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The Yoga of Swimming

If you love swimming and are interested in deepening your pranayama practice on the mat, you are in for a wonderful surprise. Whether you swim laps or enjoy water recreationally, you probably recognize that swimming can transform the way you feel. Similar to yoga, the before and after effects are astounding! A powerful, low-impact activity, swimming can also become a incredible pranayama.


Pranayama refers to breathing exercises or breath control. Breath control is one of the very first things we learn during swim lessons by blowing bubbles into the pool. Aside from yoga practice and swimming, there are few places in life where we intentionally control our breathing. With intention and awareness, we can transform swimming into yoga.


What was that about pranayama? Most of the time, we breathe automatically. During yogic breathing exercises, we control the breath to create more energy or prana in our bodies. Pranayama is one of the eight limbs of yoga (Ashtanga = eight limbs) in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Ashtanga Yoga is a pathway to ultimate freedom and bliss. Although modern-day yoga is often dominated by yoga asanas or postures, breathing exercises are given equal importance in the Yoga Sutras.



How do we practice pranayama while swimming? When we swim, we hold our breath to go under water and then slowly let the air out while we propel ourselves forward or backward. When we surface, we take another big breath and continue the pattern we have started. The more rhythm we create with our breathing, the more ease we feel when swimming. In essence, we learn to coordinate our breath with movement, which is the foundational concept in a yoga vinyasa class. In fact, the word vinyasa means “a method in yoga in which movements and breath are coordinated.” Paying attention and controlling our breath during yoga practice and swimming alike has the capacity to create a vinyasa, or a moving meditation.


 Swimming and pranayama are mutually beneficial.


Practicing swimming requires breath control and rhythmic breathing, which will deepen your yoga practice on the mat. And practicing pranayama on land can help to enhance your swimming techniques and lung capacity in the pool. Win-win.


That said, you may be thinking to yourself: I swim all summer and even during the other months of the year, but my mind races while I swim and I am hardly aware of how I am breathing… I am on autopilot. How is this like yoga?


Like the ease we feel peddling and balancing once we have learned to ride a bike, breath control while swimming becomes automatic. Even though we are raising our energy levels and opening energy channels in our body when we swim regardless of our intention, awareness and mindfulness gradually shifts our experience in the water.


The Yoga of Swimming = Swimming + Intention + Awareness


Without intention and awareness, yoga resembles stretching, calisthenics, sitting, or even napping. Similarly, without mindfulness, swimming is the act of moving through water. Intention and awareness transforms these movements and postures into what we call yoga. Yoga is the union or yoking of mind with spirit.


When you cultivate mindfulness and intention, swimming can become yoga, leaving you with a deep sense of inner peace, freedom, and even bliss! Ready to dive in?



Three Ways to Practice the Yoga of Swimming:


In the pool: How does your physical body feel before and after you swim? What happens to your energy before and after you swim? Do you feel pulsing, streaming or tingling sensations? How do you feel emotionally before and after your swim? Notice your state of mind before you enter the water. Then notice your state of mind at the end of your practice.


On the mat: While you are practicing yoga on your mat, imagine you are moving through water. Anytime you expand (raise your arms, lift your heart, head, or hips), inhale deeply. And anytime your contract (fold forward, root into the ground, sink your hips, lower your hands), slowly exhale. When you hold postures, create long inhalations. Imagine you are about to dive under the water at the top of your inhalation and pause. Then slowly exhale. At the bottom of your exhalation, imagine you are still under water and pause. Continue this breathing pattern. With a little intention and imagination, you can use your experience in the water to deepen your yoga on the mat.


Practice yoga by the water: Practice yoga by the water. If you are by a pool, take your standing balancing postures into the shallow end of the pool. Then, end your asana practice with savasana on a floatation device or lying down next to the water. Try meditating near water after you swim or practice yoga.


*Be sure to use safety precautions while practicing by water, especially the ocean, and have fun!

 

 

 

 

Warm Up With Our Winter Yoga Sequence

Winter is in full swing and it has been absolutely frigid. If you are feeling stagnant and finding your Right Movement practice challenging, you are not alone. After weeks of freezing weather, you may be feeling a bit lethargic, blue or just not quite yourself. Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Although we obviously did not create the frosty weather, we are often able to choose how we respond to our circumstances. Yoga is the perfect practice for shifting mindset, re-energizing the body and the mind.

So when when the doldrums set in- or better yet, before the blues take hold- take 10 minutes to practice our short soothing sequence to build warmth from the inside-out. You will find yourself renewed and ready to take on your Winter plans with presence and zeal.

This sequence is designed to slowly warm up with breath and continuous movement; and then go deeper into energizing postures that will leave you feeling ready to head out into the brisk air.


Sun salutation variations plus some standing
core-strengthening postures build heat.

This helps to warm the muscles up and prevent injury.

It also begins the process of moving in meditation. 
Once the heat and breath flows, deeper twists, folding and backbending
postures open up stuck energy channels and generate much-needed life force.
Take your time flowing from posture to posture, breathing deeply and moving joyfully.
Hold postures for 3-5 deep breaths.


 


Sequencing is about balance — exploring a posture and then offering the body a soothing counter posture. Winter is a time to balance the natural tendency to turn inwards with postures that open the heart and generate a sense of openness to the world. Rather than push through the stagnant energy that so easily builds during Winter, there is the opportunity to breathe deeply and move into yoga postures slowly and deliberately, paying attention to the subtle shifts that emerge.

Ayurveda & the Five Pillars for Winter Wellness

It took a while, but winter is finally, and indisputably here. Here at Five Pillars we hold the Intention to move through life in synch with the seasons. Listening to the messages and even advice each has to share with us and going with the flow or counterbalancing where beneficial – letting the pillars of Right Movement, Nutrition, Breathing, and Relaxation support and inform our choices.

Here in New York winter is first and foremost cold. It can be quite drying. Or it can be wet and slushy. It is a season marked by sickness — colds, flus, sore throats and so on. It is a season where nothing grows… the harvest fields of summer and fall now lie fallow. There is scarcity in nature’s offering. Except, perhaps, in the case of snow!

According to Ayurveda, Winter is the Kapha season. A time marked by slowing down, turning in, and some stillness, even with the risk of stagnation. Picture a big, soft, slow-lumbering bear… nourishing himself generously and then retiring to his cave to hibernate the winter away. This bear is in synch with the season!

Bear Medicine



Cold. Dry. Wet. Slow. Still. Possibly Stagnant.
These are the qualities we’re working with.
Luckily, there are several easy and intuitive ways to live in harmony with these qualities.

Drawing from the wisdom of the bear, we can nourish ourselves, slow down, and find some balanced self-reflection and stillness:





Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 11.19.46 AMGiven the longer, darker nights, what more natural activity than curling up at home with a good book or your journal, reflecting on the year past and the year to come? This is also an ideal time for Yin or Restorative yoga, which encourages stillness and relaxed awareness. Right Relaxation practices help recalibrate the nervous systems and prepare us to meet the energy of growth and change that comes with Spring.


Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 11.19.46 AMHowever, while our bear totem might be content to sleep the season away, we can and should maintain active Right Movement. The bone-chilling temperatures certainly might make a run outdoors less appealing, but with a host of indoor exercise options available, we can get the blood pumping, warm ourselves up and stave off stagnation and lethargy. Obviously a flowing yoga practice is ideal, whether gentle or powerful. Utilizing a gym membership gives you access to treadmills, bikes, rowing machines and maybe even a lap pool! And when in a pinch – choose 4 of your favorite upbeat songs and have a private cardio-dance party in your living room. This last option not only works the body but works on dismantling unhealthy ego as well!


Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 11.19.46 AMAs we consider Right Nutrition through the lens of the season, it might seem common sense that the winter is not an ideal time for juice cleansing, for example! It’s not that we can’t eat clean, but juices and smoothies just add cold to an already cold environment. Instead, it is a time for warming up and fortifying with hearty soups and stews. It’s also important to keep our digestive fires burning bright, helping to stave off stagnation, which can come from many things including too much stillness or too much heavy food. So by including warming and carminative herbs and spices in our diet (ginger, cumin, cardamom, coriander, orange peel, and many of the culinary herbs like rosemary and basil) we support healthy, active digestion. Add these to any one-pot recipe, savor a cup of flavorful hot chai, or start your day off with some warm ginger water.


Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 11.19.46 AMBecause this season is fraught with germs we must also fortify our immune systems. The lungs are the gatekeepers for pathogens, they are literally a first line of defense. It is through our respiratory system that many germs can creep into our systems, while healthy lungs keep germs out. You probably won’t be surprised to hear the lungs are an organ associated with Kapha, and they hate the cold! So, given the risk for coldness, dryness or even too much wetness/stagnancy, we must balance out these qualities with heat, movement and respiratory support. Luckily, many of the carminative herbs and spices also fortify our immune systems, and many heart-opening Yin and Restorative yoga postures support lung health.

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 11.19.46 AMDeepening our Right Breathing practices at this time are especially beneficial — bringing some intentional and powerful pranayama into our daily routines to deepen the breath, strengthen the lungs, expand their capacity and resilience. Diffusing essential oils throughout the home is another way to support respiratory health, as they are anti-microbial and cleansing to the home or office environment. We especially love using Anjali Aromatics’ Breathe Essential Blend which is a distillation of some of the worlds great coniferous trees. We might aptly consider these trees the “lungs of the planet” and so it’s fitting that their essential oils are some our lungs’ greatest allies.

 

As always, the yogic lifestyle is about balance — a dynamic dance unique to each of us. Winter is a time to balance out the cold with warming practices. A time to embrace stillness but avoid stagnation. A time to support our immunity with breathing practices, diet and herbal support. A time to see the soft darkness of evening as an invitation to turn in, relax and restore. For while the outer landscape might be more barren during this season, the inner landscape (and the indoors with the home fires burning bright!) is full and abundant with opportunity for self-inquiry, wellness, and nourishing self-care. Spring will be coming soon enough, why not thoroughly enjoy the moment and the season that we’re in?

 

If you’d like to discuss how best to attune to the season, we’re here to support you! Feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns, or for an individual consultation.

How To Start A Daily Yoga Practice

Do you want to start a daily yoga or meditation practice but feel overwhelmed with a full schedule? Or, do you wonder how to get started and stay focused without the guidance of a teacher?

Like anything else, the experience of yoga and meditation deepens with practice. The subtle effects of the postures are revealed over time. As we sit in the practice of yoga and meditation, we strengthen our capacity to be with ourselves as we experience the ups and downs of life.

The beauty of practice is this: The more we practice, the easier it becomes. In fact, over time, we cannot help but show up to our yoga practice, because yoga slowly becomes a part of everything we do. Plus yoga works! Once we know how calm and peaceful we can feel all day long as a result of our yoga, we will have a hard time giving up on our daily practice. The asana practice or seated meditation practice becomes a way to continue to stay engaged with the essence of our beings, every beautiful day.


Ready to get started?

Here are our top four tips to start a daily yoga practice:


1. Easy Does It

Life design coach, Martha Beck, recommends that we establish “ridiculously easy” goals to make BIG changes. After all, if we aim too high and make our goals too difficult, we will not do them. To begin your daily practice, start with something ridiculously easy that you will do every single day. Try one sun salutation or one minute of sitting. Just 30 seconds of breathing deeply can be your ridiculously easy daily practice. Once you reach your goal and you have a simple routine established, add just a little bit more. Continue to build your practice with baby steps until you discover a routine that works well for you.

2. Develop A Yoga Habit

Commit to practicing a couple of postures every day for a full month until it becomes a routine. Or invest in yourself and get a monthly unlimited package at the studio, so you can build your daily habit with the guidance of your favorite teachers! Developing a routine around yoga makes continuing a daily practice easy. If you miss a day, be kind to yourself and simply start again the following day. Allow your practice to be nourishing and fun… not one more thing you have to do in your day. The simple act of showing up to your personal yoga practice will have a profound effect on your life, guaranteed.

3. Find A Sequence That Works Well For You

Depending on where you are at in life, different asana practices can support your body and soul. Having a series of postures or flow that you can practice every day can help you to see how certain postures affect your well-being. Some people enjoy the Ashtanga yoga practice because there is a series that they show up to every day. Others prefer restorative postures, or seated meditation without any postures at all. Want support in designing a sequence that is perfect for your body? I highly recommend working with a private instructor who can teach you a sequence that will support you wherever you are at. Check out these sequences to get started today: A 12 Minute Yoga Sequence For Bone Health, Moving With The Moon, and The Best Yoga Postures For Men.

4. Take Your Yoga Off the Mat

You can start a daily practice by integrating yoga into your day wherever you are. Maybe you don’t have time to roll out your mat every day, but can you breathe deeply for 30 seconds on your commute? Or find time to practice tree pose for five deep breaths on each side after you go to the bathroom? Sometimes the simple yet profound act of listening deeply, with full attention, to another human being can be your yoga practice. Pay attention to how you practice yoga off the mat. Perhaps you will find you already have a daily practice!

May Mantra Playlist

Spring has sprung and, as the wind blows in warmer weather and the sun begins to shine, we literally begin to spring into action. Despite the days being longer, so many of us still feel like we are short on time. 


Taking time to practice yoga becomes even more important as our calendars begin to overflow with activity and plans. This is, of course, a perfect time to prioritize regular yoga classes. On the days when yoga class just won’t fit into your schedule, set aside a couple minutes to listen to our May playlist and move through your favorite yoga asanas. 


During yoga class, the teacher’s voice and their playlist can help you to go deep into your practice. This May Mantra Playlist offers a gentle rhythm to support you in your personal practice.


So when you need a little extra calm in your life, slow down and turn on these tunes, featuring three of our fav yoga artists. Listen on your commute to work, play these mantras as you practice at home, or allow these healing sounds to help you let down as you drift off to sleep at the end of the day.



You’ll find this playlist helps you to breathe deeply, with a steady, gentle rhythm designed to invoke a sense of inner peace… so allow your breath to be deep and rhythmic… and just follow the guidance of your own body.


Go ahead…. #GoDeep and create some calm!


 



ॐ See you on the mat ॐ



 

 

*Photo Cred: Johncaleb Sarsfield

Yoga Lab: Garudasana

For a pose named after something that flies, Garudasana, Eagle Pose, is all about staying still. It has potential energy, like that of an attentive bird about to swoop, and is a pose in which steadiness and concentration are key to not falling off your perch.

Benefits

  • Strengthens and stretches the ankles and calves
  • Stretches the thighs, hips, shoulders, and upper back
  • Improves concentration
  • Improves balance

Before You Begin

Spend time in Utkatansa, Chair Pose, to prep the hamstrings and quads, and try coming into Eagle Arms while seated, either in Sukhasana or Gomukhasana before attempting the bind while balanced one on leg.

How To Do It

Step 1: The Legs

Stand in Tadasana. Bend your knees slightly, come on to the tips of your left toes and pour weight into your right foot. Lift your left foot off the floor. Balance evenly through all four corners of your right foot and cross your left thigh over the right. Point your left toes toward the floor and draw them back behind you. Hook the top of your foot behind your right calf.

Modification: Place the tops of the left toes on the floor if you cant hook the foot behind the right calf. 

Step 2: The Arms

Extend your arms straight forward, parallel to the floor. Palms face in and thumbs point up. Reach forward to spread your shoulder blades wide. Cross your right arm over the left and bend at the elbows. Slide your right elbow just past the crook of the left and raise your forearms so they’re perpendicular to the floor. The backs of your hands should be facing each other.

Modification: If wrapping the arms until the palms touch is not happening, hold on to a strap as you extend your arms forward. Keep pulling the strap ends away from each other as you cross the arms and energetically move the backs of the hands toward each other.  

Step 3: Refine the Arms 

Move your left hand to the left and your right hand to the right so you can press the fingers of the left hand into the right palm. Lift your elbows up, drop your shoulders, draw your shoulder blades together, knit your ribs in and extend your crossed elbows out away from you.

Stay for several breaths. Square the hips forward—left hip back, right hip forward—and be mindful of droopy elbows.

To come out, straighten the standing leg, unwind and return to Tadasana. Repeat on the second side.

Photos: Top image; eagle arms

Save Face

Our skin, our largest organ, absorbs what we put on it: The ingredients in our body lotions, shampoos, lipsticks and sunscreens eventually make their way into our bloodstreams. The products we use impact us in much the same ways as the foods we eat—turns out you are what you apply, too.

So, what’s in all those creams and concealers? For the most part, not stuff you’d want to put in your smoothie. The list of what to avoid and why is long; for an in-depth breakdown of common ingredients and what they do, visit the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics‘ comprehensive Chemicals of Concern list to learn about what’s in your lip gloss.

While the US food industry is attempting to keep up with consumer demand for transparency in labeling and regulations, the beauty industry is lagging behind. Label claims like “organic” and “natural” and even “FDA-approved” mean little to nothing at all, and, for now, it’s up to consumers to be their own fact and label-checkers.

Our advice: Keep it simple. Products with lengthy ingredient lists are likely to have more ingredients to avoid; a pared-down beauty routine—one with fewer products to vet and claims to investigate—is an easy way to feed your skin good food. If an ingredient is unpronounceable, look it up and learn more or move on.

Beauty Brands We Love

There are, thankfully, companies doing it right. We look for brands that champion holistic practices and pure products. Here are a few favorites: 

 

Earth Tu Face

Plant-based skincare from two herbalists in California. Their products are made from organic, high quality and food-grade ingredients.

Product we love: Virgin Coconut Oil + Cardamom Body Butter. 

 

Vitner’s Daughter

Winery owner April Gargiulo created her cult-favorite skin serum in an attempt to simplify her complicated skincare regime. It took two years of tinkering, but the result is a game-changing, nutrient rich face oil that uses anti-inflammatory, antioxidant-rich plant ingredients to maintain and restore skin’s natural radiance.

 

Tata Harper

Made in small batches in the company’s laboratory in Vermont, Tata Harper products are packed with from-the-earth, active ingredients like red algae (for elasticity) and borage (moisture retention). Many of their ingredients are grown on their own bucolic farm.

Product we love: Be Adored

 

Living Libations

For love-infused products from two high-vibrational souls, look no further than Living Libations. Essential oils, a holistic oral healthcare line and self-proclaimed “renegade” beauty products are all meticulously sourced; the founders, husband and wife Ron and Nadine Artemis, believe that radiance is a birthright, and they manage to capture that philosophy in every offering.

Product we love: Seabuckthorn Shampoo and Shine On Conditioner

 

In New York we love visiting CAP Beauty in the West Village (they also have an excellent website), and Living Libations‘ newly-opened store in Venice Beach, Los Angeles. For treatments, questions, and holistic beauty coaching, pro-makeup artist and Ayurveda expert Jessa Blades is a bi-coastal treasure.

Top image: Splash Happy; all brand images from their own websites; the Living Libations image is Courtesy of CAP Beauty.

Yoga Lab: The Other Warriors

Warrior I and II get a lot of air time in most asana classes, so we launched this mini series, The Other Warriors, to spread love to the rest of the fighters. We covered Humble and Reverse Warriors in our first post; today we’re tackling Warrior III. For Warrior I and II recaps, click here.

Benefits of Warrior III

  • Strengthens the legs
  • Works the core
  • Heart opener
  • Opens the sides of the rib cage for easier breathing
  • Strengthens the gluteal muscles
  • Stabilizes the low back by stretching the quadratus lumborum (QL) muscles on either side of the lumbar spine

Prep poses

  • Virasana, Hero’s Pose, to open the quads
  • Vrksasana, Tree Pose, to work on balance
  • Core work or Navasana, Boat Pose, to strengthen the abdominals
  • Salabhasana, Locust Pose, to open the heart
  • Warrior I to feel the squareness of the hips

Alignment Refinement

  • Find Tadasana, Mountain Pose, in the standing leg: Place the heel of your standing leg under the sitting bone, toes pointing forward and outer edges of the standing foot parallel to the long edges of the mat.
  • The hip point of the lifted leg will want to open. Bring your hands to your hip creases to manually lower the lifted hip point, rolling it in and down until the sacrum is level.
  • Lift the inner thigh up in an outward rotation.
  • Firm through the thighs and the glutes.
  • Imagine a pair of hands on either side of your hips, pressing the outer edges firmly toward the midline.

Use Props

  • Warrior III is an excellent pose to refine with props: Rest your hands on blocks directly under the shoulders to facilitate the lift of the torso up and away from your thighs. Your chest should be parallel to the floor.
  • With your hands on block, press into your palms to roll the shoulders down the back and away from the ears.
  • Extend your sternum forward, as you would in Locust Pose.
  • To come into the full expression, lift your arms in line with your ears. Make sure the back of your neck is long.
  • Keep rooting evenly through the standing foot and press through the sole of the lifted one.

Energetically, Warrior III builds power and grounding in the legs—as a standing balancing posture it asks us to find our roots—while promoting lightness and outward extension through the torso and outstretched arms. Yin and Yang, rooting and growing. Enjoy and explore the dualities.

Photos: Top Warrior III; boat pose; beach warrior

Yoga 101: The Other Warriors

Warrior 1 and Warrior 2 get a lot of love—in fact, we go into depth about them here—but let’s not forget some of the other, lesser-known Warriors: Reverse and Humble.

Before we get to those, a mini Sanskrit etymology and history lesson:

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All of the warrior poses are named for a great fighter of Hindu mythology, Virabhadra (vira = hero; bhadra = friend). As the story goes, Virabhadra arose from the ground out of a broken heart and a family quarrel. Sati, the wife of the powerful god Shiva, threw herself into a fire after a fight with her father, Daksha. Upon hearing this news, Shiva tore out a piece of his hair and pounded into it the earth, out from which sprang Virabhadra, whom Shiva ordered to kill Daksha.

The three original warrior asanas come from this creation myth:

Virabhadra I is how the warrior appeared when he emerged from the earth, sword clasped in both hands over his head as he broke ground.

Virabhadra II is the pose the warrior struck when he laid eyes on his opponent and prepared to fight.

Virabhadra III is when he springs into action and decapitates Daksha with his sword.

If this all sounds particularly bloody, take heart in knowing that Shiva later brought Daksha back to life and gave him the head of a goat.

Onto today’s warriors, Reverse and Humble, which are newer shapes that don’t factor into the myth; still, they have clear antecedents and unique benefits.

Reverse Warrior

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Oftentimes referred to as Peaceful, and sometimes Dancing, Warrior, Viparita Virabhadrasana grows directly out of Warrior II. If that pose is where Virabhadra prepared to attack, then this variation is where he backs off and softens. The foot patterning is the same—back heel to front arch alignment—and is usually part of a vinyasa sequence that moves in and out of Warrior II as a starting point.

Why do it:

  • Major intercostal muscle side stretch.

Things to keep in mind:

  • The front knee has a tendency to fall out of alignment in this pose. Since you can’t see it, practice proprioception and make sure it’s still above the ankle, not caving in toward the midline or jutting out.
  • As the upper body arcs back, it’s easy to put more weight on the back foot and lose the deep, 90° bend of the front leg established in Vira II. Keep the weight evenly distributed and know you’ll need to rebend the knee after finding the pose.
  • Don’t crush the back ribs. Lift the bottom ribs up and off the back hip point, creating as much space as possible between the two and avoiding the proclivity to collapse onto the back thigh. Think up with your extended arm instead of back.

Humble Warrior

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Just as Reverse Warrior grows out of Warrior II, Humble—or Bound (Baddha) or Devotional Warrior—is a variation on Warrior I. The hips are square, the feet are wider apart than in Vira II, and the shoulder points are still orientated toward the top of the mat. It also signifies an energetic shift from the proud, chest-baring asana of its forebear; as the name suggests, Humble Warrior is about giving energy back to the earth and bowing down instead of rising up.

Why do it:

  • Benefits of an inversion without taking your feet off the floor.
  • Deep shoulder opener.
  • Keeps working the squaring off the hips.

Things to keep in mind:

  • In order to get the right shoulder firmly inside the right front knee you need to move the torso slightly to the left as you come down.
  • This will most likely swing the hips out of alignment.
  • Once the shoulders are in place and the crown of the head is pointing toward the front of the mat, readjust the hips, dragging the right hip point back and the left hip point forward.
  • When the shoulders and hips are square, lower the crown of the head toward the floor. Perhaps it will touch.
  • Keep the inner tips of the shoulder blades drawing toward each other. As much as the crown of the head yearns for the floor, extend your interlaced fist up toward the sky.

Enjoy your warriors, whatever shape they take. We’ll explore Warrior III next.

Photos: Top photo by David Martinez from Yoga Journal; warrior illustration found hereFaith Hunter in Reverse Warrior; Claire Fountain in Humble Warrior 

Liftoff

Earlier this month we sat deep into Utkatasana, Chair Pose, and promised we’d use it as a launching pad pose for something a little fancier: Eka Pada Galavasana, often called Flying Pigeon.

Utkatasana is that pose’s literal foundation, but there’s another important pose at play here, too, Eka (one) Pada (leg) Rajakapotasana (raja: king; kapot: pigeon), a.k.a. Pigeon. The Sanskrit changes in the flying variation and takes the name of an ancient Hindu sage, Galva, but the in-the-air shape is very clearly related to the prone one.

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Eka Pada Rajakapotasana

All of that to say: Hips, hips, hips. Eka Pada Galavasana is a hip-opening arm balance that requires the thigh-muscle strength cultivated in Chair Pose and the inner groin opening that comes from releasing the hips in Pigeon. To maintain steadiness in the shape, the knee of the lifted leg needs to parallel to the bent, standing knee. In addition to spending time in Chair, you can prep for this shape in pigeon on your belly or on your back.

Lift Off Into Flying Pigeon

  • Sweep your arms alongside your ears and bend your knees to come into Utkatasana.
  • Come onto the toes of your left foot, float the foot off the floor, and cross the ankle over the outside of your right thigh, just above the knee.
  • Flex your lifted foot to protect the knee and turn your toes toward your face.
  • On an exhale, shift your torso forward and place your hands on the floor about six inches in front of you, shoulder-length distance apart, elbows slightly bent.
  • With your weight spread evenly across your palms, lift on to your right tiptoes.
  • Continue shifting your weight forward, enough so that you can place your bent left knee high on your left tricep.
  • Hook your left toes around your right upper arm and grip. Keep your left shin parallel to your collarbones and perch on your arms like a branch.
  • Now, think Crow, just on one leg.
  • Bend your right knee, pull your chest through your arms, and lift the heel of your right foot to your right seat.

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  • Push the floor away to broaden across your upper back. Engage your lower abdominals to support your lower back.
  • Slowly extend your right leg behind you, inner thigh lifting toward the ceiling and thigh bone drawing straight out from the hip socket.
  • Hold for a few breaths of flying time.
  • To come out of the pose, step your left leg back into and step the right leg back into Plank or Chaturanga.
  • Move through a vinyasa or push back to Downward Dog for a few breaths before repeating on the the other side.

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Eka Pada Galavasana is a wonderful hybrid of many shapes that has its own unique energy. The more time you spend with it the clearer you’ll become on which pieces you can work on individually.

Photos: Bird in flight; pigeon pose from Thoughtfully Magazine; bent leg variation from Yoga by Candace; full posture

Sit With It

Chair Pose, Fierce Pose, Lightning Bolt Pose, Awkward Pose—Utkatasana has many names.

And it has a reputation for being kind of awful. It’s challenging, often uncomfortable, and a true test of grit. If the pose could talk it might ask: How do you deal with discomfort?

That said, there is much power in our perception. If you always come into Chair Pose thinking I hate this pose! then you will most likely never learn to love it or soften into it enough to learn from it. So while the gym maxim No Pain No Gain may apply to this posture, consider approaching it from a different angle. When muscles are firing and sweat is dripping, try to find a moment of gratitude for the incredible machine that is your body and the fact that you get to play with it in this way. Really, that’s very cool.

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Physical Benefits

  • Strengthens thigh and foot muscles
  • Increases mobility in the ankle joints
  • Tones the core
  • Works the triceps and biceps
  • Opens the heart
  • Increases awareness in the pelvic floor and movement of the tailbone
  • Presents an opportunity to practice Mula Bandha

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How to Do It

  1. Stand with your feet together, big toes touching, and find Tadasana through the soles of the feet. Shift your weight until you feel it distributed evenly between the bases of the big and little toe and the center of the heel.

  2. With your hands on your hips, exhale deeply as you bend your knees and lower your seat toward the floor. Use the image of descending into an imaginary chair.

  3. Stop the descent when your base becomes unstable and you shift your weight to the inner or outer edges of the feet instead of balancing on your triangle of support.

  4. Look down at your knees. If you can’t see your big toes peeking out from underneath them draw your hips back until they come into view. You may have to straighten the legs a little to do so.

  5. Squeeze an imaginary (or real*) block between the upper thighs and energetically draw your outer hip points in.

  6. Lenghten your arms out in front of you and raise them overhead, palms facing each other and pinkies rotating toward the midline.

  7. Think Cat Pose in the tailbone and draw it underneath you, as if tucking your tail between your legs. Be mindful of overarching through the low back. Knit your ribs in to stay stable through the torso.

  8. Engage the muscles of the upper arms and soften the shoulder blades down the back, creating a subtle heart opening.

  9. Stay.

  10. Practice gratitude.

  11. To come out, anchor firmly through the soles of your feet to lengthen your legs, and then release your arms down by your sides.

*If you’re working with a block, start the pose with the feet hips-width distance.

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Prep pose: Use a block and the wall to strengthen your hamstrings and quadriceps.

The more comfrortable you get in chair pose the more you can use it as a base for other postures, like Twisted Chair, Figure-Four Pose, Side Crow, or, the pose we’ll explore next, Eka Pada Galavasana. Until then, sit deeply.

Photos: @nikksnow in Chair Pose; exercise class; chair prep against the wall

The Year of the Roar

For many of us, the end of the year and the start of the new can be both uplifting and exhausting. Travel, meal planning, angst over consumerism, and dark days (although they are getting lighter!) may contribute to the latter, while the feeling of working with a clean slate, having the opportunity to give to and receive from dear ones, and allowing time for introspection can give us a loving boost.

Whether we’re reveling in the fresh start or recovering from end-of-year commitments and festivities, we’ve all got stuff to clear.

Enter Lion’s BreathSimhasana.

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“Stretches away tension lines in the face. Helps prevent wrinkling.”

As you can see from the bold claims on this OG poster (Yoga for no wrinkles!), Lion’s Breath has long had a reputation for relieving stress. More recently, Colleen Saidman Yee reccomended the posture for releasing trauma and anxiety in her excellent book, Yoga for Life.

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Here’s How It’s Done

As a pranayama practice, Simhasana can be done in any posture. You may release the breath in heat-building poses like Utkatasana, or in a shape that exposes the throat, like Cow or Upward Facing Bow. We explored Jalandhara Bandha in a recent post, where the throat is constricted and the chin and sternum meet. Lion’s Breath is that bandha’s physical and energetic opposite. Here the focus is on expelling air forcefully through a wide-open mouth and opening the front side of the body.

The classic posture with breath is taken like this:

  • Sit on your knees and cross the front of one ankle over the back of the other, letting the feet splay out to the sides. Gently snuggle the perineum onto the top heel.
  • Flatten your palms against your knees, fingers spread wide—think lion’s paw. Press down firmly to lenghten and straighten you arms.
  • Breathe deeply through the nose. Pause at the top and open your mouth wide; stretch your tongue out, tip curling toward the chin; lift your brows to widen your eyes; contract the muscles in the front of your throat, and exhale out the mouth with an audible “HAAAAA.”
  • Repeat two or three times before changing the cross of the legs and roaring for the same number of times with the other heel on top.

    9a07224464cad7377c0d1125c436b54bThe Gaze

There are two options for where to set the drishti in this posture. One is right between the eyebrows, gazing up toward the third eye. This technique, Bhrumadhya Drishti, means “mid-brow gazing”–bhru is Sanskrit for brow while madhya means middle–and is often used in meditation to acheive dharana. Another possibility is to focus the gaze at the tip of the nose in Nasikagra Drishti, another common gaze for meditators looking to go deep; here nasa means nose and agra meas the foremost point, which, in this case, is the tip of the nose.

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However you sit or wherever you choose to gaze, use Simhasana to move energy, clear what feels stuck, or as practice for saying what it is you want to say. A hallmark of this pose is that you will look fiercely ridiculous while doing it; you could also think of yourself as looking ridiculously fierce.

Photos: Lion; vintage yoga photos; Colleen Saidman Yee shot by Johanna Yee; awesome illustration by Miriam Castillo

Yoga 101: Jalandhara Bandha

We’ve been exploring the bandhas in a series of interconnected posts. If you want to catch up, our 101s on Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha are here and here.

After the pelvic floor and the navel, we arrive at the chin.

Etymologically, Jalandhara Bandha breaks down to jal, Sanskrit for throat; jalan for net; and dharan for stream or flow. Jalandhara Bandha is the lock, or hold, that controls the flow of energy in the neck, throat, and chin.

This bandha’s corresponding chakra is Visuddha, the fifth chakra centered at the throat. Visuddha deals with openness and communication—how willing or able are you to speak your mind and practice Right Intention through speech and listening?

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Poses that expose the throat, like Ustrasana, and ones that draw energy in through constriction, like Shoulder Stand, are beneficial for opening a blocked fifth chakra. Jalandhara bandha happens naturally in throat-constricting poses: consider the double chin of Bridge or the immobility of the head, neck and throat in Halasana, Plow Pose.

While a chin lock is part of certain poses, Jalandhara bandha on its own is most commonly used as part of a pranayama practice. At the end of a round of Kapalabhati you retain the breath by engaging all the bandhas from the ground up, ending with a chin lock to keep any air from leaking out of the nose or mouth. Or, when practicing Uddiyana Bandha in a pose like Goddess, you would seal off the throat by bringing the chin and chest to meet. That’s Jalandhara bandha.
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How to Find Jalandhara Bandha

  • Sit tall in a comfortable pose.
  • Use your breath to fill and lift your sternum. On your exhale, draw your front ribs toward your spine.
  • Breathe in deeply to lift up the crown of the head and the roof of the mouth.
  • Retain the breath as you lower your chin to your sternum and lift your sternum to your chin.
  • Hollow the front of the throat by lengthening the back of your neck and releasing your shoulders.
  • Think of heart openers like Bridge or Wheel to find the complementary lift of the sternum.
  • If the chin and chest don’t meet, don’t force it.
  • Release the retention with a long, slow exhale.
  • On empty float the chin off and away from the chest.

Like all bandha practices, start slowly with Jalandhara and never retain breath to the point of discomfort. In addition to connecting you with your throat chakra and communication center, engaging Jalandhara bandha may help to regulate the circulatory and respiratory systems and balance our thyroid function and metabolism. And, as it’s an action that draws the gaze down and in it’s a quick way to calm the mind and remove ourselves from external stressors.

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 Images: How-to drawing;@riva_g_ in floating camel; extended bridge posethroat chakra symbol

The Tipping Point

* An etymological note: Crow Pose (Kakasana) and Crane Pose (Bakasana) have become so intertwined that most teachers (including this one) teach Kakasana but call it Bakasana and many students do Crane and think it’s Crow. The poses are quite similar, the main difference being that in Crow the arms are bent and in Crane the arms are straight. For the purposes of this post we are treating them as one pose and calling it Crow. 

Somewhere between downdog and forearm stand lives Crow Pose, a low-to-the-ground arm balance that requires trust, fearlessness, strongly grounded hands and an Uddiyana Bandha practice. 

How to Come Into Crow

  • Start in a squat, feet beneath your hips, outer edges parallel.
  • Place your hands on the floor about a foot out in front of you. They should be shoulder-width distance apart, wrists in line with your toes.
  • Fingers spread wide, press evenly through your palms and lift your heels away from the floor.
  • Pour more weight into your palms and shift your shoulders over your wrists.
  • Gaze is forward, not down.
  • Press your knees into the backs of your triceps. Bend the elbows for balance and support as needed, keeping your knees hugging toward the midline and pressed firmly into the backs of the arms. Pro Tip: This pose is really hard to do if you’re sweaty!
  • Engage Uddiyana Bandha, drawing the navel to the spine.
  • Keep the ball of one foot down. Come onto the toes of the other foot.
  • Switch feet.
  • Keep the ball of one foot down and hover the other foot off the floor.
  • Switch feet.
  • Now, with one foot up, hover the other to meet it.
  • Keep looking forward!
  • Uddiyana is engaged but you are still breathing; just maintain an awareness of your hollow belly and your bellybutton pulling your low back up toward the sky.
  • Lower your heels back down to return to earth.

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Try it With Blocks

If you don’t want to fall on your face, place a block infront of your palms. Shift your weight forward and rest your forehead on the block as you draw your heels up.

If floating your feet feels impossible, start the pose by standing on one block, long edges facing the short edges of your mat. When you come into the pose, your feet will be much closer to your seat, making it much easier to lift off and experience that flying sensation.

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Forearm Variations

Still afraid of falling? Totally normal. Try coming into the pose on your forearms to start.

  • With your forearms on the floor, bring your thumbs to touch and rest your forehead on them.
  • Walk your knees onto your triceps.
  • Lift your heels toward your seat.
  • When you feel comfortable, pick your head up and gaze forward.

 

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Over time and with practice it will become easier to straighten the arms and balance for several long breaths. The options for getting out of crow in a vinyasa practice are all challenging and fun: jumping straight into chatarunga, pushing up into handstand, lowering the forehead to the floor and coming into Sirsasana…or just finding both feet back down on the ground.

Photos: Top crow; crow with crow; forearm crow; David Martinez (straight arm variation). 

Happy Bodhi Day

December is a month of sacred holidays across all traditions. This weekend marked the celebration of Bodhi Day, the Buddhist holiday observed in honor of the Buddha’s attainment of enlightenment.

As history has it, Siddhartha Gautama, a 5th-century BC Nepalese prince, left his kingdom at age 29 to renounce his worldly goods and become an alms-beggar and ascetic. In his quest for transcendence he studied meditation with ancient yogis, starved himself, and nearly drowned in a river.

After the river incident, from which Siddhartha was recused by a villager who revived him with a simple meal of sweetened rice cooked in milk, the erstwhile prince sat beneath a pipa tree (now called a bodhi tree), vowing not to rise until he had found the root of all suffering and the tools of liberation. He meditated for 49 days, confronted temptation by the god Mara and, at the age of 35, six years after his quest began, is said to have achieved Enlightenment.

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What exactly happened between Day 1 and Day 49 is, by its very nature, unknown, but the Buddha’s words, from an old Pali text, shed light on the awakening:

“My heart, thus knowing, thus seeing, was released from the fermentation of sensuality, released from the fermentation of becoming, released from the fermentation of ignorance. With release, there was the knowledge, ‘Released.’ I discerned that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.”

Bodhi Day celebrates Siddhartha’s passage from prince-as-beggar to an Awakened Being.

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Celebrate with a Metta Meditation

In the Buddhist tradition, Metta is a practice of loving-kindness, first toward oneself and then to all others, including, eventually, those who have harmed or hurt you or others.

To practice, find a comfortable seat and drop into a state of dharana, focused concentration. Slowly, internally, repeat the following:

May I be happy.

May I be well.

May I be safe.

May I be peaceful and at ease.

 

Eventually, after receiving the meditation’s message, bring to mind a loved one or a friend. Now direct the mantra outward:

May you be happy.

May you be well.

May you be safe.

May you be peaceful and at ease.

 

Repeat for as long and for as many people as you like.

 

Photos: Draped Buddha; Buddha under the bodhi treeBuddha statue and devotees by Allie Caulfield

Yoga 101: Uddiyana Bandha

A few weeks ago we dove into the Bandhas, a series of energetic locks in the body. We’re working from the base of the pelvis up, so read our first post for a refresher on Mula bandha, the Root Lock.

The next bandha is Uddiyana, the Navel Lock. In Sanskrit Uddiyana means to fly or rise up. On a physical level, your diaphragm, stomach and abdominal organs lift up when this bandha is engaged. Energetically, you’ll feel uplifted.

In the chakra system, Uddiyana bandha corresponds with Manipura, the third chakra; fiery and powerful, Manipura is the seat of our personal will and motivation. Picture it located at the solar pelxus and imagine the energy of fire and the sun. If you’ve ever practiced Breath of Fire you’ve connected with the third chakra and experienced an element of Uddiyana bandha. In that breath the belly contracts in and back with each exhale, a quick and less concentrated version of the abdominal engagement that occurs in Uddiyana.

How to Engage Uddiyana Bandha

Before you begin, be sure to:

  • Practice on an empty stomach after a complete exhalation.
  • Start your inquiry in a standing position. Over time, you can explore this bandha while seated.

1.

  • Stand with your feet about hips’ width distance apart.
  • Take a slight bend in the knees and rest your hands above your kneecaps.
  • Keep your arms straight but round your torso forward.

2.

  • Breathing through the nose, inhale deeply and exhale quickly and forcibly. Use your abdominal muscles to push as much air as possible out of your lungs.
  • Relax and stay empty.

3.

  • Perform a mock inhalation. Expand your rib cage as if you were inhaling, but don’t take in any air. This will pull your abdominal muscles up and hollow the belly.
  • Tuck your chin slightly toward your chest. We’ll go into this posture, Jalandhara Bandha, in more depth in our next post.

4.

  • Hold on empty until you feel any strain, tension, or tightness—anywhere from five to 15 seconds for beginners. The hold should feel effortless.
  • Slowly release the hold and inhale normally.
  • Perform several more rounds, keeping an eye on any dizziness or lightheadedness, alternating with normal breaths between each round.

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Benefits

If you’re looking to float, fly, lift, twist, or invert in your asana practice with less effort, Uddiyana bandha is key. This is a hold that’s all about rising up.

Given all the focus on the gut and its connection to the chakra in charge of digestion, it’s no surprise that Uddiyana bandha is an effective remedy for constipation, indigestion or bloating. It tones the inner abdominal muscles and serves as the yogic equivalent of crunches (i.e. flat abs). Try it when you need to beat fatigue, lethargy or stress.

Photos: How-to drawing; third chakra; floating yogini.

 

 

Morning Breath

Earlier this week we wrote about caffeine’s influence on the body (CliffsNotes’ version: It’s a mood-altering drug.) and suggested a few caffeine-free beverage recipes to try instead of coffee. The caffeine-free and mood-altering substance we didn’t mention was breath. Regular pranayama practices, as part of an intentional morning routine, may eliminate the need for coffee or energy-boosters entirely.

Try a morning practice that uses breathwork to prepare the body for meditation. Commit to a length of time that feels comfortable to you and feel free to adjust the minutes you spend on each component. If you’re new to the practices outlined below, start with five minutes and then work your way up to a 10, 20 or 30 minute practice.

If possible, let this be the first thing you do in the morning, before you check your phone or engage in conversation. For a really mindful morning, wake up with oil pulling and tongue scrapping, and then settle into a comfortable seat.

Morning Pranayama Practice

  • Seated well and free of distractions, start with Alternate Nostril Breath. For a five-minute total practice, do two minutes of this pranayama.

  • Next, take one minute of Kapalabhati or Breath of Fire. A long spine is especially crucial here. Work with your arms extended overhead in a wide V with your thumbs extended and your fingers curled into your palms; or rest the backs of your hands on your knees, palms up, thumb and index finger touching in Chin Mudra.

  • When that round of breathing is done, sit in silence. If you’re short on time, dedicate two minutes to stillness. Otherwise, stay for as long as you like.

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As you gain comfort and familiarity with this practice, try to weight it a little more heavily toward meditation. The breathwork here serves as a way to subtly focus and balance the mind—that would be the work of Nadi Shodana—and then purify the container—the work of Skull Shining Breath or Breath of Fire. Those two, especially, work like an espresso shot on the nervous system: practicing them helps everything come into sharper focus.

For a 10- or 20- or 30-minute practice, try the following breakdown:

  • Alternate Nostril ~ 3 / 5 / 6 minutes
  • Kapalabhati or Breath of Fire ~ 2 / 3 / 4 minutes
  • Seated Meditation ~ 5 / 12 / 20 minutes

If possible, commit to the practice for a week and see what, if anything shifts. If you can ditch coffee that week, too, go for it. Here’s to getting high off your own supply.

Photos: Morning light by Ethanea; Chin Mudra by Cortnee Loren Brown via The Chalkboard.

Boo-Asana

The benefits of doing yoga with kids are manifold. Besides improving balance and endurance, yoga and mindfulness practices increase concentration and self-esteem while reducing anxiety, stress and the effects of ADHD.

Also? It’s fun.

With a little imagination yoga lends itself perfectly to Halloween. After all, the ultimate pose is named after a dead guy.

Our reccomdation is to do the following poses in costume, with lots of candles burning and the lights low. The presence of kids is not necessarily required.

Cat

One of the most common instructions for getting into Marjaryasana, Cat Pose, is to dome your back like a Halloween cat. It’s an enduring image: a hissing black cat, teeth bared, with its fur standing on end. Hollow your belly into your spine and press your palms flat against the floor to fully lengthen through your arms.

f859a35f-e404-4e4d-8187-96ae119855ffCrow

Crows have long been a symbol of death and are often the consort of witches. Like vultures, crows are carrion birds and have a general air of otherwordly spookiness. Of course, your Bakasana can be smiley and kind; there are lots of good witches out there, too! Kids are natural balancers so play with getting the knees really close to the armpits before shifting your weight forward. Remember to look out, not down.

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Creepy Bug Pose

Tittibhasana, or Firefly Pose, really does look like a creepy bug. Float your feet off the floor, nestle your eblows in the hollow of your knees and move your heart center forward to pick your seat up off the ground. Walk on your hands for added spook factor.

Scary Lion’s Breath

Sit on your shins and press your palms against your thighs. Take a deep breath in through the nose, hollow your belly, and breathe out, “BOO!” Simhasana, or Lion’s Pose, is all about the demon-chasing breath you do with it. This is a great pose to do if feeling scared; it relieves tension in the face, strengthens the throat muscles and clears the air of any unwanted energy…like uninvited ghosts.

Zombie Pose

Even zombies need to stay limber. Sit in Dandasana, Staff Pose, with your legs outstretched in front of you. Instead of folding forward, extend your arms out long, parallel to the floor. Sitz-bone walk while making like the living dead.

Corpse Pose

Now’s the time to play dead. Tonight in Savasana picture your bones settling into the earth and drift into that limbic state between worlds. Who knows who you might meet?

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Happy Halloween!

Photos: Skeleton crow; black cat; bakasana; firefly; You Are A Lion!; zombie pose; shavasana