If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I refer to the Breath quite often. I consider it the foundation of any yoga practice. If you choose to meditate, go to a Bikram class, study Kundalini, or try other forms of yoga, you’re going to focus on the breath.
That is certainly true in the Ashtanga Primary Series. As mentioned in the previous blog, there are four main elements in the historic Ashtanga practice: Ujjayi Breath, the Bandhas, Vinyasa, and Drishti. Here We will focus on the breath. Ujjayi is a special form of breathing that brings energy, power, and movement while practicing yoga. The idea is to create a flow and a rhythm in the body that is almost meditative that keeps you focused and in the present moment while you move through the Ashtanga Vinyasa postures. Here is another description of how you can engage the Ujjayi Breath.
Sit comfortably on your yoga mat. (Actually, you can practice this way of breathing ANYWHERE! Try practicing while sitting upright at the dinner table, at your office desk, or even at a stop light in your car.) If you’re new to the breath, try this. Open your mouth slightly and take a deep breath in through the mouth. You may experience a coolness hit the back of your throat. Now exhale through your mouth as if you’re fogging a mirror. Notice that you are using the muscles of your throat to give energy to the breath. Now, continue breathing this way, but close your mouth. Air will continue to move in and out of your nose, but the action and energy of the breath will come form the muscles in the back of your mouth. The sound of the breath has been described in many ways: wind in the trees, the waves of an ocean, and even resembling the breathing of Darth Vader!
One wants to create this Ujjayi Sound. The sound is like a mantra that the mind can settle into without being distracted by other thoughts. If you lose the connection with the breath, you may lose the connection to Self. Learn to listen to the breath. It keeps you in the moment. The breath is an important element in the Ashtanga Yoga practice because the practice itself is so physical in nature. One can easily think that practicing yoga is JUST a physical exercise. Yoga is more than that. The Ashtanga method teaches us to be mindful of ourselves and to stay focused so that it becomes more than just a physical practice. Yoga’s intention is to be a holistic experience. Yoga means union; a union of the body, mind, and spirit.
So if you practice Ashtanga Yoga or Kundalini Yoga, you’re going to rely on the breath as a foundational resource. Realize, too, that the breathing is something you do ALL the time (obviously.) We tend to forget, though, that we’re breathing. We become distracted by the outside world. Taking a moment in stillness, or even in movement, you can focus on your breathing as a way to come back to Self. Try it right now. It only takes a few seconds. See? Now you’ve done yoga.
With so much going on around us, it can be so easy to become distracted. It can be a challenge sometimes to focus on one thing when there are hundreds of thoughts running through your head and so many things going on outside of ourselves. It can be overwhelming at times. I often think how hard it can be just going to the grocery store and trying to pick out a cereal. Have you seen how many cereal brands and types there are? Try picking out a toothpaste! Oh my! Even trying to decide on a cereal or toothpaste can be such an overwhelming experience that it is just easier to walk away. But this just doesn’t happen in the grocery store. What about in other parts of our lives? Think about the many distractions that you face on a daily bases. How does one focus and calm the mind?
In the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga Practice, there are four main elements to be aware of: Ujjayi Breath, the Bandhas, Vinyasa, and Drishti. For the next four blog entries, I will focus on these elements. This week I will discuss on the last one: Drishti. Drishti refers to your gaze or focus. In one aspect of the gaze, you are physically looking outward, but the real looking is internally: to go inside of yourself. This inward gaze creates a stronger and deeper connection with yourself. The drishti is designed to bring balance to your internal and external practice. Externally, when you are in a yoga pose, your gaze can simply follow the stretch. Let’s try this pose…..
Extended Side Angle Pose
Come to a Warrior Two pose with your right foot/hand forward. To move into the Extended Side Angle Pose, start reaching out toward the wall in front of you. This will create an angled upper body. (Try to keep the lower part of the body stable so that you do not collapse into your knee or hip.) When you cannot extended any further, lower your right hand toward the floor and reach your left hand toward the ceiling. (The right hand does not necessarily need to touch the floor. The fingertips and can just reach down toward the floor. You want to keep your heart open to the left side of the room.) Turn your gaze upward and look at your left hand. This is your drishti.
Now, although you are looking up at your fingers, allow the gaze to look past your fingers…toward the ceiling, toward the sky, toward the heavens. This distant gazing practice is really a meditative practice that keeps you focused and in the moment. While in the posture, the internal gazing may be about your awareness of your breath, or noticing if there is any tension in the body. (After you do the right side of this pose, feel free to do the other side.)
There are nine drishti points you can use while practicing yoga: tip of the nose, between the eyebrows, navel, hand, toes, far to the right, far to the left, thumbs, sky. Again, these are physical places to set your eyes, but the main idea is to look inward. It can be an effective practice to calm and still the mind when we are faced with the many external distractions. Try adding drishtis to your next yoga practice this week.
Next blog entry will focus on Ujjayi Breath.
Ever have those weeks where you are just absolutely filled to the rim? You’ve done SO much during the week that you feel like you can just burst! There’s been business meetings, taking the kids to basketball practice, PTA meetings, committee deadlines, grocery shopping, eye doctor appointment, working out at the gym. Shall I go on? The list grows and grows. It can seem endless sometimes. So, what are you doing about it? These things really can’t go to the wayside. You can’t always call out, “Calgon! Take me away!” (I just tried it, and I wasn’t whisked away to a hot bubble bath with rose petals and soft lighting.)
Well, since we cannot always escape the daily grind, at least we can take a few minutes of the day to release some of the tensions that can build up due to heavy schedules. The pose this week will feature a twisting posture: Revolving Triangle. I like the idea of twisting postures. When I teach them, I have my students imagine they are a wet sponge: full, dense, and heavy. In order to be rid of that excess water, one needs to wring out that sponge. We can do the same with our bodies.
Revolving TriangleStart in Mountain Pose. Set your intention here. Take some deep cleansing breaths to bring your body and mind to the present moment. Also, think a bit about the fullness you’ve experienced the last few days and the desire to release some (or all) of that heaviness.
Step your right foot forward on your yoga mat. See how wide you can take your feet. See if they can move relatively close to the edges of your mat. Have your right foot pointing directly forward on your mat while the back foot is more at a comfortable angle so the entire foot is planted on the mat. Make sure both legs are straight. Place your hands on your hips and be aware of the alignment of your hips.
Now, while holding onto your hips, imagine you’re holding onto a big pitcher of water that you’re ready to pour. Tip the pelvis so that the right hip drops and the left hip lifts as if you’re pouring water out of the pitcher down your right leg. Tip as far as you can go while maintaining a nice alignment in the hips. (The right leg should remain straight.) You may begin to experience a stretching sensation in your right hamstring. Allow the torso to match the angle you’ve created in the tipped pelvis. Now, extend the right hand toward the floor (it doesn’t have to touch the floor; perhaps the hand rests on the inside of your leg) and reach your left hand toward the ceiling. You are now in Extended Triangle Pose. Now we are ready to wring it out!
As you exhale, rotate your torso, maintaining an extended spine, so that your left hand is now reaching down toward the floor and your right hand extends up toward the ceiling. This is a challenging yoga pose, but very effective. (If you need a block to place your hand on, please use one.) In this pose, you’re not only experiencing the twist in the abdominal region, but also you’re gaining flexibility in your hips, legs, and spine. Hold the pose for 5-10 breaths. When you’re done, carefully unwind and return to Mountain Pose and prepare to repeat the pose on the other side.
Remember, while holding this posture, think about that wet sponge that you are now wringing out. It may take several breaths (particularly the exhales) to move into this pose deeply and to wring out the sponge completely. When you return to a neutral posture, experience the lightness in your body – having released some of the tension and heaviness your body has been holding onto. The Revolving Triangle Pose can be your own Calgon experience!
In my yoga classes this week, I have been teaching a pose that I’ve been calling “Victorious Warrior.” It’s not a real yoga pose, but it’s a posture that helps generate strength and stability in your core. I combined the posture with the concept of Ujjayi Breathing. Ujjayi means “victorious” in Sanskrit. The idea of the yoga sessions was to find and experience the victories in your life.
That can be the intention for your home yoga practice this week: to take a moment and call to mind your personal successes and victories that you’ve experienced this week. Be proud of the moments when you made great achievements. Give yourself a pat on the back for accomplishing something you’ve been working on. Celebrate!
Ujjayi BreathingStart in Mountain Pose. Be sure your feet are firmly planted on the floor with your toes pointing directly forward with your feet about hip-distant apart. This will establish a strong foundation. Stand tall with strong legs and extended spine. Feel the energy rising up through your body through the crown of your head. Just standing here can give you a sense of feeling victorious. Mountain Pose can help you feel majestic, proud, and confident.
Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Breathe slowly and deeply. Use the muscles of the throat to engage the Ujjayi Breath. With each inhale, experience how the breath rises high into the chest, expanding the lungs, chest, and opening the heart. Maintain this vibrant, intentional breath by engaging the abdominal lock (i.e. draw the belly button in toward your spine.) This will allow the breath to remain high in the chest space rather than “falling down” into the belly. This way of breathing creates that uplifting, victorious sensation in your body. Take 10-15 breaths here. Celebrate the stillness, celebrate your victories, celebrate the moment.
Victorious WarriorAs mentioned, their really is no such thing as Victorious Warrior, but a variation of Warrior II and Side Angle Pose combined that generates strength and stability in the core body.
Come to Warrior II. Start with you right foot forward. Bend that leg so it is just about 90 degrees. The back leg is straight with the foot firmly connected to the mat. Be sure your right knee is stacked directly over (or slightly behind) the right ankle. The arms are extended out to the side (with hands reaching toward the front and back of the room.) Engage your core by scooping the pelvis under so that your tailbone is pointing toward the floor. By tilting the pelvis in this manner, you create more opening and alignment in the hips, a release in the low back, and an engaged low abdominal region. Hold this posture for a few breaths with some emphasis on the exhale so you are able to hold the posture. Experience the energy and strength generated in this pose so far.
Now, keep your right hand right where it is while reaching the left hand up over your head. The upper body will shift a bit toward the front knee creating a 45 degree angle with the floor. Be careful NOT to shift the lower body too much. It’s just an upper body movement. If you shift too much energy into the front knee, you might experience a release of the core engagement. For this particular pose, you want to remain strong and connected to the core system. Keep the arms extended and even form a “V-shape” with the arms (turn your hands so your palms are facing each other.) This is what I call Victorious Warrior. The longer you hold this position, the more intense it may feel. Here, be reminded of your inner strength that it took to meet your goals, to be successful, to be victorious. If you can, hold for 5-10 breaths. Return to Warrior II, then do the other side.
By practicing these two yoga poses, we can be reminded that it can take great effort to achieve our goals. And once the goals have been met, you have every reason to celebrate.
In the last yoga blog entry, I introduced to you Downward Facing Dog. It is a great pose that allows you to experience your fullest potential and power. You are able to experience physical power as well as emotional and mental power from practicing this pose.
This week, let’s step it up a bit. We are going to take Downward Facing Dog to a new level to really test your power and strength physically, emotionally, and mentally. The pose this week is called “Turbo Dog.” It is a term and pose borrowed from Forrest Yoga.
“Ana Forrest has been changing people’s lives for nearly 40 years. An internationally recognized pioneer in yoga and emotional healing, Ana created Forrest Yoga while working through her own healing from her life’s trauma and experience. With thousands of licensed practitioners around the world, Forrest Yoga is renowned as an intensely physical, internally focused practice that emphasizes how to carry a transformative experience off the mat and into daily life.” (Taken from http://forrestyoga.com/about.)
The pose really embodies what Forrest Yoga is all about. We have the power and strength within us to sustain what life hands us. When life is demanding, we must remember that we DO have the resources within us to make it through the toughest moments.
Start on your hands and knees on your yoga mat. Set your intention here. Perhaps think of situations that are more challenging than your typical situations. In these moments, we are often needing relief or strength to get us through. The circumstance can sometimes feel so overwhelming that it feels like it will never end. Can you possibly endure this? YES you can. You DO have the strength and power to survive even the most challenging of life’s moments.
Move your hands forward a bit on your mat, come up onto your toes, then move your hips up and back toward the wall behind you until you have come to Downward Facing Dog. We already know that this posture helps us to tap into our entire power and strength. Now, let’s take it further.
Begin to bend your elbows as if you’re going to place them on the floor. But don’t place them on the mat! Bend them enough so you are just hovering over your mat. To bring more stability to the pose, imagine you are holding onto a block between your elbows that you cannot drop. Or even imagine you’re holding onto a beach ball between your arms. This moving in toward your center creates great strength and stability in the posture. Whenever we move toward the midline – the spine – we experience greater control, self-assurance, confidence, balance, and strength.
Be sure that your breath is also strong and allow it to help you maintain the posture. Focus on the exhale: as you release the breath, engage your Abdominal Lock (Uddiyana Bandha – oo-dee-YAH-nah BAHN-dahuddiyana = upward (ud = “up, upwards”) bandha = binding, tying a bond, fetter; putting together, uniting, contracting, combining; mundane bondage, attachment to this world.) This connection further taps you into your inner resources needed to hold in stillness in this pose. As you are able, hold the pose for 5-10 breaths. Finish by lightly resting your elbows on the floor then come to Child’s Pose.
Coming to this resting posture is a reminder, also, of the necessary rest after something very strenuous. It is the time to take care of yourself after enduring strain and stress on the body. Yes, you have the strength to endure, but you also have the strength to nurture. That is the balance we all want to achieve.
Downward Facing Dog is a very popular yoga pose. It is seen and performed while flowing through the Sun Salutations. It is a great pose because it physically stimulates the entire body. I would add that it provides strength to the entire body.
The posture, as said, is typically done while moving through a yoga sequence, but the pose itself can be done as an entire practice.
So what intention can we bring to this pose? Since “Down Dog” works and brings power to the entire body, how about set your intention as experiencing the fullness of your own power and strength.
Sometimes when we workout at the gym, for example, we work specific parts of the body: the arms, the legs, the chest, etc. How about doing ONE pose that works EVERY part of your body. Step into this pose acknowledging ALL of your power and strength. Remind yourself that this energetic power flows through your entire body. It doesn’t necessarily have to settle in one place. Why not be strong in your entirety. As you come to Downward Facing Dog, remember that energy.
Because it is an inversion pose (your hands are on the floor and your head is pointing down toward the floor) we build strength in the hands, arms, shoulders, and back. You build core strength, flexibility in your legs, feet, and toes.
Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)Start on your hands and knees. Here, set your intention of finding and feeling the fullness of your entire strength. Move the hands forward a bit on your mat. Be sure to make a full and strong connection to the mat with your hands. Spread out your fingers, grip the mat with your fingertips, and press more toward your inner palms so that not too much pressure moves to the outer wrists (potentially causing harm.)
Come up on your toes, and while keeping the knees bent, lift your hips up and back toward the wall behind you. As you make this transition, you will be lengthening through your spine (one of the physical intentions of this pose.) Feel free to keep the knees slightly bent. That will allow you to have mobility in your hips and push them farther back toward the wall behind you further extending your spine. At the same time, press your hands into the floor as if you’re trying to push the floor away from you. This will provide more length as well as bring opening to the shoulders and chest.
While in the pose, feel the inner arms move toward one another. This draws your strength and stability inward. If you start to feel you elbows bend and move AWAY from you, or even feel yourself roll to your outer wrists, you may experience a loss of that powerful connection. I often say in class “hug in toward your midline.” Your spine is the middle of your body – your midline. If you continue to move energy toward this midline, you develop and maintain your strength.As mentioned, it is ok to keep you knees slightly bent, but you can also begin to press your heels down toward the floor. You may experience a nice stretch and lengthening feeling in your calves. Yes, the legs can be absolutely straight in this pose, but just be careful that lengthening the legs does not compromise the extended spine you’ve created in the pose.
Hold the pose for at least 10 breaths. Feel your power. Feel your strength. Yes! It takes EFFORT to hold this pose. But as you stay in sensation – stay in the pose – you DO BUILD POWER!
Once you are done, slowly return your knees to the floor and sit back into Child’s Pose. Here, reflect on the fullness of your Self – the Fullness of your Being.
Next time, we’ll focus on a variation of Downward Facing Dog: “Turbo Dog.”
Do you by chance have a Manduka Yoga Mat? Did you know that Manduka means Frog? And there’s even a yoga posture called Manukasana! This will be the focus of my blog entry this week.
So why Frog Posture? Well, in my classes this past week, we’ve been working on hip openers and lengthening tight hamstrings. Lots of my students complain about being inflexible particularly in their hips and hamstrings. Mandukasana is a great pose to work the inner thighs and it really opens up the hips. It’s intense, but quite effective if you are wanting to create a deeper release in this part of the body. It is a great compliment to other hip openers like Warrior II, Side Angle Pose, and Bound Angle Pose (Cobbler’s Pose). Try Frog Posture to bring depth to your practice.
Here’s an intention that you might want to explore while performing this pose. As mentioned, this is a deep and intense posture. If you’re wanting to advance in your own yoga practice or even in your everyday life, this is the type of pose to practice. If you’re feeling complacent or even a bit stagnant in your life journey, again, this pose can be a wonderful way to take that next step. It’s a way to see that you DO have the strength, tenacity, and ability to move forward to reach your personal goals.
Mandukasana (Frog Posture)
Start by coming to your hands and knees on your (Manduka) mat. Here is where you might want to set your personal intention. Because this is an intense pose (and adds great sensation to the knees and inner thighs) you may want to turn sideways on your mat and fold in the ends toward the center so that you have extra padding for your knees.
From here, begin to slowly walk your knees away from your center. Allow your ankles to follow directly behind your knees. You will keep moving the knees and ankles outward until you begin to experience the deep stretch in the inner thighs. Also, your knees will be in directly alignment with your hips. Be sure that your hips are not too far forward, past your knees or too far back, behind the knees. Your bent legs (that will now resemble frogs’ legs) will maintain a right angle throughout the posture. (Refer to the picture.)
Your pelvis may not touch the floor, nor does it have to. You will feel the intensity of the posture even before getting close to the ground! Move to a place where you feel the depth of your pose. Hold here and breathe. Take mindful intentional breaths. Allow the breath to guide you deeper into the posture if you desire or to simple hold you in the pose. There is no need to push or force yourself into the pose for risk of injury. As you hold the posture and experience the sensation, just remind yourself that you are safe, secure, strong, solid, and able to be here in this new place. It can be difficult at times when we are off the mat to step into the things that might seem challenging or scary. Remember your resources: You ARE strong. You ARE tenacious. You ARE able to pursue AND achieve the goals you desire.
Hold Frog Posture for at least 15 breaths. Stay in the intensity. When you are ready to move out of the posture, move slowly. Start by bringing your feet together behind you. Push your hands into the floor to help relieve the pressure in your inner thighs. Slowly walk your knees back together. Sit back on your heels (Hero Pose), sit up tall, and take a few more breaths as the body continues to find relief from this intense inner thigh stretch. Not only will you gain more flexibility in your inner thighs with this pose, but you’ll find that you can withstand new challenges that come your way.
I had a pretty full schedule this week. Many classes, meetings, and other obligations seemed to occupy my time most days, But, you know what? I have no complaints because everything ran smoothly. I never felt overwhelmed or exhausted. Things just seemed to get done with an evenness and a sense of calm. It made for a very productive week. Definitely a positive in my book. So, how did I do it?
I thought of my busy week like a full and challenging yoga class sequence. The body is in constant motion, but every pose was achieved with the support and flow of the breath. Breath is the key to make the yoga poses strong, stable, and endured throughout the entire practice, no matter how difficult the sequencing may be. I then can take that achievement off the yoga mat and apply to my real life. Weekly schedules can be demanding and overwhelming at times, but if you pace yourself – perhaps with the support of the breath – things just seem to move more fluidly. Try it.
Take the Sun Salutation to practice fluid movement. With it, you can find your steady, even flow. Below is the complete A Series of the Sun Salutation. But try going through it like you would a busy day: appointment after appointment; more things tagged onto the tail-end of an already busy day.
Do one pose. Hold it for 5-10 breaths. Repeat the entire sequence from the beginning, flowing from pose to pose, until you come to the new pose that you would hold for 5-10 breaths. Then start over again from the beginning and just keep adding on the new posture. Allow the breath to be your support as you fluidly flow through your practice.
Extended Mountain Pose
Swan Dive to Forward Fold
Spinal Extension or Monkey Pose
Jump or step back to Plank Pose
Chaturanga Dandasana (Four Limbed Staff Pose)
Upward Facing Dog
Downward Facing Dog
Jump or step back up to Forward Fold
Chair Pose or Powerful Pose
Extended Mountain Pose
The yoga practice is just that….a practice. It allows us to practice what we do in our everyday lives. If you need to “practice” having a smooth, productive day, do yoga. If you need to “practice” moving more slowly and being more patient, do yoga.
Give us your feedback after you’ve tried this and the other yoga practices from this blog.
Written by John Cottrell. Follow him on Twitter
Well, we’ve made it through another year. Can’t believe how quickly the time went. Soon, we will be stepping into a whole new year. As you well know, people at this time of year make New Year’s Resolutions. Have you made one? I’d like to suggest a few things to you if you’re still thinking about a resolution for 2012.
If you’re the kind of person that likes to make New Year’s Resolutions, try this one. If you have made the choice to continue living a healthy life (mind, body, and spirit) be sure to look at the things in your life right now that allow you to continue along that path without too many obstacles. One thing that I did a long time ago, which made a big difference in my life and my life journey, was stopping taking the newspaper and watching the evening news.
It was probably back in 1994 or ’95. It was when the O.J. Simpson trial was being televised. I remember that it was all over the news, people were so drawn into the experience, and it was all people talked about. I remember thinking, “I don’t even KNOW O.J. Simpson. Why would I want to know about his business? I don’t KNOW if he killed his wife or not. Should this even matter to me?” It was then that I decided to not follow the trial on television. I found that it had no positive impact in my life. Further, I decided to stop watching most news programs and stopped taking the newspaper. I’ll tell ya, after taking that step, I noticed that I was more positive in my outlook on life. The news can be so depressing and negative at times. It really served no significant purpose in my life.
So, as a New Year’s Resolution, why not try watching LESS news and watch more programs that are motivating, inspiring, and life changing.
Here’s the other option. If you’re the kind of person that doesn’t like to make resolutions, perhaps try this instead. Sit down and think of something that you did THIS year. For example, donated to charity, helped out at your kids’ school, or bought lunch for a friend. As a resolution for 2012, perform that same gesture again. Simple.
Overall, make it an inspiring year. Try new things along with some of the old things. Just continue to live the life you WANT to live. Move positively forward on your life path.
Read more of John Cottrell’s past blog entries at http://YogaWithIntention.blogspot.com