Friday, March 23, 2012

Vinyasa: Breath & Movement

I think David Swenson describes Vinyasa best in his book entitled Ashtanga Yoga The Practice Manual:
"Vinyasa is the unique linking of one asana to the next in a serpentine flow. It is more than a simple set of physical maneuvers. It is a dynamic marriage of our internal and external worlds. Vinyasa is an outward expression of the subtle movement of life force. It is a manifestation of prana. Vinyasa orchestrates balance. A balance of strength and flexibility, lightness and heaviness, movement and stillness. Through vinyasa one may know the vibration of life. The two actions converge to create a symphony of seamless unity. Each action encourages the other. They exist as one. The mind is then set free and the practice may become a rhythmic dance."

When I read this, I am reminded of the simple definition of yoga itself: the union of opposites. When we practice vinyasa yoga, we create the balance of opposites within ourselves. We are reminded of the wholeness of ourselves: the strengths AND weaknesses, the successes AND failures, the peaks AND valleys. We are holistic beings that have the capacity to experience many things.

In the yoga flow, we keep these energies in motion. We give ourselves the permission to feel. Rather than pushing aside unwanted emotions or ignoring the unpleasant feelings, yoga holds us in a safe place to experience our true, authentic and whole selves.

Have you ever felt you had to hide a part of yourself? Perhaps a side of self that you think would not be accepted by others? Because I am a yogi, I think people expect me to always be happy, light, caring, giving. A person that eats vegetarian meals everyday, chants and meditates daily, and drinks green tea. If these characteristics were true, this would not describe my whole being. Sometimes I am tired, sad, lazy, selfish, and angry. I would hardly call myself a vegetarian! I like vegetarian (and vegan) meals, but I'm also a meat eater! I drink tea, coffee, juice, water, and an occasional soda. This would better describe who I am.

Yoga has helped me to allow these multi-level aspects of myself to flow together. I am not one or the other, but all things. Vinyasa teaches us to flow from pose to pose using the breath. Breath is the key. It is the foundation of the yoga practice and threads our movements together; it threads our existing moments together. Without this discipline, I believe I would feel disjointed, half of a person, and not my fullest self. Vinyasa Yoga bridges these gaps so that I am a united Being accepting all parts of myself. Here is how you can practice.

The Sun Salutation is a basic and familiar Vinyasa Yoga Flow. Go through the B Series (the poses are listed below) and move from pose to pose with an intentional focus on the breath moving your body. David Swenson goes on to say in his description, "there is a joy in developing our physical bodies, yet to discover vinyasa's magic we must explore the breath simultaneously. When this marriage is successfully achieved, the action becomes one of spirit and the physical practice acts as a conduit for a deeper exploration of our core identity."

Bring vinyasa into your yoga practice and into your life. Experience the marriage of breath and movement.


Sun Salutation Series B
Mountain Pose
Chair Pose
Forward Fold
Four Limbed Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana)
Upward Facing Dog
Downward Facing Dog
Warrior I (right side)
Vinaysa Flow (Chaturanga, Updog, Downdog)
Warrior I (left side)
Vinyasa Flow
Forward Fold
Chair Pose
Mountain Pose

Friday, March 16, 2012

Internal Power

For the past few blog entires, I have talked about the elements in the Ashtanga Vinyasa Primary Series: Drishti = your gaze. Ujjayi = yogic breath. This entry will focus on the Bandhas.

The Bandhas, or locks, refer to the regulation of energy flow, or pranic flow, in the body. When the locks are engaged, it regulates blood flow and energy in the body to centralized locations to bring more energy to the entire body. I like to think of it as a way to charge up the body; to fully experience this life force (Prana) in the body, and to use this energy for a productive and healthy way of living. There are three main locks used in the Ashtanga practice: Mulabandha (The Root Lock), Uddiyana Bandha (The Abdominal Lock), and Jalandhara Bandha (The Throat Lock). I will discuss the second lock.

Uddiyana Bandha means flying upward and is engaged primarily when you exhale. As you release breath, you draw the bellybutton in toward the spine and up to contract the abdominal muscles. Focusing on this area of the body also brings energy to your Third Chakra (Solar Plexis) which I believe is your Power Center. This is your core: you place of power, strength, movement, drive, action, and energy. When we bring attention and awareness to this area of the body, we feel charged up, ready for action, ready to move forward. Engaging the abdominal lock allows us to feel physically strong. It is a way to brace the body when we are ready to take on challenges.

Have you ever felt a lack of motivation or drive when you knew you needed to move forward with a task? Sometimes it's hard to stir up that energy to take action. Perhaps a re-charge to the Third Chakra can help.

Boat Pose
Boat Pose is a great posture to experience that surge of energy running into your core center. Start by sitting on your yoga mat with your legs extended out in front of you. Bend the knees slightly so your heels are on the mat. Hold onto the backs of your legs with your hands. Gently lean back so your heels lift off the floor. Continue to hold onto your legs as a way to lift yourself up to extend your spine. Inhale as you lift yourself up. To engage the abdominal lock, exhale strongly (perhaps even through your mouth to expel all the breath) and pull your bellybutton in towards your spine. You may feel your abdominal muscles contract. Continue this breathing routine to further engage your core. After a few breaths, you may be able to release your legs and extend your arms and hands forward. Hold for another 5-10 breaths before you relax.

This is one way to experience Uddiyana Bandha. The sensation brings pranic power and energy to the center of your body. You can also practice this lock in other more commonplace situations like sitting or walking. You don't need to breathe as strongly or as loudly in those cases, but you can engage the abdominal lock when you're sitting at your office desk. Allow a surge of power rush through you when you're meeting deadlines on the job. Engage the lock when you're walking down the street. You'll find that you stand more upright, your posture is improved, and you exude a sense of confidence.

One last note: if you're looking to get six-pack abs for the summer, practicing Uddiyana Bandha can help develop your rectus abdominus muscles, too!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Ujjayi Breath: Come Back To Self

If you read this blog regularly, you'll know that I refer to the Breath quite often. I consider it the foundation of any yoga practice. If you choose to meditate, go to a Bikram class, study Kundalini, or try other forms of yoga, you're going to focus on the breath.

That is certainly true in the Ashtanga Primary Series. As mentioned in the previous blog, there are four main elements in the historic Ashtanga practice: Ujjayi Breath, the Bandhas, Vinyasa, and Drishti. Here We will focus on the breath. Ujjayi is a special form of breathing that brings energy, power, and movement while practicing yoga. The idea is to create a flow and a rhythm in the body that is almost meditative that keeps you focused and in the present moment while you move through the Ashtanga Vinyasa postures. Here is another description of how you can engage the Ujjayi Breath.

Sit comfortably on your yoga mat. (Actually, you can practice this way of breathing ANYWHERE! Try practicing while sitting upright at the dinner table, at your office desk, or even at a stop light in your car.) If you're new to the breath, try this. Open your mouth slightly and take a deep breath in through the mouth. You may experience a coolness hit the back of your throat. Now exhale through your mouth as if you're fogging a mirror. Notice that you are using the muscles of your throat to give energy to the breath. Now, continue breathing this way, but close your mouth. Air will continue to move in and out of your nose, but the action and energy of the breath will come form the muscles in the back of your mouth. The sound of the breath has been described in many ways: wind in the trees, the waves of an ocean, and even resembling the breathing of Darth Vader!

One wants to create this Ujjayi Sound. The sound is like a mantra that the mind can settle into without being distracted by other thoughts. If you lose the connection with the breath, you may lose the connection to Self. Learn to listen to the breath. It keeps you in the moment. The breath is an important element in the Ashtanga Yoga practice because the practice itself is so physical in nature. One can easily think that practicing yoga is JUST a physical exercise. Yoga is more than that. The Ashtanga method teaches us to be mindful of ourselves and to stay focused so that it becomes more than just a physical practice. Yoga's intention is to be a holistic experience. Yoga means union; a union of the body, mind, and spirit.

So if you practice Ashtanga Yoga or Kundalini Yoga, you're going to rely on the breath as a foundational resource. Realize, too, that the breathing is something you do ALL the time (obviously.) We tend to forget, though, that we're breathing. We become distracted by the outside world. Taking a moment in stillness, or even in movement, you can focus on your breathing as a way to come back to Self. Try it right now. It only takes a few seconds. See? Now you've done yoga.


Friday, March 2, 2012

Drishti: Looking Out. Looking In.

With so much going on around us, it can be so easy to become distracted. It can be a challenge sometimes to focus on one thing when there are hundreds of thoughts running through your head and so many things going on outside of ourselves. It can be overwhelming at times. I often think how hard it can be just going to the grocery store and trying to pick out a cereal. Have you seen how many cereal brands and types there are? Try picking out a toothpaste! Oh my! Even trying to decide on a cereal or toothpaste can be such an overwhelming experience that it is just easier to walk away. But this just doesn't happen in the grocery store. What about in other parts of our lives? Think about the many distractions that you face on a daily bases. How does one focus and calm the mind?

In the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga Practice, there are four main elements to be aware of: Ujjayi Breath, the Bandhas, Vinyasa, and Drishti. For the next four blog entries, I will focus on these elements. This week I will discuss on the last one: Drishti. Drishti refers to your gaze or focus. In one aspect of the gaze, you are physically looking outward, but the real looking is internally: to go inside of yourself. This inward gaze creates a stronger and deeper connection with yourself. The drishti is designed to bring balance to your internal and external practice. Externally, when you are in a yoga pose, your gaze can simply follow the stretch. Let's try this pose.....

Extended Side Angle Pose
Come to a Warrior Two pose with your right foot/hand forward. To move into the Extended Side Angle Pose, start reaching out toward the wall in front of you. This will create an angled upper body. (Try to keep the lower part of the body stable so that you do not collapse into your knee or hip.) When you cannot extended any further, lower your right hand toward the floor and reach your left hand toward the ceiling. (The right hand does not necessarily need to touch the floor. The fingertips and can just reach down toward the floor. You want to keep your heart open to the left side of the room.) Turn your gaze upward and look at your left hand. This is your drishti.

Now, although you are looking up at your fingers, allow the gaze to look past your fingers...toward the ceiling, toward the sky, toward the heavens. This distant gazing practice is really a meditative practice that keeps you focused and in the moment. While in the posture, the internal gazing may be about your awareness of your breath, or noticing if there is any tension in the body. (After you do the right side of this pose, feel free to do the other side.)

There are nine drishti points you can use while practicing yoga: tip of the nose, between the eyebrows, navel, hand, toes, far to the right, far to the left, thumbs, sky. Again, these are physical places to set your eyes, but the main idea is to look inward. It can be an effective practice to calm and still the mind when we are faced with the many external distractions. Try adding drishtis to your next yoga practice this week.

Next blog entry will focus on Ujjayi Breath.