Relaxation Revolution!

Nucleosome structure.

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Revolution is a powerful word, and well applied to Dr. Herbert Benson‘s work.  As a Harvard Medical Center researcher, it is indeed a revolution for him to mention yoga as frequently as he does in his advancement on the Relaxation Response, published more than 3 decades ago. You can watch him in a bookstore talk here, or listen to a wonderful interview by Diane Rehm here. Newest science is overturning the notion that genes are destiny. We powerfully affect gene expression with practices such as yoga, meditation and chi gong.

You’ve heard of the fight or flight response of your sympathetic nervous system, and probably know that stress increases cortisol levels and has detrimental effects on your whole body. Dr. Benson is championing the opposite system indigenous to us all, the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the relaxation response.

Yoga can be described as one big compendium of methods for invoking the relaxation response. What Dr. Benson stresses and what has been too little stressed in our popular understanding of yoga and ourselves, is this fact: relaxation does not equal passivity. Relaxation does not mean passivity. True, if you relax and you are uber-sleep deprived, you’ll fall asleep, because that’s what your body needs most. Relaxation is an alert and effortless, open expansion of the mind, allowing you to respond in the moment to what is actually arising.

In a state of true relaxation, you respond to the nature of the moment, to what is true in that place and time. If your body-mind is so fatigued that what you actually need is rest, then that response will occur. Similarly, if what arises is profound and deep emotion that you’ve been avoiding with busyness, that is what will arise. Allowing these intense needs to surface and be addressed rapidly brings about a state of equilibrium. Once relaxation has systematically surfaced remnants of stress, injury and pain, you will encounter a  clear field, and enter a state more usually associated with relaxation.

For most people this response is nearly immediate, because as much as most of us like to play the stress-monkey,we really crave the alert, openness of true relaxation. Dr. Benson’s work is emphasizing how simple and close the experience can be. It’s truly one yoga practice away. What are you waiting for? Your practice is as close as your breath.

Allowing and Creativity

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Image by laurakgibbs via Flickr

Oy, the chatter! No, not out there…. in here. Where is this “in” anyway, I wonder….. off into more chatter. Oy!

I write to you dripping, seized by a revelation just after sinking into a tub of luscious bubbles, my Tricycle magazine and 40oz bottle of water at the ready. Sinking into the bath I’d put off for the whole day, flagellating myself for not being more active, for “just hanging around” – which was really a lot of mindless chores I hadn’t gotten to earlier in the week. Recriminations for not taking the dogs to the foothills, for not calling friends, for not having completed 108 Sun Salutations yet, had each hopped on its own little tricked out racing bike, and they were outdoing one another lap after lap around my brain.

So finally, I let myself sink into the bath – even though I hadn’t earned it with sweat or brilliance or whatever else is supposed to earn one some letting go time.

And I felt a deep, subtle, infinitely delicious “click” deep at my core. “Click.” This is all I had wanted since I rose this morning with grandiose notions of busyness, bustle and accomplishment. All I’d wanted was a bath. As soon as I “indulged” myself, the heavy steel door trapping all of my creative energy and verve became a cloud, as light, transparent and inconsequential as a breeze.

What if all my life, all your life, all our lives were “indulgences?” Perhaps we’d “indulge” ourselves in meaningful work, dazzling play and creative connections. What if “indulgences” aren’t indulgences, but rather calls from our true selves to our busy selves? What if the thing our busy self most fears, that we won’t amount to much, is the thing it’s threatening to create? What if we take our busy self to the bath or the beach more often, and become the self we’ve been dying to be?

Restorative Yoga: 4 Principles

Yoga postures Paschimottanasana

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I gave up teaching Restorative Yoga about a year and a half ago. I decided that it just wasn’t my niche; it isn’t what my mind does.  “I’m just too Type A to do that,” is what I told myself. “Let all the fluttery butterfly teachers do that.”

And so, I began receiving intermittent but persistent requests for Restorative Yoga classes. “No, I know where my strength is and that isn’t it, but I’d be happy to give you the name…” I’d reply. Flattered, but decided.

Requests kept coming. I dug my heels in. “Hmmmm….” Self said, “this is beginning to feel like a pattern. Self,” self said, “time to break down some boundaries.”

You see, “Type A,” “what I’m good at,” “my niche” are all labels. All boxes, categories for the ego to grasp. True, when you’re overwhelmed, it’s good to make discerning choices. However, once the basis for those choices is reified, or turned into an inert object, you’ve just created a wall, not a boundary. And so I had done.

And so I practiced. Practiced – gulp! – Restorative Yoga. Not much or often at first, but persistently and over time. Oh, the chatter of the mind! I won’t dignify the script by recording it here, but I don’t have to, do I? You have your own, and the content, while revealing, is less the point than the resistance. And what we resist, persists. Every time.

I could better corral my mind in an upright seated posture, or even walking meditation. But this idea of supported, effortless, breathing being, well, let me tell you, Buster, that never got an hombre anywhere! Yeah, my inner commandant talks like that.

So let me tell you where it got me: right here. And here. And Now. And…. you get the idea. The notion of presence I profess to seek, was, as I also profess to believe, right here all along. Now, I’m not giving up my sweaty practice, or my sitting. But I have added a regular practice of letting go, based on these four seemingly obvious principles:

  1. Allow. Release all muscular effort. One important difference between my morning and my new evening practice is that in the morning I’m engaging my muscles. We say hello, check in, find out how this new day feels in our bones. At night, the practice is to let all that go. I’d call it passive, except that it’s anything but! The application of focused attention to find where I’m holding is the same as the process of releasing it.
  2. Support. In order to release effort more completely, the body must be supported at a productive edge. The edge for restorative practice is very different than the edge in an active asana class. The edge is the place where the shape begins to create muscular tension. Supporting the torso and limbs there, at that very place of opening, creates a supportive feeling throughout the entire being – body and psyche.
  3. Breathe. Breath is especially important in the early moments while the mind is still running like a velo. Once the opening is found through which the chatter can escape its cycling, mind creates less tension. However, sometimes it takes an entire practice to find this. Until then, the breath is your ally. Return to watching the breath. We’re not creating or elongating or anything; only watching. Now, as it watches, mind will commence to commentary: “Isn’t that interesting? I was sure I was breathing from my diaphragm! Jeez, I wonder when I’ll ever rid myself of that pattern?….” Just return to watching the breath. Stay with the moment, not the facsimile of the moment created by the commentary.
  4. Which brings us to Being. This last is more the meal, while the earlier 3 principles are the recipe. You start with support, mix in a heap of allow, and a generous dollop of breathe, and if the temperature and time and stars align, you’ll pull some being out of the oven. It doesn’t matter if the recipe turns out, though, because the sustenance of the meal is there all along. The recipe is just our method of cleaning of the oven.

Morning Practice

well stone after spectacular late summer monsoon….

prepared ground….

….. feet on mat….

hummingbirds…

stone cairns….

grandfather stones…

mother stone….

Hub & Spoke Meditation Link

Upaya Zen Center

This powerful meditation demonstrates and cultivates your second order reflexive awareness, or awareness of awareness. Dr. Dan Siegel leads us to pay attention to the “rim” of awareness by following spokes of sensation, thinking, feeling and connection to others, each in turn. Finally, you “turn the spokes back on the hub” and rest in your meditative center, the hub of consciousness.

The link above will take you to a recording of a talk containing a guided meditation (about 12-13 minutes in) given by Dr. Siegel at Upaya Zen Center just last month. You can listen to the whole series of 9 talks based on his new book MindSight, or simply enjoy this simple guided meditation. Here are some quotes from Dr. Siegel about the power of attention.

“The close paying of attention turns on parts of the brain that make synaptic change happen.”

“Mind is the embodied, relational regulatory process of the flow of energy and information.”

“We know from research that the way you develop your awareness changes the health of your body… changes your relational health… and cultivates mental health.”

“How we focus our attention shapes the structure of the brain.”

“Well-being emerges when we create connections our lives.”

In praise of Sun Salutations

It took me about 3 years to finally feel comfortable doing Sun Salutations.  I would squint and puzzle and squish my face through the series a few times and then plop back into the hot springs. I’d struggle with synchronizing my breath and figuring out whether I should breathe in or out as I stepped back and how long I should stay in Downward Facing Dog.

Then it “clicked” for me one morning, and it became my new addiction. What a remarkable feeling, bending forward and backward, upside down and right side up.

Then I learned the drshti for each pose, and how to jump back, and then I found the bandhas through the glorious repetition and flow. When I learned that there were mantram for each of the “stations” in the cycle, I was over the moon! There’s no part of my mind or body that this wonderful series doesn’t wring and wash out, and leave better than before.

Whether you put a plank before or after your dog, throw your warrior in for “B” versus “A”, go slow or fast, the beauty of the series is that once engaged, the flow will teach you where and how to go, will lead your breath in the right direction and your mind into peaceful water. The series can be fast or slow, exercise or meditation – or both, few or many, sinewy or rigorous – infinitely modifiable, portable and indescribably subtle.

My favorite place for Sun salutations is on a particular mesa overlooking the hoodoos outside Chaco Canyon, with my YogaPaws on and no one else in sight – and out there you can see a long, long way.  That’s just about tied with the plateau above Angel Peak  behind the Orwellian sounding “Land Farm”  – another story.

The YogaPaws turn a good core workout into an amazing experience of solid, centered energy and reveal how much work the yoga mat regularly does in yoga poses. It’s a revelation.

So now you know where I’m off to for the next for week or so. There’s another post queued up, and it’s a good one – a link to my new favorite meditation. I’ve gotta go get me some Sun Salutations right now – then you’ll find me somewhere lost among the hoodoos. No phone, no computer, no talking. Just walking, yoga and land. Ahhhhhh.

Finding Core: Body, Mind & Soul

Where is your “core”? You’ve heard the commonplace that “it’s not your abs,” which is true, but doesn’t tell us where to look. The name itself, though, is instructive, and with breath and attention we can find our “core” experientially. While practicing 3 part yogic breath (dirgha), move between the poles of abundance on the in breath, and stillness on the out breath. After becoming established in this rhythm, notice and accentuate all your muscles hugging toward center as you gently press your breath out. Feel the pattern and rhythm, and pay direct attention from the floor, all the way up to the roof of your mouth, 360 degrees. As your body expands and contracts, you’ll begin to feel the center around which your body is moving.

Did you know, that your core is closer to your back than your belly button? That’s why one of the instructions in moving from the core is often to bring your navel back towards the spine.

Did you know, that your core traverses the upper and lower bodies? One of the most used stabilizing muscle sets, the illiopsoas, connects the upper and lower body, attaching about a third of the way down the inner thigh, zigging and zagging up from there to the inside of the pelvic bowl, and back to its midline origin, fanning out along the low spine on either side.

Did you know, that your core can be drawn away from midline by injury and habitual holding patterns? In yoga, we call these “samskara” and they are precisely what we are unearthing in yoga asana by moving in ways unusual to everyday life, with attention and breath. When you practice the breathing above and find your core feels off-center, you already have the tools to use your muscular awareness to bring it back to center. This weakens the grooves of habits and realigns you to increase your focus, energy and awareness in everything you do!

The “abdominals” – rectus (middle front), transverse (lower belly, the one we use in kapalabhati), and obliques (sides) – are part of the core, and when given awareness through breathing, a great way into your true, literal center!

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