Just read this very interesting book on an amazing capacity of the human body and mind. The book is called Freediving by James Nestor. This post is not to be a review of the book though it is highly recommended to many.
What interested me were the thoughts I had while reading it concerning the process of deep awareness and meditation. James Nestor is a noted journalist having published in Outside and many other publications. He writes in this book about some “oddball” athletes/adventurers and researchers (off the beaten path) about their unusual deep explorations of the ocean and the innate human’s capacity to “freedive”.
He began researching FreeDiving as a competition initially. These divers are the ones who use no equipment, taking just one breath of air into their lungs before diving. Now for a short movie segue. If you haven’t seen the 1988 movie (which stands by itself) called Le Grand Bleau (The Big Blue) with one of my favorite film artists (Jean Reno), you must try to watch it. Now back to the book.
Nestor’s research at the beginning looks at what these freediving competitors talk about as the amphibious reflexes of the human body. In his book he states that it is a real phenomenon that science recognize called the mammalian dive reflex or simply the Master Switch of Life. Please read about this sophisticated physiological response that occurs when we stick our face into the water. Many start to describe it in esoteric terms, though the reflex is quite neuro-biologically based.
In the olden days there are stories of pearl and sponge divers taking a gulp of air and then working under 100 feet of ocean pressure for 10-15 minutes. These reports are hundreds of years old and the details and veracity have been lost. There are few traditional divers working this way and seemingly the art/science has not be passed on.
Here is what amazes me about this unusual response. These same pressures experienced at these depths in the ocean, if experienced on land would crush and kill us. The ocean and our relationship to it through “getting wet” just has it’s own rules. So what is true in one setting is not in another. This point is very important to think about when looking at the exploration of the mind.
My mind starts relate these described changes in the “Master Switch of Life” to some but not exactly what happens in meditation.
Let’s say you have been meditating for at least a few years. You have had some “good” moments, maybe even amazing moments. Yet we sometimes plod along in a more haphazard way than we would normally recognize. We often just sit and “try” to watch our breath and mantra let’s say. We do some exercises with the body and breath.
Is there any overall incremental plan of progressing from one milestone to another? Do we even describe what the practical milestones or bench-marks are?
Meditation can mean so many things to so many people. Right now I wish to restrict it to the traditional deep sense of moving towards and experiencing the different levels of Samadhi according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Meditation is not about relaxing and getting quiet. That is all preparation. The preparation is key but it is not the goal.
Meditation has these high states of awareness where true Yogis have developed amazing capacities. Just look at the initial studies of Swami Rama at the Menninger Foundation. He demonstrated autonomic control of the body (and much more) never before thought possible.
In this journey of quieting the body, breath and mind there are also reflexes that are elicited. There is now a lot of scientific discussion of neurological and physiological adaptations. The literature is quite wrapped up in EEG, fMRI and PET scans showing flow and electrical changes with these deep states of meditation.
What are the practical implications and influence on how we are organizing our practices.
Diving in the ocean without equipment elicits these well described changes noted above. Diving into the depths of awareness also elicits physiological changes.
There are changes in blood pressure and heart rate that are well described. The breathing rate slows and the depth of breath can dramatically be increased. The posture relaxes and popularly collapses. There are many other changes including the described brain wave changes from beta to alpha to the deeper states involving theta and delta waves.
How many of us are measuring some simple biometrics to help organize ones process of meditating.
It seems most people start to meditate and continue to meditate in the same way they go out and casually exercise. There is no real design, you just go do it. Maybe you follow some initial program. Are there regular progression in your training program that you follow? Do you monitor your progress or is it all just following the lowest common denominator of one’s habit.
Reading the book “Deep” brought again to my mind this beautiful journey that awaits us all–whether it be the depths of the ocean or of the mind.
Maybe we need to look into how we are practicing and ask if we are truly moving progressively into the depths of the mind. It seems we are settling into habits that make this journey just a casual practice. If there is no rigorous program design with proper progressions and regressions and constant re-evaluations, then how can we experience consistently these depths that are mentioned and offered in the Wisdom Teachings.
OK, now where do we go with our meditations. We are learning different practices and often adding them one after another. When we add something and do not look at our overall sequence of what we are doing and what next we should work on, we fail to progress.
Do we treat our meditation as some magical practice that if we keep doing it we will just get better. Maybe that is true at times. How effective is it?
This is where re-evaluation is key. If we try different practices, how are they helping our core practice. When and how much would we use them? What are the attributes and biometrics that we are monitoring? Often we are just doing different things. We are adding variety without reflecting on how it helps or hinders our program. The level of sophistication that we use to examine whether we do one practice or another is often based on some blanket recommendation.
These recommendations maybe well intentioned. They may be very effective for some, but where are we at at this time and where do we plan on going next week and next month and next year.
Take high level sports or movement arts. If we casual approach playing soccer, how good will we become? In the olden days we just focused on playing the game and not on the method of acquiring the necessary attributes and skills for performing at a high level. Whenever a team was notably better, we just assumed the individuals were gifted. Now we know that talent can be highly overrated and skillful training hours are underrated. If you haven’t read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, consider it. Many more things in those books are discussed and they are a quick, enjoyable read.
Now we can see that a majority of high level performance is predicated on having the right training program, at the right time with the most skillful coaching available. Do we do this with the majority of our meditation practices.
Again remember that the level of meditation here is based on achieving very high levels of awareness.
I do not think most of our programming supports this goal well at all. Now the general programming does. We just lack many details between where many students of meditation are now and where the goal of liberation is pointing. Our overall goal is defined but the enabling goals to get there are poorly defined.
These intermediate goals must have ways of determining how and by what standard we have reached them.
Ok what is the answer. There evidently are answers given by the great Masters and Guides. You can read them in the classic texts like the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali. You can hear them at the feet of a Meditation Master. Is it then only through initiation that the answer becomes evident?
All the rest is preparation as they say. So what is the best preparation. Again the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras state it clearly. It is worth the study of these texts and ancient teachings. In the meantime, our practice can use some additional guides.
Simple measurements of our attributes of the breath and the minds focus can be used. Taking your resting heart rate, resting breathing rate, and how long you keep a focus on the breath through breath counting are easy ways to train and check on the breath and mind at the beginning.
As the breath moves so moves the mind. As the mind moves so moves the breath. Same with the body. They are all inter-related. Their skillful implementation needs specific programming that is not being appreciated by many training programs.
We can use these aspects of the breath and mind to deepen our practice and deepen our meditation. They will help settle and calm the mind. A settled and calm mind then opens up to who we are and where we are and where we going.
Every morning before rising (you are still in bed lying down after just waking). Simply take your pulse and count it for 1 minute. Simple, yes? If you have trouble taking your pulse, practice with someone who can. In 2 weeks or sooner you will be able easily find it and count it for the minute. Do this for 30 days to get an average of your resting heart rate. Try to keep some log or record of the things of that day and week so you can reflect on the relationships of what was going on at the times of the daily record.
Someone who is well conditioned and in good health will have a resting heart rate of below 60. If you don’t have that it is not important. The relative changes are most important. What is important is that you start paying attention to yourself through physiological measurements. They can give you a surprising bit of information of how you are responding to your life and practice.
Each of these parameters by themselves do not mean a lot. They are to be put into context of your lifestyle. They will just add, not replace your current guidelines.
Once you derive an average, you can see how it changes with different practices, different relationships, different seasons, etc. It is a very fascinating way to create a better understanding of ourselves.
Again each morning before rising take your breath rate. This rate is the number of breaths in one minute. One breath is both an exhale and an inhale.
Your breathing by now should be belly and/or lower rib cage style of diaphragmatic breathing. Chest breathing noted in the early morning (even in the day) is an indicator of change that needs to be noticed. Upper chest breathing is inefficient and poorly handled by the mind and body.
An average untrained person is often breathing 15-22 breaths per minute. It is quite fast but is a cited average often in the literature.
With simple breath training that average at rest is around 8-12 for beginners. Later 4-6 breaths seem to be common to those who are training and able to manage their lifestyles. 1-3 breaths become more common the more you train and lead a more sattvic lifestyle. The latter will occur in spurts and for short periods. It is difficult to sustain under all conditions until significant changes occur.
Also a lower breath rate doesn’t mean anything by itself.
Performance of any of these parameters will lead to a false sense of superiority and over inflated ego. At the beginning that is normal. Just get over it as soon as you can.
Here is one of the keys in diving into ones own depths. The mind has to learn to settle down and maintain a single focus. It is a very difficult endeavor to make happen. We all can be focused on something we enjoy or are good at. We can even be laser like focused on the opposite. Under high stresses we forget about everything else and only focus on the thrill or agony of that moment.
So it isn’t that the mind cannot focus. It is that the ability to choose a focus that is not a habit and maintain that focus under consistent times and trials that seems to be the key.
Therefore training the mind to stay on a focus is very helpful in this preparation of concentration. If you will the mind to be quiet or still, the habits of the mind are so much stronger and we move into our familiar reveries and mindlessness. We keep repeating this lack of concentration only to try again and again with pretty much the same success. Maybe overtime we get a little better, but at that rate we will dead before we have trained well enough. (And don’t default just to future lives in order to deal someday with a wandering mind. Tomorrow never comes, as they say.)
Breath counting is a very simple and effective way of focusing the mind. These are simple techniques that also are embedded in a training program of cleaning up our emotions and thoughts. The Yoga Sutras and the oral tradition speak of stabilizing the mind by making the breath long, steady and subtle. (Yoga Sutra of Patanjali 1.34: prachchardana-vidhaaranaabhyaam vaa praanasya).
There are many systems for counting the breaths. I have tried many. You must find one that resonates and works for you.
The most effective way for me was to follow my teachers advice (Swami Veda Bharati). He has introduced counting 1-5 and 5-1. (among many others) This means as you:
You continue this same pattern for a prescribed time or number of breaths. I like this pattern and it’s rhythm.
At the beginning, I would lose count as my mind wandered. Then I would have to start over again, egads. It took awhile. In fact, I dropped the practice after just a week, long ago when I first started it. It just didn’t work. Then I tried another counting practice. The same thing happened, so that I got to try lots of different ways of counting. This was long ago but still very familiar.
None of them worked. Hmmmm, what was my problem? I’m a little slow here and finally figured out the common denominator was myself. That is why it took so long because I was looking for a solution outside of myself and thinking that I just had not found the correct or best technique. Sound familiar?
One thing I find with people who practice and don’t get results is the very same problem. It is not always what we are doing but HOW we are doing the what. This cannot be overstated in training.
Yes you need proper guidance but you really need to look at the design, execution and re-evaluation of your practice. It is not “just” practice, practice, practice. Let’s get clearer about our training. This is why we are recording and working with these parameters that can be measured.
So back to the 1-5 and 5-1 count of my breaths.
My problem is that I did not stick to the training for very long. I find this out all the time in training people. They were given an exercise and they are not stronger or better. When asked are they doing it they say yes, but…
This means that they are doing it infrequently and with not much effort. Once they learn the value of proper training methods and are working hard for weeks and months they then begin to see progress. It is guaranteed or your money back!
So recently I did a variation of this counting for 6 months. It was a great practice and very helpful. I kept records of all three components and they markedly changed over the 6 months. Again this practice was embedded in lifestyle changes that allowed for the training.
When counting the breaths after the first month you will notice and become very sensitive to the count and the breath flow. When your mind wanders you will immediately note the change in the count. What I am saying here will become clear when you do the practice.
Then each month thereafter you can work on an particular attribute of the breath flow with deeper concentration of the mind. This means that while you watch the smoothness of the breath in counting you watch the smoothness of the minds focus. Just little disturbances of the breath and little disturbances of your focus become noticeable. Your sensitivity here really increases. The mind becomes like the breath. They work together and deepen into the subtle aspect of the breath and mindfield.
This stability of the mind through the breath allows the breath to flow as prana into the akasha or space element. The mindfield becomes more quiet and the sense of the observer becomes clearer. Now meditation begins.
Many more philosophical explanations can be received from the multitude of teachings by Swami Veda Bharati on these topics.
You can now carry these attributes to your meditation seat.
Diving deep has definite physiological and psychological correlates. We can use some of the simple measurable parameters outlined here to assist and organize our training and feedback of our methods.
The rest is skillful practice. It is much easier to just sit and hang out. For many who do just that–I ask: How is it going?
Be honest in your re-examination of yourself. Be brutally honest sometimes. Again as the great teachers have taught us, how we are doing is answered in our living of our lives. Are we loving and being surrounded by love, even in the midst of pain and turmoil. Can we recover from the ups and downs of life and continue. Do we only train in sterile environments of the familiar and friendly?
What does are training prepare us for in the real world?
Our depth of practice is the light that shines not because of us but because the light always shines, though we cover and obscure it.
Always my wish is that we share our efforts, both trials and triumphs. Share in a community of support and then move along the path together.
Also wishing much hard work, sweat and tears. Then enjoy the warm embrace of the love of life.
yours in practice
You have all heard by now my emphasis on proper program design. It is key. It can be revolutionary if one is just practicing techniques or just emphasizing skill acquisition.
All these things can be important but some things have been neglected too long. This is true often in the casual Yoga practitioner and typical gym/exercise rat.
First we don’t have proper goals. They often are too lofty and general. That big type of goal is fine but there has to be a way of measuring it someway. It has to become practical. Just wanting to be fast or healthy or stress free is by itself inadequate for developing a training program.
Once we have a practical and measurable goal that supports and leads us towards our larger/generalized goal, we need to develop a proper Program.
Here I just want to introduce briefly a very successful High School Cross Country Coach of a Girls team at a public school in suburban Syracuse, N.Y. His name is Bill Aris. Listen to his talk here on YouTube about building a Championship High School Program.
His HS girls team have won 9 national titles in 9 years.
It seems to be the HOW of his program not necessarily the what.
He merges Stoic and Spartan philosophies across lifestyle issues.
It is so true of what he starts out saying in relationship to hard work. People/Us come up with some great and lofty ideas.
To achieve a goal implies a lot of hard work. To image a goal and think and be inspired by such takes very little work. The latter is where many start and end in their training. The day to day grind of sitting in our meditation seats or going to the gym or studying a difficult topic starts to wear our resolve down. We end up quitting in a few days, a few weeks or a few months.
Inspiration is fine but without perspiration it is ineffective. Perfecting the process means to me to constantly be re-evaluating and asking more questions than we have answers for. It then provides a fertile field for proper exploration.
Are we moving in the direction of our goal? What are the markers that show us we have some part of what is needed? For some, it will just be showing up for practice initially. Later one needs to keep track of what and how one is training. There are many details that initially would be overwhelming. Start and then CONTINUE working the program. This idea of work and sacrifice is too undervalued.
How many people plan on losing weight or starting a meditation practice, only to give up too early. We are usually very good at starting because we just start something else the following week. This poor design can be repeated for years and decades. Then we end up with defeat and complacency and despondence.
I love this quote by Carlos Castaneda:
We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.
Again let’s get back to WORK–and work the plan/program.
We all need support. I like Bill Aris’s emphasis that support that is effective is not acquiesce by those around us. Support has to be proactive and requires the community of friends you select or the family members to be invested in you and your training.
This investment is not financial of course (although it can be a part). It is not that others do our work and pick us up when we fall down. That is our job.
This type of support requires commitment of others to actively inquire and help guide us. It should be something in a relationship of friends and family that we feel we need to report in and measure up to what we have set before us. The best supporter doesn’t do the work for us. It creates an environment that helps hold ourselves accountable with a deep understanding that grows out of the relationship of the whole “team”. The team of the student/participant and the supportive members–who ideally are in similar circumstances (a la support group).
Most successful people always refer to those who have been especially/critically and lovingly helpful. How many have thanked their moms and dads and school teachers. Some of us have had great friends too. It is the growing feeling of love and support with accountability that seems to work.
Just like life, which is a journey and not just a goal, the program has an important aspect as a journey. It is to take us to a goal. Along the way is the journey, which has richness beyond the supposed goal we have set for ourselves. So take care to work the journey for all it is worth.
This journey is the process. A process oriented approach for some becomes too amorphous sometimes. We lose our way and just move in no particular direction. Some even laud and speak about how that is the way life truly is. Well just look around at any physiological/biological or astronomical process. They don’t move around blindly hoping/expecting all to workout. There are definite foci and methods to achieve particular results–otherwise life ceases.
So return to the program that leads one to the goal. Here the details are key and will only be mentioned as I have above.
There are many more things we haven’t spoken of in any detail. What is the stage that the person is at? Have they successfully trained in any discipline. Have they trained in the area they currently wish? Are there limitations to resources? Etc…
Realize that Bill Aris has developed championship teams from a public high school setting. That means he cannot recruit outside of his district like the pro’s and colleges.
He has really typified a great teacher/coach that not only inspires but successfully trains the team. Their limited resources are not the reasons they fail to fail.
Do not look at what we do not have. Look at these great examples of people who take what is there and through consistent and hard work bring out and together the attributes needed to succeed.
There is not a special technique or secret skill that is being missed by the rest of us.
It is perfecting the process of consistent hard work towards measurable goals. Only then can it seem to become effortless.
This question is frequently asked in meditation classes. Even people just starting to learn meditation are wondering why some systems are so strict in how you sit (Himalayan Tradition) and others fairly casual (Transcendental Meditation).
We usually associate sitting with paying more attention. If most of us were in a class (let’s say an online video class at home)–don’t we start off sitting. Sometimes we decide-“Hey let’s just relax a bit lying down and we can listen more comfortably.” Well you know what the rest of the story is–we wake up suddenly and the find the screen is blank–having slept comfortably but missed the class.
Some of us can sleep sitting and even standing. Lying down seems to be a big trigger to relax and often we move into sleep very easily. This habit of falling asleep when lying down serves us well at night. It doesn’t work for many of us at other times. Many of the advanced subtle body relaxation techniques in Hatha Yoga are taught in this supine or Shavasana position (as pictured above). For a practicing spiritual seeker, they cultivate the capacity to delay/control sleep in this shavasana position in order to complete these deeper relaxation practices consciously.
Still meditation is not recommended for us in this supine position. Why?
One of the prime reasons to use proper alignment and balance in upright sitting for meditation is the proper establishment and flow of the diaphragmatic breath. A posture that doesn’t have the spine erect in neutral and balanced dimension and tensions will utilize upper chest breathing frequently.
A neutral spine here means that the spine is straight from the head, neck and trunk while maintaining ones three normal curves of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine.
A balance of the head neck and trunk means there an evenness to several parameters. The orientation, dimensions and tensions on the front/back/sides top and bottom of the trunk container are in proper equilibrium to support this neutral erect posture.
Many are familiar with this building block example of stacking the body parts like blocks into proper alignment. The bodywork systems and others utilize this incomplete paradigm of alignment. Here is a picture from the Rolfe Institute.
Here is an important rationale for sitting vs lying for meditation as well as any event requiring greater focus and attention. When we sit we elicit a variety of neurological/pranic reflex activity. We have certain postural reflexes that keep us more or less upright. These include other righting and equilibrium reactions. If our eyes are open we often also try to keep the visual field oriented properly to the horizon–so there are ocular reflexes too. There are many more reflex activities throughout the flows of movement in the body, breath and mind. Here are some simple ideas first.
Sitting well for meditation means besides alignment of the body, that there is this balance of tension and dimension of the body. Creating this balance of activity of the movement of the information/prana of the body is what enhances centering in this position.
This level of upright centering creates (just in looking in the sagittal plane, i.e. front to back) an interiorization of these flows that maintain this upright aligned/balanced nature. If we sit mis-using the alignment concept and therefore popularly overuse the back (vs the front), we are in too much extension often where we have these common complaints of discomfort/pain. When balancing the muscular tension of BOTH the front and back (and all the others) along with the dimensions and weight/forces, etc.–we arrive at a focus that takes us inward. (Not enough of us activate this front of the lower trunk (ie belly) nor the back of the upper back nor the front of the neck. These points are barely accepted intellectually and mostly absent in ones “sensory” practice.)
No longer are we facilitating too much extension energy/forces or starting to slump forward in flexion energy/forces–but we create a equilibrium. This equilibrium will automatically elicit these bandhas that everyone is trying to do and make happen. These bandhas and mudras will spontaneously occur.
The mind subtly that let’s say had 2 foci of attention on the front and back now can collapse those two into one. This subtlety is not popularly appreciated nor trained for properly.
Also as mentioned in previous posts the style of diaphragmatic breathing that uses the belly mainly places the diaphragm to face more anteriorly. This belly aspect of the diaphragm lacks the postural stability of the trunk that the diaphragm can provide (when used this way). Belly breathing over activates the extensors of the spine/back, etc.
When you place the lower ribs which the diaphragm attaches (in part) to face the pelvis you have an opportunity to use more three dimensional breathing. When you breathe diaphragmatically more from the lower rib cage rather than using the diaphragm of the belly–you have centrated this huge/forceful, very repetitive motion of life. You now sit with greater stability and ease. This aspect of the diaphragm of the lower ribs is also poorly understood and not properly trained. This type of centrated breathing more easily facilitates the centering of the mind also.
Can we lie for meditation or should we sit?
- Lying implies resting and sleeping of both the body and mind for the average person
- Sitting erect is both an advantage for proper breathing and alignment of the spine
- Proper sitting includes centrating both the diaphragm and tensions/dimension of the body to create an automatic/spontaneous interior response
- One must properly practice the steps in preparation
- These steps must include specific drills of linking ones attention at these different foci
- Developing concentration that is stabilized then increase these deeper flows and movements towards absorption and silence
The preparation and program design for meditation is revisited here. Favorite and popular methods can be mis-represented by both the current crop of teachers and students.
Meditation spoken of here is not just the casual quieting of our “monkey minds”. It is not about becoming some great ego-centered teacher or accomplished practitioner of some arcane esoteric science. Meditation starts with proper preparation that slowly and gradually leads to a laser like focused mind that moves deeper inwards to these states of absolute silence and absorption. The beginning of meditation starts in that state. Everything else is preparation.
Meditation seems to have it’s popular times and localities and experts. Suddenly people in fitness are jumping on the bandwagon of “meditating” and finding wonderful success. The East from India to Asia has the market cornered. Buddhist teachers advise Yoga (meaning asana) practitioners to learn to meditate from them and then “do” Yoga. In the USA, mindfulness meditation has taken the academic and general population’s fancy.
There is veracity in many of these above mentioned approaches and view points. But what is needed to begin preparation for meditation?
We all need many things in life. Food/water and shelter can be a good start. Maybe having a job or life purpose could be good. How about a personal relationship that helps us understand ourselves beyond what we think at the moment. Traditionally this meant getting married and raising a family.
There are all these basic needs that connect us to the world outside and the world inside. Meeting these basic needs and stabilizing them are often a first step in the preparation for mediation.
If one’s lifestyle is too chaotic and unstable, relaxing and breath awareness is a good alternative. Hey just eating better and exercising can be worth much more than forcing yourself to sit for long periods of meditation hoping someday to become enlightened.
Always re-evaluate your program to see if you are moving towards your goals in life. But do not under value the power of proper lifestyle management. Make it practical and doable first. Then when your life allows, come into a proper practice regimen.
Is it not uncommon to want NOW what we want. We want to be slimmer by tomorrow. We expect our chronic problems to be better after just a few days of effort. We wonder why have not met our “soul mate”. We have been looking for years. When asked what a person is doing to meet people they actually have only talked to their friends and not anyone much else out of their normal circle of relationships.
The actual methods we use are woefully insufficient to reap the benefits we are envisioning. We do this with our 10 minute a day fitness routine for our 6-pack abs! The proper preparation over the appropriate time is missing in many of our programs.
Often we don’t even have a progressive program. We bite off way too much or way too little. Our expectations exceed our efforts. It is not for lack of trying for many of us. It is just such poor program design and follow through that we end up not noticing much progress.
The most impactful and important things of our life that we want to achieve take time and good programming. Mediation is no different.
First we have to realize that the mediation we are talking about here is that which leads to silence and absorption. It is a very high goal. So the first steps are basically getting ones life in order. Check out your lifestyle and examine our thinking. Are we over worked, over fed, under exercised and literally starving for love and affection.
Really take time to live life properly. Establish a lifestyle that supports this interior journey of discovery. If life is constantly taking our focus outward to deal with major stresses surrounding us, then address them first. The power of life lived well will take us deeper than any artificial practice of meditating or whatever it might be. This one sentence/thought needs to be considered more deeply than just a casual reading of it will give to us.
Examine not only what we are doing in life, but also what are we thinking and feeling in life. This is not to prescribe a particular world view or provide some great psycho-therapeutic insight. It is just important to examine where our thoughts take us. Do we have a ton of negative thoughts that we are controlled by?
All the wisdom traditions and many religions have their commandments and guidelines for “right/good” thinking and actions. Do not rush over the examination of what preoccupies our minds and hearts. Do consider what is our philosophy and what guides our thinking and action. In today’s world many have no philosophy of life that is lived—it is only thought of—and then only on Sunday or what ever rare occasion is which it is superficially and poorly addressed. This topic is expanded greatly by others and will not be detailed here.
Realize that life is not lived in some uni-linear progression. Even if at the moment our life seems in order, just hang on to your hat for that next moment when it totally seems to fall apart.
There of course will be times of both good and bad. Those that remark that life is always fine and wonderful—are either very advanced beings (which there are probably a handful in history) or under a huge illusion both of themselves and life.
So these preliminary steps that we take over the years to properly prepare, will have periods of adjustment and interruption. All of us will have to revisit and revise our lifestyles and re-examine where we need to be practicing in life. Initially (probably many decades for many of us) life will take us up and down. Much later as life continues to go up and down but we don’t rise or fall as far.
Slowly with a stronger and deeper practice we can stabilize our connection to our changing lifestyles. We develop an equanimous capacity or even tempered ability in a difficult situation. Again this capacity takes a lot of trial and effort over a long and arduous life. A life lived with ease is often a very sheltered and control life at the beginning. Many people fool themselves too early on their too easily arrived at accomplishments. Only when life has given much and then taken away do we truly test ourselves.
Getting these preliminaries in order is not just in acquiring a good life. It is in living that life and experiencing the losses of that life and then going on to live fully once again.
Life well lived is the preliminary preparation needed for mediation practice.
Doing a complex asana and trying to maintain proper alignment/balance and breathing can be too challenging for some. We should evaluate in a progressive (easier to harder) sequence of postures that allow both the teacher and student to see/feel where they need to work first.
My concern here is that in doing asanas, sometimes we do not have the pre-requisites need at that level of that asana. If one finds that the student is not repeatedly able to accomplish the instruction, maybe this level of the task is too difficult. In this case, we should evaluate some of the preliminary skills and attributes needed. Often this means regressing or making the posture easier. The position needs to change so the posture itself is not so difficult.
Look at some of the examples below for preliminary positions to evaluate and work on training of basic alignment/balance and the breath.
Briefly let me touch on these terms of alignment, balance and breathing. These three terms have an implication of “proper” and “optimal”. Proper use of these basic concepts and principles are primary guides for working properly in asana. Remember the goal here in asana is move deeper into ones own consciousness from a spiritual perspective. This point will not be expanded here. It should be remembered for context, as most of this article is about preparation in asana that normally is missed or distorted.
Alignment, Balance and Breathing
Alignment is the gross relationship of one body part to another. Most of us have had lots of coaching with this aspect. Some people confuse choreography with proper alignment. Here the difference is explained in a simple standing asana. You may align the trunk in extension in Trikonasana (triangle pose) because you choreographed it that way. The alignment though is in extension. It is not a balanced alignment.
Balance is not a term here about the capacity to balance say on one leg. It is not balance related to inner ear and righting reflexes that sometimes is impaired. Let’s look at the above example of Trikonasana when you are in trunk extension. The balance between the front and back musculature is affected. There is an over activity of the back muscles, driving the body into some extension. There is an under activity to the front belly muscles that no longer create a balance of neuro-muscular activity. The front of the body is a bit longer and the lower 1/2 of the back of the trunk is shorter. Balance can be examined from side to side as well as top to bottom, etc. It is mainly about one area of the body being neuro-muscularly turned up while another area of the body is neuro-muscularly turned down. One area is more relaxed and the other area is more contracted or activated.
Does the proper amount of turning up and turning down of neuromuscular activity allow for better alignment and breathing?
Breathing here referring to proper diaphragmatic breathing rather than upper chest breathing. Ideally a beginner starting out would have maybe more of a belly style of breath vs the upper chest. Often with training it moves into a more three dimensional breath. This latter style has less belly excursion and more lateral/posterior lower rib movement. All these different styles use the diaphragm. The orchestration of what is moved and how much is the main differentiation. Full diaphragmatic breathing is optimal not just because of efficient neuromuscular coordination but for proper nervous system and blood gas regulation.
If one is doing a simple triangle pose as outlined above, how can we help them find a better way of doing it. Realize that this critique is not agreed by all. The overall consideration here is a lack of balance between the front and back of the body. So that we are not stabilized but actually backward bending when we want to side bend as in Trikonasana. Also the resultant posture facilitates belly breathing as it is mainly emphasizing the diaphragmatic movement of the central tendon (versus the diaphragm of the lower six ribs). Now we want them to be in a better posture so that they can breathe better too. The beneficial detail is not described here.
So we often start with verbal and tactile cues to have someone try to correct the above. This cueing should only be a temporary first choice. It is “corrected” but it is not felt by the student. They just “do” it better, not really deeply understanding it from a proprioceptive standpoint. It is an image in ones mind, not a felt sense in the body often (not always though).
If one is having a problem in a standing asana, does that same problem exist when they in other positions? We often see that it does. The standing problem is preceded by the same impairments that were never learned in earlier positions.
This is where some knowledge or appreciation of how children progressively learn movement from the ground upwards is helpful. We can use some of these progressions in a simple way.
Check the persons movement and breathing patterns when they lie on their back. For someone who is always posturing in trunk extension, do they lie with a big space under the lower back to lower thoracic spine. Do they also then have the front lower rib borders lifted up? Is their pelvis anteriorly tilted which also increase the arch of the lower back and increase the flexion at their hips?
Do they breath with their upper chest, belly or more three dimensionally? If they breathe with their upper chest they need to do a whole other series of lying on the belly in Makarasana (crocodile pose)—and then working towards sandbag breathing, etc.
Let’s say they are lying in this extended posture. Their front lower ribs are elevated and the belly is long. The lower back is short and arched off the floor—the pelvis could even be tilted a bit anteriorly.
Also we often see that the shoulders are anterior and up off the floor, the neck in back is short so that their collar/cervico-thoracic area is off the floor significantly. (Not apparent in this picture) Their breathing pattern is often to the belly primarily.
Now find out if they can shorten the front of the belly by bringing the front lower ribs towards their pelvis (and their pelvis rotating a bit also. Both movements should shorten the front of the belly and lengthen the back of the lower trunk.
How do they breathe now? Did they stop breathing temporarily? Can they move the lateral and posterior lower ribs vs the belly now that the belly has greater tension?
Evaluation of Trunk Alignment
What happens in this example of reaching overhead in standing? In the first picture there is this overarching of the T/L (thoraco-lumbar) area—and you see the front lower ribs lift away from the front of the pelvis—a lack of proper bracing of the lower trunk.
Now you can correct it in standing, but you need to see if they repeat it in a very basic position in supine (lying on the back).
Lying on the back with knees bent you allow the arms to be raised over the head. Note what happens in the head, neck and trunk. Here we will focus just on the lower trunk area. You can see the mal-alignment between the rib cage and the pelvis. Again this under-activity of the belly and over activity of the back is the imbalance that allows this mis-alignment.
Again note how the breath will be affected when the belly is more likely to expand as in belly breathing. Well at least you might consider belly breathing once again to be more optimal than upper chest breathing. It is fine for a beginner. It is not the three-dimensional breathing we want to have available in many of our asanas.
So we are looking to assess whether one can control these relationships.
If they can, then we teach them to practice it during the activity. If they cannot in this position, we do not keep using the standing position to correct them. We regress the activity to the floor. The floor is provides more stability and really works on this anterior lower trunk relationship. It is a great position to use to evaluate and train someone to start to feel what happens when they raise their arms over their heads. There are lots of cues one can use to include the sense of pressure their lower to mid back has on the floor, as well as the change of breathing pattern, etc.
Then you can make it harder by raising the feet/legs up