Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Using Breath in Every-Day Situations

Here is a good story. Years ago when my son was in pre-school, he had a little run-in with another kid on the playground that I believe involved a sandbox shovel. The mother of this other child, in all fairness, was chronically stressed out by the fact that her son did not handle everyday finagles very well. In retrospect, I believe she wanted her son's social issues to have a simple solution and therefore sought one at every opportunity. On this particular day, she accosted me in the middle of the playground, accusing my son of being some sort of tyrant who was bullying her son by stealing his shovel. She was very angry. Now, this sounds almost comical, and in hindsight it really was. But at the time, I perceived her as a threat. I am not a confrontational person by nature and I could feel my heart starting to race. Had I been confronted with this level of hostility just a few years earlier, before children, this could have developed into a fist-fight. But this was a children's playground! I was a mother, an adult. What to do?? As I stood there with my heart racing, my inner voice said, "just breathe". I consciously slowed and deepened my breath while hearing this woman out. I never took my eyes off of her face. I just stood there, breathing and listening to what she was saying. My heart slowed down, I felt a bit calmer. And then this is what happened: she lowered her voice a bit. Then she removed the hostile tone from it. Then she began to think out loud about what actually happened. She ended up talking herself into a full circle from hostile and accusative to gentle and compassionate, even concluding that her son was most likely to blame for the altercation! How did that happen?? It turned out that remaining calm, quiet and focused allowed this other woman to really hear her tone and her words. She realized she needed to tone it down a bit. The more I listened to her the more she gave up the fight. After all, what she was really looking for was empathy, not a fight. By my withholding a defensive stance, she was able to let go of the hostility and return to a rational state. And it all started with a focus on the breath!
This was a tremendous learning experience for me and I have used it since in other situations with hostile individuals. While it may seem "passive" to allow someone to finish their tirade as you just stand there and breathe, it is actually a very powerful stance in that you are able to remain in a rational state of mind. Anger is irrational - we lose sense of the bigger picture when we become angry. It is also contagious, in that when confronted by an angry individual we ourselves can become angry and defensive. This is how fights break out and usually need to be settled by other people who can distance themselves from the emotional material. To remain calm and rational is infinitely more powerful than even the most violent rage. It is also rather shocking to the enraged one, who is expecting a good fight. It forces your "opponent" to tone it down a notch if he wants to continue the debate. You, as the "breather", have the power to return the dialogue to one of civility, and no matter the outcome, you win because you exercised control over the hostility.

Pranayama 201

This is my favorite pranayama practice. It is nice and easy and can be practiced just about anywhere. Once we've learned to relax the belly, we move on to bring the focus, finally, to the breath. Tune in to your breath. Notice how it feels: slow, fast, smooth, ragged, even, uneven? Just notice its quality for a few minutes without trying to change it. It is important to know that the quality of your breath changes from day to day, hour to hour. There is no one "correct" breath. Don't judge yourself, just notice. When you begin to settle in, feeling relaxed, begin to consciously change your breath. Slow it down a bit, or lengthen it, as I like to tell my students. Draw the breath in a little deeper and exhale a little longer. Try to keep the breath quiet and comfortable, so don't try to fill your lungs to maximum capacity - this will cause anxiety. When all those pesky little thoughts begin to bombard your mind, and they will over and over again, just return to focusing on your breath. Study the quality of this breath you have set for yourself. Is it comfortable enough to continue for several more minutes? If not, change it, soften it or make it a bit shallower. Try to establish a breath you can stick with for a good five minutes. Come back to it again and again each time you are interrupted by thoughts.
If you are able to practice this at least a couple of times per week, you will find that you sink into a nice quiet rhythm pretty quickly and you finish feeling relaxed and refreshed. You may discover that your breath becomes deeper and even develops an aspirant sound to it. That is good. However, I don't recommend that you try to make any sound at the beginning. Trying too hard to make the sound of ujjayi breathing can lead to tension and anxiety and defeat your efforts. Pranayama takes a lot of time and practice, and the best way to be successful is to begin with a focus on relaxation. The breath will unfold from there, becoming deeper and aspirant on its own. Only then are you truly ready to begin the more advanced practices.
Is this meditation? Well, yes, in a way. It is very elementary practice for meditation which comes much later down the road. It is the beginning of pratyahara, or turning inward, as well as gentle conditioning for more advanced pranayama practices.
I use this practice frequently to turn inward and settle my mind. I also use it while lying in bed if I'm having trouble falling asleep. It quiets my mind and allows me to relax enough to let sleep unfold. Most of all, it puts you in touch with your breath, developing an the intuitive sense of when you are anxious or tense, or relaxed and peaceful. This becomes a very useful skill to have throughout life!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Pranayama 101

Very simple, straight-forward pranayama exercise that can be done just about anywhere: Sit with your back straight and make sure you are comfortable. If you are a practicing yogi and can sit cross-legged on the floor without support, this is the sitting position you should begin with. If you cannot sit upright without support, find a comfortable chair for this exercise. You should be upright in pranayama practices for two reasons: you are moving subtle energy through the chakra system which corresponds to your spinal column, and you don't want to fall asleep! Spend the first few minutes making sure you are comfortable - I mean really comfortable, because if you are not you will be defeated! Make sure your hips are relaxed. If you are cross-legged on the floor you may need a cushion or rolled blanket under your sit-bones. This will aid the pelvis in tilting forward and take the tension out of the hip-flexors. If you are seated in a chair, you may need a cushion, low stool or big book under your feet if you have short legs! Take the time to get your sitting position correct from the get-go.
Once you feel you are upright but relaxed, close your eyes and let your chin drop slightly toward your chest. Bring your focus to your belly. Consciously relax your belly - just let it go. We all tend to suck our bellies in most of the day, so now we are practicing letting them go. It's harder than you think! I don't recommend tight t-shirts for this exercise - big and baggy is better! Let your breath guide you in relaxing the belly. With each inhalation let the belly rise - not the chest, but the belly. With each exhalation, let the belly collapse. The breath is soft and quiet, not at all forced. You may notice that you are beginning to elongate the breath a little and that is okay, but keep your focus on the belly. If you are brand-new to pranayama, this will be your practice: learning to sit upright but relaxed and focusing on letting go of all that tension in the belly. Practice it for 5 minutes each day until you get really good at it. You will notice at first that you keep sucking in the belly and have to remind yourself to let it go. That is okay- that is the practice. You will know you are ready to move on when you realize you no longer need to remind yourself to relax the belly. It may be two days or two months. It doesn't matter. What you are doing is tuning in to your body and using your breath to to release tension and truly relax. This is Pranayama 101.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Prana means life force or vital energy. Ayama is the opposite of yama. Ayama is extention or lengthening, as Yama means restraint or restriction. Pranayama is often translated as breathing exercises while what it really refers to is both the expansion and control of prana. Initially one is introduced to pranayama through "breathing practices" in yoga class which we discover have a remarkable calming effect on the mind. Why is this? We are concentrating our minds, and therefore our energy, on the breath. Slowing down our busy minds relaxes us and allows us to focus our energy better without getting scattered. My teacher has a habit of repeating, "where the breath goes, prana follows". In other words, bring your attention to your breath and get your energy under control!
There are a great many pranayama practices, each one more sophisticated than the previous, designed to take our minds and our energy to an ever increasing state of refinement. "What we want to do is to feel the finer motions that are going on in the body. Our minds have become externalized and have lost sight of the fine motions inside. If we can begin to feel them we can also begin to control them". That is how Swami Vivekananda exlains what we are trying to do with pranayama in Raja Yoga. It is how he summarized the more complex explanation he gives on psychic prana, explaining the ida and pingala currents which carry prana from the base of our spines up to the brain. "according to the Yogis, there are two nerve currents in the spinal column called the Pingala and the Ida, and a hollow canal called the Sushumna, running through the spinal cord. At the lower end of the spinal cord is what the Yogis called the lotus of the Kudalini. When the Kundalini awakes, it tries to force a passage through this hollow canal;and as it tries step by step, layer after layer of the mind opens up and many different visions and wonderful powers come to the Yogi." (Vivekananda, p.50).
This gets to be exciting stuff. What does Feuerstein, the great scholar of yoga, have to say? "In Yoga practice, breath control equals mental control. This formula is as fundamental as Einstein's E=mc² and as far reaching in its practical implications. It is through the proper regulation of the life force that the yogin can not only influence the nervous system and bodily functioning in general but also gain access to the subtle dimensions of existence by transcending the brain-dependent activities of the mind" (Georg Feuerstein, Shambhala Guide to Yoga, pp. 69-71).
Now, I don't know about you, but this just makes me want to sit right down and breathe! Don't worry about reaching enlightenment, just focus on your breath. Lengthen it. Deepen it. Listen to the sound it makes. Try to make your inhalations and your exhalation equal in length. That's all. Try that for five minutes a day and you will be off to a great start. Your chattery mind will settle right down. Any anxiety will be eased. Your blood pressure may drop. You will be experiencing the subtle control over your body's life force that you are capable of when you stop letting your mind be scattered by all the outside influences.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Posture. In the Yoga Sutra, the only reference to asana is this: "Posture should be steady and comfortable. It should be accompanied by the loosening of tension (prayatna) and by coinciding with the infinite space of consciousness" II:45-46 (translation by Georg Feuerstein in Yoga). So how did this elaborate tradition of hundreds of asanas come about?! Patanjali is clearly referring to a posture in which you sit to meditate. So where did Downward Dog and Triangle Pose come from? Asana, or the practice of posture, comes from Hatha Yoga, the school of yoga that prepares the body and mind for the eventual practice of Raja Yoga, the journey to Samadhi (enlightenment). Remember that to reach enlightenment, we must be of sound body and mind. Asana begins the work of cleansing the body and healing the body, while also training the mind to stay focused. My teacher, Beryl Bender Birch, has one of the best ways of explaining yogic concepts in plain English, and really says it best in her latest book, Boomer Yoga,"this particular system of asana practice is what in yoga is called a form of tapas, or detoxification. The word tapas literally means 'to burn'. The idea is that you use the work to start an internal fire, which then in turn burns impurities and clears toxins from the body, through squeezing, sweating, and breathing" (P. 31). That is what the practice of asana is really all about. While Patanjali is essentially saying, "make it steady and comfortable", that is a lot easier said than done! Try sitting cross-legged on the floor for half an hour in meditation. If you have poor postural muscles and weak blood flow, this will be nearly impossible, and quite possibly a form of torture that really should be banned internationally. You must be conditioned, that is, cleansed and healed both inside and out, and of strong mind and body, to sit for lengthy periods in meditation. It is when we sit and relax, turning inward, that we are able to have the insights that advance us on our spiritual paths, and eventually lead to a state of bliss.
Asana is the form of yoga that most Americans are familiar with. It is usually the jumping-off point for us all on our yogic quests. Why is this? My experience of teaching asana for the past eleven years is that the practice itself gets people to do three things: pay attention to their breath, pay attention to their bodies, and quiet down all the chatter in their minds. I don't know of any other form of exercise that does this so effectively. This is what I call "turning inward 101". It is what Beryl call "kindergarten". By that we mean, you are beginning to turn inward, slow your mind's chatter and get connected with you body, without necessarily knowing it at first! Most people love the way they feel after yoga class: relaxed, de-stressed, calm. Only from that point can we begin to expand our awareness, in whatever direction we choose. Whether people like it or not, yoga class, or asana, turns them inward and calms them, at the same time that it works out the kinks, stimulates the kidneys and cleanses the liver!