This question is frequently asked in meditation classes. Even people just starting to learn meditation are wondering why some systems are so strict in how you sit (Himalayan Tradition) and others fairly casual (Transcendental Meditation).
We usually associate sitting with paying more attention. If most of us were in a class (let’s say an online video class at home)–don’t we start off sitting. Sometimes we decide-“Hey let’s just relax a bit lying down and we can listen more comfortably.” Well you know what the rest of the story is–we wake up suddenly and the find the screen is blank–having slept comfortably but missed the class.
Some of us can sleep sitting and even standing. Lying down seems to be a big trigger to relax and often we move into sleep very easily. This habit of falling asleep when lying down serves us well at night. It doesn’t work for many of us at other times. Many of the advanced subtle body relaxation techniques in Hatha Yoga are taught in this supine or Shavasana position (as pictured above). For a practicing spiritual seeker, they cultivate the capacity to delay/control sleep in this shavasana position in order to complete these deeper relaxation practices consciously.
Still meditation is not recommended for us in this supine position. Why?
One of the prime reasons to use proper alignment and balance in upright sitting for meditation is the proper establishment and flow of the diaphragmatic breath. A posture that doesn’t have the spine erect in neutral and balanced dimension and tensions will utilize upper chest breathing frequently.
A neutral spine here means that the spine is straight from the head, neck and trunk while maintaining ones three normal curves of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine.
A balance of the head neck and trunk means there an evenness to several parameters. The orientation, dimensions and tensions on the front/back/sides top and bottom of the trunk container are in proper equilibrium to support this neutral erect posture.
Many are familiar with this building block example of stacking the body parts like blocks into proper alignment. The bodywork systems and others utilize this incomplete paradigm of alignment. Here is a picture from the Rolfe Institute.
Here is an important rationale for sitting vs lying for meditation as well as any event requiring greater focus and attention. When we sit we elicit a variety of neurological/pranic reflex activity. We have certain postural reflexes that keep us more or less upright. These include other righting and equilibrium reactions. If our eyes are open we often also try to keep the visual field oriented properly to the horizon–so there are ocular reflexes too. There are many more reflex activities throughout the flows of movement in the body, breath and mind. Here are some simple ideas first.
Sitting well for meditation means besides alignment of the body, that there is this balance of tension and dimension of the body. Creating this balance of activity of the movement of the information/prana of the body is what enhances centering in this position.
This level of upright centering creates (just in looking in the sagittal plane, i.e. front to back) an interiorization of these flows that maintain this upright aligned/balanced nature. If we sit mis-using the alignment concept and therefore popularly overuse the back (vs the front), we are in too much extension often where we have these common complaints of discomfort/pain. When balancing the muscular tension of BOTH the front and back (and all the others) along with the dimensions and weight/forces, etc.–we arrive at a focus that takes us inward. (Not enough of us activate this front of the lower trunk (ie belly) nor the back of the upper back nor the front of the neck. These points are barely accepted intellectually and mostly absent in ones “sensory” practice.)
No longer are we facilitating too much extension energy/forces or starting to slump forward in flexion energy/forces–but we create a equilibrium. This equilibrium will automatically elicit these bandhas that everyone is trying to do and make happen. These bandhas and mudras will spontaneously occur.
The mind subtly that let’s say had 2 foci of attention on the front and back now can collapse those two into one. This subtlety is not popularly appreciated nor trained for properly.
Also as mentioned in previous posts the style of diaphragmatic breathing that uses the belly mainly places the diaphragm to face more anteriorly. This belly aspect of the diaphragm lacks the postural stability of the trunk that the diaphragm can provide (when used this way). Belly breathing over activates the extensors of the spine/back, etc.
When you place the lower ribs which the diaphragm attaches (in part) to face the pelvis you have an opportunity to use more three dimensional breathing. When you breathe diaphragmatically more from the lower rib cage rather than using the diaphragm of the belly–you have centrated this huge/forceful, very repetitive motion of life. You now sit with greater stability and ease. This aspect of the diaphragm of the lower ribs is also poorly understood and not properly trained. This type of centrated breathing more easily facilitates the centering of the mind also.
Can we lie for meditation or should we sit?
- Lying implies resting and sleeping of both the body and mind for the average person
- Sitting erect is both an advantage for proper breathing and alignment of the spine
- Proper sitting includes centrating both the diaphragm and tensions/dimension of the body to create an automatic/spontaneous interior response
- One must properly practice the steps in preparation
- These steps must include specific drills of linking ones attention at these different foci
- Developing concentration that is stabilized then increase these deeper flows and movements towards absorption and silence
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.
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.
We will look at these three areas to develop some of our 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:
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Some days and some times we all get that feeling of: OMG I’m not going to get better. Maybe we are overweight, out of shape, have chronic aches and pain, or are feeling caught somewhere in life.This pain or this situation is just what I have to live with from now on. Fear starts to have a bigger say in our mind. We not longer are in touch with that more reasonable (laughing Wisdom) character. Now we are controlled by these emotional winds that blow from different corners of our mind moment to moment.
What to do? First hang out a bit. This pausing before doing is a bit difficult. Often we’d rather rush to make a change. Totally reasonable for this emotional self. Totally unreasonable for growth and change. This hanging out literally involves dealing with a tension we just are too uncomfortable with. So as with much of life’s stress and strains we can often refer to our breathing.
There is nothing magical in this first part. We have heard it all before. So what is the problem often for us. It is the lack of implementation for a long enough time in a systematic way in order to appreciate change. This first part is a slowing down on the outside so that we can get a view from the inside. This interior view must include the stresses but the view is a bit broader if we let breath take us to a calmer place. This calmer place takes some time and some work. It is worth it.
For some of us there will be a lot of work just at this initial stage. It can be very unfamiliar and seemingly stressful to not initially do something to alleviate the discomfort/pain. Please note if there are acute problems one may need to take immediate action (breathing, not leaking, etc)
Once we have established the breath AND feel a bit more calm, we can have a brief inner dialogue. Nothing like a complete Soap Opera–just a way to have the rational self chat with the emotional self or whoever is answering inside at the moment. Ask ourselves: What do we really want? Not just pie in the sky kind of thing. But what is it that would serve in our best interest. Our best interest will also serve and fit well in the interest of the family/community that we reside in.
Again as you respond to this inquiry, check in with your breathing and inner perspective. The inner perspective feels a calming sensation and you start to tap into your own interior wisdom/intuition. It may be a very soft inner voice. So all the noise of fear and stress makes it difficult to hear. This is why taking the time to properly prepare is absolutely critical.
You will know it when you feel a shift from this furtive questioning that leads nowhere. You start to feel a quieting that causes a release of held tension. You will feel it in the body as relaxation and the breath automatically becomes deeper. You may even start to feel more tired or periods of greater energy. Stay with what ever you are experiencing and repeat this initial process of breathing and paying attention.
All these steps subsequently are predicated on one’s desire for change. We might want change, but we need to define what that change really looks and feels like. This means having a goal or goals. Nothing too fancy or high-sounding. The more practical and measurable you can make it the better you will know when you have achieved it.
Now lots of us have goals but we never reach them. Here a goal would be that something or aspect that you could not live without. Kind of like breathing when you are under water and run out of air. Boy you know how much you want to breathe-NOW and you are driven literally to the surface again. This is a burning goal that successfully drives us. We literally stop doing all the other things that naturally sabotage our efforts or take us away from the direction we need to be moving towards.
This power of ones will in the above example is the type of fuel that take you to your goal. This will power is critical to develop for many of us. Often we start out on this journey of change and end up quitting too early. As soon as it becomes inconvenient or too difficult we find we don’t really want it anymore in that way. We would like it delivered and all ready to be consumed. The work of changing ourselves becomes a bigger effort than the effort we are willing to make to create the change.
We lose sight of our goal. We become again disillusioned and loathing of ourselves. We once again settle back into this comfortable yet uncomfortable lifestyle.
One must have a good reason to have this goal. It must be based on a deep inner desire. We have to make a connection from the inside. This connection inside will show us and bring us to a clearer understanding of ourselves. This goal will resonate deeply in a way that we begin to feel better. This better feeling needs to be nurtured by lifestyle changes and proper practices. This process then continues on it’s own accord and we end up following a deeper calling. This automatically directed process can easily get side tracked at the beginning (the first several years or decades!). So of course our exterior effort of pushing towards as we feel the pull from the interior is all part of this dynamic dialectic.
We just don’t take the time to develop this interior appreciation. This interior life can join with our exterior life and this becomes our great goal. The movement towards this goal becomes our practice. First we might need to spend a good amount of time in once again, paying attention and developing this full deep diaphragmatic breath.
Go ahead and read the classic wisdom texts for guidelines. Develop a relationship with like minded seekers. Nurture your inner spirit/intuition.
Also develop a basic practice. Choose maybe one thing–two things for a busy minded person. Remember how to climb a mountain? One step at a time. Running up and take leaps and bounds doesn’t really do ANYTHING in the long run.
Basic Practices to support your Philosophy of Life (Goal)
Maybe start with just avoiding some problems and poor habits.
Don’t make it too complicated. The complexity is there and it will evolve over time.
Get ready for your new day
Stick with your plan for 4-6 weeks before you change it. Just get in a good month of training. Then reassess by again going inside and listen as your relax and breathe.
Remember Dude: We can all still change.
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.
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.
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.
We will be primarily addressing the second and third misconception listed above.
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:
Here is the proximal (close to center-line of the body) attachment:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We put our hopes and dreams into ideas. Fitness can become just an idea. These supposed lies of fitness could be true as well as not. There are parts to each of the above that are true and other parts that are misconstrued. Let’s take a break from whether it is true. The discussion is specious. Does this mean we shouldn’t strive to be fit. Again there is this aspect of talking about it vs getting it done. The key at this moment is “go” not talk about it. (now before you leave for your workout…)
Best thing to do is stop discussing this idea and start practicing it. There is a ton of information out there on different programs to help you achieve your goals in becoming better at moving. This is what fitness does. It helps you move better.
Everything in our physiology is movement related. We send signals of back and forth within our body, both chemical, electrical and mechanical. We push and pull air and fluids throughout our vessels and channels. We move things inside and outside. Our thoughts and emotions move into and out of our awareness. We are a constant complex marvel of an internal and external ballet of choreographed movements.
All this internal movement is summoned up in our expression and dance of movement with our outside ecology. These exercises we do and the functions we perform in our daily lives and the kinds of relationships we have or don’t have are the final expressions of our symphony of movements.
Do some of you remember Jim Fixx. Back in 1984, he was on the popular front of running and getting fit. He had a 2 pack/day cigarette habit and was out of shape. He stopped smoking, ate better and took up running. He was the iconic symbol of a fit man when suddenly he died of a heart attack while jogging. I remember this incident well. I had bought his book and thought what a great thing for fitness that he was doing. After his death there was a whip lash effect on this fitness craze of the day. Some of course used this sad story to incorrectly label the efforts of fitness.
Being fit does not protect you from disease or life. It does allow you to move better through life, no matter what you have to deal with. The key again is movement. Fitness isn’t something that you can hold in your hand as this or that. But if you have done your practices regularly, then you will be able to live above most that do not.
We all will have some of today’s diseases for a variety of reasons. Some of us will be heavier. Some us will be skinnier. Etc. Being able to move our minds and bodies well will allow recovery and return to our lives with greater ease.
Look closely at what you want in your life. Develop a practice to reach those goals.
What you can train, you can attain!
If you are involved in training, congratulations! Consider reviewing your program. Look at the above guidelines. Which areas are you doing well in. Are there areas that you leave out? Maybe you don’t even consider them. It would be another article to speak more directly about using some of these guidelines that may be under utilized (or mis-used) by some in the fitness arena. Leave a comment about this topic.
If you haven’t started training regularly, then re-evaluate where you are in relation to your goals. Maybe get some goals and/or redefine them. Start with a simple plan and then take action on it.
Expect to train and practice for a long time. Many fitness gurus and research speak of short term training programs. There is value to including short term effects. The real value in practice and training is over the long term. It is always surprising to me how much change happens from year to year. Most are familiar with the change of degradation from year to year. The changes I find that are most sustainable and profound actually take place over many, many years.
Now for some, a longer view is a kin to a prison sentence, at least emotionally. OK, that isn’t uncommon. It is just unproductive. This evaluation of the value of long term training actually allows for all of us to attain whatever it is that we are training. This statement kind of reminds me of a money back guarantee.
Just don’t be planting carrot seeds and expecting apple blossoms. I’m not kidding. Many people say this type of training just doesn’t work. Often these critics do not even participate. They are the arm chair quarterbacks or the box seat critics. You have to be moving and doing (before you re-hang around being).
But again the main point is that what ever we do, what ever we eat, what ever we think/feel becomes what we are. If we have a particular result, it is due to all that we have done or not done that leads up to this result. Again this can become a challenge to survive/manage/overcome or an obstacle that seems insurmountable.
Develop the fitness of the mind and body. Engage fully in life. Practice!
Best of the best in your endeavors–peter