Friday, January 23, 2009

Teaching pranayama

A few weeks ago my meditation teacher handed us a schedule of the topics we'll be learning in the first hour of class before we meditate. We meet every Wednesday.

The first Wednesday of each month she will speak on Consciousness and Energy.
The second Wednesday of the month she will teach Taoist Techniques for Health.
The third Wednesday we'll learn Pranic Breathing Exercises.
The fourth Wednesday she will discuss Ancient Eastern Philosophy Text (possibly the Vedas?).
And when there is a fifth Wednesday, the topic will be Cosmic History and Extraterrestrial Meaning. (This one is a bit out there for me, but I promise to keep an open mind.)

This past Wednesday was the third Wednesday of the month. Now, I have done some teaching of pranayama techniques there before, when I've filled in for my teacher when she's had to miss the class for some reason or another. But she hadn't mentioned to me that I would be leading the class on scheduled Pranic Breathing days, and it would have been egotistical for me to assume that I would be teaching.

Well, what did she do but expect me to teach! I was so unprepared. Gah! At least there was only one other student there for the class this week. I floundered about for a bit trying to remember how to teach belly breath and three-part breath. Eventually I hit my stride and taught Breath of Fire, Skull-Brightener Breath, and Alternate Nostril Breathing. I went really deep in meditation after all that breathing!

So I guess it's official now: I'm a pranayama teacher. I guess I'd better finish reading Light on Pranayama pretty quick (I'm almost half-way through)!

Does anyone have any other pranayama text recommendations, from either the hatha or kundalini yoga traditions?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Forced inactivity

As it turns out, I apparently can't do even a minimal exercise regime right now. Last weekend I did an easy half hour on the elliptical. I tried not to use my arms at all, but kept them on the heart rate bar. I also did some light house cleaning--maybe an hour, cooked soup, and folded laundry. You know, day off stuff.

The next day, my traps and rhomboids were screaming---pain levels up to 5 on a 1-10 scale. Not good.

I know when I'm beat. I have to lay off physical activity for a while, until my back muscles heal (the chiropractor confirmed that this is all muscular, not nerve pain). Who knows how long it will take: a few weeks? A month? Two months? I truly hope it is less than two months. I'm addicted to exercise. And being handicapped in my normal day-to-day tasks, too, drives me crazy.

It is easy to get discouraged, to whine and complain. But I know of three people who are dealing with health issues worse than mine. How can I complain of my own suffering when their suffering is worse than my own?

But I can do my practice. I try to keep my thoughts centered on surrender. On letting the pain and frustration pass through me like clouds, like rain, like breath. I turn the inner eye to watch them pass. I breathe, and ask for the path of surrender. I meditate, and ask only to witness, but not identify with the suffering. I remain mindful of my friends as well, as I practice. As I breathe and ask for non-attachment to the ephemeral, I hope that my friends, too, can find this.

I can only do what I do. I am finding my pranayama and meditation practice to help me not only in the spiritual way I just described, but in other ways as well. The work does help physically relax the muscles and reduce pain. Also, by providing another point of focus for my body, I distract it from the pain. Finally, keeping this practice gives my mind and energy something to focus on that isn't related to my physical problems. It helps fill the gap in my life that my asana practice used to fill.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Pranayama practice

I am finding it harder to stick to a very minimal exercise regime than I had anticipated. If I don't regularly do at least some cardio (I have an elliptical machine) and a few stretches, I'm restless and can't sleep. But if I do too much my back complains later...and wakes me up in the middle of the night. Of course I feel fine when I'm warm and exercising; the pain only makes itself known hours later. Add to that the fact that having two chiropractic appointments, and one massage, a week adds cuts into my normal evening exercise/yoga time. I haven't yet figured out exactly what works best to both keep my back safe and bring me restful sleep, nor when best to work a practice into my new schedule. It is frustrating. Things will be easier for me once my chiropractor feels I have progressed to a point where she can prescribe exercises for me to do.

What I have been able to do successfully is delve into a pranayama practice. B.K.S. Iyengar's Light on Pranayama was my Christmas gift to myself from the store where I attend meditation classes. I'm about a third of the way through. So far he's discussing the Hindu philosphy of prana: laying the groundwork. I have yet to get into the discussion of specific pranayamas.

However, as I do have prior knowledge of pranayama, either taught to me by my meditation teacher or picked up from various yoga books, I have put together a short practice for myself. I'm sort of making it up as I go, but basically doing Breath of Fire, Alternate Nostril Breathing, and working on the upper two locks: jalandhara bandha (chin lock) and uddiyana bandha (abdominal lock). The entire practice so far is lasting about 15 minutes, but I will probably lengthen it as I get used to the practice, and as time permits.

When I have time, I follow this practice with a 30-40 minute meditation. I have found the combination of the pranayama practice followed by the meditation to allow me to sleep through the night.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The path of surrender

I am finding that the body work I am undergoing now--chiropractic and deep tissue massage--is releasing stored past memories and pain. To heal fully, I must allow these memories and feelings to come pass through me. I must surrender to the process as it unfolds.

My practice last night was simple: a few minutes of pranayama followed by a 40 minute meditation. During the meditation I petitioned to accept the path of surrender.

Surrender to the physical pain, the forced inactivity, the emotional pain, and the memories. I must be open to the experiences as they happen, then allow them to drift away like clouds, like thoughts that arise in meditation...not to be followed or held onto, but simply experienced as they come, and then released.

I slept well last night. Today I feel more grounded emotionally, though I still need a heating pad to help with the physical.

Monday, January 12, 2009


As I lay in my bed last night, propped up on pillows because when I lay on my back the pressure on my spine impinged a nerve, making my hands go numb, I couldn't help feeling very sorry for myself. I want more than anything to able to do an hour-long hatha yoga practice. I want to get that good workout feeling, feeling cleansed and refreshed. I have been dedicated in my practice for over a year, building it slowly and steadily. And yet, it seems that I have been blocked again and again by my body's recurrent problems and limitations.

But I stop and remind myself that my current back problems arose out of the positive changes I have made this year: getting really good shoe orthotics to treat recurrent plantar fasciitis, exercising, yoga--these have uncovered congenital problems, including scoliosis, that have lain dormant until now.
"The pathways [of nourishment and elimination] must be clear of obstructing forces in order for prana [nourishment] and apana [elimination] to have a healthy relationship.  In yogic language, this region must be in a state of sukha, with literally translates as "good space."  "Bad space" is referred to as dukha; which is commonly translated as "suffering." - Leslie Kaminoff, in Yoga Anatomy

Perhaps my current back problems are a necessary cleansing, creating space for more expansion, for growth, for something new to take its place. It may feel now like an obstacle to  my practice and to the exercise that I crave. But perhaps this is a necessary pause, a time when pulling back is necessary for future growth. A blockage to the flow of prana must be cleared out of the way before further expansion and growth can take place.

I have come through many obstacles in my life, some of which have seemed truly insurmountable. I have moved through them and been happier, stronger, on the other side. I have looked back and been amazed and grateful for the changes that have taken place. If I reframe this time to be a necessary period of cleansing and clearing, perhaps it will be easier to get through to the other side. Though it may not look like it at this moment, I keep telling myself that this, too, is a time I will look back on in wonder and gratitude for the gifts it has brought me.
The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

-- Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

Friday, January 9, 2009

First chiropractic appointment

My chiro appointment went very well. Dr. K is super sweet and attentive. Her intake discussion with me was very detailed.  She had an intake questionnaire for me to indicate what activities my back pain interferes with.  Mostly the pain isn't bad enough to interfere with my daily activities, but I did indicate I can have trouble lying on my back (I haven’t been able to do Savasana for a couple of months). I also noted that I’m unable to twist without pain.  One of the muscle groups that is currently spasming (the serratus posterior) is involved in twisting the spine.  I explained that practice yoga, yoga has a lot of twisting, I have had to stop doing all twists because of my injury, and I miss it.  I think she was bemused/amused by my complaint. I'm sure it's not often a client's major complaint is that they can't twist!


During her examination, she found good mobility in my spine except for T5-T9, right there in my mid-back. Apparently I have a golf-ball-sized knot of very spasmed muscle just to the right of the spine in that region. She seemed concerned that it may have been there for "some time", and was starting to form scar tissue.  Goody.


She did a quick spinal adjustment, then gave me electrical stimulation to try to release the muscle spasm. Electrodes went above and below the knot, and she covered the whole area with a hot pad. The stim felt tingly, odd, and slightly unpleasant. The treatment probably lasted 10 minutes.


She decided on twice weekly treatments for 4-6 weeks that will include manipulation, heat, and muscle stim. She also wrote a scrip for weekly massage for the same length of time, which will be covered by insurance.  I'll have to see if my current MT is set up to take insurance. My guess is she's not, in which case I'll get massages at the chiro clinic after my treatment.


For home therapy self-care, I'm supposed to apply moist heat for about 20 minutes twice a day. No more ice. I can either take a hot shower, hot bath, or use a moist heating pad. I'm just tickled that I have a doctor's note to take a long hot shower every morning, and a hot bath every night!


I asked her if she was going to prescribe any PT exercises. She said not yet. She wants to see how I respond to her current treatment plan first, then add additional treatments if they don’t work. She says if she throws everything at me at once, she won’t know what has worked and what hasn’t. The scientific approach! As a scientist myself (geologist), I appreciate the application of the scientific method.


So where does that leave my yoga practice? She. Dr. K said she never tells someone who has an active exercise program to stop; basically left it up to me.  My practice has dwindled down to little more than stretches and PT exercises for the past month or two anyway. I think I’ll keep doing some stretches on my limbs, and maybe neck stretches, but cut out anything that focuses on the back or abs for the time being.  Maybe this is a time to focus my practice on pranayama and meditation instead of asana.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Gathering energy for healing

I attend free weekly meditation classes at a local bookstore. The first hour of the class a teaching, usually lecture or discussion, but sometimes instruction in a spiritual technique or guided meditation. Then we meditate together for the second hour. 

This week my meditation teacher talked about using the exchange of energy with the people around us for our own healing and growth. Every day, we experience an exchange of energy with the people who surround us and those we interact with. For example, I may encounter someone happy, or depressed, or anxious, and find that I in turn may react to the energy this person is giving off.

I have choices in how I will let that energy affect me. I may find I also begin to feel happy, depressed, or anxious in concert with the other person. Or I can resist it. If I'm in a good mood, and encounter someone who isn't, I'll probably resist having my mood pulled down because I don't want to feel sad or anxious.

My teacher suggested a third choice:  to ask that this energy I am feeling, intersecting with, be experienced by me for my own healing and growth.  Energy is just energy, right? Prana. By simply asking that the energy of the interaction be transmuted to my own healing, I can use that energy I am already experiencing simply by being near or interacting with this person for my own health. And by the energy being transmuted, the other person also gets a benefit as that energy goes out to interact with their own prana. They will usually feel calmer and more peaceful themselves.

I have felt the effects of this myself as my meditation teacher moves the energy of the class through her body. Often in class I will find myself go from feeling emotional or anxious to feeling grounded and calm, and I'll realize my teacher has begun working with the energy of the class. I realize I feel better and I'm better able to understand the concepts she's discussing.

When it came time for us to meditate, I tried it out. I have been having a lot of back problems recently, and one muscle in my middle back on the right side (serratus posterior inferior) still hurts from when I strained it over a month ago. As I felt the energy of the meditation begin to flow through me, I asked for healing for my back, and this muscle in particular. I pictured my back as whole and healthy. Throughout the meditation I continued to send energy there.

The resulting experience wasn't entirely pleasant. I became keenly aware of the areas of pain all up and down my right side, from my ankle to my scalp (yes, I have pain in all the diodes down my right side). The sensation was one of coolness, and was very much within the body, not on my skin.

My back does feel better today though. I have also made (after much procrastination on my part) an appointment with a chiropractor for tonight, which will be followed by a massage appointment. It's always good to include physical methods of healing along with the spiritual. I'm sure my back is on the mend.

Anyway, my intension is to remember to ask for the energy around me to be used for my transmutation and healing during my interactions over the next week.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Home practice

Nona of Everyday Yogini recently posted about her experiences in starting and keeping up a home practice. I decided that was a good topic to start off my own yoga blog.

I'd kept an intermittent home practice for several years now, but found it difficult to keep it going through busy times or after a break such as an illness. A year ago I made a commitment to practice more consistently. To help me track my progress, I began keeping a log of my practice. Over the past year my home practice has become part of my life, and I've been able to practice an average of 4-6 days a week.

My primary reasons for keeping a home practice are practical: time and money, especially time. Three years ago I moved to an old country farmhouse about 30 miles outside the city where I work. Depending on normal traffic levels, my commute to work--or anything else--in the city takes between 35 and 50 minutes. I honestly hate the thought of adding the extra driving it would take to go to a yoga studio, or (worse yet) waiting around in town after work for an evening class. (Though I have continued to attend a meditation class after work once a week, which I love.) Also, when I started my home practice a year ago I was very low on money, and trying to save for a new car. I couldn't really justify the cost of a class at the time, though I'm in better shape financially now.

Another reason I had for focusing on a home practice instead of classes was that I was coming back from an injury to my shoulder and had to be very slow and careful with myself. There was no way I could do chaturangas like I used to do in class. I know now, though I wasn't aware of it at the time, that I was experiencing the beginnings of osteoarthritis. This past year I have come to terms with having arthritis, and have slowly learned how to manage my symptoms with exercise, diet, and supplements. Easing myself into a yoga practice, starting back at a beginner level, slowly building my strength, and backing off when I needed to has been a large part of learning to live with arthritis. Had I tried to follow along with a class I'm certain I would have injured myself, or at the very least become frustrated that I couldn't keep up with my fellow students.

Practicing at home, I have been much more able to listen to my body and go at my own pace. I have mostly practiced along with DVD's, switching them up to add variety to the practice. NetFlix has been a wonderful aid in helping me audition different videos and find what I like best.

Now that I've been practicing for a year, I know enough to be more self-directed in my practice. Listening to what my body's needs are, I find I can focus on those areas that want the exercise, and modify or eliminate those poses that would stress whatever part of my body is having trouble at the time. I'm finding that sometimes I forgo the DVDs altogether, and simply focus on the poses that I feel drawn to at that time.

One of my new year's resolutions this year is to aim for increasing my practice to an average of 6-7 days a week. (The other resolution is to start keeping this blog.) I would like at some point to start taking weekly classes again, but I definitely won't be giving up my home practice.