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by Justine Glenton
An Ashtanga & Zen Yoga Teacher
By the time we have reached the month of March, we are all completely submerged in our busy lives with schedules, commitments, deadlines, dramas and our personal evolution; not to MENTION those quarterly bills looming somewhere in the background. Some of us may already be feeling overwhelmed, stressed and burnt out? The first thing I want to say and remind you about is simple, please '"Take the time to: BREATHE - Consciously and deeply as you can". For something that we can live for only a few seconds without, we can do it so badly and this sustenance is totally free and available to us 24/7! When we are anxious we can literally 'hold our breath', and how much better do you feel instantly after just a couple of 'deep breaths', note how your body responds immediately.
One of the ancient yogis' most profound insights was the link between breathing patterns and state of mind. Shallow, rapid breaths—the way many people breathe most of the time—can, from a yogic perspective, be both a cause and a result of stress. Think of how you breathe if you are startled, with a quick inhalation primarily to the upper lungs. Physiologically, habitual rapid chest-breathing is a bit like getting startled thousands of times per day.
The yogic remedy is to slow the breath down. One way to do this is to breathe through the nose, keeping the mouth closed. The greater resistance to air flow in the nasal passages compared to the mouth results in a naturally slower respiratory rate, and nasal breathing is also beneficial because it warms and filters incoming air. Ujjayi breathing, (a specific yogic breathing or pranayama) in which the vocal cords are narrowed, similarly increases the resistance to air flow and allows the breathing to slow. The sound generated in Ujjayi can also be used as a meditative focus, further contributing to a calmer mind.
Just about any system of yoga practice can help reduce stress levels, and this is undoubtedly a major reason for the current surge in yoga's popularity: Sky-high stress is endemic in our society. Not only can stress make life less enjoyable and contribute to such bothersome symptoms as headaches, insomnia, and back pain, but it's linked to many of society's killers, including osteoporosis and heart attacks. Even conditions that aren't caused by stress can prove much more bothersome during stressful times.
High levels of stress are often correlated with what ayurvedics call vata derangement, when the "air element," associated with movement and instability, becomes increased. When vata levels are high, the affected person usually has a rajasic state of mind, flitting from one thought to the next without being able to focus. Typical symptoms of a vata imbalance include impatience, anxiety, insomnia, and constipation, all of which are commonly linked to stress.
While vigorous asana (postures) practices can help burn off nervous energy, stressed-out students also need to watch the tendency to overdo. Strenuous workouts may leave them feeling temporarily more sattvic but, if not balanced by sufficient winding-down and relaxation, they can lead to increased vata derangement and, ultimately, a quick rebound of symptoms. Also be careful with strong breathing practices such as Kapalabhati and Bhastrika, which can increase vata. Specific poses to lessen excessive vata include squatting, as in Malasana (Garland Pose), standing poses, i.e., Trikonasana, Parsvakonasana, in which an emphasis is placed on grounding well through the legs, and a regular practice of inversions such as sarvangasana (Shoulder stand) have a calming cooling effect on the body.
Ayurveda would also suggest that people whose vata is high should try to stick to a regular schedule of sleep and meals and, whenever possible, eat warm, nutritious, sattvic foods. Sweet, sour, and salty tastes are considered beneficial for reducing vata. Crunchy foods such as corn chips, granola, or raw broccoli are said to increase vata levels. Caffeine, nicotine, and other stimulants may also make matters worse.
And if you can't make it to practice, try taking a few minutes at the end of your day to do this this pranayama:
Dirgha Pranayama — Complete Breath
"Dirgha" connotes 'long' in Sanskrit. This pranayama involves a long and deep breath which fills all the three chambers of the lungs.
1. Sit erect on the floor.
2. Keep your eyes closed.
3. Take a couple of long and deep inhalations.
4. Each inhalation needs to take place in three steps:
Inhale deeply to fill the lower abdominal region. Exhale and flatten your stomach.
Inhale again deeply to fill up the lower lungs. Simultaneously raise your ribcage. Exhale.
Inhale deeply to fill your stomach with air, expand your rib cage. Continue breathing till the upper chest area is also raised.
5. Once you have assumed the right pattern, inhale in one long flow.
6. Do this consistently for a few minutes.