How many times have you heard a yoga teacher tell you that deep breathing "oxygenates the blood?"
It isn't true. At the very least it is misleading.
Our nervous system forces us to breathe at the necessary rate to fully oxygenate our blood at all times. This is true when we're resting as well as when we're running a marathon. The body's oxygen requirements are different depending on our activity, and the nervous system automatically adjusts to oxygenate the blood fully. Normal blood oxygenation is 95-100%.
When we are at rest, we breathe slower since the body's oxygen demands are less. Breathing more or deeper while the body is at rest does not "oxygenate" the blood. It hyper-ventilates, which is just a way of saying breathing (ventilating) more than necessary.
Anytime we breathe more than the body requires, the big change we are causing is the removal of carbon dioxide, one of the body's metabolic wastes. Hyperventilation removes more carbon dioxide than the body produces, and this leads to a whole host of physiological effects. Most significantly, the blood vessels in the brain constrict, limiting blood flow to the brain. This makes us light-headed.
So that light-headed feeling you get when breathing deeply isn't energization or "oxygenation," but constricted blood vessels in the brain. Your brain is actually getting less oxygen than if you were to breathe normally!
The muscles of the body most often use concentric contraction to create movement. This means that a muscle shortens as it contracts, pulling the skeleton into position. For example, in backward bends the erectors of the back contract and shorten, and the spine bends backward. In forward bends, the rectus abdominis (6-pack) shortens and contracts to bend the spine forward. This type of contraction is also how we walk, run, stand up and do many other basic functions.
So why are our legs so sore after poses like Standing Bow, Standing Separate Arms Balancing Stick (pictured) or Standing Splits?
These poses require eccentric contraction, meaning that a muscle lengthens as it contracts. The hamstrings of the standing leg eccentrically contract in these balancing postures, bearing the weight of the upper body as we tilt forward on the hip. The hamstrings must contract to keep the body from collapsing forward. It is a common misunderstanding that the standing leg hamstrings should relax in Standing Bow or the others. This couldn’t be farther from the truth; the hamstrings actually do most of the work.
This complexity—asking the hamstrings to lengthen even as they hold the weight (eccentric contraction)—makes the muscles a lot more sore than concentric contraction.
Most of the meditative, inward-looking spiritual traditions of the world agree that we overlook our true nature.
Our misunderstanding comes from the active (sometimes hyperactive) nature of the mind, which is constantly on the lookout for danger and opportunity. When these things are missing, the mind finds other activities: daydreaming, pondering, obsessing, discussing, watching TV, etc. There is an endless number of things we do to keep our minds busy. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that our busy minds give us things to do.
Our identity problem comes when we mistake these mental activities for the true nature of the self. We don't realize that our emotions and mental activities are separate from us, and we identify ourselves with each emotion and thought: "I am angry," "I am happy," "I am hungry," "I am thinking."
It can seem like splitting hairs, like an unnecessary distinction to make. But, are you your emotions? Are you your thoughts? Are you the breaths that you take or the beats of you heart? Are you the pain in your body? The more we explore these questions, we find that the "self" is not to be found in any of these elements.
Nowhere is this concept stated more clearly than in the Yogasutras, "the Self appears to assume the form of thought's vacillations and the True Self is lost." (1:4) (1)
The practices of yoga are many, but they all point to this issue. Every single practice of the body, breath and mind is designed to point us toward the true nature of the Self.
1. Stiles, Mukunda, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 2002, p2-3.
The last few days have been frustrating. I (this is Scott) wake up in the morning with no particular inspiration or focus. I don't feel motivated to get up and begin my day, much less my morning practice.
I know that I'm not the only one who has bad days, days when I don't want to do what I know I should.
The funny thing is, I know from personal experience that these are the days when magic happens; the days when I feel uninspired but practice anyway. These days set the stage for the return of passion, when I will be newly focused and make progress. I don't know when those days will come, but I'm sure they will.
Even though I know that inspiration will return, these days are drudgery. It takes all the strength I have to sit down for pranayama practice or do a few asanas. I try my best to practice, to do the work. What else can I do?
Ida suggested changing things up a little, some advice she got from Swami Vishnudevananda. Change the practice or the time of day. I also cracked a new book, one of those with the short, 1-page messages. I read just one, probing for insight or inspiration.
This posture continues the hip-opening of Tree Posture, increasing the focus on balance. Coming into balance on the toes requires significant strength in the foot and leg. Be sure to have the half-lotus foot high on the thigh before bending your standing leg. This way your half-lotus knee will be safer as you lower down.
Once you are all the way down, try to get your standing thigh parallel to the ground. Make the spine upright. This takes some adjustment in the center of gravity, finding the right combination of up-on-the-toes, leg down, and body back.
Take easy, relaxed breaths in this pose.
This posture builds great focus. It creates strength in the legs, feet and toes and openness in the hips.
Come in and out slowly, avoiding any quick movements. If you feel tightness or pinching in the half-lotus knee when you bend forward or when bend your standing leg, don’t go further. Work on your Tree Pose.
Sit your opposite hip onto your heel (ex. left hip on right heel). If you try to hover with the strength of your standing leg you can easily strain the tendons in the front of the knee.
Excerpt from the Ghosh Yoga Practice Manual - Intermediate
We become teachers for many different reasons: to improve our understanding, a sense of duty, the need for income, to be a leader, to have power...
Once you are teaching, the story can change quickly. You have to work around schedules, maintain time for your own practice and deal with frustrating students. It is easy for the grand vision of teaching to turn into a slog that is fraught with resentment.
It doesn't take much to resent your students. They don't work as hard as you ask them to, they don't take your advice. How many times have you told them to keep their hip down?! Why don't they do it?! Sometimes it seems like it's not even worth the effort you put in.
At times like this, when you feel frustrated by your students, try to approach them and their practice with kindness and patience, not resentment, impatience or anger. Especially when you correct them or adjust their posture.
It is tough, because anytime we correct a student, it comes from dissatisfaction with their performance. They are doing something wrong enough that we notice and feel compelled to intervene. This means that every "correction" we give a student begins with our own irritation and has the potential to bloom into frustration or even anger.
Is it possible to turn our dissatisfaction with a student's performance into something more generous? How can we serve them and make them understand better? (Because let's face it, nearly every mistake comes from misunderstanding.)
Above all, we (the teachers) are here to serve the students. They are not here to serve us. Sure, it is important to honor the purpose of the practice and be sure to do things right, but this is actually in service of the student, not the teacher.
When you teach, and when you correct your students, do it out of service, generosity and kindness.
Don't do it to get something from them. Do it to give something to them.
Don't do it out of frustration or anger. Do it out of love, to help.
A teacher's patience is infinite, because the goal is to teach the student. And the goal hasn't been achieved until the student understands.
Stretching Posture (Paschimottanasana, pictured above left) and Forehead to Knee Posture (Janushirasana, pictured above right) are often grouped together and thought of as similar postures. It seems like one is just the two-legged version of the other. But they work differently in the body, targeting completely different layers of the tissue system.
Stretching Posture lengthens the back of the body in a straight line, more or less. Up the back of the legs via the hamstrings and up the back via the erectors of the spine. This is pictured above in figure "a."
The defining characteristic of Forehead to Knee Posture is the bent leg. The hip rotates and opens (abducts) while the knee bends. That is how we get the foot near the groin. This action completely changes the tissue relationships on the back of the hip and pelvis. It lengthens the gluteus maximus (butt muscle) and tightens the IT (ilio-tibial) tract, a super tough band of tissue that runs down the outside of the leg and across the knee. See figure "b" above.
Next time you do Forehead to Knee Posture, pay attention to your bent hip, knee and the outside of the leg. Notice the relationship between the leg and the spine. It is more complex than Stretching Posture.
The purpose of this posture is to build strength in the arms, shoulders, abdomen, hips and thighs. It requires intense engagement of the body, perhaps the most of any posture.
The most important element is lifting the hips backward instead of forward. Push down strongly with the arms and pull the hips up and back.
This posture is quite simple in theory, though quite difficult in practice. It takes a lot of strength in the chest and shoulders to lift the body, and a lot of strength in the abdomen, hips and thighs to lift the legs. There are no magic tips to make this posture easier, just repetition and perseverence. Keep trying. You will get stronger.
All of the breathing muscles are engaged in this posture, so breathing is difficult. The chest, back and torso muscles are engaged to lift the body; the abdomen is engaged to lift the pelvis and legs. Take short breaths, but breathe. Try to stay as relaxed as possible.
This posture builds strength in the arms, shoulders, chest, abdomen and upper legs. It builds tremendous focus and determination.
Excerpt from the Ghosh Yoga Practice Manual - Beginning
The problem with resolutions is that we make them once per year. The rest of the time we live on a day to day basis. No big goals or visions, just doing what we need to do to get by.
Yogis know that the habits of the mind are some of the most powerful forces in our lives. The patterns we create and reinforce over months and years of repetition will easily overwhelm a new idea or desire. Habit is simply too powerful. Making a new habit is really hard.
HOW TO CHANGE A HABIT
The first step in changing a bad habit is awareness. Recognize that it exists. Every time you engage in this habit, notice. Tell yourself, "There it is again. I'm doing this without thinking, as a habit."
The second step is interrupting the habit. When you notice yourself doing the habit, try to stop it. This is the hardest part. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. The point here is not to stop it every time, but to begin the formation of a new habit: the habit of restraint.
The third step is replacing the old, bad habit with a new, good habit. This makes restraint a lot easier, since our minds would rather do something than do nothing. This is where our resolutions come in. (Hopefully you can do this anytime of year, not just on January 1.) Pick something you want to cultivate that you're not currently doing. Insert this thought or action in place of the old habit.
This takes time. It's not just a matter of will, but a matter of persistence and determination. Be patient and keep at it. This way you can rid yourself of bad habits and create good ones.
Inherent in every spiritual tradition in the world is the concept of loving others. Not because they are nice to us or from the same culture, not because of what we can get from them or how they make us feel.
We love because we are all the same. "Love your neighbor as you love yourself" is the clearest and simplest of messages. What we see in ourselves is also in others.
This does not mean that we don't have differences. One only needs to do a little bit of travel to experience the diversity in the world. Humans talk different, eat different, dress different according to how their region and culture has developed.
But that same little bit of travel reveals the common threads of humanity. Every human I've ever seen loves their family and likes to laugh. And, contrary to some opinions, every person I've met will be generous with strangers as long as they don't feel threatened for their own safety or livelihood.
So, as you read this during the holiday season, you may be in the presence of family or strangers who test your patience. Love them, not because you like them or because you think they are compelling company. Love them because to do so is a recognition of your innermost being.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
- Understanding Chair Posture
- Lock the Knee History
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- Forward Bending