Prepare to Meditate–Part One: Some Personal Background

As I began to think about writing for this week’s Silent Sundays, I realized that I was distracted by the ample amount of reading I need to do for an upcoming meditation training. It quickly became clear that I needed to address my ironically divided attention: Thus was born the following introduction to tomorrow’s practice.

When I taught my first yoga class nearly 25 years ago, one of the comments I heard most often from potential students was: “I can not stay still long enough for yoga;” or, “I get bored too easily.” Because I began my yoga adventure in the ashtanga tradition, I was able to assure high-energy skeptics that their need to move would be accommodated. 

Although ashtanga yoga links multiple poses through fast-flowing vinyasa and acrobatic jumps, the tradition nevertheless requires intense focus and attention to breath. As such, like all other physical forms of yoga, the foundation for meditation is being set: In order to sit for long periods of time, the body needs to be aligned and relaxed, without the distraction of physical discomfort.

And lo and behold, by the end of any class—even beginners, who often arrived as runners or “workout fanatics”—high-energy students would welcome Svasana, and be able to “sit still long enough” for a brief closing meditation.

Cut to 10 years later: By that time, I had begun studying kundalini yoga; often, I would bring the tradition’s spinal warm-ups to the ashtanga students. Over time, the blending of the styles seemed natural to me and my students. With the added emphasis on spinal flexibility, students further developed the ability to sit for meditation. Inevitably, closing meditations became longer, if not an integral aspect of each practice.

During this time, I attended my first silent retreat, which lasted a week. I fell easily, naturally, blissfully into “social silence”: Upon departure from the retreat center, I mourned the loss of Truth that seemed to arise when one is unencumbered by the need to speak or respond. From that point forward, I have taken one day a week to be in silence: Hence, Silent Sundays.

As with my entree into yoga and teaching, I was met with bafflement when describing immersion into silence. Any suggestion that it could be a beneficial practice for stressed-out clients or friends was met with a bewildered shaking of the head: “Oh, I could never be quiet for that long!”

The ability to sit comfortably in an aligned manner requires practice and continual attendance to  the key muscles associated with posture and general physical ease. The ability to be silent requires a willingness to convene with your thoughts and emotions; this, too, necessitates mental strength and ardent discipline. As with those yoga students who never dreamed that yoga could or would be conducive to their energy, those new to meditation may have preconceptions that are directing their reluctance.

Whether one cites an energetic, physical, or intellectual reason that “meditation is not for me,” I would suggest one session in which to experiment with the basics of sitting and moving inward. The “way in,” in my opinion, begins with the body: If achy or stiff, no one can be expected to sit with proper alignment for more than a minute or two. Further, to introduce and develop mental focus, the body also offers an inroad, by dint of tangible focal points and anatomical visualizations.

The practice that I will introduce in tomorrow’s piece is conducive to any style of meditation. Further, the movements and suggestions are physically and mentally strengthening and centering: The routine would serve as a wonderful start to any day, as well as prepare anyone for seated meditation.

’Til tomorrow…

Silent Sundays: Correction–In More Ways Than One (Or: How to Hang On–Day 26)

Back on Day 20 of the “How to Hang On” series, I made an error in counting–or so I thought. Consequently, there are two entries for Day 20, which means that every day after that is behind by one. Thus, today is Day 26 (although previous posts would suggest that it is Day 25). With that correction comes the topic of this Silent Sunday’s practice. When physical abilities become limited, one has to modify, i.e., correct for circumstance.

Yesterday, a friend was asking about cautionary protocols after surgery and during rehab. She ventured: “… And you won’t be able to do yoga.”

This is a common misconception: Many Western yogis view active vinyasa, “hot yoga,” or advanced Iyengar postures as the crux of yoga. As a former teacher and student of ashtanga (aka the original “power yoga”), I , too, was of that mind for several years. Because I was an active, athletic person overall, the quick pace and heat of ashtanga appealed to my energetic tendencies.

During this time, however, I also began studying Kundalini yoga. The mental and spiritual insight that I gleaned from the tradition was enlightening: Ever since, no matter my physical ability or mental state, kundalini has been a part of my practice. About 5 years ago, it became the core; when hip arthritis struck, it became my savior.

So, in answer to my friend, I was able to say that I never stopped practicing “yoga”: I, did, however “correct for” my increasing physical limitations. And, in so doing, I have realized that kundalini will continue to anchor my post-surgical rehab. Spinal exercises, pranayama, and upper body kriyas provide an energizing, clearing, and stabilizing foundation for my body, mind, and overall attitude. When pain subsides enough to allow, I add in movements to strengthen and soothe the lower body, i.e, the Lower Triangle of chakras.

With all of that in mind, today’s Silent Sunday offering is a sample of what I do and have done every day for the past couple of years: Even as my hips deteriorated to bone-on-bone status, I was–and continue to be–able to feed the following energetic nutrition to my body and spirit. This is the most recent iteration of the practice, which means that most people with upper-body mobility and the ability to sit and/or kneel can partake of the routine.

Always, every day, first thing in the morning–sometimes before donning clothes–I awaken my spine. Depending on what my body tells me, I begin on my back or kneeling: On the back, knees are bent, feet hip with apart; I then rock my pelvis forward and back, slowly and gently. Simultaneously, I consciously engage with the breath: inhale to tip the pelvis forward, exhale to retract it back toward me. Allow 1-2 minutes of this focused, warming move.

(If on all fours, similarly flex and extend the lower spine only, attempting to isolate the pelvis: inhale to lightly extend the lumbar spine; exhale to softly round.)

Then, I engage the full spine. On my back, I inhale to tip the pelvis forward; then, I exhale to begin rolling it up and away from the floor, incrementally continuing up the entire spine until I am in a modified Bridge. Then, inhale to lift the arms up and overhead to the floor; exhale to bring them back down, followed by the articulated roll-down through the spine–all on the same exhale. Repeat about 10 times.

(If on all fours, this would become a full Cat/Cow, flexing and extending through the entire spine. After about a minute, this would be followed by “Bird Dog”: extend the left arm straight ahead from the shoulder, while extending and lifting the right leg straight back from the hip. Take a full inhale and exhale, lower, and switch sides: Repeat 3-5 times on each side.)

At this point, I come to a seated posture. Typically these days (as crossed-leg pose is no longer comfortably accessible to me), I begin with legs extended straight out in front: When I need to, which is at about the 3-5 minute mark, I come into Rock Pose (or Hero Pose); I bolster by sitting on a block, feet pulled back to rest outside of my hips, tops of the feet on the ground.

Here begins another round of spinal flexes. At this point, having warmed up, the spine can begin to move more quickly and fluidly. Use this opportunity to ramp up the flow of blood and cerebrospinal fluid, both of which foster mental clarity. Inhale to open the front body with a deep arch through the entire spine; exhale to round and open the back body. Continue for 3-5 minutes.

Next, Sufi Grinds: Roll the entire torso to the right, making sure that the movement includes the pelvis. Inhale to press the spine and pelvis forward, then circle to the right; exhale as you round, tipping the pelvis back, and continuing the clockwise circle into the left side of the circle. Continue in this direction for 1-3 minutes, breathing deeply, and moving seamlessly; then, switch to roll counter-clockwise for another 1-3 minutes.

Now, I begin to engage the arms: Often, I have done so during spinal flexes; for the purpose of today’s practice, however, focus on each piece individually. Begin by clearing the magnetic field around you: Inhale to shoot the right arm straight up, fingers pressed together, palm up, facing left; exhale to quickly withdraw the elbow down to the side. Repeat quickly with the left arm: inhale up, exhale down. Continue rapidly, with powerful nose breath, for 1 minute.

Without a break, alternate the arms up and out to the sides at a 60-degree angle; both palms face inward, toward each other. Same speed, same breath: Continue for 1 minute.

Again, continue immediately: alternate arms up and out in front of you at 60 degrees. This time, the palms face downward. Move vigorously for 1 more minute.

From here, slowly slide out of your seated posture, and come onto the belly. With legs straight or bent at the knees, prop up onto the forearms. Breathe here in Spinx Pose, in through the nose, out through the mouth for 1 minute. Eyes may be closed, focused on the Third Eye.

Then, place the hands under the shoulders, but not onto the floor: Your upper body strength supports the lift. Inhale through the nose, then exhale to rock to the right, rolling the left shoulder and chest further away from the floor. Inhale back through center, hands and upper body remaining off the floor; exhale to tip to the left, rolling the right should and chest open and away from the floor. Continue back and forth for 1 minute.

Now, help yourself onto your back. Extend both legs straight up and together: Inhale through the nose to lower them both a few inches; quickly exhale through the nose to retract them back to 90 degrees. The approximate count is 3 to lower, 1 quick beat to lift. Repeat 10-20 times.

Next, life the upper body and support yourself on the forearms; elbows are under or slightly ahead of the shoulders. Stay lifted and open through the chest, shoulders rolled back: Extend the legs out at 60 degrees, and begin Breath of Fire. Continue for 1 minute; bend the knees slightly to modify; alternatively, do one leg at a time, each for about 30-45 seconds.

You may remain supported by your forearms, or, if feeling strong, extend the arms out along the floor while keeping the upper-body lift. In this position, “bicycle” the legs out at an angle of 30-45 degrees. Continue the full-leg, alternating peddling action for 1 minute: Then, reverse (as if cycling backward) for another minute.

Finally, lower onto the back. If your hips and low back allow, bring the knees in toward you. Inhale, then exhale to bring the legs down to the left; inhale up to center, exhale to the right. Alternate for 5-10 rounds, then lengthen the legs out (perhaps with a bolster under the knees), and settle into Svasana for 5-10 minutes.

Happy Sunday…