Breath as Mantra

     Few Americans yogis and spiritual seekers are lucky enough to enjoy the grace of a genuine guru. In some quarters of Western culture this Indian tradition is even viewed with suspicion because of the many reports of teachers who have abused their positions and misbehaved in various ways. Often in the West spirituality is viewed as a do-it-yourself path where teachers and gurus are peripheral at best.

As a zealous Christian evangelical in my teens and twenties, I also experienced the deep disappointment of seeing egotistical personality cults destroy fellowships and injure the souls of sincere believers.

So, as I discovered the path of yoga, (which is by no means in conflict with any spiritual tradition) I avidly read books for guidance, attended classes and took my teacher training with the desire to be connected to like-minded aspirants.

As it does with many yoga practitioners, asana practice led me to meditation. One method of meditation is to use a mantra to facilitate a calm, focused mind. A mantra is a syllable or set of syllables made up of “bija” or seed sounds of the Sanskrit tongue, the language of yoga. Each tradition has its own ways of using mantra.

As I attempted to associate myself with various traditions I was initiated into their mantras and practiced them faithfully. What I have found missing in these initiations and my mantra practice was the personal relationship with an attentive teacher or guru. Each tradition with whom I tried to build a relationship was managed by the descendants of a guru who had long since passed away. I also lived some distance from the respective spiritual centers of these groups, so gathering with them was difficult. Maybe I just didn’t try hard enough. The groups, their dead gurus and their mantras left me feeling as alone as I had been before. Maybe I just didn’t try hard enough.

So, in the wake of my confusion over competing mantras and traditions I have settled on a mantra that is common to us all: my own breath. Is there anything holier than the mysterious energy (prana) that pervades our beings and expresses itself as our breath? Is there any human function that connects us more intimately to the Divine? For me it is the simplest way to direct my whole being into fellowship with the Mystery of All That Is. Prana expressed as the breath is pure divine energy.

Though we take each breath for granted, our attention on the mysterious breath and its origins is an effective way to enter ever greater states of consciousness and a path to living more powerful, effective lives.

As a young believer I spent many years studying the Bible. For me The Sermon on the Mount contains the essential Christian message. Mathew 5:6 states “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” In this universal statement we see a simple way to approach the great Mystery and to serve humanity.

So it is as we approach our daily meditation, prayer or devotion. When we focus on the breath with a righteous intention to merge with the Divine, we turn the key in the lock that opens the door to eternity, to boundless love and to union with the creative powers of the universe.

 

Pose, Counter-pose:It Takes Equal Opposites to Stay Healthy

Last May during my yoga therapy training I hurt my back doing a move with which was unfamiliar. As soon as I came out of the posture pain and weakness spread throughout my lower back. UGH!

With rest the general pain subsided in about a week. It was then I realized that the source of my pain was my left sacroiliac joint, the part of the pelvis that connects to the sacrum. Forward bends caused pain to shoot through my back and down my left leg.

As soon as I got over the initial anger over my injury, I relished using my knowledge of yoga to heal this injury. Proceeding with caution and care I returned to my reliable trio Cobra, Locust and Bow to help me heal. I practiced Cobra with no hand support, a standard form of Locust and Half Bows. The Half Bows from the right side sent a wonderful healing surge of prana down my left side right into the sacroiliac joint. Half bow is like a direct prana injection into the S.I. joint. Warrior III, Head-To-Knee Pose and Bridge Pose were also instrumental in restoring soundness to this joint and my lower back.

As I healed I continued to practice the above regimen with typical Pitta zeal and did very little forward bending. I was back to 80% function in about five months and have since returned to normal function with no pain and full mobility. What a joy to be able to heal myself with this simple, effective practice!

Recently though, neglect of forward bends has caught up with me. My necessary emphasis on the healing power of back bending without the gradual re-introduction of forward bends began to cause a bit of discomfort in a couple of disks in my lumbar spine. It took me awhile to figure out what had happened. My backbends had healed my injury. But then, without the forward bending counter poses, my back began to feel congested and stiff. Essentially, I’d created a repetitive motion condition with my unremitting back bending. It hadn’t dawned on me to re-integrate forward bending back into my daily practice. Duh! The stiffness then led to the tenderness I was feeling around L-3 and L4. What a great teacher the body is! With the realization that I had applied too much back bending energy without a countervailing force, I started to get back into forward bends.

Standing Forward Fold, Plough Pose, Seated Forward Fold and Head-to-Knee Pose were the perfect antidote to quickly restore my back to its normal, supple range of motion. Also, reaching across my body from left to right in Standing Forward Fold and Head-to-Knee pose continued to apply a wonderful stretch to the left sacroiliac joint as well.

My story is a classic example of how a cure can cause imbalance and pathology if it is taken too far. We must listen carefully to our bodies to know when to balance the forces applied by any physical regimen. When we listen the answer will present itself.

Yoga Speaks to Chronic Pain Part III

In my last post about understanding and relieving pain I left off talking about over-excited neurons (the messengers of the nervous system) and how they play a part in chronic pain.

Most of our lives the sensors in what Neil Pearson calls our “danger neurons” have a rather high threshold for pain. After an injury these neurons may continue to send danger signals well past the point that the injury is on its way to healing. Our pain threshold begins to go down, and even areas not directly affected by an injury can also become painful due to the brains inaccurate map of the body. This is how our nervous systems become hyper-sensitive. The brain and nervous system continue to send out danger signals that create pain and inflammation even when they are not necessary. Soon, even regular body motion unrelated to the injury may stimulate pain because of this hypersensitivity. This is the point that people often give up trying to move and retreat into passive acceptance of chronic pain. This state is often where people can become addicted to pain medications.

To compound the cycle of chronic pain, the neurons in the spinal cord are building more sensors that may also become habituated to sending out danger signals. As these sensors come on-line so-to-speak, they too begin to detect more danger chemicals like adrenalin and then send more danger signals to the brain which then leads to more pain.

What we see here is that the nervous system can learn to be hypersensitive. It’s akin to having a song stuck in your head from the time you awaken in the morning. Clients with chronic pain may also experience more pain at the mere thought of the circumstance that caused their injury in the first place. What pain researchers and practitioners like Pearson have discovered is that the nervous system can also learn to be less sensitive and turn down the danger signals and once again return the pain threshold to a more normal level. You have the power to re-educate your nervous system and live a life with less pain.

As I mentioned, the sensing detectors on our nerves replace themselves frequently, about every three to four days. The nervous system is constantly adapting and changing by renewing itself. This is our opportunity to begin reconditioning our nervous system and teaching it become less excited so we can reduce our pain.

Also, the pain relieving chemicals in our bodies’ are more powerful than the danger chemicals we produce. The good news is that we can train our nervous systems to release more of the pain killing chemicals, like endorphins. To do this we must convince our nervous systems that it is unnecessary for it to continue to send danger signals which result in more pain. Just as muscle cells change in response to exercise so nerve cells can learn to calm down and stop sending so many pain signals. Pearson and others have demonstrated in their work that neurons can change in response to how we move, how we stretch, to our thoughts, our emotions and our beliefs. All these actions are in our control. It may not be easy, but it is possible. It just takes consistent practice.

Every second our body is creating new nerve sensors. If we greet these new cells with calmness by diffusing stress, worry and other negative emotions these new sensors learn to be less reactive and excited. In the three to four days it takes to replace all of our nerve sensors we can begin to retrain our nervous systems to diminish the danger signals it sends out as a result of chronic pain. With regular practice we can ease our pain significantly.

Laughter, fun, gentle yoga and meditation are some ways for us to produce more endorphins. According to Pearson, one endorphin molecule can block as many as 50 danger signals. Apparently that’s much more powerful than morphine. Regular practice of these ways to produce endorphins means less pain. It may take a while, but using such methods can help us train ourselves to make permanent changes in our pain levels unlike the temporary relief provided by potentially addictive drugs.

Of course, this is a brief summary of what Neil Pearson taught us about pain relief  in our yoga therapy training, but at least you now have an idea of how to approach pain with a solid strategy that help you live a more enjoyable, functional life.

Please check out Pearson’s website: http://www.lifeisnow.ca/‎ Neil has lots of great free content.

Also, please take a look at the work of Lorimer Moseley. He is one of the most prominent pain researchers in the world; and he gave a great T.E.D. talk, too.

Praise the Pomegranate

 One of the reasons I look forward to this time of year is pomegranates. Why they’re not more popular I don’t understand. They are fabulously gobulicious and a veritable super-food. Goji berries, please! I credit gorging on pomegranates with helping me stay healthy during influenza season. It sure beats the prick of a needle and a dose of mercury-laden flu vaccine

People may eschew them because it is a bit of work to separate the seeds from the skin and inner membrane. But really it only takes a few minutes, and I love the yellowish membrane that separates the pods of juicy, closely clustered, succulent, dark red seeds. The dimpled walls of the thin seed barriers are tender, unique bits of architecture in themselves. The reward of the few minutes of easy, pleasing labor is well worth it.

There are contraptions that will shell a pomegranate easier than handpicking, but that deprives one of the sticky, sensual finger pleasure and anticipation of a reward well-earned.

The first time I ever saw shelled pomegranate seeds was in Tijuana, Baja California in 2004. As I searched for a Guayabera, or Mexican wedding shirt to wear to a friend’s wedding outside Tonopah, Nevada I stumbled upon a young couple serving up the seeds in a ten ounce cup. They sprinkled each portion with chili powder and spritzed them with lime juice. Whoa! It was only one of the best things I’d ever eaten. It could only been better preceded by some abalone steaks and artichoke hearts as a first course.

I like to cut a ripe pomegranate in half and then into quarters and break the quarters with clean, bare hands and then roll the pieces inside out to free the seeds from their leathery womb. Even the best effort will leave a few flecks of the connective membrane and seed seat. Rather than get too fussy about removing every last shred of it, I’ve found that it gives a surprising bitter counterpoint to the sweet gush of juice. My only regret is the few tender morsels that escape to the floor to become pug food. Ginger loves them! Truth be told, I have been known to invoke the five second rule even on the well-trod carpet of studio “A” at WUNC.

Pomegranate seeds, when crunched between the molars burst with an incomparable juice. The flaccid flavor of the industrially pasteurized grocery store juice fake is absurd compared to the genuine article.

As pictured, I pile the bountiful yield of seeds on the plate and look at them for a few moments. The luscious flesh glistens a deep translucent burgundy over the white seed that gives the mouth-satisfying crunch not to mention a goodly amount of your daily fiber requirement. They remind me of hundreds of tiny hearts pulsing with life on my juice-stained plate.

Speaking of staining, you might want to wear an apron, bib or an already stained outfit if you’re as big a slob as I am. Pomegranate juice has been used a dye, which is just another way to say stain.

Pomegranates are also an ancient food, and they are mentioned in the bible. So if you want to connect to the foods of our ancestors, the pomegranate, along with the fig is good candidate to maintain a thread of gustatory continuity through the generations.

Now that pomegranate season is over I’m buying up every one I can find. Luckily, the one I peeled today was the sweetest specimen” I’ve had all season. The seeds were a deeper red than any I’d seen this year. That’s how you can tell. If they start to get too ripe the seeds will be a dull purple with an easily detectable loss of turgor.

I love to shovel as many of them into my mouth as possible to maximize the amount of juicy goodness I get with each meeting of tooth and pulp.

After work this morning I will head back to the store where I purchased this fruit to buy the rest of their quickly disappearing stock. Alas, there will be no more this year unless you count the overripe representatives  from Chile coming in this Spring. (I know Spring isn’t capitalized, but that just seems so disrespectful to the seasons.)

Pomegranates are also a way of being connected to the seasons. Like the Winter Solstice, they come but once a year to offer us joy, health and lip smacking tartness.

Yoga Speaks to Chronic Pain: Part ll

As I mentioned in my last post, physical therapist, Neal Pearson compares pain interpretation by the nervous system to vision and thirst. Understanding how the pain response works is critical to decreasing chronic pain.

Though the brain has a very accurate map of our largest organ, the skin, it does not no its way around the body as well as we might imagine. Pain on our hands or face is accurately identified by the brain. Internal mechanisms to manage our body may not always reflect what is really happening like it does on our skin.

We’ve all drunk or eaten something cold and gotten a brain freeze headache. This is a good example of the brain misinterpreting signals from the palate that we are ingesting something dangerous. We may perceive pain in our foreheads but there is nothing threatening to this area of the body. This is an example of referred pain that gives an experience of pain but not an accurate fact about what is actually happening in the body.

Pearson also compares pain to vision. The instructive visual he illustrates on page 25 of Understand Pain, Live Well Again shows a cube with a dot in the lower right hand corner. At first sight the cube looks one way, but by gazing persistently another interpretation of the cube and dot pops into view. Your nervous system perceived it one way, but then the perspective changed suddenly to present an entirely different view. This is a clue that we can also learn to perceive pain signals differently with awareness and practice.

Pain is also like thirst. When we are thirsty we drink, our thirst is satisfied and the brain stops telling you to drink even though your body has not sufficiently absorbed the liquid to increase the low blood volume level that prompted you to drink in the first place. As soon as your thirst is slaked the brain stops paying attention because you’ve taken the proper corrective action even though your body won’t benefit for another 15 minutes.

Another example of how the brain misinterprets pain is a headache. One of the leading causes of an achy head is dehydration. Seldom do we think of drinking a glass of water when we have a headache. The brain tell us something is wrong, but not necessarily what to do about it.

Now that we have a clearer understanding of the brain and how it doesn’t always give us accurate information about pain, how can we use this to deal with chronic pain?

In my next post I will discuss how neurons (the pain messengers) can get over excited. Over excited neurons lower our pain threshold and begin to send unnecessary pain signals that lead to chronic pain.