Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Back to Basics - Ujjayi Breath

The Ashtanga practice uses what is known as the Ujjayi breath or "Breath of Victory" during the course of the practice. I have found this also incorporates well into a Vinyasa Flow class, as well as aspects of a Hatha session. New students are always a bit perplexed by this "noisy" breath - I know I was. In my very first yoga class, I was bemused why the instructor was breathing so loud. I was doubly bemused when she kept doing it in subsequent classes. Finally, I said something to my acquaintance about how I was loving the class but didn't know why the instructor kept breathing so loud. She laughed and explained to me that the instructor was using the Ujjayi breath.

Recalling my experience, I now try to make a point of "bringing back the basics" every so often so newer folks aren't perplexed like I was. From Yoga Journal I found this short article:

Ujjayi Breath
Yoga Journal.com
by: By Aadil Palkhivala

The Ujjayi breath is the breath of victory. In this type of pranayama, the lungs are fully expanded and the chest is puffed out like that of a victorious conqueror.

The sound of Ujjayi pranayama serves two purposes: One, it stimulates the nadis, or energy channels, in the sinuses and at the back of the throat, which, in turn, promotes mental clarity and focus. And two, it provides a sound to latch onto, so that the mind can become more still. When the sound oscillates, the mind too is oscillating, and the student can hear this.

During the inhalation, I teach students to imagine a hole in their throat that they are breathing through, thereby creating the sibilant sound of pranayama. The inhalation should rub against the back of the nasal cavity and throat. During the exhalations, I ask my students to imagine that they are saying "ha" without the "a," and to feel the breath rubbing against the frontal sinuses as it leaves the body. Both inhalation and exhalation must be done with the mouth closed, through the nostrils only.

In my classes, since we live by Lake Superior, I compare the breath to the sound of the waves gently crashing on shore - smooth, rhythmic, calming. I also cite the sound of the wind moving through pine trees.

The loudness of the breath is debatable - I've had instructors encourage a loud breath and other's who've said it should be soft. A louder breath tells the instructor that the student is breathing and not holding their breath or perhaps is working too hard and straining. A softer breath focus's the attention of the practitioner more as they have to closer attention to hear it. Either way is appropriate, the important thing is to continue to bring awareness to the breath and keep the breath smooth and flowing.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Suyra Namaskar with Intent

This was supposed to be my post last week, but I had limited access to a computer and less time to write. But I have a quiet moment right now so I can finish. My inspiration came from a class I was finally able to attend - I used to be a regular, then my schedule changed (actually the Husband was sent to Iraq for two years) and then they made the class registration only. I wasn’t able to commit to such a regimented schedule at the time. But, at long last, I made it to the session. I am always so inspired by the instructor, Joe. He is such a wealth of information and knowledge. This past Friday mornings topic fits well with my “Back to the Basics” theme.

Surya Namaskara - Salute to the Sun. More than just an asana.

Have you ever wondered about why this sequence - be it Hatha, Iyengar, Ashtanga or other variation - is called Salute to the Sun? Why is it typically done at the beginning of a class and not the end?

Surya Namaskar is a prayer to the light within us and outside of us. It is a way to honor that light which represents the Divinity in whatever aspect is right for you. By doing it at the beginning of class, we bring an intent to our mat, a focus to our session as we start to move into the practice.

Look at the sequence - we inhale in as we raise our arms over head, then exhale in humility as we either forward fold or move through plank pose. Again, we inhale toward the sun in exultation in our Urdhva, then exhale once again toward the ground in Ardho Mukha Savasana, in humility, then we reverse, always inhaling toward the sun, and exhaling in honor of that light.

It is said that doing Surya Namaskar with out intent just make this a gross physical practice.

I don’t know if I agree with the statement that doing Surya without intent makes it like any other physical practice. I attended a workshop a year ago where the instructor handed out sheets with a chant to Vishu. Over the course of the weekend we would chant the five lines at various moments. On the third afternoon, he had us go around the room one by one and chant this on our own. The first 7 people got to use their sheet, the last 25 had to turn their paper over. He reasoning was that no matter how badly we bungled it (and it was badly bungled) we were still tuning into everyone else who chanted it as well.

I guess that’s how I feel, that the movement speaks for itself. I know the connection with the light/Divinity/myself is greater when there is intent, gratitude and honor, but just like attempting the chant, I’m still connecting with the greater whole. It was a good reminder on Friday morning, as the sun was just starting to rise over Lake Superior and brighten the room, to be reminded to bring intent to my practice.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Back to the Basics

(Root Chakra)

I love the start of Fall because it brings the beginning of a new session of classes and I love the enthusiasm and energy a new session brings. There are my regular students, glad to be back after a two week break or longer if they’ve been out for the summer connecting with family. There are the new students, a bit anxious about a new teacher and new sequence, and still excited to be there.

I also love the opportunity with a mixed class to return to the basics. As a year progresses and we get caught up in “doing the next thing” or working toward the next level, we tend to lose site of where we came from. I think it is very important to come back to those foundations to review what it is to build the pose from the bottom up.

Sounds tedious, I know, but I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have a strong, stable and grounded base. If your foundation is solid, your pose will be energetic and engaged and you can focus on working on the subtle energies and alignment rather than teetering around trying to find your outer balance. A strong pose also means less injury.

But what are the basics in an ashtanga or vinyasa practice? Many things. For now, I’m looking at these:

Ujjaiyi breath - breath should be smooth and full. If you are gasping for breath you are perhaps working too hard, if you cannot hear your breath you are perhaps not working hard enough. Try and keep the inhales and exhales equal.

Bandhas - I have been re-thinking the bandha’s since the workshop with Matthew Sweeney. So many types of yoga focus in on “lifting” the bandha’s and “engaging” the bandha’s when perhaps it is not appropriate to do so, especially in such a vigorous practice as a vinyasa flow or ashtanga. So, in coming back to the basics, I have been focusing in on lesser uddiyana bandha - the gentle contraction of the lower abdomen to protect the lower back as we move in and out of the forward folds.

Drishti - where are your eyes during the posture? Find a place to focus the eyes in each and every pose. This means don’t worry about your toes during your forward folds, eyes are looking outward, awareness is inward.

Postures - start each and every pose from the floor up. Build from the hands, feet, and sit bones and work outward from there.

So take this time as the class begins to reassess your postures, your foundations. As one of my favorite instructors likes to say, "Come to class with a beginners mind." and see where it takes you!


Friday, September 5, 2008

Lessons from Kanga and Roo

Out of curiosity I was watching the RNC last night for a little bit after the Washington-NY football game had just finished. The convention is being held Mpls-St.Paul where I lived for 25 years before making my way north, and I wanted to see what kind of speaker McCain is. The husband had watched Sarah Palin the night before for the same reason. We watched for fifteen or twenty minutes then called it a night.

So why am I bringing up the 2008 Presidential Campaign on a yoga blog? Well, as Kanga said to little Roo, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I think we all learned this in kindergarten. I couldn’t help but think back on the blog I posted on Satya (truthfulness).

I had stated, "Buddhism, for example, has Right Speech, meaning ones actions should be absent of false-hoods, harsh words and useless chatter. Non-violence and truthfulness go hand in hand. Can you be truthful without harming in speech and action? Can you observe without being judgmental? Useless chatter - gossip perhaps? While the target of idle talk may never hear, it is still harmful to be speaking about another in a negative manner."

So why is it okay for our potential political leaders at all levels - from city, county, state all the way up to national levels, to be verbally bashing their opponents? I feel so bombarded and mired down in half-truths, untruths and negativity that I just want to move to Canada! An argument could be made that this is what makes the United States political process so great - the freedom to say what you want. Free speech at its finest.

I had also tuned into MPR, which is very enthusiastically covering the DNC and RNC, but the bit I came upon was the author of the Politifact website talking to the MPR host about the ‘truths and falsehoods’ in the speeches. Now this was fascinating! There is a website where someone is checking the facts behind the bold statements in all the speeches. There is a little meter that shows how true or false something is and an explanation why.

But all cool websites aside, what I would really love to see, is a campaign - any campaign! - where not once do the opposing candidates say a bad thing about the other person. To focus solely on what they have done or intend to do. Now wouldn’t that be inspiring? As practitioners of yoga, we strive to speak and behave with truthfulness and non-violence. Practitioners of Buddhism work toward Right Speech, which should be absent of falsehoods, harsh words and useless chatter. We try and teach our children to “play nice”. We frown upon bullying of any kind. So why is it okay in a political arena? I don’t think gentle and wise Kanga would approve.

Grounding Through the Sitbones has a somewhat related and very interesting post this week.