Monthly Archives: September 2013

the psoas

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Buried deep within the core of your body, the psoas (pronounced “so-az”) affects every facet of your life, from your physical well-being to who you feel yourself to be and how you relate to the world. A bridge linking the trunk to the legs, the psoas is critical for balanced alignment, proper joint rotation, and full muscular range of motion. In yoga, the psoas plays an important role in every asana. In backbends, a released psoas allows the front of the thighs to lengthen and the leg to move independently from the pelvis. In standing poses and forward bends, the thighs can’t fully rotate outward unless the psoas releases. All yoga poses are enhanced by a released rather than shortened psoas. (When you reverse your orientation to gravity in inversions, however, the psoas must be toned as well as released to maintain proper spinal stability.)

To locate this powerful muscle, imagine peeling your body like an onion. The first layer is the skin; next come the abdominal muscles in front and the massive muscles of the sides and back. One layer deeper lay the intestines and another layer of back muscles. Continue peeling each layer until just before you reach your skeletal core: There in the center of your inner universe rest the psoas muscles. One on each side of the spine, each working independently yet harmoniously, the psoas attaches to the side and toward the front of the 12th thoracic vertebra and each of the lumbar vertebra. Moving through the pelvis without attaching to bone, the psoas inserts along with the iliacus muscle in a common tendon at the top of the femur.

A healthily functioning psoas provides a sensitive suspension bridge between the trunk and the legs. Ideally, the psoas guides the transfer of weight from the trunk into the legs and also acts as a grounding wire guiding the flow of subtle energies. Working properly, the psoas functions like the rigging of a circus tent, stabilizing your spine just as guy wires help stabilize the main pole of the big top.

In addition, the psoas provides a diagonal support through the trunk, forming a shelf for the vital organs of the abdominal core. In walking, a healthy psoas moves freely and joins with a released diaphragm to continuously massage the spine as well as the organs, blood vessels, and nerves of the trunk. Working as a hydraulic pump, a freely moving psoas stimulates the flow of fluids throughout the body. And a released, flowing psoas, combined with a stable, weight-bearing pelvis, contributes to the sensations of feeling grounded and centered.

Excerpt from Yoga Journal Article The Psoas Is: by Liz Koch


just breathe

As yogis have known for centuries—and as medical science is beginning to discover—the breath has amazing recuperative powers. By controlling the breath (a practice called Pranayama), the yogis found, they could alter their state of mind. The three pranayama practices described here primarily create their effects by slowing and regularizing the breath. This engages what scientists call the parasympathetic nervous system, a complex biological mechanism that calms and soothes us.

How does slower breathing help? In stressful times, we typically breathe too rapidly. This leads to a buildup of oxygen in the bloodstream and a corresponding decrease in the relative amount of carbon dioxide, which in turn upsets the ideal acid-alkaline balance—the pH level—of the blood. This condition, known as respiratory alkalosis, can result in muscle twitching, nausea, irritability, lightheadedness, confusion, and anxiety.

In contrast, slowing the breath raises the carbon dioxide level in the blood, which nudges the pH level back to a less alkaline state. As the blood’s pH changes, the parasympathetic nervous system calms us in a variety of ways, including telling the vagus nerve to secrete acetylcholine, a substance that lowers the heart rate.

As with any treatment, the breathing remedy must be administered intelligently and judiciously to be fully effective. Each condition responds best to its own special breath. To calm anxiety, for example, you can purposely lengthen your exhalations; to alleviate dullness and fatigue, you can lengthen your inhalations. And to lift yourself out of an emotional pit, it’s most effective to equalize the lengths of your inhalations and exhalations.

You’ll probably notice that watching the breath immediately initiates a chain of changes in it. First, it slows down. As it slows, its ordinarily rather ragged movements smooth out. And as the breath smoothes out, the space it occupies in the body increases.

When we breathe, most of us usually expand only a limited portion of the torso, generally in the front around the lower ribs and upper belly. Often, our breathing is restricted and shallow; ideally, it should be deep and full, so each breath cycle expands and contracts the height, width, and depth of the whole torso.

To experiment with consciously expanding your breath, sit in a chair with your spine erect—or, better yet, lie on your back on the floor. Put your fingertips lightly on your lower belly, just above the pubic bone, and try to direct a few inhalations into this space, expanding the belly each time. Once you can do this, move your fingertips to the spaces below your collarbones, placing your pinkie tips on the sides of the sternum and splaying the rest of your fingers out to the sides.

Then, for a few inhalations, see if you can gently expand these spaces. Be careful to keep your throat as soft as possible as you do this, because there’s a counterproductive tendency to tense it as you inhale into the upper chest.

Once you can move the breath into the lower belly and upper chest, try to awaken your entire back torso, an area that is terra incognita for many people. As much as you can, breathe into your back body, feeling how it balloons and then deflates with each breath cycle. Once you can feel this, experiment with filling all of your newfound spaces with every breath.

Sometimes just watching and expanding your breath for several minutes can have a surprisingly positive influence on your energy level or mood. You can multiply this effect significantly by using pranayama—breathing exercises tailored to have an effect on specific moods and conditions. Based on knowledge cultivated and refined by the yogis over thousands of years, these exercises intentionally alter the speed, rhythm, and space of the breath.

Excerpts from Yoga Journal Article Inhale, Exhale, Relax and Energize by Richard Rosen

 


upeksha

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One way to experience upeksha (equanimity) is to experiment with mindfulness meditation. Rather than fixing attention on a single object such as the breath or a mantra, mindfulness meditation involves the moment-to-moment awareness of changing objects of perception. Mindfulness is like a floodlight, shining awareness on the whole field of experience, including sensations, emotions, and thoughts as they arise and pass away in the dynamic, ever-changing flux that characterizes the human experience of body and mind. Mindfulness allows you to see the nature of the unfolding process without getting caught in reactivity, without identifying with your sensations, emotions, and thoughts. This insight changes your relationship to the mind-body. The waves keep coming, but you don’t get swept away by them. Or as Swami Satchidananda often said, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf!” This ability to remain balanced amidst ever-changing conditions is the balance of equanimity.

There’s an old story that illustrates the wisdom of this state of mind. A farmer’s most valuable asset is the one horse he owns. One day it runs away. All the townspeople commiserate with him, “Oh, what terrible luck! You’ve fallen into poverty now, with no way to pull the plow or move your goods!” The farmer merely responds, “I don’t know if it’s unfortunate or not; all I know is that my horse is gone.”

A few days later, the horse returns, and following it are six more horses, both stallions and mares. The townspeople say “Oh! You’ve struck it rich! Now you have seven horses to your name!” Again, the farmer says, “I don’t know if I’m fortunate or not; all that I can say is that I now have seven horses in my stable.”

A few days later, while the farmer’s son is trying to break in one of the wild stallions, he’s thrown from the horse and breaks his leg and shoulder. All the townspeople bemoan his fate: “Oh, how terrible! Your son has been so badly injured, he’ll not be able to help you with the harvest. What a misfortune!” The farmer responds, “I don’t know if it’s a misfortune or not; what I know is that my son has been injured.”

Less than a week later, the army sweeps through town, conscripting all the young men to fight in a war…all except for the farmer’s son, who is unable to fight because of his injury.

The fact is you can’t know what changes your life will bring or what the ultimate consequences will be. Equanimity allows for the mystery of things: the unknowable, uncontrollable nature of things to be just as they are. In this radical acceptance lies peace and freedom—right there in the midst of whatever pleasant or unpleasant circumstances we find ourselves in. When we open to the truth that there is actually very little we can control other than our own reactions to circumstances, we learn to let go.

Your asana practice offers a good opportunity to become better at recognizing where, when, and how you get caught in or swept away by reactivity, and to observe your attachment to results… But fixating on the results can cause you to miss key aspects of the process. As you continue in your asana practice, at some point it’s likely that factors outside your control—anatomical realities, injury, aging, or illness—will affect your practice. When they do, you have a chance to practice equanimity by letting go of your attachment to the results you had been seeking. Equanimity gives you the energy to persist, regardless of the outcome, because you are connected to the integrity of the effort itself. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that this attitude of focusing on the action without attachment to the outcome is yoga: “Self-possessed, resolute, act without any thought of results, open to success or failure. This equanimity is yoga.” Similarly, Patanjali tells us in chapter 1 of the Yoga Sutra, verses 12 through 16, that abhyasa, continuous applied effort, coupled with vairagya, the willingness to observe experience without getting caught in reactivity to it, will lead to freedom from suffering.

When you cultivate metta (the friendly quality of kind regard), karuna (the compassionate response to the suffering of others), and mudita (the delight in the happiness and success of others), it is upeksha that ultimately allows you to truly expand your capacity to experience this kind of boundless love for those beyond your immediate circle of friends and family, opening to the infinite capacity of your heart to embrace all beings.

Excerpt from Yoga Journal Article Calm Within: the third of a three-part series on the Brahmaviharas By Frank Jude Boccio


hinges of habit

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4 Hours in Photoshop by IOGraphica

Each one of us speaks, moves, thinks and feels in a different way, each according to the image of himself he has built up over the years. In order to change our mode of action, we must change the image of ourselves that we carry within us. What is involved here, of course, is a change in the dynamics of our reactions, and not a mere replacing of one action by another. Such a change involves not only a change in our self-image, but a change in the nature of our motivations, and a mobilization of all parts of the body concerned.

Our self image consists of four components that are involved in every action: movement, sensation, feeling and thought.  The contribution of each of these components to any particular action varies, just as the persons carrying out the actions vary, but each component will be present to some extent in any action.

In reality our self-image is never static. It changes from action to action, but gradually these changes become habits; that is, the actions take on a fixed, unchanging character.

All behavior, as we noted before, is a complex of mobilized muscles, sensing, feeling and thought. Each of the components of action could, in theory, be used instead, but the part played by the muscles is so large in the alternatives that if it were omitted from the patterns in the motor cortex, the rest of the components of the patterns would disintegrate.

At any single moment the whole system achieves a kind of general integration that the body will express at that moment. Position, sensing, feeling, thought, as well as chemical and hormonal processes, combine to form a whole that cannot be separated out into its various parts. This whole may be highly complex and complicated, but is the integrated whole of that system at the given moment.

We have already seen that the muscles play the main role in awareness. It is not possible for change to take place in the muscle system without a prior corresponding change in the motor cortex. If we can succeed in some way in bringing about a change in the motor cortex, and through this a change in the coordination of or in the patterns themselves, the basis of awareness in each elementary integration will disintegrate.

A fundamental change in the motor basis within any single integration pattern will break up the cohesion of the whole and thereby leave thought and feeling without anchorage in the patterns of their established routines. In this condition, it is much easier to effect changes in thinking and feeling, for the muscular part through which thinking and feeling reach our awareness has changed and no longer expresses the patterns previously familiar to us.  Habit has lost its chief support, that of the muscles, and has become more amenable to change.

Excerpt from Awareness Through Movement by Moshe Feldenkrais


3 gurus, 48 questions

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SOME PEOPLE SPEAK OF PHYSICAL
YOGA, MENTAL YOGA, SPIRITUAL YOGA.
IS THERE A DIFFERENCE?

Desikachar: Yoga is a relationship. It is
not that the body is not important—
the body is very important; it is the
temple—but a transformation in the
body cannot happen without a good
relationship with the mind. Whatever
happens in the body affects the mind
and whatever happens in the mind
affects the body. And whatever happens
in the emotional body affects the mind,
as well. But the essence of yoga is often
not taught through the body. What is
essential and needs to be taught is the
spirit of yoga, and that people don’t
understand.
Iyengar: Refer to my books and CD.
Asanas are not meant for physical
fitness, but for conquering the elements,
energy, and so on. So, how to balance
the energy in the body, how to control
the five elements, how to balance the
various aspects of the mind without
mixing them all together, and how to be
able to perceive the difference between
the gunas [qualities], and to experience
that there is something behind them,
operating in the world of man—that is
what asanas are for. The process is slow
and painstaking, but a steady inquiry
facilitates a growing awareness.
Pattabhi Jois: Yoga is one. God is one.
Yoga means sambandaha, which is atma
manah samyogah, or knowing God
inside you. But using it only for physical
practice is no good, of no use—just a
lot of sweating, pushing, and heavy
breathing for nothing. The spiritual
aspect, which is beyond the physical, is
the purpose of yoga. When the nervous
system is purified, when your mind rests
in the atman [the Self], then you can
experience the true greatness of yoga.

EXCERPT FROM 3 GURUS, 48 QUESTIONS: MATCHING INTERVIEWS WITH SRI T.K.V. DESIKACHAR, SRI B.K.S. IYENGAR & SRI K. PATTABHI JOIS, Interviews by R. ALEXANDER MEDIN, Edited by DEIRDRE SUMMERBELL


samyama

Samyama is defined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali verses 3.1 through 3.6 as follows:

देशबन्धश्चित्तस्य धारणा ॥ १॥
deśabandhaścittasya dhāraṇā .. 1..
Fixing the consciousness on one point or region is concentration (dhāraṇā).

तत्र प्रत्ययैकतानता ध्यानम् ॥ २॥
tatra pratyayaikatānatā dhyānam .. 2..
A steady, continuous flow of attention directed towards the same point or region is meditation (dhyāna).

तद् एवार्थमात्रनिर्भासं स्वरूपशून्यम् इव समाधिः ॥ ३॥
tad evārthamātranirbhāsaṃ svarūpaśūnyam iva samādhiḥ .. 3..
When the object of meditation engulfs the meditator, appearing as the subject, self-awareness is lost. This is samādhi.

त्रयम् एकत्र संयमः ॥ ४॥
trayam ekatra saṃyamaḥ .. 4..
These three together [dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi] constitute integration or saṃyama.

तज्जयात् प्रज्ञालोकः ॥ ५॥
tajjayāt prajñālokaḥ .. 5..
From mastery of saṃyama comes the light of awareness and insight.

तस्य भूमिषु विनियोगः ॥ ६॥
tasya bhūmiṣu viniyogaḥ .. 6..
Saṃyama may be applied in various spheres to derive its usefulness.

Once Patanjali lays out the training in concentration–dharana, dhyana, and samadhi–he instructs the practitioner to use the resultant attention skills to explore all phenomena in the created world, including the mind itself. The yogi learns to use the “perfect discipline” (samyama) of concentrated mind to explore the entire field of mind and matter. Indeed, much of the third book of the Yoga Sutra, which is widely believed to be just about the attainment of supernormal powers, actually contains Patanjali’s instructions for a systematic exploration of the field of experience.

Excerpt from Yoga Journal Article Seeing Eye to Eye by Stephen Cope


the unstruck sound

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Om Mane Padme Hum by Jalai Lama

Ancient teachings and modern science agree: you, I, all living things, all things in existence are made up at their most essential level of vibrating, pulsing energy.

For millennia, mystics have recounted their experience of this energy, which is said to manifest in our hearing awareness as a humming vibration around and within everything else.

In the Sanskrit tradition, this sound is called “Anahata Nada,” the “Unstruck Sound.” Literally, this means “the sound that is not made by two things striking together.” The point of this particular distinction is that all ordinary audible sounds are made by at least two elements: bow and string; drum and stick; two vocal cords; two lips against the mouthpiece of the trumpet; the double reed of the oboe; waves against the shore; wind against the leaves. All sounds within our range of hearing are created by things visible or invisible, striking each other or vibrating together, creating pulsing waves of air molecules which our ears and brain interpret as sound.

So, sound that is not made of two things striking together is the sound of primal energy, the sound of the universe itself.  Joseph Campbell likens this unstruck vibration to the humming of an electrical transformer, or the (to our ears) unheard hummings of atoms and molecules.

And the ancients say that the audible sound which most resembles this unstruck sound is the syllable OM. Tradition has it that this ancient mantra is composed of four elements: the first three are vocal sounds: AU, and M. The fourth sound, unheard, is the silence which begins and ends the audible sound, the silence which surrounds it.

The lovliest explanation of OM is found within the ancient Vedic and Sanskrit traditions. We can read about AUM in the marvelous Manduka Upanishad, which explains the four elements of AUM as an allegory of the four planes of consciousness.

“A” (pronounced “AH” as in “father”) resonates in the center of the mouth. It represents normal waking consciousness, in which subject and object exist as separate entities. This is the level of mechanics, science, logical reason, the lower three chakras. Matter exists on a gross level, is stable and slow to change.

Then the sound “U” (pronounced as in “who”) transfers the sense of vibration to the back of the mouth, and shifts the allegory to the level of dream consciousness. Here, object and subject become intertwined in awareness. Both are contained within us. Matter becomes subtle, more fluid, rapidly changing. This is the realm of dreams, divinities, imagination, the inner world.

“M” is the third element, humming with lips gently closed. This sound resonates forward in the mouth and buzzes throughout the head. (Try it.) This sound represents the realm of deep, dreamless sleep. There is neither observing subject nor observed object. All are one, and nothing. Only pure consciousness exists, unseen, pristine, latent, covered with darkness. This is the cosmic night, the interval between cycles of creation, the womb of the divine Mother.

It might be said that the ultimate aim of Yoga is to enter this third dreamless realm while awake. Yoga means “yoke” or “join.” Through yoga we “join” our waking consciousness to its “source” in the world of pure, qualitiless unconsciousness.

Which brings us to the fourth sound of AUM, the primal “unstruck” sound within the silence at the end of the sacred syllable. In fact, the word “silence” itself can be understood only in reference to “sound.” We hear this silence best when listening to sound, any sound at all, without interpreting or judging the sound. Listening fully, openly, without preconceptions or expectations. The sound of music, the sound of the city, the sound of the wind in the forest. All can give us the opportunity to follow the path of sound into the awareness of the sound behind the sound.

Excerpt from Article A-U-M Silence: The Ancient Sound of Om by David Gordon