Since time immemorial, we humans have immersed ourselves in water to cleanse our bodies and clear our minds. Most settlements are along rivers, creeks, springs, lakes and seas. Wells, bath complexes and healing centers arose near natural mineral springs and sources of pure water. Ancient Greeks and Romans are well-known for their bath complexes (thermae or thermos); some could accommodate up to 6,000 bathers at once! Roman thermae developed into beautiful spa or bath towns that continue today, including Rudas Therma in Budapest dating to the 16th century A.D. (pictured at left). Many are on UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage Sites. One of the more well-known spa towns is Baden-Baden in the Black Forest region of Germany. It had been a Celtic settlement before the Romans conquered the area and created their town in 80 A.D., known as Civitas Aurelia Aquaensis. Baden-Baden is very popular to this day – it is estimated that 8 million people visit each year with over 800,000 overnight guests.
Many cultures all around the world created sweat lodges for purification. Celtic tribes constructed a clay-covered beehive vapor bath to treat rheumatism. The tradition continued into 19th century Ireland. Scandinavians, Baltic and Eastern Europeans are known for their sauna traditions, while Native Americans continue their sweat lodge tradition today.
The Benefits of Bathing
The ideal temperature for your bath is 90 to 100 degrees; any hotter can dry your skin and make you feel tired. A bath can:
Relax your body and calm your mind
Elevate your mood
Soften your skin
Warm you all the way to your bones on a chilly day
Soothe achy muscles and arthritic pain
Allow you to take time for yourself
A bath before bedtime helps you sleep
Relieve respiratory congestion and improve circulation
Add essential oils and/or herbs to enhance the experience
Recipes and Tips
I began making my own bath and beauty products about 10 or 15 years ago and for about 5 years sold my products at fairs and markets. If you have not yet discovered the healing ritual of soaking in the tub, the following tips and recipe can help get you started.
Add muslin tea bags to customize your bath. To soften dry skin, try oats. Chamomile is a great addition to your evening bath to aid in a calm, restful sleep. Lavender and rose petals are a lovely combination for an attitude adjustment after a long, stressful day. Rosemary, mint, thyme and eucalyptus can energize.
Epsom salts not only soothe sore muscles and joint pain, but are a great source of magnesium. American’s magnesium deficiency helps to account for high rates of heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, arthritis and joint pain, digestive maladies, stress-related illnesses, chronic fatigue and a number of other ailments.
There is an art and science to combining essential oils, salts and herbs. Many stores carry bath salts already combined with herbs and essential oils. If you want to make your own, the recipe below is a good start:
1-1/2 cups sea salt and epsom salts (magnesium sulfate)
You can experiment by adding baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) to your salt mixture.
1/4 cup crushed, dried lavender and rose petals
Just crushing the dried flowers feels therapeutic!
5 – 10 drops lavender essential oil
Mix the salts together, then thoroughly mix in the essential oil, followed by the dried herbs. Store in a glass jar. Add a scoop to your tub and soak for about 20 minutes.
Why is Yoga different from other forms of exercise and how does it facilitate healing? Why do students leave Yoga feeling energized yet calm? The goal of Yoga is beyond stretching hamstrings, losing weight or building muscle mass. The sister sciences of Yoga and Ayurveda function together as an integrated wellness system. The blending of asana, pranayama and meditation creates an efficacious practice, regardless of age or physical limitations. The ancient texts teach us the three main purposes of Hatha Yoga:
To purify the body
To balance physical, mental and energetic aspects
To engage in physical practices that lead to higher consciousness
Health Benefits of Yoga
As Yoga becomes more ubiquitous throughout the world, doctors and scientists are researching the physiological and psychological effects of Yoga. Acknowledged health benefits include:
Improves posture, balance and eye-hand coordination.
Tones the body, stretches and strengthens muscles, creating more flexibility and agility.
Reduces bone-thinning and the risks of osteoporosis.
Lubricates joints and improves range of motion.
Reduces stiffness, aches and pains related to inactivity.
Calms mind and body; promotes relaxation and regulates sleep cycles.
Improves concentration and focus.
Encourages mindful eating and a sattvic lifestyle.
Improves body systems, including respiration, circulation and digestion.
May lower blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.
Balances energy, hormones and boosts endurance and immunities.
Improves a sense of well-being and cultivates gratitude.
Asanas and their Effects
Seated meditation prepares the body for movement, balances breath and energy and focuses the mind inward and into the present moment.
Moving in and out of poses stretches the muscles, while staying in a pose is strengthening. Standing poses with longer holds build bone and muscle mass.
Spinal twists aid in release of toxins and create more flexibility in the spine.
Seated and standing forward bends and Apanasana, massage abdominal area and aid in digestion.
Back bends (chest openers) aid in respiration.
Grounding, restorative poses calm the sympathetic nervous system and activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Yoga is a moving meditation regulated by the breath.
Yoga teachings describe the physical, subtle and causal bodies (shariras) and five sheaths (koshas) bound together by wheels of energy (chakras). The subtle body is composed of energy, mind and intellect. Prana (breath, life force) flows through energy channels (nadi). Pranayama controls breath and energy and opens the nadi to access healing throughout the body.
Moving faster between asanas builds more heat and energy (brahmana), while slower transitions lead to a gentler, more mindful practice (langhana). Body and breath awareness increase with persistent practice and each Yogi/ni learns to adjust for time of day, vitality and other considerations.
According to Ayurveda and Yoga, wellness is defined as the balanced and dynamic integration between environment, body, mind and spirit. All matter is composed of five elements (earth, water, fire, air and space). The elements combine into three basic energies (doshas) – vata, pitta and kapha. Each person has a unique constitution (prakriti) composed of the doshas.
One primary goal of an Ayurvedic Yoga practice is to balance the doshas. To maintain balance and find wellness use the principle of opposites. For example, on a cool damp day, practice with more movement and standing postures to increase energy and heat. Conversely during the heat of summer, practice in the morning or evening with more grounding, restorative poses. People with a Vata constitution may benefit from a langhana practice, while those with a Kapha constitution may benefit from a brahmana practice.
The Eightfold Path
Many students come to Yoga to stretch or reduce stress, then discover the deeper teachings, including the ashtanga (eightfold) path of Yoga. Healing and transformation are experienced through a full practice embracing all eight limbs of Yoga.
Yama – worldly restraints and ethical standards
Ahimsa – nonviolence
Satya – truthfulness
Asteya – non-stealing
Brahmacharya – pure way of life
Aparighaga – non-possessiveness
Niyama – personal restraints
Shauca – purity, cleanliness
Santosha – contentment
Tapas – self-control, self-discipline
Svadhyaya – study of the scriptures, deeper meanings, philosophy
Ishavara pranidhana – surrender to a higher force; pure seeing
Asana – physical postures; mastering the body to prepare for meditation
Pranayama – control of the vital force (breath)
Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses
Dharana – concentration
Dhyana – meditation or contemplation
Samadhi – absorption in the object of meditation; complete realization
When the body is cleansed, the mind purified and the senses controlled, joyful awareness, needed to realize the inner self, also comes.
~ Yoga Sutras
This post was written as part of a collaboration with Chinmay Yoga. Learn more about this non-profit Yoga school in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, India on their website and Facebook page. Their blog has both educational and inspirational articles about Yoga.
Together, the endocrine and the nervous systems regulate bodily activities. Endocrine glands produce and secrete 30 hormones into the blood stream. Each hormone has a specific affect upon the body, including the functions of other glands. The immune system also plays an integral role in maintaining emotional and hormonal balance. When our hormones are balanced and our immune system is strong, we have tapped into the fountain of life(ojas) and feel vital, calm and focused.
There are seven major endocrine glands with specific functions:
Pituitary – in the center of the skull. The hypothalamus in the forebrain coordinates the autonomic nervous system and the pituitary gland. This portion of the brain helps the body maintain a stable and constant internal environment. The nervous system secretes neurohormones governing the secretion of pituitary hormones. In turn, the pituitary regulates the other glands as well as women’s reproductive cycles.
Pineal – deep within the brain; controls sleep cycles and produces melatonin; still a bit mysterious and not fully understood.
Thyroid – in the throat; controls cell growth and development; maintains basal metabolic rate. The thyroid helps regulate appetite, muscle function, heart rate and blood pressure.
Parathyroid – also located in the throat; determines the amount of calcium and phosphate in the blood and transported to muscles and bones.
Thymus – located between the throat and sternum; center of the adaptive immune system; develops T-cells instrumental in attacking invasive viruses, bacteria and fungi. The thymus shrinks as we mature since most T-cells are created in our youth.
Adrenal – above the kidneys; balances our emotional and physical state; produces adrenaline, aldosterone and cortisol; also maintains body’s salt levels.
Pancreas – deep in the abdomen; controls body’s sugar level through secretion of insulin and glucagon.
Testes – secretes testosterone.
Ovaries – secretes estrogen and progesterone regulating female reproductive functions.
Out of Balance
Too little production of a specific hormone is known as hypo, while too much production is known as hyper. Both conditions affect other bodily systems. Symptoms of hormonal imbalance may include insomnia, fatigue, weight gain, mood swings, irregular monthly cycles, blood sugar imbalances, digestive issues, hair loss or arthritis. A variety of factors can lead to hormonal imbalances. The most common contributors are stress, lack of exercise, lifestyle and diet.
Today’s modern lifestyle bombards us with information overload and constant deadlines increasing stress and anxiety levels. Stress can lead to hormonal imbalance and a weakened immune system. A diet lacking essential nutrients impacts the production of hormones. Excess sugars and carbohydrates can cause the pancreas to overproduce insulin. The lymphatic system relies upon body movements to push a milky fluid containing white blood cells throughout the body. A sedentary lifestyle leads to sluggish digestion and overworks the lymphatic system.
Returning to Balance with Ayurveda and Yoga
Ayurveda provides the tools and knowledge to live a more balanced lifestyle in accordance with the rhythms of nature. Daily, weekly and seasonal routines elevate our awareness of subtle changes throughout the day and from season to season. Ayurveda helps us adjust to the fluctuations throughout our lives from childhood and puberty to adulthood and finally, into the forest years.
Ayurveda’s nutritional guidelines teach us how to eat according to our constitution, taking age, sex, and state of health into account. According to Ayurveda, we are what we absorb, not simply what we eat. Eating seasonally fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, etc. according to our constitution (prakriti) helps us maintain a strong, balanced metabolism and digestive fire (agni).
Ayurvedic herbs and formulae support, balance and invigorate digestion and other body systems. Rasayanas are a special type of rejuvenating tonics that help improve bodily tissues (rasa). Rich in antioxidants, they help boost our immune system, fight destructive free radicals, promote physical strength, improve cognitive function and prevent disease. Examples include amalaki, ashwagandha and shatavari – all of which I use.
Moment is a flower. Mindfulness is sipping the nectar of that flower. ~ Amit Ray
A regular Yoga practice including breath control (pranayama), meditation, poses (asanas) followed by a period of rest (savasana) not only stretches and strengthens the body, but balances hormones and calms the central nervous system.
Pranayama supplies more oxygen to every cell in the body. Slow, full, even, deep breathing slows the emotional response produced by the hypothalamus and helps balance the endocrine system. The result is a calm, soothing state of mind and body.
A balancing method of breath control is alternate nasal breathing (nadi shodhana). I have practiced this every morning for 10 years. When I started the practice, I couldn’t believe how calm, yet energized I felt. That feeling has become the new norm. To practice nadi shodhana, sit comfortably, spine erect. Exhale completely, then press the right nostril with the thumb and inhale through the left nostril. Retaining the breath, close the left nostril with the ring finger and exhale through the right. Repeat this process, inhaling through the right nostril and exhaling through the left to complete one cycle. Alternate side to side and repeat up to 10 times. Complete the practice by finishing with an exhale on the left side.
According to Yogapedia, benefits of nadhi shodhana includes:
Calms the mind
Promotes mental clarity
Prepares the mind for meditation
Meditation, restorative poses and savasana all serve to activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) while allowing the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) to rest. SNS prepares the body for action. When activated, the body produces more adrenaline and cortisol, accelerating the heart rate, raising blood pressure, constricting blood vessels and slowing or stopping digestion. PNS calms the body and conserves energy; it slows the heart rate, increases intestinal activity, supports optimal digestion and relaxes muscles.
Asanas may improve endocrine gland functionality by increasing blood flow and activating the muscles around each gland.
Twists massage and stimulate kidneys, liver and pancreas.
Gentle inversions may increase blood flow to the brain, improving brain function as well as communication between the hypothalamus and pituitary gland.
Poses that activate neck muscles, stimulate the thyroid and parathyroid.
Chest openers stimulate the thymus.
Core strengthening poses activate the pancreas.
Poses that stretch the groin, inner thighs and hips stimulate the reproductive glands.
Prone back bends strengthen the muscles along the spine and massage the adrenal glands.
Yoga has been called a “fountain of youth” because it brings health and vitality, but this is a misnomer. The search for a fountain of youth, whether through magic, drugs, or techniques, indicates a resistance to the aging process. I prefer to call yoga a “fountain of life.” Aging is inevitable. Yoga allows you to approach it awarely as a transformative process that can bring growth and new depths with maturation. Resisting aging is actually resisting transformation and growth. Paradoxically, the resistance to aging, which includes holding on to old, inappropriate ways of living, exacerbates the very aging process you fear.
~ Joel Kramer from 365 Daily Meditations by Julie Rappaport
Ayurveda includes a vast body of knowledge about herbs, plant medicines and preparations. Early Vedic texts describe the energies within plants and their use as medicine. Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita, the two classic Ayurvedic texts classified all medicinal substances into three groups: vegetable, animal and mineral origin. The Ayurveda material medica are articulated in Astanga Hrdaya and Astanga Samgraha.
Dravya is an herb, preparation, drug or substance taken internally or externally to maintain health, ease pain or treat disease. Herbal substances are uniquely administered to help restore or maintain balance using a thorough understanding of prakriti (constitution) and the doshas. For example, a person with a vata constitution may exhibit the same or similar symptoms as a person with a pitta dosha. However, they should not necessarily be given identical treatments. An Ayurvedic approach to herbology treats the whole person, not the symptom.
Preparations and Dosage
Herbalists learn preparations, including a knowledge of the parts of the plant used most effectively: roots, bark, trunk, gum, stems, juice, leaves, salt, pulp, fruit, flowers, ash, oil, spikes, rhizomes, seeds or in some cases, the entire plant. Flowers and leaves lend themselves to infusions in hot water, like the tulsi tea I am sipping. Medicines within roots and barks are released by boiling until most of the water has evaporated. This is known as a decoction. Other preparations include fresh juice, herbal pastes and powders, and medicated oils.
When choosing the right dosage, Ayurveda considers:
Strength, metabolism, age and other conditions of the patient
Strength and duration of the disease
Season of the year
Potency, energy, essence of the herb – known as virya
Is it cooling – containing the energy of water?
Is it heating – containing the energy of fire?
Special potency or prahbava of the herb
The time of day dravya is administered also influences its efficacy. For example, most people should not ingest medicines on an empty stomach in the morning. Exceptions may include healthy people with a strong, kapha constitution. Dravya may be taken before a meal to increase the digestive fire and tone intestinal muscles.
Energetics, doshas, tastes and more
Ayurveda texts describe a set of specific plants, alone or in combination as rasayana (nourishing the essence of life). Each herb embodies energy vibrations that match an energy vibration in the human body. Nature uses the same materials when creating plants, minerals, and human bodies. According to the Vedic sages, the building blocks of nature (subtle vibrations) are universal. Due to this belief in the likeness within all of nature, herbs, sounds, gemstones, colors, aromas, and foods all act as medicine when used properly.
The taste or rasa of an herb is an indication of its properties. When we eat according to our constitution and by taste, we feel healthy and vital. Each taste is composed of two elements and effect doshas as follows:
Sweet (earth and water) – increases kapha; decreases vata and pitta
Sour (earth and fire) – increases kapha and pitta; decreases vata
Salty (water and fire) – increases kapha and pitta; decreases vata
Pungent (fire and air) – decreases kapha; increases vata and pitta
Bitter (air and ether) – decreases kapha and pitta; increases vata
Astringent (air and earth) – decreases kapha and pitta; increases vata
In addition to the taste we sense in our mouths, food and herbs are transformed by the digestive process. The first phase of digestion (kapha) is in the mouth and stomach and is dominated by a sweet taste. The second phase (pitta) occurs in the stomach and small intestine and is dominated by a sour taste. The final phase (vata) occurs in the colon and is predominately pungent. The post-digestive effect, known as vipaka relates to the process of absorption and elimination. Herbs tend to aggravate the dosha whose vipaka they possess. There are three categories: sweet and salty possess a sweet vipaka; sour has a sour vipaka; bitter, astringent and pungent all possess pungent vipaka.
There are qualities (gunas) inherent in every plant, animal and mineral. Each quality has an opposite quality. Ayurveda teaches us how to find our way back to balance by treating with opposites. For example, herbs with a light, sharp quality can treat heaviness and lethargy.
Some of the qualities are easy to determine whereas other qualities are more nuanced. For example, food full of chili peppers is obviously hot. Mashed potatoes and gravy are heavy. Water with lemon and ginger is a relatively clear drink, whereas a milk shake is very cloudy. An example of a rough herb is guggul. This resin scrapes toxins from our body!
Body Systems, Tissues and Therapeutic Actions
Western medicine categorizes herbs and medicines based upon their effect on a specific body system. Ayurveda also considers the effect of dravya upon our tissues or dhatus. The dhatus are:
Rasa – plasma, lymphatic fluid
Rakta – blood
Mamsa – muscle
Meda – fat
Asthi – bone
Majja – bone marrow
Shakra – reproductive fluids
Ojas – the essence of all dhatus
Herbs can be categorized by their therapeutic actions upon body systems and tissues.
Alterative herbs cleanse and purify the blood.
Antiparasitic herbs kill and remove worms.
Astringent herbs are drying and firming and help avoid excessive discharges.
Bitter herbs are detoxifying, deplete tissues, suppress or sedate organic bodily functions
Carminative herbs relieve intestinal gas, pain and distention; they help promote peristalsis.
Diaphoretic herbs induce perspiration; restore circulation, lower fever and eliminate toxins from the surface of the body.
Diuretic herbs increase urination and promote kidney and bladder function.
Emmenagogues help promote and regulate menstruation; help with PMS, uterine infections.
Expectorant and demulcent herbs promote the discharge of phlegm and mucus.
Laxative and purgative herbs promote bowel movements and help eliminate food accumulations and toxic build-up (ama) from the intestines.
Nervine and antispasmodic herbs strengthen the function activity of the nervous system. Include stimulants and sedatives.
Stimulant and digestive herbs stimulate digestion resulting in an increase in all organic functions.
Aphrodisiacs reinvigorate the sexual organs.
Tonics nurture the tissues of the body – rejuvenating tonics (rasayanas) promote physical strength, boost cognitive function and prevent disease.
When I began my studies in Ayurveda in 2009, I had acid indigestion, heartburn, pain and distension in my stomach. On my teachers’ recommendations, I stopped drinking orange juice, eating hot peppers (bowls of salsa with chips) and fruit with my yogurt. And I naturally stopped drinking wine. I traded cayenne and chili powder for cardamom and ajwain. And I learned the benefits of cumin, coriander and fennel tea. I also began taking triphala. My digestive problems were gone within a few months and have not returned. When I stray for a day or two – I still love a bowl of chili on a cold winter night – I notice the difference immediately. Simple changes can create a dramatic shift.
Earth, sky, worlds above, quarters and their halves; Fire, air, sun, moon, and stars; water, herbs, trees, Space, and entity are the elements. Eye, ear, mind, tongue, and touch; skin, flesh, muscle, Marrow, and skeleton; and the five Vital forces constitute the body. The sage, contemplating these sets of five, Discovered that everything is holy. Man can complete the inner with the outer.
From the Upanishads ~ Translated by Eknath Eawwaran
The adult human body contains 206 bones and approximately 300 joints, where two bones meet. Joints provide structural and mechanical support. Most joints are synovial joints, including knees and knuckles. Synovial joints allow for movement and are susceptible to arthritis.
Examples of synovial joints
Gliding joints, including those between the eight wrist carpals. They are found where bones meet as flat surfaces and allow bones to glide past one another in any direction.
Hinge joints, including the elbow and knee. They limit movement in one direction so the angle between bones can increase or decrease at the joint. This limited motion at hinge joints provides strength and reinforcement from the bones, muscles, and ligaments that make up the joint.
Ball and socket joints have the fullest range of motion and allow the joints to move in a full circle and rotate around their axis. They are found only in the hip and shoulder. This free range of motion make them more susceptible to dislocation.
Saddle joints, such as the one found in the thumb. Saddle joints allow a more limited circular movement than ball and socket joints.
Soft and connective tissues
Cartilage covers the surface of a bone at a joint. Cartilage reduces friction and serves as a shock absorber.
Synovial membrane creates a capsule at the joint and secretes a lubricant – synovial fluid. A healthy knee has less than one teaspoon!
Ligaments connect bones; they are tough, elastic bands surrounding the joint to give support and limit the joint’s movement.
Tendons connect muscles to bones and control movement.
Bursas are fluid-filled sacs between bones, ligaments, or other nearby structures and help cushion friction in a joint.
What is arthritis?
Arthritis is a chronic condition causing joint pain or joint disease, often leading to stiffness, numbness, tingling, inflammation, and motor loss in the affected joints. Causes may include loss of cartilage, lack of fluid, autoimmunity, inflammation, infection or a combination of issues. Arthritis is one of the most common joint disorders affecting more than 54 million U.S. adults, including 50% of adults over 65.
There are many types of arthritis. Common types include:
Osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative joint disease, most often associated with aging. Excess weight can result in OA in knees, ankles and feet. An injury to a joint is another risk factor. Knees are the most affected joints. OA is also common in hands, feet, spine and hips.
Cartilage relies upon synovial fluid to transport nutrients and waste in and out of the area. The more joints bend and move, the more fluid circulates through them, increasing the ability for even greater movement. As people move less with age and/or injury, joints lose synovial fluid circulation. This has a “snowball effect” in deterioration at the joint. As cartilage loses its elasticity and becomes stiff, it is easier to damage. Damaged cartilage leads to damaged tendons and ligaments. As a result, bones rub together and cause inflammation resulting in pain, swelling and stiffness.
•Joint Pain • Stiffness • Restricted movements in the joints • Swelling or inflammation • Warmth or redness of the skin over the joint
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease. It is a disorder in which the immune system attacks the joints. It is considered chronic and inflammatory. This can lead to substantial loss of mobility due to pain and joint destruction. The body starts attacking its own parts unknowingly.
Gout Arthritis (GA) is caused suddenly as a severe attack, usually either in the big toe or any joint. This is a metabolic disorder that results from crystals of uric acid depositing in joint tissues, causing attacks of inflammation.
Psoriatic Arthritis (PA) affects some people who have psoriasis — a condition that features red patches of skin topped with silvery scales. Most people develop psoriasis first and are later diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, but the joint problems can sometimes begin before skin patches appear.
Many people suffering from arthritis begin to limit movement, yet most arthritic joints benefit from regular, low-impact exercise. Yoga practiced with pranayama and meditation is an excellent option. Yoga is gentle and enjoyable enough to practice regularly, even for those with chronic pain. Yoga builds muscle strength, joint flexibility and balance. Range of motion improves. Yoga also helps manage pain, balance energy and improve physical, mental and emotional well-being. Recent studies have supported the benefits of a regular Yoga practice to ease the pain of arthritis and increase movement. Arthritis restricts movement; Yoga increases range of motion.
Yoga for Arthritis
Focus on your breath.
Warm up joints at the beginning and end of each practice (dasha chalana or ten churnings). These can be practiced seated or standing:
Wrists and fingers
Ankles and toes
Stay longer in poses, giving yourself ample time to fully experience the pose without going too far – never to the point of pain.
Viniyoga is an excellent option for practioners with arthritis. This style of Yoga allows students to practice at their own rate, moving with their breath. Adaptations are offered by the teacher to ensure a safe practice for each student.
Include a period of rest. Savasana not only supports joints but calms the mind and deepens the breath at the close of practice.
Yoga is about clearing away whatever is in us that prevents our living in the most full and whole way. With yoga, we become aware of how and where we are restricted — in body, mind, and heart — and how gradually to open and release these blockages. As these blockages are cleared, our energy is freed. We start to feel more harmonious, more at one with ourselves. Our lives begin to flow — or we begin to flow more in our lives.
Meditation is a practice of focusing the mind – on an object, thought or activity. Meditation is often practiced seated or reclined with eyes closed in a quiet, calm setting. However, meditation can also be done while moving and in almost any setting.
Yoga itself can be experienced as a moving meditation. Yoga sessions begin with breath and body awareness and mindful meditation. The body scan is a powerful and healing form of meditation, focusing slowly and without judgement on every part of the body. Body awareness naturally leads to breath awareness – observing and feeling the body move in unison with the breath. Focus shifts from the outer world to the inner realm with each breath and corresponding subtle movement. Pranayama encompasses numerous methods to control the rhythm of the breath. Pranayama both energizes and calms body and mind. Through meditation and pranayama, practioners gain the ability to be fully present in the moment, increase self-awareness, and achieve mental clarity and emotional calm. Yoga practioners move with the rhythm of their breath and heartbeat, expanding and extending on the inhale, and contracting and drawing inward on the exhale. Lingering in each pose, mind and body are one.
Moving meditation is a meditative state – a shift of consciousness – while doing simple movements. It is a way of calming the mind and creating awareness.
Moving meditations include: walking meditation (including walking a labyrinth), forest bathing, tai chi, qigong, dance and even bringing mindfulness into daily tasks.
In addition to Yoga, I relish my walking meditations. A couple of years ago, I took Mindful-Based Stress Reduction training. My favorite session was the spring evening we practiced walking meditation around The Good Shepherd Center. I spent my time with just a couple of trees, focusing deeply from the base to the branches overhead and from the surface bark to the sap inside. Then I walked in expanding circles on the front lawn. I returned twice this year with my dog Sammie. We paused to feel the air, and the warmth of the sun. Sammie and I often walk in unison – she sniffs as I feel the ground beneath my feet. School was out for recess and the laughter of the children was a pleasant song to my ears.
On the early morning of the winter solstice, I walked alone in Sabino Canyon outside Tuscon, Arizona. The sun rose over peak after peak as I descended towards the valley floor. Every twist and turn was magical and glimmering. Time stood still as I breathed in the cold, crisp high desert air. Icy cold in the dark shadows, then basking in the warm sun, I savored every moment of my four-mile walk.
Walking meditation comes easily to me and is more enjoyable with each passing day. Learn more about walking meditation from Jack Kornfield.
Last spring, I went Forest Bathing at UW Arboretum with four dear friends. Our guide set the tone with a beginning meditation underneath a grand tree. The parks and forests of Puget Sound are my home. I spent a very long, peaceful seated meditation on the forest floor, experiencing the moist carpet beneath my body. I envisioned layer upon layer beneath the surface, supporting me and all of the living beings above ground.
Forest Bathing (shinrin-yoku) began in the early 1980’s. The premise is simple – spending time in the lush green forests is good for us.
The key to unlocking the power of the forest is in the five senses. Let nature enter through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet. Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees. Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches. Smell the fragrance of the forest and breathe in the natural aromatherapy of phytoncides. Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths. Place your hands on the trunk of a tree. Dip your fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground. Drink in the flavor of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm. This is your sixth sense, a state of mind. Now you have connected with nature. You have crossed the bridge to happiness.
~ Dr. Qing Li, author of Forest Bathing
Walking the Labyrinth
This September, I walked the Redsun Labyrinth in Victor, Montana with my friend, Janet. Surrounded by the Bitteroot Mountains 40 miles south of Missoula, the setting is spectacular. It is 108’ in diameter, making it one of the largest in the U.S. Walking a labyrinth is a different experience than walking along a stream or in a forest. At the beginning, I often feel lost and anxious but then begin to trust the pattern and yield to the walking meditation. As Eve Hogan wrote, Labyrinths invite our intuitive, pattern-seeking, symbolic mind to come forth.
Tonight, I will celebrate New Years’ Eve and the end of another decade at St. Mark’s Cathedral walking the labyrinth with family and friends visiting from near and far.
Many paths are possible; whichever path is sincerely traveled leads to inner peace.
Many people are drawn to Yoga to gain strength and flexibility, or simply to get a “good stretch”. The subtler gifts of Yoga reveal themselves with persistent practice; yogis/yoginis feel energized yet relaxed, calm yet focused, strong yet flexible. What differentiates Yoga from other forms of exercise? Yoga is a holistic wellness practice. A well-balanced Yoga practice includes proper sequencing (vinyasa), poses (asanas), breath control (pranayama), meditation and relaxation. Ideally, Yoga classes are designed according to the time of day, season of the year, age and physical condition of the practitioners. A morning practice in the winter is more energizing than a practice designed for a summer evening. Classes designed to build strength and stamina differ from gentle, restorative classes intended to rejuvenate stressed out practitioners at the end of a demanding work week.
Yoga sequences follow a pattern, choreographed from
beginning to end, known as sequencing (vinyasa). Most classes begin in seated meditation. Attention
gradually shifts from the external world inward and onto the mat, known as
withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara). As a
teacher, I que my students to observe body, mind, energy and breath, feel
gratitude for the present moment, then set an intention for practice. The active
phase of practice is what most people associate with Yoga – seated, kneeling,
standing, prone and supine postures.
Learning to be
still is as important as learning to move.
Classes wind down with a
set of supine restorative poses, culminating in five to ten minutes in Corpse
Pose (Savasana). Poses become progressively slower with longer pauses. Exhales lengthen, releasing
tension with each successive round of breath. Coming full
circle, class ends where it began – in seated mediation. Before parting,
students pause to feel the full effects of their Yoga practice and leave
feeling rejuvenated. From an Ayurvedic perspective, restorative poses
balance Vata (air and ether) energy in the body.
Supine restorative poses include:
Gentle hamstring stretch (Suptapadaangusta)
Extend legs up towards the ceiling with torso rests on the mat; support legs with hands behind legs or with a strap.
Outer hip stretch or eye of the needle (Sucirandhrasana)
Releases tension in outer hip.
Reclined Butterfly (Supta Baddha Konasana)
Relaxes and stretches thigh and groin.
Happy Baby (Ananda Balasana)
Stretches the inner thighs, groin and hamstring.
Releases the spine and sacrum and SI (sacroiliac) joint.
Knees to chest (Apanasana)
Brings body back into symmetry.
Gently massages abdomen and organs of digestion.
Releases tension in lower back.
Legs up the wall (Vipariti karani)
Releases tension in the legs, pelvic floor and lower back & aids in circulation.
Aids in a peaceful night’s sleep.
Corpse pose (Savasana)
Pose of repose; Savasana is a state of rest without sleeping at the end of practice.
Savasana – More than a Nap
Savasana provides an opportunity to synthesize and absorb Yoga practice, mentally, emotionally and physically. Focus returns inward. The rhythm of the heartbeat and breath slow to an almost imperceptible resting rhythm. Muscles relax and soften, bones feel heavy and the entire body yields to gravity and the healing, grounding energy of relaxation. Savasana stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and calms the sympathetic nervous system. Practioners enter a transitional, liminal space, betwixt and between the conscious and unconscious realms – a place where healing, self-awareness and change can occur.
Coming into Savasana
Extend your legs with arms by your side and palms facing up
Alternative – bend your knees with feet on the floor (for back issues).
Dress to stay warm but not overheated.
Add cushions for the most comfortable pose.
Observe, then relax each part of your body.
Envision softness and openness in previously tight mental, emotional, and physical places.
Allow your body to “sink” into the mat.
Notice your emotional and mental state.
Count slower and slower rounds of breath to aid in relaxation.
Suggest – use your inner voice rather than letting it use you with mental chatter.
Pause – wait and allow the experience to unfold. This is a moment to sharpen your inner awareness.
Feel – the sensations within your body. Do not think or judge.
Relaxation thrives with repetition.
The components – focus, suggest, pause and feel remain consistent but the
results change with each practice.
Calms the mind & improves focus and
Reduces stress, anxiety and tension
Balances energy & improves sleep
Aids in digestion
Just for Now
Just for now, without asking how, let yourself sink into stillness. Just for now, lay down the weight you so patiently bear upon your shoulders. Feel the earth receive you, and the infinite expanse of the sky grow even wider as your awareness reaches up to meet it. Just for now, allow a wave of breath to enliven your experience. Breathe out whatever blocks you from the truth. Just for now, be boundless, free, with awakened energy tingling in your hands and feet. Drink in the possibility of being who and what you really are – so fully alive that the world looks different, newly born and vibrant, just for now.
~ Danna Faulds
Want to read more about the energetics of Yoga? Read my article in Seattle Yoga News.