I’m postponing my previously scheduled pranayama post to bring you this: Yoga Mob Celebrates Summer Solstice in Times Square. What an amazing crowd! Here’s another longer story about the event.
(Photo by sjunat55, courtesy of CNN iReport.)
This month, my homework was to practice pranayama exercises (diaphragmatic breathing, three-part breathing, and alternate-nostril breathing) every day, and to keep a journal of my reflections and observances. Overall I felt like this was pretty difficult for me, because I still have trouble observing myself internally without altering the behavior I’m observing. In terms of pranayama, that meant that while I was sitting there breathing, I’d be wondering if I’m doing the breathing technique correctly, wondering if I should be feeling calmer right now, and wondering if I’ve felt more calm over the past few weeks. I know that pranayama practice and meditation are supposed to be two different things, but for me right now they sure look and feel the same: I’m sitting quietly on the floor paying attention to my breathing and trying not to get distracted.
So. The stats for my breathing. I can do stats. Since the last teacher training weekend, I neglected to practice breathing on 4 days, but I did practice on 26 days. I may not have been really engaged every time I practiced, and my practice sessions may have been shorter or longer in duration, but I did some sort of pranayama practice on 26 of the past 30 days. I feel proud that I accomplished this.
I’ll talk about each pranayama technique in order. I did try to practice them in this order in each session, but there were times when I skipped one or another technique, and at bedtime, it seemed to make more sense to practice them in the opposite order (alternate nostril first, then three-part, then diaphragmatic). Also, I strove to practice ujjayi breathing during all the pranayama techniques; this seemed to help me get a deeper stronger inhale, and it also helped me to inhale at all through a clogged nostril during alternate nostril breathing.
Diaphragmatic breathing: I struggled with this during the course of the month. I kept thinking that I wasn’t doing the technique correctly; diaphragmatic breath is supposed to be a deep lung-filling breath, but as I experienced it, using just the diaphragm to breathe and not the chest didn’t fill me up enough. I often found myself yawning or sighing with relief after a round of diaphragmatic breath. I did discover that diaphragmatic breath seemed easier and more comfortable when I was lying on my back, and so it was pleasant to practice it at bedtime. After continued practice, I do think I’ve improved in my practice of this technique, and my seated practice has become more comfortable and satisfying, but even up until a few days ago I was still experiencing shortness of breath after practicing. I think I need more work on this.
Three-part breathing: By far this was my favorite technique to practice. This technique combines the deep diaphragmatic breath with chest and clavicular action to really fill up the whole lung. I found it really satisfying and calming as well, and I often practiced this technique on its own (for example, between emails at work, or on the train). At the beginning of the month, I sometimes felt dizzy or light-headed after 10-15 three-part breaths, but that feeling faded. I do sometimes feel the need for a yawn or deep sigh after practicing this technique, but not nearly as often as with diaphragmatic breath. I found that this technique was not comfortable to practice while lying down (this is why it made more sense to me to work in backwards order at bedtime – I did the seated practices first, then laid down for diaphragmatic breath).
In part 2: my experiences with alternate nostril breathing (the technique I felt most conflicted about) and my feelings about how the pranayama practice affected my life and my attitudes over the past month (because I think it did)!
“Buddhist training offers an alternative approach to experiencing life from an essentially fear-based perspective of survival in favor of experiencing it as a parade of odd and wonderful events.” – Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living, page 81
Dear readers, here at the yoga blog I try to keep the focus on what you’re here for: the yoga. But lately I’ve been taking stock of where I’m at and what else is going on in my life, and I thought you might indulge me in some personal reflections.
One year ago next week, I married an amazing man. Afterwards we crashed out for a while, then got started planning a spectacular (and yogaful!) honeymoon in Belize. With those milestones over, I thought 2011 would be a year to get back to some old projects and start on new ones. I had no idea how much sheer stuff was going to happen in 2011. I had some vague goals in mind: make progress with yoga and maybe look for a teacher training program; get back to my writing and try to make some progress towards starting a freelance editing business; and on a personal level, think about maybe buying a house. Here’s what’s actually happened so far this year:
And 2011 is only half over! Look at how many things I’ve done and how many things have happened already. On the horizon, I know that we’re going to get our car fixed, spend all our savings on a house, and pack all our stuff and move into said house; I know that F is going to attend a two-week writing conference that will be good for his career (but lonely for his loving wife), and I’ll finish my teacher training and become a registered yoga teacher (again, god willing and the creek don’t rise). I know that we have these things planned now, but I don’t know how the details are going to unfold. I don’t know what wonderful surprises the rest of 2011 has in store for us.
So, happy early-anniversary to my wonderful F. I assume we’ll still be married, not only on our actual anniversary on Monday, but for many more wild, enchanting, surprising, amazing years. I know that no matter what the rest of 2011 has in store for us, we’ll handle it awesomely together.
And, dear readers, happy blogiversary. We’ve been together for three months now, and it’s been pretty cool, I think. Here’s to experiencing life not as something to survive, but as a parade of odd and wonderful events. Here’s to embracing whatever comes.
A few miscellaneous thoughts on last night’s yoga class:
One of my assignments this month was to complete an ayurvedic questionnaire and explore the results. My first response was, wait, back up, what’s ayurveda?
Ayurveda is an alternative form of medicine traditional in India, with a history going back thousands of years. It’s a system of healthful, mindful living based on the concept of balancing three elemental energies called doshas: vata (air/wind), pitta (fire/water), and kapha (water/earth). Ayurveda holds that each person has different levels of these three doshas, and poor health comes from an imbalance in the doshas. Balancing the doshas, in a unique way for each individual, will lead to better health. This balance can be accomplished by focusing on diet (to improve metabolic system, digestion, and excretion), exercise, yoga, meditation, and even massage. In balancing the doshas and living in moderation, it’s thought that the body, mind, and spirit will also come into balance, improving the health of the whole person.
Each person has a unique distribution of the three doshas. Each person has some of each, but often one or two doshas are more abundant; by examining your physical attributes and personality (for example, in a quiz like this one), you can find out which is your dominant dosha. Your dosha levels can fluctuate, affecting mood and health, which is why it can be helpful to bring them back into alignment and balance! I took N’s ayurvedic questionnaire and came up almost equal in vata and pitta, with a very low level of kapha by comparison.
Vata, the air or wind element, is characterized physically by a thin, delicate body type with low body fat. A vata person is sensitive, jumpy or unable to sit still, easily overwhelmed, flighty, often runs late, easily confused. A vata dominant person who is well-balanced will demonstrate the most positive traits of this type: sharp, quick thinking, creative, while an unbalanced vata person could experience gas, bloating, lack of focus, spaciness, dry skin, nervousness, sleeplessness, and worry. A vata should avoid low-fat, raw, or cold foods in favor of warm, heavier foods.
The pitta element combines fire and water. Physically, a pitta type is medium-framed and well-proportioned; personality traits include being focused, organized, “type A”, workaholic. A pitta person tends to need to eat regularly and gets cranky when she misses a meal. When balanced, pittas are productive, organized, energetic, enthusiastic; unbalanced, pittas become agitated, irritable, and overly competitive and may experience diarrhea, rashes, and perspiration. Pittas should avoid overly spicy foods and red meat, choosing sweeter foods.
Finally, kaphas are earth and water types: physically larger or big-boned, not necessarily overweight but able to gain weight easily, and can be powerful athletes when in shape. Kaphas are grounded, stable, solid, slower moving, sensual. Balanced kaphas are reliable, dependable, calm, even-tempered, and peacemakers, while unbalanced kaphas can be lethargic, depressed, dull and sluggish, congested, and overweight. Kaphas should avoid fatty and heavy foods, dairy, and red meat, and choose lighter grains and proteins.
I think my results are pretty accurate. There were a few questions I could have answered differently, but doing so wouldn’t have changed the overall balance. I have a lot of vata and pitta characteristics. At my best I have the quickness and creativity of vata and the focus, organization, and productivity of the pitta. At my worst, I get the vata’s spaciness, dry skin, nervousness, lack of focus, and worry, and the pitta’s irritability and rashes. I definitely have the pitta need to eat regular meals (as F’s family can attest; I’ve started packing snacks for myself when we visit because they just don’t seem to eat on a schedule!). The food recommendations for vata and pitta are a little contradictory (the above is just a summary) but on both lists I see things that really appeal to me and that I’ve been naturally drawn to: lighter proteins, creamy soups, mashed sweet potatoes (vata), and fresh lime, dark leafy greens, sweet vegetables (pitta). My yoga teacher N is an ayurvedic practitioner, and I’m considering having a session with her to look at these things more closely.
Interestingly, I made F take the questionnaire with me, and he came up almost completely balanced among the three doshas. Looking at the descriptions, F has many characteristics of each dosha: he’s stronger in vata and kapha than pitta, but all three were within four points of each other. I’m not entirely sure what to make of that. Apparently I have a well-balanced husband.
A few months back, I was doing some yoga reading and came across the idea of having “two wings” to support you in your practice. In the February 2011 issue of Yoga Journal, Stacey Mietus writes about re-learning yoga after a serious injury (page 20). Mietus had been practicing yoga in a competitive way, always trying aggressively to improve her postures, but after hurting her neck she had to find a new approach. She quotes as an inspiration B.K.S. Iyengar, who wrote, “A bird cannot fly with one wing. In the same way, we need the two wings of practice and renunciation to soar.” Mietus had been practicing hard, but to keep herself healthy, she had to learn to balance with renunciation: not comparing herself with others, not judging herself when her body needed to rest. Her injury forced her to back off and take a new, gentler approach; now she strives to practice with both wings to stay balanced.
I read Mietus’s story in Yoga Journal while riding the train home from work. Later that same day, I settled down with the book The Joy of Living by Tibetan Buddhist monk Yongey Mingur Rinpoche for a little bedtime reading, and I was surprised to see Rinpoche bring up the very same idea of flying on two wings! He uses the concept in relation to Buddhist practice and study. The teachings of Buddha are often grouped into two categories: teachings on wisdom, and teachings on practice. Rinpoche tells us that Buddha himself compared these two categories to the wings of a bird, because you need both in order to fly. Without wisdom, you can’t practice properly; without practice, you may be wise but the wisdom does you no good.
Although yoga isn’t a Buddhist practice, Rinpoche’s description of the two wings in Buddhism has much in common with Mietus’s experience with yoga. Rather than putting all her energy into simply practicing hard, she needed to examine her yoga practice and approach it with more wisdom to avoid hurting herself.
Reading about the two wings in two disparate books on the same day really struck me – clearly this is something I ought to be thinking about! I like to practice yoga in a physically challenging way, but unless I am mindful in my practice, my yoga becomes only a workout without satisfying me in a spiritual way. On the other hand, right now my life is so busy that I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about yoga but don’t have much time to actually practice yoga on my mat. I crave both the mindfulness and knowledge as well as the physical practice, and I’m happiest when I have these in balance. Similarly, I often read books like Rinpoche’s about Buddhism, but until I sit down and practice meditation, the knowledge I gain from the book won’t do me any good. The practice and the knowledge go hand in hand.
In our busy world, it’s often difficult to strike a balance. What are the two wings that sustain you, and how do you keep them balanced?