Healing with Yoga from the Inside

Yoga’s Unique Approach

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:

  1. To purify the body
  2. To balance physical, mental and energetic aspects
  3. 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.

Finding Balance

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.

  1. Yama – worldly restraints and ethical standards
    • Ahimsa – nonviolence
    • Satya – truthfulness
    • Asteya – non-stealing
    • Brahmacharya – pure way of life
    • Aparighaga – non-possessiveness
  2. 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
  3. Asana – physical postures; mastering the body to prepare for meditation
  4. Pranayama – control of the vital force (breath)
  5. Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses
  6. Dharana – concentration
  7. Dhyana – meditation or contemplation
  8. 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.

Ayurveda, Yoga and Hormones

Understanding the Endocrine System

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

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

Yoga

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
  • Improves focus
  • Alleviates stress
  • 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 and Herbs

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.

Energy vibrations

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.

  • Heavy/Light
  • Cold/Hot
  • Oily/Dry
  • Dull/Sharp
  • Smooth/Rough
  • Dense/Liquid
  • Soft/Hard
  • Stable/Mobile
  • Gross/Subtle
  • Cloudy/Clear

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

Muscle tissue

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.
Fennel

My story

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

My herb garden, summer 2019

Sources:

Chopra, Deepak. 2001. Perfect health. London: Bantam.

Frawley, David, and Vasant Lad. 2016. The yoga of herbs: an Ayurvedic guide to herbal medicine.

Celebrate Aging

Our Aging Population

Around the globe, fertility and infant mortality rates have decreased; meanwhile people are living longer, healthier lives. These changes have resulted in an unprecedented demographic shift towards an aging global population. Changes in demography are transforming societies, including medical research, public health, migration patterns, business, governmental policies and perhaps most importantly, our perceptions towards aging and elderhood.

From Ageism to Positive Aging

Most of us desire a long and healthy life, just not the experience of growing old so quickly. Modern society continues to idolize youth and marginalize elderhood. How many times have you heard, “you don’t look your age” or “you look great for 55”? Another favorite, “60 is the new 40 and 70 is the new 50”. Elderhood is associated with loss, loneliness, low energy, forgetfulness and so on. These are examples of ageism. As with all “ism’s”, ageism marginalizes elders – financially, socially and emotionally. And ageism affects our health! People with a positive attitude towards their own aging tend to live longer.

According to gerontologist, Louise Aronson, elderhood is a highly varied phase lasting 20 – 40 years. Why lump people in their 60’s with those in their 80’s?! We would never generalize about people in their 20’s and 40’s. People learn, grow and develop throughout life, well beyond childhood. And each phase of life is full of joys and sorrows, strengths and weaknesses.

Ideas about aging are changing as evidenced by the following trends:

Happiness and Aging

In the spring of 2017, I attended the ChangingAging Tour, a “nonfiction theater performance” presented by Dr. Bill Thomas and his traveling troupe. The performance included music, skits, art, storytelling, biography, and neuroscience. A large portion of the day was devoted to dementia. Several take-aways for me: I stopped using the expression, “senior moment” when I misplace something. We have forgetful moments throughout our lives, without blaming age. I enjoyed learning that young minds are better at memorization, while older minds excel at integration. And I loved the storytelling. Elders have many stories to tell and wisdom to share.

Embracing my 60’s

Who knew? Adulthood (the prime of life) is associated with the greatest anxiety levels and lowest happiness levels. Obligations are high and time is limited – many adults care for children and/or parents, while working a demanding job. Adults have more worries and stressors: from financial constraints to moves for career growth to divorce.   The grind of daily life might not match hopes and aspirations. Believe me, I have been there!

As people enter their early sixties, life satisfaction and happiness increase and remain high well into the nineties. Elders have a clearer sense of self-identity and worry less about what others think. Retired people have time to pursue old passions or explore new hobbies. I quit my full-time job after a 25-year career in student services to teach Yoga and volunteer. I now control my time. It took a while to slow down and savor extra “me” time each day. At first, I felt like I was playing hooky from work! I ask many people if they enjoy retirement and hear a resounding yes. It is exciting to witness the myriad of options played out during the Third Act.

From Anti-Aging to Healthy Aging

In hopes of reversing the aging process, many people experiment with a plethora of diet and fitness fads; consume numerous supplements; and regularly visit spas and wellness clinics. Massages, acupuncture, reflexology, facials, waxing and other treatments continue to rise in popularity. In 2018, more than $50 billion was spent on anti-aging worldwide – all to look and feel younger. Remedies may improve health or appearance in the short term. However, Ayurveda and Yoga practiced together, provide an integrated approach to wellness and contribute to healthy aging.

Ayurveda and Aging

Ayurveda and Yoga connect mind, body and energy while maintaining balance and wellness. Each person has a primary constitution (prakruti) which can change over time and manifest as our current state (vikruti). The branch of Ayurveda focused on longevity is known as rejuvenation (rasayana). There are three life stages: youth (Kapha), adulthood (Pitta), and elderhood (Vata). As Vata energy rises, skin and hair become dry, joints feel stiff and achy, digestion is erratic, and thoughts may become scattered.

Following an Ayurvedic lifestyle includes daily routines (dinacharya), with adjustments as we age. And as we attain elderhood, we should choose a gentler Yoga practice with more focus on pranayama and meditation. Learn more about the benefits of Yoga for practioners over 50 here.   

Serenity at the labyrinth, Victor Montana, 2019

Find Wellness in Elderhood with Ayurveda and Yoga

  • Each morning focus on the gift of life with each breath.
    • Notice how your body feels from the crown of your head to the tips of your toes.
    • With gratitude, notice where you feel softness and ease.
    • Without judgement, notice where you feel stiff, achy or fatigued.
    • Notice the natural rhythm of your breath.
  • Follow your heart – reach out to a loved one.
  • Pay attention to the present moment.
    • Experience each of your five senses.
    • Embrace the wise elder, rich with experiences.
    • Pause for inner reflection, meditation, mindfulness or prayer.
  • Practice self-care.
    • Massage with an oil or balm each morning.
    • Indulge in a hot oil hair and scalp treatment.
    • Soak in a warm tub, drink your favorite herbal tea or try golden milk.
    • Take a walk in a nearby park or forest and breathe in the aromas. If your access is limited, open a door or window, feel the fresh air, stretch and take a few breaths.
  • Eat soothing, warm foods including soups, stews, steamed vegetables.
    • Eat smaller meals more often.
    • Eat your main meal at midday when your digestive fire (Agni) is at its peak.
  • Drink plenty of water without ice.  
  • Movement is medicine!
    • Find an exercise you enjoy and practice several times a week… or more! Break it up into doable chunks of 5 – 15 minutes.
    • Find the best time for you – if you enjoy mornings, take a walk and/or stretch before you engage in other activities.
    • Spend 5 – 10 minutes to warm up joints and muscles, even longer in the cold, damp winter weather.
    • Take time for a full body stretch several times throughout the day.
  • Rest and rejuvenate! Get plenty of sleep.
    • Don’t be afraid to nap – rest in the early afternoon or pause for afternoon tea and conversation.
  • Stay engaged!
    • Choose one of your passions and find a volunteer opportunity.
    • Find others who share your hobby and join or start a group.
    • Check out the awesome classes and programs at your local Senior and Community Centers.
Hells Canyon, 2019

Here life goes on, even and monotonous on the surface, full of lightning, of summits and of despair, in its depths. We have now arrived at a stage in life so rich in new perceptions that cannot be transmitted to those at another stage – one feels at the same time full of so much gentleness and so much despair – the enigma of this life grows, grows, drowns one and crushes one, then all of a sudden in a supreme moment of light one becomes aware of the sacred.

~ May Sarton

Healing with Sound

Living in accordance with Ayurveda and Yoga, we strive to live in harmony with our environment.  Part of living a balanced life and maintaining wellness, includes the balanced use of our senses. Each sense corresponds to an element, a sense organ and an organ of action.

Element Sense Organ Sense Organ of Action
Ether (Akash) Ear Sound Vocal Cords
Air (Vayu) Skin Touch Hands
Fire (Teja) Eyes Sight Feet
Water (Aap) Tongue Taste Genito-Urinary Tract
Earth (Prithvi) Nose Smell Anus

The 5 senses are pathways to healing:

  • Sound healing includes mantras, chants, music, calming sounds of nature or simply silence.
  • Healing touch includes massage, an embrace from a loved one, acupuncture and acupressure, and the application of ointments, salves and medicated oils.
  • Healing can occur through visual art, gazing at the soft glow of a candle, beautiful and peaceful settings in nature and the face of a loved one.
  • Eating a balanced diet, including all six tastes helps us maintain health, vitality and vibrancy. A nutritious meal shared with loved ones in a pleasant setting leaves us feeling nourished and satisfied.
  • Aromatherapy, pleasant smells or even the memory of a smell are all healing.

Sound Within and All Around

According to ancient Vedic teachings, the cosmos and everything in it consists of sound vibrations or nada.   There are two types of nada: ahata – external sound perceived by the body/mind, and anahata – internal sound perceived by the heart chakra.

All living beings as well as water, earth, rocks, stars vibrate to a unique frequency.  Our prakriti (constitution) and vikriti (current condition) determine the rhythm of our heartbeat, breath and energy. An Ayurvedic tool to discover our internal rhythm is through pulse diagnosis. Oxygenated blood circulates through our arteries to nourish each cell of our physical body. The rhythm of our heartbeat not only depends upon our constitution, but also upon our state of health, age, time of day, season and other considerations.

  • People with a Vata constitution have a fast, thin and irregular pulse that can disappear with pressure. It is most evident using the index finger.
  • People with a Pitta constitution have a strong and forceful pulse most evident in the middle finger.
  • People with a Kapha constitution have a deep, slow and wavy pulse most evident in the ring finger.

In and Out of Sync

Have you “pulled an all-nighter” or travelled long distances through various time zones? Living outside of our normal frequency is fine now and then, but over extended periods of time, can leave us feeling weak and depleted. Our internal clock no longer lets us know the right time to eat or sleep. Our digestion and other metabolic systems may also fall “out of sync”. Our unique frequency is greatly influenced by external rhythms, pulses and beats. Modern society is full of overlapping, conflicting sounds, including traffic, computers, microwaves, industrial sounds and my favorite – multiple TV’s in restaurants! Have you noticed your heartbeat accelerate when you attend a loud concert or while driving in fast traffic? When our natural rhythm is out of sync for a prolonged period of time, we become imbalanced and eventually may become ill. 

Conversely, our heartbeat and breath become calmer during meditation, Yoga, massage, gazing at the ocean or walking in a forest.

Sound Healing

Sound healing can return our vibratory patterns to their natural state.  The use of sound as a healing therapy has existed for centuries all around the world.  Nada Yoga, meaning “union through sound” is the ancient Vedic science of inner transformation through sound vibrations, tone and resonance. It helps raise one’s awareness of the chakras and energizes them.

Each chakra is associated with a mantra and a keynote. A mantra is a word or sound (seed or bija) repeated silently to aid in meditation and promote healing. Used during Yoga, mantra focuses the mind and sets an intention for practice. Om, the mantra associated with the crown chakra is often chanted at the close of Yoga practice.

Music, mantra, chants, kirtan, singing bowls and sound baths are sound healing options to explore at Yoga studios and wellness centers. 

Music for your Dosha

Music affects moods and our health. The ragas of Indian classical music are attuned to different times of the day or different seasons to harmonize the listener with the rhythms of nature. The Ayurvedic healing principle of opposites can be applied to our choice in music. In her book, Absolute Beauty, Pratima Raichur describes music to balance each dosha:

  • People with a Vata constitution find balance with calm, slow, soft music with low tones and easy rhythms.
  • People with a Pitta constitution find balance with soothing, mellow music with medium tones and a moderate tempo.
  • People with a Kapha constitution find balance with high energy music with a fast beat and higher tones.

What type of music do you enjoy? Does a certain type of music make you uncomfortable?

Kirtan

Kirtan is a group recitation of chants led by a wallah and accompanied by musicians, usually including a harmonium player.  There is no obligation to sing and participants need not be concerned about their ability to carry a tune. Attending a Kirtan is different than passively listening to music, even if you choose not to actively participate.  Singing together creates a sense of community and joy. The room vibrates with energy. Kirtan has become so popular that well-known leaders travel the country and fill large halls. I attended one Kirtan with an audience of nearly 1,000, while smaller studios may include 15 – 25 people. In more intimate venues, people may stretch or move with the music. After attending Kirtan, I feel energized and uplifted.

Tibetan Singing Bowls

Singing Bowls and Sound Baths

Tibetan singing bowls are metal bowls, usually made of combinations of bronze, copper, gold, nickel, silver zinc, tin and iron.  Crystal singing bowls are made of quartz crystal, making them highly resonant. Both types of bowls produce tones by striking a mallet either on the side of the bowl or rubbing the mallet around the outside of the bowl. Bowls are tuned to the notes of the chakra and may be played one at a time.  Played together, the bowls vibrate with one another to create a sound like no other. The vibrations are not only heard, but are felt throughout the body. Sound Bath aids in meditation, harmonizing chakras, balancing the nervous system and can activate self-healing.

Sound Bath – illustration by Laura Kraft

I have attended four Sound Baths – each with their own unique and profound experience. I was very exhausted at my first Sound Bath, so it served primarily as a deep relaxation. My second Sound Bath was at dawn on New Year’s Day in a church. I meditated and set my intention for the year.

Last January I attended a Sound Bath and Yin Yoga practice at a wellness center. I lost track of time and space. In Yin Yoga, poses are held longer than in a typical practice. The Sound Bath took my mind off the time spent in the poses. I have had reoccurring pain in my left knee over the years. I left that night feeling no pain in my knee. And my knee has felt fine ever since!

This is my birthday month, so I treated myself to two wellness events – another Sound Bath and a Yoga practice with Tibetan Singing Bowls during a long savasana.  At the Sound Bath, I settled onto my mat at the back of the room with a bolster and a blanket. At first, I simply relaxed. Then in a flash, I experienced a tragic and painful personal event from 40 years ago. One that I had tucked deep into the recesses of my body and memory. Although I felt a wave of emotional pain at first, this time I released what I had been holding. I walked away, realizing I had been through a truly healing experience.

Last night, I attended a very mindful and gentle Yoga practice followed by Tibetan Singing Bowls. I felt each bowl resonate throughout my body, but they felt lighter and subtler than the crystal bowls. I plan to continue attending Sound Baths this year. Sound healing is the good path to follow at this point in my life.


Bathe deeply in the ocean of sound

     Vibrating within you, now as always,

Resonating softly,

Permeating the space of the heart.

The ear that is tuned by rapt listening

Learns to hear the song of creation.

First like a hand bell,

Then subtler, like a flute,

Subtler still as a stringed instrument,

Eventually as the buzz of a bee.

Entering this current of sound,

The Listening One

Forgets the external world, becomes

Absorbed into internal sound,

Then absorbed in vastness,

Like the song of the stars as they shine.

The Radiance Sutras

~ Lorin Roche, PhD

Moon Salutations

Spring Equinox

As we transition from Winter into Spring, the earth warms, flowers blossom, birds sing, and our energy shifts. We shed a few layers of clothing, feel lighter and move about more freely. We begin spending more time in outdoor activities – walking, hiking, boating, gardening – just to name a few. Ayurveda and Yoga offer ways to make simple changes to stay healthy and vital with each season. To learn tips for staying healthy this Spring, read, Living with the Seasons: Spring.

Lunar Phases

The moon reflects the light of the sun. When we linger in the moonlight, we absorb a softer, subtler energy than we experience in daylight. Last night I awoke to find my dog, Samantha basking in the moonlight. She chose the exact spot on the floor where the moonlight streamed down from our skylight. And she nearly glowed! Much has been written about the moon’s effect upon energy, moods, hormones and our reproductive cycles. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the moon will be full on the first day of Spring on March 20, 2019. And it is the third and final super moon this year. Not only will we experience a nearly equal amount of daylight hours and night time, but the added potency of a supermoon.

Celebrate the Full Moon and Equinox with Moon Salutations

As the days lengthen and our energy rises, now is great time to bring more energy and flow into our Yoga practice. Some traditions practice Yoga Mala (108 Sun Salutations) at each solstice and equinox. If you are seeking a gentler, calmer sequence to celebrate the Spring Equinox and Full Moon, try Moon Salutations.

Moon Salutation (Chandra Namaskar) is a series of poses performed in a sequence to create a cooling flow of movement. There are numerous variations to the sequence. This version is gentle and does not include getting up and down from the mat. Practice one or more rounds of Moon Salutations with your regular routine or alone.

Chandra Namaskara can be practiced any time of day. Try an evening practice with soft lighting – or even better – by moonlight. Embrace this quiet practice and draw your awareness inward. Move between poses slowly and rhythmically and allow your body to settle into each pose. Move calmly with your breath: inhale to extend, and exhale to bend. Imagine each Phase of the Moon as you move from pose to pose. Allow yourself the time to linger in a pose that beckons you.

The Moon Salutation sequence calms the mind and restores vital energy, while stretching, softening and balancing the entire body. The primary focus is on the lower body, particularly the thigh muscles, calves, pelvis, and ankles.

1. Mountain Pose – Tadasana

Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Bring your palms together at your heart center. With your feet firmly planted into the mat, feel the strength of your legs and lower body. Feel your breath deepen and your focus turn inward.

2. Wide Legged Full Moon Forward Bend – Prasarita Padottanasana

Widen your legs wide and keep your feet parallel. Create the shape of a Full Moon with your arms and reach up on the inhale and exhale down. Repeat 3 – 4 times then stay at least 5 – 7 breaths. Relax your shoulders, cradling your elbows in your hands. Alow your torso to relax towards the earth, while your legs remain strong and stable.

3. Upward Salute to Crescent Moon Side Stretch (side to side beginning on left side) – Urhva Hastasana

Return to Mountain Pose with your feet a bit wider than hip distance. Inhale and you sweep your arms overhead as if you are cradling the Crescent Moon. Exhale and bend your upper torso to the left. Keep your feet grounded and your legs strong. Inhale and come back to center. Exhale and bend to the right, and then inhale to come back to center. Repeat about 3 – 4 more times each side. Return to Mountain – feel your body side to side and from the crown of your head to the soles of your feet.

4. Goddess Squat – Utkata Konasana

Inhale and step your feet wide apart and turn your toes out slightly with hands to heart center. Exhale as you bend your knees directly over your toes and lower your hips into a squat. Extend your arms out to the sides at shoulder-height with your palms facing forward (goal post). Move in and out of Goddess Pose 4 – 5 times, then stay 5 – 6 breaths.

5. Star Pose

Inhale and straighten both legs, keeping your feet wide apart. Extend your arms at shoulder-height, facing your palms forward. Spread your fingers and reach out through your fingertips. Feel the energy increase with the spaciousness created in your upper body and chest. Stay in Star Pose 5 – 7 breaths.

6. Triangle Pose (left side) – Utthita Trikonasana

Align your front (left) foot so that it points towards the top of the mat and turn your back (right) foot so it is parallel with the back of the mat. Inhale as you reach your left hand towards the front of the mat. Exhale and bend sideways at the hip, lowering your left hand to your leg, a block or the mat and extend your right hand up towards the ceiling. Remain for 5 – 6 breaths.

7. Pyramid Pose – Parsvottanasana (left side)

Turn your upper torso to the left until it aligned with your left leg. Pivot your right leg slightly. Exhale as you fold your torso over your left leg. Rest both hands on your leg, a block or the mat. Ground down through the heel of your back foot. Inhale back up and return to Mountain. Take another moment to feel your body and breath before repeating the sequence on the right side.

8. Wide Legged Full Moon Forward Bend – Prasarita Padottanasana (repeat)

9. Upward Salute to Crescent Moon Side Stretch (repeat)

10. Goddess Squat – Utkata Konasana (repeat)

11. Star pose (repeat)

12. Triangle Pose (right side) – Utthita Trikonasana

13. Pyramid Pose – Parsvottanasana (right side)

14. Return to Mountain Pose – close your eyes and reconnect with your body and your breath.

15. Complete your practice with a long relaxation in Savasana. Allow every part of your body to relax into the mat.

Learn more about the phases of the moon: https://www.farmersalmanac.com/understanding-phases-moon-20606

HATHA

sun moon
rising setting
eclipsing
melding one into the other
perfect union.

I stand between the two
and try to feel
the essence
of perfect symmetry
right between the eyes:
heart of fire
quiet mind
one body
one soul
setting
rising
now
and
only
now.

~ Pilar Kimbrell

Thank you, Laura Kraft for the illustrations.

‘Tis the Season to be Compassionate

Our desire to connect, to feel love and compassion often peaks during the holiday season. Many of us struggle with loss, loneliness and remorse. Others are constantly on the go, go, go. I have experienced all of the above. Over the past few years, I reduced both my expectations and social activities. My focus has been on teaching and practicing Yoga, writing this blog, sharing quiet time with my husband and dog, and easing into semi-retirement. I feel great joy in sharing the gifts of Ayurveda and Yoga with my students and you, my reader. My intention to create communities of compassion has been partially realized. Sometimes I desire a lift, a change of pace, reconnection with loved ones, and time to reflect upon the twists and turns of life. Fortunately, I get a two week break after each quarter to re-energize.

At Bodh Gaya

Last spring, I went to India with my brother Denis to visit Margaret at Tarumitra on the outskirts of Patna. About 7 yeas ago, Margaret stayed with us for 10 weeks as an ILeap fellow. A peak experience was our day trip to Bodh Gaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment underneath the Bodhi tree. As I caught two leaves, I was transported back in time and envisioned Buddha meditating for seven weeks. I barely feel capable of meditating for seven minutes!  I lingered, transfixed by the Mahabodhi Temple and people from all around the globe on various pilgrimages, experiencing that moment in time together. I will forever remember the calm feeling in the air and the light rustling of the leaves.

Several weeks ago, I attended Gary Kraftsow’s Tantric Yoga workshop focused on meditation, pranayama and a discussion of the chakras and energetics. I am still absorbing my feelings and experiences, not to mention the many notes I took. During and after the workshop, memories of my week with Seeds of Compassion and the Dalai Lama came flooding back into my consciousness. In 2008, I was a lead volunteer with Seeds of Compassion – an experience that shifted my perspective and the path of my life. Within a month, I began my studies in Ayurveda and Yoga and never turned back. Reading the Dalai Lama again not only reaffirmed my commitment to my path over the past 10 years, but provided a context for my visit to Bodh Gaya and my experiences in the recent workshop.

Collage by Heidi Lynne’ – Bodhi tree leaves & Angor Wat etching by S. Solos

As the Dalai Lama described in The Art of Happiness, positive thoughts and emotions are based upon reality. Human basic consciousness is pure and known as the “mind of Clear Light”. Through meditation and other practices, we can eliminate negative emotions and thoughts based upon ignorance, distortion and delusion.

Pursuing the path of Yoga can liberate us from clouded perceptions. Put simply, Yoga is a journey towards self-awareness and union with our true self. Yogin may use various approaches to pursue the same path. Although there is overlap, they can be categorized as follows:

  • Raja or Classical – meditation; awareness of one’s mind
  • Hatha – physical transformation
  • Jnana – path of knowledge and higher wisdom
  • Karma – action and service
  • Bhakti – devotion
  • Mantra – potent sound
  • Tantra – ritual, visualization and energy work

Negative thought and emotional patterns (samskara) arise from deep conditioning as well as personal experiences. The journey to self-awareness can be long and arduous. When we meditate and practice Yoga, our attention often fluctuates between attention and distraction. With persistent practice, we can train our minds to move from a state of distraction towards sustained attention. Gradually, practioners become more self-aware, learn to read patterns and find clarity.

Do you know that breakthrough moment, when you learn a new skill and reach a state of flow? We can experience those same breakthroughs on our path towards self-awareness.   When we reach a state of total absorption (samadhi), our consciousness is merged with the object of our attention. We may feel a sense of joy and lightness or a passionate commitment. This fosters a sense of homecoming, of living in right relationship to oneself and to our community. A commitment formed by heart and mind leads to a sense of purpose, of an intentionality in one’s life. When we are free and clear, our hearts and minds naturally cultivate compassion.

The Dalai Lama defines compassion “in terms of a state of mind that is nonviolent, non-harming, and nonaggressive. It is a mental attitude based on the wish for others to be free of their suffering and is associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility, and respect towards the other.”

It is important to stress the importance of attachment in our relationships. When one loves with attachment, there is always an underlying feeling of control and the need to receive love in return. This type of relationship is inherently unstable. Genuine compassion and love flow naturally without attachment. Human beings have an innate desire to be happy and overcome suffering. And each person has the natural right to fulfill this fundamental aspiration. Through this awareness, true compassion emerges. Love and compassion are no longer based on personal projection, ego and attachment to outcomes.

“The human heart has the extraordinary capacity to hold and transform the sorrows of life into a great stream of compassion….Let yourself feel how the beauty of every being brings you joy and how the suffering of any being makes you weep.”

~ Jack Kornfield

In gratitude to Denis Mair, Edwin Molomoo, Tarumitra, The Dalai Lama and Gary Kraftsow. 

And in memory of Meng Lang, a passionate poet, he arose from the smoldering embers of Tiananmen and gave voice to many.