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.

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