DEVELOPING A PERSONAL PRACTICE— Active Relationship with the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali

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The Yoga Sutra, the preeminent text on yoga consists of four padas—or sections—each containing a number of individual sutras. In his Yoga Sutra, the sage Patanjali sheds light onto the workings of the human mind, the specific and particular brands of suffering that we unwittingly impose upon ourselves, and the full picture of healing and resolution for our suffering. Patanjali has offered a codification and thorough description of the practice of yoga, and the means for relieving the inevitable suffering of the human mind that is not aware of its inherent depth of intelligence and power—Pure Unmanifest Awareness.  Patanjali provides us with a precise outline for practice.

I. Samadhi Pada defines yoga and puts the practice in perspective. We are introduced to the ways that our individual minds cloud our experience of the true nature of life.

II. Sadhana Pada covers the yamas, niyamas, asana, and pranayama. It provides the necessary framework for effective practice. Pranayama is the gateway to the inner world.

III. Vibhuti Pada takes over where Sadhana Pads leaves off, honing in on the more subtle aspects of practice. Beginning with pratyahara, it addresses the ways to continue to refine our awareness, addressing, dharana, dhyana, samadhi. This pada moves into the realm of samyama—the integration of the three.

IV. Kaivalya Pada: In the final Pada, Patanjali brings together many of the more esoteric and sometimes difficult to understand teachings of the practicality of practice. Although it may read as densely philosophical, it is rich with subtle practices of inquiry. Patanjali invites us in even deeper. When awareness has been mostly cleared these inquiries can bear fruitful knowledge and the inquiry itself continues to refine and hone the individual consciousness—making it a more and more radiant and open receptacle of Divine Light.

At the beginning of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali lays out the context for practice. He encapsulates his entire message in the first three sutras, immediately addressing the need for practice, what the process requires, and the goal. If the first three sutras are intriguing enough, one will practice. If they are not, there will be little motivation to continue.

Sutra 1:1
atha yoganuśhāsanam
Now begins the instruction on the practice of yoga.

Atha communicates the auspicious nature of the teachings that are about to be elucidated.  Most commonly translated as “now”, atha is also the expression of the self-luminous guiding Intelligence that resides within the heart and mind of every human being. By using the term atah to initiate his treatise on yoga, Patanjali sets the stage for the comprehensive message that will follow: we are all radiant beings, our very nature is manifesting into form with brilliance and power, and it is possible to recognize this directly. The meaning of “now” is in itself auspicious. Now is the present moment, the place of no future, no past, only this exact unmoving place of presence and radiance. Now describes the unified state of mind. In the first sutra, Patanjali has created an inclusive container for all the teachings that are to come.

He continues to say that “now”, perhaps you may be open to undertaking the inquiry that will reveal the core of being to your conscious awareness. The implication is that now one may actually be ready to practice yoga. One has tried everything else, and finally understands the futility of looking for satisfaction within the arena of the solely personal field of individual mind. Having seen and tried every machination of effort to gain contentment in a life perceived through the most superficial layers of consciousness, one is now ready to seriously embark on the study of yoga.

With the term anuśhāsanam, Patanjali is stating emphatically that yoga means practice. Patanjali lets us know right away that the Yoga Sutra is not simply a philosophical text. Patanjali is stating right at the start that yoga requires practice and the strong implication is that practice will require commitment and fortitude.

Sutra 1:2 
yogash chitta vritti nirodhah
Yoga is the mastery of the fluctuations and roaming tendencies of the mind.

In this sutra, Patanjali states the problem: vrittishabitual movements of individual consciousness that rise and fall endlessly in the mind.  They are swirling thoughts and feelings, usually associated with egoic desires and attachments that pull individual consciousness into vortexes of self-involvement, effectively obscuring the field of consciousness in which they are functioning.

The effect of being caught in the pull of the vrittis is that the individual is drawn into the mistaken belief that the vrittis themselves define an ultimate reality. The individual ego-mind adopts an erroneous belief that it is the ultimate observer when in reality, it is simply another fabrication of thoughts and self-constructs.

Vrittis have the power to keep us locked into the smallness of self-consciousness and obscure the larger framework of Universal Awareness. Patanjali informs us that the lack of resolution of the vrittis is obscuring our direct perception of their own source—Pure Awareness. We are told that we need to gain mastery over our mind’s incessant movement in order to see our thought processes and uncover the nature of individuality if we are to accomplish the goals of yoga.

The ego-construct of self-identity usurps the role of the ultimate Seer and thinks that it is the “who”, that is perceiving all of life. This mistaken identity needs to be cleared up in order to be able to see life as it actually is.

Sutra 1:3
tada drashtuh svarupe vasthanam
Then the Seer becomes established in its essential nature.

The third sutra tells us what happens when we gain resolution and calm the vrittis in the mind. “Seer” is the term Patanjali uses to denote Pure Unmanifest Awareness. Patanjali tells us that the Seer is the only true observer, and that the egoic thinking mind is sorely deluded with its own self-importance. When vrittis are allowed to run rampant—the radiance of Awareness barely shines through the confusion and clutter in the mind. The field of individual consciousness is clouded with thoughts and feelings, and the person is thoroughly distracted from noticing the deeper aspects of existence.

When the vrittis are clarified, they no longer cloud individual consciousness. The recognition of the vrittis for what they are paves the way for the light of awareness to shine in its proper place—everywhere—and the suffering of excessive self-involvement to end. It is a matter of putting things in their rightful place, living from the perspective and direct experience of Pure Awareness as always present and always containing and supporting everything else. Patanjali is letting us know that as we practice we will become increasingly able to choose to perceive life from the vantage point of the bounty of vastness, rather than from the limited and small personal.

As the text continues, Patanjali methodically and brilliantly lays out the means of practice, from the most basic understanding of how the human mind becomes ensnared in delusion and how to proceed to clear up the confusion, and finally allow our human consciousness to witness directly—and live with—the Divine Radiance of Being.

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“Intensity of practice and renunciation transforms the uncultured, scattered consciousness, chitta, into a cultured consciousness, able to focus on the four states of awareness. The seeker develops philosophical curiosity, begins to analyze with sensitivity, and learns to grasp the ideas and purposes of material objects in the right perspective. Then he meditates on them to know and understand fully the subtle aspects of matter. Thereafter he moves on to experience spiritual elation or the pure bliss of meditation, and finally sights the Self.” B.K.S. Iyengar— Light on the Yoga Sutras

Practice. Practice. Practice.

Clearly, yoga has lofty aims. For most of us, it is not likely that we will just drop into the state of Self-Realization or Unity Consciousness by accident. Most of us need to practice. Due to the conditioned patterns and limitations that so thoroughly cloud our minds, we need to know methods for practice. We find methods in the yoga sutras.

We know the eight limbs as: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.

YAMAS AND NIYAMAS
The yamas and the niyamas—the first two of the eight limbs—set the stage for fruitful practice. They make it possible for us to direct our minds to the following six limbs and lay the foundation for successful practice. Their ethical principles contain our inner and outer actions and provide a map for behavior that is conducive to spiritual study. We learn to be kind, truthful, not to steal or hoard, and to cultivate the movement of our life in the direction of greater clarity and truth. We learn to practice personal cleanliness and to pursue purity in thought and action. 

We commit to studying the interface of the personal and the Universal with zeal and passion. And we learn not to take our selves too seriously. We perceive that all action is driven by Universal Awareness and that we are simply vehicles and vessels for the universal actualizing into form.

Without adhering to the yamas and the niyamas our minds are so preoccupied with extraneous thinking that it can be very difficult to go any further. If you are worried about how you shouldn’t have said that mean thing, you wish you hadn’t claimed responsibility for something you didn’t do, or you are preoccupied with thinking that someone else has something more or better than you do, you won’t find it easy to focus on the more subtle aspects of life and practice.

In order to go more deeply within, one must cultivate qualities of purity and cleanliness—inside and out—and especially in the arena of the mind. Purity of mind comes from the ongoing inquiry into what is true and what is not. It involves the threading out of destructive patterns of thinking and negative actions that inhibit our clear vision of life as it actually is.

We need to begin to understand our rightful place in the world, practicing contentment, self-discipline, and self-study. And we need tapas. Without tapas—the burning desire to know Truth—we won’t find much success in practice. We must be driven. The degree to which we are driven is the exact degree to which we garner the gifts of yoga. Tapas keeps us on track. It inspires us to study the spiritual texts, to learn from qualified teachers, and to practice self-inquiry with a keen and incisive mind.

Last, and definitely not least, we must learn to let go of the desire to claim the fruits of our own actions. We need to learn and know, as an abiding reality, that we are really acting as servants of the evolutionary movement of divine life-force. Acting in accordance with right and good, we assume our natural and authentic place in our own lives and in relationship to the good of the whole. Our thought, deed, and action, spontaneously become aligned and in accordance with the universal evolution toward the manifestation of greater clarity and light into the field of form.

We learn to perform actions and work in the world, not for our own personal gain, but as an offering to the Divine. This is not to say that one should not provide for oneself, one’s family, and so forth. Providing for oneself is support for strong and useful action. Personal care is necessary for one to be a vital part of the movement to expand truth and love into the world at large. But the petty kind of egoic attachment to one’s work and offerings is not productive to spiritual growth and does nothing to clear the way for effective action in the direction of good.

ASANA, PRANAYAMA, PRATYAHARA
The next of the eight limbs is asana flowed by pranayama, and pratyahara. In Embodyoga® we take an approach to asana which encompasses all of the eight limbs into practice. Without adhering to the principles of the yamas and niyamas we know that we are just too distracted by the ramblings of a dissatisfied mind to engage in the deep inquiry of serious practice. We manage our ethics and our conduct in daily life, continuously inquiring into whether we are living up to our own personal standards and endeavoring to improve where necessary. Then we can settle in to have a thorough practice—on the mat, seated in pranayama, or meditation.

In Embodyoga® we actively weave pranayama and pratyahara into every moment of practice. Attending to our breath, we use it as the key vehicle for allowing the conscious mind to descend into our subtle layers of experience. Since pranayama helps to soothe the nervous system and simultaneously enliven feelings of inner comfort, it paves the way for pratyahara. Pratyahara—the turning of the sensory faculties inward—opens the doors to the inner world. Sensing and feeling we dive within.

We practice self-acceptance, non-judgment, and discrimination in everything we do. We enlist our powers of perception to delve deeply into our structural, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual selves. We do this through the process of Embodied-Inquiry. We notice, feel, and touch. We move. Using a template of inquiry that takes us from the obvious layers of perception to the most-subtle, we are naturally drawn into the complete field of body-mind-spirit.

DHARANA, DHYANA, SAMADHI
Dharana, dhyana, and samadhi describe the process and result of meditation. Dharana is focusing and collecting the flow of consciousness into a single direction, and dhyana, often described as meditation is allowing and surrendering to natural flow of the mind into its source, a place of greater comfort and joy. In fact, yielding to Self. Samadhi is the dissolving of the individual mind into the universal. Dharana is a practice of effort. We do it. Dhyana is a practice of surrender. We yield and allow the gravity and comfort of Awareness to pull our individual consciousness inward. And Samadhi is the unified state of individual consciousness fully dissolved into the universal field of Awareness.

We enlist an object of meditation. The object may be a particular yoga posture or form. It may be an organ system or glandular structure. It may be a feeling or a particular pattern of thought. We may use mantra or inner sound. We may focus on an aspect of the fluid body moving, the organization and consciousness of organ and bone marrow working together, an inquiry into a specific movement or developmental pattern for increasing whole body-mind integration. We inquire into the relationship between Self, self, and others, and how those relationships affect our expression in movement, thought, and action. We explore how the elements, earth, water, fire, air, and space express within and without. We follow our senses inward to experience directly layer upon layer of subtle expression within our own body-mind-spirit world.

In choosing an object for our inquiry we utilize the basic tools of asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. We are meditating on the body and the nature of the body is exactly the same as the nature of everything else. In other words, anywhere we skillfully inquire we will arrive at the same exact place: Pure Radiant Awareness. Skillful inquiry takes a fine balance between the effort and surrender: Dharana—we take the right direction collecting our awareness to the object of our meditation. Dhyana—we allow the effortlessness of descending to take over and are naturally drawn toward the subtle qualities of the object (whatever it is). Samadhi—the spontaneous experience of Unity.

Through the repetition (practice) of Embodied-Inquiry, we expand our ongoing ordinary range of conscious experience to include not only the individual but the universal as well. We clarify the personal consciousness by observing it over and over again. Observation reveals its nature. We begin to recognize directly the actual context of the thinking mind and the feeling body. It becomes our direct and immediate experience. This is a profound and dramatic shift in human consciousness. The new perspective cures the petty self-involvement that we suffer at the hands of ego dominance and the incessant sway of unchecked vrittis.

PRACTICALITIES
In Embodyoga® all that we do is designed to hone awareness. This applies equally to our study of philosophy, pranayama, asana, meditation, and our actions in the world. We don’t separate any of our practices from life. We use them as tools for living a fuller and richer life, a life that includes the personal and the universal as directly perceived realities. The universal vision puts the personal in its proper place so that we can enjoy the personal for what it is while experiencing the wonder of the whole.

  • Embodyoga® requires effort to practice and surrender to feel the results. We must take the right direction to delve within, but then we need to let go and surrender to the natural tendencies of body and mind to find greater comfort and nurturance within can take over. Too much effort keeps us on the surface, and too little effort yields no results.  Abhyasa and vairagya—practice and surrender are our guides.
  • Establish a strong commitment to practice. What is important to you? Do you actually want to take this on? Have you had enough of being swept around from painful feeling to painful feeling, never understanding the context of why you are alive?
  • Are you willing to take responsibility for your life, who you are, and what you do?

Chose a regular place and time. Just do it.

Embodying Transitional Space, Time and Movement

By Molly Stamell

Gravitational Waves As movers and practitioners of yoga, we know that the way we transition between poses is important to the ease and comfort of our practice. Off the mat, the transitions in our daily lives can likewise provide opportunities to tune into the way we embody our human form. The embodiment of transitions is also highly relevant to the time we live in. With so many unpredictable elements in our futures, it sometimes feels to me as though we are all living in a constant state of flux. Yoga offers us a tool for understanding the links between Us and what we perceive to be Other, between past, present and future, and our physical practice within the larger contexts of our lives. How do we embody transitional space and time? How does this embodiment manifest in our movement patterns?

As a teacher, the opportunity to offer seamless and comfortable transitions to my students is an important priority. This has real implications on a persons’ experience in my class. As my interest in transitions grew, and the more notice I took of my teaching habits and my students’ responses to them, the more the physical transitions between movements started to stand out to me. I teach both dance and yoga, and in both cases I was noticing transitions as a place of difficulty for many of my students. Whenever I notice a common thread where people are struggling, across physical disciplines and age differences, that is an immediate red flag for me. What was it about my teaching that was not communicating the physicality and mental state of being ‘in transition’?

As I began a new inquiry into how I embody transitions in my own movement practice, I was struck by something a parent of one of my young students said to me. She was explaining to me why they arrived late to a rehearsal, and as the story of their busy day unfolded, she said, “my daughter was just exhausted by that point in the day, so I took her home for some transition time before we came here.” At the time, I was so focused on ushering her daughter into the rehearsal she was late for that her comment about transition time didn’t even sink in until much later. But once it did, the significance of time became a focal point in my explorations. For example, children are sometimes allowed ‘transition time’ to shift from one activity to another. What they do with this time may differ significantly from child to child, but the objective is to give them time to process the experience they just had, and prepare them for whatever is coming next. As adults, we are allowed less and less of this kind of time. Not only that, we are expected not to need transition time at all. Whether those expectations are established by the people around us or by ourselves, they impose an urgency on how we function in our daily lives that does not allow for transitional time or space in which to process our lived experiences.

The developmental processes that shape our adult forms are time-based, just as the physical act of transitioning from one thing to another, whether it be an activity or two different asana poses, also occurs over a span of time. Certainly, we could look at the human life span as one long process of transition, from the rapid growth that occurs in utero, to the early movement patterns in the first year of life that lead us to standing upright, the infinite possibilities for movement thereafter and the eventual slowing of regeneration and return to the universal fabric from which we all originated. With this in mind, the embodiment of transitional space and time from a developmental perspective offers us a way in. In the same way that we can learn to embody specific aspects of our development, so too can we learn to embody the ongoing transitions that shape who and what we are.

Where do transitions live in the body? In other words, is there a specific place from which to explore the action of transitioning between poses? The consciousness of a transition, of being “in between” two or more things, suggests that space itself may be a good place to enter into transitional embodiment. The concept of space in the body can be misleading. On the one hand, as yoga practitioners we know that at the atomic level the human body contains vast amounts of space, but on the other, the body’s structures are not neatly positioned in close proximity with one another. Our body’s tissues and different anatomical structures touch and slide on each other. There aren’t pockets of emptiness that differentiate one thing from another. But as Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen has said, “The information is in the space.”

Using the developmental patterns as a template, the cells themselves provide a simple entry point for understanding transitional space in the body. Every cell has a bi-layer membrane surrounding it, comprised of two layers of lipid cells, in which proteins are embedded. The presence of two membranous layers is important. The inner wrapping of the cell interfaces with the internal world contained therein, while the exterior wrapping interfaces with the external environment surrounding the cell. This is very similar to the way our skin contains our entire body, with the inner surface receiving information from the inside, and the outer surface relaying sensory information from the outside. While these two layers of cellular membranes and their functions are fascinating on their own, it is the space between these layers that has implications for embodying transitions.

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Each cell in the body is equipped with its own intelligence. It knows exactly what it is supposed to do, without us having to tell it so. Each cell takes in nourishment, oxygen, and sensory information, and excretes waste and feedback to the system of which it is a part. The substance and information passing through each cell is contained very briefly in the space between the two cellular membranes – it has to be, if it passes from the interior of the cell to the exterior, and vice versa. This process roots the act of transitioning in both space and time. The passage of information and substance through the layers of the cellular membranes occurs over a measurable span of time, and occurs in the space that differentiates these layers. Once we understand this on the micro levels of the cells, we can apply it to any structure in the body during transitional movement.

Placing transitions within our anatomical structures gives us a context for exploring them as a physical action. But directing our awareness to a particular structure or even a quality or sensation within the body is not enough. We must have a means of achieving transitional embodiment. In this case, I believe the breath provides the answer. The breath is truly the easiest way in, the simplest route to uncovering deeper layers of awareness. Yoga is a clear example of how the breath can be integrated with movement to balance the flow of prana, through the body. But it is not only the inhale and the exhale that are important. The consciousness of a transitional state offers us a clue here. In yoga, we practice the breath in four stages, not two. The pauses at the top of the inhale and the bottom of the exhale are of equal importance as the inhaling and exhaling breaths themselves. Pranayama practice includes many exercises in retaining the breath in or out to encourage longer pauses between inhalation and exhalation. Moving the body in transition during the pauses between breaths provided the missing link. Here is a concrete physical action and tool for accessing the consciousness of existing, however briefly, “in between” things. Although breathing is an involuntary action most of the time, we have the means to control it whenever we choose. By emphasizing the pauses between inhale and exhale during transitional movement, the body exists in harmony with the action it is performing.

Transitional movement involves a balance between control and yield to momentum, gravity, and ground reaction force. These three forces are responsible for the body’s movement, the primary difference between them being that the body is always at the mercy of gravity and ground reaction force, while momentum is initiated by us. It is the only one of the three forces that govern the body in motion of which we are in complete control. We can allow or arrest the force of momentum at any time. During an embodied act of transition, there is an act of surrender to these three forces, but there is also an act of will that enables the body-mind to either allow these forces to take over, or to sustain and control a transition if that is what is necessary or desired. At the level of the cells, the sensation of transition feels to me like a wash through the membrane layers, similar to an ocean wave. In every moment, there is a choice about how to navigate the forces moving through the body. To me, this feels like a diffusion of awareness throughout the entirety of the body’s form, rather than a pointed attention to one specific place.

Where does the support for the movement come from? What are the systems in play? What is the intention behind the movement, and how does the transition relate to what came before and what will come after? Exploring transitions in movement is one possibility for embodying the constant shifts of our lives. Transitions are happening all around us, from seasonal change, to the larger issue of climate change, to people transitioning between genders and the changing landscape of an increasingly developed world population. We live in a time of unpredictability, and learning how to balance the body with the changes occurring outside its boundaries is part of cultivating a deeper awareness of what it means to be embodied in the face of transition. Developing the tools and techniques to practice embodiment is all well and good, but how we apply this knowledge in our daily lives is where the information has real value.

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Considering the act of transitioning from an embodied perspective, one of the questions we may ask ourselves is whether people retain the same behavioral habits during the transitions they encounter out in the world as in their movement practices? Do those of us who rush through the transitions between yoga poses also bypass the transitions in our lives as places to spend time in? Do those of us who collapse physically during movement transitions lose our sense of support when we find ourselves in the middle of a life transition? Possibly. Transitioning can be uncomfortable, and perhaps this is part of what it means to sit in the feeling of discomfort. If you stay in it for long enough, odds are it won’t be uncomfortable forever. It seems possible to me that if we have the capacity to embody transitional time and space, that we likely approach the uncertainty of these circumstances in habitual ways. If something works for us once, we are more likely to repeat it, and it becomes a pattern. Perhaps the key to cultivating an embodied movement practice in the midst of transition requires no more than an awareness of how the body-mind is responding to changing circumstances.

As a teacher, I am conscious of the process of arrival. There is a process of coming into the building, into the room, into the space. We arrive in the studio, or at the top of the mat, and there is a state of readiness that settles over us, if we allow it time to manifest, and don’t rush into action too quickly. For this to happen, we must also arrive in our own bodies and minds, before we enter a practice that engages the trinity of our beings: mind-body-spirit. As I write this I am engulfed in a transitional time in my life. I am completing, wrapping up and moving on from one thing, while the next chapter is unfolding before me. I stand with one foot on each side of the divide. And perhaps this is the true essence of this inquiry. Do we ever truly arrive? Or do we simply transition, seamlessly between two sides of something, existing always in the spaces and time in between the constructs that compartmentalize our experiences?

 

 

Happy Knees in Yoga

bodhisattvas knees copyOur most basic pranic flows are laid down in the early days of our gestation. In the very first few weeks of life, our limb buds grew outward from our tiny bodies. The direction of their flow was clear and simple. There were no complications or great articulations at this point—just simple presence and potential—and this initial flow of life force is still present and underlies the healthy movement of all of our limbs. The underlying pranic flows in the body are always present within, and are supportive of healthy movement. Even when we have injured ourselves, torn and shredded structures, the healthy flow remains—as if dormant—underneath the injured tissues. In Embodyoga®, as in Body-Mind-Centering® we explore these initial movements of life force to understand, embody, and maintain health in all the body tissues. (We study embryological growth, and its importance in embodiment and yoga practice, in our training programs and workshops.)

Maintaining the continuity of the embryological spirals is organizing and supportive of the knee joints. The underlying spiral of the lower limb supports the knee and provides simplicity of flow through the limb that is balancing and healing to knee issues. All of the articulations that we go through in the knee, foreleg, ankle, and foot in our yoga postures are much later developments. By returning to the simplicity of the embryological spiral we allow the prana to flow as it naturally wants to, without laying on all sorts of ideas about what we think is right. Once prana is flowing, it will be much easier to address specific imbalances.

Front view of knee joint anatomy

Knee Anatomy
Understanding healthy rotations at the musculoskeletal level in the hip, foreleg, ankle, and foot are also critical for maintaining knee health. Improper rotations put excessive stress on the knee joint. The knee joints are unstable, true, but they are beautifully articulable when used wholesomely. When any of the joints above or below the knee are restricted (or hyper mobile) the knee will suffer. The knee needs an environment of good support without restriction. Because it is so mobile, if joints on either side are compromised the knee is very likely to take a major amount of stress.

In yoga practice we do many postures that require a lot of “knee rotation”. This requires integration and wholesome movement through the entire lower limb. What that means, is we need to figure out how to have rotational forces going through the knee without torqueing it and disturbing its delicate balance. It is never safe to allow forces to get caught in the knee joints. Forces must flow seamlessly through the knees at all times. Most people practice rotational movements without the benefit of understanding what needs to take place here and how to honor one’s own healthy range of motion.

Knee Rotations—Rotation is perhaps the trickiest of the knee’s articulations. Anatomists still often refer to the knee as a “hinge joint”. It is far from being a hinge. Rotations in the knee along with those of the foot and the foreleg provide the structural possibilities for so many different movements, making it possible to even walk comfortably on uneven surfaces. Our rotational abilities give a sense of freedom and ease in the knees. The menisci—one on each side of the tibial plateau— are responsible for assuring that these rotations move through the joints and feel good and free. They shouldn’t be painful, as is so often the case, especially in yoga practice. Continue reading

Radiance and Levity—The Glandular System in Yoga

7chakras-1050x700Yoga is a process of differentiating and unifying. We differentiate layers of consciousness and structure, we inquire, we analyze, and we find our way back to unity. In looking at the glandular system we are called upon to investigate the glands themselves, as well as how they relate to the subtle energy system of chakras and nadis.

In studying the glandular system in Embodyoga® we look at its support for body and mind, and especially its importance in all yoga practices. We focus primarily on the effects the endocrine glands have on our experience—how they support us in asana, in posture in general, and how they affect our experience of self. We look at how theCHAKRAS HELIX glandular system provides a suspension system for our core, and how the innate intelligence of individual glands is manifesting into form and functioning. Not all of the structures we look at are technically considered to be glands. Some are bodies, nodes, and one has yet to be recognized at all. We are loosely calling all of them glands because they do relate directly to the yogic chakra system and the yogis have classically placed what they have called glands as the structures that correlate with the chakras along the spine.

The radiant core of our individual being is felt within as sushumna nadi. The embodiment of sushumna supports our personal relationship with refined awareness and is our active connection to Source. Our latent qualities and traits—all the things that make up our personal selves—are contained within this embodied core and emanate out through the chakras, the energy vortexes that form along our central channel.  Each chakra has one or more glands that relate to it. Each gland is felt to contain and express subtle intelligence that is manifesting from the chakra and expressing outward into the full expression of our individuality. Due to their close relationship to core, our glands naturally emanate more light than some of the denser body tissues. For example, glandular expression has less gravity than that of organs. Organs feel more voluminous and heavy in the body. The levity of the glands balances the weight of the organ body.

Glands function as a single integrated system while maintaining their individual processes. As a suspension system from head-to-tail and tail-to-head, they offer light support along the vertebral column and through our soft tissue core. The brightness that emanates from them radiates in all directions, giving levity and resilience to the neighboring tissues. Individually, each gland secretes its particular hormones and stimulating agents into the surrounding fluids on their way to receptor sites in target cells throughout the body.

Each gland has correlations with different aspects of the skeletal system. This means that the gland and its skeletal correlate are mutually supportive. Glandular support in the skeletal body gives a bright clarity to our experience of bone. This integration of glandular and skeletal systems offers qualities to bone that can make our yoga postures look and feel lighter and more effortless. The glands are always suspending themselves and the tissues around them. They are in constant communication and relationship with one another. They levitate the denser structures of the body and create an anti-gravity feeling of support through our core.


DIAGRAM: GLANDS AS A SUSPENSION SYSTEM FOR THE BODY

It may be useful to begin exploring our glands through images of faceted jewel like structures that refract and emanate light through themselves and the body in geometrical rays. This is in keeping with the embodied experiences they offer and the kind of support they provide. Ideally, the inner sense of our glands feels lively, vibrant, responsive, glistening, and self-aware.

Perineal and Coccygeal Bodies

coccygeal and perineal bodies

We begin at the bottom of the system with the two glands that relate to our root chakra, the perineal and coccygeal bodies. The perineal body, at the center of the pelvic floor, is the home of apana vayu in the  subtle body. Apana is the vayu, the wind of life force, that draws inward and downward. Apana gives the perineal body a strong pull—drawing life force down and into itself, and also when appropriate, downward and out of the body. It tethers the entire glandular suspension system. The mammillary bodies at the crown provide the opposing directional pull—heavenward. As you can see in the image above, the perineal body is right at the center of the diamond shaped pelvic floor, situated just between the anus and the genitals. For a long time the perineal body was not recognized by western science. Since it is encased in connective tissue it was simply missed.

The perineal body provides a precise and clear, deeply condensing point to which everything is secured. In addition to its downward condensing pull we find that it is highly expressive as well. The first chakra is organized here in the pelvic floor. It has four petals that open from its center. This is not unlike how the perineal body feels when it is allowed free expression. In full expression the perineal body spreads its readiness and appreciation for being alive through the pelvic floor region, the legs, the feet, and into active relationship with earth.  The perineal body is as excited about moving into form as it is about condensing into its own dark gravitational field. Its gravitation and density pulls spirit into the possibility of manifestation, and then having convinced spirit  to play, its commitment to life explodes into  function and form. The perineal body rises in mulabandha. But without its partner, the coccygeal body, it is rising in a vacuum. The coccygeal roots the perineal to the earth.

The coccygeal body is a small mass of irregularly shaped glandular and vascular tissue about 2.5 mm in diameter. Imbedded in fascia, it is tucked right inside the arc of the of the coccyx. It has a tiny tail that points upward. The coccygeal body consists primarily of glomus cells. Glomus cells are oxygen receptors…oxygen receptors at the tip of the tail. This is interesting in breathing. In embodied explorations we have found that full breathing is initiated by a pulsing of the coccygeal body that can be clearly felt by the practitioner. It can also be felt by a sensitive observer. Placing the palm of a hand just above the skin at the coccyx, one can feel a clear puff of breath into the palm right at the initiation of inhale. When the coccygeal is awake and functioning fully we can feel a breath of fresh air expanding right between the gland and the coccyx behind it.

The coccygeal body has very different intelligence and energy than its partner gland,  the perineal. While the perineal body grounds the suspension system like a dense black hole of gravitational force, the coccygeal body has a much lighter, directional, and downward rooting energy. The coccygeal body is like a seed that sends a lively tap root spinning out of itself and into the earth in spring. Light and bright, whereas the perineal body is dense and dark, its lively energy flies off the tail and finds it’s way toward and into the earth. Although it is flexible and tender it can easily penetrate the hardest, driest earth.

The actions of the coccygeal and perineal bodies create balance in the pelvic floor. The perineal is dark and the coccygeal light—like the “ha” and “tha” of the root chakra. Both are strong and dynamic, and together they make the whole. The pelvic floor forms the structural foundation for mulabandha and for an effective mulabandha the awakening of both is necessary. Without the earthward action of the coccygeal, the upward lifting of the perineum has no ground. When the coccygeal is awake, the perineal can rise. Even as the perineal body rises in mulabandha, it maintains its condensing power.

Skeletally, these glands relate to our feet—downward through the toes, toe balls and heels and upward through the arches.

Gonads

DEVEL. GONADS

The gonads are paired glands. The embodied place for gonads is the same for both males and females, in the two sides of the pelvic belly region—the actual position of ovaries in women and the place at which the vas deferens loops around for males. In utero both male and female gonads were right here in our side pelvic bellies. It isn’t until just before or after birth that the male testes drop down and find their way out of the body cavity.

Gonads relate to the second chakra and their element is water. They embody emotionality, creativity, regeneration, fluidity, and desire. In movement they create levity and a sense of three dimensional radiance that forms a pivot point around which each pelvic half can rotate. They support the hip joints by keeping weight out of them. Skeletally the gonads relate to the ankles and the pivoting options in the pelvic halves are reflected in the ankles as well. The harmony or disharmony of the movement of gonads and ankles can be an interesting exploration in asana. Weak ankles are common and can be a reflection of an imbalance in the clarity of life force expressing from the gonads. Collapse or hardening of the gonads limits the life force in the pelvis and can dis-integrate the connection from pelvic halves to feet.

 

Adrenals and Pancreas

adrenals-pancreasThe adrenals and pancreas are the glands of the manipura, or third chakra—fire. We consider the adrenals to be the lower manipura chakra—about the level of the belly button navel (which is the adrenal reflex point). They are concerned with personal safety and staying stable on the earth. Self definition and the qualities of “I, me, and mine” find their home in the lower manipura.

Pancreas is the upper manipura. Pancreas is concerned with spatial reach and an internal movement from being all about “me” to relating to community and other.

Adrenals, known for their hormonal secretions that stimulate the flight, fight, freeze response respond to our perception of safety and comfort. Governed primarily by the sympathetic nervous system, our adrenal response is important for keeping us alive and letting us know when we need to take fast action to be safe, jump out of the way of an oncoming car, avoid a dangerous person, or respond appropriately and quickly to any immediate danger. In health our adrenals assist in providing us with a balanced and alert state of body-mind. Healthy adrenals have life force to spare and are useful when we need them, but don’t need to be constantly pumping out hormones creating hyper-vigilance in the body when it isn’t warranted.

When we are under chronic levels of stress due to real or imagined situations, when we do not feel safe in an ongoing way, our adrenals can release excessive amounts of their hormones and create agitation and tension throughout the entire system. Even if the threat is not real, but is perceived to be real, these hormones will be produced. This leads to high levels of stress hormones in the body that keep us on continual alert and can eventually lead to depletion and exhaustion of the adrenal system. 

Skeletally, adrenals relate to the knees. The knee to adrenal connection that we notice in embodiment is interesting in light of how much adrenal exhaustion we see culturally in yoga practitioners, and how common knee problems are among yogis who practice very vigorously. Of course, there are very important structural reasons that knees take a beating in so called “advanced” asana practice. But even that may not be completely coincidental—the temperament of a striving practitioner, adrenal stress, and knee problems may cluster together for more reasons than one. 

The pancreas is a dual-function gland, having both endocrine and exocrine functions. Although physically it is at approximately the same level as the adrenals, its reflex point is above that of the adrenals, right at the center of the solar plexus. Its endocrine function is its production of insulin and other hormones.  It monitors our blood sugar and secretes insulin to keep the body sugars in balance thus contributing to the regulation of energy production. In its organ, or exocrine function, pancreas also secretes important digestive enzymes into the duodenum. Its digestive juices flow via a duct that it shares with the liver into the duodenum at a transition point in the digestive process where the acid secretions of the stomach, which are so important in the first stage of digestion, need to be tamed by the alkalizing pancreatic secretions. This neutralizing of the stomach acids allows the chyme (the food) to proceed to its next step of being absorbed into the body. The pancreas also provides an alkalizing effect beyond the digestive tract, throughout the entire body, and may be an important player in providing anti-inflammatory agents to the body as a whole.

In embodied asana practice, the pancreas—in its glandular function—is the point around which our hands-to-tail and feet-to-head supports are organized. Hands-to-tail and feet-to-head is a glandular and skeletal organization of connecting forces flowing through the pancreas itself. It involves spacial orientation. It has the lightness that is expressed through its glandular source. If the hands-to-tail and feet-to-head forces are not going through the pancreas it is not the support that we are referring to in these terms.

The Thoraco Body

THORACO greysThe thoraco body is almost certainly a visible and palpable structure, although no anatomist has yet to describe it. It is likely embedded in the central tendon of the diaphragm right behind the xiphoid process. It is a key player in breathing and regulating the freedom and rhythm of the thoracic diaphragm. It works synergistically with the coccygeal body to initiate breathing.

At the front of the breathing diaphragm in the thorax, the thoraco body is at the opposite and furthest end from the coccygeal body below. They are structurally connected to one another by the tissues of the diaphragm proper and its stem that is continuous to the coccyx. The coccygeal body initiates inhalation from the back and below and the thoraco initiates breath from the front and above. They are partners.

Where these bodies live have remarkable similarities as well. Each is housed in the immediate region of an important diaphragm and each has a small triangular shaped bone cradling it. Both of these diaphragms are intimately involved in breathing. When their respective diaphragms move, these bones—the xiphoid process and the coccyx— move as well. When breath comes in the xiphoid process waves forward in response to the widening of the thoracic diaphragm. Likewise, as the pelvic diaphragm widens the coccyx waves backward. In each of these movements, in both places, between the gland and the bone we feel an expanding of prana, like a breath of fresh air itself, coming right into the space.

One of the symptoms of a soft and open thoraco  and a connection between the thoraco and the coccygeal, is a light widening of the breath at the back of the diaphragm around the lower ribs, through the thicker portions of the crura (its stem), and all the way down the spine. When the thoraco is soft and awake the diaphragm moves like a feather in a breeze with the breath.

The thoraco body is above manipura and below anahata—the level at which we rise into the upper chakras and begin to evolve out of an excessively self-centered existence. This is a time and place for reassessing our place in the world and beginning to put our own personality, wants, and supposed needs, into a larger perspective. We are evolving into a more community oriented vision of life and making decisions about how to proceed. Acceptance and security in the lower centers forms a foundation for a further deepening of caring and the capacity to love. Now we can help others and humanity as a whole to continue to prosper. We have the opportunity to grow into more wisdom.

The Heart Bodies

HEART av & sinus nodeThe heart bodies, the sinoatrial (SA) and the atrioventricular (AV) nodes, are part of the cardiac conduction system.  They regulate the beating of the heart by transferring electrical impulses along the cardiac muscle and sparking the polarization and depolarization of cell membranes. They function in conjunction with the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic) and the vagus nerve. A wave of excitation spreads from the SA node through the atria and stimulates the AV node. The AV delays the impulse approximately 0.12 seconds ensuring that the atria have ejected their blood into the ventricles before the ventricles contract. The AV node also protects the heart from an excessively fast rhythm.

When the heart is bisected, as it often is in anatomical examination, it appears at first look to be two separate pumps that are side by side. But anatomically the heart is actually composed of a long rope-like shaped muscle that wraps around itself to form the heart’s chambers. It is its helical shape that creates the twisting and untwisting, or wringing action, of the heart muscle in response to the electrical stimulation that allows for the ejection of blood and the suctioning of cardiac filling.

variable heart rate-heart math

Heart Rate Variability A balanced autonomic nervous system will allow for irregular rhythms of heart beat based upon emotional and physical experience. The normal and healthy variability of heart rhythm is under the control of the autonomic nervous system and the vagus nerve. In health the beating heart is surprisingly irregular as it adjusts to immediate circumstances and needs. The changing rhythm shows resilience and ability to respond. This ability to respond is called heart rate variability, or HRV.  Heart rate variability is a measure of the beat to beat changes in heart rate. A decrease in heart rate variability is a marker of stress and is associated with many disease processes, is symptomatic of stress, and is in itself stressful to the heart. It is also associated with aging in general. Although the variability may change with aging, we do have the option of maximizing our HRV at any age.

Yogicly speaking we can certainly assist in keeping the resilience of our heart by consciously softening and relaxing it and by developing and maintaining resilience in our autonomic nervous system. Obviously, many of the practices of yoga are directed toward creating this balance through the “ha” and “tha” of everything we do. One notable effect of yoga practice that has been scientifically observed is that lengthening the exhale has the effect of slowing the heart rate. Inhale hastens the pace and exhale lengthens it. You can feel this easily by taking your pulse while you inhale and exhale.

Joyful emotions create more coherence in our heart rhythms whereas stressful emotions create a more ragged and erratic rhythm. Below is an image from the Heart Math web site depicting heart rhythms in stress and frustration versus during joy, appreciation, gratitude and the like. The lower image is a more coherent rhythm.

Our heart and our brain are in constant communication with one another. Our heart sends more signals to the brain than our brain does to the heart. A feedback loop is created between heart and brain. These signals significantly affect brain functions, including emotional processing and cognitive abilities. A stable and coherently functioning heart supports cognitive ability and reinforces positive feelings and emotional stability. Positive emotions generate increased heart rhythm coherence and the sustaining of positive emotions and coherent heart rhythms profoundly effects how we perceive, think, feel, and act.

Through yoga study we have learned that the center of the individual is not the brain, but the heart. New research into the heart’s functioning is pointing to the importance of our heart as support for all mental and emotional functioning. The very decisions that we have assumed to be made by the brain may be determined by the heart even before we ever “think” about them. We can certainly infer that, ”Coming from the heart” has physiological as well spiritual implications.

Thymus Gland

thymus and thyroid

The thymus gland is settled just above the heart, behind the body of the sternum, and just below the manubrium. It is a lymphoid organ and functions in conjunction with bone marrow, spleen, and lymph nodes, among other tissues, to produce the body’s immune response. The thymus works especially closely with bone marrow. Along with other blood cells, bone marrow manufactures white blood cells, called B-cells. B-cells travel to the thymus and are matured into T-cells. The two most abundant lymphocytes are B-cells and T-cells, produced respectively by bone marrow and thymus. (Think B-cell, bone and T-cell, thymus.) T-cells assist other white blood cells in immunological function. They destroy viruses and tumor cells, can “remember” past infections so that immunity remains for an extended period, and are self regulating.

Thymus is a powerful presence within. Our thymus gland is busy transforming—sometimes called maturing—B cells into T cells for their highly specific work. The thymus releases these cells into the blood where they scour through, cell by cell, searching out antigens and foreign substances with the full intent to eradicate them. They kill these dangerous invaders for the sake of the greater good. T-cells are like alert foot soldiers traveling through the blood and lymphatic system, dedicated to maintaing the peace by destroying the enemy through hand-to-hand combat.

In yoga we often speak of valor and bravery in the thymus region. Its integrity and strength supports the shoulder girdle and is a critical contribution to the strength that is necessary for postures like arm balances. The thymus gland provides determination and pulls together what may otherwise be fragmentary actions that strain muscles in the endeavor to hold ones weight. Valor in the thymus region of the upper thoracic area has the foundation of love underneath it in the heart. True valor is based in love and love gives depth and softness to our determination.

Thyroid and Parathyroids

thyroid-gland

The thyroid gland is the first of the body’s endocrine glands to develop, around the 24th day of gestation. In the full grown body the thyroid is situated on the front surface of the neck lying on the larynx and the trachea. It moves up and down in swallowing. Thyroid is one of the largest endocrine glands, normally extending from C5 to T1. The thyroid governs the basic metabolism in all the cells controlling how quickly the body uses energy. Its hormone production regulates the body’s sensitivity to other hormones. Thyroid hormone production is under the control of the anterior lobe of the pituitary which is regulated by the hypothalamus.

thyroid+parathyroidThe parathyroids are located on the rear surface of the thyroid gland. There are usually four parathyroids and each one is about the size of a grain of rice. The parathyroids regulate calcium in the bones and blood.

The thyroid regulates cellular metabolism and cellular respiration. Together, the thyroids support our voice and the structure of our neck. Embodying the thyroid region is helpful for experiencing directly how every cell in the body is awake, alive, and breathing—cellular awareness. Developing cellular awareness is a key for witnessing directly how intelligence and light are manifesting into the form of our own body. When cellular wakefulness is our personal experience, it becomes easy to recognize that it is everyone else’s nature, as well. Realizing this is a giant leap forward in understanding the unity principle in yoga philosophy from an embodied perspective. We know that we cannot be the only ones who are vibrating with this awake, alive, life-force. We spontaneous open to others with the same knowledge and acceptance of their nature…even if they are completely unaware of it within themselves.

Skeletal correlations of the thyroids are to the humerus and elbow, and of course to the neck itself. The thyroid humerus connection is useful in asana. We notice that when thyroids are effectively engaged our upper arms feel clearer and more integrated. This is especially important when we bear weight on our arms. Thyroids provide the fullness of the neck’s circumference and its length.

The thyroid supports the neck inward and upward from the front and the parathyroids support inward and upward from the back. Their support narrows coming together into a fine point that pierces the soft palate, taking us right to the midbrain and making the head light. Collapsing in the thyroids is common in posture and movement. We often see it in ourselves and our yoga students as a neck that sags forward while the occiput drops down and the chin rises. When the thyroid is balanced in the neck we feel the diffusion of its life force through all the body cells. When it is collapsed or hardened, we don’t.

The Carotid Bodies

carotid bodiesThe carotid bodies are two clusters of chemoreceptor cells located near the bifurcation of the carotid arteries, under the jaws, in the sides of the neck. They detect changes in the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood and are sensitive to the blood’s temperature and pH. They are composed of  glomus cells like those found in the coccygeal body at the bottom of the spine. The glomus cells secrete neurotransmitters and signal the brain to regulate the rate and volume of breathing. The carotids are the most highly vascularized tissues in the human body, second only to the thyroid.

The skeletal correlate for the carotid bodies is the entire vertebral column. This includes the occiput, which is not technically part of the vertebral column but is structurally and functionally continuous with the spinal vertebrae. The carotids give levity from each side of the spine allowing the vertebral column to dangle downward. Activation of the carotids in asana helps us to feel the spaciousness of the spine.

Elongating the spine from the carotids is easy. The coccygeal is reaching away providing a pull from below as the carotids simply hover upwards.

Space and levity in the carotid bodies supports the occiput, the jaw joints, and the width of the soft palate. When the carotids are not allowed their full function we experience heaviness in the head and compression into the occiput. Softening and widening the base of the tongue and feeling space in the jaw joints is helpful. When the carotids are spacious and awake and the tongue soft the brain can rest.

Pituitary and Pineal Glands

pituitary_pitThe pituitary gland consists of two lobes, the anterior and the posterior lobes, and a stalk. It sits at the base of the brain in an indentation in the sphenoid bone called the cella turcica. Embryologically, the pituitary’s two lobes emerge from different tissues. The posterior lobe descends down from the hypothalamus in the brain and the anterior lobe rises upward, forming from tissues in the mouth. The anterior lobe does most of the secretion of hormones, while the posterior lobe secretes neurohormones that in turn stimulate the secretion of pituitary hormones. The hypothalamus links the nervous system to the endocrine system through the pituitary.

Pituitary secretes nine known hormones that regulate the following:

  • Growth
  • Blood pressure
  • Sex organ functions
  • Thyroid gland function
  • Metabolism
  • Water regulation and control through the kidneys
  • Temperature regulation
  • Pain relief
  • Some aspects of pregnancy and childbirth
  • Breast milk production

In yoga practice the pituitary relates to the “ha” of hatha yoga, the pingala nadi, and the sympathetic aspect of the autonomic nervous system. It is inhale and expansion. We associate it primarily with aspiration, brightness and clarity, and an outward orientation of mind. It is relatively forward in its place under the brain and governs the upward gaze in back bending and surya namaskar.

The pituitary is balanced by the pineal, which is relationally back brain, and they pivot, rising and falling in relationship to one another around an arc within the brain formed by structures of the limbic system.

Pineal Gland

pineal, pituitary etcSituated near the center of the brain, above and behind the pituitary, the pineal gland is a small endocrine gland, shaped like a pinecone, about the size of a grain of rice, and reddish-brown in color. Like the pituitary, it is a midline structure and is tucked in a groove between the two hemispheres of the brain, snuggled up near the thalamus.  The thalamus is involved in regulating consciousness, sleep and alertness.

Like the pituitary, pineal is intimately involved in converting nervous system signals into endocrine function. The pineal is stimulated by the light-dark cycles of day and night, and produces melatonin to make us sleepy at the appropriate time. Regular rhythms of sleeping and waking are critically important for maintaining good health and their balance provide the basis for learning and growing on all levels. Excessive exposure to light at night interrupts pineal function.

Deep rest is needed as the foundation of effective action. Pineal and pituitary balance one another in this regard. Pituitary governs outwardly oriented consciousness and pineal, a more inwardly directed awareness. In yoga we seek to balance pituitary and pineal functions. Pituitary relates directly to the “ha” aspect of hatha yoga. As part of the sympathetic nervous system and in direct relationship to the pingala nadi, it is useful and important in so many ways for all that we do. It helps us to be vibrant and active in our lives. It gives us our fiery, directed and clear ability to act in the world. It gives us determination and tapas in our yoga practice. Its liveliness drives us to study, to get on our mats to move, and even to sit down to meditate. Aspiration is governed by pituitary.

The pineal relates to the “tha” of hatha yoga, governing restfulness, recuperation, and regeneration. Whereas pituitary relates primarily to the to the “ha”—sympathetic aspect of the autonomic nervous system, the pineal relates to the “tha”—parasympathetic.

Pineal supports “being-ness” while pituitary supports “doing-ness”. The pineal allows us to settle and access to it is critical for witnessing the subtle layers of consciousness that are key in yoga practice. In yoga, the pineal gland has always been associated with higher states of consciousness, spiritual insight, and comprehension.

Modern lifestyle often creates a chronically over stimulated pituitary. Hyper-stimulation of the pituitary leads to the accumulation of stress by locking us out of the inherently satisfying depths of awareness and feeling that pineal offers. Culturally we value acquisition and linear thinking and pituitary is good at that, but at what cost? Once we have obtained or acquired something we need to be able to rest and absorb in order to fully receive and enjoy.

We want the relationship between these two glands to be one of harmony and ease. It is the balance of pituitary and pineal that allows the opening of the third eye, the ajna chakra, where we receive and process inspiration. Hatha yoga is excellent for balancing these glands.

Look at the simple actions of the initiation of surya namaskar. We stand in tadasana. In its best practice tadasana is a place of unity and simplicity. We are going nowhere, and doing nothing—standing in the place of yoga. Then we inhale and we look upward. Inhale and upward gazing are representations and stimulation of pituitary and aspiration. Then we bow forward. As we go forward we roll around the head glands and come into a downward gaze. This relates to and stimulates pineal. All of the movements that follow in a surya namaskar continue to roll around these glands, providing alternating stimulation to pineal and pituitary, helping these glands to come into their natural balance. For this to work, we need to allow the natural movements to take place. It is entirely possible to practice surya namaskar from a completely pituitary perspective. When we are already locked into our culturally hyper-stimulated state, we tend to bring that to our yoga practice as well. Without allowing the pineal to feel the respectful surrender of the bow, without fully giving into the exhale, we just continue to further stimulate pituitary in our asana practice. The basic template of hatha yoga is built around inhale and exhale. It is important, as practitioners that we seriously inquire into what that means in practice. Pituitary is inhale, look up, and aspiration. Pineal is exhale, bow, and surrender. How often do we skip the full surrender of exhale and bow in our asana practice?

Mammillary Bodies

mammilary pineal pituitaryIf pituitary is “ha” and pineal is “tha”, the mammillary bodies are “yoga”. Pineal and pituitary are the glands that govern the ajna chakra and the mammillaries govern the sahasrara. Hatha yoga is fully represented here in the head glands.

The mammillary bodies are a pair of small round bodies, located on the undersurface of the brain at the ends of the anterior arches of the fornix. They are part of the limbic system which controls emotions and emotional responses, including mood, pain, pleasure and other sensations. We know that the mammillaries are related to memory since when they are damaged memory is impaired. The mammillaries appear to be in an ongoing dialogue with all aspects of the limbic system including (and maybe especially) the hippocampus and the amygdala. Hippocampus and amygdala are involved in emotional perception and emotional  memory. One of the processes of the amygdala is the generation of fear responses, including freezing, rapid heart beat, and the release of stress hormones. In yoga we have considered the mammillaries to offer just the opposite of the fear responses of the amygdala. We have felt the mammillaries to govern comfort, the sense of having options, feeling steady and at home in body-mind. It is interesting to see how the amygdala and the mammillaries relate to each other structurally in the shape of the limbic system. Each are at one end of the arc of the hippocampus.

The amygdala is more forward and lower than the mammillaries.  It is connected via the arc of the hippocampus and the fornix, to the mammillaries. The mammillaries (behind the amygdala and higher) are mid line structures—one on either side of the midline, near the base of the brain. The entire limbic area of the brain, tucked in under the cerebrum has the shape of an arch, lower on the front and back, and higher in the center.

In yoga practice the mammillaries feel to be, ”The guardians of perception”. The mammillaries may be balancing the fear production of the amygdala which is just around the arc of the fornix and through the hippocampus. They form the top of the suspension system that is our glandular body. The sahasrara chakra rises as do the mammillaries. There is a profound element of comfort felt when we embody these structures within the brain. In practice, the mammillaries take us to the place of “yoga”. They bring us to our center, and coming to our center brings us to them. In tadasana or any other posture where we are organized in the natural curves of the spine, not going forward and not going backward, we are invited into this place of equilibrium and ease. When pituitary and pineal are balanced and functioning well, hatha yoga has its functional completion in the effortless embodiment of core. This is the place of of deep meditation and stillness. It is not sleepy or agitated. It is awake, alive, self-aware and calm. Balancing pineal and pituitary function opens the gate to experiencing the true unity of core—through the mammillaries and their connection to sahasrara.

Mammillary Glands are the Fulcrum for Movement of the Pituitary and Pineal Glands

CHART—ELEMENTS, CHAKRAS, GLANDS, BODY REGIONS, QUALITIES, DIAPHRAGMS
Element and Kosa
Chakra
Gland
Body Region
Quality
Diaphragm
Awareness-
Universal

Atmamaya Kosa
Sahasrara
Crown
Mammillary bodies
Crown of skull
Awe
Fontanel
ConsciousnessIndividual
Chittamaya Kosa
Ajna
Third eye
Pineal
Pituitary
Back brain
Front brain
Inspiration
Tentorium cerebelli
Soft palate
Carotids
Vertebral column
Gateway
Tongue
Space
Ananadamaya Kosa
Vishuddha Throat
Thyroid
Parathyroids
Humerus and elbow
Communication Offering
Vocal diaphragm
Air
Vijanamaya Kosa
Anahata Heart
Thymus
Heart Bodies
Manubrium, shoulders
Sternal area, forearms, wrists
Love
Thoracic inlet
Thoraco body
Xiphoid process, lower ribs
Giving and Receiveing
Thoracic diaphragm
Fire
Manomaya Kosa
Manipura  Navel and Solar Plexus
Pancreas
Adrenals
Hands, tail, feet, head
Hip joints, femurs, knees
Community
Tapas, Fortitude
Mesentery and peritoneal sac
Water
Pranamaya Kosa
Svadhistana Sacral Plexus
Gonads
Ankles, forelegs, and pelvic halves
Creativity
Mobility
Lower peritoneal sac
Earth
Anamaya Kosa
Muladhara  Root
Perineal Body
Coccygeal Body
Feet
Stability
Pelvic diaphragm
Arches of feet

SIMPLE SEATED FORWARD BEND—Paschimottanasana

anya paschi mo feet copy

In forward bending we flex the spine. Forward-bends incorporate the shape and the mind of a deep bow. We yield into the earth and we yield to ourselves, our inner comfort, our navel. Yielding is a process of the whole-body-mind —a coming into active relationship with self, and the environment. The natural levity and spaciousness of core-awareness provides  a balance to the density of our fluid and yielding selves. Starting from neutral spine, we are simply present. The impetus to surrender or move inward begins the movement forward. Using a soft axial extension (elongated spine) we begin to slip our spine forward into it’s original shape of a soft C-curve. Core is moving forward, front body is condensing, and back body is elongating. There is deep comfort in this.

Check out this simple and easy method for approaching  paschimottanasana from dandasana.

As always, the key is to find your own just right expression of a forward-bend. Because of the  complications in our modern day lower-backs, it is important to learn the basics of forward-bending from a qualified teacher. A qualified teacher can assess the degree of flexion your spine can safely and comfortably allow.

The simple principles of integration apply to all students, as it is the integration of body-mind-spirit that gives the most profound benefit in all yoga asana.

ASSISTING RECOVERY IN EATING DISORDERS— Yoga and Developmental Movement Patterns

I teach Embodyoga@ as part of a program for the treatment of eating disorders. While Eating Disorders vary in their particulars they are all serious disturbances in the way we nourish ourselves. Eating disorders are coping mechanisms developed to control emotion, sensation and feeling and they have many adverse physical, psychological and social consequences. Eating disorders are complex sets of behaviors which often include co-morbidities such as anxiety, depression, trauma history, and body dysmorphic disorder. But at the root of all eating disorders is a dissociation from the body, a fundamental disconnect from our body-mind systems. The inability to nourish oneself is an inability to survive, a denial of the responsibility given to each of us with the great gift of the breath of life. Characteristics of dissociation include ignoring physiological signals from the body for hunger or satiation, or awareness of amounts of food that have been eaten.  Often present is a distorted perception of body image, body dysmorphic disorder, which can involve an obsession with “thinness”. irrational fear of weight gain, extreme efforts to manage weight or food intake, fixations on perceived physical flaws and a preoccupation with the unobtainable idealized bodies presented in the media. Continue reading

A NEW LOOK AT ALIGNMENT IN YOGA

Recently, the yoga community at large has taken up a more critical look at what the concept of alignment actually means in the context of yoga asana. This is a great conversation to have. So many of us have been practicing and teaching for decades now and are confronted daily by the ways that popular rules of alignment contradict one another and are often causing more problems than they solve.

Many of the problems we see in joints, muscles, and ligaments derive from our own mistaken assuredness that we have the answers for how we (and our students) should move. Most of our instructions have been based on the musculoskeletal system. We have precise rules, many contradicting one another, and still we have a lot of injuries, and witness a lot of wear and tear on joints of the longest time practitioners. Perhaps we have accepted a false premise. Let’s look at the term and its connotations:

align |əˈlīn| verb1 [with object]

  • place or arrange (things) in a straight line
  • put (things) into correct or appropriate relative positions
  • [no object] lie in a straight line, or in correct relative positions

alignment |əˈlīnmənt| noun1

  • arrangement in a straight line, or in correct or appropriate relative position
  • the act of aligning parts of a machine:oil changes, lube jobs, and wheel alignments.

 

Alignment as We Know It Doesn’t Work

How we think about things matters. The term alignment itself conjures up straight lines, correct angles, mechanical movement, and positional concerns. Both align and alignment clearly connote these qualities. Even if you know better, you will be affected by your ingrained understanding of the words. The idea of “straight lines”, “align [with object]”, and even “appropriate relative position”, miss the mark for considering what is healthy human support for movement.

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