Tag Archive: Pranayama


 immortal
Revered for its ability to jolt the practitioner into ever deepening states of awareness, this specialised breathing technique has been passed from teacher to student for hundreds of years across many ancient traditions, including hatha yoga, tantra, taoist chi gong, the six yogas of Naropa (Tibetan yoga), and many of the martial arts. So what is the this technique, and how does it have such a profound effect on the practitioner? First let’s take a look at the basic technique and how it is described by the traditions that utilise it, then we’ll take a look at what’s going on at the physiological level.
The technique goes by many names: Vase breathing, Reverse crane breathing, Shakti chalana, Ibuki, etc. The list goes on. While each tradition describes this technique in its own unique way, essentially they are all teaching the same physical sequence. Here’s the exercise in it’s basic form: Breathe in, push the air down into your abdomen (lower lungs). While holding your breath bare down as if you’re going to the toilet. At the same time, pull up your sphincter, perineum, and, if you’re female, contract the muscles inside your cervix. Hold for as long as you are comfortable then slowly exhale. Inhalation and exhalation are done through the nose.
In the Taoist traditions this is said to build chi and light the fire in your lower tan tien to initiate the gestation cycle of the immortal fetus (a type of inner spiritual alchemy that is said to eventually transform the practitioner into an immortal).  In Yoga talk the practice is said to fuse prana and apana (downward and upward moving energy) in the navel chakra, which causes kundalini (a dormant spiritual force) to awaken and begin her ascent to the crown chakra where she blesses the yogi with self realisation and a host of siddhis (powers of the mind). The tantra texts describe this as a type of divine marriage of energies within the body, a marriage that lifts the practitioner into states of pure blissful awareness. Starting to realise why this was and still is seen as such an important practice?
From a western, physiological, perspective by drawing up and contracting the muscles of the perineum, anus, and cervix you have stimulated/activated the pelvic splachnic nerves. These are the nerves that cause genital arousal and subsequently turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, which initiates a relaxation and healing effect on the body. Secondly by pushing down the breath, you activate the vagus nerve. This activation can actually generate orgasm in a woman, but more importantly it deactivates areas of the brain that cause fear and emotional distress, such as the amygdala. So effectively, it makes you emotionally centred (to a degree). It also releases a host of hormones and neuro chemicals into your body that positively change your mental, emotional, and physical state of being. Plus, like the splachnic nerves, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
With all this nervous system activity happening from a simple breath holding technique lots of brain changes also take place, as you can imagine, changes that are conducive to meditation and deep states of awareness. Those changes are usually visible on brain scans after only four weeks of practice.

So, there you have it. If you want to accelerate your practice, or just add a powerful anti-stress technique to your repertoire, introduce this to your daily routine. You’ll see the benefits in a few weeks 🙂

FREE YOGA MANUAL

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PDF Download: YOGA MANUAL

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I finally got around to “kind of” finishing this (still a few bits not done, plus the entire thing needs revision and editing). Anyway, if you’re into yoga, meditation, and/or self development this might be something you’d be interested in. Email me any questions you have about the practices 😉 Enjoy

Stress makes you stupid

Actually, stress makes you stupid, sick, and smelly.

Now that’s a good incentive to learn to relax and destress with slow, deep breathing. So why does stress make us stupid, sick, and smelly? We can answer that question by looking at why we get stressed in the first place.

Stress is your body’s natural reaction to a threat to your safety and wellbeing. A classic example is to look at what happens to you when you find yourself face to face with an aggressive dog. Your heart rate increases, your digestive system dramatically slows down, your pupils dilate, your blood pressure increases, your breathing becomes shallow and fast, you begin to sweat, and your muscles and heart become engorged with blood as your skin turns pale from the blood being redirected. All of these things happen because of the release of stress hormones preparing your body for fight or flight in response to a threat. In the short-term this type of response can save your life, however, if you experience stress every day, all day, because your boss happens to be an asshole that bullies and abuses you, or you have an aggressive partner, etc, then that type of reaction going on in your body all the time is unsustainable. Eventually you’ll burn yourself out.

From a health point of view, being in a continuous state of stress strains your heart, increases your chances of having a stroke due to high blood pressure, and lowers your immune function because all of the body’s energy is being used elsewhere, which increases your susceptibility to infection and even increases your risk of getting cancer. Where health is concerned STRESS is your body’s enemy.

The effects of stress don’t just stop with the body, they spill over into the realms of the mind. When you get stressed the flow of blood in your brain decreases in your frontal lobes and is redirected to your hind brain and emotional brain. This means your ability to think rationally and plan ahead is severely hampered. Essentially stress turns you into a puppy. Seriously, when you’re under stress you act more like a puppy than a human. This is why it’s never a good idea to make decisions when you’re under stress unless you absolutely have to.

What about smelling bad?  Think about the original example of the dog, or maybe it’s a lion or a bear. When you get stressed, your body will begin to sweat. The more stressed you are the more profusely you’ll sweat. Why? Two reasons. One, sweating lubricates your body and makes it easier to escape the grip of whatever it is your faced with, and secondly, when you get stressed the sweat you excrete tends to smell bad. That’s not a great thing if your on your way to your new girlfriend/boyfriend’s house to meet your future parents in law! But it’s very useful when you’re faced with a predator that wants to eat you for dinner because when food smells bad, it’s a sign that it’s gone off. And even animals don’t like to eat food that will make them sick.

So there you have it. Stress makes you stupid, sick, and smelly. WHat can you do about it. Simple. Learn to slow your breathing and you’ll be able to control your stress levels 😉

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I love how some of the simplest yoga practices turn out to have the most profound effects upon me.  

Most people think of yoga as sets of excruciatingly painful postures followed by hours of meditation and strange cleansing rituals. And while this is how some people like to practice “yoga,” there’s also an entirely different side to this fascinating way of life that most people never even realise exists. That way is simplicity itself. It’s such a deceptively simple path that when you’re on it you wake up one morning wondering how you’ve made so much progress with such little effort. It’s a way of practicing yoga that I like to call the path of the five kings.

The five kings are a set of simple practices. They’re what the ancient yogic texts describe as practices that can bring about liberation without the need to do anything else. Those practices are: Siddhasana (the perfect posture), Bramacharya (moderation), Ahimsa (nonviolence), Kevala (breath suspension), and Kechari (mudra of the void).

How do they work?

Siddhasana (perfect posture) is a basic sitting posture used by yogic adepts, when meditating, in which the heel of one foot is placed against the perineum (between the anus and genitals) with the second foot resting in front of the first (or, in an advanced posture, pressed against the pubic bone). 

So what’s so special about siddhasana? Apart from providing a stable sitting position for meditation, the position the feet are placed in causes the mind to drift into a naturally meditative state. This happens for two reasons. Firstly, the blood flow to the legs is lessened which leaves more blood flowing in the upper body, keeping the mind alert and focused, and secondly the pressure applied to the nerves in the perineum has an interesting effect on the breathing centres at the base of the brain that cause the breathing to become light, slow, and steady. And slowing the breath, as we know, calms the mind (I’ve discussed at length in previous posts).

Isn’t that amazing. Simply changing the way you sit can catapult you forward on the path of yoga.

The second king, as I call it, is Ahimsa (nonviolence). This, for me, is a no-brainer. It’s quite simple really, by practicing nonviolence we’re cultivating a state of mind that’s conducive to peace, and a mind that’s at peace is a mind free of turmoil, a mind that naturally gains stability and focus (traits essential for progress to be made in meditation).

Bramacharya (moderation) is the third king. By practicing moderation we’re wiring the brain in a very specific manner. We’re wiring it in a way that allows us to exercise tremendous control over our thoughts (an essential ability we need to develop if we want to meditate correctly). The other element of Bramacharya is more physical. It says that every yogi, who wants to make progress, should moderate their food intake. The reasoning for this is simple and really obvious once you think about it. When you eat , your body directs its energy into the digestive processes. The more food you eat and the more time you spend eating it, the more energy it uses. When your body is busy digesting food the mind becomes dull and tired and incapable of meditating. So simply eating in moderation has powerful effects on your state of mind.

The fourth king is Kevala. Kevala is a special type of breath suspension that happens spontaneously when the yogi reaches deep levels of concentration, meditation and absorption. This is a state I’ve experienced many times during deep meditation. it feels as if there is no need to breathe in or out, your lungs stop moving but it feels as if the air around you still permeates them. What’s interesting about this is that we can trigger deep states of meditation by consciously slowing the breath so that it becomes barely perceptible. Although this isn’t technically kevala, it does apply the same idea. Amazing results come from this simplest of practices.

The fifth and final king is Kechari mudra which I’m not going to go into details about here because I’ve spoken about it at length in a number of previous posts.

So there you have it. Simply changing the way you sit, altering your eating habits, cultivating nonviolence, and slowing your breathing, promotes a powerful effect on your mind – acting like rocket fuel on your yogic journey.

 

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More concept art. This illustrates how changing our breath rhythm influences the nervous system, and subsequently the mind. In essence, fast breathing creates stress and agitation of the mind, whereas slow breathing creates a calm and content mind.

Useful to know in a modern world filled with manufactured stress and fear.

IMG_1151Uddiyana bandha awakens the emotional centres of the brain and allows the heart to expand. It can be applied in one of two ways. The first and most commonly used method is to apply it while holding the breath out. While the second method is to apply it while the breath is being held in.

Here’s the basic method:

  1. Sitting or standing, place your hands on your knees.
  2. Take a deep breath in, then fully exhale all of the air from your lungs.
  3. Holding the air out, bend forward slightly and, pushing down on your knees, draw your abdomen back in and up, towards your spine.
  4. Hold this position for as long as is comfortable. Then contract your abdomen and slowly inhale. Repeat steps 1 to 4.

When first starting this practice stick with five repetitions t the most, then gradually increase. While the effects on the physical body are obvious, what’s happening to the nervous system, brain and subtle energies isn’t so obvious. As I said before, Uddiyana bandha lights up the emotional centres of the brain. So it’s probable that you’ll experience an emotional type of cleansing once you start using the practice regularly. Although in the beginning this can feel a bit like regressing back to your teenage years, it eventually settles down and when it does your emotions become much more stable and are expressed without attachment. So slow and steady is the best practice.

Now for the second method:

Sitting or standing, place your hands on your knees.

  1. Begin to inhale, and as you do, draw your abdomen in and up towards your spine. Hold this position for as long as you can comfortably hold your breath.
  2. Exhale while allowing your abdomen to relax into its normal position. And that’s it.

So why use the second method? Well applying uddiyana bandha in this way allows us to combine it with mula bandha to create a powerful pumping action on the subtle energies of the body. this way Uddiyana becomes a very dynamic practice that has a powerful stimulating effect on the mind’s evolution and expansion into self realisation.

Tip

I like to do a few rounds of the basic form of Uddiyana bandha first thing in the morning before any other practices. This creates space for the lungs to expand during breathing techniques and calms the mind in preparation for meditation.

Awakening the Heart

This is a short animated video I made to Illustrate the flow of energy during the practice of Uddiyana Bandha.

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The body’s innate intelligence is always inclined towards awakening and evolution. We just have to allow it to do what it does best by not getting in its way. 
 
I was nine years old when I first discovered that I could do Uddiyana bandha and nauli kriya, although at the time I had no idea what they were called. In fact, I didn’t even think there were names for these weird belly gymnastics I was able to do. I just started doing them one day and thought they looked cool. I also got a kick from freaking out  my friends and family. It wasn’t till much later that I found out these odd belly maneuvers were actually practices from yoga used to cleanse the organs and stimulate the brain and nervous system as part of the awakening process. With this understanding of what I’d been doing came the realisation that I’d been practicing yoga and preparing my body and mind since before I was even aware that something called yoga actually existed.
 
Awakening the Heart
When we begin the practce of uddiyana bandha, Nauli Kriya, and agni sara, we’re using the diaphragm and abdominal muscles like a pump to draw kundalini up into the heart. Energetically this has an opening or awakening affect, the result of which is a type of hyper intuitive and empathic state of being.
 
As the heart opens it can feel as if it’s simultaneously melting and exploding. This is a sensation that comes in waves, where it builds up, explodes and slowly fades into an after-glow. Then the cycle begins again. As this is happening there’s a sense of a complete outpouring of love from the centre of your being. 
 
Physically, these practices are unmatched in their ability to tone and strengthen the diaphragm and core muscles while massaging all the internal organs, including the heart. Other physical benefits include weight loss and correcting of the posture (another essential element of martial arts and yoga).
 
Awakening
Uddiyana Bandha stimulates and wakes up the mid brain structures, the emotional centres of the brain.
 
Martial connection
In the Warrior traditions of Japan there’s special emphasis placed upon the abdomen. In fact it plays such an important roll not only in martial arts, but in daily life, that the Japanese developed an entire set of exercises and practices which they called Haragei (belly arts).
 
I’ll post more on this subject tomorrow including instructions on how to do Uddiyana, Nauli and agni sara. But before I do that I’m just going to finish a short animation that illustrates the flow of energy during Uddiyana practice, which I’ll include a link for here in just a few minutes 🙂
 

Deepening the energetic flow

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Awakening Kundalini

We can greatly enhance the effects of mula bandha by altering the angle of our pelvis during our practice. To do this, we simply tuck our pelvis forward as we draw the perineal muscles up during the inhalation phase of our breathing cycle.

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Awakening Kundalini

Then, as we exhale and release the muscle contraction of mula bandha, we tilt our pelvis back by sticking out our bum (just a little).

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Awakening Kundalini

This simple, dynamic structural addition to the muscle contraction of mula bandha dramatically increases the stimulation of the pelvic nerve structures, while acting as a pump for the cerebrospinal fluid. The resulting effect is a dramatic increase in the energy flow in the spinal channel (sushumna) along with stronger stimulation of the lower brain structures, resulting in a deeper, more expanded state of mind.

*I just wanted to add this bit of information before moving on to the other bandhas. There are a few other things we can do to enhance the energy flow when practising mula bandha, however, these become more applicable at a later stage.

Enjoy the practice and the energy and peace it brings into your life 🙂

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In short: Practice mula bandha to generate bliss, inner power and an expanded state of mind.
And here’s the explanation:
The maps we’re given, in the form of various disciplines, spiritual paths, religions, etc, are the result of a reverse engineering, or a retracing of the steps of those who have made the journey to self realisation before us. I know this seems obvious, but when you think about it, it’s really quite ingenius.
When the mind begins to expand, and the inner and outer realities of the yogin begin to merge, many changes take place in the brain, changes that initiate a new level of functioning in the nervouse system. This has the knock on effect of making the body operate in a way that promotes awakening and self realisation, a type of evolution.
When yogins of the past went through their awakening process they became aware of physical changes happening in their body as their mind began to expand. Understanding that the body and mind are locked into a two way process, in which changes in the mind effect the body and changes in the body effect the mind, many of these yogins categorised the physical manifestations of the enlightenment process which later became a road map of their journey for others to follow. We can see many of these road maps to enlightenment as we read through the ancient texts of the east and west, with a large concentration of them found within the texts of the yogic traditions.
Over the next while I’ll try to dilineate the techniques I’ve found particularly useful while walking my path, which is a synergy of martial and yogic disciplines. These techniques, in yogic terminology, consist of Bandhas (energy seals), Pranayama (breathing methods), and, to a lesser degree, asana (postures). So lets begin with mula bandha, a technique used in both yoga and the martial arts, a technique that acts as a key to unlock the door leading to bliss and inner power.
Mula Bandha – Seal of the base
Mula bandha, on a purely physical level, involves a contraction and drawing up of the perineal muscles (located between the anus and genitals). When first attempting to apply this muscle contraction it can be difficult to isolate the perineum from the other muscles in the area, but with regular practice it becomes a simple task. The idea is to practice it regularly throughout your day.
As with many yogic practices, over time, mula bandha becomes very subtle. In fact, there will come a time when you will be able to simply hold your concentration on the area of the perineum, and this alone will cause the muscles to contract and go into a light spasm. Once we have reached this level, a type of inner bliss begins to arise from within the body. I feel it as a mild orgasmic sensation that radiates outwards, flowing down the legs and up into the abdomen. It’s like a warm, tingling excitement spreading throughout the body.
A simple practice
Here’s a simple practice I like to use. Sitting in a comfortable position. Begin by establishing a slow and steady breathing pattern. Don’t try too hard. The idea is to relax, not get stressed. So just take a deep breath, let out a nice long sigh, and let your breathing settle on its own. Once you’ve done this, bring your attention to the inward and outward flow of the breath. As you breathe in, lightly apply mula bandha, and as you breathe out, release mula bandha. And that’s it. Practice in this way for as long as you like, it will bring you many physical and mental benefits.
Deepening the meditative state
As well as the sense of vitality and energy mula bandha is capable of bringing into our lives, it also has a deeper purpose. When related to the process of awakening and expanding consciousness, mula bandha has a special connection with the medulla, the hind brain. As we begin to use mula bandha on a more regular basis, something interesting begins to happen. We start to gain control over areas of the body science tells us we shouldn’t be able to control. One of the first manifestations of this that I noticed in my earlier years of practice was the calming effect mula bandha had upon the breathing* cycle and heart rate.
*Just as a point of interest, in the healing aspect of the martial arts, it is said that strong sudden pressure applied to the perineum is capable of restarting the lungs after they have gone into respiratory arrest.
Because the mind is so intimately connected with the breathing cycle (we’ll look at this in much more detail when discussing pranayama), the effect of a calm steady breathing cycle is a calm and undisturbed mind, which, in this state, begins to expand.
The martial connection
In the martial arts, we are taught an interesting technique that involves a stronger contraction of the perineum. Basically, as we are executing a physical technique, whether it’s a strike, throw, block, etc., we are taught to breathe out. And while breathing out we are taught to push down and expand the lower abdomen as we apply mula bandha. Although this feels counter intuitive at first, its effects are truly amazing. When we breathe and contract our muscles in this way, there is a kind of knitting together of the muscles in the lower and upper body. This knitting together allows the entire body to move as one unit, all in the same direction. The effects of this are a tremendous increase in physical power. So, as a result, you get these old, frail looking masters of the martial arts (who have perfected this technique) making what look like effortless flicks of the wrist, in defence to an attacker who ends up being flung through the air.
What’s even more interesting than the almost superhuman power these guys are capable of issuing is the remarkable sense of calm and serenity that they radiate. I often wonder if they’ve realised the connection to mula bandha.
Awakening
In terms of awakening the brain, and subsequently the mind, mula bandha awakens the hind brain. In the next post I’ll look at two closely related practices, those being agni sara (fire cleansing) and uddiyana bandha (flying upwards seal). Both of which deeply affect the emotional centres of the brain.
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