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When we think of core strength, our society often envisions hard, flat abdomens. This, somehow, has become the embodiment of a healthy physique in our culture and sells everything from yogurt to underwear. But is this healthy? And most of all, is this important? If we look at the most prominent yogis of the past (including the Buddha himself), we see that not one is “blessed” with a six-to-ten-pack. In fact, many have quite the ‘Buddha belly’. But does that make them weak? According to yogic, Ayurvedic, and even traditional Chinese medical philosophy, it is quite the contrary.

The belly, or the abdomen, is a centre of power, and where a large reserve of energy/qi/prana is held. Thus, if one has worked to develop a supple, flexible, and innately strong midsection (not tense, hard, and blocked), they can tap into an infinite resource of energy. This does not mean that the bellies we see in IHOP or at a buffet are healthy – too much belly fat is detrimental to health. However, the opposite – overworking the abs to eliminate all fat and harden the muscles beneath- is also detrimental to health. Women, especially, are not usually made for six-pack abs naturally. And striving for this is quite unrealistic. If you think of a healthy muscle or muscle group, it is at it’s optimal strength when it is both strong AND flexible – springy and elastic. A tense muscle, especially a stabilizing muscle, cannot attain its optimal strength.

Not only does overworking the abs harm us physically, but it also creates some psychological blockages as well. It only overemphasizes “control” – making our bellies hard to try to “keep it together” and avoid vulnerability. It causes a sort of “mental constipation” – where we are not following intuition, only rules and order… where we are not free to act on our will, but according to standards or society. Yogis, though also warriors and soldiers, require a supple belly in order to connect to a strong core of space and calm within.

In addition, the core encompasses much more than just abdominals. Our posture is greatly determined by the balance of local and global muscles around the spine. Some shorten as they weaken, some shorten as they are overused. Some become overstretched, while others need a good stretching. It is the balance of these muscles that determine what our default posture becomes. And often, in our society, it can be an ugly balance. Again, yoga practice does not only physically attempt to bring the body back into alignment, but in strengthening the core, we are also strengthening a mental core as well. Our internal strength translates in our integrity of character and the ability to remain stable, calm, and authentic despite external conditions. By reconnecting with our body’s optimal alignment and strength, we take stress off of the nervous system, we create space within, and we feel good about ourselves.

Asana of the week: We begin with breath. Our asana this week, is easy seated pose (or Sukhasana). We are going to connect to our core with breath. A supple (but strong) belly is needed to use one’s full breath capacity. Activated core muscles are required to sit tall, without back support, with our legs crossed. (If you feel as if your sit bones are rolling forward when you sit, roll up your mat, use a blanket, or a cushion/bolster to prop up your bottom. Your knees should fall below your hip bones, and you should be seated right on your sit bones, spine long.) Keep in mind that deep, diaphragmatic breathing does not entail pushing your belly out deliberately. Full belly breathing just requires a naturally alternating engagement and release. To assure deep diaphragmatic breathing, first engage the abdomen in a complete exhalation, then allow your lungs to fill up naturally, relaxing the abdomen but not pushing it outward.

Place your right hand on your abdomen so that you may feel your breath moving your diaphragm, your left hand at your heart centre. Breathe slowly and deliberately, sensing the strength of your inner core as your obliques and deep transversus muscles compress to expel the air from your lungs completely. Then enjoy the flow of oxygen that fills your chest as these muscles release, creating space for prana to stream into your heart like water flowing into a basin. After a few minutes, allow your breath to resume its natural pattern. Observe it without criticism or effort. Imagine your abdominal cavity as the fluid container of your deepest wisdom and feel the energy at your navel radiating throughout your body.

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Sometimes, I feel as if I’m a broken lamp. Flickering, unable to shine out a constant, stable stream of light. My light bulb isn’t burnt out, I’m plugged in correctly. Jiggle my cord a little, and… *WHOA* – there she is: I’m shining as bright as ever. Find the right position, and I’m back to my radiant self. Our bodies are wired “like” electric circuitry. (I put “like” in quotations, because I HATE to reduce the complicated and fantastic nature of the human body to something so simple as a man-made electrical circuit.) Prana, qi, ki, blood circulation, neurologic impulses, mana, and vital energy flow through the body in complex circuits with linear and circular paths. Whichever medical system you subscribe to, you will find evidence of these organic manifestations of  circuitry. You can call these meridians, nadis, channels, networks, circulatory systems – the point is that our bodies contain communicating paths of ‘substances’ that provide us with energy to move and act and live. Thus, it only makes sense that if properly aligned (like our finicky lamp) we will find our optimal luminescence.

As the first law of thermodynamics states, energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed to another type of energy or lost as heat and work. This is surprisingly the basis of many ancient medical systems. If we are constantly adding energy to our system, via breath and food (Kong Qi and Gu Qi), then we always have energy at our disposal – in theory. (This is ignoring the innate energy that we have within our body as well – in traditional Chinese energy we call these Essence and Original Qi – these we deplete via ‘work’ with age.) If we always have energy at our disposal, why does it sometimes feel like we’re nearing zero, regardless of how much we breathe or eat?

In an inefficient electrical device, sometimes it’s friction that is causing a loss of energy though heat. Sometimes there is a slight break or kink in the wiring. Sometimes an injury to the outer shell skews the alignment of the internal wiring. And we can’t ignore those devices that are just used beyond their capacity. All of these “defects” can be analogous to our bodies. This is why activities like yoga, tai chi, and qi gong are said to optimize our internal energy and life force.

Putting ourselves in proper alignment, fixing our posture, strengthening our stabilizing muscles, and stretching out the compressed parts of our bodies are all “jiggles” that our wiring needs. This is not to mention the mental strength and coping strategies that we develop to handle stress (a HUGE energy-sucker), difficult people (who can certainly feel like they are robbing you of energy at times), and life’s obstacles (speaking of friction…). We learn to reduce the external losses of energy (avoiding overwork, minimizing stress, learning to say no, reinforcing our boundaries, slowing down), maintain our innate energy (remember, we cannot “create” extra energy), optimize the energy we obtain through breath and food (are you a shallow breather? are you getting your nutrients?), and keep our circuitry in line to encourage proper energy flow through our systems. Who knew yoga class is really just a physics class?!?

With the holiday season approaching, I suspect that many of us are thinking about our energy levels (or lack thereof). How can we possibly give our time and energy to others (think: office party after family get-together after open house) if we don’t feel as if we have enough for ourselves? In class today, we focused on our breath and the proper alignment of our bodies in order to optimize our energy levels. We worked on getting our circuitry in the right position to better handle the flurry of holiday parties, shopping, and activities.

Pose of the day: Last post, I spoke of my nemesis: Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana. I eluded to a fantastic supine version of the pose: Supta Hasta Padangusthasana (with a strap). Well, this is our pose of the day. If this pose does not rejuvenate your legs and align their circuitry, I don’t know what will. When done with a yoga strap, ANYONE can get into a life-affirming version of this asana and reconnect with their hamstrings, hip abductors, hip adductors, and peroneals. There are three stages to the pose we practice in class:

  1. One leg is extended on the ground (we’ll start with left), toes pointing up to the sky; the other (right) is flexed at the hip and aiming towards the sky or beyond (but without sacrificing the grounding of the bottom leg and hip), strap looped around the ball of the foot.
  2. The left leg stays put, both ends of the strap move to the right hand, and the right leg opens out to the side (again, without sacrificing the grounding of the bottom leg and hip).
  3. The right leg now comes back up, through first position, we switch the belt to the left hand, and the leg crosses over the body. At this point, the left leg can now roll over onto it’s outer edge, but the upper body continues to face the sky.
Hold each of these for 5-10 breaths, then switch legs! Note how much longer your right leg feels before you go to your left. Now, how can we optimize the alignment in this pose? A few tips:
  • Activate the feet by flexing them as if you are standing on the ground. Activate them more by concentrating on pushing out through your big toe mounds and pulling up on the pinky toe. Our tendency is to sickle our feet in the opposite direction. It takes effort to prevent this, but it will strengthen the muscles we need to keep our knees and ankles healthy!
  • When in stage 1 of the pose, bring the leg away from you slightly, and then feel both hips ground equally. Don’t move your top leg unless you can move it without lifting the right hip and the left thigh!
  • Keep the legs STRAIGHT. This is not to say LOCKED – engage your quad muscle and keep those feet working!
  • When the leg opens out to the side, only open it so far as your opposite hip stays put. Use the strap to keep your femur bone integrated into the hip socket. Continue to work your feet.
  • When the leg crosses over, work on pulling the hip back and away from your torso to increase the stretch. Hello, IT band!
  • Throughout this asana, BREATHE. Relax your shoulders (they should not be involved) and your face.

Unfortunately, this resolution necessitates my confession about a part of me that I really do not like too much. I am chronically late. Well, I am not late to yoga classes,  but I am a few minutes late to everything else (unless my partner is in charge and pushing me out the door). This year, instead of resolving to “Be on time”, I decided to celebrate the times I am early and remember how great it feels to have “time to breathe”.

In our society, we seem to be constantly rushing. Add a 5-minute-late start time to this and you start to feel like you are running everywhere. What does this do to our bodies? The constant high levels of cortisol (and not to mention many spurts of adrenaline NOT induced by a sabre-tooth tiger chase) not only induces mental-emotional stress, but starts to stress out every tissue, every cell in our bodies. THIS is not desirable. THIS is what ages our cells, what makes it difficult for them to repair when damaged, and what creates unfavorable conditions for health. And THIS is why we have to give ourselves room to breathe: through yoga, through taking time off, through being on time (in my case, at least!).

Thus, this year, I am trying hard to be conscious of that space I can leave for myself… and NOT cramming in as much as possible at the last minute.I am going to recognize- and enjoy- this room: the extra time I can use to sit down before class and enjoy a coffee with someone. The extra breath of fresh air I get by strolling– not running- to the streetcar in the morning. And, most of all, the extra space I can create for my breath through taking the time to practice yoga– stretching, twisting, creating movement and reducing the adhesions that stress brings to our bodies.

Just me…

2010 Journey

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