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.
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
Kundalini Yoga is a science that opens your heart and expands your awareness of consciousness. Yogi Bhajan brought Kundalini Yoga to the West in 1968. He said that “Kundalini Yoga is the science to unite the finite with Infinity, and that it’s the art to experience Infinity in the finite.”
Kundalini comes from the Sanskrit word Kundal, which means coil or spiral. Kundalini is an energy that exists within every human at the base of the spine, which is often in a dormant state. Many describe Kundalini as the coil of the hair of the Beloved. The Beloved is God, Spirit, the Universe- whatever you want to call it. The Kundalini is that piece of God, Spirit, and the Universal Intelligence within us. Kundalini is more commonly known in Western cultures as Holy Spirit. It is the primal life force that animates all life—the evolutionary force behind all living matter.
Now that we have a better understanding of what Kundalini is, let’s talk about yoga! Yoga means union, and comes from the Sanskrit word, Yog- which means to unite. Yoga is how we unite with all of who we are and with higher consciousness. Yoga is about self-acceptance and is a practice that includes; pranayama (breathing exercises), asana (physical postures or maneuvers), meditation and deep relaxation. Through the practice of Yoga, we begin to calm the fluctuations of the mind, to open the heart and to unite with the ultimate loving power with us.
Kundalini means “the curl of the hair of the beloved” and yoga is union. Kundalini Yoga is therefore uniting and awakening the God, Spirit, or Higher Consciousness within us.
Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan® is known as one of the most comprehensive of yoga traditions, joining meditation, mantra, physical exercises and breathing techniques; It is the Raj or the King Yoga.
In any class Kundalini Yoga classes, you can expect to find six major components:
1. Tuning-in with the Adi Mantra – Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo
2. Pranayama and / or warm-ups (ex. cat/cow, spinal flex)
3. Kriya (yoga set)
4. Deep relaxation or savasana
6. Close with the blessing song, “May the Long Time Sun Shine Upon You” and a long Sat Nam (which means truth is my identity)
Kundalini Yoga works on the mental, physical, and nervous energies of the body and puts them under the domain of the will, which is the tool of the soul. This technology balances the glandular system, strengthens the nervous system, expands lung capacity, and purifies the blood.
Science tells us that everything is made of energy and it has been known for thousands of years that there are intense energy focal points in the body called Chakras. Kundalini Yoga moves energy up the chakras from the lower triangle 1st, 2nd and 3rd chakras to the highest chakras. When the 4th heart chakra is awakened, we begin to move from “me” to “we” and experience union and shift into the higher triangle, the 5th throat chakra where we communicate our wisdom, the 6th third eye chakra where we access our inner vision, and the 7th crown chakra where we experience the oneness and wisdom of the Creator. Kundalini Yoga is also called the Yoga of Awareness- it opens your heart and gives you a powerful experience of your soul.
Kundalini Yoga gifts you with an experience of your truth, or Sat Nam which begins to permeate into every aspect of your life. “It is not meditation that stops the mind. It is the surrender of the mind to the soul, and the soul to Truth. It is when you prefer the word of Truth to the word of your own intellect.” – Yogi Bhajan
Kundalini Yoga works fast to give you the experience of the fruits of yoga. It is a high science designed to awaken the full potential of human consciousness in each individual and expand that awareness to our unlimited Self. This practice simply changes you from the inside out and makes you want to be a better person and live a more heart centered life.
So, when is your next kundalini class?
by hillary faye