The Early Yield of the 40 Day Practice

One of the many things I notice when I am inconsistent with my meditation is that it takes me about twenty minutes to slog through the distractions and unconscious inattention to get to the clear, calm state of concentration. If this happens to you, simply persevere w/o judgement or frustration. With practice you’ll get there, I promise.

This is exactly why I’ve set myself the challenge of a 40 day practice. I’ve grown weary of of the faulty construction I’ve made of my life by inconsistent practice. Forty days of practice helps us to instill new habits, to compose a new song for our lives. As you may know, 40 is a significant number in spiritual traditions the world over.

Speaking of composing a new song for our lives, have you ever seen a metronome? It’s a simple time keeping device used by musicians to set the tempo for a certain time signature of music. The pendulum of the metronome sounds the beat as it sways back and forth according to the speed set by the practitioner.

The breath is the metronome of the human being. As we begin our meditation, we engage the breath not only physically but mentally, psychologically and emotionally as well. We settle into a tempo of slow, regular diaphragmatic rhythm. We sing the sensual song of the body and allow it to suffuse every cell of our anatomy. We find the natural cadence of being that lies in our souls beneath all the competing storms that disturb our peace.

The metronomic rhythm of the attentive breath sweeps away the seeds of potential disturbance before they sprout. We clean the soil of our minds so that we may sow the seeds of peace and steady attention that root and give rise to the creativity that invariably germinates from this fertile state of mind.

Now the garden of the mind is set to become absorbed in the neurochemistry that creates the deep foundational union of the human spirit with our cosmic origins. Persisting in meditation quite simply changes our brains. The work of Harvard neuroscientist, Sara Lazar, demonstrates how meditation stimulates growth in the hippo campus and parietal lobe where memory and empathy respectively reside. At the same time, the amygdala, the fear center of the brain, is soothed and pacified. When we develop a habit of starting our day with this kind of mindset, we open the doors of possibility to being the kinds of people we really want to be–the kinds of people who can make positive, permanent change in our lives and the lives of others.

Another wonderful benefit is the seeming contradiction between feeling elevated and grounded simultaneously. I love this so much because it gives me the assurance that I will be more likely to think, speak and act with greater awareness. I will be less likely to think unkind thoughts and speak and or act out of unconscious reaction.

I am only a four days into my devotional period of 40 days, and the results are already such a joyful relief.

Here’s a good example of how a clear, considered state of mind can make a big difference: I heard a story today on NPR about an airline pilot whose plane was disabled by a broken engine fan blade that tore a hole in the wing of the jet aircraft he was flying. His actions defied my comprehension. The report told of how he sat back, took his hands off the controls and closed his eyes. WOW! He meditated. The instant guidance he got for consciously controlling his response was to treat that big hulking jet like a small Cessna. Rather than reacting to all the alarms and warnings produced by multiple systems failures, he cut through all the noise and carried out the fundamental, necessary actions that saved over 400 passengers and crew.

We may never fly a jet aircraft in an emergency situation, but each day, we know there are triggers and traps that have the ability to make us lose our composure, depress us, or send us careening off into an emotional detour that may have significant consequences. By starting each day with the habit of meditation we reconstruct our minds so that we are able to set the stage for goodness before negative influences confront us. We are ready and equipped to overcome life’s challenges before they gain enough strength to defeat us. The habit of meditation is the guarantor of our ability to respond to life in victory.

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Building a Juicy Yoga Practice Through the Balancing Symmetry of Asana

Of all the bodily sensations that we as students usually notice when we begin yoga practice is asymmetry or imbalances between different parts of our bodies; one side of the body may be weaker, less mobile and less flexible. This may be due to illness, pain, injury or habitual movement patterns that favor one side of the body over the other. Whatever the case, we quickly understand how prana, chi or energy flow in our bodies is inhibited by persistent imbalance.

Take a sprained ankle for example. I’ve sprained my right ankle six times starting when I was about four years old; most recently it was a minor sprain walking in uneven rocky terrain. As it has healed, I’ve noticed residual immobility or congestion around the Achilles tendon. Like any injury, or damaged muscle or joint, it needs extra attention to return to full function.

Symmetry is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is feeling comfortable in our bodies. Uncomfortable bodies make for uncomfortable minds; there’s no getting around that fact. Hosting a constantly disturbed state of being will lead to any number of obstacles to reaching our full potential.

Asymmetry can affect the mind as well as the body. Emotional trauma, whether its source is war, physical/sexual abuse or severe injury can also damage our ability to cope with life as fully participating, engaged beings.

We regain our balance by caring for ourselves. We develop loving kindness toward ourselves. We give ourselves the extra attention necessary to become fully functioning individuals again.

One place this happens very effectively is on the yoga mat. The yoga mat is a veritable flying carpet for our highest intentions. When we step onto our mats, it can be like walking into another dimension, a dimension where the outside world can no longer impinge on our freedom to be who we really want to be regardless of its expectations of us.

As we step onto the mat to address our pain and limitation, we begin with the breath, our most powerful healer. We practice what I call the root to crown connection. We breathe from the pelvic floor or perineum to the crown of our heads. Articulating the breath deliberately from root to crown guides our breathing through all the major chakras, massaging and purifying these energy centers (and their associated organs) of physical and emotional debris.

Today after class one of my students told me the story of a young girl she knew who had been sexually assaulted by her classmates. She became withdrawn, fearful and disengaged as she tried to grapple with the horrible violations against her. Victims of assault often assume a compressed physical posture with rounded shoulders and collapsed chest in order to protect themselves. Trauma lives in our cells and tissues and shapes our physical and mental posture toward our lives. The aunt of this young girl is a yoga teacher. The aunt led her to the yoga mat and began helping her restore her physical/emotional and symmetrical connection to life. Just a year after her assault, this girl is once again moving forward as a confident, full participant in her life rather than a victim stuck in her trauma. Intentional movement and breath is restoring this child’s balanced posture and attitude toward life.

Likewise, when we injure a muscle, joint or some connective tissue, the injured part atrophies or shrinks in response to trauma. We must first rest and treat the injury with appropriate measures. When the acute phase of the injury subsides, we can begin working to restore full function with intention, breath and asana. With my sprained right ankle, I began doing twice as many standing poses on the right side to rebuild my strength and endurance. I also worked to flex and extend the ankle to stretch and compress the tissue to encourage healing circulation and relieve the congestion caused by inflammation.

After we recover 90% from an injury or trauma, we’ve reached perhaps the most challenging part of our recovery. This is where we can end up with a “nagging” injury that will be with us for the rest of our lives. This will forever be a vulnerable part of our body or mind that is susceptible to re-injury. Vanquishing that last bit of infirmity takes determination and persistence.

This is the time to work with a yoga therapist or physical therapist or both, to achieve full healing. Once you have received a treatment plan from your health practitioner, work consistently and gently to achieve full recovery.

One of my favorite ways to practice is to repeat postures two or even three times on each side of the body. A great yoga teacher, Susannah Bruder, in Oakland, California, used to say that “repetition, is the spice of life.” Repeating poses lengthens the muscles, conditions the joints and tones the nervous system. Our bodies become juicy, lithe and at ease.

As we achieve symmetry in our bodies and align our attitudes with the universal principles of goodness, life becomes a joyous adventure bound for the desires of our hearts. A healthy body and mind running clean and clear serve the path of reaching our full potential as human beings. Let us all take the next step toward participating in the great Mystery of human experience by healing ourselves so that our bodies and minds can receive divine prana through pure food, water, air and sunlight. With this health of symmetry and alignment the highest achievements will be ours.

Uniting Our Energies with the Bandhas

This post is the fourth of perhaps five brief expositions of the bandhas or yogic locks.
Before I continue I’d like to say a few words about why I’m such an ardent advocate of these great yogic techniques. When I lived in Las Vegas, Nv. a dear friend of mine, Crispin Morrison, died at the age of 41 of ovarian cancer. My friends Emily, Jeanne, Helen and I watched helplessly as Crispin fought to avoid the “slow motion car wreck” of cancer (her words) from taking her life. Coupled with my own struggle with Crohn’s Disease I intuitively felt then, as I do now that Ashwini Mudra and the three bandhas have tremendous potential to cleanse and heal us from the inside out.
My practice and research of the bandhas began from my concern about the physical body as did my initial interest in yoga asana. As I soon learned the specific purpose of these techniques is to purify the astral body, unify our energies and direct them through the chakras toward the experience of samadhi or enlightenment. We can scarcely imagine what kind of world we might create if even a small percentage of humanity could attain this state. Our chances at peace, creativity and wise living would be greatly increased to say the least.
As an imperfect novice (I’m still a beginner) my practice of the bandhas began with the desire to heal myself from Crohn’s Disease. From the first time I exhaled and pulled Uddiyana Bandha (UB) I felt the power of this simple muscular contraction. I could feel the compression of my abdominal organs and immediately began to wonder at just what marvelous intestinal alchemy I’d initiated by this first intentional application of UB.
The word that comes to mind when I think of combining Jalandhara, Uddiyana and Mula Bandhas is vacuum. The combined muscular and mechanical contractions of Maha Bandha do indeed produce a strong vacuum action as the breath is suspended upon exhalation. The root lock is pulling up and down simultaneously as the anchoring sphincter muscles resist the upward pull of the lower abdominals. The upward pull continues with Uddiyana Bandha. Jalandhara Bandha causes a deep hollow at the base of the throat and is compressively dams up the energy as the chin is pressed firmly against the top of the sternum. The stretch and massage produced by applying maha bandha reaches into the deep cells of these tissues. This cleanses and purifies all the organs, glands, muscles, and nerves of the abdominal cavity. Not only are the abdominal organs fully massaged, the heart and lungs also receive a noticeable contractive vacuum. The application and release of Maha Bandha produce a physical, therapeutic wave of complimentary oppositional forces.
Additionally, as our awareness of our bodies’ increases with practice of the bandhas, we will be able to release unconscious stress that can take up residence in our organs. (Stress and tension hold toxins.) Indeed, this was one of the first things I noticed when I began my practice of the root lock. I was one of those proverbial “tight assed” guys who walked around with his sphincter in knot. This constant tension was a result of the worry, stress and anger I unconsciously carried around with me. I can remember feeling that tightness and releasing it consciously even before I knew about yoga, but I didn’t make the connection between that tension and my diseased mind and body.
I’m convinced that these techniques, when combined with asana, pranayama and a clean diet could decrease the incidence of many of our most deadly abdominal diseases like cancers of the colon, pancreas, liver, thyroid and stomach. The pulling, stretching, contraction and compression combined in Maha Bandha must surely deliver super oxygenating blood flow when contrasted to the comparatively stagnant state of our vital organs that we take to be normal.
Likewise, the subtle or astral body is being cleansed so our pranic energies can unite to flow through the chakra system. The union or yoga of these energies eventually creates a person who is balanced and able to access the entirety of human potential. These practices are the collective doorway to super humanity. They can help lift us out of the narrow, egocentric wallows that plague our species.
Study after study in recent decades has confirmed some of the many benefits of yoga. Alas, the bandhas have received little clinical examination. I hope this lack of research will be remedied in the near future.
I am sending out a call to yogis, medical practitioners and researchers alike to begin a thorough examination of these splendid techniques that have been handed down to us from antiquity. I would love to participate in such promising research.
Also, I would love to hear from yogis around the world about their personal experiences with the bandhas. Like me, I’m sure many of you can testify to the powerful effects of these ancient methods. I certainly owe much to the bandhas in helping me recover from and banish Crohn’s Disease from my life. Let me hear from you so that we may add our energy to what the yogis started so many thousands of years ago.

Working Out the Demons

As I mentioned in my last post, the human body is designed as a conduit for energy flow. Another word for flow is circulation. Energy circulates throughout the mammalian body within tubes like blood vessels, nerve axons, the digestive system and the glands and organs. These tubes, or nadis as the yogis call them, are of many sizes and shapes and have pathways unique to their functions. When everything is flowing freely, we feel well and able to participate in all parts of our lives. When prana flow is decreased through illness, injury, or inadequate nutrition we feel the effects in a variety of ways.

Not only is this true for the physical body, it is also true for the mind. Incomplete recovery from limiting beliefs, attitudes or psychological trauma can continue to live within us, often without our awareness. This residual trauma can live as memories in our minds and in the very tissues of our bodies. In our not so distant past these manifestations of persistent psychological disease were often called demon possession. In a metaphorical sense demon possession is not as far fetched as we may think when we identify “demons” as the forces of stress and tension. These demons can be the beginning of high blood pressure, heart and kidney disease and chronic mental illness often manifesting as depression.

In Amy Weintraub’s ground-breaking book, Yoga for Depression, she devotes an entire chapter to the subject “grief in our tissues” and how to release it. Amy uses two incisive quotes to get the heart of the matter. One of them is from Lama Palden Drolma.

“Yoga practices bring us into a state of ripeness. They purify the energy channels for the free flow of prana. In the process, the sludge is brought to the surface. It’s like cleaning the sewers. The psychological and emotional obstacles get flushed to the surface.”

I have had the experience of “cleaning out the sewers” many times  before and enjoyed yoga’s amazing cleansing power again this very morning.

Since I finished my yoga therapy training I’ve been involved in the slow struggle to build my business as a yoga therapist. As with any uphill battle it can take its toll. All the old stories start rising from impermanent interment to haunt me once again. You know the common lies we all face: I’m not good enough, I’ll never belong, I’m obsolete (if you’re over 55 or thereabouts), the world doesn’t need what I have to offer; the list goes on and on. As Lama Drolma says, it does feel like our minds and bodies become a toxic sewer aching with the trauma of the past.

As I always do when these feelings begin to overwhelm me, I take refuge in my practice. I rolled out my yoga mat like a magic carpet and practiced yoga postures for nearly two hours. All the bending, extensions, twists, and balancing poses acted like an exorcism to rid me of the demons of depression and doubt that were ready to blow down the door of my equanimity. With the powerful assistance of deep breathing and conscious movement I worked the demons out. This practice never fails. It is there for us everyday to massage, tone and cleanse every muscle, organ, gland and cell in our bodies. We can always take refuge in our practice. As we do, we connect with all souls past and present who turn to yoga to cultivate peace, strength and victorious living.

Namaste!