I once had a therapist who told me: “Your integrity shines in the dark.”
At the time, her words landed with a wallop, for I felt anything but honest and of stalwart character. But somewhere inside, I recognized the truth of her observation: I was trying to be more emotionally balanced; I was trying to break bad habits; and I was trying to be more selfless while establishing boundaries.
By that point in my life, I had been an athlete, a scholar, a dancer, and a movement teacher. I knew the value of and practiced discipline; and I indeed was full of integrity when it came to acceptance of differences in others, and open-book emotional revelations in relationships. Where I faltered was in my demanding stance with Self: I had so much integrity that my Heart energy could barely keep up, much less fulfill my quest for perfection.
Over time—decades—yoga and its attendant philosophies (specifically, for me, through the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, as well as the practice and study of kundalini yoga) guided me through the need to be “perfect” (whatever that means). A deepened faith in the Eternal Divine and Universal Energies carried me to a land abundant with alternative perspectives, insight, and infinite possibilities of “how to Be…”
These thoughts occur today, as a result of my unsatisfying first draft of a practice for this Silent Sunday. Full of surface observations about the current state of COVID-related masking in our communities; and a forced correlation with the dis-harmonizing energies of Mercury retrograde (as it is now), the piece lacked what I think of as creative integrity. Just as in those therapy sessions with my 20s self, I was “trying”: Sometimes, though, trying becomes trying—overly effortful, exhausting, and ultimately self-defeating.
So, I stepped away from my planned piece, lay on the couch, closed my eyes, and breathed intuitively. Almost instantly, I realized that what felt like an absence of creativity was, in essence, stymied intuition and stifled insight. In the “trying,” I had squelched my ability to communicate with integrity.
The result of all of the above is today’s suggested practice: warm-up, pranayama, and mudra.
The routine will help you break through creative blocks; interpersonal stalemates; and blinders on your spiritual progress. Although I do suggest times for each part, feel free to extend the movement and breath sequences, as well as the meditation, for as long as you like.
Begin standing. Gently shake your body. It may be helpful to start with one hand, then whole arm, then the other hand and arm, and naturally expanding the bouncy, wiggly shaking throughout the body. Do this for about 1 minute, then come to stillness in standing.
Widen your base: Let the legs be about 3 feet apart. Inhale, then exhale as you slide the right hand down the outer right thigh as the left arm lifts high. Inhale back up through center, and exhale to reach down to the left as the right arm rises. Continue this alternating lateral bend for 1 minute.
Return to stand, closing the feet to about 12 inches apart, i.e., a natural stance. Inhale to lift the arms to the sides at shoulder level, and exhale as the right foot steps forward into an easy lunge. Inhale to turn to the right, offering a gentle twist through the upper body and torso. Exhale back into forward-facing lunge; inhale back to stand, and exhale the arms down.
Repeat to the other side: Inhale arms up to the sides at shoulder level; exhale to step the left foot forward into soft lunge. Inhale to twist left; exhale back to basic lunge; inhale to return to standing, exhale, arms down.
Repeat this alternating sequence 7 more times to each side.
Special note: Lateral and twisting movements open the side body, i.e., the horizontal flow of energy, which corresponds with open, clear communication.
Now, bring yourself into your favorite seated position for pranayama and meditation. Allow the hands to rest where they naturally fall: knees, thighs, lap, palms up, palms down, next to or atop one another—let kinesthetic intuition guide the placement.
Once settled, begin the first phase of today’s breath work. With eyes closed and gazing at the Third Eye, inhale slowly and steadily to your personal count of 6. Exhale through the mouth, tongue softly extended, to a 2-count of short/long: If sounded, it might be, “huh, huuuuuuh.” Without a pause, continue the exhale for 4 more even counts. Close the mouth, inhale through the nose again for 6; exhale for 6, beginning with the short/long burst. Continue for 1-2 minutes.
Before entering the second phase of pranayama, sit quietly for a moment; allow your natural breath rhythm to return. Then, when you are ready, begin Sitali breath: Curl the tongue into a straw, and extend it out through the lips. (If a curled tongue is not available to you, simply part the lips slightly.) Inhale long and deep through the opening of the tongue “straw” or separated lips fo a count of 8. Then, draw the tongue in to press it against the roof of the mouth (lips closed), and exhale for 8 counts. Continue the pattern for 2-3 minutes.
Special note: To deepen the sense of whole-body “integrity,” connect the upper-palate tongue press to the rise of the diaphragm upon exhalation. These “domes” can also be visualized and sensed in the arches of the feet and crown of the head.
To conclude your pranayama, do this variation of alternate-nostril breathing: With the thumb of the right hand, close the right nostril; breath in and out through the left nostril 2 times. Inhale for the third time through the left nostril; close the left nostril with the middle or ring finger of the right hand, and exhale through the right nostril.
Keep the left nostril closed as your breath in and out through the right nostril 2 times. After the third inhalation, close the right nostril with the right thumb, and exhale through the left. Inhale left; close the left; exhale right. Inhale right; close the right; exhale left. Repeat: Inhale left; close left; exhale right; inhale right; close right; exhale left.
As you sit, allow the breath to regain its natural flow. Then, form a version of Vishuddha Mudra: This hand configuration opens and stimulates the Throat Chakra, which is the energetic center of communication with self and others. Although some depictions of the gesture show the second, third and fourth fingers tucked in, I prefer the following set-up: On the right and left hand, touch the index fingertips to thumb tips (Gyan Mudra); then, interlock the two circles, like a chain link. Extend the other fingers straight up, and touch each fingertip on the left to its respective partner on the right. Hold the interlocked Gyan Mudra circles a few inches in front of the throat; feel the connection between the tips of the extended fingers and the Third Eye. With eyes closed, gazing toward the Third Eye, breathe fully and deeply with the mudra for 3-11 minutes.
Finally, ease your way into Svasana. Arms lie several inches away from the sides of the body, palms up, fingers relaxed. Let the tongue float softly in the mouth; ease open through the jaw, neck, and shoulders; and feel the rise and fall of the abdomen and chest, and the contraction and expansion of the ribs as you breathe. Relax the buttocks, release through the backs of the knees, and allow the feet to fall open as the toes softly separate. Rest for as long as you like.