Archive for October 2010

Centering Ones Self

Centering-Centrate-Centralize

In posture and activity, stabilizing and or moving from and into a center point can be great feedback.  You start noticing what is your attitude of your body, breath/prana, and your mind.  Where do you stand or sit from?  Where do you move from and into in your life?  What are the effects of the postures we take–both physically and mentally?  How could we organize our postures of our body, breath/energy and our mind?

It is this latter question we wish to speak of at this time.  The other ones are of great interest also and we will allude to them as well.

Coming to this center means finding a balance point within these three systems of the:

  • Body System
  • Breath or Pranic or Energy System
  • Mind System

Body System

Let’s look at posture.  Sitting posture is one place to start.  Sitting for meditation is a great place to start.  To sit well can be a lifetime endeavor.  As you will see or know, all these systems (body, breath and mind) relate closely to each other.  So only for convenience are we separating them out here.

Sit with the head neck and trunk straight.  This is a popular guideline in meditation.  On this site there is an outline (here) for how to arrange the body to sit.  We will not go through that detail but add some other points and emphasize some previous points.

Center All Spinal Junctions

  1. Where the head meets the top of the neck (O-A joint)
  2. Where the bottom of the neck meets the upper back (Cervico-thoracic joint)
  3. Where the bottom of the rib spine meets the top of the low back spine (thoraco-lumbar joint)
  4. Where the bottom of the low back spine meets the sacrum or pelvis (lumbo-sacral joint)

Let’s pick one of the above areas to talk about a bit more.  The thoraco-lumbar joint on many people who try to sit erect or even stand erect is often not placed in the center of its excursion/range. or of it’s tone.  Often I see many people place this area in to much extension.  That means we are leaning backwards too much from this area.  Leaning backwards is part of not leaning forwards.  It is just that this T/L junction placed into too much backward or extension movement.

To understand or appreciate this over extension of the T/L junction we need to see this over effort as a compensation.  It is usually in part taking place in the adjacent areas above and or below.  That means the rib spine or Thoracic spine is too forward or flexed.  The same can be true of the waist spine or lumbar spine (it can be too forward or flexed).

The effort at straightening up in sitting  in this example is just taking some common postural dysfunctions in order to elucidate the issue of centrating the junctional areas of the spine.

This over extended T/L junction causes tension and impedes normal tonic flow of information both grossly and subtly.  This means it is crimping this area like you would crimp a garden hose–it interrupts the flow along the spine.  (whether we talk about a facilitated/inhibited vertebral segment or talk about impeding pranic flow–in principal they are coming from the same problem–postural imbalance of not centering properly)

How to center at the T/L junction

Easiest way to come to center is to first explore the two ends.  So sitting like the above is moving the T/L too far forward–flexing too much and relaxing or over stretching the posterior elements, tsk, tsk.  You are trying to arrive at something in between after you literally flex and extend this area.  You can see that extending at the T/L junction allows one to nicely lift the chest.  If the thoracic spine is stiff and bent a bit forward in flexion, then lifting the chest at this area is a compensation for a problem above. (a dysfunctional compensation for many)

So as you explore moving in flexion and extension at the T/L, make the movement excursion smaller and smaller.  Find this in-between place.  Check the lower ribs that meet the belly to see that they are not lifting nor depressing.  The erecting of the trunk comes from the anterior rotation of the pelvis and less activity of the  lumbar lordosis than many perform.  The centering of the T/L junction is supported by activation of the belly.  The front lower ribs and the front of the pelvis maintain the upper trunk from leaning backward at this junction.

The belly is not rock hard.  Proper diaphragmatic breathing continues and is a check that the belly tone is just right.  If you are breathing only in the belly like an infant, then you are not breathing efficiently.  (Belly breathing is a good first start vs chest breathing.  It is only a starting point, not an end point.  Get instruction if needed.)  Breathing now should be felt more three dimensional.  The belly in proper tone that helps centrate the T/L junction, allows the breath on inhalation to expand laterally and slightly posteriorly.

This centrating or centering the T/L junction often places people with a forward head posture in an exaggeration of their postural dysfunction/problem.  Also many people with a forward head over extend the T/L junction as their compensation.  Then when they try to correct the forward head they over lengthen their O-A junction, by incorrectly doing the turtle movement or head retraction to stand tall.  (isolated cueing without respecting the pattern of compensations is a recipe for failure and adding tensions in order to be correct, which in this case is incorrect.)

Weight of the body is placed through or slightly anterior of the hip joint axis

Most people sit straight with the too much activity of their muscles along the spine, the paraspinals.  First let the weight go through the pelvis with a properly rotated pelvis (slightly forward) and ones normal lumbar lordosis (similar to in standing).  Allow the hip joint to be flexed while the lumbars are in their normal lordosis.  The sacrum is also anteriorly nutated.  (meaning that the lower lumbar spinal segments are supported in extension because the base of the sacrum, the top, is slightly forward.)   This hip position will automatically activate the hip extensors, slightly.   Also the hip flexors are involved in stabilizing the spine.  There is a symphony of balancing activities going on here.   Some of which we have a better idea than of others.  (probably there is more to say and these things said will be revised over time.)  Here the hip extensors are acting eccentrically in a tonic fashion.  (meaning that you are not extending the hip per se but you are using these muscles to control flexion–eccentrics are lengthening contractions, like when you do a push up and lower your body your elbow extensors are controlling the elbow flexion activity vs extending the elbow at that time.)

Breath, Energy or Pranic System

In Yoga the Pranic System is more familiar.  It is often misunderstood.  The breath is on a continuum.  There is gross breath that everyone knows.  Then there is subtle breath.  We now get into “weird” territory for many.  One thing to think about is if you have a dead body and try to just push air into it there is no effect for life.  It does move the chest up and down, but that seems to be it.  There is a life that is carried by the breath, that yoga speaks to as the prana.  Other systems talk about the chi.  What ever you call it the Yogis have spent a long time (thousands of years) in refining and teaching it.

One starts with the breath and establishing diaphragmatic breathing.  There will be a separate post on this later.

There are junctions in the pranic system, just like there are junctions in the physical system.  (imagine that)  These junctions are described with the terms of chakras and marma points.  (as well as other designations)   Just think of them as meeting places of energies of a more subtle nature.  (meaning of subtle here is just a descriptor of less easily noticed, that’s all)

Bandhas and Mudras

In yoga, one way we learn more about the pranic system is through practices of the Bandhas and Mudras.  They are simply a way of channeling these energies.  They have strong effects on the neurological system.  A common Bandha is Moola Bandha.  At the gross level it is tensing of the anal and pelvic sphincters.  It is interesting to note that more and more people are utilizing the pelvic floor activity in functional movement training and diagnostics.  It is a area that is included in describing musculoskeletal coordination in ontogenesis of children or child development.

This means that proper stabilization of various movement patterns have this activity of the pelvic floor being recognized now in mainstream function.  Well the yogis have refined it to a great detail.  I don’t say I understand it completely in that way.  It is just an experience which I wish to share.

When sitting for meditation we will activate this Moola Bandha.  Also the Khechari Mudra (tongue lock) is utilized.   Another Bandha that is helpful is activation of Uddiyana Bandha (stomach lock).  These bindings/redirecting of energies will not be technically taught here.  There are some erroneous claims and methods of applying them.  I only wish to mention another way of working with them once you have some basic experience with them.

Method of working with Bandhas and Mudras

In order to make ones posture steady and stable–and absolutely still these methods will compliment your postural work of coming to center more deeply.  You will be using these Mudras and Bandhas to align your centers and use these energy centers to align and centralize yourself.

  1. Activate the centers with the traditional practices of learning the above mentioned Mudras and Bandhas
  2. Next subtle activate these same Bandhas and Mudras.  This means that in the first step you grossly contracted the muscles and felt and saw the effects.  This second step is were there is only a slight activation that would be barely noticed.  You practice at this level until you feel it easily.
  3. Next you make it more subtle.  There is no perceived body activation now, there is only the sensation of the area within the mind.  It is as if the mind’s awareness becomes activated in that area, which actually is felt as calmness and great stability there.
  4. Next you will find that these Bandhas and Mudras will seemingly spontaneously activate.   You will experience a deep stillness and sharper focus inward.  The outside focus of sensations and thoughts, etc just subsides.

Mind System

Bring the mind to it’s center.  Easier said than done.  To stabilize the mind and bring it towards it’s center we withdraw it from the outside and bring it inside.

  1. First get your minds attention
  2. Second withdraw the mind from the outside sensory input–we do this by quieting the body through relaxing it.
  3. Use the Breath as described above
  4. Increase ones breath awareness with further refinements
  5. Increase the minds focus with sound like a mantra as replacement for the thoughts that just percolate into our awareness
  6. Then slowly shift to observing even the mind as it watches this breath and sound and thoughts that arise
  7. Slowly expand your capacity to remain in this place of observing the mind’s focus
  8. Slowly as you further deepen this state of observing, you will at times loose the focus of the mind
  9. You will enter into a deeper stillness and silence
  10. This stillness can be expanded all on it’s own
  11. At some point there is just nothing
  12. Not sure what continues as one holds or is held in this later step

I have an inkling that there are connections between many of these levels.  These connections are not linear or incrementally progressive.  You can fall in and out of them in both directions.  That is why slowly training the mind in an incremental way is so important.  Otherwise it’s like a chutes and ladder game then–it’s good sometimes and then no good other times.  This change is a part of the journey.  Is it always?

As they say come to that center and find out.  Also enjoy the comings and goings.  Life certainly can be such a drama.  We can over do it and under do it.  This center can create stability and life which is lived as we are.  Lived both from the inside and outside.  Such fun stuff this life stuff.

OK, now let’s go practice.

Romantic Yoga Practice

Issue

Here is the main issue:

Do we talk or think at one level and practice at another?

Many of us start this journey of yoga from different backgrounds.  Those of us who stay are often enamored in it’s tradition and practices.  That is a good thing.  Then in practicing year after year (yes yoga does take time, darn), sometimes we notice increased flexibility and a more calm mind, but…

This “but” is that after time we seem to still remain the same person under stresses that we were before.  How many of us have reached enlightenment.  OK–so we are benefiting some.   This journey in yoga of coming to the self is not unlike climbing the highest peak of the Himalayas.  Think of the preparation training needed to reach the top.   Take any great endeavor.  Look at the amount of training a Gold Medal Olympic athlete puts in everyday.  Look at how we view our training.  Are we more into romanticizing  where we are going vs doing the work to get where we want to go.  (and don’t start with saying we are already there–that is philosophically true but practically an overly romantic and erroneous viewpoint-in my opinionated opinion)

What is our practice really like?  Do we have a program design from week to week and month to month?  Do we just start practicing and not pay attention to how we will progress from one plateau to the next?  Do we train a lot of meditation and leave the body not attended–or vice a versa.  Are we always working with gross mind and gross breath?  Do we use our imagination in thinking about training but lack incremental and progressive training schedules to assist in taking us towards our goal?   Are we more romantically imagining that we will reach such great heights of understanding and being by not doing simply a “ton” of very rigorous practice?

Lots of questions are put forward here.  No point in answering them all here.

Let’s look at what we need to do in our practices.  It is not any different than any great performer or athlete must do in their training.  Find a coach/teacher and then implement good program design and practice a lot in a skillful manner.

Practice

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali has in the 1st Pada, three sutras about practice (Sanskrit: Abhyasa).   Now there are many great teachings that have been given on this subject.  I only want to speak about one aspect of our practice.  The third sutra (YS 1.14) on abhyasa/practice states:

That practice, however, becomes firm of ground only when

  • Done for a long time
  • Done without interruption
  • Done right
  • Done completely, fully and regularly

Now what does this mean to someone who is practicing and looking for clarification of this yogic path to climb this steep mountain.  (Of course this mountain is really the stuff of ourselves that is in our way.  We in yoga spend most of our time cleaning up to allow what is already there to be seen/heard/felt/lived, etc)

Goals

Another definition of practice has to do with the etymology of the Sanskrit word, Abhyasa.   We won’t break it down and teach that part today.  We will use the meaning (slightly altered) from Swami Veda.  Abhyasa is to repeatedly sit again and again facing towards this goal (of the true self) that is evidently right there in front of our noses.  (Also we could launch on the reference of the tip of the nose, is not really the tip but is more related to the center of waking consciousness, up to and including the absolute center of consciousness, etc–but again, not this lesson).

So we have to have goals.  In training we want to define a proper goal.  For example:

  1. Long term goal:  Samadhi and liberation
  2. Short term goal:
    1. Diaphragmatic breathing 1:1
    2. Diaphragmatic breathing 2:1

Journal or Training Record

It is absolutely imperative to write down and record on a regular daily/weekly basis your actual practice.  After you have your goal, you then design a practice routine that will be the road map which will take you naturally to your goal.  You know it doesn’t do this by itself.  It is a great tool to outline what you think you need first.  Then as you do the work as described in the Yoga Sutras (in this case YS 1.14), you can get feedback from your journal on whether it is taking you towards your goal.  Revise it as needed.  You can see if you are walking the talk.  Are you just philosophizing and imagining or once again are you closer to your goal?  Does your practice give the fruit of your labor?  Can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear–they say.  Planting dandelion seeds and expecting roses just doesn’t give you the grace of the rose.   Come on we know this stuff–what is holding us back from reaching what it is that we truly are?

Get perspiration going because inspiration is over-rated.

Outline of progressively training diaphragmatic breathing

First Month

Breathing Classes

  1. Diaphragmatic Breath vs Chest Breath
  2. Navel centered
  3. Belly breathing
  4. Anatomy and Physiology of Breathing
  5. Qualities of the breath
  6. Only breath observation 1st month
  7. Use of Makarasana and Shavasana
  8. Nadi Shodhanam
  9. Digestive Breathing

Training Record

  1. Daily log Meditation Practice
  2. 2 min med
  3. Duration  of dharana in am meditation
  4. Daily log of Pranayama Practices
  5. Makarasana and Shavasana or at least the former
  6. Nadi Shodhanam rounds
  7. Observation comments of qualities of diaphragmatic breathing
  8. Silence day
  9. How long one lasted

Second Month

Breathing Classes

  1. See above and review a lot
  2. Review makarasana and Shavasana practice—support and encourage daily practice even if for short time—check observation of breathing qualities
  3. Deepen qualities of breath with taking one quality and practice and log training
  4. Work with sandbag breathing
  5. Work with paced breathing
  6. 1:1 breathing introduction
  7. Nadi Shodhanam
    1. Expand to include 2d method if ready or refine current level
    2. Progress and Practice up to 6 rounds

Training Record

  1. Daily log Meditation Practice
  2. 2 min med
  3. Duration  of dharana in am meditation
  4. Brief comments on 6 negative emotions that most interfere
  5. Daily log of Pranayama Practices
    1. NS rounds and time taken to complete 3-6 rounds
    2. Observation comments of qualities of diaphragmatic breathing
    3. Record breathing rate/min before and after one of your practices like NS or morning flow class for one week
  6. Jala neti frequency
  7. Silence day and response
  8. Compare this month’s log with last months
  9. Graph one aspect (to compare last month and this month or just for this month)
  10. Graph breathing rate
  11. Graph frequencies of NS or 2 min med

Conclusion

OK, you get the idea.  The above is just a possible outline (in part) of how to utilize these ideas.  I know some of you are familiar with this material.  It is what we used in part in the training at the Gurukulam in SRSG in Rishikesh, India.  This type of training can be done by anyone.  Modify it as needed.  The main idea is to have a goal, a training program, keep a log, use it for feedback and guidance, work for long time, without any significant interruption, work smart and very hard, be fully involved in giving this practice the value it deserves for the goal that you wish to achieve.

Again if there is any way I can help you.  Feel free to comment and/or email to me.  Also consider scheduling an appointment if you are this Northern California area.  Contact me here.

Best of luck in your training.