Beginning Lesson 3

Lesson 3

Sustaining Attention to Breathing

      We begin by bringing mindful awareness, mindful attention, to breathing. To pay attention to, to attend to something is a fundamental human experience that can be practiced and refined. I was always telling my son that if he would keep his attention focused on his homework he would finish in half the time it would take than it would if he keeps spacing out when a challenging problem arises.

But the mind does wander, does space out, does become distracted, especially when confronted with a new challenge, something unfamiliar, something that does not have pre-created neural pathways the mind can refer to. The 6th limb of Patanjali’s 8 limbed SBK_17010761-81path of yoga is dharana, a nice Sanskrit word for the practice of bringing the mind back to the point of attention, again and again, again and again. Knowing ahead of time the mind becomes distracted, we have a goal, a plan, a mental suggestion to return the attention to our chosen focus. This takes discipline (tapas), will power, effort. This is the beginning of spiritual practice. Patanjali introduces the term abhyasa, the practice of stabilizing the mind as his first discipline in Chapter I of the Yoga Sutras.

What begins as a disciplined reminding to stay focused gradually becomes a continuous sustaining of attention. This state is the 7th limb of Astanga Yoga, dhyana, which is the Sanskrit origin of the word Zen in Japanese. Implied here is the continuing tapas, the effort to resist the habituated state of restlessness and sustain attention. It is a more advanced state than dharana as the discipline has become stronger than the conditioning, but the conditioning is still lurking in the background, waiting to resume its restless or dull behavior if the discipline breaks down. Eventually there is a shift in the nervous system, the disciplined attention becomes the normal state, the restlessness subsides and the attention is sustained effortlessly. This is the 8th of Patanjali’s limbs, samadhi, remaining the same (sama), unchanging, relaxed awareness. Tough grader that he is, Patanjali calls samadhi the beginning of yoga.

Various schools of spiritual practice use different focal points to cultivate concentration, another term for focal attention. Some yogis use a mantra, a short Sanskrit prayer repeated over and over, whether audibly, or just in the mind in a practice known as japa. Some Zen Buddhists use a mind puzzle, known as a koan to hold the attention and challenge the habits and patterns of thought. Some Tibetan Buddhists build complex visual pictures in their mind, over months and years.

Almost universal in spiritual practices across cultures is the use of the breath as a crucial anchor for attention and it will be ours for the whole of our adventure together. The breath, (spirit…spiritus is the Latin word for breath…, prana, chi or ki) is the ongoing expression of our innate living energy, our fundamental aliveness, replicating the primary cosmic rhythm of expanding and condensing, yang and yin, we find in stars and galaxies, in our cells and organs. As we will experience directly, our breath is the source of all of our actions, all of our perceptions, and we will return to the breath again and again in all of our practices.

Feeling the Details of the Breathing ProcessSBK_17010761-30-Edit

   On a gross level, the breath is the air moving in and out of the lungs. On the subtle level, breath is the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide from the cells, the blood current, and the lungs, as well as all of the energetic actions that arise from the cellular processes, including respiration, circulation, digestion, growth and development of new structures and the dissolving of unwanted structures. The causal breath is the cosmic life force itself, the animating presence of aliveness. One of the easiest places to begin your exploration is in supported savasana. There is no effort needed to sit, the spinal muscles can relax, releasing the ribs, and the breath is spontaneously more free.

To begin, just notice the fact that you are breathing. Feel the rhythmic structure of the process. There are two opposite movements in every cycle of breath; inhalation brings air into the lungs, exhalation removes air from the lungs. We can imagine a pendulum oscillating back and forth, and, like in a pendulum, in the breathing cycles there are also pauses or moments when the movement comes to a natural state of rest. At the end of inhalation and before exhalation there is what is usually a very brief pause. At the end of exhalation and before inhalation is what is often a slightly longer pause. These pauses are also moments when the breath can be held or restricted and thus these are very important moments to be alert.

Unknown-1Another option is in a simple sitting pose. Make sure you have some elevation for your hips to free up the lower spine. A blanket, bolster or meditation cushion will be perfect. The breathing while sitting will feel different than it does lying down as you now need to maintain an upright posture. With experience, you will learn to sit with less and less physical effort and the breathing will ease accordingly. It is good to notice how the action of spinal muscles and the breathing are intimately related. We are just learning to observe the breath here, not trying to breath with any particular pattern or rhythm.

In Lesson 12, we will study the science of breathing where you can begin to see and visualize the diaphragm, the ribs and inter-costal muscles and the abdominal wall. This will help bring the sensations of these structures and their movements to your conscious awareness and help you track the flow of breath in deeper way. Later, after the asana practice has been somewhat refined, we will add some playful explorations we might call pranayama.

Homework: For the next 24 hours, whenever you remember, check in on the breath and notice how often you hold or restrict your breath, how often those pauses become constrictions to the flow of your breath. Do not be shocked when the number seems large. Find out how to release the breath in a relaxed way when you find yourself holding on. What you will discover in time is that the restlessness of the mind and the restricting of the breath are directly related. If you look deeply, you might begin to notice where in the body the holding takes place. The diaphragm and ribs are the obvious areas to notice, but also consider your throat, your spinal column and your neck and shoulder muscles.

Within the practice of the yoga postures, new sensations, new positions, tightness in the muscles, and other factors will conspire to constrict the flow of the breath. Yoga requires the breath to flow. If you are holding your breath, it is not yoga! (Even the retentions of pranayama are not restricting the pranic flow. There is only a cessation of the outer form of the breath. The subtle breath continues to flow freely and easily, when pranayama is practiced safely and correctly).

When practicing the postures, remind yourself again and again, keep breathing, keep the breath flowing, do not hold the breath. As we go deeper in the practice we will discover many different ways to use the breath as the primary focus, but as a beginner, you may find yourself lost in the structural instructions: extend your leg, bend you knee, turn from the trunk, tuck the pelvis etc etc. Tight muscles, collapsing chest and constricted thinking all impede the free flow of breath.

Make sure the breath is an integral part of your own self-talk during your practice. Don’t worry that this can be challenging in the beginning. It will become effortless in time, but the discipline is crucial.

In the next practice theme, “Grounding”, we will discover a way to expand our sense of breath, connecting the diaphragm, through the legs and feet into the earth.

Reading List for “Sustaining Attention to the Breath”

1. “The Yoga of Breath” by Richard Rosen
2. “Breath by Breath” by Larry Rosenberg
3. “The Breathing Book” by Donna Farhi 

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Micro-Cosmic Orbit: Pt 2

Exploring and Embodying Three Dimensions

In the previous post we explored the micro-cosmic orbit as a means to refine our focal attention (samadhi) through bringing our attention to specific points along the orbit and linking these points into lines, arcs and circles. As we work more deeply this way, we may discover that we can find these points at three levels. The first is out beyond the confines of the skin, in an ‘orbit’ in the energy field around the body. The second is directly on the skin, where an acupuncturist or shiatsu practitioner would apply needles or pressure. The third is in the interior of the body along the planes of fascia interwoven through the organs, blood vessels and nerves. When we can feel all three of these levels simultaneously, we are inhabiting our spherical energy field and can begin to fully realize the possibilities of having three dimensional/spatial sensitivity, perception and consciousness.

images-5The girdle vessel (Dai Mai,) the fourth vessel we use, is a latitude line and is essential in finding our three dimensional perceptual field. This yang vessel pairs with the yin ‘thrusting vessel, the vertical center axis, creating horizontal stability, and allowing us to rotate/twist. Rotation inherently builds the third dimension of depth ( A circle has length and width. To create a sphere you add depth. ) and is the gateway to cosmic awareness as well as a more vibrant embodied presence.

Rotation drives the whole manifest universe. In our solar system, the planets spiral around milky_waythe sun. In our Milky Way galaxy, the stars, including our sun, spiral around a center (probably a giant black hole! If you can find Sagittarius in the night sky, and you will probably have to wait until next summer, look through and imagine 26,000 light years off in the distance.) The earth rotates on its own axis creating weather patterns as well as a sense of day and night.

The spinning top (one of the oldest toys known to humans, found in archeological sites all over the world) demonstrates the cosmic principle in physics we are embodying. The faster it rotates, the more stable the vertical line. When the top slows down it starts to wobble and when it stops spinning, it falls over. To keep the rotation, you need to keep feeding it with energy. The bicycle uses this same principle, flipped 90 degrees. Another aspect we explore is the radius of the horizontal circle. Rotation pushes from the center outward (yang) in what is called centrifugal force. As this is counterbalanced by theGM2434B-1 yin centripetal (center seeking) force, we can change the volume of the energy field by playing with this ‘expanding – condensing’, yang – yin relationship.

In this top, the widest circle with the most outward thrust, the purple one, is below the center of the vertical axis. Lowering the center of gravity adds even more stability, which is why we emphasize the lower dantien in our breathing, movement and meditation practice. When we discover how to work with this principle in the energy field, our twisting poses can actually help expand the body. If we work muscularly, you will feel constricting in twisting poses.

SBK_1711254-24Traditionally the ‘dai mai’ girdle vessel surrounds the body at the level of the pelvis in the lower dantien. but we can move our attention to awaken other ‘latitudes’ of the body. To begin in the feet, stand with the right foot forward, the left foot back, as if you are about to move into a standing twist (without the forward bend), but haven’t yet begun. Before you move any further, imagine a spiraling coil of energy beginning below the floor (the Antarctic Circle) and traveling up the center. Notice how this mimics the girdle vessel. Now imagine the coils widening as they rise up from the base ( moving toward the equator), as the yang energy expands outward. The girdle vessel is very yang so this is quite natural. Feel the energetic volume expanding and condensing with the breath, but slowly expanding in overall volume

To awaken the front body-yin energy field, we can take the hoop forward to fully engage the arms and shoulders. Now imagine the hoops extends through the back body, receiving the rising spiral and expanding as the action of twisting. SBK_1711254-2SBK_1711254-9Most students eventually leave half of the body behind and end up contracting rather than expanding, especially along the spine column. Imagine the center of the spinal canal opening outward in an expanding circle/spiral, melting the tissue, feeling spaciousness, transcending the limitations of structure.SBK_1711254-4 (My front foot turns out much more than average to release the inner groin. Don’t feel you have to imitate this, but find out for yourself where openness and balance meet.) The hoop is moved to the front to expand the yin/organ/front body qi field and expand the ‘wings’ of the body, but also feel the back body softening and opening. This feeling can be evoked in sitting, lying and inverted twists as well. If you do not have a hula hoop handy, you can also use a thera-ball to find the volume.SBK_1711254-8


Another key component awakened here is the Pericardium 8 point, PC-8 (or P-8) in the center of the palms. Analagous to the K-1 points on the feet, P-8 is a gateway between the inner and outer qi fields. The SBK_1711254-11Pericardium, the fascial connective tissue membrane surrounding the heart, arises embryologically from the same cells and tissues that create the diaphragm and liver. The ‘heart protector’ literally does this, on many levels. As someone with a well-armored heart, I am finding that opening and nurturing the heart protector so that is does its job with over doing it is awakening a level of sweet vulnerability that is both precious and scary.

SBK_1711254-12In acupuncture, the pericardium meridian is part of the JueYin channel and connects all the way through the femoral canal to the legs. For those of you who have been practicing ‘climbing the wall’ for the last few years, you can actually trace the whole fascial continuity of the Jue Yin. (Use imagination to fill in the blanks.) Rise up from K-1 (not the heels, even though they do rise on their own) (DFL for those of you who know Tom Myers’ ‘Anatomy Trains’ system) to P-8, passing through liver, diaphragm and pericardium.

You can also track the qi from P-8 back into the body horizontally, again using the wall.SBK_1711254-14 Using the tip of the  middle finger of your other hand (PC-9) to feel the connections, trace the qi from the the wall and P-8 into the area around the pec minor muscle and then go inside the body to the pericardiam itself, along with the liver and diaphragm. Use the breath and your imagination. Then go back and try the twistings shown above with these new perceptions.

SBK_1711254-20To continue our building of a three dimensional perceptual qi field, we can return to the thera-ball to provide sensation and visualization. I like the feel of my third chakra having organ support, so I find placing the ball there and using a wall creates a powerful presence on the inside. Embryologically speaking, this is the extemely yin yolk sac which becomes the entire gut body. The conception vessel points on the micro-cosmic orbit are stimulated by the ball, bringing sensation and perception here. The liver comes from the yolk sac, so I can use this position to also find the Jue Yin channel we explored above. Lying SBK_1711254-19over the ball in a forward bend creates a similar feeling, with even more yielding and softening to the yang back body erector muscles. By moving the ball to the sternum, I can activate a new set of points on the conception vessel and engage the inner tissues surrounding the 4th chakra

If I want to build up my back field perception, I use the ball from behind and awaken sensation on the yang Governing Vessel.SBK_1711254-16 Here I have dropped it a bit lower to find the sacral-lumbar junction and here I can feel the possibility of both lumbar flexion and extension, from S curve to C curve and back.  The very important GV-4 Qi gong Image‘gate of vitality’ is here The inner abdominal space also opens and the front back and center plane begin to become conscious. This becomes trickier as you move upwards towards the liver. You can place the ball anywhere and feel different points coming alive. Feel their inner as well as outer presence. Back support can also help open the front. I haveSBK_1711254-17been trying to open my throat more for my sax sound and using the ball (or any elastic support) helps soften and melt tight tissue.

SBK_1711254-21Fish body support, opening some Gall Bladder Meridian points is another way to use the ball. I am using the wall, but this can be done on the floor as well, with slightly different effects. All of these ways of playing with the three dimensional field are ways of awakening and establishing a dynamic energetic field, centered in your heart, and radiating out throughout the whole of the cosmos. When you are out in Nature, feel this. When you are out and about in the human sphere, feel how you respond. It is fascinating to see what happens.

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