Monday, December 31, 2012

Setting Your Sights on the New Year

One of the most challenging yoga transitions is swinging one leg up to lunge from down dog. It requires open hips, but also a steady eye that looks a few inches ahead of where the foot needs to land. Balance poses, too, are difficult and require steadfast visual attention to stay upright. Where we set our sights, it turns out, is critical to where we’ll land.

A recent New York Times article, “Keeping Your Eye on the Ball,” reports on research which finds most adults are not able to keep their eyes on the ball in golf and other sports. This affects their performance as well as how they think and feel while in the action. According to the researchers, “a quiet, focused eye seems to encourage a quiet, focused mind, which then makes for more accurate putting.” Unfortunately, they conclude, “many people do not look at the right place at the right time.”

In yoga, this quiet, focused eye the research describes is called “drishti,” or sight. It’s a gazing technique to help develop concentration and clear seeing. Where our eyes go, so goes our attention. In Ashtanga yoga, each asana, or pose, has a specific drishti. For example, in down dog, the gaze is on the navel (not to be confused with “contemplating one’s navel”). The purpose of a drishti in asana poses is to create awareness and steadiness in the movement and the moment—to see what is actually happening.

More broadly, drishti is where we place our focus and attention. And paying attention, really, is the most effective way to create change or achieve a certain outcome. As we move into a new year, I’ve been thinking about what I want to be different and how to make those changes happen. The practice of drishti offers some guidance.

If you, too, are looking to make a change, here’s a new perspective: 
  • Balance your outward and inner focus. Keep both an outward directed vision and an inner awareness. This complementary seeing helps unite the mind and body toward a particular action. This balance of mind, body, and spirit also connects us to our full potential. Too much inner focus can get us stuck, while too much looking outside ourselves may cause grasping at the wrong things.
  • Consider a softer gaze. The practice of drishti requires a soft gaze that develops over time. It’s a compassionate view toward ourselves and others rather than a rigid or judgmental one. This softer kind of seeing or direction toward a particular aim clears the mind of prejudices that may cloud our perceptions. Letting go of harsh appraisals of ourselves and others frees us from things that can distract us from a goal.
  • See what’s really there. The kind of purposeful attentive focus that comes from the practice of drishti improves the ability to see our true self—our own divine nature and that of others. This lens of seeing the world and ourselves is the path to intentional, meaningful action. With this kind of imagination, it’s really possible to do almost anything.

If you want to practice drishti in an asana, try a simple Vrksasana, or tree pose (pictured). A fixed, steady gaze several feet ahead that is eye level or a bit lower helps enormously to remain upright in this balancing pose. But should you fall out, it’s the perfect opportunity to be compassionate toward yourself. That is the true practice.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Good Vibrations: A Five-Step Sound Practice to Quiet the Mind

In Ayurveda, simple daily practices, called dinacharya, attend to the five sense organs—eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin—the way we take in the world. Just as the foods we eat, the air we breathe, and our visual stimuli impact our mental and physical health, so do the sounds we hear—in our environment as well as the chatter inside our heads. 

Sounds We Take In Matter

Sound has the power to change our mood, create or relieve stress, affect our blood pressure, produce endorphins, and build proteins in the body that nourish the immune system. There is a decided physical and emotional response to sound. Think of the unrelenting noise of a jackhammer—or one too many ads on television. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the gentle pulse of ocean waves or the coo of your child.

All things have their own vibrating energy, from trees to stars, and of course our own bodies. And all vibrations have a sound, although some not as audible as others. Within our body, each component, such as the liver or heart, emits a sound creating a small symphony that is you.

Long-term exposure to any particular internal or external vibratory patterns—positive or negative—can alter our own vibrations to the new pattern (called “entrainment”). This is why it’s best to be intentional about the sounds we take in or feed ourselves with our thinking.

The Right Sounds Can Heal

Part of attending to the body’s delicate sound system (ears) in yoga and Ayurveda includes the practice of chanting. The accumulated knowledge of the sciences of yoga and Ayurveda are recorded in Sanskrit and for hundreds of years chanting or vocalizing Sanskrit words or mantras has been part of these healing and spiritual practices.

According to Sanskrit teacher Nicolai Bachman, “For millennia the profound teachings of India have been chanted over and over, preserving the essence of their meaning…. [and] forms a direct link to the vibrations of ancient India through sound.”

The human ear and the palate within the mouth hold connections to the body’s nervous system. This includes 82 reflex points located on the hard and soft palates which are awakened by speech and vocalizations. Vocal sound production is also known to affect the vagus nerve, which is key to switching on the parasympathetic (or rest and digest) systems in the body.

The Sanskrit alphabet happens to be perfectly designed for the human vocal apparatus and employs all five mouth positions, activating the nervous system of the body. So chanting a Sanskrit mantra of any length can be especially healing, opening the mind to new energy and grace as well as creating a sense of calm.  

A Simple Five-Step Chanting Practice

Recently I’ve attended a yoga class where the teacher incorporates simple one-syllable chanting. Hearing the vibration of several voices repeating the same sound, and my own voice resonating in my body is surprisingly comforting and stabilizing. As a result, I’ve slowly added simple chanting to my personal practice.

According to Ayurvedic doctor David Frawley, much like a yoga posture (asana) brings a certain kind of energy to the body, so do certain Sanskrit sounds or mantras. Mantras are like a pose for the mind.

Here's a simple chant if you want to give it a try:

1.     Find a comfortable seated position, such as sukasana (easy cross legged position), or another position that is comfortable either on your yoga mat or a chair. Consider finding a spot outdoors to mingle with the sounds of nature.

2.     Start with the Sanskrit long vowel “ā” (pronounced ah as in “father”). Basically all you need to do is open your mouth and make a sound. It stimulates the first position in the mouth which is toward the back of the throat.

3.     Place your hands over your heart if you’d like to remind yourself to keep an open heart and better feel the vibration of the sound in your body. Or, on the inhale reach your arms up toward the sky and on the exhale bring them to your heart. 

4.     Begin to repeat “ā” with your breath in whatever pitch or volume you choose (or happens). Complete as few or as many rounds as you want. This practice encourages lengthening the exhale, so it should feel calming and quiet the mind.
5.     Follow this with a long bout of silence. That is golden.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Five Fixes for Untying the Knots of a “Nervous” Stomach

I’ve just come out of a several weeks season of feeling overwhelmed—too many tasks and deadlines, a drum beat of personal demands, lots of waking up at 2:37 am, an irregular and fast-paced schedule,and underneath it all a churning and persistent anxiousness. The whole thing was “gut wrenching.”

And I mean this in a literal way. My stomach didn’t like it. Ayurveda—and new research—help explain exactly why this is. The gut, which includes the esophagus, stomach, and intestines, is often referred to as our second or “little” brain, exerting control over our moods and appetite. That tossing and turning in your stomach—it’s trying to tell you something.

This second brain does the work of digesting food, breaking it down and providing nutrients to the body’s seven vital tissues, or “dhatus” in Ayurveda, allowing for nourishment and growth. The neurons lining the digestive system also have the task of staying in communication with your brain. This process is accomplished via the vagus nerve, which is the primary conduit between the brain and the gut. And the communication between the two goes both ways—the gut giving information or orders to the brain and vice versa.

The Wall Street Journal reported on a variety of research (“A Gut Check for Many Ailments that shows “problems in the gut may cause problems in the brain, just as a mental ailment, such as anxiety, can upset the stomach.” And hormones and neurotransmitters in the gut also interact with the lungs, heart, and other organs.

So, if we’re anxious or in distress or fearful or experiencing any number mental stresses, it’s going to affect our digestion, our appetite, our ability to feel hunger or fullness, and even how, when, and what we eat. These in turn impact our weight, sleep, mood, energy level, metabolism, and ability to fight off colds and other illnesses.

To help improve digestion and our mental state, Ayurveda offers simple guidance: 

  • Taste and chew your food. This sounds pretty basic, but when anxious, we often forget to chew, swallowing food practically whole. According to Ayurveda, the first stage of digestion starts in the mouth, where taste and chewing stimulate the production of saliva and signal to the small intestines and stomach to begin digestion. The next six stages of digestion are associated with the six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent). While you may be left at the table, Ayurveda recommends chewing your food until it’s liquid. Whatever you do, eat a variety of “tastes” to create satisfaction, and chew and savor your food
  • Slow down. Eating too fast or gobbling down food hovering over the sink, in the car, or on the run overloads the system and causes indigestion. Fast eating also tends to increase swallowing more air, which can produce gas. Eating at a slowed-down pace allows time for the gut and brain to communicate and trigger satisfaction or fullness. It takes about 20 minutes for food to get from the stomach to the ileum, which releases the amino acid Peptide YY (PYY) that signals or sends the message to the brain, "I'm full." 
  • Eat warm, moist foods. When you’re under stress or occupied with worry or fear, warm, moist, cooked foods are easier to digest. This includes foods like soups, warm oatmeal with cinnamon and almonds, rice and stir-fried vegetables, and ginger tea or warm water with lemon. And avoid drinking ice water with meals. Ayurvedic practitioner Dr. Claudia Welch, author of Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life, offers good advice for when you’re under stress: “The more complicated your physical, emotional, or spiritual life, the simpler your diet should be."
  • Avoid eating when you feel anxious. Again, this sounds obvious, but sometimes the first thing we want to do when under stress is eat. So, while not easy, take a pause before you reach for food. Create an eating experience that is separate from any intense emotional events or feelings. Why? Stress weakens the digestive fire or agni, and can interfere with production of enzymes needed for digestion. Eat in a calm environment—outside in nature can be especially soothing. Turn off the TV or move away from the computer or smart phone.
  • When you eat, eat. Avoid multi-tasking while eating. Mindful or intentional eating will encourage nourishment rather than a grasping for comfort or distraction. Ayurveda suggests eating your biggest meal at midday when the digestive fire is strongest—in sync with the sun. And try not to eat anything 2-3 hours before bed for better sleep. The takeaway—make eating a fully present experience.
After the past few months, these Ayurvedic tips are mostly a reminder for me, but if any of it strikes a chord for you, here's to happy and unhurried eating.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Lightening Up

While I’ve always been a minimalist, a less-is-more type of person, I have truly reached a point where the tug of having, of wanting things (even beautiful things), has lost its pull. I don't dream of possessions. I dream of experiences, of more time, of being with people, of eating yummy food, but not of things themselves.

How to Lose a Lot of Weight in Six Days

I was headed in this direction anyway, but everything reached a zenith after my Mom moved to an assisted-living facility and a few years later my Dad died in the house I grew up in. To get the house ready to sell, my two sisters (with their families in tow) and I had to clean out 44 years worth of accumulated stuff from my parents’ 2,300 square foot, 8-car garage house (photo below). 

In six days we managed to whittle things down to the furniture, some keepsakes, and a few other items of value. We filled three dumpsters, had a two-car-garage-worth of stuff picked up by Salvation Army, gave away more items to a church charity, had a haul to e-waste, a haul to hazardous waste, three cars picked up to be taken to my cousin's for sale, four antique cars put up for sale, and the sorting and tossing of boxes and boxes of personal belongings.

What to Do With All This Stuff

Amidst dealing with all of these possessions, I realized I had not needed or missed any of it. It might as well have been buried in a landfill as in an attic. When I went to visit my Dad’s grave during this clean out and there was simply nothing there but grass, I thought, “All this stuff and nothing goes with you.” And when we took a few items to my Mom that we thought she might want, she simply said upon inspecting each one, “What will I do with it?” or “Where will I put it?” Good questions.

And finally, I had identified about three boxes worth of items that I thought I might want to keep and had them shipped to my house. The minute I saw UPS take them away, I suddenly and secretly hoped that they would be lost. When they did arrive, I let them sit in my condo association package room for nearly two weeks until I started getting polite, but firm emails. I was asking the same questions as my Mom.

Is Your Yoga Practice Making You Heavy?

So, I’m on a personal quest to let go of things—mostly in my house, but also more unexpected places. In my yoga practice, I find that being on the mat can sometimes weigh me down rather than feel joyful. Yoga means “to unite,” “to yoke together,” and all of that’s good, but it can sometimes be a yoke that’s not a tool, but a burden. What’s the stuff we hold on to in yoga?

I suppose it starts with wanting to achieve certain asanas, collecting poses you can do, and the striving to get in to postures that require some kind of super-human strength. Or perhaps feeling like you have to practice every day or else you’ve failed.  Or, expecting every yoga class you teach to be a blissful homerun.  But how does grasping for “things” or certain outcomes serve us?

I love the occasional exhilaration of a handstand or wheel pose (photo above), but there is also the recognition that today a pose is accessible—maybe not tomorrow. Clinging to the achievement of a yoga pose is like the heaviness of carrying around a lot of stuff. It is a weighty burden to ensure a certain outcome or expectation, besides filling up a lot of mental space.

Setting Down the Load

Opening to a daily practice that builds and grows in uncertain ways can lighten the load. Accept what comes, the small daily changes that unlock a closed place, strengthen a weak one, or challenge fears. Perhaps allow your yoga practice to randomly manifest somewhere in your everyday raggedy life. That is the magic of yoga. 

In the end, we’re left with experiences, a few photos, the promise of more connection, more love, being part of something big even if that part is small, and perhaps finding a kind of self-acceptance outside of the “stuff” of life. Let go of some “thing” and unburden yourself. Or, at the very least, clean out a closet.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Ayurvedic Remedies to Heal Anxiety

We’re all likely to experience some level of anxiety during the course of things. It happens. At least it happens to me. This may be the result of real or imagined fears, financial or job changes, tensions in a primary relationship, or just an overall feeling of things being not quite right.

How do you know it’s anxiety you’re feeling? Your body’s warning signs can include shortness of breath, hyperventilating or “over” breathing, a queasy feeling in the “pit” of your stomach, insomnia, trouble concentrating, and much more.

Mostly, anxiety is reflected in the quality of the breath. One reason, according to Ayurveda, is that anxiety is a vata aggravation in the nervous system. One of the three doshas, vata is dominated by air and ether (space) elements. Altering the breath or using other remedies that deepen and slow the breath—especially the exhale—will help pacify and balance vata.

Plus, altering your breathing is one of the quickest and most effective ways to change how you feel. I recently attended an evening workshop with Kira Ryder (one of Yoga Journal’s Top 21 Yoga Teachers under the age of 40) and she talked about the centrifugal force which moves things away from the center, dispersing and disconnecting. Think of the breath like this when under anxiety. The opposing centripetal force connects and draws things back to their center. This kind of integration is the healing power of focusing on our breath to relax and steady the nerves.

Try one of these simple Ayurvedic remedies to help relieve anxiety:

1.    Strike a pose. Start with crocodile (Makarasana). This easy yoga pose quickly establishes deep, relaxed diaphragmatic breathing as the belly must push into the floor with each inhale. It’s a quick antidote to anxiety, and creates immediate breath awareness. Here are the details to get in to crocodile.

 2.    Find a quiet place and breathe. Simple and healing diaphragmatic breathing, often called “belly breathing,” is an easy way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and tell the body it’s safe to relax. Belly breathing creates expansion in the abdomen and sides of the body rather than the upper chest. It’s the breathing of a newborn baby.

3.    Lengthen the exhale. Once you get the hang of belly breathing (place you hands on the abdomen or lower rib cage to bring attention to where you will feel the expansion of breath), consider slowly beginning to extend the exhale until it becomes twice as long as the inhale. This 1:2 breathing is especially helpful for insomnia. Kate Holcombe’s recent article in Yoga Journal on “Healing Breaths,” is fabulous and describes both diaphragmatic breathing and 1:2 breathing. Check it out. 

4.    Massage feet and head before bed. If you’re having trouble getting to sleep, spend a few minutes before bedtime gently massaging your scalp and bottoms of the feet with warm almond oil, sesame oil, or other natural oil with an aroma you enjoy. This is a deeply soothing and self-nurturing practice.

Ayurveda also recommends taking almond milk (click for recipe) to quell anxiety and ease sleep. Or simply open the door, plant your feet, and take a walk. Being outside is healing. Evidence suggests being in nature does everything from boost the immune system to fight depression and reduce stress.

Give one of these antidotes a try and begin to feel that calming ahhhhh….
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