Re-Birthing Yourself

Every morning (unless you are a night-owl), you awaken to a new day and a new set of possibilities to unfold. As we look more deeply into the nature of reality, we begin to see that not just every day, but every breath offers the same opportunity to give birth to something new. In our work with pranayama over the previous few blog posts, we have discovered that breathing, when relaxed, arises from, and dissolves back into Stillness. Thus breathing is a major factor in our ability to ‘realize’ that the limitless mystery that is Stillness (or Silence, Buddha Nature, Purusha, Atman, etc) is the source of all that arises moment to moment. We are developing a proficiency in staying grounded in Stillness. Keep it going!

But what are the factors that shape what arises? How can we overcome habituated responses to life that drain our energy? How can our own unique creativity participate in the moment to moment unfolding? Lets look at some of the layers available to our investigation.

  1. The Cosmic Fields: 13.7 billion or so years ago, the manifest universe emerged into being guided by what we may call the laws of physics. Energy, particles, atoms, stars and galaxies burst into being and variations of these continue to be self emerging and self sustaining. The sun, moon, planets and stars continually move around, but we can guarantee they will be here moment to moment.
  2. Our Geological Fields: Mother Earth emerged into being some 4.5 billion or so years ago and continues to re-birth herself moment to moment through her movements, weather patterns, geological upheavals and water flow. If you have chosen to be here, Mother Earth will appear moment to moment in your reality.
  3. Our Biosphere: The 8.7 million living species currently on the planet re-birth themselves moment to moment. Individual members die off and new ones emerge, species die off and new ones emerge, in an extraordinary dance. Where ever you go, the biosphere will be with you moment to moment, including you own living body which includes 30 trillion cells that have your DNA, and 300 trillion more bacterial cells which have their own DNA. Moment to moment there is a lot going on!
  4. The Noosphere: A term coined by Teilhard de Chardin, noospere refers to the energetic fields generated by human thought and carried through culture in various forms. Science and religion are just two of the more obvious aspects, but educational, judicial, political, and artistic and many other social systems are also included. Every moment we awaken to the collective field the humans give birth to through their thought driven behavior.
  5. Our own inner world: You wake up and your ideas, beliefs, memories, habits and patterns of emotional energy, likes, dislikes, plans and schemes are all there re-emerging, or lying latent for the right input to activate them. Habits are a two edged sword, as they can liberate the intelligence to look into more complex processes, but they can also keep you unconscious. This is the level where we can choose to give birth to something new, if we are awake, paying attention, and resting in the Stillness. The Upanishads offer some insight on some of the structures and possibilities available to us to help in our transformation.

A yogi’s model of reality, from the Taittiriya Upanishad:

We are are composed of 3 bodies, further divided into five nested sheaths or layers known as koshas. These extend inward from gross to subtle. All emerge from the Luminous Emptiness of Stillness. What is false dissolves into emptiness, (shunyata). what is real, the ground of all that arises, remains as light or luminosity.

The Gross Body (Sthula Sharira) has one sheath:
the Anamaya kosha: the body of food. We have weight and mass, as does all the matter in the universe. We study anatomy to make sense of how our structures interact. The known universe has a gross body we all share. Realizing that the whole universe is my body is an awakening that can arise in any and every moment. Feel this! Nurture this!

The Subtle Body (Sukshma Sharira) has three sheaths:
Pranamaya Kosha: the body of energy: we are also energetic beings, bubbling over with electrical, thermal and kinetic energies that are gifts from the dynamic energies of sun, moon, stars and galaxies. We embody this individually in our physiology, or the 5 pranas. Live well, stay healthy, give birth to health moment to moment.
Manomaya Kosha: the body of mental activity, including perception, memory and learned behavior patterns, and our personality structures. The universe is also imbued with perception and memory. Healthy use of this realm greatly eases our lives and deepens our capacity to dive into the unseen psychic/shamanic realms. Unhealthy use locks us into inflexible beliefs and patterns of behavior that perpetuate suffering through the generations through the Attachment process and other social and cultural fields. Healing comes from awakening the next level and integrating:
Vijnanamaya Kosha: the body of intelligence, also known as Buddhi. We can discern and discriminate. We can imagine. We can choose to change our actions, if we stay present, patient and alert. These conscious changes come from Stillness. But habits can carry on unconsciously and imagination can lock onto pathology. The intelligence is greatly nurtured when in can be integrated with the next level:

The Causal Body or Karana Sharira,  has one sheath, the Anandamaya Kosha,  the body of ecstasy or bliss. Here is Divine Revelation as the intelligence finally dissolves into wholeness and every atom and molecule, every form and pattern sings and dances in a Cosmic symphony that is ecstatic. We miss this because we are distracted by the confusion and delusion generated in the other layers when they are less than conscious.

As the anandamaya kosha awakens, the cosmic fields of the anamaya and pranamaya koshas are felt by the enhanced perception of the manomaya kosha. The vijnanamaya kosha can then recognize confused ideas, beliefs and patterns as seed forms in the manomaya kosha and, through imagination creativity and surrender into the cosmic fields, transform their energies into further spiritual growth and participation in the cosmic unfolding. All five levels function together as they arise and dissolve moment to moment.

The Practice: Sama Vrtti Pranyama

Remember, pranayama can be done as a kriya or cleansing, healing physiology, calming nerves, transforming the soft tissue structures of diaphragm, inter-costals, organs and spinal canal. Or, we can use it as meditation, to deepen our ability to stay in luminous emptiness. Sama Vritti is a meditative pranayama, as we are not specifically looking to expand the chest or stretch the diaphragm, having done that previously in asana and other pranayamas. We are looking to bring a deep sense of balance which can reveal the mystery of luminous emptiness.

In a comfortable sitting pose, or a supported reclining pose, spend several minutes settling in and observing the flow of the breath. Notice that the inhalation and exhalation probably do not have the same qualities of length, quantity and ease. They might, but… Be curious and attentive.

In sama vritti part 1, we will look to balance out the length of time of the inhalation and exhalation. You can count, like in music, or just feel it through. If you inhale to a four count, allow the exhalation to also have a four count. Back off on the easier phase, rather than trying to push to more challenged one. If your inhalations are generally easier and longer than the exhalation, let the inhalation be shorter to help balance. Same if the exhalation is easier. Let the pauses be soft and natural. You can spend years just on this level.

Part 2. We add a pause after inhalation, antara kumbhaka. In ‘Light on Pranayama” Iyengar suggests you start with a shorter retention, so the ratio of inbreath – retention – outbreath would be 1 – 1/4 – 1. With more experience (and much more space and elasticity in the chest), you can move to 1 – 1/2 – 1, 1 – 3/4 – 1, and finally 1 – 1 – 1.

Iyengar also suggests, and I agree wholeheartedly, that if you are not experienced in the retentions, only add them to sama vrtti part 1 every 4th or 5th breath. This is true for all levels of pranayama practice. When adding something new, allow several normal breaths to come between each pranayama breath. That will minimize strain and allow you to see how the relaxtion can deepen when this is natural and not forced. There is always some level of awkwardness when learning something new, but your intelligence can monitor the overall feeling and keep you on track.

Part 4: add the retention after exhalation. Start with smaller pauses until a relaxed ease is felt in the transition. Gradually work toward a 1 – 1 – 1 – 1 rhythm. The inhalations and exhalations will be naturally shorter to accommodate the longer retentions. You will begin to feel the that the antara kumbhaka is just continuation of the in-breath, without the gross breath moving, and the bahya kumbhaka is a continuation of the exhalation, with the further letting go internal.

Part 5: after any and all practice, savasana. Digest and rest in the luminous emptiness, drashtuh svarupe, avastahnam. Be born again, with your original face, radiant and free.

Pranayama and Meditation

From  the Patanjali Yoga Sutras:
II- 51 baahyaabhyantara-visayaaksepii caturthah
The fourth (in addition to outward, inward and restrained) surpasses the limits of outward and inward.

II-52 tatah ksiiyate prakaashaavaraanam
Then the covering of illumination is weakened.

II- 53 dhaaranaasu ca yogyataa manasah
And the mind becomes fit for concentration.

From Ramana Maharshi’s Upadesa Saram ( The essence of the Vedantic teachings.)

11: Vaayurodhanaalliiyate manah
By restraining the breathing, the mind is controlled, like a bird caught in a net.

12: Cittavaayavascitkriyaayutaah
Shakhayordvayii shaktimuulakaa
The mind and the prana are endowed with the ability to know and act respectively. These two are like two branches stemming from one power.

From Swami Dayananda’s commentary to the Upadesa Saram:

“It must be borne in mind that pranayama, controlling the breath, is a technical process and should be done under the guidance of someone who is competent. An easier process is called prana-viksanam, or observing the process of breathing. The mind is given the occupation of watching the breath entering and leaving the nostrils and there is no attempt to change or control the pattern of breathing. The mind gets an occupation in which no deliberation or will is involved. Mind gets absorbed in observing prana which is formless and part of the subtle body. This is much easier and does not involve any complication associated with the pranayama with kumbhaka.”

From “The Way of Liberation” by Adyashanti” (his italics)

“Meditation is the art of allowing everything to simply be in the deepest possible way. In order to let everything be, we must let go of the effort to control and manipulate our experience – which means letting go of personal will. This cuts right to the heart of the egoic make-up, which seeks happiness through control, seeking, striving and manipulation.”

The interlinking of breathing and mind activity, citta vrttis, is well known, both to spiritual practitioners ans well as neuroscientists. Quiet breath equals quiet mind, and a quiet mind is the beginning of meditation. Here we come to the paradox of hatha yoga, especially in the ‘I need to be in control’ modern world. When our body/minds are entangled in patterns of trauma, stress and confusion, how can we bring some stillness and healing to ourselves and others? How can we explore the many lessons yoga offers around healing and wholeness, while simultaneously remaining in a state of surrender to what is? What if ‘what is’ is ‘stressed out’? Now that I am living in one of the major surfing regions in the world, I am finding a very helpful clue lies out on the water.

A surfer is at the mercy of the ocean. Big waves, small waves, no waves, whatever; the surfer has to accept the reality of the moment. You cannot control the ocean. If you are a wind surfer, or kite surfer, you can add wind to the mix. But what you can do is refine your capacity to see and feel the wind and waves, learn how your board and body respond, and allow your body to become one with the whole process. Wiping out is included in the possibilities. You start as a beginner, learn from your experiences, and move on to the challenges that suit your capacity. Surfing is a process of cosmic alignment. The same goes for sailing where the sailor learns to read the wind, water currents, tides and waves, as well as the lines, sails and feel of the boat. In hatha yoga, we are both the sailor and the boat, the surfer and the board, navigating our embodied lives as we sail and surf through cosmic space. This is dynamic meditation, or meditation in action.

In working with the breath, the inner prana is the ocean, a dynamic fluid field of emotions and habits; of heart beat, peristalsis, and respiration; of waves, pulsations and tidal forces. We might even compare the diaphragm to a surf board, although it is way more complex. The surf board links the inner ocean of the surfer to the outer ocean. When the diaphragm is relaxed and riding along with the breathing, there is the effortless surrender that is felt from skin to cells. When the diaphragm is tense, restricted or inhibited, there is fear anxiety and distraction.The yogi cannot feel the inner movements of the prana because of the tension patterns in the nerves, fluids and tissues.

As Swami Dayananda mentioned above with prana vikshanam, and as was mentioned in a previous post, quietly observing the breath is the beginning practice that can last for years. It eventually becomes a basic life skill functioning, 24/7/365.2422, and naturally leads to ‘mindfulness meditation’. This is just being present to what is arising moment to moment, whether on the mat, or in the world.  As we enter into more formal pranayama practice, relaxing, feeling and allowing are still the primary practices. Then we can begin to surf.

The Practice: Viloma Pranayama

In traditional viloma pranayama, the in-breath and/or the out-breath are divided into several small steps, like walking up and down stairs. There are many advantages to working this way. First, we begin to notice the pauses more clearly because shorter breaths are less stressful and easier to sustain effortlessly. Secondly, we can use the steps to notice different parts of the body. If my in-breath has three steps to fullness, the first step can fill the lower lungs, the second fills the middle, and the third fills the upper lungs. I can learn where in the body I have intelligence, sensitivity and space and where there is restriction. Thirdly, I can begin to differentiate ribs, spine and diaphragm. Because I am moving slowly and deliberately and pausing periodically, I can be more attentive to these areas and notice how they are working.

A whole other level in viloma arises when I learn to use the pauses in different ways. In traditional viloma, the pauses are like mini kumbhakas. You are neither breathing in nor out, but just waiting without tension. The ‘without tension’ part requires a lot of patience and practice and here is where some other options can be helpful.

Option 1: I call this ‘rolling viloma’ and it is the breath that totally changed my understanding of pranayama. Another way to describe it is two steps forward and one step back, two steps forward and one step back, etc. Viloma 1 would be: Inhale 1, 2 and 3 is a slight exhalation, inhale 4, 5 and 6 is a slight exhalation, gradually filling the lungs. It feels like a wave inside a wave, as the pause is now a loop. Then a relaxed, normal exhalation. Viloma II would have a normal or slightly longer inhalation followed by: exhale 1, 2, and 3 is a very slight in breath; exhale 4, 5, 6 is a slight in breath, continuing until the lungs have emptied. The pause is again a loop of energy rather than a stopping.

Option 2: Here, the pause becomes an opportunity to re-balance ribs and diaphragm. As mentioned in a previous post, ribs and diaphragm can work together beautifully, or not. In Viloma, we use the pause to re-adjust the action of each. In Viloma I, where the emphasis is on the inbreath, the pauses are used to recharge the ribs and intercostals and relax the tension in the perimeter of the diaphragm, without releasing any breath. Then normal exhalation. This is a it more challenging than Option 1.

Viloma II, although now the exhalation is emphasized, the pauses are used similarly. The ribs tend to drop too quickly, so the pauses are used to recharge the ribs and inter-costals, like in viloma I. But now, during the pause, the center of the diaphragm is lifted up, stretching into the rib space, so it begins to sit higher and higher in the chest where it belongs. Exhalation ideally stretches the diaphragm, just as the inhalation shortens the diaphragm. The longer the excursion, that is, how far the diaphragm can more between full in breath and full out breath, the easier and more effortless the breathing. Both ribs/intercostals and the diaphragm need to stretch and open a lot. This comes with pranayama, and not prana vikshanam.

Viloma with Mantra or Japa:

(Thanks to Miami based yoga teacher Jodi Carey for this suggestion!)
As viloma has steps or stages, these can be integrated with a mantra. As an example, in Viloma I, the inhalation would be: Om namah shivaya, pause, Om namah shivaya, pause, Om namah shivaya, pause, and the exhalation could be Om. Reverse for Viloma II. The mantras are repeated silently, so it is a japa practice. A simple Om, or Om mane padme hum, or Om shanti shanti shanti are other possibilites. Be creative.

In all pranayama  practices, there are certain indicators of strain that need to be monitored. We are trying to be in harmony with healing, not fighting against our habits, and this is not easy. Pranayama is not an easy practice because it requires diligence, patience and honesty.

First: observe the nature of the pause at the end of each exhalation. If it was relaxed, you may proceed with another cycle. If the pause after the exhalation had some excess tension, allow several normal breath to come and go to bring the pause after exhalation to a state of relaxation. Then continue with another cycle. Viloma is very good at easing the transitions after exhalation and is the best pranayama for beginners.

Second: Watch for tension in the face, eyes, ears, jaws, neck and throat. A natural jalandhara bandha, with the brain dropping without collapsing the chest will help if you are sitting. It is like bowing your head to pray. The brain surrenders to the heart without tensing the throat. Also, the mechanics of breathing do not need any help from head, neck or shoulders. If the strain continues, just watch the breath.

Third: Monitor the felt sense of pressure in the brain. In pranayama, and all healthy breathing, the brain ‘exhales’ when the lungs are inhaling and the brain ‘inhales’ when the lungs are exhaling. This is subtle, and not subtle at the same time. If the brain does not relax on the in breath, just watch the breath. Be patient.

Fourth: After practice, lie down and relax, letting the practice be digested by the nerves. Enjoy the stillness. Let it seep into the depths of the cells. Be meditation. Be.

Pranayama: Dissolving Structures

The Practice: As we are still laying the groundwork for the pranayama practice, we will hold off on discussing the bandhas. If these are familiar to you from your own practice, feel free to add at your own discretion.

Last post we explored differentiating and integrating ribs and diaphragm, the two major structural movers of respiration, in perception and action. It is important to be able to feel the location, shape and movements of these 3-dimensional structures to help make sense of how and where we store tension, and how and where we breathe more effortlessly. This practice can last a lifetime, but today we change our focus to look at two volumes or energy centers where deeper levels of balance and opening can be explored. The movements centered on these volumes are radial expanding and condensingUnknown, as represented by the movements of the Hoberman sphere.

The outbound or centrifugal force seeks balance with the inbound or centripetal force. In the dynamic of the human body, this balance of energies is called ‘tensegrity’. The center point is always still. Although we will feel ribs and diaphragm in the background, our attention will be directed to the energy moving, not the physical structures.

Imagine two spheres of energy, space, action and perception in the body. The first is centered behind the navel at the bi-furcation of the aorta and vena cava. The second is centered at the sino-atrial node, at the back of the heart, just about in the center of the chest. Hopefully they will overlap in their expansions, with the area of overlap being centered on the 3rd chakra area of liver, stomach, spleen and kidneys.

Begin lying in a supported savasana or pranayama position. (In supported pranayama the spine is supported with a pranayama bolster or accordion folded blanket.) In your Unknown-1imagination dissolve all structures, from skin to cells. Just a vibrant energy field sustains your attention. Starting by allowing the navel center to be the volume for inhalation and exhalation, allowing the heart center to be relaxed and receptive. In radial expansion, the in-breath moves outward in all directions passing through the body, outside the body, as far as comfortable without force or strain. When the limit of expansion is reached, allow a gradual condensing of the energy back into the navel center. Allow the inbound energy to travel at roughly the same speed as the outbound energy. At the two endpoints, dissolve all tension so the pause becomes a gateway to the infinite stillness.

You will, of course, feel the various tissues as the energy moves in and out. Try not to react from them, but discover how the energy can pass through them, transforming your perception from density to fluidity. Skin, muscle, bone, and all other connective tissues can feel fluid when open and relaxed. When the fluid body awakens, we discover billions of years of wisdom ready to nurture us.

Now, shifting you attention up to the heart center, repeat the expanding and condensing from hear, this time allowing the navel center to be relaxed and receptive. This may be a more challenging action as the ribs energy may not be familiar with much expansion. Asana practice helps here. As the heart energy expands on the in breath, let the face/skull/brain softly receive this without reacting or trying to help. The feeling is that the brain is actually exhaling, melting into the expanding heart. On the slow release of exhalation, try to not let the ribs help by squeezing or dropping. Just the energy flowing back to the center is all you need. Feel the heart, diaphragm and liver melting, as well as ribs and spine. Be the ocean and feel the waves, currents and tides.

Afterwards you’ve completed your explorations around heart and navel centers, map your inner world from what you have learned. Where are you more perceptive, conscious, fluid relaxed? Where are you denser, more resistant, or even un-consciousness? Remember, once you discover the unconsciousness areas, they are no longer unconscious! Just con-fused.

Unknown-2Next, try the same explorations while sitting. How does this change in gravity affect the movements around the two centers. Finally, do this standing in tadasana with the hands resting on the wall for support and extra grounding. Lying, sitting and standing are the three most common positions for the human body. Discovering how posture and breathing are related is the the first step on the journey of hatha yoga. We will soon see that sitting is the ideal for deeper breathing work, as it is more grounded than standing and more alert that lying down. Eventually, the majority of the practice will be done sitting.