Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Allowing Chanting to find a Home

By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Aaaah... Chanting.

We're getting to that point in training where the deeper practices of chanting, pranayama, and meditation are at the fore.  I'm working with a client who has rheumatoid arthritis, and the practice I'm suggesting has chanting in it to activate the deepest inner alchemy - the relationship between prana, ojas, and tejas.  It is a deep practice, and the client is receptive to working this deeply, which is a true blessing.

Prana is energy.  Ojas is that which provisions the energetic flow of prana.  Tejas is the intelligent use of ojas-fueled prana - like the way we metabolize (insert anything here - food, experience, feelings, etc.)  There is much more to this discussion that I will leave for another day.

The resistance to chanting is something I'm very familiar with.  I was not chanting but knew I "should" be before I started to work with this client.  Working on her practice and reviewing my notes from training awoke an interest in me.  I'm familiar with the teachings governing this inner alchemy, but my student is just learning, with much less formal training.  We will see, with interest and awareness, whether it clicks for her and nourishes her?  Or whether it will be adjusted and fine-tuned to meet her needs more fully.

Chanting can be quite challenging as you have to hear your own voice reaching out into space.  It's easier to do in a group than on your own.  It's much more vulnerable when you chant in your own silent space.  Mental chanting is a way to ease into full chanting.  Full voiced chanting, whether loud or soft, high or low in pitch, creates tremendous energetic effects.  In my experience, it short circuits the mind-body duality we seem to live with so much of the time as we move through "real life" off the mat.

These energetic forces governing deep inner alchemy of physiological processes are well suited for chanting when dealing with a physiological condition.  In fact, I was so drawn to this "inner alchemy" that I have adopted this chanting myself.  I'm self-treating for nervous system condition of bells palsy.  In the lines with more than one syllable, the second to last syllable is a raised pitch, then back to the starting pitch.

Om Ojosi
Om Nourish Me
Om Pranosi
Om Enliven Me
Om Tejosi
Om Enlighten Me
I have added this to my personal practice before my pranayama, which is an alternate nostril and krama practice given to me by my teacher.

At the end of my pranayama, I repeat the chanting, low and quiet, and add nyasa (gesture).

Om                            hands to eyes
Om Ojosi                  hands to heart
Om Nourish Me        hands to belly
Om                            hands to eyes
Om Pranosi               hands to heart
Om Enliven Me        hands to belly
Om                            hands to eyes
Om Tejosi                 hands to heart
Om Enlighten Me     hands to belly

I drop into a beautiful meditative space.  It feels wonderful to inhabit my body and take care towards healing every morning.

I have adopted the chanting, but will the client?  Her most recent email to me:

Just printed this practice & we'll see if I chant this week!

Aaaah... chanting.  You bring out the emotions in us!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Stress and the ANS: Autonomic Nervous System

Let’s start with the big picture.  The nervous system is a mechanism of delivering information to and from the brain via the brainstem, the spinal cord, and the nerves that run out to the peripheries, the organs, the glands, and the muscles.  The central nervous system is the brain and spinal cord.  It is also a system of homeostasis that works to maintain a certain balance.

Motor neurons tell the body what to do.  This happens in two ways.  Firstly, there is the somatic nervous system, which is what one uses to pick up a pencil and write a sentence.  Secondly, and more importantly for our purposes, is the autonomic nervous system.  Whereas picking up a pencil and writing is a self-initiated activity, the activity of the autonomic nervous system seems to happen automatically, or without conscious control.  The ANS controls whether or not one breaks into a sweat or has a racy heart when getting unexpected news.

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a way of regulating the body’s functions in light of external circumstances.  The system is actually two mutually exclusive “drives” that act as a sort of gas pedal and a break.  Just as in a car, the driver’s foot alternates between the gas and the break, the human body also alternates between sympathetic nervous system as the dominant drive or the parasympathetic nervous system as the dominant drive. 

The sympathetic nervous system kicks in with the perception of danger.  Via the “fear” reaction of the amygdala, in the limbic system, the hypothalamus then carries out four functions, which if you're interested in the neurochemistry... look it up! 

 The release of these hormones into the blood provides a burst of energy to deal with a stressful situation.  These hormones increase blood glucose levels (to prepare to run, for instance).  They also increase oxygen available to cells by increasing the heart rate and dilating the bronchioles.  In addition, they increase blood supply to essential organs such as the heart, brain, and skeletal muscles and they divert blood away from nonessential organs such as the digestive system. 

Short term stress is designed to help a human escape a threatening situation.  It is designed to be short term, and followed by a “fight or flight” reaction.  The stress reaction helps a human to deal with a stressful situation like getting chased by a bear quite efficiently.  However, the system is not meant to deal with long-term stresses like losing a job while trying to pay a mortgage, which can stretch months into years in duration.
Chronic stress can contribute to or cause cardiovascular disease.  The blood volume increases, its force and speed increase.  Vasopressin causes the kidneys to absorb less water.  There is considerable wear and tear on the system.  Atherosclerosis, the accumulation of plaque, is also a risk.

Robert Sapolsky notes in Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers that the inhale is more associated with sympathetic activation (the heart rate speeds slightly on inhale), while the exhale is more associated with parasympathetic activation (the heart rate slows slightly on exhale).  People with hypertension sometimes cannot “slow down” naturally with the exhale.  This can be a marker for trouble.

Stress (sympathetic activation due to a psychological or physical stimulus) is particularly bad for metabolic issues like Type-2 Diabetes.  The stress response dumps energy resources out into the blood stream.  It liquidates the stores thinking a person needs to run from a lion.  Not only does it dump the stores, but it stops any future storage projects in anticipation of a physical event.  However, sitting on a stressful conference call is not exactly charging across the savannah.  This dipping into the bank account can be quite disruptive to feeling adequately nourished and rested.

The immune system has an interesting reaction to sympathetic activation.  Upon short term activation, the immune system’s function is actually heightened.  However, that comes at a cost.  And after a short term gain in immunity, the body slips to a lowered state of immunity, and stays there.  This second state is lower than the starting state.  This means that long-term sympathetic nervous system activation  (long-term stress, like a mortgage) may lead to more incidents of getting sick.  There are many caveats and this is not a blanket statement.  For instance, cancer has not shown to be affected by stress.  But many other types of sickness or disease process are affected.  The common cold has been shown to be more common for subordinate, stressed mice.

There is a strong link in extreme psychological stress and depression.  Stress brings about some of the typical endocrine changes of depression.  Genes that predispose to depression only do so in a stressful environment.  Glucocorticoids, the central hormone of the stress response, can bring about depression-like states in an animal, and can cause depression in humans.

All of this has come together to make me realize how important it is to recognize and live as though every day is NOT an emergency.

Link: Body Divine Yoga - Yoga Body: The Conspiracy

Check out this great post.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A post for the highly sensitive parent (link)

Check out this phenomenal post about being a HSP (highly sensitive person) who is also a parent.

Highly Sensitive Parent

Blogging has been slow recently as I move toward the second training session at AVI's yoga therapy program.  The spring has blossomed with case studies, interviews, home study, and much grace in personal practice.

We've suffered some major losses this spring as well as well has gained a new family member by marriage.  It's been a wild ride and not much time for rumination on yoga and yoga therapy.  But I'm still at it....

Friday, February 21, 2014

So many variations - update on personal practice

Image compliments of
Is it too early to think about crocuses in bloom?

At training, as we pulled our bodies apart and experimented, close to the last day I did a twist a little too far and strained an SI ligament.  I've been caring for that dear sacrum issue since I returned with a steady practice involving supta badokanasana, bhujangasana with krama inhale and chanting, and vimanasana.  I've also ditched bikram for swimming for the moment.  All the asymetrical standing work in that series is not for me right now.

Today I added in a variation of supta parsva padangusthasana.  Lying on your back, you have one foot on the floor close to the hips, and one leg outstretched.  Hug in the bent leg and put your same-side hand on that inner thigh.  With opposite hand on opposite hip, holding that hip down to the floor, you open and close the bent leg out to the side.  When you're "open" you can then extend and straighten that leg which helps the knee.  I did just a small number of reps on each side.  This really gets to that area of my right outer hip that I want to bring awareness to longterm, but I have to be careful the asymmetry doesn't bother the sacrum.

I returned to badokanasana to even things out and make the sacrum happy.  Then back to bhujangasana with krama inhale and chanting, legs opening more and more after a few repetitions.  Vimanasana with no external rotation then with external rotation to delve into the hip.  It was a nice practice!  I love my new short practices... my yoga snacks.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

My passion is on the mat

image compliments of
(Ha!  I wish that's what my yoga space looked like.)

I've returned from yoga therapy session one at AVI!  Thirty four of us traveled to the mountain top to the Mount Madonna Center to find our new Sangha (community of practitioners).  We spent two weeks pulling ourselves apart and exploring the structure.  We also delved deeply into the therapist-client relationship and used each other as guinea pigs.  We were blessed to have Gary Kraftsow discuss yoga sutras that are especially relevant to yoga therapy and the client relationship.  The staff was knowledgeable (to say the least.)  The training was very well organized, and my fellow classmates brought a high level of professionalism and open curiosity.

My takeaways are so many.  I feel my head is actually larger for all the knowledge that was dumped in over eleven days working 6am - 9pm.  For me, the most fruitful part of my training was Gary's discussion of Sutra 1.17, about the different ways of knowing (or concentrating upon a subject, in this case, the client and his or her condition).

Here's SwamiJ's take on it - slightly different in language than Gary's, but it's good to have a reference!

1.17 The deep absorption of attention on an object is of four kinds, 1) gross (vitarka), 2) subtle (vichara), 3) bliss accompanied (ananda), and 4) with I-ness (asmita), and is called samprajnata samadhi.(vitarka vichara ananda asmita rupa anugamat samprajnatah)
  • vitarka = gross thought or reasoning
  • vichara = subtle thought 
  • ananda = bliss, ecstasy
  • asmita = I-ness, individuality
  • rupa = appearances, nature, form 
  • anugamat = accompanied by, associated with
  • samprajnatah = cognitive absorption, lower samadhi
Though there are many different levels of cognizing/understanding/merging with/knowing about the client and his or her condition, I will limit my discussion to the difference between vitarka and vichara.  Vitarka can be taken as "figuring it out" with the muscles of the mind (of course, this does not not literally mean muscles... I know that much from my anatomy study!)   When you put your mind to a problem and furrow your eyebrows to think your way to the answer, that's vitarka.  If you notice, when you go into your mind to turn the wheels, you actually step away from present awareness.

Vichara, on the other hand, is more like an intuitive connection with the object of focus... sort of like you go to it and into it by being present with it.  I think of it as a more "neck down" way of connecting that's best supported by coming into the central channel through breath and letting your awareness absorb what is around you.  (This is contrasted with vitarka, which seems to me to be a very "neck up" form of processing.)

I've been raised with a strong focus on intelligence and the power of the intellect as a tool to solve problems.  However, I am, at nature, a more intuitive person.  I feel, in many ways, that my head gets in the way of my heart.  My intellect is powerful, no doubt, but my heart is where the magic of this work will benefit others most highly.

The path to the fulfillment of my dharma 
travels directly through my heart.

It was amazing to work in triads, with fellow trainees, to learn the art of intake interviewing, developing session goals and prioritizing client issues, to assess through movement and stillness, to craft an intervention, and to help the client understand it.  Working in groups of three, we always had an impartial observer present, to give feedback and to notice the bigger picture.

It became clear to me, after taking my client through an absolutely adequate assessment session, THEN hearing Gary's thoughts on vitarka/vichara, that I was trying to vitarka my way through the assessment.  And I had a clear sense that that was not what Gary was doing in his case studies with students in our class - which were amazing to watch.  I was trying to "get it right" and "figure it out" without relying on and trusting in the Yoga Vidya, the living body of knowledge I have access to.  The teacher who taught the first teacher, and everyone in the lineage since then, is always at my back when I can calm and quiet myself enough to listen.