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.

Relax and Restore

A bed of lotus

Yoga – a holistic wellness practice

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.

Reclined Butterfly in a field of dreams with Mandy

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.
Happy Baby Courtesy of CM-G
  • 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.
  • Close your eyes; use an eye pillow.

According to Lilias Folan in Yoga Gets Better with Age, there are four aspects of relaxation:

  1. Focus your attention on each part of our body.
  2. Suggest – use your inner voice rather than letting it use you with mental chatter.
  3. Pause – wait and allow the experience to unfold. This is a moment to sharpen your inner awareness.
  4. 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.

Benefits of Savasana

  • Calms the mind & improves focus and concentration
  • Reduces stress, anxiety and tension
  • Balances energy & improves sleep
  • Relaxes muscles
  • 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.

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

‘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. 

Keep Calm with Yoga

calm 3
Movement is medicine.

Recent studies show what Yoga practitioners have experienced for many, many years – Yoga (asanas) practiced with pranayama and meditation calms the mind, increases flexibility, strengthens the body and reduces stress. The result – an overall sense of emotional and physical well-being. How does Yoga help us find calmness and serenity while stretching and strengthening our bodies? How does it differ from other forms of exercise?

Yoga is a moving meditation, regulated by the breath.

The next time you feel anxious or depressed, notice the rhythm of your breath. As part of the body’s natural reaction to fear, breath becomes shallow, constricted and rapid. In turn, the nervous system escalates even more. Through a persistent Yoga practice, you can acquire a calm, steady breath, confidence and ease in movement, and clarity of mind – both on and off of the mat – even when encountering triggers or stressors.

Yoga is a discipline that leads to a deeper sense of self-awareness.

Yoga deepens our understanding of how the mind functions. Using the eight-fold path, Yoga practitioners experience inward focus, breath control, concentration, contemplation, and complete absorption. This unique approach creates a stronger mind/body connection. Establishing a strong mind-body connection is one of the first steps to healing. Yoga teaches us to be kind, gentle and loving with ourselves and others.

With enough practice, Yoga practitioners learn to anticipate and control fluctuations of the mind, emotional state and physical body. Yogin(i) learn to balance breath and energy, and move into and out of asanas while maintaining focus (drishti). Experienced practioners discern the subtle differences between striving too hard, the correct amount of exertion, or becoming lax. During one Yoga session, you may move too fast and become tired, while on another day, the Yoga practice feels effortless – almost as if you are flying through space.

One of the gems of Yoga teachings is the ability to focus on the present moment, rather than regretting the past or feeling anxious about the future. As you hold your body in tree pose while focusing on your breath and balance, you are less likely to fret about burning supper last night!

According to Pantanjali:

Yoga Sutra 1.2 – 1.3    Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah. Tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam. 

Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions. Then the ability to understand the object fully and correctly is apparent. 

The object of our concentration can be anything – from the pain in our left shoulder, to a book we recently read to current events; and may even include one’s own mind.

Calm 2
From murky waters arise clarity.

The Three Gunas

According to Ayurveda and Yoga, we perceive our world according to the following qualities (gunas):

  • Satva – purity, lightness, clarity, stillness, tranquility, pleasantness
  • Rajas – exciting, passionate, mobile, agitated
  • Tamas – heavy, dull, sleepy, action without reflection

All three gunas are present in every person. Combined together, they form our nature, attitude and potential. Gunas shift throughout daily life – when one becomes more active, the other two are lessened. When we are balanced and well, the appropriate guna elevates at the correct time. For example, during restful periods, tamas is more predominate, while rajas elevates during periods of activity.

Disturbance (dukkha) occurs when the gunas are not in alignment with the rhythm of life. Perhaps you feel fatigued and depleted in the mid-afternoon but must meet a work deadline by the end of the business day. It is too easy and convenient to reach for an energy bar and a cup of coffee to boost your energy. This only causes a further disturbance and creates more imbalances in mind, body and emotional well-being. As unhealthy patterns develop, the imbalances are exacerbated and perpetuated. You may end up feeling scattered, feel out of sorts or become ill.

The Good News

Everything in our world is composed of the five basic elements and contain the three gunas. One can learn to balance the gunas through healthy daily routines, diet and Yoga practice. If you feel agitated and seek calmness, a restorative practice will return you to a state of balance. On the other hand, if you feel sluggish in the morning, select an active and warming practice.

Yoga Poses to Ease Stress

Active asanas stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, whereas calming, restorative poses with longer stays activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The overall effect is healing to an anxious mind and heart.

In a Huffington Post article, Carolyn Gregoire described 10 yoga poses for stress relief. I include all of them in my classes – but not all of them in every class! I divided them into active and restorative poses here.

Active poses include:

  • Eagle pose
  • Dolphin pose
  • Bridge pose
  • Standing forward bend
  • Triangle pose

Restorative poses include:

  • Child’s pose or Puppy pose
  • Cat or cat/cow – in Viniyoga, we often teach students to move from table to child’s pose
  • Legs up the wall
  • Savasana

Calm 1

I Will Leave Yoga Class Rested and Still

I will leave yoga class rested and still,
In touch with my breath,
My heart open,
Thankful I’m alive.
Breathing in,
I am a mountain, a rock, a tree,
Firmly grounded in my inner Essence.

~ John Mundahl (from Soul to Soul)

Pranayama and Yoga

Did you know the average person breathes about fifteen times per minute or 21,600 times every day?! And most of us go about our daily lives without so much as a thought about our breath. We may occasionally notice shortness of breath, congestion or a feeling of windedness. Few people consider the possibility that we can even control our breath. Some may ask  – why try to control a natural bodily process? In many forms of exercise, little emphasis is placed upon the rhythm of our inhalation and exhalation. One of the gifts of Yoga is the awareness and control of breath, or pranayama.

To understand, pranayama, we must first understand some basic principles of prana. According to the Yoga teachings, prana (“life force”) directs energy throughout the universe and the physical world, including our bodies. This life energy becomes more noticeable to many of us by the ocean, in the wind or next to a warm fire.

IMG_2725
Oregon coast sunset

When prana flows freely, we feel vibrant and energized; when prana is blocked, we feel stagnant and confused. There are 72,000 subtle nerve channels (nadis) that allow prana to flow within each and every one of us. Asanas open the nadis, while pranayama clears them of debris so that our life force can flow easily. And thus, poses, movement, mindfulness and breath are seamlessly integrated in our Yoga practice…a most beautiful dance of life. And when that happens, beautiful surprises may begin to unfold. For instance, I have noticed a more balanced energy throughout my day and fewer panic attacks under duress.


In the classic text of Yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, pranayama is defined as follows:

Sutra 2.50: bahya abhyantara stambha vrittih desha kala sankhyabhih paridrishtah dirgha sukshmah

Pranayama involves the regulation of the exhalation, the inhalation, and the suspension of the breath. The regulation of these three processes is achieved by modulating their length and maintaining this modulation for a period of time, as well as directing the mind into the process. These components of breathing must be both long and uniform.

–      Translated by TKV Desikachar

Learning Yoga poses can be a challenge for many new students, let alone synchronizing movement with breath. It need not be any more intimidating than learning to breathe while swimming. Be patient with yourself and study with an experienced teacher. You may find Margaret Koblasova’s Meditation on Breathing helpful for your personal practice:

Sit quietly and bring your awareness within. Close your eyes and relax the space between your eyebrows. Take a long breath in, beginning slowly. Notice the pause at the top of the breath, then let it go, long and easy, aware of the peace in the pause at the bottom of the breath. And take another breath in… and let it go.

Notice your chest rise with each inhalation and fall with each exhalation as a reassuring rhythm. In our silence, we become aware of still deeper rhythms – our heartbeat, perhaps the pulsing of fluid in our spinal cord, the circulation of our blood, the patterns of neural communication, the actual respiration in our cells. We have the colors of our thoughts and the song in our heart. All these rhythms and melodies fold together into a beautiful symphony. This is a symphony that is uniquely yours.

Pause. Listen. Remember.

Your symphony is a part of the music of the universe. It is fully, intensely, wonderfully alive. It breathes. As you inhale, the universe is exhaling into you this vivid aliveness, this music. As you exhale, you accept it.

(from Soul to Soul compiled and edited by John Mundahl)

Stretch and hike
Sammie waits patiently while I stretch.

 

If you follow this blog or my Facebook page, you may have noticed my love of nature and walking with my dog, Sammie (in addition to Yoga). Find a tree, stretch and breathe in the fresh air of the forest, mountain, river, local park…. or simply step outside your front door, close your eyes and take a breath before embarking upon your day.

Take your increased breath awareness off of the mat and into your everyday life with Lilias Folan’s Nine Tips For Healthy Breathing:

  1. During your day, take a breather…. it’s the pause that refreshes.
  2. Until we breathe out fully, it is not possible to breathe in correctly.
  3. Breathe through your nose, not your mouth (unless instructed otherwise).
  4. Relax your jaw, tongue, facial muscles and shoulders.
  5. Listen to the silence of your breath.
  6. If you hear yourself inhaling, you are probably trying too hard.
  7. Exhaling should be easy, effortless, silent and deep.
  8. Leather belts and underwire bras can hinder respiration.
  9. Relax…. And open the door to breathing.

 

Breathing in, I calm my body.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment.

–      Thich Nhat Hanh

Easy Pose

Take a Hike!

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown,

for going out, I found, was really going in.

― John MuirJohn of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir

 

Emerson Thoreau Amble
Along the Emerson-Thoreau Amble

Last fall, my friend Sydney and I visited New England and stayed for several nights in Concord, Massachusetts. We followed the two-mile Emerson-Thoreau Amble from Emerson’s house to Walden Pond. As we walked, we could almost hear the two authors discussing their latest book, article or poem. I am more of an ambler than a brisk walker myself, gazing at the changing light in the sky (transitory light effects), smelling the flowers, feeling the bark on the trees and finding small worlds underfoot. On my travels, I find a trail, neighborhood or market where I can meander. Step out of your car and embrace the world at a walker’s pace!

The Art of Strolling

I learned the fine art of strolling from my father. As we walked along Worley Lane, he taught me to embrace every moment of our precious, short life and to savor the beauty that surrounds us….concord grapes ripening in the sun were one of his favorites. Walking was also one of the best times to discuss ideas, my studies and his current book.

My walking cast fixed
Ready for another day of third grade.

My meandering ways led to my “arrest” in the first grade by the one and only cop in my hometown! He found me skipping along to school half an hour after the late bell. There was just too much to explore on my way! My teacher was unphased when he brought me to class since I was well-behaved and an eager student. Yes – I am one of those people who grew up in the midwest and walked a mile in the snow to school every day. I even walked to school on my walking cast after breaking my ankle. Besides those famous snowy days, there were many days when the sun shone through the red and golden leaves or the soft rain moistened the earth.  I enjoyed visiting with older neighbors on my way to and from school. I feel fortunate that I cultivated the love of walking, hiking and strolling at a young age.

Hiking and Breath Walking

North Cascades with Mandy
North Cascades with Mandy at 13

Living in the Pacific Northwest, we are blessed with many beautiful mountain hikes, wide, rolling rivers and stunning beach walks.  Hiking in the fresh, clean air is a tonic to my mind, body and spirit. The stress of daily living is erased and a calmness washes over me – I feel rejuvenated, vital and full of prana (life force). I dream of spending weeks or months walking on one of the pilgrimage walks found in various parts of  the world.  To tread on ancient paths creates a powerful connection with the past, present and future. Even when I walk along a familiar path, I envision the animals and people who walked before me. In reality, most of my walks are with my dog in a nearby park or through our neighborhood – observing the daily changes in our little part of the world. It is rare that I do not find at least 10 minutes for my “daily constitutional”.

Sometimes I practice breath walking:

Remember that breath walking – as with any meditation technique – should not be pursued with a grim determination to “get it right”. The point is to cultivate openness, relaxation and awareness which can include awareness of your undisciplined, wandering mind.

– Andrew Weil 

The Health Benefits of Walking for Older Adults

I think we all agree that walking is beneficial, especially as we age. According to American Senior Communities, a regular walking routine provides the following benefits:

  • Improves heart health
  • Lowers blood sugar
  • Reduces pain
  • Inexpensive
  • Promotes social engagement
  • Elevates your mood

How can you add walking to your daily routine? As many people say, it takes 21 days to change a habit. Some suggestions include creating a schedule that includes a daily walk, find a walking partner, volunteer to walk a foster dog or join a walking group. For people living in the Seattle area, Sound Steps, offered through LifeLong Recreation lists lots of walking opportunities for seniors.

Find a Role Model

Walking inspiration
A life well-lived

During graduate school, I found a picture of a joyful older woman in People magazine – of all places. I kept her picture in my notebook of inspirations and accomplishments ever since. I hoped that by the time I reach my later years that I will walk with strength, integrity, confidence and joy. I realized that achieving my goal meant greeting each and every day with a zest for living and gathering the strength and will to walk…. smiling upon a stranger…. and giving more than I take…. This has not always been easy – I had a bout of sciatica at 50 and could not walk for a week. I have had periods of sadness, loss and loneliness along the way. But I never let go of my goals –  to tread lightly upon the earth and bring more joy than sadness to those I touch.

And a Hope for the Future

The first time I visited Europe I noticed all of the families walking in the evening. I wondered why so many Americans jump into their cars and rush to the next destination. The “sedentary epidemic” only continues to worsen and Americans’ health is suffering because of it. My hope is that more and more Americans will begin to enjoy the benefits of walking. And that we will design our communities with open spaces, accessible paths and quiet, contemplative places. May you walk in peace and beauty all of the days of your life.

Walking before our Ohio picnic
Walking with my dear nephew Dave