Silent Sundays: Prepare to Meditate, Part Two–The Way In

As alluded to in yesterday’s piece, the prospect of meditation may be daunting to some. Whether one’s hesitancy is rooted in the physical (“I can’t sit still”); mental (“I have too much on my mind”); or circumstantial realm (“I don’t have the time”), the following routine will assuage doubts, offer fundamental physical and mental techniques, and move seamlessly into a short meditation. 

Special note: I have encountered mis- or uninformed folks who wonder if meditation contradicts or threatens their religious practices. First, “meditation” is not one, abiding practice: Like yoga, there are many styles and aims. Each can serve as a complementary adjunct to other religious or spiritual practices. 

I have come to believe that this misunderstanding surrounding meditation stems from a confusion between prayer and meditation. Prayer assumes a belief in God or gods; meditation need not. (To be clear, my personal practice of meditation is rooted in my sense of God and the Universe; other approaches, however, may be aimed at improving productivity, instilling calm, or even reducing pain.) One way to explain the difference may be to suggest that prayer is an outwardly directed supplication to the divine; meditation is the inward-moving reception of whatever energy one intends to arouse.

Thus, the following routine will be beneficial for all. And it need not be used only in conjunction with meditation; any one or combination of the components will provide an efficient warm-up for activity, and help to establish clarity and focus.

Begin standing. This is the first of four spine-mobilization moves: It may be viewed as the start of a sequence, or, as with any of the others, may be done as a stand-alone exercise. From standing, bend the knees slightly, keeping them in line with the heels; bend forward to place the hands where they naturally fall on the thighs. Inhale to extend (arch) the spine as you draw the shoulders back to open the chest; exhale to flex (round) the spine. Move at a pace that feels comfortable, and that stimulates energy. Allow the neck and head to move as they naturally will upon flexion and extension of the spine. Continue for 30-60 seconds.

Next, come to the floor on all fours. Here, begin traditional Cat/Cow spinal movement: Inhale to arch; exhale to round. Breathe deeply, stay relaxed through the mouth and jaw, and extend/flex for 1 minute.

The third option for spinal work is to lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat and hip-width apart. This spinal activity requires deep attention to the breath and physical movement; it is a significant step toward uniting the two. The synergy of connecting breath to spinal articulation signals an aspect of the upcoming meditation. 

In your supine position, arms by the sides, inhale to tip the tail forward and down; this pelvic tilt is the “home base” of the following sequence. Exhale to bring the tail and pelvis in and up; you will rise to the top, rear rim of the pelvis. Inhale to roll the pelvis back down and directly into the “home base” forward tilt; exhale to roll up incrementally through the lower spine, to the lowest ribs. Inhale to roll down and into the forward pelvic tilt; exhale to roll up, sensing each vertebra lifting off the floor, to just below armpit-level. Inhale down, vertebra by vertebra, into “home base;” exhale all the way up to the tops of the shoulder blades, and stay.

Inhale to lift the arms up and over to rest on the floor over your head. Exhale to roll down, piece by piece; with the arms stretched long overhead, the lowering spine will created an intense stretch through the axilla (armpit). This may be astonishingly stiff for some, so move slowly and patiently; with repetition, the area will ease.

Repeat the entire sequence 4 more times, for a total of 5.

Now, with the body at rest and the knees still bent, feet on the floor, let the knees drop toward the left; move as if they are dominoes or windshield wipers—one leads, the other follows. Inhale back to center; exhale to the right. “Windshield Wipe” the legs back and forth up to 20 times; this will help release tension in the hips and lower back.

When centered again, draw the knees in toward you, just enough to hold behind the thighs. Use your grip to raise the head and shoulders off the ground; you will be in a little boat shape. Now, “rock the boat”: Inhale to rock yourself back, keeping the head up; exhale to rock forward toward the buttocks. Use momentum, and be aware of the activated abdominal muscles: This move provides a bit of a massage to the muscles along the spine, as it subtly strengthens the front body (a necessary ingredient for any sitting practice). Rock back and forth with corresponding breath 10-20 times.

After you have rocked yourself up to a seated position, extend the legs straight forward. Here is the final version of spinal warm-ups. Bring the hands to the shoulders, fingers in front, thumbs behind; the elbows are lifted, so that the upper arms are parallel to the floor. As you inhale, tip the pelvis forward, and draw the elbows behind as if to touch; the entire front body will open in this spinal extension. Simultaneously, bend the knees and flex the feet (bring the toes toward you), with the heels remaining on the ground.

As you exhale, rock the pelvis back, bring the elbows forward to touch each other, and let the head hang; the spine is now deeply rounded into flexion. Simultaneously, lengthen through the knees and extend (point) the feet. 

Continue this spinal flexion and extension, with corresponding “leg pumps” and breath, for 1 minute.

Now you are ready to sit. As always, support yourself in any way that contributes to an upright, aligned spine and relaxed hips and shoulders. A chair or mediation bench are other options. Here begins the next phase of moving into meditation: complete, steady breathing and mental focus. To begin, close your eyes. With your inner eye, guide the breath through the entire path of the spine you have just worked to awaken: Inhale at the Root, or perineum; draw the breath up the entire front cross-section of the spine, through the lumbar, thoracic, and cervical curves, all the way to the bridge of the nose. Exhale, and reverse the trajectory, traveling with the mind’s eye down the rear cross-section of the spine. Inhale up the front of the channel; exhale down the back. Continue for about a minute.

Next, allow this breath pathway to move on “automatic pilot.” Bring your visual focus to the Third Eye: Eyes are closed, and gazing up and in to the spot between the brows. You also will add sound to the breath, which creates an auditory focal point. Inhale deeply through the nose, long and steady, and exhale through rounded lips—“hooo”—until all the breath is gone. Repeat this inhale and exhale with Third Eye and sound focus 5-10 times.

The final aspect of focus is touch. With the hands on the knees, palms up, you will touch first the left index fingertip to thumb tip; then the middle tip to thumb; then the ring finger; and then the pinky  to thumb tip. (The right hand is quiet.) This move establishes a 4-count; repeat it to make 8. This is your inhale.

To exhale, shift your “counter” to the right hand: touch index, middle, ring, and pinky, then repeat to reach the 8-count. Work with your breath to help it effortlessly meld with the 8-count: Inhale for 8, counting with the left hand; exhale for 8, using the right-hand counter. Repeat 3-4 times.

Finally, with your preparations completed, move into a short meditation. The suggested mudra recalls the idea that meditation is an act of receiving; you have created an clear, open vessel into which energy may flow. Bring both hands in front of the Heart Center, just an inch or two away from the chest. Touch the edges of the pinkies together; connect the base of the palms; and bring the edges of the thumbs together. With this Lotus Mudra “cup,” simply sit and breathe, closed eyes gazing to the Third Eye. Inhale to draw divine or universal energy into the mudra; exhale to imbue it within your entire being. Continue for as long as you like.

Happy Sunday…

Silent Sundays: Pumping and Pranayama for Vibrancy

This Silent Sunday offers an active practice suitable for just about any person and any need. I have combined breath and both external and internal “pumping” to stimulate circulation and invigorate the lungs. The result is one of refreshment and unencumbered clarity. The combination of moves is a wonderful warm-up before meditation; or as a technique to sharpen focus and boost energy.

To begin, sit wherever and however your spine is most aligned and upright: Feel free to use any bolsters that will aid this goal. Once seated, close your eyes, draw your gaze up to the Third Eye, and take a few long, deep breaths through the nose. When you feel settled, interlace the fingers and bring the arms straight in front of you. Inhale deeply through the nose. Keep the breath in as you raise the arms as high as you can, then quickly lower them all the way down. Move as quickly as possible, pumping the straight arms with interlaced fingers up and down: Repeat 4 times. (One pump is up and down.) Then exhale, inhale, suspend the breath, and pump 4 times. Complete this pattern 4 times.

Now, maintaining the clasped hands, straight arms, and breath pattern with movement, increase the number of arm-pump repetitions: With the breath in, pump up and down 8 times. Repeat a total of 3 times.

The previous external pumping now turns inward. Extend both arms overhead, lengthening through the elbows, with the palms together. It can be helpful to lock one thumb over the other; however, the other fingers do not interlace. With the eyes closed, draw your inner eye to the base of the spine: Inhale deeply through the nose, leading the breath up through the spine to the Third Eye. With your closed-eye focus now on your Third Eye, suspend your inhale: Vigorously pump the stomach for as long as you can. Then exhale fully, guiding the breath down the spine to its base. Repeat the inhale up the spine; retain the breath: pump the stomach; exhale when necessary, and return the breath and gaze to the base of the spine. Continue for 3 minutes.

The next “pump” will address two things: 1) any arm or shoulder tension that may have accrued during the previous move; and 2) lymph circulation in the armpit nodes. Whenever one opens or stimulates the armpit, lymph flow in the upper body improves. For this kriya, the arms will shoot up and out to the sides at 60-degree angles. Your breath will naturally attach itself to the rhythm of the movement: Breath through the nose powerfully enough that you can hear the breath.

To begin, inhale as the left arm fires out to 60 degrees; exhale as it draws quickly back down, with the right arm simultaneously shooting up and out to 60 degrees. As one arm comes down and in, the other goes up and out. Pump the arms as rapidly as possible for 3 minutes. (The palms are open, with the fingers long and together; allow the thumbs to find their preferred position.)

Take a moment to shake out or stretch the arms, and to allow the breath to settle. Then, with eyes closed, prepare for your final pump. This variation builds focus, stamina, and self-control: If ever you feel as if you have become reactive (rather than responsive), or are giving in to self-defeating impulses, this move on its own will re-center you. 

To begin, bring the hands into Prayer Pose in front of the Heart Center: However, keep the hands a couple of inches away from the chest. Lengthen up through the neck, roll the shoulders back, draw the shoulder blades down, and tilt the head back: The goal is to open through the thyroid and Heart Center by imparting a gentle, modest extension into the upper spine. Here, inhale fully: With the breath in, and the upper spine slightly arched, pump the stomach as quickly as you can. When you need to, exhale as you realign the spine and head to neutral, and bring Prayer Pose to rest on the sternum. In this posture, with the breath out, pump the stomach rapidly and for as long as possible.

Inhale into the original hands-off, head-back pose: Suspend the breath, and pump. Exhale to find neutral spine with the hands against the chest; with empty breath, pump until you need to breathe in. Continue this pattern for 3 minutes.

When you have finished, fit quietly to resume your natural breath rhythm. You may stay here, placing the hands on the knees in Gyan Mudra (thumb and index finger touching), palms up. Or, feel free to ease into complete Svasana for as long as you like.

Happy Sunday…