The Diaphragm – an exceptional muscle

The diaphragm is an amazing muscle; it is a marvel that this muscle operates ceaselessly, from our first inhalation when we come into this world, to our last exhalation when we leave the world! It pumps air continuously 24/7, when we awake and when we sleep and never gets tired. The skeletal muscles that move our body cannot work non-stop, and when they get tired, they need quite a lot of time to recover. If the diaphragm gets tired (in aerobic exercises), it is enough to resume normal breathing for a few cycles in order for the diaphragm to recover. It is always ready to serve us!

B.K.S Iyengar said ‘the diaphragm is the window of the self’, and stressed the importance of free moving diaphragm for maintaining good health. One can’t exaggerate the importance of this unique muscle. This article explains briefly the anatomy and action of the diaphragm, I survey both the mechanics of normal and Pranayamic breathing, and suggests an exploration that helps to visualize the structure and operation of the diaphragm.

The diaphragm is both voluntary and non-voluntary muscle

The only other muscle in our body that works non-stop is the other pump we have – the heart muscle. But we cannot really control this muscle; it is a non-voluntary muscle (it is said that some distinguished Yogis, like Krishnamacharia, can stop the heart beats for a few minutes, but this is a very very special ability). What is very unique and special about the diaphragm is that it operates both voluntarily and involuntarily. The skeletal muscles do not contract without our conscious, deliberate will. The internal smooth muscles, like the muscles of the digestive system, and the heart muscle operate involuntarily. We cannot directly instruct them to work, and we cannot stop them from working – they function automatically. In contrast, the diaphragm functions most of the time involuntarily (even when we sleep or unconscious), but we can control it and modulate its action, and even stop it for a few minutes.

A short anatomy of the diaphragm

The diaphragm is a very massive muscle situated in the center of the body. It completely separates the body into upper and lower parts. It is the floor of the thoracic cavity and the roof of the abdominal cavity. It is a large domed shape muscle – you can imagine it as a mushroom, a jellyfish or a bell. There are three holes in this otherwise impenetrable tissue, two for the main blood vessels (artery and vein) and another one for the esophagus.


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Figure 1 The diaphragm is a domed shape muscle with the central tendon on the top

In fact the diaphragm has an asymmetrical double-dome shape. The right dome, which is pushed up from below by the liver, rises higher than the left dome (which is pushed down by the heart). Each half is innervated separately, so we can contract each half of the diaphragm independently from the other half and thus direct the breath to the left or to the right lung.

Try it now:

Place your fingers on the ribs and direct your breath only to the right side of the chest. Feel the movement of the ribs. Breathe slowly until the right lung is full.

Then exhale and breathe to the left lung. Repeat several times.

Now breathe in a zigzag fashion: breathe for a few seconds to the right, then to the left, again to the right and so on, until both lungs are full.

 

Origin and Insertion

The lower edges of the diaphragm’s circumference originate from three distinct regions: the xiphoid process (bottom of the sternum), the base of the rib cage and the front of the lumbar vertebrae. The muscular fibers of the diaphragm rise vertically upward in the body from their origin and arrive at a flat horizontal top – the central tendon – to which they insert. This central tendon is non-contractile and can move only in response to the action of the vertical muscle fibers which insert into it (see figure 1).

This structure is unique: skeletal muscles always connect two bones (origin and insertion), while the domed-shape diaphragm inserts into itself. Generally, a muscle can only contract, and in a non-isometric contraction, this reduces the distance between its origin and insertion. If the origin is fixed and the insertion is free, then the insertion is drawn closer to the origin; if however the insertion is fixed and the origin is free, then the origin is moved toward the insertion. For example, when the biceps muscle of the upper arm contracts, it draws the forearm closer to the upper arm (if the forearm is free). But if the forearm is fixed (as in Pull ups) it will move the upper arm toward the forearm.

The Breathing Mechanism

The diaphragm is the main breathing muscle, without it, independent breathing is impossible. We know this because people that, from some reason, cannot use the diaphragm cannot breathe on their own and need an artificial ventilator. The other respiratory muscles are only auxiliary and are not sufficient for efficient breathing. They are just not strong enough to be able to increase sufficiently the volume of the chest cavity.

As in any other muscle, the contracting fibers of the diaphragm pull its insertion (the central tendon) and origin (the base of the rib cage) toward each other. The movement that actually takes place depends on which side is fixed and which is free to move.

In normal, natural breathing, inhalation is an active contraction of the diaphragm, and exhalation is a passive release of this muscle. If the abdomen is soft, the central tendon is pretty much free to move and the contraction of the diaphragm during inhalation shortens its  fibers which pulls the central tendon down. The abdomen then slightly bulges out. This increases the volume of the chest cavity and decreases the pressure in the chest cavity, which causes air to flow in. When we release the diaphragm, the central tendon moves back up and the air is pushed out of the lungs (see figure 2).

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Figure 2 Three-dimensional thoracic shape changes of (a) inhalation and (b) exhalation

Note that the this downward movement of the central tendon, which occurs during inhalation, increases  the pressure in the abdominal cavity. When we breathe deeper, the resistance of the organs of the upper abdomen makes the downward movement of the tendon more difficult and this causes the ribs to lift slightly. So actually, even in a normal deeper breath, the downward movement of the central tendon is combined with a lift of the lower ribs.

In Pranayamic breathing (as done according to the Iyengar method) we attempt to lift and open the rib cage and to do it in a slow, soft and subtle manner, without creating any tension in the eyes, ears or brain cells. In order to achieve this, we have to use the diaphragm in a different mode of operandi. This is done by gently sucking the abdomen in at the end of exhalation, and keep it pulled in, when we inhale. This action of the abdominal muscles (mainly the transversus abdominus) does not allow the central tendon to move down. This is called Uddiyana Kriya (in contrast with Uddiyana Bandha which is a strong contraction and locking of the abdominal region which is done at the end of a complete exhalation).

By keeping this action of Uddiyana Kriya while inhaling, we prevent the central tendon from moving down, and this results causes the rib cage to lift and expand. As we get more proficient in controlling the action of the diaphragm, we learn to do this action in a slow and rhythmical way. This makes the inhalation long and smooth, and the brain soft and receptive. As we lower the head in Jaladhara Bandha, the mind is drawn in, and gets totally absorbed in the process of the breathing. In that stage, there is no more ‘I’ that breathes, and only the breath remains.

To Sum Up

Understanding the uniqueness of the structure and action of the diaphragm, enables us to apprehend B.K.S. Iyengar’s saying that ‘the diaphragm is the meeting point of the material world with the spiritual world’. In an interview with Carol Cavanaugh he said:

The diaphragm balances our physical and mental bodies. When people suffer from a catastrophe, depression, sorrows and miseries, they say their solar plexus – the navel region, is tight and cramped. Why? What is the medium of our existence? It is the diaphragm….

Tension and pressure make the diaphragm harder… The diaphragm is the window of the self. The more tension you have, the more the window of the diaphragm gets closed. if the diaphragm is spread, it takes any load, whether intellectual, emotional or physical.” (See: Astadala Yoga Mala, Vol. 4, p. 86)

Our life depends on the efficient functioning of this muscle and our the quality of life depends largely on our skillful usage of it. By observing its operation we can come closer to realizing the marvel and wonder of Life, that we tend to take for granted, and get some glimpse into the operation of the universal energy which the yogis call: Prana – the energy of Life. Developing intimate relationships with our breath, makes us humble – since we realize that the breath is not in our hands, it is created and sustained not by our ego, but by a power which is far greater than us, to which we can call Divinity. This experience changes our attitude: instead of feeling great, you feel grateful!

 

Yoga and the Mind-Body Complex – On the Psychophysical Effects of Yoga Practice

For a yogi, the body is his laboratory for perpetual experimentation and experience.” B.K.S. Iyengar

 

In practicing asanas, we put our body in different and unusual postures, such that are not performed in our daily routine. What is the value of those unconventional postures? Are asanas purely physical postures? Do asanas have a role beyond physical exercise?

Prashant Iyengar noted that for a posture to be an asana, there should be a certain body-set, a certain breath-set and a certain mind-set (See his book: The alpha and the omega of Trikonasana). Placing the body in the posture creates a unique and unusual state of consciousness. Asana practice is intended primarily to experience these states of consciousness or body-mind modes, and explore the deep connections that exist between body postures, breathing, blood and lymph circulation, nervous system and so on, and the mental state that accompanies them. It is this exploration that makes practicing yoga so fascinating fresh and surprising. If we consider our practice as a mere exercise, (i.e., refer only to the physical aspect), it becomes mechanical, automatic – and therefore might be boring. Although such a practice will have a positive effect on the body, the real purpose of yoga will not be accomplished.

Ultimately, all asanas aim for a similar effect: transcending the fluctuations of consciousness (or in the words of Patanjali: Citta Vritti Nirodha). Our mind is typically preoccupied with plans, thoughts, concerns, judgments, hassles, memories, etc. When all these vrittis are stopped, and the mind becomes serene, a new composure arises, one of clarity and harmony, of balance and joy. This allows for a neutral, clear observation of ourselves and the nature of reality. This is the effect of each and every asana for a mature and skilled practitioner. But for us, who are still on the yogic path, the mental effects of asanas are influenced by several factors:

  • The type of asanas that we practice: forward bends, backbends, inversions, standing positions, etc.
  • The specific asana we practice: for example, there is a difference between the effects of Virabhadrasana I to those of Prasarita Padottanasana; even though both are standing poses.
  • The variations and the way we use props: all asanas have countless variations and can be performed focusing on different actions with props (all these variations have different mental effects the asana brings about).
  • The use of breathing: breathing can be used in different ways, we can direct breathing to various areas of the body and this also affects our asana.

The effects of asanas are inner experiences and feelings that may be difficult to articulate. One can only understand these effects in depth through personal practice. It is a journey in which each one is for herself or himself: an in-depth exploration of the body, breath and mind. Despite this difficulty, I will try to shed some light on the subject and give several ideas that might help to reflect and explore during this journey. This overview does not aim to be exhaustive, but merely touch upon several asanas and describe their main effects. The description is based (of course) on my own experiences that are clearly derived from my personality and practice, and is limited by my (poor) capacity to describe what I experience while practicing. So – please regard the following descriptions as suggestions that would encourage you to discover for yourself the effects of the asanas on your body-mind system.

As I mentioned above, each family of postures shares some central psycho-physical effects. However, there are differences between the postures. To demonstrate this point, we will discuss briefly two postures from each of the three families: standing postures, forward bends, and inversions.

Standing postures

Standing postures form the basis of Iyengar Yoga practice. They develop strength, flexibility, stability, lightness, a sense of direction and balance. They strengthen the legs; teach us how to be grounded on the feet and to extend the body from the base. They also open two critical areas of the body: the pelvis and the shoulder girdle.

Freedom of movement in the pelvic area results in light movement that prevents strain on the spine and lower back. Freedom of movement in the shoulders expands the ribcage and improves the respiratory function. The standing postures form the basis for learning alignment and precision – two fundamental principles of the Iyengar method. All standing poses are challenging but are also rewarding. They develop will power, mental strength and endurance. For this reason, our exploration begins with these postures.

Rooting the feet into the floor provides a solid foundation not only physically. When we stand firmly on strong legs, it also strengthens our confidence and our interactions with the world. It is not as easy to shake or toss us. Physical and mental stability develop in tandem. The sense of ease and comfort of movement that develops with practicing postures creates mental lightness that helps us leap over crises and pitfalls that can potentially create heaviness and low spirit. If we are light and flexible, both in body and mind, it may help us bypass and avoid pitfalls that bound to come our way in life.

These effects derived from for all standing postures. However, as noted, there are differences between the effects of various positions in this family, and these differences become more subtle as we become familiar with the different variations and various options for using props.

To illustrate, I will compare two of the hero (or warrior) postures: Virabhadrasana I and Virabhadrasana II.

vira1-2

Both postures are challenging; both strengthen the legs, create flexibility in the pelvic region, extend the spine from its base (the tailbone) and energize the heart-lung system. It is said the Lord Shiva gave these postures for the yogi to overcome fear. The mental quality of the warrior is to view each difficulty not as an obstacle, but rather as a challenge and opportunity to develop and strengthen. This quality is shared by all warrior postures (I, II and III). Another quality of a warrior is the ability to maintain a balanced and stable attitude in stressful situations. This quality also develops with the practice of these postures. Along with the effort and physical challenge that stimulates breathing and challenges the muscles, the practitioner must keep the breath flowing and her or his face relaxed. The main difference between Virabhadrasana I and Virabhadrasana II is that the latter expands the body laterally, while the first is a posture of vertical extension. In Virabhadrasana II the thigh of the back leg should be pressed back while rolling the hip and knee of the front leg from the inside out.

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These actions bring about an opening in the groin and width in the hip. In contrast, in Virabhadrasana I, the pelvis completely turns aside and the body is stretched upward. The line that connects the back leg with the hands extends and concaves.

 

Iyengar said that elongation creates intellectual sharpness and alertness while expansion develops the emotional aspect and improves the ability to contain emotions. A balanced development strengthens both the intellect and the emotional intelligence. One should develop both the intelligence of the brain (intellect) and the intelligence of the heart (emotion). Virabhadrasana II creates the expansion of the chest and abdominal cavities and hence may develop the emotional aspect associated with them. The main area the pose is working on is the pelvic area. Therefore, this position works on the apana energy and helps stimulate and invigorate it.

According to yoga, Prāṇa (with capital P) is the cosmic vital energy that permeates all levels of the universe. In humans, bodily functions are performed by five kinds of vital energy (prana-vayus). These are: prana (of the thorax), apāna, samāna, udāna and vyāna. These are the five aspects of the essential cosmic force.

In contrast, Virabhadrasana I works intensely on the spine and ribcage and therefore raises the

prana and the udāna[1]. The spine stretches up as the thorax rises and expands. This position develops strength, sharpness and the confidence of a warrior together with deep devotion that stems from the complete surrender of the front leg, the rolling of the head back turn the face up, while receding the eyes towards the back of the skull. The Yogi surrenders to God in this position, not out of weakness, but from a position of strength and confidence. The power that develops is not used to glorify the ego, but s given as an offering to the Lord.

Forward Bends

In forward bends, the torso (or trunk) moves forward and rests on the legs (or leg). The head bows down, and our visibility is limited. Therefore our senses turn inward and the front brain (the active brain) is supported by the legs (or by a folded blanket placed on the legs) and relaxes.

This seems to have physiological effects that include a decrease in blood pressure and heart rate, calming of the nervous system and the brain, stimulation of the digestive system and the adrenal glands, and increased supply of blood to the pelvis, legs and gonad glands – which improves the functioning of the reproductive organs.

These physiological effects are closely related to, and accompanied by mental effects. Forward bends bring about an experience of tranquility, relaxation, surrender, devotion, renunciation, humility, and internalization. The breath becomes calm and steady, and our constantly shifting mental chatter slows down. Forward bends, more than any other family of postures, demonstrates BKS Iyengar’s saying: “The aim of yoga is to calm the chaos of conflicting impulses.” These asanas call for prolonged stays that bring about relaxation and tranquility.

Often while practicing forward bends, I stretch to a point where I can stay comfortably and then just linger there without trying to advance beyond that point. This type of stay in the asana brings about a kind of pleasure and sweetness that accompanies the abandonment of motivation to stand out or to impress. Many times, this inner relief is manifested into a real vocal sigh of relief that clears the pressures and worries of the business of life. I can actually feel my brain’s functioning shifts from performing and planning to passively observing.

The above are general comments regarding the entire forward bends family of asanas. However, there are significant differences between the effects of the various asanas in this family. Here I compare Paschimottanasana with Janu Sirsasana.

 

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Paschimottanasana, being a symmetric asana, stretches both legs and both sides of the body evenly. This equal action of both sides of the body creates harmony and alignment. The forward bend action of this asana may be physically more challenging, as we need to overcome the resistance of both legs, but the asana does not create a sense of struggle, because the movement flows in the one direction. The entire torso, from the mid-buttocks to the spine and the head are moving forward. There is no need to reconcile opposing forces; all muscle fibers and awareness are flowing uniformly, like a car driving on a highway.

Janu Sirsasana, however, is a more complex asana. When you perform it with the right leg bent, the right thigh is behind and doesn’t participate in the move forward; On the contrary, it must roll back. It Pulls the right side of the body back and to the right and the challenge is to balance both sides of the torso. The right side tends to arch and curve, moving the stomach to the right. Therefore, in addition to the forward movement, one should move the trunk laterally and twist it from right to left.

We often encounter in life such a challenge of having to reconcile two opposing forces and the practice of Janu Sirsasana allows us to examine the way we deal with these challenges. This is an example of how learning to do a complex pose is meant to have effects that extend beyond the immediate practice. It practically teaches us to use of our own powers and abilities in very subtle and complex ways. It is very easy to let the right knee slip forward, but the requirement of the pose is to maintain an obtuse angle between the thighs. This creates movement in the vital hip joint. If we keep this requirement, the asana poses a real challenge and therefore a fertile ground for practice and exploration.

Inversions

Inversions are a precious gift given to humanity by yoga! They have profound effects at the anatomical, physiological and mental levels. In fact, in an inverted position, the border between the physiological and the mental becomes blurred. The effect on the control systems of the body: the brain and nervous and the hormonal system, is so deep, that it is difficult to separate the physiological effects from the mental experience of focus, alertness, relaxation and exhilaration.

You can read more about the experience of inversions here, or in the intro to Props for Yoga vol. 3 (the book focuses on Inversions).

Staying in an inverted pose alters the flow of the bodily fluids (blood and lymph fluids), since gravity pulls towards the head rather than to the legs. The head organs, especially the brain and the senses, receive an increased supply of arterial blood, which is accompanied by a marked shift in our internal sensation. Our orientation in space is turned around because we see the world from a new and unfamiliar perspective. This effect is particularly noticeable when practicing Sirsasana outdoors.

I often practice on the beach. Seeing the sea, and especially the sunset, while standing in Sirsasana is a unique experience. I highly recommend it to everyone! Changing our viewing angle brings about flexibility of thought and the ability to examine everyday issues and challenges from different perspectives.

At the same time, inversions touch upon deep seated fears and insecurities hidden in the depths of our consciousness. Students often experience psychological barriers in getting into Sirsasana or Adho Mukha Vrksasana (handstand). These psychological hang ups make it difficult for them to get into the asana, and it is only when they succeed to overcome them, that they are able to stay in the asana comfortably, reducing the effort required. Crossing these mental barriers is possible when one overcomes these deep rooted fears and anxieties, which in turn brings about a sense of security, confidence and balance that develops our personality. For being able to deal with such deeply rooted anxieties is of enormous importance. The acquired confidence teaches us to deal with other anxieties which arise in life.

Advanced practitioners stay in inversions a relatively long time (15-30 minutes in each asana). Such a long stay also develops patience, stamina, concentration and focus. We have to learn to maintain the action of the asana without letting our consciousness vibrate. This develops concentration and mental stability. After such a long stay in the asanas both the body and the mind are refreshed, and often problems, annoyances and other worries we are engaged in in our everyday life seems less serious (at least for a while…).

Even in the rare days where I don’t have ample time to practice, I try not to give up the practice of inversions, because I know a half an hour of inversions is sufficient in order to bring about peace of mind and change the course of my day and the way in which I encounter the challenges the day brings. Sometimes I enjoy staying in the inversions so much that it is quite difficult for me to come out of the the pose – more than once I had to end the practice to catch a train, but I preferred to stay in Sirsasana and consequently miss the train…

Two major inversions are Sirsasana and Sarvangasana. These two asanas are contradictory and complementary like Yang and Yin, or in a Yogic terminology: Surya (sun) and Chandra moon. Sirsasana stimulates, awakens and bring you focus, while Sarvangasana quiets and draws you internally (or inwards). In my experience, vision is dominant in Sirsasana, while audition is dominant in Sarvangasana. In Sirsasana, the field of vision is wide and we gaze forward at eye level. This stimulates the eyes and clarifies the vision. However, in Sarvangasana our field of vision is limited, but at the same time the inner ear and auditory canal are opening. This asana increases blood flow to the ears and improves their performance. In Sarvangasana and its variations there is a strong sense of internalization and reflection as well as a tendency to close the eyes. Our sense of sight is our main information source while hearing opens a wide space of less specific stimuli. In Yoga, the space element (ether) is related to sound. Perhaps this effect on our auditory system opens an internal space that creates a soothing and calming effect.

In Sirsasana (when practiced correctly) the head is held vertically and aligned, all parts of the head receive even amounts of blood flow, and hence all the organs of the head are stimulated. In particular when there is balance between the rear and front parts of the brain. Sarvangasana on the contrary, develops the hindbrain.

According to B.K.S. Iyengar, the forebrain is considered the part responsible for logical, analytical, and calculating capacities (vitarka), while the hindbrain is considered the creative and intuitive brain (vichara) (See sutra 1.17 and also Table 5 in Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Iyengar). Therefore, the two asanas differ significantly in their psycho-physical effects and yet complement each other.

Sirsasana also differs from Sarvangasana in the breathing patterns and the diaphragms that are activated. In Sirsasana, moving the tailbone in and tightening the buttocks activates the pelvic diaphragm (the pelvic floor muscles). This creates a Mula kriya (suction and elation of the pelvic floor). In addition, when we learn to relax the abdominal area, the abdominal organs are automatically drawn towards the lower back and the respiratory diaphragm (the base of the thorax). This creates Uddiyana kriya (suction of the abdomen and the respiratory diaphragm). In Sarvangasana, when we learn to relax the throat in, the vocal diaphragm is stimulated (at the base of the throat), creating a Jalandhara bandha (the throat lock) – this has the effect of internalization and convergence. In Sirsasana the respiratory diaphragm has a greater freedom of movement and breathing is mainly Samanic, which is, breathing into and through the upper abdomen and lower ribs). In Sarvangasana, however, there is an opening of the upper chest and breathing is Pranic and Udanic, that is, breathing to and through the upper part of the thorax and shoulder girdle.

 

Conclusion

In her Yoga in Action – Preliminary course (p. 24-5), Geeta Iyengar writes:

“… there are other particular ‘effects’ derived from the asanas practice. These are to be observed in the practice of the asanas. This ‘observation’ needs to be learnt and cultivated like any other skill. It does not require any special talent in the execution of the asanas so it is available for all. As correction and precision in the performance develop, the asanas become effective on the body and mind.

The keen perception and observation that comes from this practice brings to the yoga practitioner stability in the body and clarity of awareness that enriches the whole person.”

In the Introduction of Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, B.K.S. Iyengar writes:

“In the beginning, effort required to master the asanas. Effort involves hours, days, months, years and even several lifetimes of work. When effortful effort in an asana becomes effortless effort, one has mastered that asana. In this way, each asana has to become effortless. While performing the asanas, one has to relax the cells of the brain, and activate the cells of vital organs and of the structural and skeletal body. Then intelligence and consciousness may spread to each and every cell.

The conjunction of effort, concentration and balance in asana forces us to live intensely in the present moment, a rare experience in modern life. This actuality, or being in the present, has both a strengthening and a cleansing effect: physically in the rejection of disease, mentally by ridding our mind of stagnated thoughts or prejudices; and on a very high level where perception and action become one, by teaching us instantaneous correct action: that is to say action which does not produce reaction. On that level we may also expunge the residual effects of past actions.”

Remember that the external representation of the asana does not reflect its true essence. When the demonstrator is a master – (like B.K.S. Iyengar, in the photos of Light on Yoga) the demonstration expresses some of the true beauty and energetic-mental qualities of the asana. But even in this case, the external image does not reveal everything that goes on behind the scenes. The actual effects are always internal. The statement that Prashant Iyengar made about this issue comes to mind, as he said that “an asana should never be photographed“, because the image always misses the true essence of the asana and does not convey the mental experience which is an essential part of practicing an asana.

Asanas require that we place the body in some challenging postures that may even seem at first, unnatural. They often require the practitioner to deal with difficulties and pressures. The practitioner often experiences strain and stress. This strain causes contraction, tension, locking the jaws or grinding the teeth and holding the breath. Even skilled practitioners, when first attempting to perform more advanced asanas, experience muscular tension and strain on the respiratory and nervous systems. The field of asanas is so vast; even a glimpse in photos of Light on Yoga shows us that even after thirty years of practice we can still face new challenges… We are always beginners! But the maturity in our practice is not necessarily expressed in our ability to perform advanced asanas, but rather in our attitude while staying in an asana. When, despite the tension and effort, we learn to maintain a relaxed face, a soft throat and flowing breath, the experience of the asana changes and internal space is created. The physical strain does not create psychological stress anymore. The ability to direct the breath and relax the sense organs and the brain, allows us to stay in the asana with observation and reflection. We learn not to react to stress by closing and contracting, but rather are able to remain calm, even when faced with a challenging and possibly stressful situations.

In everyday life we ​​are continuously confronted with tensions, difficulties and challenges. But if we do not react automatically and are able to maintain our composure, we will be able to figure out what is the appropriate response for each situation. As a result, our actions will have a different quality, one of greater equanimity and balance. Yoga practice helps freeing ourselves from automated habits and conditioned behaviors that stem from lack of awareness, which are usually not beneficial for us and for those around us.

When we learn to maintain an inner peace we have the freedom of choice. We stop responding automatically and instinctively; we become capable of exercising more peace, balance, and equanimity in situations that life summons us. When we learn to act in this way, our actions become skillful. Acting in this way can bring about a radical change in the quality of our lives and those around us, and increase the joy and peace we experience in our life!

 

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[1] Prana is the energy (vayu) of the center of the chest region, while udāna is the energy of the upper chest and neck

 

 

 

Why do we practice Yoga?

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That is a very important question because for most of us, practice is done through the body and externally it may look very much like gymnastics. Hence, many people think that yoga practice is done for fitness: to get a better body, to be stronger or to become more flexible. Yoga, however, is not at all about this! Asana practice will definitely do well for your body, but this is just a byproduct and not the aim (See the chapter “The aim and the by-product” in Tree of Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar).

When we practice we do things; but, what we feel is much more important than what we do! We perform actions in the poses in order to feel more, to penetrate further, and to explore ourselves more deeply. The object of this exploration is our entire embodiment: our body, senses, breathe, mind, intellect and self.

This kind of penetration is not available to us when we are not active physically. We will never be able to carry out this exploration when sitting on a sofa in a slouch and loose posture.

Iyengar writes: “Of the two aspects of asana, exertion of our body and penetration of our mind, the latter is eventually more important. Penetration of our mind is our goal“. (Light on Life, p. 45). We shouldn’t be carried away by the external movements, but focus on the actions we do, the sensations we get and the reactions of our body-mind-breath to these actions.

What is action?

Iyengar defines it thus:

Action is movement with intelligence. The world is filled with movement. What the world needs is more conscious movement, more action.” (ibid. p.28)

And indeed, in asana there is a lot of action, but very little movement. But asana practice is not just any action; it’s a very special kind of activity that helps us to explore our internal world, to be more observant, quieter, and more reflective – to penetrate deeper inside. In a good asana there should be a fine balance between action and relaxation (sthirata & sukata or prayatna shitilya).

In chapter 2 of Light on Life Iyengar sheds light on many deep aspects of asana practice: “Balance of activity and passivity transforms the active brain into a witness…” (ibid. 36-7)

When there is strain, the practice of yoga is purely physical and leads toward imbalances and misjudgment.” (ibid. p. 35)

The ultimate goal of our practice is to know ourselves better, to become more aware; more sensitive. In order to live better we need to become more intelligent. By ‘intelligence’ I mean here the skill to act better in the world and to lead a more joyful and peaceful life.

By observing our reactions, our tendencies, our patterns of behavior (or samskaras) during the practice we explore ourselves to a deeper extent and we get intimate connection with ourselves. This can be applied in our daily activity; we learn to reflect on our actions and to analyze them.

It’s like sculpting where a piece of stone is constantly shaped and refined; but here the sculpture, the sculptor, and the act of sculpting is one and the same – our own selves. Moreover, the sculpture is not a static entity, but a dynamic one that changes over time; it tends to deteriorate if we don’t take a good care of it. Iyengar says: “If you have a knife which you do not use, what happens to it? It get rusted, does it not? … With regular sharpening, you can keep it sharp forever.” (Tree of Yoga p. 28) If we don’t sharpen our embodiment regularly and persistently, the body may lose its flexibility and sensitivity, and the mind may become dull, rudimentary and rude. So we constantly have to refine ourselves, to become subtler, nobler, and sharper.

This is why we need to return to our practice-mat every day, determined to continue the internal quest, to penetrate deeper into ourselves, to transform ourselves.

You should go on analyzing and by analysis you will come to understand. You have to see what messages come from the fibers, the muscles and the skin… while you are doing the pose. It is not good enough to experience today and analyze tomorrow… Analysis in action is the only guide.” (Tree of Yoga p. 42)

There should be constant analysis throughout the action, not just afterwards.” (Light on Life, p. 31)

Charging Yourself  in Savasana

Savasana-Eyal

 

Charging Yourself in Savasana

Never give up Savasana! Even if you are in a great hurry to run to your daily business, spare at least five minutes for this important pose! These minutes are very precious, you are totally detached from your daily activities, worries and obligations; your mental modality changes and you sort of float in a different realm, embraced by Mother Earth and Nature, enjoying the grace of tranquility. This is where you reap the seeds you sow in your practice – take time to savor them! It is important to recognize and nurture these states of tranquility, sublimity, mental stability and clarity.

In Light on Pranayama B.K.S. Iyengar writes: “Sava in Sanskrit means a corpse and asana a posture. Thus Savasana is a posture that simulates a dead body, and evokes the experience of remaining in a state as in death and of ending the heart-aches and the shocks that the flesh is heir to. It means relaxation, and therefore recuperation. It is not simply lying on one’s back with a vacant mind and gazing, not does it end in snoring. It is the most difficult of yogic asanas to perfect, but it is also the most refreshing and rewarding.” (Chapter 30, Para. 1. The emphasis on the last sentence is mine). I strongly recommend you to read thoroughly the detailed instruction for Savasana Iyengar gives in this chapter – what a penetration and insight!

Savasana is the gate for the more internal limbs of Yoga: Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana (concentration) and Dhyana (meditation). Only when your Savasana practice is sound and regular can you go deep into Pranayama; otherwise it will be just breathing exercises. Savasana teaches you how to draw your senses inward and concentrate – this is the basis for Pratyahara and Dharana. When these are established, Dhyana follows naturally.

Savasana is the art of not-doing, not-acting – just being in the present moment. In our hectic way of life it is so important to learn to pause and relax. Deep relaxation is probably the healthiest thing and the best service you can provide for yourself. Our body is a wondrous machine – the internal organs that are responsible for our health do their job orderly without our conscious intervention, yet, stress is harmful for their proper functioning. Stress disturbs digestion, limits circulation, raises blood pressure and disturbs the proper functioning of all the body’s systems in so many other ways. Relaxation is the key to healthy functioning of the body and mind. In Yoga – the Path to Holistic Health, B.K.S. Iyengar writes: “If you suffer from stress, you may experience indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, migraine, a feeling of constriction in the diaphragm, breathlessness, or insomnia… Yogic methods of deep relaxation have a profound effect on all the body systems. When a part of the body is tense, blood flow to that area decreases, reducing immunity. Yoga works on that area to relieve tension and improve blood flow to the entire body, stabilizing the heart rate and blood pressure. Rapid, shallow breathing becomes deep and slow, allowing a higher intake of oxygen, and removing stress from the body and the mind.” (Page 179)

In the first phase of Savasana use your breath; connect to the rhythm of your breath. Inhalation is the realization of the ‘I AM’, when exhaling dissolve that I AM to Mother Earth. Inhale – let be; Exhale – let go. Inhale – let be; Exhale – let go. Follow that rhythm while giving more emphasis to the letting go of the exhalation.

Then, at some moment stop all conditioning. Do not condition your breath any more. Do not condition your mind anymore – just let go. Stay there, floating, very light and very heavy at the same time. Let the river carry you – do not resist or try to control. When your Savasana becomes deep, you may feel a natural, spontaneous suspension of the breath at the end of exhalation; this suspension brings about a total surrender.

When we connect our smart-phone to a source of electricity, it shows us the energy level of the battery. In the same way, when you lie down in Savasana measure your level of energy. How much is it? 60%? 75%?

Stay in Savasana until you are fully charged – up to 100%.

Today scientists are developing sophisticated chargers that can charge a battery in a few minutes. Can you be totally still and quiet in Savasana to charge and refresh yourself in a few minutes?

The energy source in Savasana is Mother Earth – it is a vast source of energy, of Prana; but we need to connect to it. The charger is powerful, but the connection is not always that great. What disrupts this connection is tension. Only by total surrender, a complete letting go, can we connect to that energy and charge ourselves. Let go of everything: muscular tension, holding, contraction, thoughts, emotions – everything! Just surrender and come close as possible to Mother Earth. Imagine the big Earth under you pulling and hugging your small body and surrender to that pull of gravity.

In Savasana we let go of everything – it is a total renunciation. We surrender our roles, our sense of importance, our sense of self, our ego, our entire personality. We reach our ‘ground zero’. Physiologically, our internal activities – the breathing, heartbeat and metabolism, all become infinitesimal; our mental activity slows down, the conciseness becomes void. So in a sense, we experience ‘a little death’, which is not a bad thing, since once we completely surrender ourselves, we allow something new to be created inside us. When we are in a state of complete surrender, the boundaries between ourselves and the environment surrounding us become blur, there is a sense of merging and dissolving into space. In that moment, our individual characteristics weaken and become insignificant and we feel like everyone else, or like no-one in particular. This feeling of merging into Being is an experience of Kaivalya (full emancipation). Kaivalya means “aloneness”, “solitude”, “detachment” or “isolation”. When we feel like everyone else there is no “other” as such, and hence there is this sense of aloneness.

“.. When fluctuations take place internally or externally, mental and intellectual energies are wasted. In Savasana the internal or emotional upheavals in the mind are stilled…” (Light on Pranayama, Ch. 30 Para. 27)

Practice Savasana for some ten to fifteen minutes to experience a sense of timelessness. The slightest thought or movement will break the spell and you are once more in the world of time, with a beginning and an end.” (Light on Pranayama, Ch. 30 Para. 30)

 

Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream

It is not dying, it is not dying

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void
It is shining, it is shining

Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being

Love is all and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing

Tomorrow Never Knows, John Lennon

 

 

Impressions from Plum Village Retreat

plum 6

Plum Village is a great Buddhist center in southern France (one hour drive from Bordeaux). It is a lovely place steeped in the quiet nature of the Southern France that allows for relaxation, recreation and Buddhist practice. The place was founded by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and poet who is  87 years old, but is still young in spirit, present in the village and overseeing many of the activities there. Thich Nhat Hanh inspires many thousands and perhaps millions of people all over the world with his gentle and accessible teachings.

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about 100 books in English about Buddhist philosophy, its implementation in everyday life as well as Buddhism’s attitude to death. After reading some of his books and listening to some of his online conversations, I decided that as long as he lives, it would be incredible for me to travel to France to learn from, and be in the presence of a person who literally realized the Buddhist path .

A Leitmotif Thich Nhat Hanh uses often in his writings and lectures is the word mindfulness –  attentive awareness and presence in the present time . Unlike vipasana meditation workshops  in which practitioners meditate for many hours, the daily schedule in Plum Village is quite spacious and not completely silent. There are many types of practices: formal sitting meditation, walking meditation, eating meditation, work meditation, listening to live or recorded conversations as well as group sessions . There is an atmosphere that supports mindfulness or presence in every moment and every action you take : chewing food , washing dishes, preparing a cup of tea , listening to a Dharma conversation (a conversation about the principles of Buddhism), and so on. Parts of the day are silent, including meals in which you eat vegan food slowly and pay attention to every chew. Every fifteen minutes  a special tune is played which  signals participants to stop and return to the present time . When the music sounds, everyone stop in mid activity (even if you are walking, working , chewing , speaking, etc’) and take a few deep breaths to return the sense of awareness of the body to here and now. Over time, it becomes a habit to stop once in a while and realize that there is a body and a breath .

One of the things highlighted in his teaching is to find joy in the present moment, in what we have here and now: the beauty of nature, fresh and crisp air, birds chirping , being in a supportive community and more. One of his mantras is: ” This is a happy moment ”  – just stop every now and then and remember that we have plenty to be happy about in the present moment ; there is no need to wait for something to happen (or not happen ) in the future.  Thich Nhat Hanh says that each of us have more than enough conditions to be happy here and now. The problem is that we take what we have for granted and learn to appreciate things only when they are lost to us – then it ‘s too late. Why not love what we have now? Often in a relationship with another person we learn to appreciate what we had only when we lose it . Rather, let us learn to appreciate it now and say to our partner (this is also the second goal of his five mantras for a happy relationship: I know you are here for me and I am happy “.

plum 8Thich Nhat Hanh teaches how breath can be an anchor of Mindfulness – in every moment in your daily routine you can remember to return to a sense of breathing. This sense which is ever present (if we listen to it) can connect us instantly to the present moment . He wrote several mantras that can accompany the sense of breathing and help us concentrate on breathing.

Thich Nhat Hanh formulated Buddhist ethics with a modern flair. He calls them the “Five awareness trainings ” (Five Mindfulness Trainings). These practices represent the Buddhist vision of spirituality and ethics worldwide . They show the way to true understanding and true love; a path that leads to cure, peace of mind within ourselves and in the world. Memorization and application of these five practices leads to a deeper understanding of being that will put an end to discrimination, intolerance, fear, anger and despair.

Consider first awareness practice:

“Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to
protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill,
and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life”.

I recommended reading the text of the five awareness sessions with annotations by Thich Nhat Hanh.

In summary, it was an enriching week filled with learning. I encourage all of you to take an occasional break, stop , breathe and look..(you can see photos i took in Plum Village here)

The Effects of Yoga (In Short…)

The practice of yoga is special –  yoga has been around for the past 5,000 a years!

But what is so special about yoga ?

Well, if you look at yoga as merely an exercise method, it’s the most intelligent method . Yoga develops the body in a balanced way – its strengthens both muscles and flexibility. Beyond that (and much more importantly) Yoga not only works on the muscles, it works on all systems of the body: digestive, respiratory, circulatory ,immune, hormone secretion and more.

Our health depends on proper and balanced functioning of the internal organs and the efficiency of our waste system’s transportation and disposal. Yoga , by the actions of stretching, squeezing, extension, reaches all the internal organs and rejuvenates them. It maintains the flexibility of arteries and thus balances blood pressure, it expands the lungs and helps supply fresh oxygen to all parts of the body (especially the head and brain – in inversions ). Yoga balances the hormones and glands operation, retaining all normal bodily functions (including women’s menstrual cycle).

Yoga does wonders for reducing stress and creating mental peace enhancing the action of the para – sympathetic nervous system. Many studies have found links between stress and diseases  therefore creating harmony and peace of mind also helps in maintaining health.

But Yoga is not just an exercise method, yoga develops one holistically, operating on different dimensions of ourselves: physical, mental, emotional, intellectual, moral and spiritual .

Physical yoga helps to develop  strength and flexibility maintaining the integrity of our internal systems and therefore our health, over the years. It helps us to develop mentally, yoga promotes features like persistence, patience, power – desire, joy and peace;Mental Yoga helps achieve emotional stability and balance, and satisfaction. It helps mental concentration, improves memory, focus and clarity of thought, balanced perspective of reality and good judgment; Moral Yoga opens our hearts to love people and therefore makes us better people, more sensitive to our environment, more considerate and willing to contribute to our environment; Spiritual Yoga tells us the truth about our existence in this universe .

 

Home Practice Guidelines

Personal practice is the most important part of yoga. In Class  you learn new things, but it is personal practice of yoga that is the essence! Therefore, I strongly recommend establishing your own personal practice routine. You can start with half an hour once a week, then increase to twice a week and add further sessions as you go until you practice on a daily basis (6 or 7 times a week), even if its for 20 minutes a day. Do not let the thought that practice takes time deter you, take it lightly and you will see the payoff will arrive soon after big time! Below are some guidelines for your practice:

  • It is essential to maintain a margin of at least four hours between your last meal and the time you begin your practice. You can drink something light up to half an hour before practice. You can drink water before or after practice, but it’s not recommended to drink during practice (it fills your stomach and makes movement difficult).
  • Do not start practicing if you are tired or after a day in the sun. Also, do not practice immediately after strenuous physical activity such as running, gymnastics, cycling or swimming. Leave sufficient time for rest and recovery. In such cases it is possible to practice restorative poses (with support) .
  • Wear appropriate clothes that allow for free movement and will enable you to see the various parts of the body (such as knees and elbows).
  • Practice when there is no fever or acute illness, in such cases you have to rest until the body is stronger.
  • Do not hold your breath during practice, breath normally through the nostrils (inhaling and exhaling). Concentrate on performing the posture properly rather than breathing. Use special breathing only after you becomes familiar with the asana. Once the asana is done properly breathing flows freely.
  • It is recommended to find a quiet practice space and practice every day at the same time . It can be in the morning, evening, or at any other suitable time (on the condition that enough time lapsed from your last meal).
  • During menstruation women should practice quieting poses and avoid postures that generate heat or entail stopping the natural flow of the blood. For detailed instructions on practice during menstruation please consult with a teacher.
  • Do not give up practicing inversions.  These positions is invaluable: they regulate metabolism, balance blood pressure, maintain a proper level of glucose and the chemical balance of the body systems. They bring emotional balance, relaxing and refreshing the brain and the mind. Practice these poses every day (except for women during menstruation). If you do not have a lot of time, practice at least 5-6 minutes Sarvangasana (Shoulder stand ) and 2-3 minutes Halasana (plow), then relax for a few minutes in Savasana.
  • As you practice, try to disconnect from your mobile phone and any other distractions – everything can wait until the end of practice … be focused on the practice and set time for yourself – the benefit will be much greater than your (temporary) unavailability.
  • If you eat before exercise you will become heavier and limited in your movement. Physical activity requires all your energy so your body automatically stops digestion to divert the energy to the muscles . This obviously violates the digestion and is not recommended

About Success and Equanimity in Yoga

 

There is a gap between the type of values ​​that (consciously or not) we live by in the west, and the qualities that are considered desirable and beneficial in yoga. When rationally observing western culture, we can tell it emphasizes characteristics such as competitiveness, achievement, individualism, consumerism, and the pursuit of material gains even at the cost of exploitation etc. One can also look at the positive aspects: progress, well-being, individual freedom, prosperity, providing opportunities for development and so on.

Any way we may look at it, one factor unites all of these characteristics: the appreciation we feel towards success. We are addicted to success and admire successful people. Everyone wants to succeed. No one wants to be a failure. Success can mean money, academic accomplishments or cultural achievements; if I’m “somebody” my name will be remembered.

But what is success really, and how can it be measured? Success is failure’s partner. We can determine success only in relation to failure. If there is no failure there is no success. So success and failure are intertwined.

Is always possible to succeed? What happens when we fail?

The Bhagavad – Gita states that a Yogi is a person for which success and failure are the equal.

Western approach is to acquire knowledge in order to succeed and rule the world; to ensure that we are strong and successful. We are bound outward. But the yogi knows he cannot control the world. The world is wide and unpredictable, impossible to control.

Instead of controlling the world, the yogi learns to control himself. The ideal is not success, but rather equanimity. What is equanimity?

Equanimity means that regardless of the circumstances, I can stay relaxed and satisfied. Success will not cause my head to spin and the failure will not make me depressed. The yogi knows that life circumstances are changing constantly. Success cannot persist; at some point it will be replaced with failure, but my own internal state can remain constant.

You could say that equanimity is the “homeostasis of consciousness.” Homeostasis is a biological system’s ability to maintain constant internal balance when the environment changes. Our body temperature is almost constant, regardless of the outdoor temperature. In both hot and cold conditions we maintain the same body temperature. Equanimity is the ability to stay calm in the face of praise or humiliation, success or failure, achievement or defeat, profit or loss, victory or defeat and so on.

In the west we seem to think that we can rule the world via technological progress, however, we do not believe it is possible to control the states of our consciousness. Our moods fluctuate in and out of control and our thoughts wander freely…

Is it really possible to control our internal state? How can we get to equanimity?

It’s not easy – and that is exactly the yogic approach: it is necessary to acquire these skills. This is a process that slowly builds over time and practice.

 

A Chair For Yoga – Second Edition is Available

 Coming Soon! Props for Yoga – Eyal’s second guide for practicing with props is due this fall!

 

A Chair For Yoga – A Guide for Practicing with a Yoga Chair

  • Do you enjoy practicing with props for restoration and recreation?
  • Do you wish to make your asanas (postures) practice richer and more enjoyable?
  • Have you ever experienced the frustration of failing to remember an effective use of a chair that was demonstrated in a Yoga workshop?
  • Have you ever wondered how to prepare your body for penetrating the full depth of an advanced asana?

If the answer to some or all of the above is positive, then this is probably the guide for you! Containing over 350 photos of 150 different exercises it will show you how to enhance the practice of 72 important yoga postures using a chair.

Using the chair support, beginners can get closer to the wholesome experience of the pose; advanced practitioners can explore deeper aspects of the pose; and teachers can find ideas for enriching their instruction.

The first edition of this guide proved very beneficial for teachers and students and sold out in a short period of time. This second edition provides additional variations and, as a bonus, offers a training sequence that can be practiced at all times and almost anywhere!

To order the guide, click here.