Combining asana and Tibetan Buddhism, the founder of OM Yoga Center gives us a glimpse into how she sequences slow flow vinyasa classes with a contemplative touch.
The great yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar once said, “I’ve spent the last 75 years of my life exploring what happens to my sternum when I press my big toe down.” There is so much in this statement that it has fed my yoga practice for years. He was telling us that all of our actions have results, and as yogis, our practice is to pay attention to this cause-and-effect relationship. When the action and the result come together in a harmonious way, we have an experience of yoga—or what Mr. Iyengar called integration.
Asana is the perfect vehicle for embodying this philosophy. When I sequence a series of poses or the full arc of a class, I think about how much our actions matter. I also aim to integrate the practice of vinyasa, defined as “to place in a special way,” with the practice of mindfulness—defined as “a conscious placing of the mind.” Being aware of how you place your body, and mind, on sensations that arise and dissolve will help you evolve your practice from exercise to experience; from separation to integration.
See also This Power Sequence is Better Than Most Weight Lifting Programs
Infusing this perspective into asana practice can happen in the granular actions that make up the poses. In this sequence, we are exploring the difference between position and action by looking at how and where we initiate small essential actions and how they compose basic, as well as more complex, poses. Once you understand the body mechanics, you can begin to recognize that these actions and relationships are everywhere in asana. Instead of focusing on positions, we are focusing on how these positions come together through the application of specific repetitive actions throughout a class.
For example, how you organize your legs in the familiar movements of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) will inform how your legs work in more complicated poses. For example, when a Downward-Facing Dog Split (Adho Mukha Svanasana, variation) is done with special care—when you initiate this action by lifting from the top of the thigh—it can be the seed for a future Handstand (Addho Mukha Vrksasana). If you don’t think about the results of our actions, you might try to do a Handstand by flinging your legs up in the air. This kind of working from momentum generally leads to frustration and drama and rarely to success. Working with specificity and understanding cause and effect also helps us have agency in practice and life, and reduces our human tendencies to grasp and react.
See also Challenge Pose: Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana)
To avoid those tendencies, I like to establish landmarks throughout class, from beginning to end. In this sequence, I do this by exploring the dynamic movement pairings found in asana practice: inhalation and exhalation, pressing down to go up, tucking and tilting, reaching forward and back, internal and external rotation of the arms and legs. All of these relationships can be investigated within the movement of a vinyasa class. No need to stop the flow and belabor the work. We make tactile self-adjustments that create imprints that are referenced throughout the arc of the class, which becomes a conversation between mind and body. This approach goes all the way through the class until the very end, when finally we simply lie down, let go, and trust the practice.
Take Cyndi’s thoughtful and fun six-week online course, Slow Flow: Sustainable Vinyasa Yoga for Life, at yogajournal.com/slowflow.
“I Tried 40 Days of Yoga, Meditating, and Chanting at 3 a.m. Every Morning”
Here’s what happened.
One early morning last November, my doorman, Jose, who usually says it like it is, took one look at me and said, “What happened to you? You used to look sexy. Now you look like you never sleep anymore.”
His statement stung. I wanted to say, “Well I don’t sleep anymore. Not since I started Sadhana.” But then I’d have to explain what Sadhana meant. And why do I have to justify how I look? So, I said nothing.
But it was true. I was barely sleeping, and the dark circles under my eyes, chronic yawning, and 10 extra pounds I’d put on in a matter of just a few weeks were all byproducts of my commitment to complete 40 days of Kundalini Aquarian morning Sadhana.
Why I Tried 40 Days of Sadhana
For about a year prior to starting Sadhana—which involves two and a half hours of yoga, meditation, and chanting starting 3 a.m. for 40 days—I’d seen Facebook ads for it. Several friends swore by its benefits, and I’d read many articles about its transformative powers, such as increased energy, mental clarity, and a plethora of blessings. Many spiritual paths have a practice of getting up before sunrise to pray. That special time is called Amrit Vela, which translates as the Nectar of God. When you give two and a half hours to a spiritual source, your entire day is covered with blessings. And who doesn’t want more blessings?
For years I’d been trying to finish writing a book, create an online program, and get into shape—but I lacked self-commitment and follow through. In Sanskrit, Sadhana literally means accomplishing something. I wanted to strengthen my commitment to both my spiritual practice and word to myself. I’ve never been an early riser, so I told myself, If I can wake up at 3 a.m. for the divine, I can do anything!
For the next 40 days, I woke up at 2:30 a.m., put on my white clothes and head covering, and drove to a yoga studio where I practiced yoga, sang songs to my soul, and chanted Aquarian mantras. I tried to go to sleep each night no later than 8 p.m. each night to attempt at least five or six hours of shut-eye. But no matter how many hot baths I took, Chamomile teas I drank, or minutes I spent breathing through my left nostril to relax, I couldn’t fall asleep until it was time to wake up again.
For the first week, I was very enthusiastic and surprised by how little sleep I needed to function. But then, somewhere around day eight, I came home after Sadhana and passed out until noon, which only messed up my circadian rhythm further. As my levels of exhaustion increased, so did my weight. I wondered how the other yogis in the room were doing it. Some of them were on day 50, 60, 90 and even 240. I was assured that if I could get enough sleep, I would be OK.
According to our Sadhana group leader, the secret to a successful Sadhana was getting enough sleep. I’d never had difficulty falling asleep before. But I’d also never woken before 7:30 am, and my nerves were keeping me up.
Somewhere around day 20, my very traditional Russian father called to tell me that he and my mother were worried. They’d recently seen my photos of me on Facebook and asked why I looked so exhausted, bloated, and pale. I was too tired to explain that I had signed up for a sacred practice meant to elevate my soul (and what that meant). Instead, I tagged him on the Facebook live Sadhana page so he could see what I was up to. The following night he called me and said, “Your mother and I saw the video. Are you in a cult? All those people in white look like mental patients.”
Was I really back here again, having another conversation like this with my parents? Some 10 years ago, I came out of the closet as a Feng Shui consultant. My parents wished it was just a phase, lied to their friends that I was an interior designer, and insisted that spirituality is for people that don’t want to work.
See also “Something Happens as I Continue to Chant…”
The Realization That Sadhana May Not Be For Me
On day 30, I went to see a medical intuitive who told me that I was suffering from liver insomnia and severe adrenal fatigue. I had no idea that our livers wake up around 4 a.m. Which meant that when I was getting up to do yoga so early, it was really hard on my liver. I already had mild symptoms of adrenal fatigue before starting Sadhana and didn’t know that feeling wired and tired were the hallmarks of that condition. It explained why I was having so much trouble falling asleep.
I reached out to a friend who’s a Kundalini yoga instructor to tell her that I was going to quit because I couldn’t take it anymore, and she urged me not to. “Everything that’s coming up for you is coming up for healing and clearing,” she told me. Translation for spiritual neophytes? “Your moodiness, liver issues, obsession with weight, and needing other people’s approval was probably always there, and now you’re ready to deal with it.”
I thought I’d dealt with all of that years ago—at least the obsession with weight and needing others’ approval. But the onion has many layers. And maybe Sadhana was fast-tracking the peeling of mine.
I pushed through. Because that’s what I do.
I began to wonder if I’m just a masochist and maybe what I really need is to get back into therapy. Then, I reminded myself that I am a therapist. In fact, I’m actually a spiritual psychotherapist and should know by now if something is good for me.
See also Kundalini 101: Kriya for Balancing Your Eighth Chakra (Auric Field)
Sadhana: The Results of 40 Days of Yoga, Meditation, and Chanting
At the end of the 40 days, a few things happened. First, I felt satisfied that I was able to finish what I started. Next, I finally got a good night’s rest. Then, I spent hundreds of dollars on herbal tinctures and vitamins meant to restore my liver and adrenals. A few small blessings did arrive. I finally found an incredible illustrator for my book and a week later, two of the wellness hotels in Miami Beach where I really wanted to teach finally came through with proposals. Overall, the experience was a mixed bag.
While unfortunate, I don’t think we—as a culture—are equipped to support someone embarking on a 40-day adventure that may cause little or no sleep. Especially if that someone has lots of responsibilities. I think it would’ve been easier, and I could’ve treated the practice with more reverence, had I been on retreat or on an ashram somewhere. But we don’t all have the luxury of going away for a month. I know I don’t.
Forty days of so little sleep would be hard on anyone, regardless of the spiritual path they were on. My advice: If you want to start 40 days of Kundalini Aquarian morning Sadhana, please get your adrenals tested first. Make sure your life supports the potentially crazy sleep schedule, and that you have lots of time to rest and contemplate the process.
Also, listen to your body. If you feel like it’s getting to be too much, don’t turn to this all-too-common default: “Exhaustion? Oh, it’s probably just my negative mind trying to sabotage me.” There’s nothing enlightened about wearing yourself down to become more spiritual.
See also Kundalini 101: What Is the Aquarian Age, Anyway?
Tempted to Skip Savasana? 10 Top Yoga Teachers Explain Why It’s the Most Important Pose
When you’re time-crunched, it can be tempting to sneak out of yoga class before this final resting pose. Here’s why you should reconsider.
After teaching yoga in New York City for more than three years, I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter how early the class starts or whether or not the class ends exactly on time, there will always be one or two people who leave before Savasana. I get it: Skipping the final 10 minutes of class to get in the shower early or head out of the studio before the rush may seem like a smart idea. However, most teachers —including myself—say that Savasana is an essential pose, and one you should never skip.
See also Watch + Learn: Corpse Pose
Here, nine top yoga teachers talk about the incredible benefits of Savasana. Will they tempt you to stay?
What is Qi Gong?(And How You Can Start Practicing Today)
The guiding principle of Qi Gong, is the coordination of the eyes with the body movements.
The literal translation of qi gong is “energy work.” It is an Asian form of yoga that has been around for thousands of years. Much of it is performed while standing, though there are a number of seated sets as well. There are hundreds of systems of qi gong that have come from various lineages, and many of them focus on different fields.Many are health oriented, while a separate group comes through the martial arts lineages.
These systems act to harness willpower, to focus, and to help practitioners channel their energy through their palms. There are also a number of systems from the temples and monasteries that are more focused on spiritual cultivation and depth of meditation. Some involve moving, and others are visualization based. Almost all of them involve specialized breathing, which is coordinated with the activity at hand. The guiding principle of all these practices, however, is the coordination of the eyes with the body movements, the focus of the mind, and the breath, especially for the moving practices. For the more passive, non- movement exercises, we focus the vision inward and explore the inner realms as we guide the breath to various inner chambers.
Let’s take a moment to look at this formula again to see if we can dissect it a bit more. We are looking for the coordination of all (not just a couple) of the following to take place in order for our qi gong to be effective:
The Eyes in Qi Gong
In the West, the eyes are considered the gateway to the soul and, in Taoist theory, are believed to guide the shen, or the spirit. It is said that the qi (energy) follows the shen (spirit), and the blood and body fluids, in turn, then follow the qi.
Therefore, the eyes become the “command center” for the spirit to control and guide the movement of the energy in the body. Later on, we will use the same system to direct energies outside of our body to effectuate healing and exert our influence on the environment around us.
Body Movements in Qi Gong
These are the actual sequenced movements of the qi gong exercises. Many of these follow the pathways of the energy meridians that run through the body. They also often trace the outer edges of our energy fields, smoothing and caressing the potency of the energy flow in our Light Body. These movements often involve various degrees of exertion, and depending on the system you are training in, they can actually be quite rigorous.
Recall the story of Bodhidharma and the Shaolin temple. He created a routine (called the Famous Tamo’s Eighteen Hands of the Lohan) that fully mixed kung fu with qi gong with relatively high levels of exertion. This aspect is very much like the physical yoga systems in the Indian traditions. Some hold static postures, while others emphasize more dynamic flow and continuity of motion.
Mental Focus in Qi Gong
This is a critical aspect of the practice and is the one that students most often overlook. Paying attention is a critical component to any energy work, as it engages the fire energy of the heart and ties the spirit in with the actions at hand. The ancients say the linking of attention and intention creates mastery in life. Here, we are asked to focus on the action at hand and to stay engaged in the body movements, tracking them with the eyes. Doing so demands our mental focus and presence, and the reward is immense. This aspect also draws on the yi, or shen, of the earth element.
Breath in Qi Gong
It is the vital breath that is said to circulate through the various meridians, and it is the energy from the air, if you recall, that mixes with the food qi to create the functional energy of our body. The coordination of breath with body movements and attention drives energy through the designated pathways and opens blockages. We use breath not only to open these pathways but also to gather and store the breath and energy in specific reservoirs (called dantiens) in the body. An adept student learns to extract vital energy from the air through breathwork.
See also Yin Yoga 101: 3 Poses That Build Strong, Healthy Qi
As simple as it seems, it is this framework that sets the precedent for all the magic to occur in qi gong. Now, there is much to be said about the specific movements and the deep understanding of the energy path- ways and how they affect us, but even if we were just to take this level of focus and coordinated thought and breathing into our day-to-day lives, we’d be far ahead of the game.
The good news is that we are about to learn about these pathways, and we are going to unlock and understand the mechanisms of action here. We will engage the intellect (yi) and the attention (shen) with the intention (zhi). Once this “vertical axis” of fire-earth-water has been activated, we’ll have finally unlocked the first hints of our tremendous potential, and a number of powerful changes will start to happen.
This vertical axis gives us the mental and spiritual alignment we need in order to connect all aspects of our being into our body while in our practice. The connection of all the various aspects of ourselves through the practice really begins to snap us out of our trances. Once we correct the flow of energy and divert it away from all the wasteful patterns of our past, we can start to gather and accumulate power in our reservoir and use this as a buffer against disease, fatigue, or simply falling back into a sleepy trance. When we speak of accumulating power or storing energy, we are speaking of creating places where we condense and refine the quality of the energy that is moving through us. We condense it to nourish our essence, and we refine it to illuminate our spirit.
However, we want to be careful to not think of it in capitalistic terms. This is critical in our understanding of qi gong—or life, for that matter. There is actually no need for more energy at all because there is an infinite amount of energy available to us right here and right now. In fact, all the power that ever was or ever will be is here and now.
So, it is important to not get into the “acquisition” game of energy and to instead realize where it comes from. There is no outside source from which we draw energy, like water from a well. The entire force of the universe is flowing through us at all times and in all places. Therefore, it is the impedance or the blockages we create to the free flow of this energy that makes us feel a sense of lack. We channel much of this energy subconsciously to our shadow, and we simply close our minds to the limitless flow of it because it would simply break our ego’s definition of ourselves. We keep our foot on the brake and then wonder why we’re exhausted all the time.
See also Do You Seek Others’ Approval More Than Your Own? 10 Questions to Test Your Integrity
What is the goal of Qi Gong?
The goal of qi gong isn’t an addition process; it is more a subtraction process. The more we can get out of our own way, the more we can let the universal flow of energy move through us. We become an agent of its goodwill, and we take our rightful place in eternity. This is not in some far-off heaven but here and now. Qi gong helps us wake up to the living, breathing moment in which we can finally take part. An important aspect in “getting out of the way” is reconciling the stuck energies in the “horizontal axis” of grief, anger, and frustration. This horizontal soul axis of emotions is intimately involved in the rising and falling trends of our mental and emotional upheavals. It is simultaneously tied to the cycle of life and all the trials and tribulations of the soul. It is important to not be deferential about this and to be engaged in the process of reconciling imbalances on this axis.
It is at this point in the process that most people get stuck because this is where they store the majority of the repressed charge in their shadows. Our desires for addition (wood) and our reluctance to let go (metal) lead to a great deal of clinging and suffering. In playing this game, we get out of balance and unconsciously pour more and more energy into creating “monsters” here.
In Chinese medicine, the lungs represent the metal element, which descends energy naturally, while the liver represents the wood energy, which naturally rises. The lungs sit above the liver in our body, and it is the dynamic tension of trying to maintain this inverted energetic flow that is the essence of life. One pushes up from underneath as the other pushes down. Upon death, the shen of the liver, the hun, ascends to heaven, and the shen of the lungs, the po, descends into the earth. We need them to check each other in dynamic tension; otherwise, they will separate, and we will perish.
Bringing harmony to the proper flow of the horizontal axis is what keeps our lives running smoothly and plugs us into the power of the vertical axis. The proper alignment of attention and intention requires a healthy understanding of the human condition; far from running from it, we are to be engaged, aware, and awake moment by moment.
See also Why Try Yin Yoga?
Much like the Indian system of chakras that represent different aspects of the light as it expresses through our physical body (see figure 1.2), the Taoist system uses three main energy reservoirs, called the dantiens (see figure 6.3). There is a lower dantien, which is located approximately three inches below the navel between the front of the torso and the spine; a middle dantien, which is centered in the sternum (at the center of the chest and level with the heart); and an upper dantien, which is housed slightly above eye level in the forehead (the third eye).
The lower and middle dantiens range in size but can be approximately the size of a small bowling ball, whereas the size of the upper dantien depends on the level of attainment of the individual—usually any- where from a golf ball to a tennis ball in most people.
The lower dantien is the area where we first learn to direct our breath. It is the foundation of the energy body system. The Taoists believe that it is important to start with the heaviest and densest forms of energy in our cultivation and to work up from there.
Again, yin and yang have differentiated, and the heavier and more yin aspects are located lower in the body. In fact, hui yin, which is the first point of the conception vessel (energy meridian), is located in the perineum and is considered to be the most yin aspect of our anatomy. It is the base of our torso’s energy field and is the point from which the lower dantien energy emerges and returns to. Anchoring the breath and the shen (which is more yang in nature) down to this region brings the first level of balance to our system.
Think of it like a construction job; a solid foundation below gives us a steady structure above. What we want to do in qi gong is systematically go through and balance the energies of our body from base to crown and only move forward once we have done so successfully. We want to concentrate our energy into the lower dantien and then allow ourselves to draw upon this “core” region for every movement. We want all the body’s energy currents to run through here in order to nourish the original qi and post-heaven essence.
The more energy we can release to these systems, the more efficiently we can metabolize foods and run our day-to-day processes. The more we do this, the more trapped or blocked energies we’ll be able to free and the more positive energy, in turn, we’ll have to work with every day of our lives. As we optimize the flow of clean energy through our energy fields, we will be faced with blockages that carry with them mental and emotional content that is deemed “undesirable”—things we’ve stuffed into our shadow.
The more light and awareness we bring, the more our shadows will become illuminated, which leaves less space and power available to hidden subconscious processes. This can be a bit unsettling to face, but remember that we now have increased energy and awareness to deal with what’s there. This is where the middle dantien comes into play. We use the energy of the heart to forgive these events and memories. We learn to disengage from our typical response of empowering these blockages by running and pumping energy into a polarized “solution.” We use the lower dantien to bring up the power (almost like activating a battery and plugging into it); then we use the middle dantien to transform what’s been trapped in our shadows, which we now finally have the strength and ability to deal with.
From here, the new energy is released and refined in the upper dantien, where it becomes pure, undifferentiated light of awareness. The more self-aware we become, the easier this process gets. Alchemy is actually quite fun once the “engine” gets going. There’s always something to clean—always energy to access and things to unlock. Once you get this, there will never be a dull moment in life.
See also A New Year’s Dharma Talk with Lauren Eckstrom on Embracing Your Truest Self
The Different Types of Qi Gong Practice
There is a yin and a yang aspect to everything, including the actual energetic practice. We studied the various types of energy earlier. Now, some of that information will come to light a bit more. The nutritive qi and the defensive qi are the main types of energy running through our body. They tend to our cells and service our myriad physiological needs. For these types of qi, there are practices designed to emphasize one or the other. In fact, there are also practices designed to enhance shen, or spirit, as well as other internal practices designed to cultivate and refine essence and awaken the spirit within. Here are the designations of the various qi gong practices:
This practice concentrates on the exterior energy (wei qi), which is responsible for health, immunity, and the defense of the system against pathogens and disease. It is designed to route energy to these external “force fields” and to create an energetic barrier that protects the internal organs from outside invasion.
This is a general term for the practices that bolster the nutritive qi and that also support the defensive qi. It increases flow to the different systems and provides the body with the necessary boost it needs to nourish and heal itself. Qi gong is the most balanced approach; however, it needs to be modified depending on the circumstances of the individual or for progressing into deeper work.
This is considered the higher alchemical practice that is taught in the temples; it involves a great deal of dedication. Nei gong emphasizes the cultivation and preservation of essence (sexual abstinence mixed with specific practices) so that it can be further condensed and refined to qi and shen. Nei gong leads to the formation of the Light Body and is what has been passed down by the famous Taoist “immortals.” It takes many months of qi gong practice with mental and emotional reconciliation before nei gong is considered safe.
This practice applies to the cultivation of the attention and, specifically, the cultivation of the psychic senses that help us perceive energetic rhythms universally. It aids in clairvoyance, clairaudience, long-distance healing, astral travel, and psionics/mind control. This is obviously high-level stuff, but this practice should not be considered the most important. As far as I’m concerned, this stuff is “cute,” but the real gold is in the nei gong, which effectuates personal transformation. Shen gong is often taught to priests who need to intervene in crises, heal ailments, and perform exorcisms. It is an important part of the knowledge of the Tao, but the danger in the West is in how people glorify the “powers,” which can then serve as a dangerous ego trap.
See also 5 Sanskrit Words Every Yogi Should Know
Just like the emphasis we put on getting the physical body healthy and fit, it is important to start here with the foundations of qi gong and work our way up. This means working diligently on our stance, which will help ground our energy and give us “roots.” Stances develop the lower dantien and strengthen the wei (or defensive) qi. Once we build a strong foundation, we can really begin to reap the powerful benefits of this practice. From here, we learn about the mysteries of the Tao and become more self-aware.
Words of Caution about Qi Gong
We need wax for a candle to be a candle and to serve its purpose. Thus, the practice begins with foundational work that will strengthen our muscles, bones, energy flow, and resolve. We are blessed to have these systems available to us, and it is truly fortunate that the air of secrecy that originally surrounded these arts has changed in our age. That being said, though, there is work to do, and shortcuts are dangerous.
Taoism is about maintaining balance and harmonizing the polarity consciousness that has infected the minds of our culture. Just like you can’t “power nap” each night for an hour instead of getting a full night’s sleep, you can’t not do the work. Sure, you can get away with those power naps for a few days or weeks (likely with the help of stimulants and drugs), but you’ll quickly burn out.
Again, look at this behavior bathed in the full light of what we have learned about aversions and cravings. Look at how some people will do anything to avoid feeling their past and the nonsense they will resort to in order to run from themselves. This is not healthy behavior, and we are here to correct it. The way is the training.
I have been practicing and teaching in Southern California for decades now, and I have encountered a great many “hungry ghosts.” These spiritual shoppers are looking for a quick fix and will do something that is convenient, but they are not willing to put in any real work. This is especially true if the work challenges them to face the content in their shadows. I find it very telling to see how a student engages in a practice and with what level of commitment. When someone is given a specific diet that avoids foods that they are allergic to (validated by testing) and they fail to comply because it is “too hard,” then that is a telling characteristic of a zombie—someone who is completely powerless to face him- or herself. I see much of the same with people who want the “fuzzy” stuff with the qi gong but are unwilling to do the foundation-building work. They are impatient and will get nowhere. I’m here to help, but I can’t do the work for you. I will point you in the right direction, though. So, take a deep breath, and let’s get into the training!
Excerpted from Inner Alchemy: The Urban Monk’s Guide to Happiness, Health, and Vitality by Pedram Shojai. Copyright © 2018 Sounds True. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
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