Mindful Breathing: Round n’ Round We Go…

[Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Nicole Newman who blogs at Yoga for the Arts.]

“The complex has its root in the simple.” ~Lao-Tzu

Anxiety. Shallow (or rapid) breathing. Muscle tension. Guarded posture. Fear. Fight-or-Flight response activated. Increased restriction of respiration. Oxygen deprivation. Exhaustion. Dysphoria. Augmented anxiety. Psychosomatic illnesses.

The most effective and accessible antidote to anxiety is to establish a grounded, centered breath with sound, referred to as ujjayi, “one who is victorious,” or ujjayi breath, “victorious breath.” Ujjayi is produced by gently narrowing the base of the throat by partially closing the epiglottis (the piece of cartilage at the top of the voicebox) and breathing exclusively through the nose. In spite of its simplicity, ujjayi requires both relaxation of effort and presence of mind, which naturally deepens the breath and calms and strengthens the nervous system.

Practice finding the ujjayi sweet spot by exhaling through the mouth, as if to fog a window. Feel the breath create friction at the base of the throat as the soft palette rises, doming upward. Use this same technique to recreate the oceanic-like sound, but this time close the mouth and inhale and exhale through the nose.

Changing the breath directly influences biochemical reactions, producing more relaxing substances, such as endorphins, while dramatically reducing the production and release of anxiety-producing hormones and neurotransmitters, including adrenaline and cortisol.

An incessant undercurrent of fear and anxiety cause physical and emotional blockages, creating a constrictive armor of tension, which hinders freedom of movement, thought and creativity. A well of untapped potential energy resides at the base of the spine, the root of our nervous system. Through mindfully cultivating an even-tempered, sibilant ujjayi, one can awaken and regulate this seat of inner strength.

When paralyzed by anxious thoughts, I find refuge in and inspiration from the Hindu deity and warrior, Durga, “the invincible,” or in Bengali referred to as “the one who can redeem in situations of utmost distress.” Her unshakable fearlessness prevails, even when embroiled in epic spiritual battles. She embodies fortitude and remains rooted and centered in the eye of the storm. Her many arms wield symbolic weapons, including a sword, representing the power derived from discriminative knowledge.

Learning how to use the breath to reign in the wandering mind brings equanimity and strength of mind and body. Senior Ashtanga teacher, David Swenson is often quoted for sharing the following yogic saying: “The mind is more difficult to control than the wind; But, if we are able to control our breath we may control our mind.”

—————————–

Nicole Newman is an Ashtanga practitioner and enthusiast. She studies with her favorite teacher and mentor, Eddie Stern at the Sri Ganesha Temple.

Nicole is a conservatory-trained flutist, who developed scoliosis after practicing several hours a day over many years, without any instruction in mind-body-instrument awareness. Through yoga, Nicole was able to realign her spine and strengthen the muscles supporting her back. She now moves without pain or discomfort. Nicole dedicated herself to sharing the transformative science and art of yoga by founding Yoga for the Arts. Nicole’s mission is to help artists live happier, healthier, more artistically productive lives.

To Take the Posture is the Purpose of the Practice

“These forms are not a means of obtaining the right state of mind. To take this posture itself is the purpose of our practice. When you have this posture, you have the right state of mind, so there is no need to try to attain some special state. When you try to attain something, your mind starts to wander about somewhere else. When you do not try to attain anything, you have your own body and mind right here.” ~Shunry Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In Memory of a Yogi ~ The Mahasamadhi of Paramahansa Yogananda

“To commune daily with God in deep meditation, and to carry His love and guidance with you into all your dutiful activities, is the way that leads to permanent peace and happiness.”
~ Paramahansa Yogananda

Courtesy of Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, CA.

The writings of Paramahansa Yogananda have been a guide to me ever since I took up yoga more than 10 years ago. You may or may not know that March 7th marks the 60th anniversary of Paramahansa Yogananda’s mahasamadhi (a yogi’s final conscious exit from the body at the time of physical death). The spiritual legacy of Yogananda –– author of Autobiography of a Yogi, founder of Self-Realization Fellowship, and one of the preeminent spiritual figures of our time –– continues to flourish today, with evermore seekers internationally turning to the sacred science of yoga meditation.

As so much of Yogananda’s life work and teachings focused upon the inward journey, on this important anniversary, we offer the following quotes on meditation from the master himself:

“Through meditation one can experience a stable, silent inner peace that can be a permanently soothing background for all harmonious or trialsome activities demanded by life’s responsibilities. Lasting happiness lies in maintaining this evenly peaceful state of mind.”

– from Inner Peace: How to Be Calmly Active and Actively Calm by Paramahansa Yogananda

“The moon’s reflection cannot be seen clearly in ruffled water, but when the water’s surface is calm a perfect reflection of the moon appears. So with the mind: when it is calm you see clearly reflected the moonèd face of the soul. As souls we are reflections of God. When by meditation techniques we withdraw restless thoughts from the lake of the mind, we behold our soul, a perfect reflection of Spirit, and realize that the soul and God are One.”

– from Where There is Light by Paramahansa Yogananda

“Through meditation I will stop the storm of breath, mental restlessness, and sensory disturbances raging over the lake of my mind. Through prayer and meditation I will harness my will and activity to the right goal.”

– from Metaphysical Meditations by Paramahansa Yogananda

To discover more information on the Self-Realization Fellowship teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda visit www.yogananda-srf.org.

[Quotes and photograph provided courtesy of Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, CA. All rights reserved].

Thoreau the Yogi

 “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” – Gandhi

This morning while reading the newspaper over breakfast at my hotel, I came across a review of a book I hadn’t heard of yet. The book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, purports to extol the value of those who shun the spotlight and instead seek solitude, simplicity, and quiet contribution in the noisy world around them. The book sounds intriguing and probably has appeal for a lot of yogis out there who understand the virtue of inner reflection. It’s now on my list of books to read.

The review also got me thinking about the great American introvert, Henry Thoreau, and his two year experiment of living simply and alone at Walden Pond. Although many of us might not have the same fortitude or desire to shut ourselves away in a cabin for a couple years, I think many of us yogis share similar spiritual and contemplative aspirations. As the following passages illustrate, much can be said for the inner conversation that takes place in the heart of one whom the world would describe as an introvert.

Indeed, Thoreau is considered by many to be America’s first self-described yogi. In a letter penned in 1849, Thoreau wrote:

“Free in this world as the birds in the air, disengaged from every kind of chains, those who practice the yoga gather in Brahma the certain fruit of their works. … Depend upon it that, rude and careless as I am, I would fain practice the yoga faithfully. … The yogi, absorbed in Contemplation, contributes in his degree to creation; he breathes a divine perfume, he hears wonderful things. Divine forms traverse him without tearing him, and, united to the nature which is proper to him, he goes, he acts as animating Original matter. … To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am a yogi.”

In Walden, Thoreau further described his meditative reverie in this beautiful passage:

“Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise to noon, rapt in revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, while the birds sang or flitted noiseless through the house until by sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’ s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any of the work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works.”

Beautiful words for “quiet” hearts who want to shake the world, but in a gentle way…

Related articles:

Sh!t Meditators Say…Tiny Devotions Giveaway

Looks like Tiny Devotions, the fabulous mala bead company, couldn’t help but take a little inspiration from Lululemon’s fabulous “Sh!t Yogis Say” parody. It’s all in good fun and should bring a smile to your face!

Want to win some free mala bead bling for your yoga wardrobe?

Here’s the giveaway rules from Tiny Devotions blog:

We meditated all of January and came out out of silence to make this video (Yes, we know we’re about a month late on the rest of the world).

We need your help in sharing it and spreading the meditating love all over the internet/universe.

So we’ve decided to share the love with a Shit Meditators Say Giveway.

How to enter – Either:

1. Leave a comment on the Shit Meditators Say video (feel free to share it with your friends and yogis)

2. Tweet a link of this video – make sure you include @tinydevotions so we can enter you in the giveaway

2 meditators will WIN a “one of a kind” buddha or Ganesha gemstone and silver wrist mala!

Winner announced when we get to 10,000 views! Spread the love (and the laughs)

Okay. Enjoy the video a few more times and get tweetin’ or commenting!

Learning to Sit Alone

‘All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.’
~Blaise Pascal


Think about some of the problems of our daily lives, and how many of them would be eased if we could learn to sit alone, in a quiet empty room, with contentment.

If you’re content to sit alone quietly, you don’t need to eat junk food, to shop on impulse, to buy the latest gadget, to be on social media to see what everyone else is talking about or doing, to compare yourself to others, to make more money to keep up with the Joneses, to achieve glory or power, to conquer other lands or wage war, to be rude or violent to others, to be selfish or greedy, to be constantly busy or productive.

You are content, and need nothing else. It solves a lot of problems.

Can you sit alone in an empty room? Can you enjoy the joy of quiet?

Most of us have trouble sitting alone, quietly, doing nothing. We have the need to do something, to check our inboxes and social media, to be productive. Sitting still can be difficult if you haven’t cultivated the habit.

Learning to sit, even for a few minutes, is instructive. We learn to listen to our thoughts, to be aware of our urges to do something else, to plan and set goals. We learn to watch ourselves, but to just sit still and not act on those urges. We learn to be content with stillness.

We learn to savor the quiet. It’s something most of us don’t have, quiet, and it takes some getting used to. When we’re driving our cars or out exercising or eating or working or even practicing yoga, we have music playing or we talk with people or we have the television on. Quiet can be amazing, though, because it helps us calm down, contemplate, slow down to savor the emptiness.

Being alone is another pleasure we too often neglect. When we are alone, we go on the Internet or TV to see what else is going on, what others are doing or saying, instead of just being alone. This isolation is a necessary thing, that allows us to find ourselves, to learn to be content with little instead of always wanting more.

Can you practice being alone, being still, being quiet? Just a little at first, then perhaps a bit more. Listen, watch, learn about yourself. Find contentment. Need nothing more.

‘It has often occurred to me that a seeker after truth has to be silent.’
~Mahatma Gandhi

*******

Editor’s note: This post is adapted from the inspiring content on Zen Habits.  

Yoga Nidra for Sleep

This guided meditation is designed to help you achieve healthy sleep by changing habitual behaviors (in this case,…insomnia).

Going Inside the Mind

Direct your eye right inward, and you’ll find
A thousand regions in your mind
Yet undiscovered. Travel them and be
Expert in home-cosmography.

   Thoreau, Walden

 

Ensō – The Art of the Zen Buddhist Circle

While surfing the web tonight I came across a magnificently simple Zen image that transfixed my mind.  Of course I’ve seen ensō before (Zen circles)–kind of hard to miss since I live in Japan–but tonight the image apparently worked its enlightening effect upon me.  It took me by surprise.

According to Audrey Yoshiko Seo, author of Ensō: Zen Circles of Enlightenment, “Zen circles, ensō, are symbols of teaching, reality, enlightenment, and a myriad of things in between. Seemingly perfect in their continuity, balance, and sense of completeness, and yet often irregular in execution, ensō are at once the most fundamentally simple and the most complex shape. They seem to leave little room for variation, and yet in the hands of Zen masters, the varieties of personal expression are endless. Ensō evoke power, dynamism, charm, humor, drama, and stillness.”

[Read more…]

Meditation for Geeks

For your viewing pleasure…

If You’re Looking for Something to ‘Occupy’…

One-Moment Meditation Cartoon

Even one minute of meditation can make a HUGE difference!

Recommended meditation reading:

Real Happiness:  The Power of Meditation – A 28 Day Program by Sharon Salzberg

Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn

How to Use, Cleanse, and Store Mala Beads

A few pointers from Diana at Tiny Devotions on how to use, cleanse, and store mala beads:

On the Spirit Voyage blog, which has a trove of meditation mantras, I discovered some interesting information about accupressure points on the fingers that can be targeted with a mala.  Might give it a try.

There are accupressure points on each of the fingers that work on different parts of the psyche and the brain.  When the beads press the meridian points in the finger, you can work on a specific result. The meridian point you are trying to activate is located on the side of each finger, in the center point between the tip of the finger and the upper knuckle.
The properties of the meridian points for each finger are as follows:
  • Index Finger (Jupiter Finger): Wisdom. Knowledge. Prosperity
  • Middle Finger (Saturn Finger): Patience.
  • Ring Finger (Sun Finger): Health. Vitality. Strengthen the Nervous System.
  • Little Finger (Mercury Finger): Communication. Intelligence.

lokah samastha sukhino bhavantu

may all beings everywhere be happy and free and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all

Take a Five Minute Yoga Break!

I always find it surprising how much better I feel at work if I take a few minutes every now and then to sit up, stretch my body, and take some relaxing breaths.  I found this refreshing routine at Yoga+ Joyful Living written by Greg Capitolo.  Enjoy!

Extended periods of sitting seem to be an occupational hazard in today’s information age. Even if you have good posture habits and the best ergonomic chair, your body will need a break to release muscle tension, stress, and stagnation in the joints. Fortunately, it’s easy to adapt some yoga postures for the office, allowing you to reap the benefits of hatha yoga without ever leaving your chair. Treat yourself to a five-minute break with this revitalizing sequence.

1. Breath Awareness To begin, sit at the front edge of your chair so that your ears, shoulders, and hips are in a straight line. Adjust the height of your chair so that your knees are even with the hip joints and your feet rest on the floor directly under your knees (if your chair is not adjustable, prop books under your feet or hips). Close your eyes and focus on establishing smooth, even diaphragmatic breathing; feel the upper abdomen and lower ribs expand with each inhale and fall with each exhale. After one minute, move on to the gentle stretches below, starting each exercise from this basic seated posture.

 

2. Shoulder Rolls On an inhale, draw the shoulders up toward your ears and back; then down and forward on the exhale. Repeat two more times, then reverse the direction. This exercise increases mobility in the shoulder joints and opens the chest.

Read More…

Ashtanga Yoga First Series Video by David Swenson

I happily surfed my way into David Swenson’s Ashtanga Yoga First Series video on YouTube the other day.  The whole thing!  I enjoy reading  and practicing with Swenson’s Ashtanga Yoga book, — it’s one of my favorite yoga books of all time — but have never had a chance to preview his yoga videos.

I haven’t watched the entire film yet, but so far I have a very favorable impression of both the video and Swenson as an instructor.  That’s pretty much what I expected based on his book.  Nothing flashy, but Swenson is very easy to listen to and his knowledge and wisdom of yoga seems to just kind float out of his mouth in a humble, yet authoritative way.

If you enjoy this first clip of instruction on breathing and bandhas, check out the rest of the video here in one convenient location.

Savasana ~ A Great Pose for Practicing the Art of Doing Nothing

“…every day, a little ‘bit dying.” Pattabhi Jois

Perhaps you’ve discovered, as I have, that you have some of your best do nothing time when you’re laying on your mat in Savasana (“Corpse Pose”).  For another take on the subject, check out the article “Find Serenity in Savasana” over at Yoga Journal.

And for an amazing analysis of savasana, click on the resting stick figure below:

The Art of Doing Nothing

Isn’t it nice to have those moments in life when you’ve checked off every last box on your agenda and can just let your mind and body relax?   I’m sure that happens to you all the time, right? Yeah, right.

Are you still waiting for all that free time to show up before enjoying the fruits of doing absolutely nothing? Do you know how to “do nothing?” Are you too busy or have too many thoughts running through your head to relax and enjoy those ever-present moments of  sweet nothingness?  Do you even know what that is?

For some, doing nothing is a waste of time, but for others it can be an art form that enhances their ability to enjoy the simple pleasures of life.  Follow this simple plan to master  the Art of Doing Nothing, and in the process improve your life, melt away  stress, become more patient, and make yourself more productive when you actually do have stuff to do.

Step 1:  Start small

Doing nothing, in the true sense of the word, can be overwhelming if you attempt to do too much nothing all at once.   Most of us simply don’t know what to do with ourselves when we have nothing to do, which is why it’s best to start small.  Focus on 5-10 minutes at a time, and start your practice sessions in a safe place — at home, not at work or in a busy public place.  Find a time and place where there are not many distractions, not much noise, not a lot of people to bother you.  Just make sure your surroundings are quiet and comfortable.

Step 2:  Remove distractions

Shut off all distractions — TV, computer, cell phones, regular phones, Blackberries, and the like.  I know this might feel impossible to do, but doing nothing is tough when you’re surrounded by blinking gadgets beckoning for you to do something.  Although you may initially get that panicky feeling that swells in your chest when you realize you drove all the way to the grocery store without a cell phone, I promise, it will be all right.  I’ve been there, and I lived to tell about it.

Now, close your eyes, and do nothing.   Do nothing.  Simple, huh?  Perhaps doing nothing is more of a meditative mindset than a physical possibility.  Of course, you’re always doing something — you’re sitting, you’re thinking, you’re breathing — but if someone were to call you and ask what you’re doing, of course you’d say, “Oh, nothing.”  But luckily you’ve already turned your cell phone off, so you don’t have to worry about pesky distractions or telling others that you’re busy doing nothing.

Just sit there for five minutes and do nothing.

This is all you have to do to attain a basic level of do-nothingness.  Commit to this practice for five to 10 minutes a day and observe what happens.  To take this practice to the next level, continue on to the next step.

Step 3:  Breathe

The first place to start to master this simple art is  with your breath.  If this sounds suspiciously like meditation, just remember you’re not meditating, you are doing nothing.  (Okay, you can call it meditation if you want to:)

First, breathe slowly in and slowly out.

Next, on the inhale, notice how the breath enters your body through your nose, journeys down to your lungs, and expands your diaphragm.

On the exhale, feel the lightness of the air as it slowly escapes the body.  Feel the satisfaction of empty lungs.  Try to do this for 5-10 minutes.

You may notice while you are doing nothing that your mind starts to tell you that you need to do something.  If it makes your mind feel better, go ahead and trick it by telling it that you are “doing” breathing.  The mind just wants something to do.  Of course, you’re not actually doing anything since you can’t help it whether you breathe or not.  You’re just letting the body do what it does naturally:  BREATHE.    No effort, no work, just simply doing nothing.

Conclusion

Amazingly enough, if you commit to just this little bit of doing nothing, chances are good that you’ll find that you like it a lot.   Of course you won’t become a master of the Art of Doing Nothing overnight, but once you become proficient with these simple steps, don’t be surprised to find yourself wanting more and more nothingness.  Doing nothing is not easy.  It takes practice.  But, if you commit to taking a few minutes each day to do nothing, it will become easy, natural, and a definite item to check off your daily to-do list.

[Inspired by Leo at Zen Habits]

Video Review: Yoga Foundations with Hillary Rubin


If you’re into yoga podcasts, then there’s a very good chance you know Hillary Rubin.  She has a great blog full of yoga wisdom and routines that are perfect when your home practice needs some motivation.   A certified Anusara Yoga teacher, Hillary has a great story that illustrates the power yoga has to improve lives.  Taking her teaching to the next level, Hillary recently released a DVD, Yoga Foundations with Hillary Rubin.

For the last couple weeks, both myself and my four year old daughter, Kennedy, have enjoyed lining up our yoga mats and practicing to the DVD.  It’s not too long and it’s not too short.  Kennedy is a great yoga buddy and it makes me laugh every time she calls downward facing dog “hot dog.”

One of the interesting things about Hillary’s new DVD is that I didn’t really pay attention to the title of the practice, “Yoga Foundations,” until after I was partway through it the first time and started thinking to myself how grounded my body felt as I implemented the various corrections Hillary suggested.  I was surprised at how some of the subtle adjustments Hillary recommended entirely changed the way certain poses felt.  While the main practice is not too complex or physically demanding, it effectively does what it sets out to do:  create and cultivate a strong foundation.  Highly recommended for those looking for an easy-to-follow introducation to yoga.  Kennedy gives it two thumbs up.

Ombama

It doesn’t get much better than this for Obama lovers.

From Lululemon~

“In this day and age, we think everyone could benefit from a little yoga, especially the incoming U.S. President. It’s our hope that he will lead us all to a better place full of Oms and Sun Salutations.”

Although the shift in power begins soon, the real question will be: who has better yoga form, Obama or Bush?

Ombama, originally uploaded by ideowl.