Pranayama. What is it? Why do we do it?

Pranayama is the fourth limb of the eight limbs of Yoga.

Pranayama is a Sanskrit word meaning extension of the breath or more accurately, “extension of the life force”. The word is composed of two Sanskrit words, Prāna meaning life force and āyāma, meaning to extend, draw out, restrain, or control

More simply, Pranayama is a series of breathing techniques or breathing exercises.

Breathing is a normal part of our life, and we often forget to pay attention to it. It is the body’s natural inclination to hold the breath whenever we feel physically or emotionally challenged. Pranayama teaches us the proper way to breathe: slowly and deeply. Breathing this way increases the capacity of the lungs, brings more oxygen into the body and stimulates the Vagus nerve. The Vagus Nerve stretches from your brain stem down to your abdomen. When the Vagus Nerve is stimulated it activates the parasympathetic nervous systems to slow your heart rate, relieve stress, and heal your body.

“When the breath is still, so is the mind.” this basic yoga concept tells us that, with breathing, we can help to either calm or excite the entire nervous system. When the breath becomes irregular and unsteady, so is our mental state. When the breath is steady so is the mind.

You might not always have time for a yoga class but you can always find a few minutes a day to practice Pranayama.

To practice Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing): Sit comfortably with an easy straight back and close the eyes. Fold in the pointer and middle fingers of the right hand. Use the thumb to block the right nostril and the ring finger to block the left nostril. Gently close your right nostril with your thumb. Inhale through your left nostril, then close it with your ring finger. exhale slowly through the right nostril. Keep the right nostril open, inhale, then close it, and open and exhale slowly through the left. This is one cycle.

The ancient yogis measured a person’s lifespan not by years but by the number of his respirations. They believed that everyone is allocated a fixed number of respirations in his or her or her lifetime, which differs from person to person.

Breath is life and life is breath. Keep breathing…

Aparigraha. (or my computer crashed)

It happened. My computer crashed. Just a blue screen. On it were countless photos, music, folders, esaays, and a few pie charts and spirographs. It is one of those things that is probably inevitable in the age of fast moving technology. I should have been prepared for it. I wasn’t. Although I did have a nagging feeling a few weeks ago when everything seemed to be running a little slower than usual. I thought I should back everything up, I even said it out loud, but I didn’t. How much info will be able to be retrieved and what is lost I am not sure yet, I will have to wait and see.

While waiting for the result my mind immediately turns to thoughts of one of the Yamas of Yoga: Aparigraha.
There are many interpretations and applications for Aparigraha, this being one of the more literal translations; Non grasping. I may lose all my “stuff” and if so I have to let go of it. This idea of “non-attachment” can be applied to tangible objects as well as to our thoughts and ideas. If we practice Aparigraha we must carefully consider which objects and ideas we choose to hold onto. We must prioritize how our time and energy is spent. Maybe I was spending too much time on the computer, maybe there were too many thoughts tucked into too many folders. When we practice Aparigraha by letting go of something, someone, or some idea we create space for the things that are truly important. We create a space for possibility and begin to understand all that is truly important to us. The important things are those that cannot be lost. A generous heart, a kind spirit, a quiet mind.

It is not fun when a computer crashes, but really, in the overall scheme of things what is lost? Maybe it is time to simply let go of the old to make room for the new.

Yama of Yoga: Satya.

When I was in high school my mother gave me two wonderful little books of philosophy called Notes to Myself and How to Live in the World and Still Be Happy by Hugh Prather.  I read them over and over again throughout my life, his simple words always seemed to make sense, to calm and reassure me.  I carried the books with me until they were so dog eared and highlighted that they literally fell apart.  Even now, so many years later, his words are ingrained in my memory.   One of my favorite Hugh Prather quotes is:  “LIVE your life as if everything you do will eventually be known.”  Now that is a tall order.

Living a life based in truth is one of the Yamas of Yoga: Satya.  Literally translated it means truthfulness.  Practicing satya means being truthful in our feelings, thoughts, and words. It means being honest with ourselves and with others.

When we are honest we can be fearless, living life as an open book.  Honesty is at the heart of all healthy relationships. Practicing Satya in your words is a good place to start.  You might need to deliver the truth to a friend who desperately needs your input.  It may not be what she wants to hear at the moment but you can deliver those words in a supportive, honest and loving way.   Gossip and hearsay are a large part of this lack of truth in our daily lives.  If we were to think for a moment before recounting events in our day, being sure that the words we were sharing were absolutely truthful, we would probably have a lot less to say.  Sometimes, the truth hurts, so it is just as important to know when not to speak if it will cause someone else damage. This idea is stated simply and eloquently in the Mahabharata:  “Speak the truth which is pleasant.  Do not speak unpleasant truths.  Do not lie, even if the lies are pleasing to the ear.  This is the eternal law, the dharma.”  Being truthful means that we must choose our words wisely.

Being truthful with ourselves is another aspect of Satya.  Becoming clear with who we are and what makes us happy.  This means we can let go of trying to achieve perfection and stop being so hard on ourselves.  We can let go of the desire to always please.  When you do things that are not a reflection of the real you, you cannot be happy with yourself.  You will become confused because you won’t know who to please or how.  Find the courage to say this is who I am and be okay with it.  Embrace your truth.  Don’t compromise yourself.  Many friends and relatives with the best of intentions might offer us advice.  Listen to them and then listen to your own heart, it will never steer you wrong.

Once you begin to act in accordance with your fundamental nature; the true you, you will find your intuition growing stronger, decision making becoming easier, and a sense of peace in your daily life. Making a commitment to truth is not always easy, but living without lies is ultimately very freeing.

Live in your truth and live a life of respect, honor and integrity.

Yama of Yoga: Aparigraha.

Give Love.

giveLove
I love the holiday season.  The festive decorations, the celebrations, the coming together of the community.  It brings to mind one of the Yamas of Yoga: Aparigraha.  This Yama has many translations and interpretations.  One of these is “not hoarding”.  Meaning that life should not be about all for me and none for you, life should be lived by keeping what we need and sharing the rest.  This spirit of giving is particularly apparent during the holidays and it is always a joy to see the generosity that emerges.  We somehow find the time to give in ways that would seem almost impossible during the rest of the year.  We do it because it is Christmas or Hanukah or Kwanza.  We do it in the spirit of the holiday that we celebrate and the traditions we have come to embrace.  It is a beautiful thing to watch and be a part of.  My wish is that we continue to carry this spirit of generosity with us throughout the year.  Finding those moments to give when it would be so much easier not to.  Giving financially is not always possible, but a giving of your time and spirit is always accessible.  We all have so little time anymore.  Our plates are full and we are seemingly always rushing on to the next thing.  Giving of your time is one of the most generous ways to share the holiday spirit throughout the year.   It might just be 5 minutes as you pass someone on the bike path who is obviously lost and offering directions.  It might be volunteering for one hour a month delivering meals to the elderly.  It might be watching your friends children so that she can have some much needed time for herself.  Maybe one night a month you do the cooking for a group of friends.   We can also give of the spirit.   Maybe it is speaking a kind word instead of a harsh one.  Maybe it is letting go of your next silly argument and being the first to say you are sorry.   Maybe it is just taking the time to truly listen.

Find your way, and create a new tradition of giving year round.

Wishing you a Happy Holiday and a Blissful New Year!

Practicing Tapas: Fierce Determination.

tapas

Tapas

As the chilly days of autumn and winter fall upon us, take the opportunity to PRACTICE one of the Niyamas of Yoga; Tapas.   The definition of Tapas is ‘heat’ or ‘ fiery discipline’ or ‘a constant and intense commitment’  I call it fierce determination.

Tapas is a phenomenon of the body as well as the mind. This fire is what can keep you going even if you don’t feel like it.  Getting to class sometimes can be the hardest part. Our mind will always come up with an excuse not to do something.  I am too tired, I don’t have time, it’s too cold outside. If we can summon our tapas we almost always feel better and wonder why it was so challenging to get there in the first place.

When you are holding a pose and give up, feeling that you couldn’t possibly hold it one second longer, think about what might happen if you were offered one hundred dollars to hold the pose for one more breath.  It is amazing how you can summon the strength when you really have to.  We have all heard the stories of men and women exhibiting super human strength.  Lifting automobiles, heavy machinery, even buses to rescue their trapped and injured loved ones.   That is tapas.

Just as it is when you are starting a fire, it takes time.  Collecting the wood, stacking the logs, fanning the flames, it is a process. Yet once the embers are lit, they generate more and more heat. When a new log is set on the existing fire, it takes very little effort to ignite.  Tapas will grow over time and will be extended to other aspects of your life.   That is the good news, we have the ability to redirect our energy.  We can listen to all of our minds objections and then decide to do what’s good for us anyway.  That tapas, that fierce determination exists within us at all times, we just have to tap into it.

Dharma Mittra: Maha Sadhana. The Great Practice On DVD.

Maha sadhana 1

Maha sadhana 2

When you can’t get to the guru, the guru has to come to you.  We are fortunate that we  can practice at home with Dharma Mittra with Maha Sadhana  (The Great Practice) levels 1 and 2.  These DVD’s are comprehensive. They include many options for Asana practice in both length and difficulty.  There are wonderful lectures by Dharma, guided pranayama and meditation and a special asana workshop.  There is no one quite like Dharma, his humility and deep love for the practice of yoga shine through the screen.  I am not usually a fan of practicing yoga with a DVD but in this case, it is almost essential.   It is as good as it gets without being in his presence.

To preview or purchase the dvd go to:

Pranamaya

http://www.pranamaya.com/products/dvds/mittra-ms1.html

Or purchase from:

Amazon

http://www.amazon.com/Dharma-Mittra-Maha-Sadhana-Level/dp/B001GXMU7Q/ref=sr_1_1?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1283702927&sr=1-1