Practices and Changes

Some years ago I wrote about how much I loved practicing the 8 Key Breaths, the Five Tibetan Rites and Flying Crane Chi Gung.  I’d turned to those three for their combined impacts on opening energy flow, building energy and balancing energy.

After faithfully practicing for 5 or 6 years, I started slowly moving into doing kundalini yoga more and always sliding in some sets of my flowing body work.  I’ve never dropped the energy practices, but I’ve rarely done all three.  I’m probably most faithful about the 8 Key Breaths, which I have loved since I first learned them in 1990, with the 5 Rites landing in second place.

Tuesday I felt really drawn to do the three for the first time in ages.  Not only did it feel amazing, but because of the opening unfolding in my body, I could feel energy moving through places I’ve not felt it before. And the fullness and flow of energy in the hara, or sea of chi,… wow… amazing.  It’s been one of the most thrilling things about the slow healing of the many issues in my muscles:  revisiting practices after time gaps and feeling the energy of it.

While I’ve always felt energy build in that area during tai chi or qigong practice, I’ve also been aware the energy wasn’t as full as it should be, nor did flow through the whole area.  So the sense of the bigness of the energy and how well it flowed through both second (where hara is located) and third chakras was a big eye-opener for how much progress my muscles have made.

Much of the super tight core in my face that’s unwinding now is connected into patterns going all the way down my body, so each time a knot or two opens, I feel impacts all the way down.  This was the most intense moment of realizing what this opening means for the flow of energy.  Wow.

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PART 2: PRACTICES AND CREATING NEW GROOVES

What the Bleep Do We Know!?

What the Bleep Do We Know!? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday I wrote some general benefits of regularly performing sacred practices.  Now I want to talk about how those benefits help you to create new patterns.

Ten years ago, when I bought What the Bleep:  Down the Rabbit Hole, I watched it over and over.  And I especially played certain sections about the science multiple times.  One of the pieces that had a huge impact was the stuff about how we create neural nets, the patterns of thinking and habits of doing that become the fabric of our lives.

The news that an overload of negative patterns can shift your peptide receptors so you can no longer take in positive thoughts, foods, etc.  resonated deeply for me.  And, of course, the idea that you can change those patterns was something I’d been working on since I started off in 1985 with the “you create your reality with your thoughts” philosophy (for more recent converts/younger people, think Law of Attraction).

Most of what I worked with on the creating reality front was mental.  Although my therapist also taught me a number of meditations in which I could release or change something, the process was by and large mental.  And I believe changing your mind is a crucial part of the process.

But it’s not the only way you can make changes.  And, over the course of 30 years of performing various practices, I’ve come to believe that practices can make a huge difference in changing patterns.

BACK TO MINDFULNESS

As noted in Part 1, most spiritual practices, if done with focus and attention, can help train you to keep your mind more quiet and focused in the moment.  If you want to change your thinking, it’s just about impossible to do if you can’t stay mindful enough to realize when you’re running negative tapes or falling into old patterns.

Although I’ve met a few people over the years who seemed to be able to encounter Wayne Dyer or Louise Hay, flip a switch and suddenly be positive all the time, for most of us it requires a lot of work to even notice all the negative tapes playing in the background.  And without mindfulness training of some sort, I don’t see how you can stay present enough to turn around those negative thoughts.

The critical editor in your mind, who constantly criticizes, complains, and points out the bad in everything, tends to run rampant and keeps a flood of those kinds of thoughts racing around.  That becomes a groove; a set of neural nets that only notice and only run unhappy thoughts.

Practices that train the mind to be more quiet over time start creating a new groove in which the mind becomes more comfortable without the constant chatter and it slowly becomes easier to stay aware of your thinking and change its direction.

THE CALM AND BALANCED GROOVE

When I do a yoga set or the Five Tibetan Rites or “sit vipassana” I always notice that the state of balance and calm these practices induce lasts for hours afterwards.  Over the years, these hours of calm have created a new pattern of serenity that carries into pretty much all areas of my life.  And I doubt you’ve ever known anyone who was any more tense, anxious, and neurotic than I used to be 🙂

Combined with the greater mindfulness the practices have also created, I can much more readily notice when anything has thrown me off balance and almost immediately call back the calm.

A big component of Feldenkrais’ and Robert Masters’ (student of Feldenkrais who created the Psychophysical Method I use in my teaching) work is the idea that if you notice how your body normally is held and then do something to release it and purposefully note the change, you will eventually create a stronger pull to the one that feels better.  I think of it as making a new neural net or pattern.

I think the calm, balance and serenity of these practices affect you the same way.  When your mind starts contrasting the anxiety or tension before you practice with the peacefulness afterward, it moves toward the pattern that feels better and begins to hold it more often and more strongly.

I also find after I’ve done the Eight Key Breaths or chanted the Lovingkindness chant, for instance, the negative tapes and thoughts just don’t have a foothold for a while.  My mind is more positive when I feel that centered and balanced.  I’ve noted it’s a great time to say or listen to affirmations as my whole being is more receptive from that calm space.

BYPASSING THE MIND

I tried for a long time to make these changes mainly through mental processes.  I wanted to “think away” the negative thoughts.  I’ve known a LOT of people over the years who want to accomplish the spiritual journey only by working on the mental side.

Over time I’ve learned there are too many levels to us to work just on the mind.  I’ve also found that the ego more easily controls, blocks and redirects mental efforts.

Most of the practices I’ve ever encountered work much more on the spiritual, physical and sometimes emotional levels.  Movement practices often open key areas of the body so both blood and prana flow more readily everywhere.  Sometimes they stretch muscles enough to release emotions and issues held within.

Even more important, they build energy and help to bring it into balance.  When the energy is flowing freely and is balanced, it can shift you more profoundly than just changing your thoughts.

I’ve found it’s often easier to shift if I bypass my mind with practices than if I try to force my mind to change.  About 8 years ago I went back to faithful practice of the Eight Key Breaths, the Five Tibetan Rites and Flying Crane Chi Gung.  As I wrote a while back, I felt I needed to approach my remaining physical and emotional issues and blocks with energy.

I generally always have several types of practices and some body work going at the same time, so it’s hard to credit one particular thing, but the fact that I’ve finally been pushing through the hold-out muscles and issues can be credited in large part, I feel, to doing those practices.  While I’ve also had AMAZING body work and I also credit the great therapists I’ve seen, I’m not sure their work would have worked as well without the energy practices opening and moving and shifting as much as they did (still do…).

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As you can see, I really love doing various practices and I absolutely believe those practices have been a major component in the many, many ways in which my life has changed.  In the final part of this series I’ll explore how many of us sabotage ourselves by not practicing and some of the reasons why.

J2P Monday: Breathe

English: By kac's meditation

 meditation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My stress management classes grew out of being a lawyer with the Illinois Governor’s Office in downtown Chicago at the same time I studied meditation and yoga.  I soon found myself adapting what I knew to the office situation, exploring many quick ways to defuse stress.  Over many years of practice I learned that the practices that relax are also key to finding peace.

My number one favorite go-to for stress is breathing.  There are so many ways you can use your breath, even in public, to calm yourself without anyone realizing that you’re having a relaxation moment.

Most Americans breathe very shallowly and suck the stomach and solar plexus areas in on inhalation and release it on exhalation.  Natural, healthy breathing involves inhaling deep into the abs and having the abs/solar plexus/diaphragm area expand as you fill with air.

Exercise:  Many people find this pattern very difficult at first.  To get the feeling for expanding and contracting the solar plexus area, lie flat on the floor and place a book on your solar plexus (area of rib cage, between the navel and the base of your chest).  On each inhalation concentrate on pushing the book up.  On each exhalation focus on lowering the book as the air goes out.  Practice raising and lowering the book as you breathe until it feels easy.

Once you feel that you can inhale into your abdomen, the next step is to learn how to take a full breath.  Inhale into the abdomen and feel that fullness move upward until you have inhaled all the way up to the collar bone.  On exhalation, begin releasing the breath from the top level and continue releasing on down to the solar plexus.  Breathe slow and long and make sure that you feel completely filled with each inhalation and that you’ve emptied all the air completely on exhalation.

Exercise:  Sit comfortably, with a straight back.  Tune in and note how you’re feeling.  Notice the natural pattern of your breath.  Then begin full breath– start counting as you inhale and make your exhalation have the same count.  If you finish the inhale on the count of 8 then count at the same pace to 8 as you exhale and make sure you pace the exhalation to be finished on 8.  Continue for 8-10 breaths, keeping the inhalation and the exhalation even.  Then double the length of the exhalation; for instance, if you count to 6 on the inhale, make the exhale last to the count of 12.  Take 8-10 more breaths with the longer exhalation. Check in again and note any change in how you feel or the pattern of your breathing.

Frequently people who are stressed also hold the breath.  It’s an unconscious habit of sucking in some air and then holding it. If you become mindful of your breathing and use the full breath several times a day, you’ll start shifting out of that pattern.

Any time you feel angry or upset, stop and take some full breaths before you react or say anything.  As soon as you calm down, your view of most situations will change.

Full breath is absolutely the easiest way to calm yourself.  You can practice it any place any time.  Only a few minutes of full breath has an incredibly relaxing effect.  The counting also serves as a focusing device. so each time you stop and count you’re having a little meditation break.

Three years–wowie zowie

By Tayunea on Wikimedia

Since I’m still not back in the world all the way I’m a little behind on things.  So it slipped by me the other day when WordPress told me I’ve been blogging for three years.  Doesn’t seem possible.

I’m ever more grateful for this lovely community and the fact that I’m always meeting new wonderful people.  I love the connection with all of you but I want to give a special shout to those who’ve been part of my blogging journey since somewhere near the beginning.  It’s amazing to me that we’ve been in one another’s lives for three years.  Whether you’re a new friend or a long-time blogging buddy, I’m so grateful we found one another here!  I’m so thankful for the many lessons and insights I’ve received from all your thoughtful, heart-felt posts.  Thanks everybody!

Yoga tip:  Lots of yoga postures for abs involve lying on your back on the floor and raising your head or head and shoulders.   Lots of students complain that it hurts their necks.  As with so many things, form makes all the difference.  Most of us don’t really use our necks properly.  It’s easy to use your shoulders to do some of the neck’s job and in these postures I find most people tend to both hunch their shoulders slightly forward and lift their shoulders up toward their ears and then tighten them.  That position is all wrong for your neck and the wrong position is quite painful.  Make sure your shoulders are back slightly and pulled down from your ears.   Since the neck muscles are often underused and/or overly taut, the muscles that are supposed to hold your head in this position will probably be sore at first, so some pain may still be present but it should feel different when you’re just pushing some muscles beyond what they’re used to rather than scrunching your neck unnaturally.  If you’re holding an abs move with your head up for a while keep checking your form to make sure your shoulders are staying in proper position–down and back.

Stop. Breathe. Note that practice paid off.

Life has been a little more quiet the last week or two especially because the great unwinding process quieted for a while and I’ve been sleeping.  Quiet has meant some time for reflection.  As I glance ahead at the glimmers of that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel I’ve been thinking about this long slow process of healing.  I tend to be hard on myself (I know I’m not alone in that!) and to push myself –those who’ve been around me in recent years might find that odd since I live a very quiet and withdrawn life these days but inwardly I push and berate….   But reflecting on these 10 years of muscles twirling and pulling and yanking in my face–pulling my eyes and mouth along with them, I started feeling good.

I know this is pretty big hubris but I truly believe that a significant percentage of people if faced with the years and years of yanking and jerking in their face would have either wound up on a mental ward or have shot themselves in the head to make it stop.  (My personal fantasy has been to twist my head off and throw it as far away from me as possible…).  It’s been hard and trying and frustrating and generally obnoxious but I have somehow managed to roll with it.  Sometimes I’ve been whiny and some days I’ve not known how I managed to cope through it, but cope I did.  The protruding bones causing the roof of my mouth to be convex have just about flattened now and my vision is improving almost day by day.

I think that many years of yoga and meditation practices along with learning how to stop emotional reactions from taking over have all helped me to navigate these trying years.  I know a lot of people believe and teach that you don’t have to learn or practice anything because you’re already there, etc.  I’m sure there are people who find that to be true but for myself I’ve found that I hid the essential me deeply within and surrounded it with beliefs and reactions that denied my God nature so thoroughly that I had no access to that space.  It has been learning and practicing and perceiving the belief system I used to hold that has helped me to handle all this.

Another incident recently tweaked my awareness of these changing abilities to handle life.  A friend revealed that he’d been upset with me about an incident the year before.  Now, I remembered the incident when he mentioned it because his behavior was fairly odd — disrupted a class I was teaching and basically told the class I wasn’t teaching it properly–but what I found interesting was that I had never thought about it again from that day until the day he mentioned it.  At one time I would have seen only my side of it and I’d have suffered over it and relived it and raged inwardly — possibly months or years later.  But in this case I got what he felt and although I found it odd that he chose to disrupt class instead of talking to me after I shrugged it off as one of those things and let it go.  I didn’t even have to think about it or consciously start doing some practice to launch the letting  go — I just did.  That’s years of practice that made that the natural response–and don’t get me wrong, I still don’t always automatically react that well.

If you’re one of the lucky ones who just drops with ease into a space of connection with the divine or awareness in the moment, you don’t need this advice.  But for everyone else, I advise practice, practice, practice.  Become mindful.  Doesn’t really matter what practices you choose in my opinion as long as you choose practices that make sense to you and then actually do them.

See also:

Mindfulness: The Key Factor

Mindfulness:  How Do You Get It?

Learning Yourself Through Yoga

My long-time yoga teacher, Bill Hunt, taught me so many things that I’ve remembered and that have helped me, not just in yoga, but in life.  A lesson that has had a big impact on me related to paying attention to how you practice yoga and learning about yourself as you do it.

Each major category of postures relates to a stance you take in life or a way you deal with life.  If you pay attention to which postures are hard for you to do, which postures are easy to do, which you don’t like, which you love you can see a lot about how you are in the world.

Forward bends relate to inwardness or being introverted.  If forward bends are hard for you to do or you don’t like them (regardless of whether they seem easy or hard)  there’s a good chance that you have trouble looking inward or delving deep into your psyche or that you’re extroverted.  If you easily do forward bends or favor doing them you’re probably introverted or inclined to look inward.

Back bends relate to openness or letting yourself be out there and/or seen in the world.  If you struggle to do them or just don’t like them you probably have a hard time putting yourself out there or tend to be introverted.  If you love them and do them easily it’s likely that you’re extroverted and/or have no trouble being out in front of people.

Strength postures literally relate to strength.  If they’re hard for you to do that says something about whether you show strength in life or a firm ability to hold your place.  If they’re easy and you like to do them you probably face the world from a place of strength.  If your muscles are so strong that you are held rigid there’s a good chance that you have issues of rigidity or inflexibility in life as well.

Balance postures (mainly the standing balances) reflect something about whether your life is balanced–emotionally, mentally, and/or spiritually.  A flexible spine reflects your ability to be flexible in life and a spine that doesn’t move well reflects rigidity or inability to bend.

Way back when I took yoga classes from him (1986-1991) I quickly realized back bends were a major issue for me.  I could barely get an inch off the floor in, say, cobra pose and since I was about as introverted as could be and virtually incapable of speaking in public I could see how my inability to bend backwards reflected the state of my being.

I began to work at back bend postures — slowly and lazily.  Over the course of some years my ability to do them improved (still an upward curve for me).  When they’d gotten to be pretty good I looked at my life and realized I’d been taking on leadership roles and teaching and feeling at ease in front of people for a while.  I worked on lots of other stuff over those years so I can’t claim it was only the change in my ability to do back bends but I think it played a big part.  Or perhaps the decision to work on a certain kind of postures reflects some internal decision to make a change.

Strength postures weren’t easy for  me either and, although I could do them, I really didn’t like them.  For some reason that didn’t bother me as much as the back bend issue so it’s just been in the last six or seven years that I’ve really worked at developing my ability to do postures like chair pose or my ability to hold downward dog for 50 breaths.  The results are more subtle, but I can feel myself holding a stronger inward space, holding my own center with strength.

I find it fun and interesting to check in periodically to see where I am in my practice and what it’s telling me about my life.  Check it out, you might learn something new about yourself or help yourself make a change by focusing on postures that support the direction in which you want to go.

See also:

Yoga and the Story of Balance

 

Yoga and the story of balance

Yoga postures Urdva_Dhanurasana

The most fundamental principle of hatha yoga for me is balance. Ha and tha are the sun and moon channels that crisscross down the spine creating the circles of energy we call chakras. The word yoga means yoke or balance. So hatha yoga is balancing (or yoking) the sun and moon channels. In a well-designed practice, all the chakras are brought into a greater state of balance.  But yoga addresses balance in many ways.

I organize my hatha classes to begin at the root chakra and work upward, addressing all the chakras in every class. Beyond chakra energy, the need for balance is also physical and a good practice addresses strength and flexibility, forward and backward bends, inversion, and balance postures, so I also design my classes to provide a mix of those (depending on the abilities of students).

If you observe your reactions to the various elements of practice, according to my teacher, you can learn about yourself and what’s out of balance. Forward bends and stretches reflect ability to look within and flexibility, Backward bends tell the story of openness in the world or being extroverted. Strength postures literally reflect inner strength. Balance poses, inner balance and so on. Ask yourself as you practice which postures do you like to do and which do you dread or avoid? Which postures are easy for you to do and which are hard? You’ll find clues to your inner map.

When I started yoga I was very introverted and incredibly shy (make that pathologically); so lacking in confidence that I was weak emotionally and also already struggling with chronic fatigue so that I was physically weak as well. I excelled at doing forward bends and many stretches. I could do strength postures well enough but I rarely put them in my own practice and I didn’t like them. In back bends such as cobra I could barely lift an inch off the floor. Balance poses have always been variable for me, both how often and how well I do them. I like inverted poses.

I addressed the back bend issue first. It took years to work up to pretty good back bends. I still can’t get my foot to the back of my head (I tell my students that’s for next lifetime) but I can turn out a good camel or bow pose. Over the years of increasing my ability to open into these poses I have been increasing my openness in the world. Inner work and body work have contributed but I think the progression from shy and tongue-tied to outgoing and glib has a lot to do with the decision to practice back bends.

In recent years I turned to the strength postures as part of the process of improving health. I’ve found it helpful to keep videos around that contain practice segments with emphasis on postures I tend not to do on my own. It gives me some variety that keeps me from getting stuck in the same routine and helps me work on my weak areas.

Awareness of your relationship with the different aspects of yoga and your willingness to do a well-balanced practice can give y ou valuable insight into the state of balance of your being. If you practice yoga, do you know how to deal with forward bends, backward bends, strength postures, etc.? In life do you know what you embrace and what you avoid, what you do with ease and what challenges you? Do you know what it is within you that drives those attractions and aversions?

When you know the state of balance within among the elements of yoga or of life you can do what is needed to restore balance or equanimity.

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