Healing Breath

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Healing Breath

Source: Yoga Journal • Kate Holcombe • August 2012

Try these three simple practices to reduce stress, quiet your mind, and connect to your inner Self.

By Kate Holcombe

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A few weeks ago, my seven-year-old son, Hayes, told me he was having trouble falling asleep. He said that he was having “many thoughts” at night and couldn’t stop his mind from thinking. I told him about a breathing practice that I had taught his older brother, Calder, a few years earlier, and I suggested that Hayes could try it while lying in bed at night to help him relax and fall asleep. The practice was simple: a few minutes of diaphragmatic breathing followed by a few minutes of consciously and gently extending each exhalation.

“Maybe you’d like to try it?” I said to Hayes. “I think it was helpful for your brother sometimes, and maybe it will help you, too.” Just then, Calder, who had been passing through the room, announced: “You’re wrong, Mom.” I held my breath, wondering if he’d tell Hayes that my advice wasn’t going to work. “It doesn’t help me sometimes,” he said matter-of-factly. “It helps me all the time.”

I was pleasantly stunned. I hadn’t realized that Calder was still using the practice I had taught him three years earlier. As I knelt on the living room floor to teach Hayes the same practice, I was reminded that pPranayama, the fourth of the eight limbs of yoga outlined in Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra, does not have to be complicated.

Pranayama, which literally means “to extend the vital life force,” or prana, is an incredibly rich practice made up of many breathing techniques that vary in complexity from ones simple enough for a child to do to those appropriate only for advanced practitioners. While the best way to practice pranayama is under the guidance of an experienced teacher, there are simple techniques—such as gentle diaphragmatic breathing and comfortably lengthening the exhalation—that can be used at any time to transform not only your breath but also your state of mind.

In my work as a yoga therapist, I treat people struggling with a variety of issues, including depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, chronic pain, and even life-threatening illness. Time and time again, I’ve seen simple pranayama practices reduce stress and anxiety; promote restful sleep; ease pain; increase attention and focus; and, on a more subtle level, help people connect to a calm, quiet place within so that they experience greater clarity and well-being on every level.

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali describes pranayama as a process by which you can break your unconscious breathing pattern and make the breath long, easeful, and smooth. Most people’s unconscious breathing patterns are anything but easeful and smooth; they tend to be tense, shallow, and erratic. When we are afraid or hear bad news, we often gasp—inhaling and then holding the breath. These breathing patterns can activate the sympathetic nervous system (often referred to as the “fight or flight response”).

One of the primary reasons that pranayama techniques that foster a long, smooth exhale (like the ones presented here) are so beneficial is because, when practiced correctly, they can support the parasympathetic nervous system and activate what is commonly known as the “relaxation response,” reducing stress and its effects on your body and mind. As a result, your resilience in the face of challenge or adversity increases, and your mind becomes more focused and still.

A Quiet Mind

The eight limbs of yoga outlined in the Yoga Sutra are a path to help you reach a state of Yoga, or focused concentration. But this focused concentration is not the end goal. As Patanjali tells us, the result of reaching this state of attention is that you experience clearer perception and a greater connection with your true Self.

When you’re connected with your true Self, it becomes easier to see what is not your true Self—your mind, body, thoughts, feelings, job, and essentially all of the changing circumstances around you. This discernment allows you to act from a place of the Self, and when you do that, you experience less suffering.

Pranayama is an important tool to get you to this state of more focused concentration, leading you to clearer perception, a greater connection with the Self, and ultimately a happier life. In Yoga Sutra 2.52, Patanjali writes, “As a result [of pranayama], the covering that blocks our own inner light is reduced.” In other words, through the practice of pranayama, you can reduce all of the mental noise—the agitation, distractions, and self-doubt—that prevents you from connecting with your own inner light, your true Self. In this way, pranayama can have a profound effect on your life.

The Practice

Though practice of pranayama is safest and most effective when guided by an experienced teacher who knows your needs and capabilities, there are several simple techniques you can try at home as long as you’re in good health and you don’t push beyond your capacity.

The three breathing practices that follow—relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing; Sitali (or Sitkari) Pranayama; and gentle “extended exhale” breathing—are a good introduction to pranayama. Each supports the parasympathetic nervous system, quiets the mind, and helps to bring about a state of more focused attention. As you continue to practice these techniques over time, you may start to notice when you are unintentionally holding your breath or breathing shallowly. You also may begin to associate patterns of the breath with your moods or states of mind. This self awareness is the first step toward using the practices of pranayama to help shift your patterns and, through regular practice, create positive change in your life.

Try each practice daily for a week and observe how it affects your body, breath, and mind in order to figure out which is best for you. You can do them at just about any time of day, though preferably not immediately following a large meal.

Basic Breath Awareness

This gentle introduction to diaphragmatic breathing teaches you how to breathe more fully and consciously.

Benefits: Quiets and calms the entire nervous system, reducing stress and anxiety and improving self-awareness.

Try it: At least once a day, at any time.

How to: Lie comfortably on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor about hip-distance apart. Place a palm on your abdomen and breathe comfortably for a few moments, noticing the quality of your breath. Does the breath feel tense? strained? uneven? shallow? Simply observe the breath without any judgment. Then gradually begin to make your breathing as relaxed and smooth as possible, introducing a slight pause after each inbreath and outbreath.

Once the breath feels relaxed and comfortable, notice the movement of the body. As you inhale, the abdomen naturally expands; as you exhale, feel the slight contraction of the abdomen. In a gentle way, try to actively expand the abdomen on the inhale and contract the abdomen on the exhale to support the natural movement of the diaphragm and experience the pleasure of giving yourself a full, relaxed breath. Continue the practice for 6 to 12 breaths.

The Cooling Breath

Sitali Pranayama is often translated as “the cooling breath” because the act of drawing the air across the tongue and into the mouth is said to have a cooling and calming effect on the nervous system. To practice Sitali, you need to be able to curl the sides of your tongue inward so that it looks like a straw. The ability to curl the tongue is a genetic trait. If you can’t, try an alternative technique called Sitkari Pranayama, which offers the same effects.

Benefits: Can improve focus; reduce agitation, anger, and anxiety; and pacify excess heat in the system.

Try it: Twice a day, or as needed during stressful times. Sitali and Sitkari Pranayama are particularly supportive when you’re feeling drowsy in the morning or during an afternoon slump when you need to improve your focus.

How to: Sitali Pranayama: Sit comfortably, either in a chair or on the floor, with your shoulders relaxed and your spine naturally erect. Slightly lower the chin, curl the tongue lengthwise, and project it out of the mouth to a comfortable distance. Inhale gently through the “straw” formed by your curled tongue as you slowly lift your chin toward the ceiling, lifting only as far as the neck is comfortable. At the end of the inhalation, with your chin comfortably raised, retract the tongue and close the mouth. Exhale slowly through the nostrils as you gently lower your chin back to a neutral position. Repeat for 8 to 12 breaths.

Sitkari Pranayama: Open the mouth slightly with your tongue just behind the teeth. Inhale slowly through the space between the upper and lower teeth, letting the air wash over your tongue as you raise your chin toward the ceiling. At the end of the inhalation, close the mouth and exhale through the nostrils as you slowly lower your chin back to neutral. Repeat for 8 to 12 breaths.

The Long Exhale

This 1:2 breathing practice, which involves gradually increasing your exhalation until it is twice the length of your inhalation, relaxes the nervous system.

Benefits: Can reduce insomnia, sleep disturbances, and anxiety.

Try it: Before bedtime to help support sleep, in the middle of the night when you’re struggling with insomnia, or at any time of the day to calm stress or anxiety. (In general, it’s best to avoid practicing 1:2 breathing first thing in the morning unless you’re experiencing anxiety. The relaxing effects of the practice tend to make it more difficult to get up and go on with your day.)

How to: Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. Place a palm on the abdomen and take a few relaxed breaths, feeling the abdomen expand on the inhalation and gently contract on the exhalation. With your palm on your abdomen, mentally count the length of each inhalation and exhalation for several more breaths. If the inhalation is longer than the exhalation, you can begin to make them the same length over the next few breaths.

Once your inhalation and exhalation are equal, gradually increase the length of your exhalation by 1 to 2 seconds by gently contracting the abdomen. As long as the breath feels smooth and relaxed, continue to gradually increase the exhalation by 1 to 2 seconds once every few breaths. Make sure you experience no strain as the exhalation increases and keep going until your exhalation is up to twice the length of the inhalation, but not beyond. For example, if your inhalation is comfortably 4 seconds, do not increase the length of your exhalation to more than 8 seconds.

Keep in mind that even an exhalation that is only slightly longer than the inhalation can induce a calming effect, so take care that you don’t push yourself beyond your capacity. (If you do, you’ll likely activate the sympathetic nervous system, or stress response, and feel agitated rather than calm.)

If your breath feels uncomfortable or short, or if you’re gasping on the next inhalation, back off to a ratio that is more comfortable for 8 to 12 breaths. Then finish your practice with 6 to 8 natural, relaxed breaths.

Kate Holcombe is the founder and president of the nonprofit Healing Yoga Foundation in San Francisco

Ram Dass: Fierce Grace

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Ram Dass: Fierce Grace

I love this man. This beautiful movie is about Ram Dass’s experiences aging and the radically life changing event of getting “stroked.”

“Healing does not mean going back to the way things were before, but rather of allowing what is now to move us closer to god.” –Ram Dass

School Adds Yoga to Physical Education Curriculum

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School Adds Yoga to Physical Education Curriculum
Source: The Bismark Tribune • Associated Press • December 12, 2012

School adds yoga to physical education curriculum

ENCINITAS, Calif. — Public school yoga instructor Katie Campbell proudly looks out at 23 first-graders as they contain their squirming in a kid-friendly version of the lotus position.

In a voice barely above a whisper, she says into her microphone: “Why look at everyone showing me they’re ready for yoga. A-plus, plus, plus.”

Then the lesson begins with deep breathing and stretches common to many yoga classes.

But there is no chanting of “om,” no words spoken in the Indian language of Sanskrit nor talk of “mindfulness” or clasping hands in the prayer position.

Campbell avoids those potential pitfalls for the Encinitas Union School District, which is facing the threat of a lawsuit as it launches what is believed to be the country’s most comprehensive yoga program for a public school system.

Parents opposed to the program say the classes will indoctrinate their children in Eastern religion and are not just for exercise.

It’s a debate public schools across the country are increasingly facing with the rising popularity of the practice and the recent dispute over school prayer.

‘21st century P.E.’

Yoga is now taught at public schools from the rural mountains of West Virginia to the bustling streets of Brooklyn as a way to ease stress in today’s pressure-packed world where even kindergartners say they feel tense about keeping up with their busy schedules. But most classes are part of an after-school program, or are offered only at a few schools or by some teachers in a district.

Encinitas is believed to be the only public school system that will have yoga instructors teach full-time at its nine schools as part of an overall wellness curriculum that includes nutrition and a school garden program, among other things.

“This is 21st century P.E. for our schools,” said Encinitas Superintendent Timothy B. Baird. “It’s physical. It’s strength-building. It increases flexibility, but it also deals with stress reduction and focusing, which kickball doesn’t do.”

The program is expected to teach a 30-minute yoga lesson to roughly 5,000 students twice a week at the district’s schools, which run kindergarten through sixth grade. It is funded with a $533,000 grant from the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit group whose board of directors includes the son of the late Indian instructor Krishna Pattabhi Jois, whose teachings are said to have popularized Ashtanga yoga in the Western world and were followed by Madonna and Sting.

Jois Foundation’s program director Russell Case said Encinitas is building a national yoga model for public schools.

“Kids are under a lot of stress. There are a lot of mandates on them to perform. We think it would be extremely helpful to have 10 to 15 minutes possible to sit and be reflective instead of go, go, go,” he said.

Researchers at the University of Virginia and University of San Diego will study the program, including analyzing data on students’ resting heart rates.

They want to know if public schools can impact not only children’s learning, but instill in them good eating habits and skills to help their well-being.

Protests

The program started in several schools in September but will go district-wide in January after months of protests by a group of parents.

Mary Eady pulled her first-grade son out of the classes.

Eady said she observed a kindergarten class in which the children did the motions referred to in yoga practices as a sun salutation. The folded over children, stood upright, sweeping up their arms toward the sky.

She said while the teacher called it an “opening sequence” the connotation was the same in her mind: Students were learning to worship the sun, which went against her Christian beliefs that only God should be worshipped.

“It will change the way you think,” she said. “What they are teaching is inherently spiritual, it’s just inappropriate therefore in our public schools.”

Their attorney, Dean Broyles, said they are considering suing to halt the program.

Despite the long debate over prayer in school, constitutional law experts say the courts still have not clearly defined what constitutes religion.

“You might get litigation on a program like this because it’s not totally settled what the boundaries of religion are,” said New York University law professor Adam Samaha.

He points to the 1979 ruling by a federal court that blocked transcendental meditation classes from being taught in New Jersey public schools, deeming those particular lessons to be religious.

But the court did not go so far as to rule that meditation in general is, and Samaha thinks courts would not deem yoga a religious practice. If they did, it would open the door to scrutinizing a host of activities.

“It’s practiced by enough people, who probably don’t believe they are engaging in a religious practice,” he said.

Avoiding risk

Still, Encinitas Assistant Superintendent David Miyashiro said administrators are not taking any risks.

“In light of all the attention, it’s not enough to remove things with cultural references but also anything that can be perceived by onlookers as a concern,” he said. “We think it’s important to keep this program in our schools and we’re going to do what we can to protect it.”

At Flora Vista Elementary School, those precautions were apparent.

“Spread out, we’re getting ready for some airplane,” Campbell said as the children laid on their mats face down and spread their arms, arching their back and then flopping back down. Later she said: “now push back to downward dog.”

At the end, the children sprawled on their backs to relax like a “pancake” as the lights went off. There were soft giggles. Some wiggled in the dark or fiddled with their socks.

“We’re like melting cheese,” Campbell reminded the students.

Principal Stephanie Casperson said fewer children now come to her office for acting out.

“I have teachers who say before a test now students do yoga to calm themselves so they’re transferring it into the classroom, into their lives,” she said.

During a recent fire drill, 6-year-old Sylvia Lawrence said she folded over into a yoga position under her desk.

“It made the fire drill more fun,” she said.

Maria Walsh, 11, said she was never into other sports.

“It’s just a fun way for me to exercise,” said the freckled, blond-haired girl with a big smile.

The Neurobiology of Bliss–Sacred and Profane

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Source: Scientific American • by Nadia Webb • Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Image: Abel Mitja Varela

In studies that observe the brain in action, the right hemisphere seems to be the sexy hemisphere. It lights up during orgasm—so much so that, in one study, much of the cortex went dark, leaving the right prefrontal cortex as a bright island. New research suggests the right hemisphere is also hyperactive amongst the “hypersexual,” a symptom of brain injury loosely defined as groping, propositioning or masturbating in public without shame.

What is surprising about this is that pleasure is classically thought of as the province of the left hemisphere, not the right. The left is most active when recalling happy memories, meditating on love for another, and during the expansiveness of grandiosity or mania.

The left hemisphere is even preferentially more active among people free of depression and less active among the unhappy. If the brain were a simpler and more cooperative organ, the left hemisphere would be lit up like the Fourth of July during an orgasm. Instead, it is surprisingly silent. Why might this be so?

Until eight years ago, neuroscience had little scientific basis from which to comment on bliss, sexual or otherwise. Despite our public fascination with things sexual, as researcher, Gemma O’Brien put it, “orgasm is not impersonal and third person enough for the sciences.” Neuroscience was hobbled by the avoidance of such squashy topics, even if it meant setting aside important parts of human experience. However, a clearer portrait of pleasure is now emerging. Bliss, both sacred and profane, shares the diminution of self-awareness, alterations in bodily perception and decreased sense of pain. And while the left frontal lobe may be linked to pleasure, the other three characteristics are bilateral.

Absence of pain is predictably akin to pleasure, but the other two—losing a sense of identity and of bodily limits—are less obvious. Self-awareness, apparently, is no picnic. William James described the self as that kernel of consciousness that persists throughout various experiences and sensations. The self is divided between the stream of consciousness and an internal observer—except in those rare moments when we dissolve into mysticism.

Self-awareness exists as a running critique organizing conscious experience. Telling stories to ourselves (often about ourselves) is the cognitive default.

Escaping continual self-observation seems an underappreciated pleasure. Roy Baumeister wrote an entire book devoted to the premise that self-awareness is frequently a burden. Across cultures, we blunt awareness with alcohol, drugs, auto-hypnotic rituals and when times are dire, suicide. Meditation offers relief from this self-preoccupation and one of the few tools for creating a durable boost in happiness—perhaps by dampening activity in regions implicated in judgment, comparison, planning and self-scrutiny. Left prefrontal cortex activation correlates with happiness and Tibetan Buddhist monks have created the greatest measured spike in activity in this region produced by simple thought when meditating on compassion. The reported depth of meditation also corresponds to activity in the brain’s pleasure centers, such as left forebrain bundle, anterior insula and precentral gyrus. This overt pleasure is accompanied by a shift in emotional self-regulation; meditators are more aware of thoughts and feelings conceptually, but less emotionally disrupted by them, according to one study. Both hemispheres are involved in self-observation.

Pleasure is also linked to a loss of awareness of the boundaries of our body, and this, too, involves both sides of the brain. Orgasm and meditation dissolve the sense of physical boundary, but the activation patterns are distinct. Meditation does so in a somewhat cerebral way, altering bodily self-awareness by enhancing activity in specific brain regions, such as right angular gyrus—regions that become most lively during attempts to imagine ourselves from a stranger’s perspective, during out of body experiences or déjà vu, and in a neurologically obscure disorder in which patients lack awareness of their own paralysis or bodily infirmity.

But during orgasm, the cerebellar deep nuclei and vermis, also in the cerebellum, glow. The cerebellum used to be thought of as the “motor bit” tacked onto the back of the brain. The deep nuclei are mysterious, but they seem involved in planning and initiating movement, motor learning, rhythm, synchronizing and smoothing of movement. The vermis tracks the movement of the body through space outside of conscious awareness. Unlike meditation, orgasm seems a heightened sense of being within one’s body rather than the sense of being outside of it. The disconnected awareness meditation (“I am not my thoughts, I am not this experience”) is antithetical to the self-forgetting of sex in which wallowing in the experience, and the relationship, is precisely the point.