Yoga & Zen). I did the intermediate option: one retention only, for 10–40 seconds max — although I had quite a few vinyasa classes this month that threw in this bandha practice too! So I might be disqualified. And on two mornings I forgot to practice, and did it later on the subway platform or in bed. We’ll assume that those disruptions did not affect the efficacy of the exercise (?). As for the quoted benefits:

  • “Dissolv[es] blockages (granthis) caused by emotional debris and toxin buildup in the psychic channels (nadis)” — I’ve never directly experienced the specific energy channels in the body, only the more general waves and tingles of energy or lethargy. So I can’t give a full traffic report on my blockages and channels. But I have felt more like myself lately; enlivened by spurts of real joy and actual relaxation. The lows are not so low, the highs are actually high.
  • “Tones and cleanses all the digestive organs and markedly improves the entire digestive system” — My digestion is getting better, but I’m doing some dietary changes as well. My skin looks better. I should have kept watch on my tongue, that’s a real indicator of toxins. But if this kriya is cleansing, shouldn’t I feel WORSE as the toxins come out?
  • “Works on the respiratory system and nervous system” — Not sure what “works on” implies, but I’m less nervous and more easy-going.
  • “Builds core strength and power” — Definitely. It’s helped my postural awareness too.
  • “Most importantly, its goal is to burn up unresolved emotions stored in the subconscious mind.  Steady and sincere practice of Golden Nugget Yoga Pranayama, results in a significant refinement of awareness and a calm, peaceful, silent mind capable of connecting with the Divinity that lies within.” — This has been the most pronounced or noticable change: I can meditate again. For the last six months, or even year, I’ve really struggled with my mind’s dances and dashes when I sit. It was really depressing and discouraging, because I really craved those moments of peace, and didn’t know why they had disappeared. I went back to open-eye, object-focused meditation; no luck. I tried a more regular schedule; still crazy. Group practice, solo practice; same thing. But in my Hatha class the last week or two, I’ve finally felt really at ease in the poses, and ended up in a peaceful little buzz of stillness. Credit to my teacher, too — he’s quite radiant :)

We can debate if I was “steady and sincere”; I will put forth that I felt genuine excitement to do the practice each morning. I’ve missed my pranayama routine, it really cleared my head in the mornings, and I was happy to have the inspiration to restart it. (In fact, these Golden Nuggets often led into a long round of Breath of Fire and a few rounds of Alternate Nostril Breathing.) One of the nice things about pranayama is that it doesn’t trigger my athleticism or vanity like asana sometimes does. It’s unique, mental, and wholly engaging, and in any case I’ve reached a point in my life where I think 80% effort is a lot better than 100% (and the subsequent 0%). It was a very valuable exercise to focus a practice on regularity versus quantity.

Overall, however, I’m left with a chicken-and-egg situation, because there are a lot of things going on in my life right now, so I can’t credit or blame individual factors with any degree of certainty. In the last two months, I ended a long relationship, I started talking to a therapist, I turned 30, and I finished a big job  — all these things affected my habits and health. Did the kriya inspire some of these events, or did the events actually cause the above benefits? This is one of my continual confusions with yoga; it’s not a black-and-white science, and none of us are isolated laboratory subjects. It’s empirical, holistic, and slow; you have to get a big-picture perspective of yourself over time. A steady practice works you like water in canyons — the current is most eye-catching, but years later what’s dramatic is the epic change.

The image that keeps coming to mind is from the Scientific American piece on rapid thinking: “even brief periods of heightened mood can lead to upward spirals.” This pranayama practice was part of an upward spiral… or the bellows beneath the whole great contraption.