Yoga Practices and Poses
Jnani Chapman, RN
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Body Scan is an awareness practice designed to bring attention to how the body is feeling. It enables us to attend to whatever is happening in that moment. Body Scan is a physical and psychological check-in and even though it is called Body Scan (and not Mind Scan or Emotional Scan) it includes looking at what is happening emotionally, mentally, and energetically for the person. It begins at the physical level with a systematic, part-by-part exploration. It can begin at the feet, and move up the body to finish at the head or the hands; it can begin at the head, and slowly trace awareness downward. It can even begin at the inside and move out or can begin at the surface of the body and move inward to the center of the bones or organs. Body Scan enables a practitioner to notice sensations and feelings present in the physical body, for example, places of tension, discomfort, or pain, places that feel uneven or asymmetrical, places that feel stagnant or hyperactive. Like all practices, skills will develop with regularity and intention. Move through each level in sequence giving enough time for the mind to direct itself to what is happening
- On the physical level -
- explore feelings and sensations
- On the emotional level -
- explore feelings and emotions
- On the thinking level -
- explore thoughts, attitudes and ideas, looking at habituated recurrent themes
- On the energy level -
- explore how one is feeling energetically. Suggest a scale all the way from tired or lethargic on one end to hyperactive or restless at the other end of the scale. Then add the suggestion that the person may be feeling somewhere in the middle of the scale ... relaxed, tranquil, and calm. Throughout each level remember to add suggestions that the person accept whatever is there, "Just let it be how it is; recognize it; acknowledge it. If any judgments arise, simply acknowledge them and continue directing the awareness."
From the energy level direct the awareness to the breath: Observe the breath as it is. Accept it without trying to change it. Let it be exactly the way it is. Simply notice it--watch it--be aware of it. Are there places the breath seems to flow easily? Are there places the breath doesn't quite reach? As you feel comfortable watching the breath come and go begin to notice if there are any stopping places with the breath-on the way in or out or in between. Just notice how it is and let it be. As you feel ready please begin to count the natural breaths. How many seconds does it seem to take for the breath to come in? How many seconds for the breath to go out? When you discern a regular pattern, remember it. We will use it later in learning basic yoga breathing practices. Rest the awareness at the subtle level of deep harmony and connection to the whole.
Extended Exhalation Breath
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Here is a breathing practice that also will help develop awareness. The Benefits that consciously controlling. breathing can provide are more researched than most other aspects of yoga (with the exception of meditation). Please try this extended exhalation breath and let yourself experience what it can do. Begin by watching the natural breath without attempting to control it. Let the breath come and go (as it was doing before you started to think about it). As it flows, notice what areas of the body are involved automatically with breathing. Does the abdomen expand and contract as the breath comes and goes? Do the sides of the rib cage move? What about the shoulders? What about the chest? Try to let the muscles of the trunk relax so that they can move easily and effortlessly. When you can achieve and maintain this relaxed state you are ready to begin consciously controlling the breath.
The goal is to control the exhalation -- to slow it down -- to extend it until it is twice as long in duration as the inbreath.
Always stop if there is any lightheadedness or dizziness. This is a signal of fatigue in the body. In this situation it is better to the practice of watching the natural breath and letting yourself relax in that natural flow. To practice extended exhalation breath, let the breath flow out evenly and steadily for three or four or five seconds and let the inbreath take half that time, two-three seconds. In the beginning, it may not even be possible to get a 2:1 ratio. That's OK. Work toward a twice as long exhale, comfortably, letting the practice build with time. How long yo chose to exhale should be determined by how long it can be done easefully and comfortably. Do not work on extending for longer than twice the inhale. Pay attention to how each part of the body feels during the practice. If the body starts to tense up or tighten anywhere this is a signal that you are trying too hard. Some people begin the extended exhalation breathing practice able to exhale evenly for four-six seconds and even able to let the inhalation be full and efficient in two or three seconds. Others may find that inhaling for one or two seconds is okay, but the exhale is gone in three or four seconds. Accept whatever ratio feels natural for you. Let the practice be rhythmic and steady. Let yourself relax in a comfortable position while practicing this technique. When you succeed in finding a comfortable ratio,,then begin extending the length of time of your practice session. As the practice develops, people find that the lung capacity naturally deepens with time. You may notice that doing two seconds in and four seconds out will grow to three seconds in with five or six seconds out, and eventually, to longer durations that maintain the 1:2 ratio.
Try it initially for two or three minutes. If it feels easeful and relaxing keep it up. Some people do the extended exhalation breath for five or 10 minutes twice a day. Other people choose it as a focus for meditation and may practice from one-half to one full hour.
Three-Part Deep Breathing
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To begin this practice, first take slow natural deep breaths. Let the breath be full but relaxed. Do not push it out or pull it in. Let it come and go naturally, at an even, steady pace. Let it be full but relaxed. As you relax, the muscles will be able to expand and contract as the breath comes and goes. It can feel full but should not feel forced. Be gentle. Relax into it.
When you are relaxed you can begin the first part of the three-part breath by expanding the belly out like a balloon as you inhale. This actually contracts the diaphragm muscle and expands the capacity of the lungs to take in air. Expanding the abdominal muscles with the incoming breath helps one gain control of the diaphragm. Let the belly expand out as the breath comes in. Practice this first part until it feels comfortable before proceeding to the second part. If you notice any light-headedness or dizziness, refrain from the practice until normal breathing resumes.
The second part of this breath is done by allowing the breath to move up into the rib cage. The ribs expand sideways and front-ways as the lungs fill with air, and they contract down an in as the air is released on the exhalation. As the belly expands the breath fills the higher parts of the lungs. This should not cause any strain or discomfort. If either is experienced at all the practice should be discontinued until equilibrium is again attained. Such discomfort might be caused by tensing muscles or by trying to breathe deeper than your natural capacity.
Again, practice gently with evenness and steadiness until you feel the muscles relaxing and moving freely In their expansion and contraction. Again, do not push or force either the inhalation or the exhalation. And, again, if any discomfort is experienced, the practice should be discontinued until normal breathing resumes.
The third part of the breath is done by allowing the inhalation to fill the chest completely to the top up into the apex of the lungs.
Feel the muscles relaxing and moving freely as they expand and contract. Again, do not push or force either the inhalation or exhalation. Do not try so hard.
Pranayama: A Practical Application
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I do not think of myself as an anxious person, but since my diagnosis my nerves are on edge and I get upset easily. Does yoga have a technique to help me?
Yes, actually there are many simple yoga techniques that you can do inconspicuously during the day to help strengthen the nervous system and calm, anxiety. One such activity is a simple deep breathing practice. The most important thing to remember in the practice is to keep the trunk of the body relaxed. Do not let the muscles in the rib cage tense or tighten as they move. Let them expand and contract with the breath into belly. Consciously expand the belly as you inhale as if you are inflating a balloon. Then, let the breath continue rising up through the rib cage both up and out to the sides, so that you feel the top of the lungs (underneath the collarbones) inflate. This is one full inhalation, and half of the practice. The full exhalation begins there at the top of the lungs. As air is released from the apex of the lungs, the collar bones lower. The air continues to flow out down through the rib cage. Imagine that you are pouring out a glass of water. As the exhalation continues (ribs contracting from the top down) you can help by drawing the abdominal muscles in (bringing the belly button toward the spine). Pulling in the abdominal muscles like a bellows contracting helps exhale more residual air, which in turn increases available lung capacity for the next inhalation. Let the exhale extend long and slow. If you are counting, try to exhale for a longer time than you inhale on each breath.
Let the breath be full, but do not force it or strain. You may wish to practice it first lying on your back with your hands resting on the abdomen. You can feel the belly rise up toward the ceiling as it expands with the inhale and feel the belly contract toward the floor with the exhale.
The Cat/Cow Pose
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- A wonderful yoga stretch that has been used widely in physical therapy is commonly known as Cat/Cow. Cat/Cow is an awareness practice and a movement sequence done on hands and knees. The purpose is to experience the range of motion currently available as we move the pelvis in opposite directions; first, by tucking the tailbone in to round the back at one end of the movement spectrum and then by extending the tail bone to flatten the back at the other end of the spectrum. Remember to be gentle and easy. Do not push or force the body. Please be on a padded mat or rug to avoid hurting the knees. Relax into the movements, moving and breathing evenly and comfortably. Place each knee directly below the center of the hip joint so that the thigh is perpendicular to the floor and place wrists or fists directly below the center of the shoulder joint so that the arm is perpendicular to the floor without any bend at the elbows. Keep your neck in line with the spine so that you don't allow the head to drop. Slowly and evenly.
- 1) exhale as you tuck the tailbone in and under, and round the back as you draw the abdomen in and up. Tuck the chin in toward the chest. When you are ready:
2) inhale; flatten the back by elongating and extending the tailbone as you lift the neck in line with spine, opening and expanding the chest for the length of the inhale. This is the cow in its field, though I prefer to think of a more active animal-one that is extending the tail bone in one direction and elongating the neck so the crown of the head extends in the other direction. Then continue to
3) breathe in and out coordinating each to a direction of movement. Remember as the back curls and rounds from head to tail for the cat you are contracting the lungs and letting all the air flow out evenly and steadily. Then as the spine elongates from the crown of the head through to the tip of the tail for the cow you are inhaling long and deep letting the breath open and expand the chest. Exhale as you curl the tailbone in and under pressing it forward toward the chin as it curls in toward the chest; then, inhale as you extend the tailbone back to elongate the spine as the chin extends to let the crown of the head elongate.
- Cat/Cow is commonly used for back problems to help the spine and pelvis to restore range of motion and to help back muscles gain strength. Try this practice first for three - five minutes and see how you feel. If it feels good and seems to sustain, then continue the practice regularly once or twice a day.
Modified Shoulder Stand Pose
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It is very important that the neck and the back of the head are comfortable throughout this pose. To assure comfort, please remove any jewelry from around the neck and wear collarless shirts. If the neck or shoulders feel tension, there are adaptations possible which will be described elsewhere. Never turn the head while lifted into the pose -- come down first.
Persons with risk factors for (or actual) heart, lung or vascular diseases, and the obese should get medical approval before trying inverted poses. If you have specific medical concerns, please speak to your primary health care practitioner.
Modified shoulder stand is the best way to learn shoulder stand. It allows the body to progress at its own pace. Shoulder stand has some wonderful benefits because it is an inverted pose. This means that the body is tilted in the opposite plane from its normal relationship to gravity. In shoulder stand, the body is almost completely upside down. In modified shoulder stand, the body gradually inverts: it begins with the legs alone elevated on a chair. Once comfortable, one may begin to lift the buttocks and back to a slight tilt and gradually gain steeper angles with practice. Remember, yoga is a process and the benefits are received with every practice session, at every level and stage. You do not have to be completely upside down to benefit. Even the passive modified shoulder stand, with lower legs resting on a chair while the back remains on the floor, brings benefits to the entire physical system.
Place a chair so that the back of the chair is against a wall or immovable surface. Lie on the floor in front of the chair with the body aligned perpendicular to the chair and wall. Have the buttocks as close to the chair as possible with the lower legs (calves) resting on the seat of the chair. Rest with arms along side the body for at least a minute. Smooth any material underneath the body so that you are not lying on lumpy clothing or padding. Remove ponytails and long hair from behind the neck. Now, how do you feel? Is the body comfortable?
Note: It is traditionally recommended that women do not do inverted poses during menstruation in order to maintain a natural downward flow of energy for menses.
To prepare for lifting up into the pose, bring your arms along side the body with the palms down. Remember not to turn the head or neck or look to the side while you are up in the shoulder stand. Ready? Please bring the feet to the front edge of the chair seat. Press down on the palms as you lift the buttocks off the floor. Place the palms of your hands on the buttocks for support. Distribute your weight for comfort between the elbows and the feet, so that the neck and shoulders are relaxed. Breathe gently and evenly. You can begin by holding the pose for ten seconds. If this is comfortable, you can work toward 30 seconds. Listen to your body. Never strain or try to push it. Please be ready to slowly lower down at any sign of pressure or discomfort. Let yourself develop skill and relaxation in this pose gradually and naturally; trust your body awareness and go slowly.
When you are ready to come out of the pose come down mindfully and with full control, easing the back down to the floor veterbrae by vertebrae. Rest with the back on the floor and the legs on the chair seat for a minute or two at least, relaxing with extended exhalation breathing. You can hug your knees to the chest and turn to rest on your side before helping yourself up to sitting position. It is good in the beginning to use this modified shoulder stand as an advanced pelvic lifting pose. Rather than holding the pose in stillness, let the body slowly curl up and down. Pay attention to individuating the movement along the spine so that you can feel each vertebrae as it moves. Staying conscious of the breath flowing gently and evenly while you move in and out of the pose.
It may take months of practice before it is comfortable to hold the pose in stillness (the breath is always moving!). Bring patience to your practice accepting where your limits are without pushing or forcing. You will find that this patience lets you develop steadily and provides you the strongest base for progress.
Yoga is a process. The benefits are received at every level and stage of practice. Do not let the competitive or comparing mind push you beyond your comfort zone.
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Meditation is a commonly used word but most often, the word is used incorrectly. Meditation is a state of being in the same. way that sleep is a state of being. One cannot practice meditation any more than one can practice sleeping - you are either in a state of sleep or you are not (ask any insomniac!). When one sits to practice meditation, one is really practicing concentration. That person engages in the continuous activity of directing the mind to a single point of focus. By drawing the attention to one point in a gentle, persistent way, the mind may become empty of thoughts and the person may drop into a state of meditation. This practice requires a conscious effort to refocus the attention whenever the mind has wandered. It is not unusual for beginners to become frustrated by the process, assuming that everyone else has amenable, cooperative minds willing to be silent upon request (ha ha!). For the sake of accuracy, some teachers refer to meditation as sitting ie: "I sit for an hour each day". Saying I "sit" instead of I "meditate" may relieve expectations of accomplishment which could interfere with the process. Regular practice acts to reinforce the goal and helps bring about a readiness for stillness, which is fertile soil for the state of meditation.
Engaging one of the senses in the process may be helpful. For a person who is visually oriented, holding a picture in mind of something or someone which evokes positive feelings may be the best focussing tool. The picture should be seen as a single unit and not as a scene, because the mind could take the scene and use it to wander into imagination and fantasy. Visual images could focus on a light, a candle, a specific design, the face of someone dearly esteemed, or some image from nature like a flower, a stone, the sky, or the ocean. One common focus for meditation is to simply watch the natural flow of one's own breath.
People who are more auditorially oriented could choose a sound for focus such as sounds from nature like wind in the trees or the lapping of ocean waves. In Sanskrit, the word mantra means sound vibration. Many meditators recite mantras to generate vibratory frequencies. Common mantras include- Om, Hari Om, Om Shanti, Ram, Hari Ram, Om Namah Shivaya. Many people prefer to use words from their own language like Peace, Love, or Joy. Even a meaningless syllable may be a useful tool if it helps to focus the mind. Persons who are kinesthetically oriented may prefer focussing the attention on a sensation like the touch of the wind against the skin, the feeling of motion as the breath flows in and out, or the sense of height one feels from on top of a mountain.
The witness consciousness is a way of separating oneself from the activity of the mind where one more or less steps back to observe it in action. Yoga asks that practitioners bring non-judgment and acceptance to their practice ("accept what is; know things change" [TXV. Desikachar, Aperture's Symposium on Healing]).
To practice: cultivate a watchful attitude and a frame of mind, become quiet and dedicate yourself to watching. Notice everything: what thoughts are passing through the mind-, what sensations are happening in the physical body, what feelings are present. Just keep noticing. Simply observe and continue observing. If a judgment comes into the mind, notice it without judgment.
- Dharana means concentration. Here is the beginning of the meditation process, where the steady stream of, awareness is directed inward from the senses.
- Many meditation teachers recommend that practitioners establish regularity in their practice and meditate at the same time and place daily, or two to three times a day.
- It is important that the focus one chooses for meditation is positive and appealing and elevates the consciousness.
Meditation Justification Research
Herbert Benson, MD and his associates at Harvard Medical School have been conducting research since 1967, validating many of the physiological benefits of meditation. His subjects in meditation have shown reduction of chemicals associated with anxiety in the blood stream, brain waves slowed to patterns associated with relaxation, basal metabolic rate reduced the energy a body expends at rest, heart rate lowered, muscle tension decreased and, for some, blood pressure also dropped. Benson used the term relaxation response to describe the constellation of effects produced by meditation states. He built on the work of WB Cannon on the fight-or-flight response and WR Hess' protective mechanisms against overstress. He and his colleagues reviewed secular and religious writings and concluded that most cultures and religions had traditions which instructed the use of tools for focusing the attention and passively disregarding other thoughts.
Yoga Research Notes
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Yoga has been researched for its effect on many conditions. The list is long and includes asthma, arthritis, anxiety and depression, headache, backache, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, pain management and insomnia, as well as alcohol and drug abuse. Much of this research was done in India and Europe. Yoga studies in the United States are limited. Most studies include yoga as one of several modalities of comprehensive lifestyle management programs. For example, the research done by Dean Ornish, M.D., and his colleagues used yoga as stress management for heart patients along with vegetarian diet, exercise and group support. The people in his study who practiced at least one hour of yoga a day achieved a reversal of coronary artery blockages and people who practiced more than one hour of yoga a day achieved even greater reversals. The Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, CA, contracts with hospitals around the country to offer the Ornish program to people with coronary artery disease. They are also presently conducting research on the effects of Dr. Ornish's program for men with prostate cancer (phone, 415/332-2525-, fax, 415/332-5730). Another good example is the research of Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center Stress Reduction Clinic in Worcester, MA. His study showed that yoga stretches and meditation were useful for stress management and pain control. The program, called Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, is offered in many hospitals around the country (phone, 508/856-2656-, fax, 508/856-1977).
Copyright © 2000 Jnani Chapman, RN
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