Archive for pranayama

Asana & Deepening Pranic Flows Part 1

Asana and Deepening Pranic Flows

Well who wouldn’t have a smile on their face/mind when they deeply rest.  In a series of articles I wish to comment on this process of establishing and stabilizing ones asana in preparation for meditation.  These first several articles will discuss pertinent background information and perspectives.  We will not be addressing the cultural asanas at this time.

When your asana is established properly and stabilized there is a spontaneous emergence of the deeper pranic flows.  Briefly summarized as you sit straight and balanced, automatically you will feel these internal sensations of the bandhas and mudras from the foundation of the asana activating up through your posture. Of course more than just activation of these standard bandhas and mudras are integral part of the asana.

What is sitting straight and balanced?  Is it only the bodies structure.

Does asana include these pranic flows of the

  1. Bodies structure
  2. Sensations of the body
  3. Sensations of the mind, to include ideas, will power, etc
  4. Flows of the gross breath and the subtle breath

At the beginning with asana we are speaking about the physical gross body representation.  Whereas one practices more the asana must include all these pranic flows.

The asana is not something you do only.  At the beginning, it is arrived at after much hard work and preparation.  Later it just emerges spontaneously with a shift of ones attention.  It will be defined and expanded in another article in relationship to Patanjali’s treatise in the Yoga Sutras second Chapter (to include Vyasa’s and other’s commentary/bhashya)

How focused is your meditation?  Do you consistently experience a depth of your practice that takes you beyond the normal habits of the mind (waking, daydreaming, dreaming, sleeping, etc)?

The organization of the asana needs to be established and then stabilized.  It also must be linked proprioceptively/feeling-wise to the breath and mind flow.  Each step has to be stabilized and then linked.  This linking means that two things have become one thing in the mind.  This is a critical step to progressively arrive at deeper states of focus.  Otherwise when these relationships/links have not been stabilized the mind easily slips out of the current focus.  Examples of stabilizing and linking will be given later in other articles.

As your practices truly progresses your meditation more quickly arrives at these deeper states and deeper pranic flows.  Then over time the mind becomes absorbed within.  This is where the true meditation and silence starts.

Introduction

We are the gross representation of these natural and normal flows of prana.  Also you could say we are these flows and just have a gross set of clothes called a body to wear.  If this all is sounding too weird, it is because the references are from a very different perspective than most of us have experienced.

Embryological development follows a sophisticated and methodical code of instructions.  In one way, this is the same as saying that man is a field of energy currents flowing along definite channels.  (see Swami Veda’s excellent book:  Philosophy of Hatha Yoga)

Asanas follow this flow of energy.  So when we truly have a proper asana there is this natural emergence of a stable and comfortable form and the breath becomes deeper and the mind becomes very focused yet deeply calm and quiet.

Asanas are not passive–they are active–representing a summation of the energies of that system.  Subtle energies are very alive–they are just not apparent to us.  Do you see or are aware of all the workings of your internal milieu of organ and neuro-fluid functions.  OK, so maybe there is something subtler going on that the Yogis speak of as “their” normal experience.

How we organize these energies is the key to deepening these natural pranic flows that then spontaneously emerge
(While submerging the previous poorly organized postures with short shallow breaths and frenetic over active minds)

Fields of Energy

Remember when you placed a magnet underneath a sheet of heavy paper and then sprinkled iron filings on top.  The iron fillings formed themselves in an arrangement along the lines of the magnetic field.

Our gross body representation is the end result of matter following the flows of energy.  There is a wonderful YouTube video called Sand Dancing by Brusspup, an illusionist, enthusiast who posts on You Tube that depicts some of these ideas.

What you’ll be seeing in the video is a speaker with a metal plate attached on top, and a sound generator,” Brusspup writes. “A bit of sand is sprinkled on top, then you turn on the sound generator. There are certain frequencies that resonate in such a way that it creates geometric patterns with the sand. I continue to increase the pitch of the sound throughout the video. As the pitch gets higher, the patterns become more complex.”

This body, this breath, this mind are because of these flows of energies.  The science of pranyama includes this appreciation of these flows and their organization.

Awareness of Pranic Flows

Pranic flows are all sensations.  This idea that prana is something that is only Eastern or mystical is short sighted.  Pranic flows here are represented in the body, breath and mind.  Please keep in mind the parallel concept of embryological development.  The language of today’s science and the language of the science of yoga have some similarities.

As the growing fetus develops it exemplifies the unfolding of the map of coded instructions embedded in the DNA and interrelationships throughout this budding system.  The same awareness of the yogi using their language would be represented as flows of energies along the channels called nadis.

All structures and movements follow these flows of energy/coded instructions.

These gross physiological movements create the different body systems.  The major channels of communication and nutrition are established through the nervous, vascular, lymphatic and organ system.  The major system of interface with the world is further developed in the musculoskeletal and sensory based system.  Realize there are gross movements of the body and physiology.  Every tissue has it’s own subtle resonance and inherent tissue mobility/motility.

All these movements are created by these ever enlivened flows of energy/information/nutrition.

One of our jobs in preparing to meditate is the organization of these energies/flows.

The Beginning

It can be daunting to exam some of the details of ourselves.  We are so much more than just what we see and what we feel.  Our limit of awareness defines our current status.  To change and expand our perspective within the meditative model of yoga our awareness must change.

Changing our awareness is not a passive, let’s wait until we know more type of activity.  It involves a regular and rigorous practice.

Remember that Yoga as defined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as Samadhi.  That is a state of absorption beyond the normal sense of ones every day mind.  So if you wish to only relax and feel better and become successful, great.  It is just not the context that is offered in Yoga.

Yoga is way beyond this mundane improvement scheme of self help.

The next article will look at the classic definition of asana according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Conclusion

Keep in mind that we are trying to find out how to sit better for meditation.  As in all philosophies one can expand this task of sitting better in meditation to sitting better in life (in all aspects of ones life).

One parting idea here is the following.  Many of us have been sitting for years in practicing meditation.  I think many of us have not made the progress that we thought we could.  We sometimes are told that it takes a long time–even lifetimes if one believes that perspective.

Anything of great worth and skill/accomplishment takes a long time.  My question and inquiry is:

The methods that we are practicing with, are they the best application of these meditation guidelines?

As a teacher of preparation for meditation, I would say we could use some work.  Including yours truly.

There are several levels of problems that I see here:

  1. The beginner just has not had the proper instruction.  They really don’t spend much time practicing.  What they practice is not linked into a stable tradition.  There is this over-Romantic idea of becoming enlightened with actually fairly little effort.  Sometimes their focus is only on the superficial aspect of relaxation and mental health or success or worse some sordid power accumulation.  Also they are haphazard in their organization and application of practice.  This latter point is often true for those who have been practicing a long time too.
  2. Those who have been practicing for a longer time and not noticing much depth to their practice can be frustrated and misled.  There is a lack of a strong and well practiced set of basics.  There has been no or very poor program design from one level to the next.  Often at this level one’s practice is not rigorous and systematized  sufficiently.  It is like walking for health and then expecting that this type of easy mindless exercise will ready you for climbing Mt Everest.

My focus in subsequent articles with be more oriented towards the second group of practitioners.

I would posit here that an evaluation can be made to clarify where one is at in some aspects of their practice.  Just think how would you evaluate yourself or a student like yourself.  Can you create some simple tests and retests to help guide ones practice and program design in moving step by step in the direction of absorption and silence of the mindfield.

Is practice just to be filled with faith and hope alone.  Are we to be just left to this recipe of practice, practice, practice.  What ever happened to smart and skillful practice.  What about practice that is rigorously examined, tried/evaluated, revised and practiced again.  Which populations or which people under what conditions at what time are best served by this type of practice vs another type.  Is there only one basic model for all at all times?

There are not to my mind answers readily available.

The following inquiry and subsequent articles will be only a perspective of this student, myself.  Of course I owe tremendous debt to all my teachers–having stolen/borrowed everything worthwhile that is presented.  Everything of less worth is my own mis-understandings.

 

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

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.

Pranayama Question

Advancing one’s alternate nostril breathing practice

I was just asked a question about how to progress a Nadi Shodhanam (alternate nostril breathing) practice.  They already have progressed to doing 9 rounds (108 breaths), they were looking for more refinement now.

For most beginners (all of us regular folk)–all pranayama should be done from gross to more and more subtle.  All advancement of pranayama is at the subtle levels–the basics come first for many years  (just heard an interview-from 2005–by Terry Gross on NPR of Hank Jones http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4710791–he was 87 yo then and still practicing his scales or basics)

I usually start out with

  • ensuring diaphragmatic breathing–first from the belly and then later emphasize lateral costal and full 3-dimensional pattern
  • working towards deeply relaxing on each breath, more and more
  • 4 parameters of breath: Deep, Smooth, Noiseless, Continuous–no pause between breaths, most important–also you can spend more time at the beginning just observing these and later try encouraging and expanding your capacity more directly with each of them
  • same force of breath on inhalation as on exhalation
  • same amount of breath on inhal/exhale–this is a 1:1 ration later after all the above is natural then you can work towards 2 exhale:1 inhale ratio, which may just come naturally later on–but first ensure the above is solid

Each of the above bullet points can be worked on for months–the first three are in order of what i often teach, the last two bullets can be done in any order.  these are pretty much the same guidelines for working with diaphragmatic breathing in any basic centered asana.  Just apply these same guidelines to your Nadi Shodhanam practice.

Of course there is more–but practice is just that–practice

A key to practice is skillful use of your tools and skill comes through practice where one is paying attention and asking questions and progressing.  Otherwise we are just putting in time doing the same thing year after year.  Chronology doesn’t count–improving skills and capacity does.   Start slowly and let time and consistency be also your coach.