You Are What you Digest: Digestion and the 3rd Chakra

This week’s 3rd chakra practice focused on digestion, how we digest things we take in on a physical, emotional and spiritual level. Its just not about how we digest the food we eat, but how we take in experiences in our life and integrate them into ourselves. A focus I brought to this idea of digestion, was the equally important part of elimination on all these same levels. As I sat with the idea of elimination I came across a passage in Lama Surya Das’ book Awakening the Buddha Within that spoke about renunciation. This was a piece in the yogic practice I always had some trouble wrapping my head around on a certain level, but he explained it this way:

Trungpa Rinpoche said “Usually we think of renunciation as celibacy, poverty, obedience, shaving your head, going off some where and leaving everything behind.” He then gave a wider tantric interpretation of renunciation: “Renunciation means to let go of holding back.”…Renunciation refers to opening the tight fist of grasping and relinquishing our weighty burden of accumulated excess baggage.  The heart of renunciation implies allowing rather than controlling. It requires lettign go of that which is negative and harmful while opening up to sanity and wholeness.

And this, in essence, is the goal of elimination. To let go of the shit. Quite literally, but also to let go of all the harmful ways we talk to ourselves, our negative thought patterns and our ingrained behaviors that continuously hold us back from realizing our higher potential. And what better place to dive into this than in the fire of the 3rd chakra?

Pushan Mudra

image from mama-yoga.blogspot.com

This mudra is designed to stimulate digestion in the body. To do this mudra, find a comfortable virasana (use blocks and blankets to support as needed). Bring the palms to rest on the thighs, face up, and bring the first and middle fingers to touch the thumb on the right hand while extending the remaining two fingers. With the left hand, draw the middle and ring fingers together while extending the pointer and pinkie fingers. Once you find this mudra, close the eyes and begin to breathe into the opening of energy lines in the body. As the energy begins to flow start to bring your focus to the 3rd chakra, located at the solar plexus, just above the belly button and below the diaphragm. With your focus there, on inhale, imagine drawing golden light into the body through the upper belly, as you exhale directing stagnant, dark energy and tension out of the body through the seat and into the floor. Take about ten breaths, continuing this visualization. As you inhale, taking light into the body, digesting it, and as you exhale, releasing an energetic waste from the body. After about ten breaths, release the mudra and rest with the hands turned palms face up on the thighs. Notice what you’re experiencing in the body, notice the quality of the breath. As you are ready, let the eyes open.

Virasana: Hero’s Pose

picture from capriciousyogi.com

I will fully admit that Hero’s Pose can be an excruciating place for me to be sometimes. With tight quads and tight tops of the feet, it can be so unappealing on certain days especially after I’ve been out for a long run. But there is something to be said for this pose, especially when one considers the added benefits for digestion that it offers. To get more comfortable in the pose, you can take a block underneath the sit bones or bring a blanket underneath the shins and feet. Sometimes, I also recommend a rolled up blanket underneath the si tbones between the sit bones and the feet or underneath the curve of the top of the foot. Once you find a comoftable position for your hero’s pose, drop in. As we kneel, we stimulate the bottom portion of the stomach meridian in the legs. This helps foster better digestion and elimination and at the same time helps us create space in the abdomen as we sit. This is a great pose after big meals or if one is having difficulty digesting or eliminating. Spend at least 5 minutes in the pose and if you’d like, take this time to work with Eagle arms or neck stretches to avoid any tension that might take place in the upper body as you are seated. Once you release come forward to table top and the press back to downward dog, tread the fit and raise and lower the heels to help bring circulation back into the legs if necessary.

Asana for Digestion

There are numerous poses that help to aid digestion. Anything that involves working on the stomach (stimulating the organs), core work (stimulating the agni, digestive fire) or twisting (ringing out toxins and promoting elimination). Here are some practices that I recommend adding to a practice to help invite digestion into your practice:

  • Practices to Stimulate the Stomach and Digestive Organs: cobra, bow pose, head to knee pose (also known as wind releasing pose)
  • Practices to Stimulate Agni: agni sara, hero’s pose, core work (any variation on sit ups)
  • Practices to Clear Toxins: supine twists, seated twists, lion’s breath, kapalbhati breath

Lying Over a Roll

I will readily admit to students that this can be one of the most challenging poses out there, yet as one student shared with me after class the other day, after a little while in the pose it starts to feel really good (its getting to that yummy place that’s hard!). This pose not only stimulates all the internal organs, promoting digestion and elimination, but it also provides a detox by gently squeezing the liver.  In addition, this is an excellent pose for those who suffer from low black issues as it gives more space around the sacrum and very subtly stretches the low back. To do this pose, take a blanket and roll it up into a burrito about 4-5 inches in diameter. Come to lie over the blanket with the blanket resting in between the low ribs and the crest of the pelvis. The entire blanket should be resting on the squishy part of the belly.  Note: this pose is contraindicated for pregnancy, anyone suffering from any kind of stomach issues like hernias or ulcers or if you have just eaten. Once you lie down, start in Sphinx pose, then transition to a pillow with the hands (as shown above) and finally to arms extended long, forehead on the floor. Breathe here for a few minutes. You can stay here or intensify the practice by working into half bow, spending about 1 minute on each side. As you are finished, transition back to Sphinx on the blanket and finally press back to child’s pose.

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Fire and the 3rd Chakra

In Ayurveda we talk about the 3rd chakra as being ruled by the element of fire. When I think of fire, my mind often drifts to the blazing heat of forest fire…a force that on one hand is powerfully destructive and on the other hand brings about immeasurable change. While preparing for the practice this week, I picked up  the book Five Spirits: Alchemical Acupuncture of Psychological and Spiritual Healing to see their approach to fire through the fire element system. I came across this description of fire:

The element fire includes the spark, the flame, the light and the heat as well as the dying embers.  It is the energy of summer, of relationship and blossoming creativity as well as the qualities of spiritual warmth, initiating impulse and spontaneity that vive an organism that ability to expand, to express its true nature and to reach out and connect with others.

Through this lens I was able to look at all of the properties of fire, the spark and also the burning embers. This idea of the “spark” truly resonates with the power of the third chakra to create and the image of glowing embers symbolizes, to me, the capacity fire has to be sustainable. Being a pitta (fiery) person myself, I know the pitfalls of working with fire. Too much of a good thing and you burn out quite quickly. Fire doesn’t have the staying power because it requires fuel and our physical and energetic bodies can only give so much before we deplete ourselves. Yet, if we are able to ignite a fire, let it burn and then kindle these glowing embers that energy of fire can stay with us much longer so that we can reap the benefits fire has to offer us.

Much like the 3rd chakra, fire offers us a place to create, nurture our passions and explore our power. It offers us the opportunity to cleanse, letting go/burning away things that no longer serve us and through that cleanse offers a continual newness whether that be new ideas, projects, experiences or opportunities for growth.

Ganesha Mudra

image from acupuncture.com

The ganesha mudra is associated with the heart. As you do this practice, tensing and releasing the muscles of the chest, you stimulate the heart energy and release blockages in the lungs. This is a beautiful practice for 4th/heart chakra work, but I offer it here with the 3rd chakra because it also stimulates the fire element. In Chinese Medicine, the heart meridian runs along the inner arm from little finger to inner armpit. This mudra stimulates that energy line and thus stimulates the heart, which in Chinese Medicine is the organ associated with fire. To practice this mudra, take the left hand, bring it in front of the chest, palm facing out. Bend the fingers into a loose grip and then bring the right hand up, palm facing in, and grip the fingers of the left hand with the fingers of the right hand. Slide the hands up, so they are resting directly in front of the heart center. As you exhale pull the fingers away from one and other feeling the activation of the pectoral muscles and the energy around the chest. As you inhale release. Do this five more times and then release the grip bringing first the left hand and then the right hand to cover the heart. Breathe into the space underneath the hands and notice what becomes available. After a minute or so, switch hands and do the same thing with the hands reversed. Again after you complete the active round, release the hands, cover the heart and notice what comes up for you during the practice.

Agni Sara

image from the Himalayan Institute

Agni Sara is a daily practice that I began about 6 months ago after a weekend long workshop with Shari Friedrichsen. She spoke about its transformative properties and her own journey when she chose to take it on as a year long practice. Six months in, I can feel the difference. I am not only connected more deeply to my own experience of power in my body, but in recent months have had the opportunity to begin unpacking how/why I get in the way of allowing it to manifest. It has been a fruitful journey and I look forward to what the next six months have to offer. On the Himilayan Institute’s website, agni sara is described as:

With its deep contractions of the abdomen and pelvic floor, agni sara targets the abdominal organs and the centers of consciousness (chakras) responsible for regulating and carrying out the instinctive life of the body. It therefore affects not only our physical health but also our vitality and emotional life. Ultimately it facilitates spiritual growth and transformation. The name itself tells us this: agni, meaning fire, the elemental quality responsible for digestion, discrimination, and transformation, and sara, meaning essence.

They also offer an excellent description of agni sara and the practices that can help you develop a deeper and more grounded practice. Because this is such an in-depth practice, I invite you to visit their website and read through the article for the best instructions on inviting it into your own practice. They also have a complimentary video that teaches you how to do it, which you can visit here.

Lion’s Breath

image from yogajournal.com

One of the amazing benefits of working with fire is that it can help us burn through holding patterns, self-deprecating thoughts and behavior patterns that no longer serve us. Yet sometimes, looking these things in the face, it doesn’t seem to be a benefit that we’re brining it up on our practice. I’ve noticed that for myself, I often get caught up in the feedback loop of dealing with these emotions. Instead of letting them go, I begin to pick them apart, critique and judge myself and ultimately find myself right back where I started–holding on to things that don’t serve me. Lion’s Breath goes a long way in moving through things like this in my practice. Whether its clearing out the baggage, moving stagnant energy or releasing holding in the body, Lion’s Breath does it for me. You can do this practice any number of ways: seated in virasana, in downward dog or standing in a squat. Find the appropriate position for you body and take a few grounding breaths, focusing on what you’d like to move through. As you’re ready, take a deep inhalation through the nose and as you exhale through the mouth, stick out the tongue, open the mouth and eyes wide and let any sound that comes with the breath escape as well. I often find I will do these in sets of three and will sprinkle them throughout a practice as energy feels heavy or stuck.

And don’t forget, building a fire or lighting a candle will always do the trick for invoking fire energy.

Diving into the Waters: The Second Chakra

This week began our exploration of the 2nd chakra. In Ayurveda,  the 2nd chakra is ruled by the element of water. Which, even on a physiological level, makes sense to me. The second chakra is located in the low back/sacral region and in the low belly, below the belly button. It rules the sexual organs and the emotions. All things, very connected with flow and movement in life.

I love working with the second chakra and deeply connect to the energy of water, yet, for me it is place where I have long had holding and I feel this speaks to my tendency (and our tendency as a culture) to shut down emotion. We lock emotion up and it stays held in our bodies, taking the form of tight hips, low back issues and injury and blockages in sexual energy and our ability to release emotionally, muscularly or structurally. Connecting with water helps us find the flow once again, to find movement out of stagnancy and helps us to bring greater health and wellness to our 2nd chakra.

Here are some practices to connect you with breath, the water element and to bring you into the flow:

Ocean Breath

Remember as a child, finding shells on the beach and holding them up to your ear to hear the ocean? This breath practice invites those same principles into the body. Find a comfortable seat and close the eyes. As you begin, connect with the breath. Notice the rise and fall of the breath in the body and notice how the breath is moving through you as you sit on your mat. Bring the hands or fingers up to cover the ears, drowning out any outside noises and amplifying the internal noise of the breath. Listen to the breath, like waves. As you inhale it is like a wave rolling into shore, and as you exhale, it is a wave rolling out to sea. Spend 2-5 minutes listening to the breath, notice how it fluctuates and changes the longer you spend with your focus on it. As you feel ready, lower your hands and notice your connection to the breath. Feel the breath in your body and as you are ready, open your eyes.

This practice is wonderful as a seated meditation, I also like to bring it back into my asana practice as I continue. Pausing in tadasana during sun salutations to take 5-10 ocean breaths or pausing prior to balance poses to engage this practice. It calls us back into the water-like nature of the breath and it also invites us to ground into the deeply calming aspects of the breath.

Audible Exhales: Finding the Flow

If you’ve ever taken class with me, you’ll notice how often I encourage exhaling through the mouth. I’ve found that often times we tend to hold back our breath and hold back our sound, whether we’re embarassed about making too much noise or are simply unable to connect to our breath in that way. The more we can facilitate deep and audible breath, the more we can also let go of other things that are locked down (such as emotions or the physical body). In this class, I invited students to take several different flow practices with an audible exhale through the mouth. It allowed us to all find the cadence of our breath and also to begin to breath together as a class. Some poses I like to flow between are:

  • Table Top→ Cow→ Cat→ Prayer
  • Raising and lowering in Cobra Pose
  • Downward Dog→ Plank→ Downward Dog
  • Tadasna→ Forward Fold→ Half Forward Fold→ Forward Fold→ Tadasna

Supta Baddha Konasana Water Meditation

image courtesy of durgamama.wordpress.com

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but this is one of my all-time favorite restorative poses. I come back to it again and again for is rejuvinative aspects, but also because it feels so lovely! If you’re working with knee or hip injuries, please use two blocks one under each knee or outer thigh, place high enough to give you support.

Take Supta Baddha Konasana with appropriate props and close the eyes. Bring both hands to rest on the lower belly, below the navel center. Breathe into the space under the hands, creating space and opening with each inhale and each exhale. As you breathe, imagine water flowing along the spine as you inhale and exhale. Let it pool up around the pelvis and let the waves of each breath wash over you. As you connect with this movement of breath, connect with other fluids in your body: blood, sweat and tears. Fill its movement in your body and its ability to cleanse, heal and renew. Stay here as long as you like.

And now, I’ll leave you with a little breath focused inspiration from one of my favorite yogis, Rob Lundsgaard, check out his song Breathe (scroll down through the song lists and select “Breathe” to listen to or download). A great addition to any yogi’s playlist!

Ayurvedic Tips for Fall

With its shift from the heat of summer to cooler weather, the fall can often through us out of balance from an Ayurvedic perspective. We continue with the high energy of summer when we should transition into the slower pace of fall.

Vata increases the air in the body and when it becomes out of balance can be ungrounding. Here are some tips for the fall and for keeping vata in balance.

Neti-pot: using a neti-pot on a daily basis will help fight fall colds by insuring the sinus and nasal passages are clear of pathogens.

Diet: transition to more warming, slightly heavier foods. Great fall food options are: soups, winter squashes, root vegetables and brown rice.

Water: drink plenty of water. Stay hydrated, as aggravated vata will dry the body out. Warm teas are the ideal source of hydration to simultaneously warm and hydrate.

Yoga: asana can be a great way to support the body through the fall season. To warm the body, explore backbends and arm balances. The fall is also a great time to cleanse, twists can be an excellent way to release toxin form the internal organs.

Rest: fall also affords us an excellent opportunity to slow down. Find more time for rest and support the body through more restorative poses and savasana.

Herbs: certain herbs can help to warm the body, consider adding these herbs to teas or foods: ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cayenne.

Nourish and warm the body and calm the vata with a new favorite soup recipe from Sunset Magazine: Pumpkin Soup with Pumpkin-Seed Mint Pesto. The fresh garlic in the pesto is the perfect antidote for the beginnings of a cold.


Practices for Welcoming Spring

As we move into spring we move into encouraging more warmth, front of the body opening and facilitating the flow of additional prana in the body.  Support the transition to spring with the addition of the following practices to your daily routine.

Here are five ideas for bringing spring into your practice:

1. Asana: If the weather allows go outside to your yard, garden or nearby park. Spend your ten minutes exploring asana in the outdoors. Some great poses are:

  • Tadasana: find mountain pose. Close your eyes and breathe deeply.  Feel your connection of the feet to the earth, feel the length of the spine. Imagine you could draw your breath through the soles of your feet to your crown.
  • Salambasana Sirasana: find headstand and reverse the flow of energy in the body.  Feel the beautiful release of putting your head on the earth.  As you practice, imagine all your thoughts melting out of your head and into the ground.

2. Pranayama: use your time to explore a pranayama. Breath exercises clear the nadis (energy channels in the body) to encourage proper energy flow.  Here are a few ideas

  • Nadi Shodhana: alternate nostril breathing. Calm the mind and balance the hemispheres of the brain. Bring the body in balance with the changes in the weather outside.
  • Kapalabhati: skull shining breath. Clear the mind and build heat in the body,

3. Yoga Nidra: help to restore the body. Often as we transition into spring, the weather gets us out of doors and moving faster than our bodies are actually ready to go. Use the practice of yoga nidra to help restore the body keeping the reserves of energy we need to support us long term. Join a class or download a guided yoga nidra to listen to at home.

4. Abhyanga: an Ayurvedic pratice of self-massage. A wonderful daily practice of massaging oil into the skin. Abhyanga not only helps to keep the skin hydrated, but also helps to stimulate the physical body and organs to help support you in overall wellness. For more information about abhyanga click here.

5. Neti Pot: daily neti is hugely effective in treating my seasonal allergies, but also in helping to prevent illness. The neti gently washes the sinus and nasal cavities, rinsing out germs and pollens that have built up in the nasal passages. The salt in the water also helps to reduce the inflammation and swelling in the tissues, helping to reduce the symptoms associated with allergies. It is a great preventative technique that can be done regularly and it can also be done in conjunction with the use of herbs or Western medicine and allergy medication.

The biggest challenge to the neti pot is finding the exact angle to use it comfortably. Here is a great video which will run neti pot rookies through the process. Click here to watch the video.

I hope all these practices are deeply beneficial and help support you in your transition to spring!

Pregnancy Rhinitis and Neti Pots

In Prenatal Yoga class the other day, it came up that one of the students was suffering from Pregnancy Rhinitis. Pregnancy Rhinitis is very similar to the stuffy nose and congestion experienced during allergy season, but is thought to be caused by the changes in hormones in the body. It is actually one of the more common complaints from women during their pregnancy.

The student was wary of taking decongestants of any kind and had resigned herself to suffering through the next 4 months of her pregnancy with terrible congestion. I encouraged her to try using a neti pot. I have used a neti pot for the past few years on almost a daily basis. Not only has it been hugely effective in treating my seasonal allergies but also in helping to prevent illness.  The neti gently washes the sinus and nasal cavities, rinsing out germs and other pathogens. The salt in the water also helps to reduce the inflammation and swelling in the tissues, helping to reduce the symptoms associated with Rhinitis.

This practice is highly effective for pregnant women who do not want to ingest any kind of medications and becomes a great daily practice to take into child rearing years when children expose their parents to many germs and viruses.

Personally I recommend a ceramic or steel neti pot as opposed to plastic and encourage students to use non-iodized sea salt (or purchase the neti washes they have available).

If you’re interested in exploring a neti pot for yourself you can generally purchase one at your local health food or herbal store or can order them on line.  For a video by the Himalayan Institute on how to use a neti pot please visit here.

Eating for the Seasons: Fall Soup

In Ayurveda, we talk about the importance of eating for the seasons.  In summer you eat cooling foods to bring down the internal body temperature and in fall and winter you seek out more warming foods to help keep your internal heat up.  I find that as soon as fall rolls around I am ready to eat soups every day, which has lead me to get creative in the kitchen.

One of my favorite recipes is a curry lentil soup I developed a few years ago. It is super yummy, easy to make, and for those on a budget also quite affordable. This soup warms you up, fills you up and also makes great leftovers. I often take it to work for days after and will often add cooked rice the day after to make for a slightly different taste and consistency.

And just in case you were wondering about the health benefits…here’s an article in which researchers have linked curry to helping fight cancer.

So, here is the recipe. Have fun, enjoy, and if you’re super fiery (Pitta), I recommend leaving out the cayenne:

Megan’s Curry Lentil Tomato Soup
1 small to medium sized onion diced
4-5 garlic gloves diced
2 TBSP curry powder
2 TBSP oil (I use grapeseed, but you can use almost any mellow flavored oil)
1 large potato diced
3 carrots chopped
1 cup red lentils
5 cups veggie broth
1 large can diced tomatoes (I like the fire-roasted ones, they add flavor)
salt & pepper to taste
dash of cayenne if you want some spice

Chop onions and saute in oil for 8 minutes, until soft. Chop and add garlic, saute another 2 minutes. Add curry powder and a dash of salt. Saute 1-2 minutes. Chop and add potatoes and carrots, saute another 1-2 minutes. Then add 5 cups of broth and lentils. Bring to a boil and then simmer approximately 20 minutes or until veggies and lentils are soft.  Add can of tomatoes including the liquid in the can. Add salt and pepper to taste and a dash of cayenne if you like. Simmer another 5-10 minutes.