Breathing Haiku

I

the mountain
sets my mind on each breath —
thin-air teacher


II

air rushes in,
but the sinuous seedpod
merits no gasp


III

in the stillness,
my body skips breaths —
sometimes I notice…


IV

in balance —
my mind clear and at ease
stomach gliding


V

watching each breath,
none is the same, otherwise,
all of them are

An App for That: Profound Yogic Practices You May Not See in Class

To the average person, yoga consists of a series of poses that stretch the muscles and strengthen the core.  In truth, often the most profound and life-altering experiences had by yoga practitioners involve only a seated or lying posture. If you practice yoga, you’re probably aware that postural practice, or asana, is just only one element of yoga, and perhaps you’ve experienced some of the other elements of yogic practice. However, it’s not always easy to access such training at the local studio.

 

These days there’s another way. These practices can be accessed through apps such as EKA.

 

Below are five powerful yogic practices that you might not find taught at your local yoga studio, but that you’ll find on EKA.

 

5.) Yoga Nidra: Yoga Nidra translates to “yogic sleep.” It’s a practice in which one stays in the mind-state between wakefulness and sleep, i.e. hypnagogia, for an extended period while working through a sequence of practices. Yoga nidra is extremely relaxing, but also allows one to access the subconscious in a manner similar to that of self-hypnosis. This makes the practice useful both for people who have trouble with sleep or settling into rest, but it also allows one to influence the subconscious so that one can make changes in areas where subconscious influence is strong.

 

For example, a person seeking to lose weight understands that they need to be careful about what they eat. However, the subconscious isn’t always on the same page as the conscious mind, and cravings for sugary or fatty foods may win the battle. In yoga nidra, we use sankalpa — a resolution, to help win the subconscious over. We also use practices like visualizations to gain insight into what is happening outside the bounds of conscious thought, and to exercise influence over it.

 

4.) Kaya Sthairyam: Kaya Sthairyam translates to bodily stillness, or steadiness. If you’ve done any meditation, you were probably taught to adopt a position in which you could be as still as possible throughout the practice. The reason for this is that even subtle movements can distract one, weaken one’s concentration, or have a stimulating effect. In yoga, kaya sthairyam is used to achieve a state of maximum stillness. If one wishes to increase one’s ability to concentrate for extended periods, one must build one’s capacity to remain still. That said, kaya sthairyam need not be thought of as only a prelude to meditation. The tranquility that arises from these practices make them worthwhile in their own right.

 

3.) Bija Mantra: In India, chanting is a very popular practice among yoga practitioners, and many have found great clarity in it. In one of my early classes teaching yoga to children, I found that as soon as the kids sat in a cross-legged pose many of the younger children spontaneously started softly reciting the gayatri mantra. That’s how intense was their association between sitting down cross-legged and chanting.

 

In the West, mantra chanting is less familiar. The six bija mantra, or seed mantra, are a beautiful way to introduce oneself to mantra chanting because of their simplicity. Because the bija mantra (LAM, VAM, RAM, YAM, HUM, and AUM) are all monosyllabic, easily pronounced, and are related sounds, they can be picked up quickly and easily.

 

2.) Witnessing Meditations: The yogic teaching that has had the most life-changing effect on me has been dispassionate witnessing. While it’s not a complex idea, it requires some explanation.

 

Let’s first consider what minds usually do in the face of a problem. There are two common responses that are not particularly healthy.

 

The first is to distract oneself from the problem. In some cases, this distraction can be an unhealthy activity — such as drug abuse, but it might also be something neutral like watching television. However, even if you distract yourself with a wholesome activity like volunteering at a soup kitchen, the problem is still there and it will have its say. If not directly, then indirectly through nightmares, indigestion, or a stress-induced illness.

 

The second option is obsessing. The brain tries to lessen the sting by anticipating the worst possible scenario. The trouble with this obsession is that to find our worst case scenario — we have to hang toxic labels on all possible events and invent possibilities that are so unlikely as to be nearly impossible. And having invented such dire cases, we often give them too much weight. As Mark Twain put it, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”  The negativity piles up and causes stress and anxiety to balloon out of control.

 

In dispassionate witnessing, we don’t ignore or distract ourselves, but we also don’t strap on value judgements or build worst cases. We simply recognize what we are feeling, acknowledge it, but don’t feed our anxieties.

 

One of the most basic witnessing practices involves watching sensations in the body. Imagine you’re doing this practice and you feel an ache in your back. If you try to ignore the sensation, the mind may turn up the intensity to get your attention.  If you obsess, you’ll soon convince yourself that this sensation is really an ache… no, a pain… no, it’s agony… oh no, could there be a tumor growing on my spine? [That may be exaggerating a bit, but you see the point.] However, if you focus your attention on the sensation without labeling it, you’ll probably find that the sensation passes. In essence, the body says, “Hmm, the brain examined this sensation and didn’t think it was anything to be concerned about, let’s move on.”

 

1.) Pranayama: Probably the most under-rated yogic practice is pranayama, or breathing exercises. By controlling one’s breath, one can influence one’s emotional state, one’s physiological processes, and the state of agitation in one’s mind. Breath practices are the most direct means to counteracting the stress response. However, despite constantly breathing — day in and day out — most people remain unaware of the incredible power of consciously controlling the breath.

 

There are a variety of types of breath exercises. There are breaths that have a stimulating effect on the body and mind, and those that have a calming effect. Scientific evidence has accumulated that there are benefits to practicing slower and deeper breathing, and pranayama offers a systematic approach to building this capacity. No matter what kind of pranayama one is doing, there is a side benefit from holding one’s focus on one point, the breath.

 

Pranayama is a great lead-in to meditative practices. It helps achieve a state of mind which is neither drowsy nor agitated. That said, pranayama is also beneficial on its own.

 

If you’re interested in exploring any of these practices, the EKA app is a great place to start.

 

My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Part VI [Breathwork]

This month’s post will explore breath as an influence on one’s state of consciousness. My apologies for getting into the weeds at the start with a long discussion of the minutiae of this breathwork practice, but this is a topic that can create confusion for a couple different reasons.

First, there are a number of ways breath could be used to influence one’s state of consciousness, and the practices I’m talking about are of one specific type. For example, I often use a balanced pranayama practice (breathing exercises that mix calming, exciting, and balanced breaths) as a lead-in to meditative practices because it helps to put me in a state of mind that is neither groggy nor mentally agitated, allowing my mental chatter to quiet rapidly without making me drift off. However, that’s not the kind of practice I’m referring too in this post. I’m talking about breathing in a way that is excessively deep and / or fast for an extended period such that the blood becomes more alkaline (i.e. blood is slightly alkaline in homeostasis, but the pH goes up in this type of practice) as carbon dioxide is purged.

Second, there’s no terminology that’s commonly agreed upon. For one thing, the breathing that I’m discussing could be called “hyperventilative” or “over-breathing.” However, those terms are usually used to describe medical conditions that may have similar physiological effects, but aren’t controlled activities done on purpose. While there are some similarities physiologically, equating this practice with involuntarily rapid breathing caused by a physical injury, mental condition, or consumption of a toxic substance can create confusion. After all, whatever is causing involuntary hyperventilation is likely to have other effects (at a minimum, increased anxiety) over and beyond those seen in a voluntary practice. This means the list of adverse effects will also be different. I wouldn’t want a reader to look at a Wikipedia or WebMD page for “hyperventilation” and think I’m insane for undertaking the practice.

For another thing, this type of breathing is employed in a number of different systems — each of which has its own particular approach and particular context in which the breath practice occurs (and variations in terminology.) Tibetan Buddhist Tummo, the Wim Hof Method, and Holotropic Breathwork all use kinds of breathing that create a similar effects. However, it should noted that the breathwork is just a part of each of these practices that occurs within a more extensive context. In Tummo, visualization in conjunction with the breath is an essential element of the practice. The Wim Hof Method has a defined sequence including breath retention, not to mention other practices — most famously, cold exposure. Holotropic Breathwork employs an observer and encourages practitioners to make sounds and movement as they feel fit as part of the practice, basically responding freely to the impulses one feels. It should be noted that Holotropic Breathwork was developed by Stanislav Grof after psychoactive substances like LSD became illegal, and he was looking for a way to generate similar results endogenously, having seen positive therapeutic effects using LSD. 

It should be noted that yoga also has breaths that create this type of effect: Kapalbhati (forced exhalation breathing) and Bhastrika (bellows breath.) However, these breaths are more self-regulating in that they are generally done in and out through the nose (as opposed to exhaling through mouth which allows a greater tidal turnover of breath) and because the rapid contraction of the abdomen to force the exhalation tends to be self-limiting. In other words, the capacity of one’s nervous system to keep up with breath will — for most people — give out well before one’s blood chemistry is so out of whack that it is likely to create any bizarre or potentially dangerous effects. For this reason, kapalbhati and bhastrika can be safely practiced daily in a seated position (though if one is doing unusually large sets or numbers of sets, one might be wise to lay down.) It should be noted that the basic breathwork of the Wim Hof Method involves three sets of 30 breaths (though with breath retention in between), and most people would probably be fine doing that seated as well (though it seems to done laying down most frequently,) and it can be done daily.

I focused on the breath entirely — as well as observation of the after effects upon my mind and body. The practice I did involved a full and rapid in breath through the nose and a blowing exhalation through the mouth, repeated as quickly as sustainable for as long as 30 minutes at a time. I always did this practice lying down, and I always allowed the same amount of time I did the practice before attempting to get up. (i.e. if I did the breath practice for 30 minutes, I would reset the alarm for 30 minutes after I was done and lie still, watching the sensations, at least until the alarm went off.) I only did half-hour sessions once a week, though I would sometimes engage in shorter practices or specific practices (e.g. trying out the basic Wim Hof breath exercise.) While stimulating yoga pranayama (e.g. kapalbhati) and relatively small repetitions done in a few sets (e.g. the basic Wim Hof breath practice), can be practiced daily, I wanted to give my body lots of time to restore homeostasis because of the extensive and relatively long-lasting effects of these sessions.

The experience of doing the practice was interesting. I almost always face a challenge at the very beginning of the practice. Forcing such over-breathing feels burdensome at first, and its hard to image getting through a half hour of it. However, before long I would catch a rhythm and by the end of the practice I was usually stunned at how quickly the time went. I suspect having to focus on maintaining the breath keeps one from internally referencing time, and that’s why one seems to lose track of it altogether.

I wish I had more of a culinary sense and set of terminology, because I found there was definitely a subtle flavor associated with my changed body chemistry. I could taste the experience of respiratory alkalosis, but I have no way of describing what the taste of it was like. Of course, the most dramatic sensory experience associated with the practice was tingling all over the body. It wasn’t just in the usual parts (e.g. the extremities), but I also felt it — for example —  along both sides of my abdomen. While the intensity of the tingling began waning as soon as I was done, it often would more than last through my post-practice observation period.

As for the effect on my state of consciousness, in general I came out of it feeling loose and blissful. I haven’t had any trippy, psychedelic, or hallucinatory experiences, but there is definitely a sense of calm and clarity (not to mention a slightly inebriated feel.) I generally finished with a kind of rhythmic, music ready state of mind. I don’t know if that was a feature of the rhythm of the breathing or just a quirky sensory craving. It should be noted that I also had sensations that weren’t particularly pleasant (though they weren’t particularly uncomfortable either — like a faint trace of a headache.) I’d recommend being as slow and gentle as possible when coming out of such a practice.

As for recommendations, for this practice my recommendation would be the same as it was in my January post about an experience with psilocybin tea. That is, “know thyself.” In other words, I wouldn’t make a wholesale recommendation that someone try this type of practice. Certainly, people who have anxiety when everything isn’t in perfect homeostasis in the body should steer clear of it. If one doesn’t have an extensive background with breathwork and how one’s body responds to it, I’d, furthermore, recommend that one only try it under the guidance of (and in the presence of) someone who does. This practice has had a more drastic influence on mind and body than any of the other consciousness-altering practices thus far and may be the most potentially dangerous. All that said, I have found it beneficial, and believe others may too under the right circumstances.

Continuing this series, next month (July) I’m going to try to jump-start my practice of lucid-dreaming (a.k.a. dream yoga.) [It’s something I’ve never excelled at, though I do have a few lucid dreams a year.]