Archive for breath

Spartan Training Regimen Using Yogic Breathing Technique

In July of 2011, I attended a yoga retreat in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the University of St. Thomas.  It was an opportunity to reconnect with friends, meet new people and experience multiple treasures from the Himalayan Tradition.  One of the interesting things I learned was from a friend (CW) who had discovered how to use Ujjayi Pranayama in treating his painful chronically swollen glands underneath the jaw.  This account completely captivated my attention.  It is an amazing account of diligent practice assiduously applied over a nine month period.  At the end, autoregulation of the his heart rate rhythm was mastered.  The accomplishment is quite laudable.  The great lesson to be learned is about what was done, not about who did it.  The great lesson was doing a practice with an iron determination that bore such amazing fruit.  It is a path of practice that is open to many of us.  It was such an amazing systematic effort made day after day over many months  that impressed me greatly.  I think once again, that it is the strengthening of ones will to focus ones effort at arriving at a place that is talked about, but few examples are given in today’s communities.  Here is one such example that invites us all to re-focus our efforts in our practice.

I remember Swami Rama of the Himalayas speaking about the Science of Breath.  He stated that there were basically two ways to have conscious control over our autonomic nervous system.  One way was to control the motion of the lungs.  The other was through our will power.  The following contains an example that combines both methods.

This gentleman is a long time yoga practitioner who is quite active.  Stating that he is active is a slight understatement.  There is a daily  30 mile (total) bicycle trip to and from work over a rigorous Mountain range.  He hikes and mountain climbs (above 6000 feet) on the weekends.  Also he works as a Mountain Rescue Team Leader with high levels of peak stresses.  The large manufacturing company where he is a senior manager keeps him away from his family a bit too.

Over a year ago he noticed that his glands underneath his jaw would become swollen and painful.  He found no exertional trigger that would set off his symptoms.  There were times that certain foods and periods of increased stress would be associated with more swelling.  Otherwise it did not seem to be clear what was causing this condition.

CW did consult with his regular local medical doctor.  A follow up blood panel revealed elevated cortisol levels.  It was recommended that he try a course of oral steroids.

Later he looked into finding an Ayurvedic doctor, as his travels to India made this a knowable option.  The following is a description of his Ayurvedic (USA) evaluation and subsequent very interesting and intense training regimen.

His initial Ayurvedic appointment consisted of evaluation and instructions in a specific protocol to deal with these elevated cortisol levels.  His doctor started with a pulse diagnosis for two minutes.  No other verbal interview was conducted before this reading.  His doctor then proceeded to write a two page list of notes that quite accurately described many of his habits and preferences.  These included food preference, when he arose in the morning, his sleep habits, etc.  He was also able to accurately relate much of his prior medical history with only this pulse diagnosis.  This is amazing but they say not atypical for a good Ayurvedic practitioner.

The doctor then listened to his athletic history as described above.  This person was using a Polar wrist Heart Rate (HR) monitor often.  He often used 2:1 breathing during his training.  This pattern is breathing twice as long on the exhalation as on the inhalation.

They then went outside for a simple walking course of about a 1/2 mile.  He wore a HR monitor to record his rate and rhythm.  During this time, CW was instructed to keep his heart rate as level as possible during a normal pace of walk.

Returning back to the clinic, the HR monitor information was downloaded into a computer program for simple analysis.  The graphic analysis showed that his HR was around 180 beats per minute (bpm), without any unnecessary exertion.  The doctor mentioned that this is typically seen in overtrained athletes.

Next, time was taken to teach him a particular breathing pattern called Ujjayi.  Ujjayi breath here was done very vigorously both on the inhale and exhale phase.  If CW had not been accomplished in diaphragmatic breathing, he would have needed several weeks to train it first.  Please follow the above hyperlink for more detailed information on this “pranayama” or breath regulation method of the Yoga Tradition

Then they repeated the same monitored walking course of a 1/2 mile.  During this time he was instructed to maintain a steady 1:1 breathing pattern and use the Ujjayi technique.  A repeated analysis of the graphic HR rhythm showed his HR was at 130 now.  Pretty impressive change with this traditional yogic method of breathing!

His doctor briefly explained that his adrenals had become overactive.  They were producing excessive cortisol.  The body can become fixated at these higher levels of cortisol production during an abnormal stress response.  If he could train during his physical activity with this Ujjayi technique, he would be able to retrain his system.  He would learn how to autoregulate his HR under physical stress.  (Even emotional stressors that elevated his HR would be controlled subsequently).  WOW!  The following  will describe an outline of his training regimen from the first month to his final Ayurvedic consult in the ninth month.

First and Second Month:
His normal bicycle route was elevating his HR too quickly with the hills.  Therefore a 15 minute warmup period on the flats while doing Ujjayi was initiated.  Then continue on his route with slightly less hills.  This new route added 60 minutes/day to his previous time of commute.  Therefore he had to arise 30 minutes earlier every day (4:30 am, whew!)

He had to try to maintain his HR always at 120 or less during the ride.  A Polar HR monitor was used daily.  The first week of doing this very strong and forceful Ujjayi made his throat very sore and raw feeling.  There were lots of episodes of choking, coughing and breaks in the technique while continuing to pedal to work.  Just try it yourself right now for those who have an idea of the technique–remember it is “vigorous”.   Ok, once you stop coughing, please continue reading.

Also during this exertional effort of riding and restricted breathing style there were other strong symptoms.  One feels as though they are deprived of oxygen.  When you just don’t feel you are getting enough oxygen it can be fairly alarming.  Oh, I’m suppose to relax also during this physical effort–oh, oh the ole HR is hitting above 120 again.  Ok just try to do the Ujjayi, keep pedaling and stay here.  Many times the thought of quitting crossed his mind this first week.  Egads this sounds like tremendous focus and dedication at these challenging times.

The second week was a little better.  He was getting used to the Ujjayi and the sore throat problem was subsiding.  Still this tremendous fear of not be able to breathe was right there.  Thoughts of quitting were never far from his mind.

By the third week he was able to perform the Ujjayi breath 100% of the time, except not in the hills.  He was not in Nirvana to say the least.  It was an effort still but doable.

Third and Fourth Month:
He now returned to his original mountain route.  A five minute warmup on the flats were his only preparation.  The Ujjayi was full and loud.  He still had to maintain the HR of 120, but only on the flats.  During the hills he was no longer restricted to maintain the 120 bpm.  He was just to observe the HR response during the hill work.  It was noted that he wasn’t hitting his previous peak of 180 bpm as quickly as before.

It was still a struggle to do 1:1 Ujjayi breathing in the hills.  Occasionally he would have to slow the pace.  Realize that his work load was so high and his breathing so restrictive that he noted symptoms of exertional intolerance.  He referred to these symptoms as spinnies and stars.  (equilibrium and visual disturbances).   In this third month, the hill work frequently interrupted the Ujjayi breathing simply because of ventilatory insufficiency (lack of oxygen).  He therefore had to reduce the speed of his ride.  Therefore again he extended his commute time.  (Oh boy, gotta love those early mornings).

It might be hard for us mere mortals to imagine this type of effort.  Certainly the discipline of this level of training could be unknown to many of us.  Remember that he is actually operating at a high level of athletic function.  Even several high level athletes that tried this regimen, still ended up stopping before completion.  His level of sankalpa (resolution) was demonstrated day after every day.  Both his mind and his body were being strengthened.

By the beginning of the fourth month he was able to breathe with Ujjayi 100% of the time in the hills.  Realize too that he was hiking and mountain climbing on weekends above 6250 feet, still using the Ujjayi breath.  Again it was done with great difficulty and tremendous discipline.  He had his ole familiar symptoms of spinnies and stars for company.

Fifth and Sixth Month:

During the fifth and sixth month he now consciously tried to not let his HR peak above 120.  His focus now was to relax and do the Ujjayi breathing.  During this time, he would internally focus on keeping the HR steady and eliminate the prior peaks.

His cycling pace had to be slowed down the first couple weeks of this training period.  Again his focus was not to be thinking about the mechanics of pushing and pulling on the pedals, etc.  His focus was breathing and internally making the HR steady without any accelerations of this internal rhythm.  He kept relaxing and doing the Ujjayi breath.  This feedback of his internal state was the regulator of his training work load.  He became very connected internally to the sensations of what it felt like when his heart rate would elevate.  He built up both conscious and subconscious feedback for the auto regulation of his pulse during high levels of exertion.

By the end of the 6th month he was able to maintain his HR below 120.  There was much less effort needed to do the Ujjayi and maintain his HR at his prescribed target.  Still there were times during the strenuous ride when his heart rate would peak above 140 bpm.  At these times he was able to easily restore it to the proper training levels.

He was noting in general that over these past six months of training, he was feeling progressively less fatigued.  Realize that during this time he was still quite busy in the organizational and administrative duties of his job and avocational pursuits.  Remember he continued to pursue vigorous hill and mountain work/rescue activities while still practicing the above regimen.

Seventh and Eighth Month:

Now he was gradually reducing his use of the Ujjayi breathing.  This means it was less vigorous and less loud.  Within the 7th month, he introduced only doing the Ujjayi on exhalation, not on the inhalation phase.  He still practiced on consciously maintaining his HR at or below his 120 bpm target during exertion.  He stated that he was now finding it much easier to do this autoregulation of the HR without needing to use the Ujjayi breath.

At the end of his 8th month, he was able to completely stop the use of Ujjayi and still consciously and proficiently autoregulate his HR response.  He was now using his original bicycle commuter route of 30 miles round trip.

Ninth Month:

He was now scheduled to have his final check in with his Ayurvedic doctor.  During these previous months he had phone consults with this doctor.  They were just progress checks.  No real changes in his program were made at these times.

Now he and his doctor noticed several improvements.  There were no longer any tender swollen glands.  There had been a gradual reduction of these signs over the first 6 months.   He could not say that he had any real increase in energy, as he was always energetic.  The bicycle commute though was made with less exertion and effort now.  He now had to reduce his caloric intake because he was much more calorically efficient.   Fats and starchy carbohydrates were reduced at this time.

Also at this time he started using a single speed bicycle (geared at 42/18).  Starting this single speed bike on the hills and mountain passes was tremendously difficult even now.  He had not turned into Superman yet.  You have no idea how difficult it is to pedal a single geared bike over mountain passes.  Tears fill your eyes, not because of emotions but because of shear severe maximal efforts required here.  He just felt that his prior rigorous training made it doable.

Now listen closely to this next sentence.  He was able to still keep his HR at 120 even when initially adapting in the first couple of months to this new endeavor.  This response is just a demonstration of an amazing adaptive capacity that is trainable.

He found that he could mentally regulate his heart rate under many conditions of physical and emotional stressors.  Listening to his inner sense of his cardiac function became second nature.  He was able to accurately sense and autoregulate it’s rate under biking, hiking, climbing, kayaking and skiing.  As mentioned before, even under emotionally stressful situations, he could sense an elevation in his HR and again begin to autoregulate it,  thereby modulating his emotional response in these situations.

It has been a year now after the intense training period.  He still finds the effects of sensing and autoregulation to be an intimate part of the way he lives.  Everything that he did has been done by others.  Of course some who have attempted it have dropped out.  As you can see it is a rigorous training regimen.

Realize what you want.  Design a proper program.  Engage in it and shape your mind with your determination.  The body will follow.  Realize that there are no short cuts.  It is a lot of work if you wish to achieve something other than the ordinary.  You can be extraordinary through such as is encouraged here.  Now go and train.

Popular Misconceptions of Breathing

Breathing

We breathe and we live (or is it the other way around).  There are many excellent resources on breathing.  This article will focus on some of the popular misconceptions of the diaphragm in breathing.

Popular misconceptions (taught world wide and in current anatomy texts)

  1. Some people speak of chest breathing versus diaphragm breathing.  Does this mean that if you breathe with your chest you are not using the diaphragm?  If you are moving air into and out of your lungs and still alert for longer than 30 seconds, then your diaphragm is moving.  You will use your diaphragm essentially all the time you move air, whether you see your chest or belly primarily moving.
  2. Only the central portion of the diaphragm moves in breathing.  Really?
  3. The diaphragm is only active on inspiration.  Expiration is essentially passive.  Hmm-mm.

We will be primarily addressing the second and third misconception listed above.

Brief Anatomy of the Diaphragm

It is a dome shaped muscle when at rest or after the expiration/exhalation phase of breathing.

Here are it’s distal (furthest away from the center-line of the body) attachments:

  • Costal or ribs number 7-12
  • Lumbar vertabrae number 1-3
  • Xypho-Sternal aspect

Here is the proximal (close to center-line of the body) attachment:

  • Central tendon

Now there are more complete descriptions of these attachments in most anatomy texts that you can review in the library and on the web.  For now I want you to think about this division of distal and proximal attachments for the diaphragm.

Muscular attachments and directions of contraction

The diaphragm is one of the few muscles that does not attach one bone to another.  The face is another exception to this popular occurrence of muscular anatomy.  Keep in mind that contraction of the diaphragm is occurring between the proximal and distal attachments.  It is not occurring between the ribs and the spine.  Please keep this picture in your mind.  That means that when it contracts in inspiration it is shortening the distance between the proximal attachment (central tendon) and distal attachments.  Therefore in simple terms one end is coming closer to the other end.  (Although in reality they are both moving to different degrees)

Here in inspiration as the diaphragm contracts you could see that the central tendon would be pulled down.  This downward movement of the central tendon causes the lungs to fill with air.  Some people only describe the movement of the central tendon in inspiration.  This is only partially complete.

Let’s deviate for a moment to looking at the action of your bicep muscles in isolation.  Here the biceps connects the forearm bone to the upper arm bone (essentially).  The action is to bend the elbow.  (Only partially true).  So if you bring your hand (distal part) to your shoulder (proximal part), the bicep is moving them closer.  This is true only if the shoulder is fixed in space and the hand is free to move (like when you lift up a gallon of milk).  If your hand (distal) is fixed to an overhead bar or tree limb and you contract the bicep muscle it brings your shoulder (proximal) closer to the fixed hand (the ole pullup).  Similar actions but different parts (attachments) are moving while other parts (attachments) are fixed.

Also notice that the bicep muscle is active in lifting AND lowering in both cases.  Let’s take the example of the lifting glass gallon of milk up with you hand.  As the milk/hand comes closer to the shoulder the bicep is actively shortening in it’s (concentric) contraction.  If the bicep muscle were essentially passive in returning the hand away from the shoulder (in this case the act of lifting), then the glass gallon would possible slam into the table below.  This may be a bit laborious for some to read, but stay with it if you can keep your mind focused here.  Lowering of that gallon of milk can be observed with the bulging of the bicep muscle seen in both directions.  The opposing tricep muscle here is essentially inactive.  This is true also in the pullup example.  The same muscle is active in raising and lowering.  (This dual action will be the same in the diaphragm)

The bicep is actually active in lifting and lowering of the milk/hand.  This is respectively the concentric (shortening activity) and the eccentric (lengthening activity) of the muscle.  Let me labor this point further.  There are still authors and teachers who teach that muscles can only contract in one direction (often stated about the diaphragm).  They say it takes a second muscle or force to activate the second direction.  Of course the force of gravity is always present.  But to say that the diaphragm is passive in exhalation is an error.

Diaphragmatic function in inspiration and expiration

The central nervous system sends a signal via the phrenic nerve (the anatomical origin exits through the neck via the chest cavity to the diaphragm) to activate the diaphragm.  The diaphragm is involved in both concentric contraction and eccentric contraction.  The latter has been poorly described if at all.  I feel that this error is due to very poor functional knowledge of the way things actually work.  These explanations of contraction and then relaxation lead one to speak of one phase being active and the other passive.  This idea becomes erroneous and the propagated to the detriment of proper functional training of the diaphragm.

The diaphragm can fix either the proximal or distal end and move it’s opposite.

  1. In inspiration, if the rib and sternal attachments are fixed (by the action of the abdominal and costal muscles), the action of contraction of the diaphragm will lower the central tendon.  We then see the belly protrude forward.  Often this type of inspiration/inhalation is referred to as belly breathing.
  2. Another style of inspiration is when the central tendon is held in a static position (often by an increase in intra-abdominal pressure, which impedes the central tendon from descending).  Then the action of diaphragmatic contraction will cause the ribs to elevate and expand the interior dimension.  Often this style of three dimensional costal breathing of the lower rib cage is referred to as diaphragmatic breathing.
  3. Another style would be a combination of these proximal and distal attachments being held in part and allowed to move in part also.
  4. In expiration, the diaphragm is returning to it’s resting/starting position of a dome like appearance.  The diaphragm is just not flaccid during this phase, as often suggested by the word passive exhalation.

Eccentric phase of the diaphragm

When (in expiration/exhalation) the diaphragm returns, it is still contracting (in it’s lengthening return to rest).   Let’s look at setu bandasana.  This is the bridge pose in yoga where you lie on your back with your knees bend with feet standing on the ground.

When you inspire, you can see that the diaphragm must push against the weight of the abdominal contents.  Literally the diaphragm muscle is lifting this weight of the internal organs in this pose.  It actually is quite strengthening for the diaphragm, as are all inverted postures/asanas.  Now when you exhale, often slowly, the return of the diaphragm muscle if it was passive, would be a rapid release of the abdomen.  This erroneous belief of a passive diaphragm in this case would create a dramatic “whoosh” of exhaled air.  We know this is not what regularly happens, but quite the opposite.  This slow release is because the diaphragm is actively lowering the belly contents as it returns back to it’s starting position higher up in the chest cavity.

This eccentric phase of the diaphragm is occurring on all positions.  It can be more easily appreciated in inverted postures.

Orchestration of breathing

There are many styles and names of various ways we inhale and exhale.  We can orchestrate the different patterns of breathing through our positions and activations/inhibitions of all the muscles involved.  There are many other important muscles of breathing.  The internal and external intercostals will not be discussed in any detail.  They are extremely important along with the abdominal muscles, especially the obliques in helping to choreograph the visible expansion and contraction of the chest and belly volumes.

Just realize that in breathing the diaphragm is always involved in moving the air (if we are conscious for more that 30 sec).  Even in upper chest breathing (vs just saying chest breathing), the diaphragm is responsible for the intake of air.  In paradoxical breathing, where the chest expands and the belly is pulled up and inward, the diaphragm is still the prime mover.  In this style of breathing, radiography has shown even an elevation of the diaphragm.  Realize that the distal costal attachments are pulling outwards to such an extreme extent that the diaphragm is still contracting even though it is slightly doming up in the chest cavity.

Functional Training

So what!  Literally if you are still reading you may be wondering something similar.  If not OK!  Either way at this time we should look at the so what factor.  Knowing that the diaphragm is active in both phases of breathing will definitely affect your training of breathing.  Breathing for most people is inefficient.  So many people are suffering unnecessarily because they are not breathing well.

Also people are not re-training their breathing patterns properly.  We must include this eccentric phase of the diaphragm in our training.  I think we do in some ways now when we prescribe for people to breath slowly.  The exhalation phase that is active can lead to greater awareness of the breath flow.  Knowing that you are actively working both phases of the breath from the diaphragm will translate into better training regimens.  Adding resistance to the eccentric phase of breathing is very important.  Many people have a very weak diaphragm.  So the use of an abdominal sandbag or using inverted positions becomes very important.  Also I really like the Makarasana position or crocodile pose to help here.  The Himalayan Tradition in teaching proper diaphragmatic breathing commonly uses this asana.

Conclusion

Now when you train your breathing patterns include this active exhalation model of the diaphragm.  See if this concept helps focus and enhances your training.  Let me know what you find out.

The best in your training efforts.

Please contact me if I can be of further assistance.

Peter

Effective Exercise

Strong Mind and Body

Do we get the best results from our exercise selections?  How do we select which exercise to perform?  Besides matching the proper exercise for the problem we have, what else is important?

Is being effective due to:

  • The proper selection of the correct exercise?  or
  • How we do that exercise/movement?

Effective Exercise

First we must congratulate ourselves because we are doing exercises.  Next we have usually identified some reason for putting down the remote and/or getting out of bed.  Now let’s move quickly on to someone who wants to perform their particular task or skilled movement better.  It could be that they want to jump higher, cut quicker on the field, get into better shape/condition or simple perform a yoga posture that is particularly challenging.  Let’s take the latter case to illustrate several of these points on how to effectively exercise.  (We are expanding the definition of exercise and bending the definition of yoga asana here to make some points, knowing that the purists may start off disagreeing too early here)

Yoga Asana–Chakrasana

This is not a complete description of how to do Chakrasana.  We are using this posture/asana as an example of some one who wishes to do an exercise or asana effectively.  (This example could be extrapolated into many of the “corrective exercises” being given and performed today.

Let’s start with looking at a typical example of someone wanting to be more flexible.  They have taken up Yoga asanas in a class.  At some point the teacher has progressed to this pose called Chakrasana or wheel.  It is fairly vigorous for many, as can be seen by the picture above.  Again this could be an example of someone wanting to jump higher and get stronger in their legs who at some point starts doing one leg squats.  It really doesn’t matter the movement activity by itself.  It is again looking at how to exercise effectively.

Truly in exercise/movements it would be best if we knew ourselves well.  (Know thyself–OK, end of philosophy).

  • Where do we move well–actually where and in which directions do we have ease and dis-ease
  • What movements are strong/stable/powerful and have endurance (both in mobility and in stability)
  • Which tasks and/or skills do we prefer and which ones do we stay away from
  • Do we move smoothly and in a coordinated fashion
  • Do we breathe or frequently hold the breath with frequent efforting
  • Can we stay focused and pleasant in our mind or just the opposite

These are just some of the aspects or questions to ask in order to get to know HOW we move and therefore better know ourselves.  Knowing ourselves better will allow us to move better.  We can take full advantage then of the exercises or movements being selected.

Maybe Chakrasana (or single leg squats) are not the best exercise at the moment.  Maybe the way in which we do them is not allowing the benefits of those movements to create the tremendous results that await us.

Where (location and direction) and how do we move well (and where/how we don’t)

We need to look at large patterns of movement.  We want to see and feel how the body moves in all directions from the major areas of the body while performing a variety of movement patterns/tasks/skills.

  • Bending and reaching
  • Twisting
  • Pushing and pulling
  • Squatting and kneeling
  • Rolling and crawling
  • Sitting and standing
  • Walking, running, hopping and jumping

Where in the body do we move a lot and where are we stiffer.  Often this inquiry stops here.  It is insufficient.  The shoulders may be tight in lifting them above our head but have a lot of movement in the opposite direction.  Especially important is to notice difference from side to side and up to down.  Maybe our hips are able to extend (backward bend) well but our shoulders cannot open in that same direction.  Maybe one shoulder does more opening that the other–do you see that in Chakrasana then you would create a rotation of the trunk.

Look at the picture again and you see that the hips are opening well in backward bending.  The lower back spine is bending a lot.  The rib spine or thoracic spine is not backward bending at all in the mid to upper back.  The shoulders are also tight in this same direction.

Isn’t it interesting to note that this person is doing the general direction of this Wheel pose.  It is just HOW they are doing it that is of note here.  Therefore they will be over using hips and low back (and neck) and under using shoulders and mid-upper back (and wrists).

What if we knew where we moved and didn’t.  This might totally change what we do and how we do it.  Of course the results would be vastly different.  Our learning then and what we pay attention to would be expanded.  The changes across many different systems could be facilitated (musculoskeletal, fascial, nervous system, respiratory, immune, etc)

What movements are strong/stable/powerful

Again looking at this picture, we can ask several questions.  I know it would be better if we actually had a video.  Then truly we could appreciate the movement qualities better.  This picture and discussion will at least highlight the points of this article.

Looking at the two ends of this Wheel pose–which end, the leg or arm end, looks most stable?  You can see how the weight of the body is carried behind the arms.  Are the shoulders weak or only stiff?  or both?  Address whatever is involved with a more appropriate regression of this pose first.  Identify weakness and lack of stability of the shoulder complex with the arm above the shoulder level.  There are many ways of doing these tests/movement regressions.  We will not go into that detail here.

Looking at the middle of the body and seeing how the front of the lower back (the belly) over lengthens.  The lower back  over shortens.  How much of this over extension of the low back is a mobility problem of the thoracic spine in extension?  (or/and does it involve lack of stabilization of the anterior belly region.)

First you would have to decrease the challenge of this activity.  Take them out of trying to do this asana.  Place them on the floor and have them roll from belly to back with only the arms and head.  Do they activate their belly enough to transmit the rolling through the trunk from the arms.  Could their shoulders and thoracic spine be so stiff as to even impede this movement. Further investigation would be warranted.  This again is just to highlight a perspective of looking and asking questions.

By looking at more of these larger movement patterns, it will become clearer.

Which tasks and/or skills do we prefer and which ones do we stay away from

I wonder if this person loves to do backward bending movements where the shoulders are not flexed near their end ranges (that is over head position, above shoulder level).  So let’s make up a scenario that I see frequently in the clinic.  They would do  easily cobra or lying on their stomachs with arms by their sides.  Even Camel pose (tall kneeling and bending backwards to place hands on heels) would be available.  Any superman type position or boat pose would be done with substitution and difficulty.  They would never practice hand stand as it is too tiring.

If this lack of using the extremities over the head (in Chakrasana) causes such stress, then it may need to be regressed or made easier.

This easier movement may allow the proper awareness and adjustments to overusing and underusing that is being outlined here.

Do we move smoothly and in a coordinated fashion

This examination of coordination and agility reinforces many of the above observations.  Again whatever we move well and strongly, those are things we do.  We always use what we have even when trying to do something else.

Let me digress from this example to talk more of our preferences and avoidance’s in general movement.  We use the same patterns of movements and habits even in opposite directions.  It is not unusual to see someone who is trying to sit on the floor and has a lot of left knee pain (for example–in a cross leg, sukhasana pose).  Sometimes in looking at them you see their weight shifted to their left hip, although they are leaning a bit to their right.  You find they are in right sidebending of their trunk.  When you ask them to sit on a chair and turn right and left they still have most of their weight on their left sit bone.  In other words they do their movements of rotation and still maintain their right side bending of their trunk.  Their coordination remains dysfunctional even though you would give them a movement to change it.

This latter dysfunction a very important point to discover.  Our movement habits often remain and don’t change just because we are doing some corrective asana or exercise.  The WAY we move becomes also very important.

Do we breathe or frequently hold the breath

OK, breathing is so important.  It is a barometer of our mind and nervous system.  Sure at the beginning one may fine this breath rhythm disturbed.  The habitual and repetitive nature of an interrupted breath is very detrimental to our learning and proper response to the exercise.  A jerky breath relates to a jerky focus of the mind and all the other negative effects in all systems.

Try moving only so far as the breath can flow well.  This does not mean that you can’t cause strain.  That is ridiculous.  As one continues to do repetitions or hold the pose, the breath should be noted to start to flow well.  Otherwise there is not practice.  One is just violently stimulating the system.  Of course you have some changes even with the breath always being strained.  This abnormal breath rhythm though is very limiting and over the long term is detrimental to health and well being.

Can we stay focused and pleasant in our mind

Alright, take off the music headphones.  Pay attention to what you are doing and what you are feeling.  A good barometer like the breath is to ask whether you are pleasant in your mind.  GEEZ, you mean we have to be smiling all the time.  OK, less drama here.  Just note what happens to your overall sense of tensing and effort when you notice that your mind is not pleasant.  Whenever I ask this question in class or to individuals, I never fail to see an easing of tension, even a  : o )

Also when the mind is more pleasant–often you will notice an ease in the movements.  Try it just like you would try breathing with more awareness and ease.

Whew

So now when you exercise, you can ask more questions.  Effective exercise is creating the proper effect you want and/or that is available in the stimulation of the movement done well.  Effective exercise involves BOTH the selection of the right exercise the proper way of moving–

  • The Body
  • The Breath
  • The Mind

So before and during your next exercise session, take time to pay attention.  Use the movements to create opportunities to sense and breath.  Train hard up to your capacities.  To know your capacities, you must practice a lot.  You would benefit by coaching or skilled guidance.  Try using these principles–pick one, like having a pleasant mind.  Then go find a skilled coach/teacher and get some quality feedback.

Best of luck in your effective exercise.

Feel free to comment or contact me directly for a consultation.

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.

Strong Posture

Stability in Movement

Ability to maintain your structure in balance with ease and grace.  Look at the picture of a Mountain woman.  See the ease of alignment in this snapshot of posture.  Note that the posture is not static.  It allows for efficient organization for a task–whether it be active or passive in nature.

Posture is not holding a position.  Posture is a recognition of stability that can be expressed statically or in movement. The different factors that go into posture can be easily perceived from first looking at a static arrangement.  A posture that is easeful, graceful and efficient is strong.

Elements of a Strong Posture

  • Proper alignment of the structure
  • A balance of weight and forces efficiently throughout the structural arrangement
  • Balance of the facilitation and inhibition of the neuromusculoskeletal system
  • Allows for ease of multi-directional movements
  • Breathing
  • Leads towards a pleasant mindedness

Proper Alignment

There are many excellent models to demonstrate this integration of the structure in space.  The body can be looked at as an assembly of parts that we place in a certain relationship with the adjacent part.  This reduction of the structure to parts has advantages for ease of learning.  One of it’s main disadvantages is one is often left with trying to do and hold a particular alignment.  Again not always bad, just incomplete if one stops with the postural process at this point.

So keep all the parts aligned–OK.  Well first of all we all are a bit different.  Our structures have limitations in range of motion or flexibility.  So keeping your head with chin tucked and your chest up can be a problem for some.  If you have a flexed thoracic or chest spine that is rounded forward, you attempt to move the chest UP, can lead to increasing your lower back to thoraco-lumbar backward bending curve.

This pattern of our individual differences can and does lead to increased mal-alignment vs improved alignment.   These compensations we all make are often unnoticed.  They are silent in our sense of our posture.  If we have an experienced practitioner with us they can point this out.  Sometimes a telling view of (unknown) tagged photo, reveals these postural mis-alignments.

Our ability to feel is often more limited to our ability to see.  (Not true for all).  So seeing it helps.  Having a skillful eye give us feedback can be very revealing.

Also training our sensory positional and movement feedback system becomes integral.  One way to aid in this training is to start appreciating where you feel weight throughout the different areas of the body.

Balance of Weight and Force

Actually we start with developing a feeling sense of where the body is aligned.  The above sense of alignment is based on seeing our alignment usually.  This next aspect is complimentary and uses not the visual sense but this ability to sense weight and pressure.

Often we can start at the feet.  Always start with a question also.

Where do you feel the weight on your feet as are standing?

Do you feel more weight on the front or back of the foot–or is it even feeling?

Now for background on this section–it is important to notice that the question is on what you FEEL, not on what you Think you feel or just notice what your mind in your head would estimate, etc.  This discrimination of feeling vs thinking/knowing, can be actually hard for some people to distinguish.  They haven’t paid attention to what they feel in weight or pressure or force for a long time.  Their response is on what they think it should be.

Also when someone says they feel the weight evenly on their feet–you might observe that they are leaning backwards more and have more weight on their heels and very little on the front of their feet.  Are they wrong in what they said?

Absolutely not!  That is important to understand.  The question asked above was based on what they felt.  It was not based on what they are doing.  Do you see the difference here?  Intellectually I am sure you do.  As we work together I find that many do not really “get” the difference.  It is important to understand this distinction between knowing and feeling of weight when we are trying to develop greater and broader ways of sensing.

Remember doing is based on feeling/sensing information.  You can not button your clothing or zip your zipper if your finger tips have been numbed from the freezing cold.  Do you remember how fumbling your actions were then?

OK.  This training of posture is more than just standing tall or lengthening, etc.  There is as much training here as with any skill acquisition.  It can be made simple at first.  In relearning it doesn’t have to become laborious.  But in teaching it well you would be served well by knowing and feeling all these aspects that underlie sensing, learning and doing for creating strong yet dynamic postures.

Balance of Neuromuscular Facilitation and Inhibition

This can be a very long section.  Let me give a simple example of what I mean here.  In classes I teach, I will look for someone who stands in a classic sway back and has more of their weight obviously on their rear foot.  We will go through the above section of feeling weight, etc.

Next I will simple muscle test their elbow flexors as a group in standing.  Their elbow flexors 99/100 times test weak in their sway back and back weighted position.  Then simple manually help them stand in an easy neutral.  So there isn’t an extension pattern bias in their posture.  Retesting their elbow flexion results in demonstrably stronger elbow flexors.  Wow it seems like magic.  It is amazing every time.  The flexors are suddenly stronger.  Why?  I propose that the extension pattern in their first stance was inhibiting their flexors.  Simply balancing out this inhibition of the flexors through postural readjustment allowed more normal function of these same flexors.  No weeks of strength training needed.

This balancing of facilitation and inhibition patterns exist throughout posture and movement.  A lot of positive training changes can be accounted for from this model and this type of work.

Ease of Movement in Multiple Planes

When working to improve posture we must look at how it functions in movement.  Often when I just correct someones posture, they do it by holding something more.  They are trying to just do it better.  Standing better in the above example often is demonstrated by being stiff in ones posture.

If posture is looked at as a transition between movements, then we can become less stiff quickly.  If we have a forward head position.  Say we just correct it my doing that popular turtle movement of retracting the head and neck.  Well there are many things to feel in this relationship.  We will not cover the method of helping someone with a forward head posture per se at this time.

The idea is not in the simplistic and isolated cue of correction.  I want you to focus on how easy it can be to make these corrections if thinking about movement.  Now you have simply placed the head more over the upper back.  (I know this is artificial without addressing the other relationships–but bear with me, thanks).  Ask them to move the head by turning to look left and right.  Again work on this isolated cue of correcting the posture, but just add movement and then posture.  Repeat the posture with the movement.  Slowly or quickly sometimes the posture will become more easily repositioned without the previous stiffness.

There are many other ways of working with posture and movement together.  It becomes more dynamic.  I’m sure many are doing this combination.  It just can be refined more and more with all of these points together.

Breathing

This is a key in life.  Right?  Not only because if you don’t–then you can’t (continue life).  But breath here helps coordinate all the aspects of the bodies reflex mechanisms with the voluntary mechanisms.  There is much to say about breath.   The most important is to establish normal diaphragmatic breathing rhythms in the new postures.  If you can breath well you can do well.  You will even be more sensitive in what you are aware of in posture and movement.

Breath is key not only for life itself, but in living of this life

Notice when someone stops breathing.  They stop feeling.  They become stiffer.  Posture implies movement.  Breath is the support of this movement.  Stop the breath or breathe shallowly and your posture and movement becomes shallow and imbalanced.

Pleasant Mindedness

Oh, this is so important.  In training, especially posture we not only hold our bodies but our emotions and mental focus.  Non of this is bad.  Just simply try encouraging:

Have a pleasant mind or

Are you enjoying?

Immediately I find them smiling and relaxing and enjoying.  Wow, this is also magic.  Having a pleasant mind while training is like breathing.  It makes all the difference in learning and acquiring new skills.

Now find out about your posture and work with some of these aspects.  Include those that may not be as familiar or used as much.  If there is any way I can help, just let me know.  If you are in the Northern California area, please consider a consult at one of my offices.

3 Observations in Yoga

In yoga class and in physical training, we often advise paying attention, doing it “right”, and make sure you are breathing–“Don’t hold your breath!”  Remember.

We can look at this advise/coaching/key points as 3 essential observations

3 Observations

  • Body
  • Breath
  • Mind

Body

There are many ways to organize the observation of the body.  We could look at it from what is moving or the qualities of the movement, or both.  (There are even more ways of course we will just limit it now)

Try observing the movement of the body from three key areas

  • Shoulder Girdle
  • Trunk/Spine
  • Pelvic Girdle

These areas will help guide your attention and organize your discoveries.  These three places represent keys and key links or relationships.

Breath

Breathing is a key in all activities.  It can be approached from the gross to fairly subtle aspects.  One of the great gifts of yoga is this emphasis on the breath.  Their approach starts at the subtle breath which then organizes the gross breath.  We can more easily start at the gross breath and it’s characteristics first.  The breath is the link between the body and mind.  This is a main point so well described by one of the great Saints of India, Swami Rama of the Himalayas

6 Main Qualities of the breath

  • Nostril vs mouth
  • Diaphragmatic and lower chest vs upper chest
  • Smooth
  • Deep
  • Noiseless
  • Continuous

Mind

So much can be written and has been written on this mind.  Do we mind?  That is the real question–what are we minding.  Observations of the gross mind can be divided into:

  • Sensing mind
  • Thinking mind
  • Pleasant mind

This last observation of the pleasant mind is a question I find missing.  Well not the question as much as the pleasant mindedness.  Whenever I think of this observation, an image of my teacher, Swami Veda comes to mind.  He has spoken so eloquently of this aspect of the mind.   Also he is able to demonstrate it under conditions most of us would never entertain such a pleasant state.

Well–paying attention and what and how we pay attention is key.  Otherwise we will have to pay for not.