pranayama, breath, prana, anxiety, stress,asthma, back pain
Joining with the Breath
A tool for reducing stress in your life and enhancing your practice.
“Everything that moves, breathes, opens and closes, lives in the Self”
Mundaka Upanishad 2.1. Translated by Eknath Easwaren
So you have learnt your postures, your body is feeling good and you love your yoga practice. You have heard of pranayama and maybe your teacher includes the deep yogic breath in your classes but do you know the real benefits of including pranayama in your practice?
The word “prana” translates into life force and “yama “means to harness or extend. Pranayama or breathing practice may seem like it is separate from your yoga but it is very much part of it. Focusing on the breath not only settles your mind but it also allows life force to flow around your body. The more you include it in your practice the more quickly you will be able to settle yourself not only for yoga and meditation but in your life as well.
I remember when I was doing my Dru Yoga course and we had to write up our experiences with pranayama. I was always making excuses as to why I did not or could not include it in my practice or I practiced it briefly thinking that it was not “yoga”. It wasn’t until I started to teach and wanted to include breathe awareness that I learnt the true benefit of the practice. Pranayama is now a key ingredient in all the teaching I do and extremely effective for students who are anxious, in pain or unable to sleep.
We can live a few weeks without eating, a couple of days without drinking but only a few short minutes without breathing. The first thing we do when we are born is breathe and it is the last action we take before we die. Breathing is intrinsic in all of nature, even plants breathe. Breath awareness calms you and can draw you back to the present if you allow your attention to focus on it.
The deep yogic breath Increases oxygen in your blood and therefore assists in elimination of toxins from your entire system. Your digestion is enhanced; your nervous system and glands are nourished. When you breathe effectively your abdominal organs are massaged and your lungs are strengthened. The deep yogic breath is one of the tools you can use to turn on the relaxation response and therefore reduce anxiety. Your breathing is directly linked to your metabolic processes, your thoughts and your feelings. As your breath becomes steady though pranayama practice your body and mind also become still.
One of the techniques we teach on the Dru Yoga course is called the Pigeon Breath. It is brilliant for settling you down and particularly good if you have asthma and other breathing issues.
The Pigeon Breath
- Adopt a kneeling position or stand in the mountain pose. Interlock your hands under your chin. Your head faces forward.
- Breathe in and raise your elbows sideways.
- Breathe out through your mouth, as if blowing out a candle. Bring your elbows together in front of you as you gently allow you chin to move up guided by your interlocked hands. (Take care not to force your head back very far) Hold this position as you breathe in. Focus on the sternum.
- Breathe out, this time through your nose, returning your head to the original position
When you have completed this a few times notice the calm and peaceful feeling that descends into your body and rest in that place for a few minutes allowing it to spread throughout your entire body directed by your gentle inhalations and exhalations.
Another great tip, especially if you are nervous about something is to breathe in for 4 steps as you walk and breathe out for 4 steps. Continue with this rhythm for ten minutes.
Never underestimate what a friend you have in your breath it is only a moment away and always there to support your life and your practice.
From Nature with love
“Flowing. Ever new. Each moment alive. Gently, persuasively, moving around obstacles. Precious lessons. I stood up, shivering, on my boulder, pressed my hands together and bowed to the stream”
Maya Ward. The Comfort of Water, a river pilgrimage.
In Ancient times yogic mystics observed and learned to understand the relationship between human beings and the natural environment. They mapped out the rhythms of the energy systems that they believed connected everything in the universe. They wanted to find a way to become one with creation. They lived amongst the astounding beauty of nature and watched the earth, sun, moon, sky, trees, animals, and insects. They developed postures and practices that mirrored nature and thus learnt a way to truly connect with creation. Yoga has survived for over 5000 years and is with us today because it is a proven way to guide us back to our true nature.
In an article in The Oregonian by Jo Rogas-Burke he states that “Studies repeatedly have shown that contact with nature can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, relieve stress, sharpen mental states and, among children with attention and conduct disorders, improve behaviour and learning. Regardless of cultural background, people consistently prefer natural settings over man-made environments.”
And according to a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, nature can have an impact on healing. “Although this is not hard-core medical advice, I think we can advise people to enjoy nature,” says Howard Frumkin, MD, the author of the article. “There are a lot of indications that contact with nature, either walking in the wilderness, gardening, or having a pet, makes people feel better, and can minimize the effects of disease”.
In Dru Yoga we emphasise the connection that we need with nature. Every one of us knows how refreshing it is to be walking outside on a sunny day in a beautiful park or our favourite place and how our dullness and tiredness can just lift off as we place our feet on the earth and lift our eyes to the horizon.
Dru Yoga is best practiced outside in nature. Our eyes become soft as we gaze at the green grass and trees and our physical body is healed by the negative ions that abound near the sea or a waterfall. As the human race has evolved it has moved indoors more and away from nature and alongside this our stress levels and disharmony in our bodies have risen.
In Dru Yoga we are so committed to maintaining the balance between the natural world and our students that you will often see us outside in both cold and warm weather soaking up the benefits of the outdoors.
In the beautiful Dandenong Ranges it is easy to practice Tadasana and connect to the majestic scenery and feel the solid quietness surrounding us linking us to our own qualities that are mountain like. We go for walks beside creeks and rivers and pause to be with nature while we practice the beautiful Earth Sequence or the flowing Tree Posture. Our students all comment about the astounding and healing effects they experience when they are invited to be with and in the magnificence of the natural world.
Whenever the sun shines you won’t have to look far to see a Dru yogi outside just standing, palms outstretched and head quietly raised towards the Sun silently drinking in the glow of the radiant light.
Being outdoors helps us to stay in tune with the cycles of nature. There is a precious time just before dawn and when the light is fading in the evening that silent stillness seems closer than ever before. Meditating and practicing the Sun Sequence is an ideal way to start your day, in this way your body is wonderfully prepared to meet the potential stressors that your day may bring. When you settle into a comfy chair to witness the setting of the sun accompanied by your favourite pranayama practice you can ease and quieten the most troubled of minds. It is in the remembering of these daily cycles that we come to naturally tune in to the rhythms of the days, the nights and then the seasons. In this way we can begin to modify our practice and life to suit the time of day and season. Adaptation happens easily in nature and the seasons give us amazing examples of how to flow, change and be in the moment whatever it brings.
So many of us have become detached from the unique presence of nature, this loss of connection with all of life leads us to a sense of separation. It is this experience of separation that seems to underlie our search for fulfillment and contentment. Dru Yoga practiced in nature helps us to reconnect with our true nature and our place of belonging in this world.
Stop procrastinating and get practicing!
Do you hear yourself say... “I haven’t got time, I don’t have the space, I have other things that are more important or I think about yoga and go to a class once a week surely that’s enough”?
Want to have a daily practice but it won’t happen? Here are some ideas that Dru Yogis use to overcome blocks.
First of all have you heard the story about the jar of rocks?
A professor of the School of Public Management in France was invited to lecture on the topic of “Efficient Time Management” to 15 executive managers representing the largest, most successful companies in America. The professor pulled out a big glass jar and a bag of large stones which he placed in the jar until there was no room to add another stone in the jar. “Is the jar full?” The managers replied, “Yes”. The professor paused for a moment, and replied, “Really?” Once again, he reached under the table and pulled out a bag full of smaller stones. Carefully, the professor poured them in and slightly rattled the jar, allowing them to slip through the larger stones, until finally they settled at the bottom. Again, the professor lifted his gaze to his audience and asked, “Is the jar full?” At this point, the managers began to understand his intentions. The professor then poured some sand into the jar and filled up the spaces between the large stones and small stones. He then poured some water into the jar until it was absolutely full.
What can we learn from this story? The large stones represent what is fundamentally important to us and our lives like our health, our happiness, our family and friends, our passions and ability to work. If we don’t put these stones in the jar first, we will never be able to fit all them in later. We must ensure that we have space in our lives for the activities that support what we really love or we will soon find that we fill our lives with less important things.
We know from research that yoga and meditation have positive health benefits. Practicing regularly reduces stress and improves well-being. Without our health it is hard to achieve the life we want. Our health is one of the rocks we have to make sure we place in our jar.
Here are some tips you might find helpful to get you into the swing of a regular yoga practice:
- Get real.
Many of us have unrealistic expectations about the length of time we can devote to our daily yoga or meditation. Then, when we don’t manage a daily 90 minute session we think we have failed. So be realistic. Maybe plan to do 5 minutes three times a day. Rise and stretch with the Sun Sequence, take a break from children or computers and stretch with your favourite posture or sequence during the day and before bed practice some deep yogic breathing and a short meditation.
- Have a mobile practice.
Going out to the beach or for a picnic in the woods on the weekend? Then take a few minutes of me-time – with your family – and do some stretches or postures. If you’re going for a walk, you could practice a walking meditation or chant a mantra quietly. Don’t limit your practice to your yoga mat and do adapt it to your environment.
- Involve your family and friends.
Involve your partner, friends or children. There are some great stretches and poses you can do with a partner. Young children love the animal postures whilst older ones love competition so find out how long can you stand on one leg in the tree posture, while for teenagers, tips to tackle stress like deep breathing might be good.
- Use your senses, try something different.
Use your senses to get you back on track. Download your favourite music onto your mobile or iPod and find a natural environment to practice. At home light your most relaxing incense or essential oil candle which you associate with yoga to get you going.
- Use different media.
Tune into the Dru online yoga studio or buy some DVDs or CDs from the Dru Australia website to get some new ideas.
If you just want to relax then chose yoga related reading which might inspire you to actually practice. Essential yoga reading which we always recommend to our students include The Dru Bhagavad Gita series, Krishna Das – Chants of a Lifetime, Victor Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning, and any of Swami Rama’s books.
- Be kind to yourself.
Lastly, don’t give yourself a hard time if your personal practice has a break. Everyone needs a holiday from time to time. So, without judging yourself, make today the time to restart your practice – with fresh determination and an unbeatable attitude!
Does your mind race, does your heart beat loudly, do you move fast and breathe in a shallow way? Sound familiar? This is what happens when your body and mind create a state of anxiety.
Mind and body are inseparable. Not only does what we think create our reality; the body also affects the mind. Both our body and our mind play their part in the construction of what we call anxiety.
Anxiety can be a small feeling that we have each day as we face new experiences, or it can cripple us and stop us from enjoying our day or we can experience it as something in between.
When anxiety rules our life we worry incessantly about what might happen, we talk about it all the time and then when it does happen we tell ourselves that living is frightening and we withdraw more into a world of darkness and fear. Our body responds by increasing hormones and chemicals that amp up those feelings physically and we reach for something to make it all go away, sugary comfort food, alcohol and drugs to name but a few. Unfortunately these only add to our levels of anxiety and stress.
Sometimes anxiety is linked with depression and has been a result very traumatic experiences, at these times it may be best to discuss this with a trained counsellor or health professional.
But mostly we can take responsibility to break the cycle of anxiety. Why not reach for a practice that is proven to reduce all these feelings? Dr P.Murali Doraiswamy, Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioural Sciences at Duke University states that “If there was a drug that could mimic the effects of yoga it would probably be the world’s best-selling drug. Studies have shown yoga practice to produce a relaxation response that mimics the best anti-anxiety drugs on the market today."
Dru Yoga has many practices that work with the mind and body to reduce our habitual thinking and doing. One that I use all the time is abdominal breathing.
Take time to sit comfortably and place your hands on your belly below your navel. As you inhale your hands rise as if your belly is a balloon being inflated and when you exhale the belly falls away from your hands. Do this for up to 5 minutes and watch how a feeling of well being starts to arise. This practice turns on the relaxation response which floods the body with feel good hormones and begins to slow the mind and breathing. Your breath is the key to reducing anxiety. Attending a Dru Yoga class will introduce you to good breathing practice and encourage you to become aware of your breath even when you are moving through your day.
Poses that calm the body include those poses that are called inversions. When we “invert” the body we turn ourselves upside down and are invited to look at the world differently; this can sometimes help to change our fearful perceptions. Lying on the floor and placing your legs up the wall or onto a chair allows you to take some time out and soothe the nervous system. Practice slowing the breath while you are here and feel the lovely calming sensation this simple inverted posture brings.
The Dru Yoga Peace Posture is a favourite inversion of mine. When I feel stressed I use this posture to bring me back to balance. Try it next time you need a quick de stress. Stand upright and align your body into the mountain posture. Activate you core muscles and allow your body to gently fold forward as you exhale and let go while letting your back lengthen; let your hands flow down the front of your legs until they are reaching towards the floor. Hang quietly for a moment or two and let go deeply, use bent knees and your core to help support your back here and when you unroll ever so slowly upwards bringing your head up last. As you slowly come out of this pose bring your arms up beside you and reach upwards and then let them float down beside you while you imagine you are surrounding yourself with a cloak of peace. Stand in the mountain posture and breathe into your heart, when you exhale imagine the breath travelling down your whole body deep into the earth below. Inhale and visualise drawing up peace and support from the earth back into your heart. Exhale from your heart through the upper part of your body out through your crown into the space above you, letting go and relaxing before you inhale a sense of serenity from the sky above you back into your heart. Stand easily and repeat until you come back to stillness. You will find it works every time!
Other poses you might like to try are the child’s pose and lying on your belly on the floor legs outstretched with your folded arms supporting your forehead. When feeling overwhelmed or when ending your yoga practice be sure to have a nice long lie on the floor in Savasana or the corpse pose. Focus on breathing into your belly and then exhaling and sinking into the floor for at least ten minutes.
Consider purchasing one of the many relaxation CDs we have and particularly the one called “Dynamic Relaxation”. Another wonderful resource is “Dru Yoga, Stillness in Motion” a book thst you can purchase from the Dru Australia website. This little gem will introduce you to many practices to reduce anxiety from gentle body movements through to breathing practices, relaxation, meditation and a healthy diet.
After class my students often say how quiet and nurtured they feel. One of them said just last week that “Dru Yoga is like warm soup for the soul” Do Dru it works!
Let Dru Yoga help you manage Asthma.
Breathing incorrectly does not cause asthma but it does not help it either. Do you breathe through your mouth, do you breathe in the upper part of the chest only, do you breathe more than 12 breaths a minute and do you notice you hold your breath? When you breathe this way there is very little movement of air into the lower parts of the lungs. Stress is a common reason for breathing like this. When you breathe in this manner the mind becomes more agitated. Breathe into your chest only all the time and your diaphragm will start to become weak and your breathing less effective. Weak breathing and slack abdominal muscles leads to ineffective exhalation, stale air stays in the lungs and less oxygen enters the system. Mouth breathing allows dry air to enter the lungs; lungs do not like dry air.
Asthma is when the bronchial tubes become swollen, constricted and blocked with secretions causing wheezing, chest tightness, coughing and shortness of breath. It is linked with air pollution, allergies and stress.
Studies about yoga and asthma have shown that that regular yoga practice can decrease attacks and the need for medication as well as increase wellbeing and general health.
Practicing yoga brings awareness to your breathing patterns and posture and works towards correcting both. In Dru Yoga we teach you to breathe effectively, stand correctly and relax deeply. Our classes are structured in such a way that you end up feeling calm, nourished and reenergised after every class.
Dru Yoga can help you with asthma and incorrect breathing patterns by increasing your awareness about the way you breathe both at rest and when performing gentle flowing movements. By becoming more sensitive to your breath patterns you will begin to recognise early symptoms of asthma when it is easier to treat. One of the techniques we teach is called the Pigeon Breath. It is brilliant for settling you down and particularly good for asthma and other breathing issues. See the outline above.
Another essential tool is abdominal breathing which is the beginning of the deep yogic breath. Take time to sit or lie comfortably and place your hands on your belly below your navel. Breathe down into your belly and imagine the diaphragm drawing down towards your hips thus stretching and pulling your lungs open. As you do this your hands should rise as if your belly is a balloon being inflated and when you exhale the belly falls away and you will feel your hands sink towards your spine. Practice this for a few minutes at first. My students have a lot of trouble changing to this style of breathing and I remember how hard it was when I first started yoga so be kind and take it easy and slowly. Sometimes it is easier to sit in a chair and lean forwards resting your elbows on your knees this way you can get a better sense of the belly movements. It may be difficult if you are a chronic upper chest breather to change and advice from a qualified Dru Yoga teacher may be helpful.
It is a good move to include relaxation in your daily practice. Learning to deeply relax helps you to reduce the harmful effects of stress and better manage any chronic conditions you may be experiencing.
Some general do’s and dont’s include beginning to pause more often after you exhale, avoiding extending your inhalation and retaining your breath and taking care with backbends avoiding them altogether if you have any symptoms. Inversions such as putting your feet up the wall are very beneficial. Always mention how you are travelling with your asthma when you go to a yoga class. You may also need to mention if incense and perfumes are a problem for you.
For good posture you cannot go past the Mountain Pose or Tadasana. Stand with your feet hip width apart connect into the ground below you. As you breathe in consciously align your whole body from your feet up through the legs and hips, torso via the natural curves of your spine, relax the arms and shoulders and open your chest until finally you arrive at the top of your head. Visualise you are indeed a mountain and enjoy feeling secure and calm. This practice is always wonderful done outside particularly if I am near the beautiful Dandenong Ranges.
All in all Dru Yoga is the perfect practice for you to adopt. The Energy Block Releases are gentle and flowing and will bring you great awareness of both your posture and your breath.
I hope these tips support you to better manage your asthma and can I suggest you contact me for information about how classes could help you. Enjoy your journey to better breathing with Dru.