When Stretching ISN’T The Answer

image from fitsugar.com

image from fitsugar.com

I’ve been battling an aggravated hip injury for some time in my yoga practice. For a while, it was something that came and went and if I practiced mindfully it would go away. For the last month or so, it has been consistently present and I had started also getting irritation in my knee as well. Any time the pain would flare up, I would immediately pull out my “yoga asana tool box” and start working hip openers and other stretches…because for me, anytime something hurts my response has always been to stretch it. And I would argue that is the natural response of many of us, yoga teachers or not, to find relief from my pain through stretching.  And yet, all this stretching and nothing was getting better.

Enter my partner, and a workout called “Inferno.” I have done my fair share of intense work outs in my life having trained for a half marathon, rode over 550 miles in 7 days in the AIDS Lifecycle, and participated in various other adventurous outdoor sports including climbing, kayaking and mountain biking. I had not, however, done “Inferno.” From my understanding of cross-fit, its something similar…lots of push-ups, lots of core-work, lots of squats and lots of jumping…not to mention lots of sweat and lots of drill sergeant style encouragement.  Basically the anti-thesis to my yoga experience. I was initially wary of the impact on my hip and knee and paid very close attention as I began the workout to ensure that I wasn’t making things worse, yet to my surprise, after only a few days of practice things started feeling better. My knee pain subsided and my hip, while still not totally happy, was doing much better. I was baffled, all this pushing hard and no yoga, and I was feeling better.

The following week I was in a yoga teacher training with twelve hours of anatomy training, with nearly four hours focusing only on the hips. I was in heaven, I was looking for answers! What came up as we talked was that sometimes stretching ISN’T the answer, sometimes strengthening is. In my case, some of my glute muscles were weak and some smaller hip and quad muscles were over-working to compensate. What I needed to do, to help these over-worked muscles, was strengthen the muscles that were weak so the hard-working muscles could start to let go. This explained why so much squatting, so much jumping, would actually make me feel better, I  was strengthening those glute muscles that needed my attention. I wasn’t over-stretching these already over-worked muscles. Little had I known, but I had stumbled upon exactly what I needed to start healing. It was a powerful reminder of that age-old adage “everything in moderation”…even stretching.

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6th Chakra & Neptune The Power of Dream Time

“Neptune’s realm is the unhurried, imaginative dream state, which is always available to us through the act of conscious reflection…When we pause in dream time to gather our wits, we are reminded that beauty is ubundantly available to the unhurried mind. Conscious reveries, trance—any portal to ecstatic self-loss, such as diving through a sun-dappled wave—are all forms of worshipping Neptune. Neptune rewards us for these acts of reverence with inspiration.” – Caroline Casey, Making the Gods Work for You

One could easily substitute 6th chakra for Neptune in the description above. The 6th chakra is our portal to dream time and our capacity to dream our world into being and to manifest is often directed by the 6th chakra. The power of the chakra is profound, but it is something we wield unconsciously. Casey goes on to write, “We are constantly summoning and invoking through our imaginings, but often in an inconsistent and confused manner. Our lives, therefore, assume a corresponding design of confusion. One law of the dream world is that our personal lives are expanded or constricted by what we imagine to be possible.” Working in the 6th chakra becomes important work to ensure we are manifesting what we truly desire rather than dreaming unconsciously. Use these practices below to access the dream world of Neptune and the 6th chakra.

Nadi Shodhana

Nadi Shodhana is an excellent pranayama practice for stimulating the 6th chakra. The movement of prana up the nadis (ida & pingala) terminate at the 6th chakra and are accessed through the breath flow through the nostrils. Try this variation on Nadi Shodhana, instead of using the hands use the focus on the mind. Bring your awareness to the third eye at the brow center. Focus your awareness on the third eye and visualize an orb of purple light there. After a few minutes, connect with your breath and take several deep breaths in and out through the nostrils. Feel the breath in both nostrils evenly and smoothly. Now focus on your left nostril and draw the inhale through your left nostril into the third eye region. From third eye exhale out through the right nostril. Inhale through the right nostril up into the third eye and exhale through the left. This is one round. Do 8 more rounds with the focus on the third eye. Once you complete the pranayama practice, spend several minutes with the eyes closed, and the focus on the 3rd eye and the prana that you have generated there.

Inversions

image from fitsugar.com

Prepare the 6th chakra for an expansive savasana through the practice of inversions toward the end of your practice. Any kind of inversion practice will bring a flow of blood and prana to the 6th and 7th chakras. As the pranic flow increases to the 6th chakra, we open up to its capacity for fruitful dreaming. If possible practice a version of headstand or headstand to ensure an open flow of energy to the upper chakras (inversion like shoulder stand while beneficial in their own right will not bring the same flow of prana to the 6th chakra). Practice the inversion and then give yourself 5-7 breaths in downward dog to transition and finally 5-7 breaths in virasana to absorb the benefits of your inversion practice.

Yoga Nidra

image from dancingthesoul.com

Yoga Nidra is often known as the yoga of sleep. The practice of yoga nidra allows the body to relax while the mind stays awake through a form of guided meditation. Yoga nidra practice allows the body to drop into a brain-wave state that we reach during sleep. This brain wave state is one that takes several hours of sleep to reach, yet yoga nidra can reach it instantly. It is a wonderful practice for nourishing and replenishing the body, but it is also a place where we can actively participate in our dreams. I often encourage students to set an intention when they begin their yoga nidra practice as it is carried with them into their subconscious mind and working with intention on this level can help to powerfully shift behavioral and thought patterns and can open us up to new ways of dealing with issues that have arisen for us. For more information about yoga nidra, please visit my website.

Chakra Color Visualization to Activate the 6th Chakra

“The real voyage of discovery consists of not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

As we traveled through the lower chakras, we explored the elements associated with each. The first chakra is associated with earth, the second water, third with fire and the fourth with air. The throat chakra is often spoken of as being associated with the element of ether, which has a very light and etheric quality, but moving out of the throat, we leave all traditional element behind (a note here, that sometimes the throat is considered to embody the element of sound). The sixth chakra, is sometimes spoken of as embracing the element of light. While light is not an element in it the most traditional sense, it certainly has elemental qualities and given the 6th chakra association with sight, light makes perfect sense in this context.

Diving further into the element of light, we have the opportunity to connect with vision and this week we explored that through the colors of each of the chakras. The practice involved visualizing the colors of the chakras as we worked particular areas. Not only does this begin training the inner eye of the 6th chakra, but it also offers us the opportunity to activate each of the chakras through the energetic activation that comes form visualizing the colors of the chakras.

Below are colors and areas of the body to focus on around each of the chakras:

1st Chakra
Visualize the color of deep crimson red. See this at the base of the spine, in the perineum. You can also visualize this red light traveling down the leg lines and into the soles of the feet. Visualize this color in standing poses, balance poses and seated poses.

2nd Chakra
See the color of deep burnt orange in the 2nd chakra. See this color in the hips, low back, sacrum, and low below. Visualize this color in hip openers like pigeon pose and thread the needle. See the color orange as you take belly breaths in reclining poses like Supta Bodhakonasa.

3rd Chakra
Visualize a vibrant yellow in the solar plexus, the belly region above the navel center and contained by the diaphragm. Visualize this bright yellow light moving through the upper belly like electricity or fire. See it in core activating poses, when working uddiyana bhanda and other pranayama like kapalabhati. You can also bring this color to the organs in the abdomen.

4th Chakra
The color of the fourth chakra is a rich emerald green. See this color in the heart center at front and back of the chest. Visualize it in the lungs, the physical heart and up to the shoulders. I also like to visualize this light traveling out through the the arms and into the hands. See this color green in chest openers like bridge pose and in poses where the breath is invited into the chest through a binding of the arms behind the back.

5th Chakra
See the color here at the throat as cobalt blue. See it wrapping the throat like a band of blue light. Its focus here on the physical body is the cervical spine. See the color blue flooding the neck during neck stretches and release. Also visualize the color blue went chanting and moving the breath.

6th Chakra
The color here at the center of the brain is amethyst purple. Visualize this color during meditation. See the purple light traveling from the center of the brain out through third eye at the center of the forehead. Direct this light outward, but also turn it back on itself opening up inner site and intuitive wisdom.

6th Chakra: The Art of Seeing

After two weeks off of writing this blog, I returned with explorations for the 6th chakra. It seemed appropriate that the week of this first class in this chakra was the week of the elections. I spent Tuesday night and some of Wednesday plugged in to the radio and computer and even found myself watching a bit of TV to catch the updates. It was an information overload and was a good reminder for me of all the information we bring into our physical and energetic system through the eyes, and, especially in our “plugged in” society, how rare it is that we turn all of that off.

The 6th chakra, sometimes known as the third eye…though I find this to be a misnomer as the third eye is an energetic center in its own right, but doesn’t actually represent the location of the 6th chakra. The chakra system lies along, and is fed by, the sushumna nadi which runs along the spine and then continues that pathway up through the center of the throat. As we leave the 5th chakra at the throat, the sushumna does not jut forward in the head but continues straight up through the center of the brain and up through the crown. The result, is that the 6th chakra is located in the center of the brain, near the pituitary gland. The 3rd eye, while an important aspect of energy that flows in and out of the 6th chakra is not the 6th chakra itself.

All this talk of the 3rd eye, brings us to the function of the 6th chakra: to see, both internally and externally. We take in information from the outside world through our eyes and process it through the 6th chakra, but we also turn inward and explore our personal landscape processing this information and drawing on our own internal wisdom and intuition. As we have moved well out of the lower chakras, the practices become less and less about the physical body and more connected with the mind and spirit, particularly through meditation. Our practices this week focused on the art of seeing both outwardly and inwardly.

Cleaning the Mind’s Eye

art by Dominique Falla

At the beginning of your practice close your eyes. Notice the darkness behind your eye lids, notice how you feel as you slip into the stillness and silence of your closed eyes. As you sit, first notice what kind of pictures the mind creates for you that rise up to take the place of the darkness. Then as you begin to notice these thoughts and pictures arise, release them one by one with the breath. Each time a thought arises offer it up to the inhale and release it with the exhale. As the thoughts start to slow, revel in the void behind the closed eyes. We spend our days taking in information through our eyes. Give yourself this opportunity in which you don’t have to take in information. Observe how it feels and, if you like, use this opportunity to know open up to intuitive wisdom and guidance and see what arises for you. This is the perfect time to set an intention for your practice.

 

Exercising the Outer Sight

Close the eyes, take a moment to let the eyes rest. Next open the eyes and focus your gaze center. Without moving the head, take your gaze to the left on inhale, center on exhale, right on inhale and center on exhale. Close the eyes again and allow the eyes to rest. Open the eyes and repeat that same movement center, left, center, right and then close the eyes. Now open the eyes, without moving the head look up on inhale, center on exhale, down on inhale and center on exhale. Close the eyes and rest and then repeat again. On the next round, open the eyes and without moving the head look to the upper right corner of the eye on inhale, bottom corner of the left on exhale, upper right on inhale and bottom left on exhale. Close the eyes, rest and when you open the eyes, repeat, but now starting in the upper left and moving to the lower right. Close the eyes. Finally open the eyes and make two circles in each direction, counter-clockwise and clockwise again without moving the head. Close the eyes and keep them closed as you rub the palms of the hands together. Once they are warm, bring the palms to cover the eyes and allow the warmth to sink into the eyes.

Working the Inner Sight

art by Alex Grey

Close the eyes. In your mind’s eye, see the sushumna nadi, the central channel, running along the spine. Visualize it traveling down to the base of the spine and up through the brain to the crown of the head. Draw your awareness up to the region of the 6th chakra, at the center of the brain. As you bring your focus there, visualize a glowing orb of amethyst purple light. Take several deep breaths here, narrowing your focus and sharpening the image in your mind’s eye. Now begin to direct purple light to shine forward from the 6th chakra toward the front of the head. Direct the beam of light to shine out between the eyebrows at 3rd eye center. Notice any sensations you feel on the forehead as you continue to direct this light out of the head. After several breaths, start to visualize an eye between the two brows. See this eye with your inner vision and once the image comes into focus, now visualize yourself opening your 3rd eye. As the eye blinks open, look outward and see what you notice. What information comes to you? Sit with this. After a few minutes, imagine the eye could rotate around and focus inward, inside your own mind. With the eye opened to your inner mind, now notice what information arises. Do you receive intuitive guidance or wisdom? After several minutes drop your awareness from the third eye down the sushumna nadi to the base of the spine. Take several deep breaths into your sit-bones before you open your eyes.

Opening the Neck to Open the Throat Chakra

This week was our first exploration of the throat chakra. As a society we tend to have unbalanced throat chakras. Advances in technology and social media have lead to an over abundance of “communication” but communication that is inauthentic and doesn’t provide true connection. You can see this physically manifested in the over-stretching common in so many people who spend their days at the computer. The neck is long in the back and constricted in the front, the cervical curve is lost. Energetically this speaks to a blockage in the front of the chakra (the giving side of the chakra) and a weakness in the back of the chakra (the receiving side of the chakr). We can all benefit from a little throat chakra work!

The throat chakra is the center for communication. It is the place from which we speak our truth and connect with others. It is the first chakra above the heart and represents the first chakra in the “upper” chakras associated with wisdom, spirit and thought. To begin working with the neck, starting with the physical structure is the easiest avenue. As a result of our poor posture, many can benefit from working the neck, stretching and strengthening. This combined with vocal work will help loosen and open the throat chakra and facilitate better communication and listening.

Neck Stretches

The most basic way to access and work with the throat chakra is through the structure of the neck. Begin your practice with some basic neck stretches. Turn the head from left to right several times. Drop the chest to the chin and lengthen the crown forward. After several breaths, lengthen up through the chin as you lift your gaze to the ceiling. Do not let the head drop back, keep the cervical spine long. After several breaths, drop the chin to the chest then on inhale roll the right ear to the right shoulder. Bring the right hand to the let side of the head and apply gentle pressure, lengthen the left fingertips toward the floor. Find some small movements, shake the head yes and no and open and close the mouth. Release the right hand, take a few more movements. Bring the right hand to the right side of the head and press the head up to center as you find a neutral spine. Complete the same sequence on the other side. Take an exhale and drop the chin to the chest, roll the head from side to side with the breath. After several rounds complete full circles with the head in both directions. Finish the sequence by bringing the chin to the chest, squeeze the shoulder blades together on the back. Breathe here for 5 breaths.

Woodchopper: Clear Out the Blockages

image from energyenhancement.org

One of my all time favorite throat chakra clearing exercises! The picture shows the hands going between the legs, in my variation I have students stand feet shoulder width apart with a little bend to the knees. Arms are lifted up alongside the ears on inhale and on exhale the arms are swept alongside the legs and back behind the body. On the exhale make a loud “HA” noise, or if any other sound needs to escape use that. As you prepare for the practice and move into it, imagine all the spaces in your life when you haven’t been able to speak your truth, speak your mind or perhaps even share your voice. With each “HA” allow yourself to release these memories and release the energetic blockages they’ve created in the throat.

Restorative Neck Stretches

End the practice with several restorative neck stretches. Start on the back and bend the knees, set the feet to the floor and come up into bridge pose. Take a block and slide it underneath the fleshy part of the butt and the sacrum. Rest here for 3-5 minutes. Let the back of the head be heavy. To come out rise up onto the toes, lift off the block, slide it out of the way and roll down one vertebrae at a time. Next prepare for a supported fish pose. Roll over to the side, come up to your seat, take a bolster and lay it lengthwise on the mat. Sit on the edge of the bolster and recline back. The shoulders should be on the bolster, the edge of the bolster follows the length of the bolster as the back of the head touches the floor (see a more supported version above for those with neck injuries). Stay here for at least 3 minutes. Breathe into the front of the throat. Ensure the teeth are not clenched. Breathe. To come out roll over to one side into fetal position, press up to a seat and clear the mat for savasana.

The Heart Chakra: A Bridge Between the 3rd & 5th Chakra

This was our final week exploring the heart chakra. This last week we worked with the flow of energy to the heart center. The heart chakra holds a unique place in the chakra system as it governs as a bridge between the lower/physical chakras and the upper/spiritual chakras. It is the melding of the gross and the subtle here with love that we find the true union of the physical world and the spiritual world.

If, as we’ve discussed in previous weeks, we have built walls, blocks and other protection around the heart, running this energy becomes increasingly difficult. Lower chakras can atrophy without the touch of the divine, and upper chakras have trouble staying grounded without the the touch of physical reality. We need both kinds of energy and the heart is the bridge. Use the following practices to fortify the bridge of the heart and bring your energy into alignment in the chakras.

Mudra for the Heart

Gyan mudra is a simple and widely used mudra. It is often used in meditation and in beginning yoga practices. It is also a beautiful practice for opening the heart and it offers the bridging of energy of the lower and higher chakras much in the same way the heart bridges the energy of the lower and upper chakras. To practice this mudra, bring the thumb and the first finger of the right and left hands together. Bring the left hand to rest on the leg, palm face up. Bring the right hand, palm facing the chest, to the chest with the thumb and first finger resting on the sternum. Close the eyes and start to find the breath. Give yourself about 2-3 minutes to drop into the flow of the energy in the body. Feel the rise of the energy up the spine on the inhale and the descent of energy down the spine on the exhale. Follow this for 10 breaths and then move your awareness into the heart. Focus on the heart and begin to draw energy up the spine from base of spine to heart and down the spine from crown of head to heart. Keep drawing breath from earth and sky into the body and into the heart. Stay here for 2-5 minutes and when you are done, release the mudra and spend 10 breaths noticing any shifts in your body.

Poses for Feeling the Bridge of the Heart

In each of the poses shown below, feel the energy running along the spine–tailbone to heart and crown to heart. Connect with that flow of prana and then connect with the flow of prana extended out through the arms on the second and third poses. Do this is a series, beginning with Bridge and ending with Bridge.

Bridge Pose

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lunge with Twist

 

 

 

 

 

 

Warrior I with Arm Variations

 

 

 

 

 

Bridging Earth and Sky Mediation

Come to lie on your back. Close your eyes and bring your focus to the heart. As you focus on the heart center, envision a deep emerald green orb of light resting at the chest. Take an exhale and drop a green cord of light from the back of the heart through the body and into the floor. Send it deep into the earth and let it fan out like roots of a tree. With each breath send the roots deeper. After 5 breaths reverse the flow of energy and like nutrients and water rising up roots to feed a plant, draw diamond white light up the root system, through the cord and into the heart. Fill the heart with diamond white light. Continue with this visualization for 10 breaths. Then move the awareness to the front of the chest, push an emerald green cord of light from the heart center up toward the ceiling through the roof and into the sky. Send it up toward a celestial body of your choice: sun, moon, stars or planets. Connect with the energy of that body and then draw it back down the cord of light, see it as shimmering golden light that travels back into the the heat center and fills the heart. Take 10 breaths allowing diamond white light and golden light to mingle in the heart center. Stay here for 5 minutes and when you feel complete slowly begin moving the body and as you’re ready open your eyes.

Healing the Heart: 4th Chakra Practices

“Just as we open and heal the body by sensing its rhythms and touching it with a deep and kind attention, so we can open and heal other dimensions of our being.  The heart and the feelings go through a similar process of healing through the offering of our attention to their rhythms, nature and needs.  Most often, opening the heart begins by opening to a lifetime’s accumulation of unacknowledged sorrow, both our personal sorrows and the universal sorrows of warfare, hunger, old age, illness and death. At time we may experience this sorrow physically as contractions and barriers around our heart, but more often we feel the depth of our wounds, our abandonment, our pain as unshed tears. The Buddhists describe this as an ocean of human tears larger than the four great oceans. As we take the one seat and develop a meditative attention, the heart presents itself naturally for healing.” – Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart

The past few weeks we have started gently exploring the heart. Heart work is deep, profound and sometimes scary work. As we open up the heart we are witness to all of our old hurts, traumas and heartaches. Reliving this pain can be difficult, but is the only way to release it and let it go. This week we began to explore some of the barriers around the heart. It is quite common that when we experience heartbreaking moments in our life we put up walls to protect ourselves. While it serves us briefly, in time, as we build up walls we block our ability to receive love and we also create holding in the physical body in the area too. Tight chest, shoulders and mid-back can all be signs of physical armoring created by energetic heart protection. Our work this week involved ringing out that tightness to release old holding in the physical body and in the subtle body. We often alternated poses that squeezed the heart, either front or back and then opened the heart. The entire practice focused on remaining present, and as Jack Kornfield wrote, bringing a “deep and kind attention” to our practice.

Sounds & Color for the Heart Chakra

Sound and color are an easy way to activate the energy flow of the heart before beginning a practice like this. As we initiate the flow of energy, we can start to feel those places that are flowing evenly and smoothly. Simultaneously, we can also start to feel those places where energy bumps up against blockages, walls and stagnation.

Use the color of the heart for visual meditations and use the sounds to open practice or during poses where things feel particularly stuck. The heart chakra is associated with the color green. I often see this green as a deep, dark emerald color that not only fills the heart center but travels out through the lungs, shoulders and out through arms, through forearms and into the hands.

The seed syllable of the 4th chakra is YAM. Chant this as you open your practice just like you would chant the sound of OM or use it when you run into a particularly strong barrier around the heart.

Eagle Arms Variations

Working the arms of eagle pose is a great way to work on gently squeezing the front of the chest, ringing out tension and when coupled with chest openers, a beautiful way to promote the flow of blood and lymph in the chest. The following sequence is adapted from a sequence taught by Tias Little in his Bones, Blood and Joints workshop.  Come to lie on your back, legs long, feet active. Bring the arms straight up toward the ceiling, arms stacking over shoulders. Bend the elbows, hold either elbow (as Tias says, like a Russian dancer) and lengthen the forearms up toward the ceiling. Take 5 breaths and then drop the shoulders down into the floor. Now take an exhale and drop the arms to the right, head to the left. On inhale find center and exhale to the opposite side. Do 5 rounds both sides and come to center. Extend the arms straight up this time brining them together into prayer. Lengthen the fingertips toward the ceiling by drawing up and out of the shoulder. On exhale cross right arm over left into eagle. Press the forearms and elbows up toward the ceiling. Breathe into the back heart and the gentle pressure on front chest. After 5 breaths, take an exhale drop arms right, head left. Inhale center, exhale arms left gaze right. Complete 5 more rounds each side and then switch the eagle cross. Complete the sequence with left arm over right. Once complete come to center, extend the arms up toward the ceiling and clasp the hands, press the palms up to the ceiling. Lift the shoulders off the floor, take 5 breaths. On exhale drop the shoulders back to the floor, inhale here and exhale let the arms float up overhead to the floor behind you. Press out through the heels of the feet and the palms of the hands. Lengthen the body and feel the space in the heart center. Allow the breath to be deep and connect with the flow of the breath. Take 10 breaths here, release the arms and draw the knees into the chest to complete.

Vajrapradama Mudra

image from yogajournal.it

After all the breaking down that happened during class, it was important to take time to build things back up. Vajrapardama mudra is perfect for this. The is one of my favorite mudras to practice when I’m feeling tender around my heart. It helps to build back up the energies of the heart and fortify us through our own compassion for self. To practice this mudra, find a comfortable seat. Clasp the hands in front of you, palms facing in toward the body, and draw the hands to the chest. The center of the palms should be resting directly over the heart center, thumbs pointing up toward the collar bones. Close the eyes and begin to breathe into the space underneath the hands. First simply feel the movement of the lungs and the rise and fall of the breath. After 10 breath cycles, connect with the sensation under the hands. Notice if you feel warmth or coolness, tingling in the hands or sensations of tightness or opening in the sternum. Breathe into the experience and connect with the feeling of compassion. If it is easier to do so, first think of someone or something you feel compassion toward. Draw that feeling into your chest and then if your are able to, begin to direct that same feeling toward yourself. As you experience the state of compassion toward self, breathe and continue to hold the mudra. Stay here for at least 2 minutes, but longer if you like. When you feel complete lower the hands and complete 10 cycles of breath with the eyes still closed. Notice changes in the breath and body and when you feel ready, open the eyes.