I become like a giddy child when I first recognize a connection, be it between religions, healing modalities, psychology and spirituality, humans and animals, nature and physiology… the list is never-ending, as is the inherent connectivity of Life.
Recently, I began to contribute a monthly post from Everything Elsa to my gym’s newsletter. Although I now only swim at the club, I spent decades enjoying the full gamut of gym offerings: cardio equipment, step and aerobic dance classes, weight machines, etc. So, despite the changes in my routines, I have noticed that many of the common movement patterns seen in the gym environment show up in the ancient and esoteric practices to which I now gravitate.
Mainstream gym workouts harbor a wealth of spiritual and psychological benefits that are unleashed through familiar movements, including traditional calisthenics and boot camp-style training. Following are some of the most common workout moves with their variations and surprisingly profound qualities, as described in various yoga traditions and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Squats (Grounding, Energizing, and Lymphatic Flow)
Oh, the ever-so-popular squat: However, a perky bottom is but a fringe benefit of this exercise when you realize its full potential. For starters, anytime a movement stretches the groin or works the buttocks and thighs, the First Chakra is activated; this energy center provides stability and a sense of security—it is the foundation of your physical survival.
Further, the pumping action of a squat or pile encourages the upward flow of lymph through your legs and into the nodes in the groin. As lymph flushes impurities and debris out of our systems, squats are an unexpected detoxifying agent.
To add some extra oomph to your squat session, try this version; the movement is less of a deep knee bend, and more of a quick, bouncy demi-plie. Take your arms overhead, shoulder-width apart. As you move downward into the partial squat, pull the arms down forcefully; your hands become fists, and the elbows come straight down by your side. As the arms move quickly back up, the hands open. With each downward pull, powerfully chant, “Har!” Har is the mantra associated with Sun energy, and also functions as an anger release technique.
Special note: If you are in a gym setting, you can silently chant, “Har!” But know that the vocalization adds to the mantra’s power.
In kundalini yoga, a plank is called “platform pose.” Typically, gym planks are viewed as full-body strengtheners, which they certainly are. You can, however, stimulate the brain with the following variation of plank. It may sound or feel nearly impossible, but give it a try: If you can not quite manage it the first time, I encourage you to keep trying; you likely will be able to practice the full pose after only a few attempts.
To begin, come onto all fours, hands under shoulders, knees under hips. Next, straighten your legs out behind you, so that you are as close to being on your tiptoes as possible: Engage your abdominal muscles and buttocks, so that your body is in long line. The tricky part: Come off the palms of your hands onto your fingertips; imagine that you have a tennis ball under your palms, so that they are slightly domed.
Special note: To modify this practice, your knees can remain on the floor, or you can keep one knee down, with the other leg extended back into full plank position.
The fingertips are, from the standpoint of reflexology, the seat of all the brain regions and glands; further, whenever the fingertips are stimulated, the nervous system processes signals more efficiently and calmly.
Remain in platform pose on your fingertips with Breath of Fire for 1-3 minutes. If Breath of Fire is new to you, first try panting like a dog: tongue out, equal and rapid inhale and exhale, so that your belly quickly pumps in and out. When you feel comfortable with that, close your mouth and breathe quickly, equally in and out through your nose.
Leg Lifts (Third Chakra/Vagus Nerve/Digestion)
There are numerous variations of leg lifts, all of which use your entire core (hips, low back, abdominal muscles). Whenever the core is at work, you stimulate the Second and Third Chakras; essentially, you awaken your creative abilities, your willpower, and your ability to persevere.
Additionally, leg lifts will improve “vagal tone.” The vagus nerve begins in your brain stem, moves out through the brain, into the jaw, and down through the entire digestive track and its corresponding organs. Fittingly, it is known as the “Wanderer;” think of the word “vagabond.”
As part of the parasympathetic nervous system, a balanced, vital vagus nerve offsets daily or chronic stress: The vagus nerve provides the “rest and digest” counteraction to the “fight or flight” response that, when active for too long, can lead to anxiety and even physical inflammation. (Inflammatory conditions often result from an overabundance of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline.)
Finally, not only is digestion aided by the stimulation that leg lifts provide to the vagus nerve, but the contraction and release of the abdominal muscles gently massages the stomach and intestines. When you add deep, full breathing to the mix, you create an optimal environment for healthy elimination.
So, here are three different types of leg lifts. First is double-leg lifts. Even if you have a strong lower back, I suggest that you place your hands under your buttocks to ensure that your lumbar spine does not overarch. Bring both legs to 90 degrees (perpendicular to the floor). Inhale, and as you exhale, lower both legs—knit together—toward the floor. To modify, bend your knees, and/or do not bring your feet all the way to the floor. Inhale to raise the legs, exhale to lower again, and repeat 8-26 times, or up to 1 minute.
Next is a fluid, “circular” variation of the double-leg lift: It may feel a bit more accessible or gentle to some people. To begin the Water Wheel, start as you would for double-leg lift. As you exhale and lower your legs, only descend to about a 45-degree angle; at that point, draw both knees in toward your chest, then inhale to extend the legs back up to 90 degrees. Exhale to lower part way, bend and retract the knees; inhale to return to the starting position.
Continue for 30-60 seconds, and then reverse the flow: From the starting position, exhale as your bend the knees toward the chest, and then extend both legs out to 45 degrees; inhale as your raise the legs up to 90 degrees. Exhale as you bend and extend; inhale to lift.
The third version of leg lifts is probably my favorite: I enjoy the inherent back stretch in this practice. On your back, draw one knee in to your chest and hug it tight. Begin to raise and lower the free leg, inhaling up, exhaling down. Repeat 11-26 times, or 1-3 minutes, before switching to the other side.
Circles and Twists (Aura, Magnetic Field, and Liver Health)
The final set of movements often are used as warm-up exercises for a variety of gym-based activities. Each one, however, contributes to energy clearing and transformation in the subtle realms, as well as in the physical body.
First, Arm Circles: Simple and basic, this movement (practiced forward and backward) effectively maintains range of motion in the shoulder. By dint of its stretching the entire length of the arm, the lung meridians are stimulated; additionally, opening the armpit helps to flush the upper lymph system.
Next, Torso Circles and Arm Swings: Stand with your legs about hip width apart. With hands on your hips—or relaxed by your sides—begin to circle your torso in large circles; you may have to start small, and then gradually increase the circumference of your circles. Repeat in both directions for up to 1 minute. This exercise is part of a larger kriya for liver health, but it also is known as a stand-alone “master exercise” that ensures the liver’s ability to clear toxins from the body.
After circling the torso, stand quietly for a moment, hands on hips, breathing deeply for 30-6- seconds. Then, raise your arms to the side at shoulder height; begin twisting the torso right and left, so that your arms are like helicopter blades.
Special note: I find that if I slightly bend my knees and lift the opposite heel (i.e., left heel up when twisting to the right), my hips and knees are happier.
This movement contributes to a healthy bowel system. With the torso circles, it also begins to clear the auric field that circumnavigates the physical body and governs the chakras. Further, the electromagnetic arc lines that emanate from and extend out of the body become energized.
In men, there is one arc line: ear to ear, over the crown of the head. Women have an additional, frontal arc: breast to breast through the frontal plane. A healthy aura provides protection for the energy vortexes (chakras) that empower your existence; a strong magnetic field mediates your emotions. When weak, the magnetic field allows negativity to impair your ability to respond calmly and appropriately to emotional shock or pain. A vital magnetic field allows you to respond with equanimity, or to detach from any need to respond.
Finally, the Miracle Bend: This exercise is similar to straightforward toe touches. Miracle Bend, however, is concerned with circulating prana throughout your body, and with moving energy from your lower to upper chakras: Ultimately, this results in a fully energized system, with heightened mental clarity and focus.
Stand with your feel hip or shoulder-width apart. Raise your arms overhead and slightly lean back; to protect your lower back, you may want to bend your knees a bit. Also, make sure that you reach up and out of your hips before you arch back, so that you do not compress the lumbar spine. Then, come forward and down as far as you can; ideally, your hands would touch the floor between your feet. Inhale up, exhale down: Repeat for 1-3 minutes.
Some of these movements will elicit a modicum of the deeper benefits whether or not you are aware of their potential. As with any physical activity, however, the more that you can visualize and focus on your intended result, the more complete the manifestation of particular qualities will be. Further, when you are informed and purposeful, your body and mind connect more efficiently and powerfully; quite simply, the activity and its afterglow feel better and last longer.