by Katharine Otis
Yoga is a process of the flowering of the Self, which could be compared to tending to a garden, and its practices (asana, pranayama, meditation) are like garden tools that can be used to make both subtle and gargantuan shifts upon the surface of ones inner landscape. The Yogi(ni)s plants seeds of peace, self-awareness and contentment through their practice and bit-by-bit the tools cultivate more peace, self-awareness and contentment in their everyday lives. Knowing which tool to use at which time and in which degree is what can potentially make one a successful gardener or Yoga practitioner.
The backyard of my childhood home was a place of great curiosity and wonder and often I would sneak between the ferns and bushes to look at the world from a snail’s perspective. On one such visit to the backyard I remember spitting out a cherry seed into my hand and planting it not even an inch into the soil. In my young mind, I was certain there would be a cherry tree in that place the following week. A week passed, nothing. A month passed, nothing. The next year, nothing. Uncertain why it didn’t take, I forgot about the cherry seed and went on with my life.
When a student is introduced to the practice for the first time it is like they are holding the seed of Yoga in their palms. Many great outcomes are possible for that very seed, but without the right conditions for the seed to germinate and grow nothing will happen.
How to practice sowing the seed prana in the body?
Step 1 Stratification: Before the Yogi(ni) begins a breathing practice there must be a moment of gathering one’s attention and awareness within, by closing one’s eyes and sitting in an upright meditative posture one can transition from the world of the senses into the awareness of the body breathing. Without this time to simply observe the breath and the mind, there will be a lack of clarity regarding what needs to be practiced and cultivated specifically by the individual.
Step 2 Plant yourself: There are many different breathing practices and each has a different effect. For example: Ujjai Pranayama (breath of victory) is used for an overactive body and mind that needs focusing, while Kapalabhati Pranayama (skull shining breath) is used for one lacking mental and physical energy in order to show up to the practice with vigor. Committing to the right breathing practice at the right time is incredibly important for the seed to take.
Step 3 Nourish yourself appropriately: In Yoga sutra 2.50, Sri Patanjali describes the extension of prana in the physical body as a process that happens by allowing the breath to become slower (Kala) and more subtle (Sukshma). Applied to the metaphor of gardening, one shouldn’t just throw a bucket of water on a seedling and expect great things, one should water the seedling with a mister or a hose, slowing down the passage of water from the source to roots thus assuring the efficient landing of nourishment in the right place. The yogi(ni) doesn’t breath in a general way, but begins to get specific as where the prana is being sent in the physical, emotional, and spiritual bodies.
Step 4 Residing in grace: Once the seeds of Yoga have been planted and watered, the last step is to let go and bask in the glory of God. Yoga practitioners recognize that the source that created them is in everything, including ones own most basic experience. Not every seed will sprout immediately, but through continued effort, bit-by-bit, wonderful things will begin to emerge. One’s face become sweeter by meditating on their own light. One’s limbs become servants of the soul, which carry the practitioner with ease. One understands the nature of one’s own suffering. Stay patient and committed. The purpose of all the breathing practices are to contain the vital force that moves through the breath into body in order to reside in one’s own light. In this way the Yogi(ni) begins to move forward in life with clarity and eminence. As the great teacher T. Krishnamacharya said,
“Inhale, and God approaches you. Hold the inhalation, and God remains with you. Exhale, and you approach God. Hold the exhalation, and surrender to God.”
For more information on how to plant cherry seeds, Click Here
by Laura Malouf-Renning
For as long as I can remember, being in tight, crowded spaces has always been a stressor for me. Even as a kid, I would feel my chest get tight, my heart start to pound, and my breath come in shallow, rapid gasps. My mom would notice what was going on and begin singing to me. Since I’ve never been able to resist the siren call of a song, I would start singing with her, and eventually the tension would begin to fade, and I’d be able to cope with my surroundings. Over time, that was how my family coped with stressful moments; we would sing to each other. My sister and I even wound up singing camp fire songs to each other on my wedding day to soothe my nerves.
My family had stumbled upon a rather powerful practice without knowing it: pranayama. The word comes from the Sanskrit root words “Prana”, meaning our life force or energy, and “Ayama” which means to retain or control. The most tangible way for us to notice the movement of prana in our bodies is to observe the movement of the breath. In fact, breath itself is prana! We can live for up to ten days without sleep. We can live up to a week without food. We can live for several days without water. But without the breath, we can only live for a few moments. So in essence, our breath is the link between our physical body and our energetic body. Since the average person breathes about 20,000 times a day, we have ample opportunity to observe how the breath affects our mind, our emotions, and our physical body.
By altering how we use our breath, we can influence the very health of our body, mind, and emotions. More energizing breath practices like kapallabhati (skull shining breath), Breath of fire, and Ujaiyi breath (victorious breath), can act as a cosmic cup of coffee to wake us up, fire up our metabolism, and even lift us up out of the heavy funk many of us may have found us in this winter. More soothing breathing practices like rhythmic belly breathing (exhale twice as long as inhale), nadi sodhana (alternate nostril breathing), and sitali (cooling breath) can cool us down, soothe anxiety, and balance our minds. By altering our breathing patterns according to what we need, we can direct our own prana wherever it needs to go in order to heal ourselves. Amazing!
This is why singing with others and chanting can feel so good. When we sing, we are working with a lengthened exhale, which turns off the fight or flight response and turns on the rest and digest response. In addition, the soothing vibrations of our voices nourish and balance our mind and emotions by stimulating the ventral vagus nerve. A number of scientific studies have shown that this nerve stimulation increases heart rate variability, which guards our bodies against heart attack and stroke, and even stimulates our immune system. So, chanting not only feels good; it’s actually good FOR you!
Our breath is inextricably intertwined with our yoga practice on the mat. Each inhale and exhale moves us mindfully and smoothly from one asana to another, anchoring us in the present. When I first began practicing yoga, I noticed that I felt more connected to myself and others, as well as less leery of crowds when I had made it to my mat that day. Now as a yoga teacher, I have a daily breath and asana practice that anchors me in my day.
A testament to my daily practice arose while I was on vacation last week in New York City. I was at Penn Station at rush hour, and I boarded a crowded A Train in order to make my way back to my hotel. We were packed in like sardines, but this time I noticed something different: I was completely calm and at ease. My breathing was slow and deep, and I was able to enjoy the experience and the people around me. It was at that moment I realized that my sense of peace wasn’t dependent on my outer environment; it was wholly dependent on my sense of inner space. If I can find that in New York City rush hour, I can find it anywhere. And so can you.
Laura teaches regularly at Laughing Lotus San Francisco. To find out when you can catch one of her classes, visit our class schedule page. (Click Here)
Standing on our head flips our world upside down, quite literally! Practicing Sirsasana (headstand) can help us face our fears both on and off the mat, and serve to shift our perspective and see the flip side of life! Check out Brima’s beautiful demonstration of how to practice this famous inversion
If you want to learn more from Brima, come check out his amazing Lotus Flow 2 Classes on Mondays & Wednesdays from 6:45pm-8:15pm
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