Archive for training

FreeDiving in the Mind

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FreeDiving

Just read this very interesting book on an amazing capacity of the human body and mind.  The book is called Freediving by James Nestor.  This post is not to be a review of the book though it is highly recommended to many.

What interested me were the thoughts I had while reading it concerning the process of deep awareness and meditation.  James Nestor is a noted journalist having published in Outside and many other publications.  He writes in this book about some “oddball” athletes/adventurers and researchers (off the beaten path) about their unusual deep explorations of the ocean and the innate human’s capacity to “freedive”.

He began researching FreeDiving as a competition initially.  These divers are the ones who use no equipment, taking just one breath of air into their lungs before diving.  Now for a short movie segue.  If you haven’t seen the 1988 movie (which stands by itself) called Le Grand Bleau (The Big Blue) with one of my favorite film artists (Jean Reno), you must try to watch it.  Now back to the book.

Nestor’s research at the beginning looks at what these freediving competitors talk about as the amphibious reflexes of the human body.  In his book he states that it is a real phenomenon that science recognize called the mammalian dive reflex or simply the Master Switch of Life.  Please read about this sophisticated physiological response that occurs when we stick our face into the water.  Many start to describe it in esoteric terms, though the reflex is quite neuro-biologically based.

In the olden days there are stories of pearl and sponge divers taking a gulp of air and then working under 100 feet of ocean pressure for 10-15 minutes.  These reports are hundreds of years old and the details and veracity have been lost.  There are few traditional divers working this way and seemingly the art/science has not be passed on.

Here is what amazes me about this unusual response.  These same pressures experienced at these depths in the ocean, if experienced on land would crush and kill us.  The ocean and our relationship to it through “getting wet” just has it’s own rules.  So what is true in one setting is not in another.  This point is very important to think about when looking at the exploration of the mind.

My mind starts relate these described changes in the “Master Switch of Life” to some but not exactly what happens in meditation.

Meditation and Awareness Training

Let’s say you have been meditating for at least a few years.  You have had some “good” moments, maybe even amazing moments.  Yet we sometimes plod along in a more haphazard way than we would normally recognize.  We often just sit and “try” to watch our breath and mantra let’s say.  We do some exercises with the body and breath.

Is there any overall incremental plan of progressing from one milestone to another?  Do we even describe what the practical milestones or bench-marks are?

Meditation can mean so many things to so many people.  Right now I wish to restrict it to the traditional deep sense of moving towards and experiencing the different levels of Samadhi according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  Meditation is not about relaxing and getting quiet.  That is all preparation.  The preparation is key but it is not the goal.

Meditation has these high states of awareness where true Yogis have developed amazing capacities.  Just look at the initial studies of Swami Rama at the Menninger Foundation.  He demonstrated autonomic control of the body (and much more) never before thought possible.

In this journey of quieting the body, breath and mind there are also reflexes that are elicited.  There is now a lot of scientific discussion of neurological and physiological adaptations.  The literature is quite wrapped up in EEG, fMRI and PET scans showing flow and electrical changes with these deep states of meditation.

What are the practical implications and influence on how we are organizing our practices.

A Lack of Program Design for Meditation

Diving in the ocean without equipment elicits these well described changes noted above.  Diving into the depths of awareness also elicits physiological changes.

There are changes in blood pressure and heart rate that are well described.  The breathing rate slows and the depth of breath can dramatically be increased.  The posture relaxes and popularly collapses.  There are many other changes including the described brain wave changes from beta to alpha to the deeper states involving theta and delta waves.

How many of us are measuring some simple biometrics to help organize ones process of meditating.

It seems most people start to meditate and continue to meditate in the same way they go out and casually exercise.  There is no real design, you just go do it.  Maybe you follow some initial program.  Are there regular progression in your training program that you follow?  Do you monitor your progress or is it all just following the lowest common denominator of one’s habit.

Reading the book “Deep” brought again to my mind this beautiful journey that awaits us all–whether it be the depths of the ocean or of the mind.

Maybe we need to look into how we are practicing and ask if we are truly moving progressively into the depths of the mind.  It seems we are settling into habits that make this journey just a casual practice.  If there is no rigorous program design with proper progressions and regressions and constant re-evaluations, then how can we experience consistently these depths that are mentioned and offered in the Wisdom Teachings.

Variety of Practice is Not Progression in Practice

OK, now where do we go with our meditations.  We are learning different practices and often adding them one after another.  When we add something and do not look at our overall sequence of what we are doing and what next we should work on, we fail to progress.

Do we treat our meditation as some magical practice that if we keep doing it we will just get better.  Maybe that is true at times.  How effective is it?

This is where re-evaluation is key.  If we try different practices, how are they helping our core practice.  When and how much would we use them?  What are the attributes and biometrics that we are monitoring?  Often we are just doing different things.  We are adding variety without reflecting on how it helps or hinders our program.  The level of sophistication that we use to examine whether we do one practice or another is often based on some blanket recommendation.

These recommendations maybe well intentioned.  They may be very effective for some, but where are we at at this time and where do we plan on going next week and next month and next year.

Proper Program Design

Take high level sports or movement arts.  If we casual approach playing soccer, how good will we become?  In the olden days we just focused on playing the game and not on the method of acquiring the necessary attributes and skills for performing at a high level.  Whenever a team was notably better, we just assumed the individuals were gifted.  Now we know that talent can be highly overrated and skillful training hours are underrated.  If you haven’t read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, consider it.  Many more things in those books are discussed and they are a quick, enjoyable read.

Now we can see that a majority of high level performance is predicated on having the right training program, at the right time with the most skillful coaching available.  Do we do this with the majority of our meditation practices.

Again remember that the level of meditation here is based on achieving very high levels of awareness.

I do not think most of our programming supports this goal well at all.  Now the general programming does.  We just lack many details between where many students of meditation are now and where the goal of liberation is pointing.  Our overall goal is defined but the enabling goals to get there are poorly defined.

These intermediate goals must have ways of determining how and by what standard we have reached them.

Biometrics and Re-evaluation

Ok what is the answer.  There evidently are answers given by the great Masters and Guides.  You can read them in the classic texts like the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali.  You can hear them at the feet of a Meditation Master.  Is it then only through initiation that the answer becomes evident?

Yes.

All the rest is preparation as they say.  So what is the best preparation.  Again the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras state it clearly.  It is worth the study of these texts and ancient teachings.  In the meantime, our practice can use some additional guides.

Simple measurements of our attributes of the breath and the minds focus can be used.  Taking your resting heart rate, resting breathing rate, and how long you keep a focus on the breath through breath counting are easy ways to train and check on the breath and mind at the beginning.

As the breath moves so moves the mind.  As the mind moves so moves the breath. Same with the body. They are all inter-related. Their skillful implementation needs specific programming that is not being appreciated by many training programs.

We can use these aspects of the breath and mind to deepen our practice and deepen our meditation. They will help settle and calm the mind. A settled and calm mind then opens up to who we are and where we are and where we going.

Resting Heart Rate

Every morning before rising (you are still in bed lying down after just waking).  Simply take your pulse and count it for 1 minute.  Simple, yes?  If you have trouble taking your pulse, practice with someone who can. In 2 weeks or sooner you will be able easily find it and count it for the minute. Do this for 30 days to get an average of your resting heart rate. Try to keep some log or record of the things of that day and week so you can reflect on the relationships of what was going on at the times of the daily record.

Someone who is well conditioned and in good health will have a resting heart rate of below 60. If you don’t have that it is not important. The relative changes are most important. What is important is that you start paying attention to yourself through physiological measurements. They can give you a surprising bit of information of how you are responding to your life and practice.

Each of these parameters by themselves do not mean a lot. They are to be put into context of your lifestyle. They will just add, not replace your current guidelines.

Once you derive an average, you can see how it changes with different practices, different relationships, different seasons, etc. It is a very fascinating way to create a better understanding of ourselves.

Resting Breath Rate

Again each morning before rising take your breath rate.  This rate is the number of breaths in one minute. One breath is both an exhale and an inhale.

Your breathing by now should be belly and/or lower rib cage style of diaphragmatic breathing. Chest breathing noted in the early morning (even in the day) is an indicator of change that needs to be noticed. Upper chest breathing is inefficient and poorly handled by the mind and body.

An average untrained person is often breathing 15-22 breaths per minute.  It is quite fast but is a cited average often in the literature.

With simple breath training that average at rest is around 8-12 for beginners. Later 4-6 breaths seem to be common to those who are training and able to manage their lifestyles.  1-3 breaths become more common the more you train and lead a more sattvic lifestyle. The latter will occur in spurts and for short periods.  It is difficult to sustain under all conditions until significant changes occur.

Also a lower breath rate doesn’t mean anything by itself.

Performance of any of these parameters will lead to a false sense of superiority and over inflated ego. At the beginning that is normal. Just get over it as soon as you can.

Concentrated Mind

Here is one of the keys in diving into ones own depths. The mind has to learn to settle down and maintain a single focus. It is a very difficult endeavor to make happen. We all can be focused on something we enjoy or are good at. We can even be laser like focused on the opposite. Under high stresses we forget about everything else and only focus on the thrill or agony of that moment.

So it isn’t that the mind cannot focus. It is that the ability to choose a focus that is not a habit and maintain that focus under consistent times and trials that seems to be the key.

Therefore training the mind to stay on a focus is very helpful in this preparation of concentration. If you will the mind to be quiet or still, the habits of the mind are so much stronger and we move into our familiar reveries and mindlessness. We keep repeating this lack of concentration only to try again and again with pretty much the same success. Maybe overtime we get a little better, but at that rate we will dead before we have trained well enough. (And don’t default just to future lives in order to deal someday with a wandering mind. Tomorrow never comes, as they say.)

Breath counting is a very simple and effective way of focusing the mind. These are simple techniques that also are embedded in a training program of cleaning up our emotions and thoughts. The Yoga Sutras and the oral tradition speak of stabilizing the mind by making the breath long, steady and subtle. (Yoga Sutra of Patanjali 1.34: prachchardana-vidhaaranaabhyaam vaa praanasya).

Breath Counting

There are many systems for counting the breaths. I have tried many. You must find one that resonates and works for you.

The most effective way for me was to follow my teachers advice (Swami Veda Bharati). He has introduced counting 1-5 and 5-1.  (among many others) This means as you:

  • exhale you hear the count 0ne
  • inhaling you hear the count two
  • exhaling you hear three
  • inhaling you hear four
  • exhaling you hear five—then again
  • inhaling you hear five
  • exhaling you hear four
  • inhaling you hear three
  • exhaling you hear two
  • inhaling you hear one

You continue this same pattern for a prescribed time or number of breaths. I like this pattern and it’s rhythm.

At the beginning, I would lose count as my mind wandered. Then I would have to start over again, egads. It took awhile. In fact, I dropped the practice after just a week, long ago when I first started it. It just didn’t work. Then I tried another counting practice. The same thing happened, so that I got to try lots of different ways of counting. This was long ago but still very familiar.

None of them worked.  Hmmmm, what was my problem?  I’m a little slow here and finally figured out the common denominator was myself. That is why it took so long because I was looking for a solution outside of myself and thinking that I just had not found the correct or best technique. Sound familiar?

One thing I find with people who practice and don’t get results is the very same problem. It is not always what we are doing but HOW we are doing the what. This cannot be overstated in training.

Yes you need proper guidance but you really need to look at the design, execution and re-evaluation of your practice. It is not “just” practice, practice, practice. Let’s get clearer about our training.  This is why we are recording and working with these parameters that can be measured.

So back to the 1-5 and 5-1 count of my breaths.

My problem is that I did not stick to the training for very long. I find this out all the time in training people. They were given an exercise and they are not stronger or better. When asked are they doing it they say yes, but…

This means that they are doing it infrequently and with not much effort. Once they learn the value of proper training methods and are working hard for weeks and months they then begin to see progress. It is guaranteed or your money back!

So recently I did a variation of this counting for 6 months. It was a great practice and very helpful. I kept records of all three components and they markedly changed over the 6 months. Again this practice was embedded in lifestyle changes that allowed for the training.

When counting the breaths after the first month you will notice and become very sensitive to the count and the breath flow. When your mind wanders you will immediately note the change in the count.  What I am saying here will become clear when you do the practice.

Then each month thereafter you can work on an particular attribute of the breath flow with deeper concentration of the mind. This means that while you watch the smoothness of the breath in counting you watch the smoothness of the minds focus. Just little disturbances of the breath and little disturbances of your focus become noticeable. Your sensitivity here really increases. The mind becomes like the breath. They work together and deepen into the subtle aspect of the breath and mindfield.

This stability of the mind through the breath allows the breath to flow as prana into the akasha or space element. The mindfield becomes more quiet and the sense of the observer becomes clearer. Now meditation begins.

Many more philosophical explanations can be received from the multitude of teachings by Swami Veda Bharati on these topics.

You can now carry these attributes to your meditation seat.

Conclusion

Diving deep has definite physiological and psychological correlates. We can use some of the simple measurable parameters outlined here to assist and organize our training and feedback of our methods.

The rest is skillful practice. It is much easier to just sit and hang out. For many who do just that–I ask: How is it going?

Be honest in your re-examination of yourself. Be brutally honest sometimes. Again as the great teachers have taught us, how we are doing is answered in our living of our lives. Are we loving and being surrounded by love, even in the midst of pain and turmoil. Can we recover from the ups and downs of life and continue. Do we only train in sterile environments of the familiar and friendly?

What does are training prepare us for in the real world?

Our depth of practice is the light that shines not because of us but because the light always shines, though we cover and obscure it.

Always my wish is that we share our efforts, both trials and triumphs. Share in a community of support and then move along the path together.

Also wishing much hard work, sweat and tears. Then enjoy the warm embrace of the love of life.

yours in practice

peter

The Connected Feeling Part 1

The Connected Feeling
Part 1

Introduction

 

The preparation and program design for meditation is revisited here.  Favorite and popular methods can be mis-represented by both the current crop of teachers and students.

Meditation spoken of here is not just the casual quieting of our “monkey minds”.  It is not about becoming some great ego-centered teacher or accomplished practitioner of some arcane esoteric science.  Meditation starts with proper preparation that slowly and gradually leads to a laser like focused mind that moves deeper inwards to these states of absolute silence and absorption.  The beginning of meditation starts in that state.  Everything else is preparation.

Meditation seems to have it’s popular times and localities and experts.  Suddenly people in fitness are jumping on the bandwagon of “meditating” and finding wonderful success.  The East from India to Asia has the market cornered.  Buddhist teachers advise Yoga (meaning asana) practitioners to learn to meditate from them and then “do” Yoga.  In the USA, mindfulness meditation has taken the academic and general population’s fancy.

There is veracity in many of these above mentioned approaches and view points.  But what is needed to begin preparation for meditation?

Timing for Meditation

We all need many things in life.  Food/water and shelter can be a good start.  Maybe having a job or life purpose could be good.  How about a personal relationship that helps us understand ourselves beyond what we think at the moment.  Traditionally this meant getting married and raising a family.

There are all these basic needs that connect us to the world outside and the world inside.  Meeting these basic needs and stabilizing them are often a first step in the preparation for mediation.

If one’s lifestyle is too chaotic and unstable, relaxing and breath awareness is a good alternative.  Hey just eating better and exercising can be worth much more than forcing yourself to sit for long periods of meditation hoping someday to become enlightened.

Always re-evaluate your program to see if you are moving towards your goals in life.  But do not under value the power of proper lifestyle management.  Make it practical and doable first.  Then when your life allows, come into a proper practice regimen.

The Rush to Success

Is it not uncommon to want NOW what we want.  We want to be slimmer by tomorrow.  We expect our chronic problems to be better after just a few days of effort.  We wonder why have not met our “soul mate”.  We have been looking for years.  When asked what a person is doing to meet people they actually have only talked to their friends and not anyone much else out of their normal circle of relationships.

The actual methods we use are woefully insufficient to reap the benefits we are envisioning.  We do this with our 10 minute a day fitness routine for our 6-pack abs!  The proper preparation over the appropriate time is missing in many of our programs.

Often we don’t even have a progressive program.  We bite off way too much or way too little.  Our expectations exceed our efforts.  It is not for lack of trying for many of us.  It is just such poor program design and follow through that we end up not noticing much progress.

The most impactful and important things of our life that we want to achieve take time and good programming.  Mediation is no different.

Preliminary Steps for Meditation

First we have to realize that the mediation we are talking about here is that which leads to silence and absorption.  It is a very high goal.  So the first steps are basically getting ones life in order.  Check out your lifestyle and examine our thinking.  Are we over worked, over fed, under exercised and literally starving for love and affection.

Really take time to live life properly.  Establish a lifestyle that supports this interior journey of discovery.  If life is constantly taking our focus outward to deal with major stresses surrounding us, then address them first.  The power of life lived well will take us deeper than any artificial practice of meditating or whatever it might be.  This one sentence/thought needs to be considered more deeply than just a casual reading of it will give to us.

Examine not only what we are doing in life, but also what are we thinking and feeling in life.  This is not to prescribe a particular world view or provide some great psycho-therapeutic insight.  It is just important to examine where our thoughts take us.  Do we have a ton of negative thoughts that we are controlled by?

All the wisdom traditions and many religions have their commandments and guidelines for “right/good” thinking and actions.  Do not rush over the examination of what preoccupies our minds and hearts.  Do consider what is our philosophy and what guides our thinking and action.  In today’s world many have no philosophy of life that is lived—it is only thought of—and then only on Sunday or what ever rare occasion is which it is superficially and poorly addressed.  This topic is expanded greatly by others and will not be detailed here.

Realize that life is not lived in some uni-linear progression.  Even if at the moment our life seems in order, just hang on to your hat for that next moment when it totally seems to fall apart.

There of course will be times of both good and bad.  Those that remark that life is always fine and wonderful—are either very advanced beings (which there are probably a handful in history) or under a huge illusion both of themselves and life.

So these preliminary steps that we take over the years to properly prepare, will have periods of adjustment and interruption.  All of us will have to revisit and revise our lifestyles and re-examine where we need to be practicing in life.  Initially (probably many decades for many of us) life will take us up and down.  Much later as life continues to go up and down but we don’t rise or fall as far.

Slowly with a stronger and deeper practice we can stabilize our connection to our changing lifestyles.  We develop an equanimous capacity or even tempered ability in a difficult situation.  Again this capacity takes a lot of trial and effort over a long and arduous life.  A life lived with ease is often a very sheltered and control life at the beginning.  Many people fool themselves too early on their too easily arrived at accomplishments.  Only when life has given much and then taken away do we truly test ourselves.

Getting these preliminaries in order is not just in acquiring a good life.  It is in living that life and experiencing the losses of that life and then going on to live fully once again.

Life well lived is the preliminary preparation needed for mediation practice.

Asana & Deepening Pranic Flows Part 3

Introduction

Asana in today’s nomenclature and today’s popular practice is different from the traditional use of asana in classic yoga.  I will be addressing asana from a perspective of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.  We will not cover the validity or place of the “modern posture practice” that is prevalent for the past several generations of teachers.

Please refer to the second pada (chapter) in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (YS 2.46-48).  Here asana is defined in the YS 2.46.  The next sutra describes how to perfect the asana.  The last one here describes the result of accomplishing the asana.

Sthira-sukam ãsanam YS 2.46 (Asana is Steady and Easeful)

Isn’t it interesting that the asana is described and defined in terms of stability and ease.  On one level these terms relate to proprioception and kinesthesia.  Both of these relate to sensations of the awareness of the effects of position and movement.  Note that the Sutra does not describe how to do something.  It describes or states the “feeling” sense one is left with or the awareness of the qualities of this asana.

Again to emphasize–it is the sensory part not the doing part that is the definition.  Asana is not the bodies position in space or on the floor.  Asana here is the mind’s awareness that settles in this body.  The body is just this lump of clay.  It is only in relationship to the mind and breath that asana exists.

Asana must emphasize and come from this sense of flow of information.  This flow is the awareness that pervades both the body, breath and mind.  In Traditional Yoga, we speak of these flows as prana.  Pranic flows exist throughout the body, breath and mind and even beyond (taking one to atma and beyond).  So now let’s look at the basic concepts and principles that will help us come into our asana.

These steps are all preparatory to asana.  Many practitioners have been skipping these critical steps.  They have mistakenly assumed that the end point was the beginning point of their practice.  It never is but is often romantically envisioned by early enthusiasm.  Much hard work is needed to prepare us to begin.  This discussion is only a part of the preparations that are needed.

Anatomy as a Map

We often start with the body (conceptually it is easy to relate to in a simple way).  Here we start looking at the anatomy of the body.  Again we need to expand our perspective of the anatomy of the body.

The anatomy is a Map of Energy Flows.  Here we are referring to Yoga Philosophy that speaks to the gross body as a manifestation of the subtle body and flows.  Our embryological development is derived from the coded instructions embedded in our DNA.  Yoga just talks of Prana.  I will consider them to be similar enough for this presentation.  Now back to a bit more familiar territory.

There are three areas of the anatomy that we can look at in organizing our movements to arrive at a stable asana.

  • Head, neck and trunk
  • Shoulder Girdle
  • Pelvic/Hip Girdle

We will look at these three areas to develop some of our principles of movement.

Principles of Movement

In arranging an asana/posture we are talking about moving.  Posturing is all about movement and it’s organization.  Asana/Posture is not static in this sense.  It is a dynamic relationship to sensing and doing.

In a modified standing Tadasana/Mountain Pose, let’s say we reach our hands over our head towards the ceiling.  Now we need to ask two questions:

  • What is Moving
  • Where is the Movement occurring

As we sense/observe this reaching in students, we can see that what is moving in general might be the same for many.  It is instructive then to notice that WHERE they are moving from is often different and done at different timings.

In this example of reaching, some people will have more mobility of their shoulders.  Others with stiffer shoulders will begin to use their back/spines to complete the task of reaching overhead.  Using the back (to early and too much) to move the arms overhead changes the patterns of activation and stability.  Often when we think (not feel) that we are stretching our shoulders we are really over using our backs.

What we feel is what we feel.  Our feelings are not wrong.  They are just misinterpreted in this case.  For those with tight shoulders we often do not notice that we are using our back and not emphasizing mainly our shoulders and chest, etc.

Sensory Training

We use this same lack of awareness or misplaced awareness in sitting for meditation.  Often people are just doing a movement of straightening the spine to sit from their favorite place in their back.  This lack of sensory training cannot be learned from reading and thinking about this material.  This type of sensorial based learning takes a lot of practice on developing the sensory cues and questions to lay down the new information (pranic) pathways that have been atrophied over many years of poor movement patterns.

Again just learning to do the posture is no where close to coming into an asana.  Just doing something and not really experiencing the sensations that we cannot currently feel is inadequate.  We may “think” we look “right”.  Only thinking and visualizing is limiting ones perception and knowing.  The asana is not the mental-visual picture of the bodies organization.

Most reading this statement above will understand it conceptually in the familiar thinking aspect of the mind.  Many of us will miss that it is not a mental appreciation of knowing.  It is a sensorial based, atrophied awareness that takes much training and practice to re-discover.  The lack of feeling cannot be accomplished by just thinking and understanding.

This mental appreciation of thinking is over-rated in asanas.  Then once people understand this concept of needing to feel–they then set too high of a task by repeatedly asking themselves to feel, feel, etc.  That is the same thing as trying to do what you cannot do.  Just asking yourself to do it repeatedly will not allow you accomplish this task.

Problem of Doing and Not Feeling Proprioceptively

Our feeling/sensory pathways have atrophied just like a skeletal muscle has atrophied.  One is not going to be able to feel it anymore than one could lift 200 pounds off the floor at the beginning.

Say you where an average Hatha practitioner.  Never lifting heavy weights.  You now wanted to be able to lift that 200 pounds off the floor.  So everyday you practice to grab it and try lifting it.  Well nothing happens the first day or first week, right.  Well you just keep trying and someday in the future you can lift it, right?

Wrong!  Trying to do something without the proper preparation and training is a good set up for failure.  The nervous system and neuromuscular system, etc needs a proper slow progression to establish pathways that can gradually help you attain your goal.  This means training at lifting with say 15 pounds and slowly and incrementally increasing every third or fourth session or whatever increment is needed.  So that in months and years you will be able to pick up 200 pounds because you have not started with the end task but have built a program that leads you to the end task.

The sensory system is no different.  In training to feel what we don’t feel, we often ask it to do an end task.  This end task represents the 200 pound lift in the previous example.  One has to develop a progressive program that goes step by step to slowly build up ones ability to feel.  We are not understanding this idea.  We mentally understand it but not in our own sensory experience.  We constantly cognitively confuse the two.

You cannot easily feel what you cannot feel.  We think we can.  That is the point.  You cannot necessarily think yourself into feeling something.  Although it sometimes does work that way.  It is still a poor design for ones training program.  As this cognitive/thinking style of feeling really misses the pathways of sensorially appreciating the stimuli/information.

In a workshop, these principles are easier to see.  Again it takes more work in unfamiliar areas than most people realize.  Training to place the mind to feel by merely moving the minds attention in some generalized pattern will never train this capacity.  The mistake I often see is that people then say feel everything and note all the places that you are moving at.  Again you can only note and be aware of what you feel.  Remember the problem is “atrophy” of our feeling senses.  Just like atrophy of our lifting muscles.  It is not there!!  So you cannot ask “it” to help out here.  It has to be acquired over skillful training time.

The particular of sensory based learning will not be covered in detail here.  We use a lot of contrasting of movement directions.  We use a lot of exaggeration of movements in order to feel things that normally are not that available.  We us lots of time for exploration of similar and different directions, etc to help sensitize our feeling system.

After hearing this discussion many of you may still feel you understand and can do this feeling/sensory training.  I would caution you that ideally you would take workshops that would explore this sensory based training.  One system that handles this type of learning well is the Awareness Through Movement lessons that the Feldenkrais practitioners teach.

Importance of Direction and Pranic Flows

Asana represents (in part) the organization of the body/breath and mind.  Remember though that it comes from the organization of the subtler flows.  Here the flow of information is called prana.

The asana is often shown as an end position.  We then have a visual image and memory that represents to us what it is.  This image is very incomplete and inadequate.

 Most people are teaching asana from this “picture” that represents the asana.  It seems like a static pose.  This asana is a dynamic representation of all the flows of energy in a particular direction with ones very specific intention and attention.

Let’s look at direction first.  If we are doing a side bending asana like a simple konasana, the direction is let’s say to the left.  We are side bending left.  Sometimes we inadvertently add other directions like turning or rotation.  In a simple side bending there should be no overt rotation of the trunk, shoulder or pelvic girdles.  The energy is mainly in side bending to the left.  The rotation bleeds or leaks the energy in this other plane of movement.

Also commonly seen in konasana is too much extension of the trunk.  Often this hyperextension is in the lower rib spine or thoracolumbar area.  Again we are using another plane of movement (extension here) to substitute for a lack of side bending to the left.

Also we can see flexion in a konasana when a student “tries” to DO the asana.  They are not so flexible in side bending and then try to get as low as they see the picture of the asana as demonstrated.  The mistake again is in focusing on doing vs feeling the flows of the side bending energies or forces.  This will be addressed again later.

This over extension (as well as the other planes) of the trunk distorts the pranic flow from being fairly “sattvic” that blends/integrates the right and left side bending energies–into being fairly “rajasic”.

In general:

  • Trunk extension is more activating and arousing–rajasic
  • Trunk flexion is more relaxing and calming–tamasic
  • Trunk side bending and rotation is more blending and integrating–sattvic

Of course ones intent and application can change any of the above planes of movements and their proposed correlatives.   For example some rotations can be very enlivening and activating or rajasic as well as the opposite.

Depth and Flexibility in Asana

Let’s stay with a konasana.  If our intention is to bend and reach our hand down our leg as far as the instructor/picture, we will compensate in our areas of immobility and instability as previously described.

We need to focus on developing the proper flows of prana and information.  Again it is not how far one can reach in side bending.  It is about activating the system of information/prana along the designated pathways.  We are activating the side bending movement and all the other areas that need to stabilize.  (We will return to these concepts of mobility and stability later).

Our intention is in a particular direction.  That direction is the initial design.  If we move in other directions we have changed our intention (maybe we don’t even have one) and also changed our attention.

There is a complexity and sophistication to the design of the asana that many are missing.  We have gotten lost in the achievement of some hyper flexible design of this mental picture.  That is not asana.  Asana is not a look it is a feeling.  The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali constantly only refer to this feeling of stability and ease.  It never talks about the particulars of placing this part to that part.  It never describes a visual image.

We are still mistakenly doing asana vs revealing these deeper pranic flows of information that we have blocked from our awareness by our mis-representation of a visually oriented practice.

Therefore it is not the depth that one stretches to or not.  It is all about the proper activation of the nadis or currents of flows of information.  Stop this stretching and exercising business.

Now let us redirect our attention along particular lines or channels of intention that follows the proper directions.

Once one comes into this feeling along these lines of proper activation, then slowly we become stable.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  Many more considerations need to be included.

Mobility and Stability

When you think of someone doing asana do you think of someone who is stiff or flexible.  Flexibility is  only a part of coming into an asana.  Most people today who are doing and enjoying asana are fairly flexible in their bodies.  So we easily start to emphasize this mobility aspect.

Proper movement includes both what is moving and what needs to provide stability for that movement to properly occur.  This movement does exist not only for the body but includes the flow of the breath and the focus of the mind.  At this time we will continue to highlight the role of the body.

If asana is not about the depth of ones pose, then flexibility is no longer a prerequisite for doing and enjoying asana!!  Here we must emphasize stability.  It is the stable areas of our system that allows for the proper flows.  If we are not stable at the pelvis and trunk in simple side bending asana, we begin to include other planes of movement often in flexion and extension.  We can easily go too far at our knees and hips because we again are stretching.

Our stable pelvis and trunk in this example allows for the proper flow of forces/prana in the orchestration of this side bending direction.  It is the flow of prana that develops our stability and ease.  It is not the acrobatics of the posture.

It is the depth of our flowing breath that is a result of this proper combination of stability and movement.  Then as our body settles and becomes stable, the breath deepens and the mind also settles into a depth of paying attention from the inside.  The depth of the mind is past the normal analysis of the proper preparation.  It takes time to allow the depth of the mind to reveal itself.

Then (after years of skillful practice) we come into relaxing our effort.  This type of relaxation takes much practice.  It does not occur from simply commanding oneself to relax.

Activation and Relaxation

Activation and relaxation relate to a dynamic process of the neuromuscular and pranic system (very similar–like brother and sister).  In the movement system, there is this interplay of facilitation and inhibition.  Always there is some areas of the neuromuscular system that are ramping up or turning up (activating) their activity while other areas are turning down their activity (relaxing).

In order to perfect an asana, Patanjali states that one should loosen the effort as the first step.  Often relaxation in asana is heavily emphasized.  There are good reasons for this emphasis.  We cannot move mindfully with great tension.  Also we cannot move when we are collapsing and unstable.

If you observe an accomplished dancer, you will notice and ease and relaxation in their movements and postures.  This type of relaxation and ease is not primarily practiced at the beginning (except mistakenly by beginners in asana).  It takes year of long, hard, diligent, skillful practice to then arrive at this type of relaxation.  Some people who start out practicing try to put the proverbial “cart before the horse”.  Effort in practice comes before ease of practice.  Practically even this idea is not always correct.  Training is never linear in it’s expression of these concepts.

There is always a balance between what, where, when and how much we should participate in these simultaneous and integrated activities of activation and relaxation.  Just remember the doing part is driven by the sensing/feeling part.  (Feeling here is more the proprioceptive vs emotional context).

Patterns and Habits of Activation/Relaxation

We don’t move in isolation.  You can easily experience these patterns vs isolated movement by looking at any of the cultural asanas.  Here as in the centering asanas many nadis and areas are involved.  We move and posture (remember posture is very dynamic, not static) often in our habitual patterns.  We don’t really think about it.  This habit is where our sensory apparatus has gone to sleep.  It seems like we move and don’t even know it.  Think about getting in your car, turning on the radio and the next thing you know you are at work, hmmmm.

Habits are not bad.  Thank god we don’t have to pay attention to everything.  It would cause total arrest of our sensory and motor system.  Remember balance is both turning on/up of some things and turning off/down of others.

During asanas though we want to heighten our awareness to discover our deeper layers.  We want to properly prepare this container of the body, breath and mind so that we can access or have revealed that which is not this material substance (as per the Samkhya Philosophy).

We can start with examining our habitual patterns.  We can look/feel only what we are use to looking and feeling.  So we want to structure our sensory experience.  Doing something perfectly is not helping us become aware.

One of the principles here in movement is to exaggerate what you are doing so you can more easily feel the information.  This exaggeration should be in both directions.  Let’s look at an example.

Exaggeration Principle in Learning/Refining Sensory Awareness

In standing, raise your arms overhead.  Note what you feel moving and where is the movement you feel taking place.  One may readily say they feel the arm at the shoulder doing the movement.  Well the trunk is also involved to some extent because we move in an integrated set of patterns that are not contained only at one joint or place.

When lifting your arms/hands up the chest and spine will extend.  Some times you will bend excessively backwards to raise the arms overhead.  Now it is not about should you do this or that.  It is about training the sensory/feeling system to awaken and become more sensitized to what you are feeling and doing.

So in this case you want to move several times in your exaggerated pattern.   Use the trunk in a large enough fashion so that you can appreciate this relationship, ie feel it more easily.  Then move your arms overhead again for another set of repetitions where you keep your trunk slightly flexed and very braced.  This latter style prevents that movement.  Your focus is on feeling the differences.  Keep practicing until you can lessen the efforts in both directions until you can feel the slightest accompanying pattern of trunk extension or flexion or neutral (no trunk movement).  Now you have trained your awareness vs perfected a false imitation of a posture.

There are many other ways of training the sensory system.  The sequence in which you initiate, move through and then end the movement can be varied to again create more sensitivity.  We will just mention one other very important one next.

All of this sensory training is coming from the overuse of the model of just doing something and thinking that it “looks” right.  Awareness/sensory based training being discussed here is an adjunct and supportive method to create more balance and deeper levels of awareness than in the previous models of see and do.

It is this type of awareness training that is not emphasized enough in our practice of asana.

Differentiated and Undifferentiated Movements/Postures

Let’s look at a sitting asana for meditation.  Pick your favorite from Sukhasana/Maitriasana to Siddhasana/Padmasana.  (We usually don’t teach Padmansan for meditation but is used for many advanced Pranayamas).  Cat and cow asana preparation is often used to prepare the spine and trunk for subsequent asanas.

Notice that the movement of the spine (that normally in neutral has three curves), is moved in an undifferentiated pattern.  The whole spine is flexing or forward bending in cat pose.  The whole spine is extending or backward bending in cow pose.

Now when we sit for pranayama or meditation we are actually asking our head, neck and trunk to act in a differentiated way.  In sitting straight in a neutral spine (maintaining the normal curves of the neck, chest spine and lower back spine), we are often asking the chest spine to straighten without over extending the neck or lower back spine.

Now notice how we have practiced the cat/cow maneuver.  Our practice has led us to a feeling of when we extend any part of the spine, every part of the spine is extending.  That is not a bad thing by itself.  It just becomes a popular pattern of spinal movements that feel normal.  What ever you practice regularly becomes your default from which you move and posture.

You will see in many standing poses as one straightens their spine, many will over extend generally throughout the spine.  Often we only need to move in one area.  There are way too many people standing with an exaggerated lower back to lower thoracic spine.  You can see their upper chest is often behind their pelvis.  Another compensation here is the forward head.

This mal-configuration starts to feel normal and “neutral”.  When do we practice separating out these directions of these movements of the spine.  We really don’t practice much to differentiate or separately move one curve in the opposite direction of the other (in the Sagittal Plane).

Differentiation of the spine in the cat/cow would mean that as you extend the neck and chest spine  you would also flex (forward bend) the lower back spine (and vice a versa).  It is not easy to do initially because we cannot feel and control opposite movements in this sagittal plane.

This differentiation in the feeling and proper execution of this movement is needed to sit with a balance and straight spine.

Conclusion

There are many examples that we could explore here to expand and practice these movement principles.  For now we have covered some of the basic movement principles for an introduction of some of the key concepts.  Let this be a start to refining your exploration of asana in your practice.

A hands-on workshop is highly recommended.  Being involved in a training practice that emphasizes the sensory exploration needed for movement and postural feedback is needed.

Then asana becomes a state and condition from the mind to the body.  It is in that state of the mind that

  • the body becomes still and
  • the breath becomes smooth and long and
  • the mind becomes deeply focused

From this condition stability and ease simply appear.  They are revealed through a rigorous practice of which the fruits are stated in the Yoga Sutras (YS 2.48).

Tato dvandvãnabhi-ghãtah YS 2.48 (Then one is no longer affected by the pairs of opposites)

From this asana ones sushumna is open/the mind is singularly focused and meditation begins.

Stop Neck and Back Pain

What is Going On?

Things were much simpler when we were younger–do you know what I mean.  Now days we are looking for the cure of our ailments and troubles of the world.  Well stop right now and open a different book or URL than what you are reading at this moment.

What we can do here?   We can look beyond what we are noticing as far as the pain.  Pain in a chronic area of the neck and/or back is poor prognosticator of the problems location.  Always consider the adjacent body areas in figuring out what to address in correcting and alleviating this common problem.

Basic Anatomy

Our spine is an interesting and integrated structure composed of three primary curves.  Most people who have neck (cervical) pain or lower back (lumbar) pain do not think of the thoracic spine.  This thoracic spine is conveniently “surrounded” by the neck and lower back spine.  This arrangement of the anatomy is a key in addressing these pains.

Remember the spine operates as an integrated structure.  This means that each area is functionally related to the others.  You must not just think that the anatomical structure as the cause of the pain–follow the connections.

Advice for Stopping Chronic Neck and Lower Back Pain

Let’s be practical here.  First you should have had a thorough medical and movement assessment.  This means that if you are having chronic pain (longer than 3 months) you should get medically cleared by your doctor.  Next it would be great to have a qualified Physical Therapist or movement expert screen and assess how your structure is moving and working.

Often in my practice I find that the thoracic area is really neglected.  It becomes stiff and a poor transmitter of spinal forces.  The areas of the cervical and lumbar are performing way too much work (many times this is in one or two directions though).  Remember the place that is complaining is certainly not the only place that should be looked at.  A myopic view of pain often distorts the larger view of functional relationships of important adjacent regions.

Exercise Approach

One simple set of exercise you can immediately start is shown below.  Here you are using sidelying to work on moving and mobilizing the thoracic spine in a variety of directions.  During these movements you are learning much more than might be evident.  A primary direction of movement is in rotation or twisting.  During this twisting of the chest you are learning to stabilize the lumbar area.  Over time you will get a very good sense of how much we over rotate the thoraco-lumbar to lumbar area.  Therefore you can appreciate how under used the thoracic are becomes.

Also you can use a foam roller very nicely for this thoracic area.  The below video emphasizes thoracic extension.  There are many variations.  One not shown is just to use the roller to massage the back muscles here.  Most people find it very useful.

 

 

There You Have It

Try these ideas for a chronic problem with your neck or lower back.  Go slowly as with anything different or new.  Don’t try to perform the exercise.  Rather use these as movements to explore your own body and what you are noticing.  Your job here (should you accept this “Mission”) is to make a change by feeling something you haven’t felt before.  This work should be in the direction of making you more comfortable and more freely moving.  So use these movements as guidelines and not just a prescription of “exactly” what to do.  That being said, please try it out this way for several weeks before you become too creative.

Remember to work with your breath once you have the basic movements.  Stay in this sidelying position for awhile–you will be greatly benefited by putting in 15-30 minutes.  These longer times really benefit from proper diaphragmatic breathing–this type of breath is not the belly expansion but the sides and all around the lower rib cage.  There is an extremely important relationship with the breathing and the thoracic spine.  It is a much more detailed topic than will be covered here.  It is one of the keys to unlocking chronic pain.

 

Train and practice daily.  Go and try out these movements.  Write to me what you have learned.

Sitting Lesson

Sitting Better

Oh-Oh, another thing to do!  Wait, this can be a bit painless.  I have just made a short video that gives you some of the basic information you need to sit smart.  This means that it is the very basic information you can use to make sitting a bit more comfortable.  Now it does take some work.  Most of us are working way too much.  Some of us would love to get some work–(and get paid for it).  Either way we are all sitting around.  In fact as I type I’m sitting.  So it’s pretty universal.  Proper sitting is essential for those of us who are in pain due to improper sitting.   How do you know that this means you?  Just try it out!

View this video and see if it doesn’t help give you some things to work on.  Remember the work is in the practice, practice, practice–doing it well.  Of course doing it well means slowly coming to be able to feel what you are doing and then feeling how to change it.  Remember the key is finding out what you do by creating an ability to actually sense these movements and postures.  Then changing them becomes easier.  The repetition of the change helps then change the previous habit.

Note the details of sitting here pertain to sitting without the back of a chair.  The main lesson is especially pertinent for those of us doing a forward oriented tasks.  These would include writing, actively speaking or other table/desk type of tasks that focus us to the space in front of ourselves.

Video on Sitting

Conclusion

I want to thank my teachers who have taught me.  I simply have “stolen” their ideas and given them to you here.  Of course I must mention Swami Veda Bharati, who is the Michelangelo of sitting for meditation.  This video is only the introduction to learning how to mechanically sit better.  It is not a treatise on meditation or sitting for meditation.

The introductory course that is taught by me on sitting for meditation is at least 6 hours.  We break that up into two days of three hours each.  Much more is taught than just the mechanics, so this is only a start.

This sitting lesson is for all of us who sit–especially in the unsupported sitting position.  Sitting against the back of a chair–or oh my god, against the back of a sofa or pillow–is quite different.

Good luck in your practice and feel free to comment below–thank you–peter

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