An Eclipse: Hatha Yoga, Sun & Moon

Hatha means sun and moon.
Photo credit: August 21, 2017, original eclipse photo by Lindsey Blum, Farmington, Missouri, as profiled by SkyandTelescope.com

The Great American Eclipse viewable from Oregon to South Carolina happened on Monday, August 21, 2017. I was fortunate to view the path of totality in Madisonville, TN. The sun caught up with the moon and became eclipsed. I was reminded of “Hatha” and the sanskrit meaning of Hatha Yoga.

Several interpretations exist for the word Hatha. Yoganand (Michael Carroll) the dean of the Kripalu School of Yoga explains that the ancient meaning had a forceful or violent connotation. Not the act of yoga, but the effect of yoga. In ancient India where yoga originated, the sun and moon represented a cycle. The hot, dry season of the sun withered the plants. The lunar cycle of the moon ushered in the monsoon season.The belief was the moon brought the rain, a replenishing and rejuvenation force.

Here in Tampa we’ve definitely felt the effects of THA in Hatha. Rain falls daily. And therefore we yearn for cool, dry days in fall. It’s been very HA HA HOT! Like watching the weather, we often watch for signs of change. Change comes with the lunar cycle of a full moon and a new moon, and planetary cycles such as Mercury in retrograde.

The 2017 eclipse was a reminder of traditional Hatha yoga. Hatha is the balance of earth and moon. Yoga “yokes” sun and moon together. The eclipse was a dramatic example of the sun and moon cycle. We are “yoked” in a universe of social, political and psychological cycles. Hatha Yoga asks us to stand in balance of opposing forces.

As for Hatha Yoga, Yoganand speaks of the other interpretation of yoga. The other sanskrit translation describes the forceful nature of yoga. Yoganand asks what kind of force would it take to pull the sun and the moon apart? In this interpretation Hatha is used to define a process so radical, so forceful, and so profound. Hatha Yoga is a force of nature known to balance the obstacles of the past with building blocks for the future. It is the sun and the moon, and the powerful relationship with us here on earth.

In this season between HA and THA, it is time to examine the cycles of our own lives. The cycles that we create for ourselves and others, and those we get drawn into. The eight limbs of yoga provide the powerful force needed to correct that trajectory. Practicing Hatha Yoga is a journey around the sun, under the watchful eye of the moon. The eight limbs of yoga are the roadmap and the road, the direction and the destination. Namaste.

 

Ahimsa in an aggressive world

The Yamas are five moral codes and the first guides of the 8 Limbs of Yoga. Ahimsa is the first of the five Yamas. The word Himsa is translated as violence. The addition of an “A” changes himsa (violence) to no violence or non-violence. So the short meaning of Ahimsa is non-violence, an instruction to live in a non-violent manner.

Ahimsa may be the most important of the Yamas. This is because the other four Yamas hinge on this first guide. After all, if we practice Ahimsa the result is a smoother journey with the other Yamas. It may make us more truthful (Satya), avoid stealing (Asetya), reduce excess (Brahmacharya), and be less possessive (Aparigraha).

Ahimsa is never Going all Jack Nicholson on your fellow driver
Is “going all Jack Nicholson” with a golf club in a road rage more violent than other harmful actions?

Today we live in a very aggressive world. Being a little forceful here or acting out a little road rage there probably would not be seen as violent. It is easy to claim that we are not violent and that we practice Ahimsa because violence is such a strong word. Laying on the horn because someone cut us off doesn’t seem as “violent” as going all Jack Nicholson on someone’s windshield in a road rage with a golf club.

The lines become more blurred when we examine the concept of Ahimsa. What our society considers a “normal reaction to stress” becomes indistinguishable from true anger, violence and aversion. Anger, rudeness, disrespect and personal attacks become commonplace. Our harmful words and actions become normalized.

When we examine the aggressive nature of our culture it is harder to parse out simple ugliness and full blown violence. The “I win and you lose” is a tenet of everything from sports to capitalism. We end up in the danger zone of harm to others, as well harm to ourselves.

Ahimsa in a larger, social context asks us to do no harm. That automatically broadens the definition to include others, ourselves, and everything in our world. Non-violence becomes less tolerant of all harm. Ahimsa asks us to consider others and ourselves before taking any action that might cause harm. Ahimsa sheds light on how we individually create an increasingly violent, aggressive world. Practicing Ahimsa helps us change it.

Asteya and the many ways to steal

Do you steal? If you don’t steal, what does stealing mean to you? If you do steal, is there any difference between stealing something big and valuable (like a car) versus stealing something small and seemingly inconsequential (like paperclips at work)? What is ownership and are there moral rights around ownership? What can be “owned?”

Let’s explore the idea of taking something that does not belong to you from the perspective of yoga and the yogic path. Asetya, or non-stealing is the third of five Yamas. The Yamas are the moral codes set down as part of the yogic path. The path of yoga is spelled out in the Eight Limbs of Yoga.

Asetya, or the idea that you should not steal from others is a moral cornerstone found in many major religions. For Christians it shows up as either the 7th or the 8th commandment, appropriately sandwiched between adultery and bearing false witness.

There are many cultural examples of rule making among humans for defining socially acceptable, honorable ways of living. Rules for right living often address a specific need that is tied to a social context within a historical time and place. For example many Jewish traditions around food selection and food preparation have a rich historical context for healthy living.

Asetya is not bound by time and place. It is a direct, clearly translated order that can be found in cultures the world over. Do not take something that does not belong to you. And, of course there is a flip side. Here’s a discussion around acceptable and even honorable stealing to accomplish diversity, peace and other social goals.

The idea of stealing also shares wide and nebulous boundaries with i’s closely related cousin: lying. Ask a group of people to discuss what constitutes stealing or to debate the merits of lying to help someone versus telling the honest-to-God-truth, and you’re guaranteed to generate a heated discussion! Stealing and lying fall into the foggy zone of “it depends.”

Back to Asetya! Asetya, non-stealing. Or defined further as “the abstinence, in one’s deeds or words or thoughts, from unauthorized appropriation of things of value from another human being”. From the depths of the foggy zone of “it depends,” arises a broad definition to include the idea of value. Value might be in the eye of the beholder or in the eye of the possessor. How do we decide what has value enough for the individual?

What do you find valuable? Is it your possessions? Your home? Your time? Knowledge you have gained that others may “spirit away” in a manner that makes you feel cheated, violated or stolen from? Maybe Asetya should be viewed from the other person’s perspective. Stealing might be decided as the taking of something that another person perceives as valuable. It may not be something that you perceive as valuable. The recognition of how someone else feels could be a guiding factor.

Maybe we should be “unauthorized” to appropriate things of value from another person. This idea certainly takes the “me” out of the equation. Stealing is not about “me.” Stealing is about the other person’s value system. Stealing is about taking something viewed as valuable from someone else. Otherwise, we could just ask permission . . . could I please have a cutting off your beautiful plumeria plant?

Many of the Yama’s pose important questions of morality that we can use as a starting point of inquiry.

 

 

 

Svadhyaya and Swami Kripalu 

The first time I heard the word “Svadhyaya” I immediately thought of “The Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood,” the 1996 book by Rebecca Wells that was turned into a movie in 2002. It seemed a natural leap, a reasonable thought progression . . . Svad-h-ya-ya. It was that YaYa part that swept over me like a wild banshee cry.

But of course, Svadhyaya has next to nothing to do with the YaYa Sisterhood. Unless you consider the book’s plot line that “the tangled beauty of imperfect love, and the fact that forgiveness, more than understanding, is often what the heart longs for,”  ties into the self-study that is Svahyaya. That’s a lot of self-examination for a southern tale, and may not be that far off for the YaYa Sisterhood!

In yoga, Svadhyaya is one of the five Niyamas (there’s a YA in there!), along with Saucha, Santosha, Tapas and Ishvara-Pranidhana. And the Niyamas are one of the eight limbs of yoga. I hope you’re keeping count of all these numbered items for which yoga and many oral traditions are famous! A lot of YAs being laid down too.

The short description for the yogic practice of Svadhyaya is that of self-study. A book that is better suited to the “YaYa’s” of yoga, and one that is all about self-study is “Pilgrim of Love, The Life and Teachings of Swami Kripalu,” compiled and edited by Atma Jo Ann Levitt. It begins with the epigraph, “To pilgrims of every path, and especially those willing to be fools for love.” This path to love is very serious and is far from foolish.

Pilgrim of Love. The Life and Teachings of Swami KripaluPilgrim of Love teaches us much about Swami Kripalu, whose name was given to the Kripalu Ashrams in Pennyslvania where he taught yoga from 1977 to 1981. (In 1983 the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health continued the legacy in Stockbridge, MA, its current location). Swami Kripalu followed the path of Kundalini yoga, a branch of yoga sometimes referred to as the yoga of awareness.

In this book’s deep dive into the life and teaching of Swami Kripalu, there are many lessons for the study of yoga and yogic philosophy. The chapter on “My Guidance to Disciples,” he shares the message given to him by his teacher Gurudev. It is a series of 14 guidelines meant as a summary for yoga Sadhana. As with many of Swami Kripalu’s teachings, the guidelines are not for casual yoga participants, is intended for serious yoga practitioners, and goes well beyond the yoga postures that dominate western yoga.

The guidelines start with something common to most spiritual practices, “#1. Love all living beings, do not hate anyone.” And end with #14. Read this guide every Thursday. Guides 2-13 range from the pleasant to extremely difficult. Like #7. If possible, take cold baths three times a day (… to maintain purity and piety of the body. Never sleep during the day, and so on), to the much more difficult #5. Initiates should have one pure and moderate meal a day with milk in the morning and evening. Do not eat meat. Do note use liquor, marijuana, tobacco, coffee, tea, or other stimulants. Ok. Cold shower. No coffee. I got this. Not. Even. Close.

One must stand in complete deference to a gifted teacher guiding us to “cross the ocean of samskaras and attain the supreme love of God.” We should not expect that a commodified life of sloth and torpor to usher us to the gates of Heaven, or to send us into immediate Samadhi!

Swami Kripalu’s guide relating to Svadhyaya is #12. As a source of self-study, contemplate the meaning of Shri Gnaneshvar’s Bhagavad Gita. Memorize lines 54 to 72 of the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. Chapters 12, 15, and 16 should also be memorized and recited every day. Recite Brahmacharya Bhavani (treatise on celibacy) every morning. Practice bhajans, and read and contemplate good books everyday. Never stop listening to the messages of pious saints.”

The second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita is about the Practice of Yoga and lines 54-72 are all about giving up attachments and investments in both craving and aversion. And the other Chapters 12, 15 and 16 respectively are titled in various translations as The Yoga of Devotion, The Ultimate Person, and Three Kinds of Faith. Memorizing and reading these passages everyday would certainly give one food for thought. Turning the spotlight inward with these passages is a lesson in self-study to examine our behavior in greater detail.

For all you Yogic YaYas out there, the following are a few links to other blogs discussing the Niyamas and Svadhyaya!

https://kripalu.org/resources/yoga-s-ethical-guide-living-yamas-and-niyamas
https://www.ekhartyoga.com/articles/the-niyamas-svadhyaya-or-self-study
http://www.expressionsofspirit.com/yoga/eight-limbs.htm

 

International Day of Yoga – Wednesday, June 21

June 21
International Day of Yoga, June 21

What will you be doing on Wednesday, June 21, 2017?
Since June 21 is the International Day of Yoga, take a yoga class. Or participate in a yoga-inspired event. It seems like the best idea is to check out the local yoga studios in Tampa. So that definitely includes yoga classes at Take Me To The River Yoga Studio! Celebrate International Day of Yoga with us. We will have our regular Wednesday classes (10:00-11:15 am and 7:00-8:15 pm).

Which Mudra for this day?
On International Yoga Day we will be practicing Prithivi Mudra, gesture of the Earth. There are several reasons for the choice for this mudra, aside from the obvious! Prithivi means “Earth.” This mudra directs our breath and awareness down through the body for a feeling of being more grounded. Grounding to our Earth in yoga and mudra practice helps us feel stable, secure and safe. It sends the message to our body that we are grounded.

When we are grounded we are better able to inhabit our bodies and connect with our natural world. It is important to love, honor and ground into the Earth right now. It is important to remember how our beautiful Earth supports us. We thrive because our Earth creates a most awesome experience for all Earthlings. We must protect our Earth and tie ourselves closer to its power. We must share in protecting our planet to preserve our own existence. It’s that important!

More about I Day of Yoga
The UN General Assembly declared June 21st as the International Day of Yoga in 2014. The idea began at the suggestion of the Honorable Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi. He addressed the assembly saying, “Yoga is an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature.”

 

Two Beautiful Candle Poses

Candle PoseThis is a strange yoga alignment story. The image above may seem like an odd conjunction. But for me, it seemed a perfect match. Two candles. Both posing. Maybe I should back up and explain!

Earlier this week I was walking my dog and came upon a Night Blooming Cactus in a pose of full expression. I’ve seen these flowers many times. They grow on the large oak tree trunks in my Tampa neighborhood in Florida. Curious and wanting to know more that day, I looked it up. Listen to this: it blooms once a year on one night only! Its botanical name is Selenicereus Grandiflora. Let’s break down that Latin like Sanskrit: Greek Moon Goddess (Selene), Latin word for candle (Cereus), large flower (Grandiflora). My mind takes a yogic leap. It’s a Candle. A Candle Pose.

Maybe I’ve found my edge and this Grandiflora alignment is really over stretching! Who would would expect to answer this analogy correctly on an exam: Iyengar in candle pose is to Night Blooming Cactus as down dog is to cat stretch. Anyway, the idea was sticky as a yoga mat to me!

Now, when I go into shoulder stand, I’ll start thinking about candles. Then as I lower down into plow I’ll begin to feel some odd resemblance to a melting candle. Some moments later I’ll realize that my mind has started to wander. I’ll bring myself back to the present moment, focus on my breathing, inhale deeply and exhale slowly …. as I blow the candle out!

 

Prithivi mudra – Gesture of the Earth

Prithivi MudraThe word Prithivi (or Prithvi) means “Earth.” And Prithivi mudra is related to the Earth elements. When we work with the Earth elements it helps us to reduce the influence of Agni, the Fire elements. More balanced energies restore equilibrium to the physical body. Prithivi mudra supports this balance and promotes a sense of being more grounded.

When we are grounded we calm down and can begin to feel more in touch with our bodies. Being grounded allows us to feel safe, secure, and stable. The Prithivi mudra is practiced to bring us into a greater connection with our physical bodies. So, in seated postures for Prithivi Mudra we send attention to our breath and to our seat. Grounding into the Earth, sending attention to our breath and root chakra, gives us the experience of greater harmony. With this harmony comes strong support to the physical structure of the body.

There are many claims made about the benefits of Prithivi mudra. Probably the best way to prove this out is to DO Prithivi mudra. Suggestions vary as to how long and how frequently one should practice a mudra. Like most things, it depends! And it depends on you. When practiced regularly, this mudra can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and improve eliminatory health.

Here’s how

Like meditation, mudras are best practiced for several minutes every day in a comfortable seated position. In fact, mudras and meditation go together like a hand in a glove! Find a comfortable seated position. Position your hands in Prithivi mudra. Sit up tall. Roll your shoulders back and down. Begin to focus on your breath, inhaling deeply, exhaling slowly. Bring your attention to the base of your spine. Visual rooting yourself into the Earth. If your mind wanders bring its attention back to how your body is breathing. Quiet down. Go inside.

Practice in class and at home

In yoga class at Take Me To The River Yoga Studio we practice different types of mudras. Unfortunately most yoga classes are not long enough to give special attention to any one mudra. So the best approach is to come to class and learn different mudras. Then, go home and try them out!

 

Yoga & Psychotherapy – a book review

The Yoga Therapy program offered at Kripalu Yoga Center for Yoga and Health suggests a number of books as both required and suggested reading in preparation for advanced training in yoga therapy. I poured through the course descriptions and scooped up a list of those reading materials, thinking that I may need a considerable amount of reading time to complete the program. I offer up a summary of one of those books from the list.

Yoga and Psychotherapy: The Evolution of Consciousness is written by Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, MD, and Swami Ajaya, PhD. It was published in 2014 by Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy of the U.S.A.® and weights in at just over 225 pages, with additional pages for Preface, Appendix, and References and Notes.

My copy will be unsuitable for re-sale now because of the excessive underlining of passages throughout the text! I felt compelled to draw little symbols and pictures in the margins and circle the many names of experts mentioned. At several points in the reading, I found myself re-reading several sections while doing a combination of day dreaming, soul searching, and contemplation. The introspection that is prompted by reading any kind of psychology reduces my reading speed to slower than half time. And even more so than in astrology, I find myself looking to see if I can diagnose either my own psychosis or relax in the recognition of normal behavior.

The common theme throughout is the comparison of Western Psychology and Eastern Yogic Psychology. The authors use extensive references to many of the major players in traditional psychology from the west, such as Freud, Maslow, Erikson, James, and most extensively quotes and references to the work of Carl Jung.

The text continues a very light compare and contrast approach that seemed to work hard to provide a balanced discussion. At times the book gives such deference to western psychology that it makes yogic psychology seem less than a serious science.

The second key theme to the book is the idea of the yogic path as being a “growth” process. In western psychology this is usually referred to as a process to “cure” an illness, or address some negative expression of the personality. With exception of true psychosis, eastern psychology looks at the individual’s personality as a work in progress or a move to growing in spiritual awareness. By describing the yogi as either growing or not growing we are able to realize that the path is not always a linear move toward pure consciousness. The psychology of being human can be related as normal, natural and growing toward the constant goal of awareness from the gross to the subtle.

To grow or to move toward consciousness from a yogic perspective, involves following a path that follows what the ancient texts describe as sheaths, or koshas. The book is divided in to chapters that discuss the five sheaths, each describing an aspect of what it means to live within the human existence (the physical body, the energy within the body, the sense organs, the intellect, and the true soul). In the deepest depths of the five sheaths is pure consciousness. The sheaths provide a framework for exploration and discussion of the whole being, and a complete system of therapy.

The “causes of misery,” or the situations in life that prevent growth and cause us mental anguish are the five categories referred to as “kleshas” in the yogic tradition. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras these are the causes of fear, anxiety and depression. The kleshas keep us from realizing our capacity for higher consciousness. They are:

  1. Ignorance
  2. Limited self concept
  3. Attachment
  4. Aversion
  5. Fear of death

After an interesting exploration into the body, breath and energy, the mind (manas, chitta and ahankara), consciousness, sleep (my favorite chapter!), the last sections of the book deal with psychosis, mysticism and the centers of consciousness. In the final analysis the authors are making a very strong case that “yoga offers to modern psychology the possibility of integration.” They explain that modern western psychology has done a superb job of scientific and laboratory study of behavior but that it remains fragmented, and has not pulled together the theories and techniques needed for real health and growth. Calling psychotherapy “uncoordinated and scattered” as compared to the benefits to be learned from a different culture working on the same areas of humanness. The book closes with an analogy as to how Arabic numerals provided a path to Western mathematics in a way that Roman numerals never could have made possible.

Yoga Therapy Reading List

Are you looking for suggestions for good Yoga books for healing and the health benefits of yoga? Here’s a good place to start! This is a partial reading list compiled from the 800-hour professional yoga therapist program offered at the Kripalu Yoga for Center and Health included in the Integrative Yoga Therapy teaching program at Kripalu. The IYT teaching program is a time-honored yoga therapy training program offered by Joseph and Lilian LePage, that is now a part of the Kripalu yoga therapy teaching curriculum.

The Yoga Therapy program at Kripalu has eight modules. The reading list is broken down by required and suggested reading for the modules.

Module 4 – Yoga Therapy Applied in Medical Settings

Required Reading:

Larry Payne Ph.D., Terra Gold M.A.LAc., Eden Goldman D.C., Yoga Therapy and Integrative Medicine: Where Ancient Science Meets Modern Medicine

Recommended Reading:

Swami Shankardevananda, The Effects of Yoga on Hypertension
Swami Yogapratap, Exploring Yoga & Cancer
Swami Muktananda, Nawa Yogini Tantra: Yoga for Women
Swami Shankardevananda, Practices of Yoga for the Digestive System
Swami Satyananada Saraswati and Swami Karmananda Saraswati, Yoga and Cardiovascular Management
Swami Shankardevananda, Yogic Management of Asthma and Diabetes
Swami Nirmalananda, Yogic Management Of Cancer

Module 5 – Yoga Therapy Applications Within the Mental Health Field

Required Reading:

Robert Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

Recommended Reading:

Frances Vaughan, Shadows of the Sacred: Seeing Through Spiritual Illusions
Swami Rama et al, Yoga and Psychotherapy: The Evolution of Consciousness
Amy Weintraub, Yoga for Depression: A Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering Through Yoga
Bo Forbes, Yoga for Emotional Balance
Richard Miller, Yoga Nidra: A Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Healing

Module 7 – Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha and Kriya applied in Yoga Therapy

Required Reading:

Joseph and Lilian Page, Mudras for Healing and Transformation

HRV and Yoga: Heart Rate Variability Training

Sympathetic_Nervous_System
Sympathetic Nervous System – Illustration from OpenStax College – Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions Web site

Science and Heart Rate Variability (HRV) helps to quantify the effects of yoga and meditation. Yogis have had this heart intelligence for thousands of years. Yoga works. Now we can prove the effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Like a checks and balances system, the autonomic nervous system helps the body regulate itself. The “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system and the “digest and rest” parasympathetic nervous system work in tandem. If they become unbalanced for long periods of time it can lead to dis-ease. We can keep tabs on the ANS system using HRV readings to track the positive, balancing effects of a regular yoga practice over time.

Heart Rate Variability is a calculation of the miniscule changes in the heart rate from beat to beat. It turns out that what happens between the individual beats is a more accurate gauge of heart heath than measuring your average heart rate at the doctor’s office a few times a year. We now have several ways for self-tracking to measure both heart rate and HRV activity. Inexpensive tools that are available to individual yoga practitioners, yoga teachers and yoga therapists. Before now equipment used by medical professionals in a hospital or doctor’s office were cost prohibitive for personal use. Low cost, professional-level accuracy and ease of use bring personal health monitoring to your smartphone, tablet or computer.

This is good news for the yoga community. We can determine baseline heart rates and heart rate variability for an individual yoga practitioner. The effects of a HRV-focused yoga practice can be compared to the baseline and measured over time. Yoga works. Let’s prove it! It is true that yoga takes a holistic approach to health. And it is true that HRV is established by the body holistically by circadian rhythms, metabolism and core body temperature. It does not take a huge leap to see how heart rate variability training coupled with a yoga practice will improve overall health. Yoga and meditation are by nature and tradition a heart healthy practice. The anecdotal evidence suggests that yoga, meditation, and pranayama improves sleep, aids digestion, reduces stress, regulates the heart and can bring the heart and mind into coherence. Heart Rate Variability is our way to quantify the age-old claims of yoga’s ability to improve overall health.

June 21 – International Day of Yoga

InternationalDayOfYogaLogoIn 2014 the prime minster of India, Shri Narendra Modi spoke before the United Nations and called for setting aside a day as “International Day of Yoga.” The date is June 21 and is celebrated all over the world with inspired yoga studios and yoga teachers everywhere celebrating the practice of yoga. Many studios offer free yoga classes and other special events to mark the importance of the practice of yoga in their communities.

Resources to learn more about yoga and International Day of Yoga can be found on the government of India’s page on International Day of Yoga. Particularly helpful is the 44 page pdf document “Common Yoga Protocol” that can also be viewed online as an interactive “flip book.”  The document gives extensive explanations on what yoga is, several pages on asanas, details on pranayama, references to the eight limbs of yoga, health benefits and more.

“Yoga is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with ourselves, the world and Nature. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us to deal with climate change. Let us work towards adopting an International Yoga Day.” – Shri Narendra Modi

InternationalDayOfYogaAsanaRead through the Common Yoga Protocol document and check out the section on asanas. Each asana is clickable to a window that pops us listing the steps of the posture and a  link to a video on how to practice the posture. It is interesting that each asana video comes from a different source. The different videos truly represent yoga in the modern world where we experience a wide range of yoga styles and many different teachers that use both traditional and unique approaches to the postures and to the sharing the practice in a yoga class.

This is why we plank

In the 2014 Guinness Book of World Records Mao Weidong from China took home the proverbial gold for holding plank. He held a four hour and 26 minute planking amazing posture that surpassed the previous record by more than an hour. Sometimes in yoga class the heavy breathing and groaning starts a mere 30 seconds into a plank hold. This is why we plank: to build core strength. Holding plank is an effective way to build core strength because it requires engaging several muscles to hold the pose.

plank-muscles-worked2

A relative few have considered the 30 day plank challenge, posting only a half gazillion photos on the web and an equal number of 30 day plank challenge charts to help either track progress or possibly instill a 30 day guilt trip. The 30 day plank challenge doesn’t make the top 5 in the 30 day google search, being surpassed by squats, abs, the generic 30 day challenge (lumping butts, chest, arm, cardio and even Christmas), squat challenge results and the fitness challenge.

30DayChallengesMany asanas in yoga require a strong core to properly get into and hold the pose long enough to realize benefit. A weak core can result in injury and soreness in yoga practitioners who push beyond their core strength. This why we plank: to have enough strength to progress in our yoga practice. The yogi must engage the abdominal muscles to get in the pose. Holding  plank pose properly begins to have an immediate strength improvement pay off, unlike some of the more passive asanas that do not require much strength. The muscles in the shoulder must engage to hold the torso in place. Dr. Ray Long from Bandha Yoga uses the term “co-activation” to describe similar muscle engagement of the gluts and abs in chaturanga dandasana. He goes on to describe the benefits of co-activation, or engaging the gluts and abs as a way strengthen the core.

“As we evolved from quadrupeds (walking on all fours) to erect bipeds, the spine has transitioned from a suspension bridge type of structure, using tension/compression relationships, to a weight-bearing column. This change exposes the various structures of the spine to different potential stresses. For example, the “sway back” position results from a weak abdominal core. For this reason, back rehabilitation programs always incorporate abdominal strengthening exercises. In other words, conditioning the front helps to protect the back.” – Dr. Ray Long, The Daily Bandha blog and Bandha Yoga: Scientific Keys to Unlock Yoga Practice.

This is why we plank: the front helps to protect the back. The combination of a strong back and a strong core helps to reduce the stress placed on our spine. Strengthening the core is a key element to improving our yoga practice. Yoga asks us to dive into our energy body, to become focused and knowledgeable on ways to improve strength, balance and flexibility. This is why we plank.

 

 

 

 

 

Shoulder yoga therapy

Shoulder yoga therapy is important because we hold a lot of tension in our shoulders. We may also experience pain in the shoulders and down the fronts of the arms due to improperly engaging the shoulder and surrounding muscles in postures such as chaturanga dandasana.

In yoga class we are often given the queue for dandasana (mountain pose) to lift the shoulders, roll them onto the back and keep them slightly back and slightly down. For chaturanga dandasana different instructions are needed to provide shoulder yoga therapy because we are supporting the body using the arms and hands.

Repetitive action in other physical activities can cause or add to muscle soreness in the shoulders or along the fronts of the arms. If we add improper shoulder alignment during our yoga practice we may compound the problem. Rotator cuff injuries, upper back soreness and tightness of the shoulders all may benefit from shoulder yoga therapy.

In this article, “How to Avoid Shoulder Injuries in Chaturanga and Plank” by Doug Keller on the Yoga International website, the author explains how we often draw the shoulders forward too much and strain the pectoral muscles in chaturanga. A few well-illustrated exercises are provided that guide the yoga practitioner to activate the muscles around the shoulders and upper body.

Chaturanga Dandasana image from the article by Yoga International, How to Avoid Shoulder Injuries in Chaturanga and Plank
Chaturanga Dandasana image from the article by Yoga International, How to Avoid Shoulder Injuries in Chaturanga and Plank

Many yoga teachers who work with correct asana form will often remind us that we tend to bring our bad posture habits to our yoga mats. We may suffer pain and sometimes injury by continuing to shift load improperly to muscles and muscle groups. Remember to bring body awareness to your yoga practice, watch for signs of pain and discomfort and learn what adjustments you need to make in your own, individual body. Your physique is unique! And your spine is divine. Namaste!

More Yoga Playlists

RauryGodsWhisperMusic sets the mood in just about every situation and it can certainly set the tone for a yoga class. There are as many ways to use music in a yoga class as there are asanas to warm up, build heat, cool down and end in Savasana. The choice to use music ranges from providing background sound to fill in or cover up the sound of heavy breathing, feet slapping the mat, or the sound of puffing and groaning. But music can also begin to move practitioners from posture to posture, touching personal chords that may involve a history with a particular song or a syncopation that rings with emotional frequency.

For yoga practice, my personal preference is to choose a playlist that moves along the lines of the classic yoga class structure starting with centering on the mat. For the playlist below I start the class with the magical, ice-tinkling sound from Bjork. “Frosti” is like a switched on version of the miniature child’s piano. We then move on to ambient house music and then “Strange Overtones” by David Byrne, taking the class into the first stages of warming up. By the time the class is into 16 or 17 minutes it seems just right to rip into Led Zepplein’s “Ramble On” as we begin moving the body into a spiraling, kundalini awakening. Hands clasped overhead, tracing the ceiling with circles and rotating the hips into a first chakra wake up call. Toning it down a bit, after all THAT excitement we move onto “The Seven Souls,” a far out rendition by Material that mashes up the unlikely combination of spoken word by William S. Burroughs and The Notorious B.I.G. backup singers doing the chorus “God save our souls…” At this point we’re a mere 30 minutes into class as Raury, the amazing 18 year old Indigo child from Atlanta sings “God’s Whisper.” Oh, my.

From here, it’s the Black Keys, Kailasa, music from Mali, a touch of Alicia Keys, some melodic Storyhill, back to some ambient chill stuff from Paul Van Dyk, some mystical, groovy Stoppa & Nobby and then grounding down/winding down the class with yoga’s anti-message from Orbital, “Attached.” The whole thing wraps up to a fine finish with Suphala in KCRW’s Jason Bentley remixing of something he calls “Piscean Dreamer.” And it’s off to Savasana we go!

Here’s the playlist. Be sure to check out the links below to sound versions of all of these songs.

YogaMusicTakeMeToTheRiverYoga8

 

If you’d like to sample some of these tracks, listen to them here on soundcloud and youtube (many of these are remixes, personal renditions by fans and are a bit different than the originals, but you’ll get the drift!):

Frosti, Bjork
Saratoga, Ultramarine
Strange Overtones, David Byrne
Happy Day, Talking Heads
Ramble On, Led Zeppelin
The Seven Souls (featuring William S. Burroughs), Material
God’s Whisper, Raury
In Time, The Black Keys
Guru Ghantal, Kailasa
Niger, Mali Music
Lovin U, Alicia Keys
Paradise Lost, Storyhill
Nothing But You, Paul Van Dyk
Sweet Lassi Dub, Stoppa & Nobby
Attached, Orbital
Piscean Dreamer, Suphala

Music credits go to all the artists mentioned in this post. I have purchased each and every one of these songs, along with thousands of other recordings by these artists and others that I have in my personal music collection. I recommend that you support musical artists by actually buying their music, talking about their music with your friends and supporting local and international musicians by going to their concerts and purchasing their music. Music makes a difference!

Dr. Ray Long comes to Tampa Bay

RayLongYogaAnatomyBookCoverDr. Ray Long, MD FRCSC (FRCSC is the designation for Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Canada) will visit the Tampa Bay area November 7, 8, 9 for an event sponsored by the Suncoast Yoga Teacher’s Association. The multimedia workshop titled “Anatomic Yoga,” will be a great opportunity for yoga teachers and yoga practitioners in Tampa and the surrounding area to get under the skin of the yoga asanas through an intensive peek at anatomy.

The author of several books on yoga anatomy, Ray Long is a board certified orthopedic surgeon who has studied hatha yoga for over two decades and has trained with several yoga masters including B.K.S. Iyengar. His distinctive books are immediately recognizable for the fabulous illustrations by Chris Macivor.

Learn more about yoga anatomy and the work of Ray Long on his website, blog and his “muscle of the week” on Facebook.

Website: BandhaYoga.com

Blog: DailyBandha.com

Facebook: Bandha Yoga – The Scientific Keys

“Grow” your brain with yoga and meditation

hippocampusIf you’ve ever been on an elevator for nearly ten minutes you’ll appreciate the speed with which neuroscientist Dr. Sara Lazar gives one of the best “elevator speeches” on a complicated topic. She became interested in how yoga and meditation might effect the brain.

The following is an eight minute, high speed run down on some of her work. This is a TEDx event filmed in Cambridge, MA in 2011 where she explains the benefits of yoga and meditation in terms that are easy to understand and amazing to comprehend. In her research she has found that the size of some of the regions in our brain change with yoga and meditation and that the physical change is a thickening of our grey matter:

A link to the TEDx video: How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains, Sara Lazar

Background to her work, the research team and their approach: https://www.nmr.mgh.harvard.edu/~lazar/

Science continues to show the benefits of how by changing our thoughts we can literally change our minds. Neuroplasticity is a modern term that demystifies what may have been considered a fuzzy, fluffy “story” that yoga and meditation practitioners have been telling for centuries. A person can actually change the size, shape and condition of their brain by thinking thoughts – both good and bad.

Read more about the effects of meditation and yoga on trauma and neuroplasticity.

Trauma and being present in the body

The energy body is more than a metaphor used to describe the activity we associate with the concepts of the chakras and prana. Western science and Eastern philosophy merge with the phrase “energy body,” to refer to the actual, physical reactions to external stimulus. The brains of people who suffer from various levels of trauma exhibit a wide range of physical reactions that can be described as a disconnect with their bodies and are often marked by the inability to be “present” in a way that allows clear focus and concentration.

Trauma, like many complicated ailments that appear as a wide spectrum, is easier to spot in their extreme expression. Recent studies into PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) are a good illustration of trauma in the extreme because the experiences of people who suffer from PTSD are cut in such stark relief against those who experience mild depression or the stress of everyday life. PTSD can be looked at as  over-the-top trauma that is so extreme as to be  paralyzing in every way: socially, psychologically, physically, emotionally, etc.

It is with great interest to bring together a discussion of two ends of the spectrum – the extremes of either being present in the body or being unable to be present. What are the physical, chemical, energy body reactions that pull us between these opposite poles of being in the world?

Every moment of our lives is characterized by our physical reaction to the world around us. As it turns out (surprise!) we are primarily operating from the emotions and the physical response to our environment. It is a secondary response when we act from our brains logical response to emotional stimulus.

The following article by Bessel A. Van der Kolk, a psychiatrist from Boston University who speaks and writes on the topic of PTSD demonstrates surprising details of what goes on in the brain of the traumatized person.

Clinical Implications of Neuroscience Research in PTSD, Bessel A. Van der Kolk, 2006

Around numbered page 10-11 Kolk describes the parts of the brain affected by trauma and explains an actual shutting down of parts of the brain that would normally help us process/understand/integrate our emotions:

Specifically, neuroimaging studies of people with PTSD have found decreased activation of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). The medial prefrontal comprises anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and medial parts of the orbitofrontal prefrontal cortices.  The anterior cingulate (ACC) specifically has consistently been implicated in PTSD. The ACC plays a role in the experiential aspects of emotion, as well as in the integration of emotion and cognition. It has extensive connections with multiple brain structures, including the hypothalamus, amygdala, and brain stem autonomic nuclei. Thus, the ACC is part of a system that orchestrates the autonomic, neuroendocrine, and behavioral expression of emotion and may play a key role in the visceral aspects of emotion. – B.A. Van der Kolk

Kolk goes on to discuss the effects of yoga, siting studies involving people practicing yoga. On page 12 he mentions the fascinating studies by Sarah Lazar involving yoga at Massachusetts General Hospital. As a related note, here is Sarah Lazar on TED Talk giving one of the best eight minute “elevator speeches” on the benefits of yoga and meditation and the physical change of thickening our grey matter:

How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains, Sara Lazar

Bessel A. Van der Kolk is featured on the syndicated radio show, To The Best of Our Knowledge in their show titled “Super Senses,” a broadcast from September 28, 2014. The show is vignette based on the theme of the senses. Skip over to the time on the sound recording 26:35 to hear Van der Kolk describe his research and how we can heal from trauma, starting with the truest statement, “We ARE our bodies!”

Meditation and Two Wings of a Bird

TwoWingsOfABirdSmallMeditation and Two Wings of a Bird

The image of a bird is the perfect metaphor for the gifts we receive through meditation. In meditation, there is an intention to gain freedom from the thoughts and patterns that keep us stuck and static in life. The bird symbolizes the freedom of lifting out of our troubles, gliding to a new horizon and moving peacefully through life wtih free-flowing grace.

Alongside the image of the bird as representing freedom, the concept of symmetry and balance and the effort of the flapping wings is the other side of the story. It takes wings and it takes skillful maneuvering. The wings must work in tandem because flight and landing both require that the bird have the knowledge as to the proper way to flex, tilt and lift the wings.

There are many misconceptions about meditation in the western culture and a lack of understanding of the requisite two wings. One of the most pervasive myths is that in meditation we are somehow supposed to stop the mind and prevent thoughts from entering our mind. Nothing could be farther from the truth! You cannot stop the mind from thinking but you can change its focus.

The myth of emptying the mind may be an outgrowth of our frustration as we struggle to control the natural duality of our minds. We have the thinking mind with its logic and reasoning and the emotional body with its ever-firing neurons and totally wired energy system. The two wings of the bird are representative of our mind’s ability to become aware and our body’s ability to modulate our emotional systems.

A curious aside to the concept of the two wings of a bird needs mentioning here. Large, exotic pet birds that live out most of their lives in cages often escape with fabulously strong wings with perfectly formed flight feathers. As anyone who has ever tried to catch an escaped pet bird knows, the bird finds it very easy to fly up but has no real knowledge of how to fly down! This is not another bird metaphor. Wings are tools that require skill and knowledge.

Learning to meditate is a practice of balancing our tools of mind and body. It is achieved through a process of paying attention to the two wings of a bird.

A Few Words on a Wing

Mindfulness             Loving-kindness

Wisdom                     Calmness

Insight                       Compassion

Thought                     Relaxation

Observation              Intention

Clear-seeing              Compassion

 

Neuroscience and Meditation

Highlights of the research of Dr. Richard Davidson, neuroscience professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

  • Develop a more consistent state of calmness
  • Control reaction to unpleasant stimuli
  • Return to calmness more quickly

Dr. Davidson is at the center of a field of research involving meditation and its effect on the brain. His numerous studies utilize structural and functional brain imaging technology performed in a state-of-the-art facility focused on neuroscience, psychology, physics and statistics.

One such study involving Tibetan Buddhist monks, with tens of thousands of hours of experience meditating suggests the actual structure and the function of the brain can be altered through the practice of meditation. The concept of “neuroplasticity,” the ability of the brain to change throughout our lives in response to our experiences is at the core of understanding the effects of meditation.

MonkWithElectrodesDavidson first studied Matthieu Ricard, a French-born monk from India by hooking up 128 electrodes to his head and recording his brain activity as Ricard meditated on “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion.” Two strikingly unusually results were immediately apparent: Ricard produced powerful gamma brain waves oscillating at 40 cycles per second and oscillations from other areas of his cortex were in synchrony in a fashion similar to that of patients under anesthesia. Gamma brain waves are often faint and hard to pickup but in Ricard’s meditative state they appeared unusually strong, indicating his ability to maintain intensely focused thought.

These results led Davidson to expand his study to include more monks and to include college students with little or no experience at meditation. The end result was that the monks produced gamma waves 30 times as strong as the students. The other finding was that the monks had larger active areas in their brains as compared to the students. Of significance was the area of the brain responsible for positive emotions, the left prefrontal cortex.

After a negative event or emotionally charged situation meditators recover and return to a calm state faster than individuals who have not developed calming skills. The monks are an example of this skill where they have learned compassion mediation. Their ability to activate the prefrontal cortex in response to the situation and modulate areas of the amygdala helps them to reduce reaction and quickly return to a state of calm. The ability to “down regulate” the amygdala is key because that is the area of the brain that forms and stores memories associated with emotional events and is concerned with vigilance and threat detection.

Note: image of monk with Electrodes comes from National Geographic, photograph by Cary Wolinsky and associated with this story by James Shreeve: Beyond the Brain