Bhastrika

Here along the Rio Grande, we reckon Fall from the first Golden Cottonwoods. The leaves turn and fall as a result of days shortening. The decreasing light means that soon there won’t be enough light for the leaves to perform photosynthesis, so the food factories shut down, revealing the foliage along a riverunderlying chemical processes as colors.

Our bodies respond similarly to the shortening days and cooling nights, and you may feel as if your own factory has gone off-line. Yoga can help you respond with a combination of gentleness and warmth, gentleness to give ourselves the rest and reflection called for by the season, and warmth to keep your energy, circulation and mood up.

Fall is a great time to introduce strong standing poses, hip openers – best to clean out the basement before you hang out with the relatives for the holidays – and warming breaths. Two pranayam for warmth and energy are kalabhati and Bhastrika.  Bhastrika is accomplished by generating forceful inhalations as well as exhalations, using all the muscles of respiration, intercostals as well as abdominals. I’ve seen Bhastrika described as a combination of kalabhati and ujayii breathing, but I think this leaves out an important distinction. While both kinds of pranayam call for forceful exhalation, in bhastrika the inhalation is just as energetic and so the inhale and exhale are equal in length. Contrast this to kalabhati – or skull shining breath – during which the inhale is passive and so much shorter between rapid, energetic bursts of exhalation through the nose.

While kalabhati is generated primarily from the transverse abdominus – the low belly, between the pelvic crests – relaxing and contracting, thus changing abdominal pressure and so diaphragm position, Bhastrika is generated from expanding and contracting the entire torso, directly recruiting the muscles of the rib cage, as well as the upper abdominals.

Use care always and consider beginning any pranayam with a qualified teacher. Do not undertake these breathing practices if you are pregnant or have high blood pressure or glaucoma.

Bhastrika is warming and awakening, fantastic for first thing in the morning, or if you’re feeling extra drowsy for meditation or that meeting they always schedule after lunch. Because of the exertional nature, you’ll be working your core in 360 degrees. For this same reason, go slow. Start with a breath every 2 seconds, 10 breaths, increasing speed and duration as it becomes old hat. Bhastrika is controlled hyperventilation, so stay attuned to your experience and take a break if you’re feeling dizzy or anxious. hyperventilation is only deleterious when you don’t expel enough carbon dioxide on the exhale – as when people spontaneously hyperventilate from anxiety and their hands, feet and mouth tingle because of trapped CO2. However, since you’re attending to your exhalation, cultivating length and smoothness, you won’t face this phenomenon. If you feel anxious from the increased oxygen or workload, take a break. If you feel the tingling, slow down and make your inhalation and exhalation the same length.

Bhastrika helps to clear phlegm, works against inflammation, stokes your digestive fire, and keeps the body lubricated, making it an ideal Pranayam for your Fall yoga practice. Let me know how it works for you!

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Adjust Yourself

The steering wheel of World War II Chevrolet f...

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I learn something new about yoga every single day. Lessons and teachers are everywhere, and the challenge of maintaining equanimity is ever present. Right now, my husband and I are in Mountain View, California and he’s interviewing for a new position. Now, we live in Albuquerque – in the middle of the desert, in the largest small town you’ll ever find. So this would be big. Huge. Tremendous.

Being the planner and the mapper, the finder and the schemer this gives the monkey in my mind whole new rain forests of possibilities. Last night, after wonderful husband gave another dry run of his presentation today, I discovered he’d not packed a tie. Off I was in the rental car I’d not yet driven, in search of a blue tie in a city I’d never seen. Did I mention he declined GPS? Anywho, one of the skills my job demands is navigation, and though I’ll never win any awards, I get the job done. Another of those skills, driving, is something I’ve always found a comfort and a joy.

So the discomfort I felt upon embarking was puzzling. The car was lower to the ground with a deeper cabin than I’m used, but that wasn’t it.  I was so uncomfortable I could barely pay attention.

So, of course, I gripped the wheel a little harder, opened my eyes a little wider and thought, “Wake up Girlie-pie! Pay attention! This is no time to be wandering aimlessly!” As I pulled my back up straighter and pressed my sitting bones down, it struck me: I hadn’t adjusted the car for me to drive.  The seat was way back and not upright the way I like. The steering wheel was too low. The mirrors were reflecting sky.

After a few more intersections of nearly veering into other lanes, intense anxiety and a feeling that all was not right with the world, I finally pulled over. I found the seat adjustments, the mirrors, the wheel. When I got back on the road, it was like the world had changed. I could tell where I was going, I had control of the car, it was even fun to drive. But it wasn’t the world that had changed: it was me. My first reaction was to harshly tell myself to buck up! Sit up! Get right! But no amount of bearing down was going to change situation.

But softening, getting curious, making some minor adjustments and fine-tuning made all the difference in the world. The key was getting curious instead of furious. Not furiously mad, but furiously grasping and controlling. The difference was softening instead of gripping. I can’t wait to take this lesson into my vacation yoga class.

Grace

Landing with grace

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Grace lives somewhere between denial and dissolution.

In the land of denial, the truth tickles our imagination, possibly irritating like a feather, or a fly. But instead of becoming curious and investigating, we wriggle away from the tickle and  white-knuckle through whatever we’re doing, resisting the actual experience of the truth – usually to “get-things-done.”

We usually get to the land of denial through fear of dissolution, but years of denial can indeed lead to a large dissolving event. In dissolution, we are so incredibly overwhelmed by the truth that we melt like sugar into a puddle of goo, in the very spot upon which we were struck by the full force of the truth. In the land of dissolution, there is no “getting-things-done” and not only the list, but the very structure of our lives can lose meaning. This is scary in ways that can keep us in list-making and slaying mode.

Yoga, years of yoga, have helped me wend my way between these modern manifestations of Scylla and Charybdis.  As an athletic, all-out life-loving, really geeky and slightly loner kid, I learned early that “grace” was not a quality likely to be admired in me. I was clumsy. I was the kid with bruises on her shins from climbing trees and jumping fences. Born with an appetite for everything, and not one to shy away from challenge (think bull, red flag, and yes, china shop comes next), I did a lot of white-knuckling and brushing away of tickles for the first several decades of my life. No regrets, either. I have a lot of experiences that are hard to come by and full of the nectar of life.

That life, too, led me to many moments of dissolution, some transitory, others full-on halting stops to the hustle and activity of life. And through the churning in the passage between the extremes I’d created, I became quiet with life and easy with the quiet. And in this quiet arose a voice like that of a child asked to say grace for the family before dinner: thin and reedy at first, finding it’s channel and finally flowing quietly back into the silence.

That voice was the tickle of the truth I’d swatted away so persistently before. I learned to laugh at the insouciance of tickle, and that lightness allowed space to open around the experience.  By actually having the experience, I never had to dissolve. Rather, the experience itself dissolved into another, and often into realization, and into natural action.

Grace is the moment of presence, pure opening, creating space in the now for simply “what is.” Grace can be cultivated in meditation and on the mat by watching, feeling, diving in. Once cultivated, it has a tendency to pop up in the strangest ways. Sometimes the dawning realization of how the body is feeling, and the space to adjust “the plan” ever so slightly to accommodate. Or perhaps it’s the presence of intuition about when to stop or start, or when to speak up or just listen. Grace comes in silence and doing that is not-doing, but actively reveals the truth more eloquently than wrestling and bending to our will.

I’ve always wanted “it all” and never accepted that this was impossible, or even that hard. I just had a different notion of what was included in “all.” Grace is merely opening to the all in the moment. Grace is the union of the opposites into which we try to split our experience. It’s taken a lot of swimming in the churning pool between “balls-to-the-wall” and “puddle-on-the-floor” to find my way to flow: to finding that “all” is not something I do, not merely a gathering of juicy experiences, because all the experiences in the world are meaningless but for the space to drink them in. And that everything I ever sought is here, now, for the price of a breath and a grateful and perhaps-momentarily silent mind.