Breath of Life: The Air Element & The 4th Chakra

As I mentioned last week, direct access of the heart center can be intimidating and scary. After heartbreak and loss in our lives we build protective barriers and shields energetically (and sometimes even physically through tight muscles in the chest) and blowing right through these can actually create more protective layers rather then letting them gently fall away. This week, we again explore a “side door” to the heart through the 4th chakra’s element of air. The quality of air is lightness, movement and openness. As we explore air in the body we look for these elements and move stagnancy and heaviness out of the body through the breath. Below are some practices for accessing air and the 4th chakra in your own body.

Vayus: Five Vital Forces

image from sarahricher.blogspot.com

In the body we have what are known as the five Vayus (literally the “winds”). These vayus govern the movement of prana in the body in specific regions. When they are in harmony and functioning well, the body is able to find a true state of health and ease. In our practice this week we brought our focus specifically to the prana vayu which governs the zone of the heart, propulsion and forward movement and its opposing vayu, the apana vayu which governs elimination and digestion. These two vayus facilitate the action of the inhale and the exhale. The prana vayu with its movement up and the apana vayu with its movement down. I invite you to bring your awareness to these movements of prana through the following exercise adapted from a shadow yoga practice by Dr. Scott Blossom:

Find a standing squat, ensure the shoulders are aligned over the hips and the spine is erect. Bring the hands down in front of the belly button and imagine you are holding a large beach ball there with the palms facing each other. Hold the hands here on inhale and on exhale draw the palms toward one another until they almost touch. On inhale turn the palms up toward the ceiling and lift them up the center line, in front of the body, toward the crown (prana vayu). On exhale turn the palms toward the floor and lower them back down the front of the body, until they reach the front of the belly (apana vayu). Begin again by inhaling and expanding the palms away from each other imagining the ball in front of the belly. Know that if it gets to be too much in the squat you can straighten the legs. Practice at least 8 rounds. At the end of the last round, circle the arms out and up as you straighten the legs, keep the legs straight and exhale the hands to the heart.

Sama Vritti: Balance in the Breath

What air practice would be complete without pranayama? For the practice of sama vritti you can find a comfortable seat or take a restorative reclining position of your choice. Because of its capacity to slow down the nervous system, I find this pranayama is particularly lovely at the end of practice as the body and breath are slowing down (see picture to the left for one of my favorite ways to practice sama vritti).

The practice of sama vritti is the art of matching the inhale to the exhale. Find a breath count that works for you where there is no strain or struggle in the breath and the breath is as long and extended as is comfortable. Begin with a cleansing breath, an inhale through the nose and an exhale through the mouth. Then begin with an inhale to the count of 8, without pausing at the top, proceed with an exhale to the count of 8. Both inhale and exhale should happen through the nose and should be long and even. If the 8 count doesn’t work for you, find a count that does. Complete at least 8 cycles before returning to normal breath.

Asana for Opening to Air

There are lots of asanas to work with the air element in the body, below you will find a selection of poses to add to your practice to embrace air!

Urdhva Uttanasana: instead of traditional uttanasana take this variation to create more space in the chest and lungs. Allow the breath to flow and circulate as you hold the pose.

 

 

 

 

Warrior II: work this warrior first finding the extension of the arms out from the lungs. Take the breath into the fingertips and allow the breath to  move. Now take flowing variations, finding the mobility of air through variations such as eagle arms that are lifted and lowered as the bent knee is straightened and bent.

 

 

Upward Dog/Cobra/Sphinx: work any and all of these three poses. Feel the breath moving into the front of the chest. Feel the expansiveness of the lungs. Work with movement–flow from downward dog to upward dog, raise and lower in cobra or take gentle head movements in sphinx. Remember, air is about movement.

 

Stress Test: The Adrenals & The 3rd Chakra

This week’s focus for class was on the physical location of the 3rd chakra in the body. The third chakra is located in the solar plexus, broadly, the upper belly and middle-back regions in the front and the back of the body respectively. Because of its location, the 3rd chakra region is home to quite a few of the major internal organs and can be associated with many of them: the stomach (as we spoke about digestion last week), the liver (in the 3rd chakra’s association with anger) and the kidneys and adrenals. I often tend to associate the kidneys more with the 2nd chakra, however, because of the yin/water quality that is attributed to the kidney in Chinese medicine and the similar properties that has to the 2nd chakra.  The adrenals also straddle two chakras in their function. Because of their association with the “flight or fight” response, the adrenals are often linked to 1st chakra issues, but because of their location in the 3rd chakra region, they are also associated with the 3rd chakra. I also see the stress response that arises for a fair amount of people in the 1st world to be a response that is based in a loss of power or a feeling of powerlessness (3rd chakra) as opposed to a “flight or fight” response as a result of basic needs being unmet (1st chakra issue). With this in mind, we dove into exploring the adrenals in our practice today as a way to access the 3rd chakra.

Back Bending

All forms of backbends are excellent for accessing the adrenals. When back bends are done properly, gentle pressure is applied to the adrenals and they are in stimulated and in essence, wrung out of toxins. The adrenals are glands that rest on top of the kidneys. As we backbend, we compress this area and gently stimulate the adrenals. For those suffering from adrenal fatigue, deep back bending isn’t recommended. However, I find you can get the same benefits even from a simple cobra pose and that the deeper backbends aren’t necessary when working with the adrenals and can often be counter productive. In this series, we worked with the following backbends:

Cobra Pose: warm up with low cobra, followed by a flowing cobra with exhales through the mouth. Work on lengthening tailbone toward the feet.

Low/High Lunges with Backbends: in the next backbend variation work first to lengthen the tailbone down, then engage the core by drawing pubic bone up toward chin. Once this is activated then explore finding the backbend from the rooted and engaged core.

Sphinx Pose: use this as a closing backbend to ease off the adrenals once the cleansing has taken place and ensure the adrenals aren’t overstimulated. Lift the belly button, press down into the forearms and tuck the chin slightly. Breathe into the mid back.

Simple Stress Relieving Poses

One of the signs of the adrenals being overloaded is a high level of stress in the body. One of the first body signs I get of stress in my body is tight shoulders, neck and jaw. This next series helps to relieve the tension caused by stress in the body and is inherently stress reducing as well. It can be practiced in your seat in the yoga studio or at your desk in front of the computer at work.

  • Neck Stretches: any kind of side to side neck stretch will work. I like to use a stretch where the arm is incorporated. This helps extend the stretch down into the shoulder and up into the jaw and face. Take at least 10 breaths on each side, dropping the chin to the chest in between each side.
  • Chest Opener: with the chin to the chest after the second side next stretch circle the hands behind the back and clasp the hands. Press down through the knuckles as you lengthen your shoulder blades toward the floor. Now, roll the chest open and invite the shoulder blades to draw closer to one another.
  • Wrist Circles: release the hands and circle the arms out and up. Clasp the hands overhead and drop the arms in front of you parallel to the floor, hands still clasped. Bend the elbows to 90 degrees and draw figure eights on the ceiling in both directions by circling the clasped hands.
  • Wrist Tension Wring Out: extend the left arm straight out, grab the left forearm with the right hand. Squeeze tightly, as if you were trying to squeeze out a tube of toothpaste and slide the right hand down the left arm. Be sure to continue through the wrist and also the hand and fingers. Do the same thing on the other side.
  • Shoulder Rolls: finish with shoulder rolls in both directions.

Tense & Release

from myyogaonline.com

Lie on your back, draw both knees into the chest. Wrap the forearms around the legs and pull the legs in tightly. Tense up the muscles in the arms and legs. Curl up the toes. Draw the forehead toward the knees and tighten up the face. Squeeze the eyes closed, scrunch up the mouth and draw the eyebrows in toward one another. Stay here for three breaths. At the end of your third breath let everything relax. Let the arms fall out, legs extend out, face soften. Scan the body from head to toe and relax any muscles that is holding. Stay here for three breaths. Do this two more times. As you tense and relax, you teach the body how to let go of tension. While you are momentarily creating tension in the body as it learns the opposite of this tension, you will also start to learn what your body feels like when it is totally at ease so that you are better able to reach that point in your practice at a later time. Once you have completed the three rounds rest in savasana.

Samma Vritti: Equal Breathing

This simple pranayama practice is a beautiful practice for students new to pranayama. The simple goal is to match the inhale to the exhale. In doing this, you slow the breath down and invite the nervous system to quiet. It is an excellent pranayama for the close of an asana practice, to prepare for bed or simply at times of stress or overwhelm in your life. To practice, find a comfortable seat or practice on your back in supta baddha konasana. Start with a few cleansing breaths, as you’re ready inhale through the nose to a count of 5. Then exhale through the nose to a count of 5. Repeat this nine times and return to normal breath as you are done. If this count is is too long or too short, adjust as needed simply ensuring the inhale matches the exhale. When you are done take several breaths to notice any shifts in the body, mind or breath.

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.

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.

Fire in the Belly: The 3rd Chakra

“Fire is the spark of life that ignites will to action. Fire is the spark between Shiva and Shakti…” Anodea Judith, Wheels of Life.

Color: Golden Yellow

Seed Syllable: RAM

Element: Fire

Rules: Digestive System, Agni (digestive fire)

Planet: Sun

The 3rd chakra is the space from which we make manifest the watery dreams of the 2nd chakra. Students who will benefit from work with this chakra are those who have difficult making decisions and taking action. Physically, students who are prone to digestion issues and coldness will also find 3rd chakra focus of great benefit.

Here are some yogic suggestions to embrace the 3rd charka and your inner fire:

Asana

– Surya Namaskar (sun salutations)

– Virabhandrasana I, II & III (warrior poses)

– Trikonasana (triangle)

– Dhanurasana (bow)

Pranayama

– Bhastrikia

– Breath of Fire (Kapalabhati)

Bhandas

– Uddiyana Bhanda

Unlocking the Heart: The Fourth Chakra

” Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.” – Zora Neale Hurston

Unlocking the heart chakra can be very powerful work to explore in your asana practice. As a bodyworker, I often find that this is a place that people physically manifest energetic holding and body armoring. Tight shoulders, neck and chest can be signs of a heart chakra in need of some work. For many, getting into chest openers will unlock old wounds and heartache that have been buried in the muscles and so I invite students to work as deeply as they feel comfortable.

The heart chakra is ruled by the air element and so exploring different types of pranayama are also excellent gateways to the 4th chakra. Furthermore, as the ribs, sternum and chest start to expand with heart chakra focused work, the deeper the breath will become and the more effective the pranayama.

Color: Emerald Green

Seed Syllable: YAM

Element: Air

Rules: Heart, Hands

Planet: Venus

Here are some yogic suggestions to embrace the heart chakra:

Asana

Matsyasana (fish pose)

Uttana Shishosana (happy puppy pose)

Setu Bhanda Sarvangasana (bridge pose)

Sphinx Pose

Pranayama

Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing)

Bhandas

Mula Bhanda

Jalandhara Bhanda

Practices of Seasonal Stress Relief

With the onset of the holiday season, our yoga and meditation practice can often take a back seat to all the other events occurring in our lives. Oddly, enough, this is the time when these practices can benefit us the most. I suggest making a commitment to yourself: set aside 10 minutes a day for the month of December to devote to your personal practice. Whether its to meditate, practice asana or fine a few deep breaths in silence, this time can vastly improve your personal health an well being during the holidays.

Here are five ideas for your ten minute practice in the next month:

1. Get Grounded: 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. Breathe Deep: use your time to explore a pranayama. Breath exercises can be a great way to calm the nervous system and clear the nadis (energy channels in the body) to encourage proper energy flow. A few options are:

  • Ujjayi: conqueror’s breath. Find this audible breath and then count an inhale of 5 and an exhale of 5. Work to balance the inhalation and exhalation and soothe the nervous system.
  • Nadi Shodhana: alternate nostril breathing. Calm the mind and balance the hemispheres of the brain.
  • Kapalabhati: skull shining breath. Clear the 6th chara and illuminate the mind.

3. Get Quiet: sit in silent meditation for 10 minutes. Focus on the breath. If the mind starts to wander come back to the breath.

4. Move It: sometimes the only outlet for stress is to bring movement into the body to release the tension and disharmony. Here are some suggestions for your practice:

  • Surya Namaskar: connect with the heat and solar energy of the sun.
  • Warrior Sequence: strong and grounded.

5. Wring it Out: deep twisting is great during the winter season. Twists help to ring out the toxins from internal organs and to promote digestion and elimination. Just be mindful to not practice twists right after a meal!