Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

Pranayama Round-up, part 2 June 23, 2011

Filed under: breath,reflections — R. H. Ward @ 1:50 pm
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Seated Meditation

Back to pranayama: the continuation of my post from Tuesday.

Alternate nostril breathing: I found this breathing technique to be the most difficult and the one I least wanted to practice. Now that I use Flonase spray and a Neti pot regularly, I get more and better airflow through my nostrils than I ever have before in my life, but alternate nostril breathing still somehow made me feel like a stuffed-up kid with a cold. One nostril almost always felt very clogged, and practicing the breathing technique never seemed to help; it usually seemed to make the clog more pronounced. Usually by the end of nine rounds of alternate nostril breathing, I feel like I’m gasping through my clogged nostril, and it’s always a relief to breathe normally again. This technique was not enjoyable to practice and never really got better over the course of the month. On a practical level, I often found it difficult to remember where I was in my breath count, too, which of course is a sign that my mind isn’t quiet enough, but I still found it hard to count the rounds of breath accurately until I started counting on my fingers. I know that I should persevere and continue practicing alternate nostril breathing, but without it being an actual assignment, I’m not sure that I will.

Summary: Overall, I did enjoy the pranayama exercises this month. Some of the techniques were physically difficult, and as always I had trouble calming my mind and keeping it calm, but I did enjoy the practice and often found time to incorporate it naturally into my day (although pranayama is much harder to do in tight jeans). Practicing before bed seemed to help me to sleep better, or at least it helped me fall asleep more quickly. Also, and most importantly, I think the pranayama practice improved my overall mood this month. A lot of good things have happened in my personal life this month, but also some stressful things (like buying a house) and not-so-good things (like a car accident and my husband being injured after a fall). I think ordinarily under such circumstances I would be more stressed out, more worried, and more tense, but this month I’ve mostly been pretty serene, and I’ve been able to be a good support to my husband. In the kitchen the other day, he told me that I seemed really happy and together lately. The cause of that positive energy could be the many good things that have happened counter-balancing the stressful things; it could also be the warm weather, since I know I am always happier in summer and sunshine; but it could also be the pranayama practice. It might be a combination of all of these, which seems most likely. Since it’s very possible that the pranayama is helping me to be a calmer, happier person, I don’t really want to take a chance and stop doing it! I’m glad to have one more tool in my arsenal to help me deal with stress (and with cold and bad weather when the time comes again). I will do my best to keep finding time for pranayama practice, even alternate nostril breathing.


Pranayama Round-up, part 1 June 21, 2011

Filed under: breath,reflections — R. H. Ward @ 9:01 pm
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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)!


books: Science of Breath: A Practical Guide, by Swami Rama, et al. June 12, 2011

Filed under: books,breath — R. H. Ward @ 6:49 pm
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Science of Breath, by Swami Rama, et al.This slim book provides a practical introduction to the yogic concept of breath and how to utilize it to link body and mind. With chapters written by Swami Rama and by medical doctors, the book explores both Eastern and Western perspectives for a well-rounded view of the topic, helping the reader to understand first the mechanics of how and why we breathe before delving into the yogic breathing techniques.

The Foreword, Introduction, and Chapter 1 give background on the breath and explore the rationale behind focusing on breathing. Prana, or life energy, is defined and discussed, and the authors describe the benefits of developing a deeper awareness of our breath.

In Chapter 2, Dr. Alan Hymes explains the physical mechanics of breathing: what respiration is and why we do it, how the lungs oxygenate the blood, which muscles are involved in inhalation and exhalation, and how those muscles work. Hymes also explicates the differences between diaphragmatic breathing, thoracic/chest breathing, and clavicular/shallow breathing. The chapter reveals how breathing, a seemingly simple process, is actually a complex and vitally important function for the body.

Chapter 3 by Dr. Rudolph Ballantine details the anatomy of the nose, nasal cavity, and sinuses, and how these areas shape the air currents we breathe and the odors we smell. Ballantine gives strategies for keeping the nose healthy and functioning properly, including nasal wash (neti pot) and alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhanam).

Chapter 4, written by Swami Rama, expands upon how to regulate the breath and use it to control energy in the body. Rama likens the mind to a kite on a string: when the string is held skillfully, you can guide the kite where you want it to go, but until you learn to control the string, the kite will flap around directionlessly. Like a kite’s string, pranayama is a tool we can learn to use to control the mind. Rama states that there’s a reciprocal relationship between breath and mind. We’ve all observed that a certain mood (for example, anger, fear, or passion) can result in a change on one’s breathing pattern; the converse is also true, that consciously changing one’s breathing can affect one’s state of mind. Rama explains, “By consciously making the breath deep, even, and regular, we will experience a noticeable release of tension and an increased sense of relaxation and tranquility” (84). Rama goes on to offer a series of breathing techniques that one can use to achieve this result.

Overall, this is a useful book for anyone interested in pranayama and meditation. The photos and diagrams throughout the book are quite useful for understanding the medical anatomic concepts and the physical yoga positions described. The medically focused chapters on respiration and nasal function are particularly helpful for readers more used to Western science than Eastern philosophy, making the book a good stepping stone towards further reading, but the book is highly worthwhile in its own right as a comprehensive discussion of the function of breath.


mid-month check-in on pranayama practice June 9, 2011

Filed under: breath,checking in,reflections — R. H. Ward @ 1:38 pm
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It’s been over two weeks since my last teacher training weekend, and my next one is in just over two weeks. So how am I doing with the daily pranayama practice?

I think I’ve been doing okay. I have practiced my diaphragmatic breathing, three-part breathing, and alternate nostril breathing for 14 days out of the past 18 days. Sometimes I practice in the morning, sometimes in the evening, sometimes somewhere random like at my desk at work, in my parked car, or on the train (I can do regular breathing no problem in random places, it’s just the alternate nostril breathing that looks a little crazy to passersby and that I try to be careful of). I’ve been keeping my journal and tracking the time of day (or location if needed) and how many of each type of breath, plus any thoughts that come to me during the practice. Here are some reflections so far:

May 25: I’m starting to see correlations with the left and right dominant nostril that match up with what I’ve been taught (that when the left nostril is dominant, the body’s energy is calming, soothing, lethargic; when right nostril is dominant, body’s energy is vigorous, energetic, warmed up). I got to work yesterday and was tired – left nostril was dominant. Busy all evening, energy high, and it’s time for bed – right nostril was dominant. Woke up at 3:30 in the morning and couldn’t get back to sleep – right dominant. Woke up with the alarm and didn’t want to get out of bed – left dominant. Just observing the patterns for now and trying a little to influence them with alternate nostril breathing.

May 26: The distinct movements of the three-part breath are becoming easier, more automatic (after three days of practice).

May 27: I’ve been doing three-part breathing at odd times, like on the train or in the car, not just when I’m sitting quietly at home.

May 31: I’ve noticed that diaphragmatic breathing makes me yawn – the breath just doesn’t feel deep enough to fill up my lungs completely. This is in contrast to what my teachers and the book say, that diaphragmatic breathing is best. In my experience, three-part breathing is a better, deeper, more filling breath. Am I missing something?

June 1: I noticed that diaphragmatic breathing is more comfortable and feels deeper when I’m lying on my back (practicing at bedtime). Three-part breath is more uncomfortable to practice while lying down.

June 5: Almost halfway through my month of breathing. Starting to feel some calmness during three-part breath, but diaphragmatic breath is still uncomfortable and alternate nostril breathing is unpleasant because one nostril is always too clogged. The alternate-nostril technique doesn’t seem to improve the clogged-up nostril but rather seems to make it worse (this has been an issue for the past few days, maybe allergies? I’m breathing fine and clearly when I can use both nostrils). Also, note that it’s hard to practice pranayama while wearing jeans.

Overall, though, much like with my posture write-ups, I find it difficult to write about what I’m feeling during a practice. With the pranayama, I’m often thinking about how clogged my nose is, or I’m thinking about how many more breaths I need to do, and that just makes me feel agitated. Or I’m thinking about something else entirely (which happens during my yoga practice too), and then I realize I’m doing it and then I feel bad. But what’s the root, baseline feeling? Is this one of those things where, just by observing a situation, you change what’s happening and make it different? Particles are like that in physics. Maybe brains behave the same way.


Pranayama: Ujjayi Breathing June 6, 2011

Filed under: breath,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 9:02 pm
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If you’ve taken a few yoga classes, you’ve probably heard of ujjayi breathing. If you haven’t heard the term, you might recognize it as that sort of loud, raspy, almost a little embarrassing breathing noise that your yoga teacher makes. Why, you may ask, do yoga teachers breathe funny like that? I’ll tell you how to try a few breaths at home, and then once you’ve got the noise down, I’ll tell you more about it and why it can be beneficial.

To begin ujjayi breathing, take a deep breath in through your nose. Now open your mouth and exhale while whispering the word “Ha”. Make the “Ha” last the length of your exhale; don’t vocalize the “Ha” or say it out loud, just whisper it. Do this a few times and notice how your throat constricts when you do it. Then shut your mouth. Keep thinking “Ha” and see if you can still make the same noise, with the same throat constriction, while exhaling only through your nose. Engage your abdominal muscles to help press all the air out. Got it? Now try to make the noise as you inhale through the nose too. If it helps, think “Sa” on your inhale. See if you can feel the cool air on the roof of your mouth as you inhale and exhale.

Ujjayi breathing sounds funny when you do it, but once you get past feeling self-conscious about the sound, you can use this technique as a tool to improve your yoga practice. Ujjayi means “victory”. It’s a warming breath that creates heat in the body. I feel like the throat constriction helps me to get a deeper, fuller breath. When you combine ujjayi with diaphragmatic breathing, you can powerfully cleanse stale air from the bottom of your lungs and get fresh oxygen moving through your system.

Use ujjayi breath during yoga class to help build up heat as you practice. We already know that focusing on the breath can help us to stay strong and hold poses longer; the ujjayi breath helps with that by being a nice deep breath, and having a nice deep breath makes it easier to keep the breathing slow and steady. Believe it or not, the sound helps too. Hearing yourself breathe a slow, deep, steady breath can be soothing to the mind and can help you focus.

This is why your yoga teacher breathes so loudly: she’s using the sound to calm the students and remind them to breathe. Imagine it: there you are, trying to hold your plank or high lunge or whatever pose it is that challenges you most, and you’re wobbling away, your arms or legs are shaking and you want to be done with it already. Your teacher comes over to you and makes some minor adjustment to your posture (or maybe she just adjusts the guy next to you), and of course she’s breathing loudly, slowly and evenly. Without noticing that it’s happening, you try to deepen your breath to match hers; maybe you were even holding your breath, but now you’re breathing deeply, and maybe you wobble a little less, or feel a little burst of strength to carry you through the pose.

Ujjayi breath is a breath of heat and energy and victory. Engaging ujjayi breath always make me feel determined to keep holding the pose. It’s good for tapas! Practice it whenever you can, even off your mat (if there’s no one around to look at you like you’re a crazy person), and you may find it helps with whatever you’re dealing with.


Pranayama: Alternate Nostril Breathing June 3, 2011

Filed under: breath — R. H. Ward @ 6:35 pm
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Have you ever noticed how one nostril sometimes seems more open than the other as you breathe through your nose? This truly happens to everyone. Take a few breaths through your nose and notice which nostril seems more open right now and which seems more clogged. The difference may be very slight, but it should be present (if your nose is healthy and not affected by allergies or a cold). The ancient yogis believed that whichever nostril was active could affect your mood and your energy level, and they developed a technique to affect the flow of breath in the nostrils, thus influencing mood and energy. This may sound like New Agey hokum, and I don’t blame you if you think that. But this technique, alternate nostril breathing, can be done easily at home with nothing but your nose and one hand, only takes a few minutes, can’t hurt anything and could maybe do some good. I figure, why not, so if you’d like to learn more, read on!

According to yogic theory, prana, or life energy, travels through the body via channels called nadis. There are thousands of nadis carrying prana to all parts of the body, but the three most important nadis are called pingala, ida, and sushumna. These three energy channels all travel up the back to the head. Pingala nadi starts at the base of the spine, cross-crosses up the back, and emerges at the right nostril; ida nadi does the same and emerges at the left nostril. Sushumna nadi travels directly up the length of the spine and is engaged when both nostrils are equally open.

The ancient yogis observed that when the right nostril is active, the body feels more energetic, and when the left nostril is active, the body feels more lethargic. This is because either the pingala or ida nadi is more open, channeling prana in different ways. The goal is to balance the flow of breath in the nostrils and activate the sushumna nadi, which brings pure energy to the body, perfect for meditation. Alternate nostril breathing (also called nadi shodhanam) works to bring about this balance.

Sit up straight in a comfortable position. You’ll use your right hand to alternately open and close each nostril: thumb against the right nostril, third finger against the left nostril. (You can either curl up the first and second fingers or rest them on your forehead if that’s comfortable.)

Being by inhaling deeply through both nostrils. Close your right nostril with your thumb and slowly exhale through your left nostril. Inhale through the left nostril, then hold the breath a moment while you switch fingers, opening the right side and pressing the left nostril closed with the ring finger. Exhale slowly on the right side, then inhale on the right side. You’ve now completed one round of alternate nostril breathing: one exhale and one inhale on each side. Do at least six rounds total, preferably nine rounds.

As you do the exercise, pay attention to keeping the breath long and smooth, and try to keep thoughts focused on the breath. If one nostril feels a little clogged, don’t panic; just take a slow deep breath. You have plenty of air, and you can always stop if you need to.

After practicing alternate nostril breathing, don’t expect to feel anything special. Nothing’s going to happen right now. Any results will be too subtle to see right away. That’s why my assignment for this month is to practice this exercise every day, all month long: because this will give me an opportunity to see the breath at work for a longer period of time. I’ll keep you posted on what I experience as the month goes on!


Pranayama: Three-Part Breathing May 31, 2011

Filed under: breath — R. H. Ward @ 9:49 pm
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A few days ago I posted about diaphragmatic breathing. The next breathing technique I have to practice this month is called three-part breathing. Three-part breathing works to completely fill and then completely empty the lungs, which is beneficial for removing toxins from the body. Because the three-part breath is so slow and deep, it’s also a helpful technique to learn for combating anxiety, anger, or stress.

Three-part breathing uses a long, deep inhale to fill the lungs to capacity. First, you activate the diaphragm to fill the bottom of the lungs (i.e., a diaphragmatic breath), then you continue to inhale, using the chest muscles to fill the ribcage, and finally the top of the chest rises as the lungs are completely filled with air. So the three-part breath consists, in order, of the diaphragmatic breath, the chest or thoracic breath, and the shallow or clavicular breath. Externally, the three-part breath can be observed as each section of the lungs fills up: first the belly puffs out, then the sides of the ribcage expand, and finally the top of the chest and even the shoulders rise as the lungs fill to the top.

On the inhale, we fill the lungs from bottom to top; exhaling, we empty the lungs in reverse order, from top to bottom: first the chest and shoulders drop, then the ribs contract, and finally the belly sucks in as the last bit of air is released from the lungs. (Note that all inhalation and exhalation should be through the nose, not the mouth.)

To try practicing three-part breathing at home, first work on isolating the three distinct movements and get familiar with what each movement feels like. Place your hand on your belly, then ribs, then chest, to feel how they rise and fall. Then try putting all three movements together in order. It will feel unnatural and strange at first, but with a little practice, breathing this way will feel more and more natural. I’ve only been practicing this technique for a little over a week and already I find myself breathing this way unconsciously. It’s a good calming breath for when I feel stressed or upset, and it’s also good to use when oxygen seems scarce (like on a crowded train car!).


Pranayama: Diaphragmatic Breathing May 26, 2011

Filed under: breath — R. H. Ward @ 2:32 pm
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This will be the first in a series of posts describing the different pranayama breathing exercises I’ll be doing all month. First up is diaphragmatic breathing. This technique is just what it sounds like: breathing with your diaphragm.

Take in a deep breath, and let it out. Notice how your body had to work to breathe in, and how you relax as you exhale. This is natural: your lungs’ natural position is to be empty, so it doesn’t take any work to breathe out, but breathing in requires muscular work. If you aren’t paying attention to your breath, your body will do this automatically, but we want to bring some attention to how we breathe, notice any patterns or habits, and cultivate an awareness of how this system works. (After all, it’s what keeps you alive!) There are three main types of breathing: diaphragmatic breathing (which makes your belly pooge out), thoracic or chest breathing (which makes your ribcage expand), and clavicular or upper chest breathing (shallow breaths that make your upper chest and even shoulders move up and down).

The diaphragm is the muscle right under your lungs that helps you to breathe. When your lungs are empty, the diaphragm curves up into the natural space made by your ribcage; when you breathe in, the diaphragm flattens out as the lungs fill with air. By flattening the diaphragm, you draw air all the way down into the bottom of the lungs. This is a good thing! The lungs’ job is to oxygenate the blood, so that oxygen can be carried throughout the body. When we are sitting up or standing, gravity causes the blood to gather at the bottom of the lungs, so by using the diaphragm to pull air to the bottom of the lungs, the air can get the blood more easily and your lungs can do their job more efficiently.

Sit up straight and place one hand on your belly. Breathe in through your nose, concentrating on making your belly puff out. (No one’s watching, and you’re not wearing a bikini, so go ahead.) Don’t expand the ribcage, and don’t let your shoulders lift – just feel the belly puff out. Then breathe out, also through your nose, and feel the belly contract. If you exhale long enough, your belly might even go concave. Then breathe in and puff the belly out again. Do this a few more times until you get the feel of it. Then put your hand on your chest and do some shallow chest breathing: like a dog panting, or like you’re on the treadmill at the gym. Feel your chest go up and down; if you’re near a mirror, you can see this too. Do you feel the difference? You need a lot more of the shallow breaths to equal one long, slow diaphragmatic breath.

Next time, we’ll combine diaphragmatic breath with thoracic and clavicular/shallow breath to form (like Voltron) a three-part breath!


Teacher Training Weekend: Saturday Pranayama May 25, 2011

Filed under: breath,teacher training,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 6:45 pm
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This month at teacher training is Breath Month! At Saturday’s teacher training session, we started work on pranayama, which are breathing exercises designed to improve the flow of energy in the body. Life energy, or prana, is what enlivens all of us, what makes us alive. Prana courses through the body, giving us energy, helping our cells do their work, and healing any problems. Breath is the mechanism by which prana is able to move in the body, so by deepening the breath, we can increase the flow of prana, and by practicing other breathing exercises, we can affect our energy levels and our mood and even heal illness.

So far in teacher training, we’ve studied the yamas and niyamas (moral practices), and asana (physical postures), all of which I’m completely on board with. Now, though, we’re getting into the realm of New Agey stuff. I don’t know how much I buy into the prana thing, or the concept that by practicing certain breathing techniques we can heal illness. I know the body is capable of many miracles, and so I’m trying to keep my mind open.

I’ve started on this month’s reading in Science of Breath, and one thing so far has made a lot of sense. In chapter 1, the authors point out that breathing is a unique biological function: it’s involuntary, like heartbeat or digestion, so it will happen automatically no matter what, but unlike heartbeat or digestion, breathing is a function that we can also control if we choose. It’s the only involuntary function that we can control. Ancient yogis noticed that breathing is unique in this way and decided that, because breath is the only function that is both voluntary and involuntary, breath might be the link between the body and the mind and controlling it might be the key to controlling other bodily functions. That sort of makes sense to me: breath is already in a special category, so maybe it does other cool stuff too. More to come as I continue with this month’s homework (see below).

We also had teaching practice on Saturday afternoon. We formed one big class together and J tapped each person to teach a part of the class to the whole group, telling us which poses to teach. I was given sun salutations; I taught the classical version with lunges, which I hadn’t taught before, and I think I did well. It was interesting, as always, to see how my classmates teach and what they say versus what they don’t say.

Here’s our homework for this month:

  • Complete an ayurvedic profile, tally the score, and read the results about your body type
  • Read the book Science of Breath by Swami Rama
  • Start on the book Moola Bandha: The Master Key by Swami Buddhananda
  • Practice daily pranayama exercises: diaphragmatic breathing, three-part breathing, and alternate nostril breathing (I’ll define the types of breathing for you in a later post, but what we’re talking about here is ten minutes or so, ideally twice a day)
  • Keep a journal about the pranayama exercises, my reflections and observances; this will evolve into being my paper to hand in next month
  • Do two posture write-ups on standing poses (choose any two)
  • Suggested: recruit friends and family to be yoga guinea pigs and practice teaching

This feels like kind of a crap-ton of homework this month. Luckily, I’ll be on a train for a good 8-9 hours round trip this weekend, which should help with getting the reading done, and I’ll be traveling to visit with friends who are willing yoga guinea pigs.

I had been upset that last month was Asana Month because I was so busy last month and I wanted more time to actually be able to practice the poses, but I honestly think it worked out for the best: being busy, I had to complete the work when I could, and I couldn’t be a perfectionist about it. This month the homework is less active and more thoughtful, and I am almost as busy this month as I was last month, so I predict insanity to come.