By Sandra AndersonTraveling in Tibet in the 1920s, Alexandra David-Neel encountered a lama moving alone and fast in the remote Tibetan desert. “He ran like a ball bouncing,” she wrote, levitating with each step, moving faster than her entourage on horseback, and seemingly in a trance, unaware of his surroundings. Eventually she learned that the training for this extraordinary capacity is not aerobic conditioning; it’s pranayama, the mastery of prana. Part of the training involves sitting in a small, below-ground pit, using the breath and mind to lift the body out of the pit with the power of prana.
“If you can control prana, you can completely control all the forces of the universe, mental and physical.”
So what is this mysterious prana? Prana is our vital life force. It works through the mind and in the heart, in the breath, and in digestion; in walking, running, talking, and thinking; and in projecting the personality in all ways. It’s also the sum total of all the energy manifest in the universe. Swami Sivananda, an influential yoga master of the last century, writes, “If you can control prana, you can completely control all the forces of the universe, mental and physical.” This explains the prodigious feats of memory and strength traditionally associated with yogis—things like the power to fly through the sky, levitate, and control body temperature. But perhaps more to the point for us, by controlling prana, the mind is also controlled.Just to be clear, yoga is the mastery of the mind, and for yogis, pranayama is the ticket for learning to use all the wondrous powers of the mind. The yogic texts tell us the mind is tethered to prana like a bird to a string. And here’s the really good news: by controlling the breath, we can control prana, and thus the mind. And the really, really good news? Basic pranayama practices are both powerful and accessible to all of us.Though many pranayama techniques are not that difficult physically, sustaining a practice and developing the mind can be tricky. Here are six pointers for getting started, and for improving, sustaining, and deepening your practice.
- Steadiness of body: The body must be comfortably motionless for a prolonged period of time, and yet support alertness, breath control, and mental focus. Asana practice is essential for pranayama, partly because it’s nearly impossible to maintain a balanced, still, comfortable sitting posture for any length of time without it. Just as importantly, asana activates and integrates the flow of prana, helps us develop the capacity to direct prana with bandhas (energy locks), trains the body to breathe diaphragmatically, and develops sensitivity to inner states of being. Preferred sitting postures for pranayama are sukhasana (easy pose), svastikasana (auspicious pose), and padmasana (lotus pose), but sitting on a chair is also an option.
- Diaphragmatic breathing: Just as your sitting posture is the foundation for the body in pranayama practice, diaphragmatic breathing is the foundation for the breath. This is where deliberate training of the breath begins in earnest. Don’t assume that because you have been practicing yoga for years, you are breathing diaphragmatically. Our breathing patterns are typically subconscious—controlled by persistent habits that are out of our awareness. Get started with Breath Training on the Pranayama Channel at YogaInternational.com for tutorials and tips to refine your basic breathing pattern, balance the nervous system, and reinforce a relaxed state of inner equilibrium.
- Balanced lifestyle: Avoid too much or too little food, too much or too little sleep, and too much or too little mental and physical activity. Be regular in your lifestyle habits. A fresh, nourishing diet is particularly important.
- Mental/emotional stability: Here’s my teacher, Pandit Tigunait, a masterful pranayama practitioner, on the subject of emotional balance: “To get the benefit of pranayama, you must be steady in thought, speech, and action. Without some measure of contentment in life, pranayama brings misery.”
- Regularity: In general, the benefits of yoga accrue from consistent, systematic practice for long periods of time. “If one practices pranayama continuously for a year, he is sure to attain wisdom,” writes Swami Rama, a modern master who demonstrated extraordinary control over his body’s autonomic functions. “With regulation of the breath,” he continues, “karma acquired both in this life and in the past may be burnt up.” This is a big job, and progress is necessarily incremental. After all, it took lifetimes to build your unconscious mind and habits, so naturally it will take some time to reshape them!
- Inner focus: Success in yoga depends on this. Becoming sensitive to the flow of breath, the subtlety of the breath, and finally the suspension of the breath, leads you to awareness of the force behind the breath—prana. Awareness of prana is the thread that links you to deeper states of mental awareness, independent of the physical body and the senses. This is the beginning of mastering the mind.
Finally, (and thankfully), my teachers also have this useful advice: Don’t bind yourself with too many rules. So why delay? Start now, even if your sitting posture and diet aren’t perfect and equanimity isn’t your forte. In the memorable words of Swami Sivananda, “Start the practice this very second in right earnest and become a real yogi.”About Sandra Anderson
For over 20 years Sandra Anderson has shared her extensive experience in yoga theory and practice with students from all over the world. A senior faculty member and resident at the Himalayan Institute, her teaching reflects access to the living oral tradition, and the embodied experience of 30 years of dedicated practice. With a background in the natural sciences and interest in classical Sanskrit, along with frequent pilgrimages to India, Sandy has a rare capacity to eloquently convey the richness of spiritual life in our contemporary world. She is the coauthor of the award-winning book, Yoga Mastering the Basics, and was a contributing editor and columnist for Yoga International magazine. She is now a frequent contributor to YogaInternational.com, offering instructional videos and articles. Sandy leads workshops, trainings and retreats both nationally and internationally, and at the headquarters of the Himalayan Institute.
We all know that yoga does a body (and a mind) good. But up until recently, no one could really say with any degree of certainty why—or even how—it improves conditions as varied as depression and anxiety, diabetes, chronic pain, and even epilepsy.
Now a group of researchers at Boston University School of Medicine believe they’ve discovered yoga’s secret. In an article published in the May 2012 issue of Medical Hypotheses journal under an impossibly long title, Chris Streeter, PhD, and his team hypothesize that yoga works by regulating the nervous system. And how does it do that? By increasing vagal tone—the body’s ability to successfully respond to stress.
The Study: The Effects of Yoga on the Autonomic Nervous System, Gamma-aminobutyric-acid, and Allostasis in Epilepsy, Depression, and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
What Is Vagal Tone?
Most of us don’t even know we have a vagus that needs toning, but we most certainly do. The vagus nerve, the largest cranial nerve in the body, starts at the base of the skull and wanders throughout the whole body, influencing the respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems. Often thought of as our “air traffic controller,” the vagus nerve helps to regulate all our major bodily functions. Our breath, heart rate, and digestion—as well as our ability to take in, process, and make sense of our experiences—are all directly related to the vagus nerve.
We know when the vagus nerve is toned and functioning properly because we can feel it on different levels: Our digestion improves, our heart functions optimally, and our moods stabilize. We have an easier time moving from the more active and often stressful states of being to the more relaxed ones. As we get better at doing that, we can manage life’s challenges with the right blend of energy, engagement, and ease. When we can consistently maintain this flexible state we are thought to have “high vagal tone.”
“Low vagal tone is correlated with such health conditions as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, and epilepsy.”
“Low vagal tone,” on the other hand, brings with it a sense of depletion. Our digestion becomes sluggish, our heart rate increases, and our moods become more unpredictable and difficult to manage. Not surprisingly, low vagal tone is correlated with such health conditions as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, and epilepsy—not coincidentally, the same conditions that show significant improvement with yoga practice. Researchers hypothesize that it is vagal stimulation through yoga that improves these conditions.
To test their theory, the researchers investigated practices they believed would increase vagal tone. For example, they found that resistance breathing, such as ujjayi pranayama, increases the relaxation response, as well as heart rate variability (another marker of resilience). And a pilot study conducted on more experienced yogis showed that chanting Om out loud increased vagal tone and the relaxation response more than chanting it silently to oneself. Studies such as this one begin to reveal how different yogic practices impact human physiology in different ways.
ABOUT Angela Wilson Angela Wilson, MA, manager of evidence-based curriculum for the Institute for Extraordinary Living at Kripalu, holds a master’s degree in mental health counseling from Lesley University, is a 200-hour Kripalu Yoga teacher, and has completed 250 hours of ayurvedic training.
Tight hips are one of the most common conditions in the Western Culture. This is due in large part to the fact that we sit in chairs for long periods of time, and because we generally do not sit in hip opening positions like a squat very often, if ever.
Tight hips can lead to a whole host of issues like lower back pain, misalignments in the spine, and can even lead to injury. The hip joints are actually very unique joints, known as ball and socket joints. This allows for a much greater range of motion than say the elbow joint or the knee joint.
That is why you need to open the front, back and sides of your hips to really get a good stretch. Here are my five favorite hip opening postures. I recommend that you warm up a little, and then hold each stretch for 30 seconds to a minute.
1. Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
Low lunge is one of the best postures you can do to open the front of your hips. This posture effectively reverses the normal position of the hips when you are sitting in a chair, which is exactly what most of us need, especially if you work in an office environment.
Begin in a normal lunge position, and then slowly lower your back knee to the ground. From here, you can push your hips forward to the degree that feels good for you.
Breathe and hang out, then practice on the other side.
2. Half King Pigeon (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana)
I can understand if you have a love/hate relationship with this posture. It can be very intense, and it can actually be dangerous for the knee if you do not have great alignment.
The best advice I can offer for this one is to start in Downward Facing Dog, and step one leg through to a lunge. Then, draw the front foot to the opposite long side of your mat, and place the outside of the foot on the mat, slowly lowering the rest of the leg down with your knee bent.
Then bring your heel in close to your opposite hip joint. Make sure to keep tension in the front foot, as this will protect your knee. Play around with moving your shin farther from your hips, but just be sure you are always keeping your foot tense.
3. Frog Pose (Bhekasana)
This is a great posture to help open up the inner groin/hip region. My favorite way to enter this posture is to start on hands and knees. Then slowly draw your knees away from one another, keeping your shins in line with your knees (rather than allowing your feet to draw in towards one another) as you lower your hips down towards the floor.
Keep your hips in line with your knees, rather than allowing them to move back towards your feet. Continue to move your knees farther away from one another.
Rest on your forearms, or all the way down on the mat if you can get there. Go slow with this one and allow your body to open in its own time.
4. Garland Pose (Malasana)
This is the king position for opening your hips and lower back. Start with your feet hip distance apart, or even slightly wider. Allow your feet to turn out 30 degrees or so if you are new to squatting.
Lower your body down, as though you were going to sit on a very small stool. You can extend your arms straight in front of you if you find it difficult to balance.
As you practice this posture, work to move your feet so that they are pointing straight out in front of you.
You can also play with bringing the feet in closer to one another as you progress. This pose has a million and a half benefits and will change your life if you practice it often!
5. Bound Angle Pose (Bhaddha Konasana)
This is a great posture to practice while you sit and watch TV or even while reading a book. Sit tall on your mat, then draw your knees up, placing your feet flat on the floor about 12 inches from your bottom.
Bring your feet together, as you allow your knees to drop to the side. Connect the soles of your feet. Inhale as you lengthen your spine once more. Then slowly move your heels in towards your groin, opening the inner hips.
You can also lean your chest forward towards your feet if you like, just be sure to maintain length in your spine.
Having supple, open hips will not only help you to avoid hip and back pain as you age, it can also help you to avoid hurting yourself in everyday life. Having a nice range of motion means that you will be so much less likely to really injure yourself if you fall, which is so important!
By Ali Washington
When you’re newer to the practice, Downward-Facing Dog looks like a pose where you are holding yourself up with your arms only. Actually, there’s more to it than that.
When all the players—your legs, hips, back, arms, and shoulders—actively participate, there is actually minimal amount of weight on your wrists in this pose, and it can actually feel like a place where you can hang out comfortably for several breaths.
Resting Pose? Really?
In the early years of my practice, I found it particularly annoying that many of my teachers would call Downward-Facing Dog a restful pose. I would feel anything but rested in the pose.
My shoulders tensed, my arms shook with effort, and my wrists ached almost every time I moved to it from Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana) or Cobra (Bhujangasana). Down Dog was a crappy place for me to be, but since it was a popular pose I knew I wouldn’t be able to avoid it.
So I practiced more and listened to teachers’ takes on how to align in the pose, so I could feel it out on my own. I knew there had to be a way this pose would be comfortable.
Let There Be Light for Your Dog!
Truth be told, I’m still working to find my most strengthening and vibrant Downward-Facing Dog, but I’ve come a long way from the discomfort of my early years. And there are a few tricks I’ve learned and been taught to help ease the pressure off the wrists in this pose.
Try these out on the mat next time, and may your Down Dogs feel light and happy!
1. Shift the weight off the wrists toward the legs.
You can take weight off your wrists by bending your knees generously and pressing your hips further back until your hands feel a little lighter. It’ll look like you’re crouching. Keep the weight shifting towards your legs as you lift your butt up and gradually straighten the legs, without locking the knees.
Your heels don’t have to be flat against the mat, but do try to keep the front of your pelvis tilted forward and tailbone moving away from the top of the spine to elongate your back (big plus!).
2. Ground the pose by firming the legs.
Your heels should be directly behind the widest part of your foot so that you do not see them when you gaze between your legs. Hug your shins in toward each other as though you were trying to squeeze a block between them. This will encourage a slight inward rotation through the legs.
Firm your outer thighs in a slight external rotation and lift your knee caps upward as you press your quadriceps back. Don’t lock your knees! It’ll feel as though someone is gripping you by the hips and pulling back.
3. Create space for your chest and shoulders by firming the outer arms.
Firming the outer arms and wrapping your triceps toward the floor (i.e. external rotation) creates room for your front body and shoulders. It will feel like you’re trying to screw the cap off of jar, counterclockwise, but your hands will stay grounded on the floor.
This helps broaden your collarbones and reduce tension around the shoulders. Let you ears line up with your arms.
4. Energize your upper body by activating your hands.
Engaging your hands, even your fingertips and the bases of your fingers, works to energize your upper body. Imagine your hands like suction cups as you try to distribute the weight evenly throughout. Ground the thumbs and index fingers.
Your hands should be rooted but not completely flat against the floor, so the center of your palm can lift; this engages what some of my teachers call Hasta Bandha, or a hand lock.
by Zainab Zakari
How Inversions Help Balance the Physical and Subtle Bodies
Known as the king of Asanas (yoga postures), the headstand may at first seem intimidating to the new practitioner. However, the benefits of this posture to one’s mind, body, and spirit are plenty. In an environment where we are either sitting down or standing for most of the day, our circulation tends to become sluggish. This often results in our heart overworking to pump adequate blood to the upper body. Normally, our heart works against the pull of gravity. Inversions lessen the strain on the heart and allow an abundant supply of oxygen-rich blood to reach the head and brain.
Here are 5 of the many benefits of regular practice of headstand:
1. Inversions reverse the pull of gravity on the organs, especially the intestines. Performing this posture increases digestive fire and body heat. The intestines are cleansed while releasing clogged blood in the colon.
2. By inverting, the flow of blood reverses in the body and stimulates the nervous system. Headstands stimulate and provide refreshed blood to the pituitary and hypothalamus glands. The hypothalamus gland links the nervous system to the endocrine system via the pituitary gland. These glands are vital to our wellbeing and are considered the master glands that regulate all other glands in the body (thyroid, pineal, and adrenals). Performing headstand helps to dissolves stress, sadness, depression, and lethargy. The cleaner your adrenal glands are, the more optimal they will function. This will help you to adapt to stress better.
4. By performing headstand, you will be directly stimulating your lymphatic system and thereby helping to remove toxins from your body. The lymphatic system is responsible for waste removal, fluid balance, and immune system response. As lymph moves through the body, it gathers toxins and bacteria to be eliminated by the lymph nodes. Lymph moves as a result of muscle contractions and gravity. By inverting, lymph travels more easily into the respiratory system where much of the toxins enter the body.
5. The improvement of cognitive abilities such as concentration, memory, and processing can be attributed to a regular headstand practice. The posture helps us overcome fear (of falling!) and develop concentration – see how long you can hold the posture if your mind wanders. This pose requires a still mind. Headstands also strengthen deep core muscles. To be able to hold this posture, the practitioner must engage the obliques, the rectus abdominis and transverse abdominis.
When done correctly, headstands help the spine become properly aligned, improving posture, facilitating good breathing and reducing muscular stress. It positively affects the four major systems in the body: cardiovascular, lymphatic, nervous, and endocrine. Although I recommend learning headstand from a qualified teacher, its multifaceted benefits should not be ignored. Headstands should not be performed if you have neck injuries, unusually high blood pressure, ear or eye problems, or if a woman is on her monthly cycle.