Silent Sundays: Reminder Nuggets

Today, Silent Sunday provides an opportunity to revisit some foundational and demonstrably effective ways to attend to emotion, mind, and body. From spinal flex routines, to mighty mudras, to powerful pranayama, to essential oil elixirs, these techniques address myriad concerns and aims.

Special note: Depending on your personal need of the day, you could select one of the following techniques; or, experiment with them all to create a longer customized practice. I will offer an example of such a routine in closing.

First is an array of spinal flexes. These movements never fail to awaken the mind and body. Interestingly, although the flexions, extensions, and rotations are natural and vital for our body and nervous system, they are not typical daily movements in most contemporary cultures. But as a morning wake-up, nightly wind-down, pre-meditation warm-up, or midday attention booster, they are unparalleled.

You may do this combination seated on the floor or a chair, or even standing. Begin by inhaling to arch (extend) the spine forward; then exhale to round (flex) the spine back. Keep the hands in one place (knees or thighs, or on the hips if standing), and focus on moving the spine forward and backward through the frame of the shoulders. Continue for 1-3 minutes, giving yourself plenty of time to move from initial stiffness to fluid ease.

Then, begin Sufi Grinds. This adds side-space movement to the forward/back move: Inhale to move the spine forward and to the right; exhale as you move back, and around to the left, circling the entire torso and allowing the pelvis to move as well. Continue “grinding” clockwise for 1 minute, then reverse to circle to the left. Breathe deeply, and use the movement to massage the inner organs: This is an excellent way to aid digestion.

From here, come onto all fours: Cat/Cow essentially transposes the seated (and thus vertical) spine to a horizontal plane. Any time one shifts movement to another level or orientation, the brain receives a burst of alertness, while circulation improves and muscles are challenged. On your hands and knees, inhale to deeply arch the spine, open the chest, and look forward or slightly up; exhale to round, tuck the tail, and allow the head to hang. Continue for 1 minute: If you find a spot that feels stuck or stiff, remain in the position, breathing and wriggling into the area, and then resume the flex/extend movement.

The next infallible tool in this particular “kit” is Nadi Sodhana, or Alternate Nostril Breathing. I have found that this pranayama can resolve restlessness, anxiety, overthinking, worry, and even anger: As a balancing, centering technique, it comes to the rescue every time. 

Special note: An easy way to remember when to change fingers/nostrils in this breathing technique is to switch after each inhale. Using this method, the pattern quickly becomes second-nature. 

Sit in your favorite meditative position. Typically, one uses the right hand to guide the breath through the nose; if you are injured or unable to use the right hand, the left is fine. Simply make the necessary adjustment to the following instructions. I enjoy keeping the left hand in the lap, palm up, when practicing this pranayama. If you prefer a mudra, or to keep the palm down, feel free: You also may find that the resting hand wants to do something different each time your practice; follow your intuition and the need of the day.

Further, I tend to use the right thumb and ring finger, with the  flat space between the first and second knuckles of the index and middle fingers resting on the Third Eye. Again, though, if you are more comfortable with a different configuration, e.g., thumb and index as the “operators,” certainly do that. 

Regardless, begin by closing the right nostril with the right thumb. Inhale slowly and deeply through the left nostril; then, close the left with the ring (or index) finger, and exhale fully and steadily through the right nostril. Inhale through the right; close the right; and exhale through the left. Inhale left; close it; exhale right; inhale right; close; exhale left. Continue with this alternate-side breath for 3-7 minutes.

Now, it is mudra time. There are countless hand and finger configurations in different religions, cultures, and practices. To select even five favorites would be a true challenge for me: Instead, I offer three that find their way into my daily practice almost every time. Each is simple, soothing, and seems to open a portal for prayer and mediation. 

First is a Heart Center mudra. Almost always, I close a kriya, prayer, or meditation with some variation of hands-on-heart: The classic Prayer Mudra is a good example of such a gesture. One version that I use without thinking is to hold my gently fisted right hand with the left, and bring the package to rest on my chest.

As a fundamental hand position during pranayama or meditation, I enjoy placing the left hand in the right, both palms up with the thumb tips touching. Simply rest the hands in the lap or at the base of the belly.

And, of course, Gyan Mudra is a traditional and oft-seen and -used gesture. This classic configuration touches the thumb tip to index finger tip: One may also curl the index fully underneath the thumb, or partially, to about the level of the first knuckle. Gyan mudra is used to enhance communication and to invoke divine wisdom. 

More often than not, I use a different finger as a one-finger mudra. If needing patience and discernment, I’ll touch middle finger to the thumb tip. Or, to energize any thought, movement, or goal of a particular practice, use the ring finger and thumb. To align with subtle and Universal energies, touch pinky to thumb tip. These are all fundamental, powerful mudras; as such, they form the basis of more complex configurations. Use your kinesthetic and intuitive abilities to feel your way toward one that suits you at any given moment.

Finally, a frequently overlooked adjunct to any practice, and a highly therapeutic modality any time: essential oil blending. As with mudras, I find it difficult to choose “favorites,” as I use the oils for specific purposes: However, I do use the following oils most often, either in combination with others, or as their own elixir. Regardless, a carrier oil that harmonizes with your skin is also an important part of creating an oil mix.

Most often, I use jojoba oil as a base. I may blend it with Vitamin E oil, and/or almond oil. Others swear by avocado, apricot, or even olive oil; my skin and nose, however, prefer the more neutral carriers.

As for go-to essential oils: peppermint, lavender, geranium, and vetiver are among my personal staples. In different combinations, I may add eucalyptus or thyme; bergamot, orange, or neroli; or deeper, “woodier,” oils, e.g., patchouli. When selecting oils, sniff them as you would when choosing a fragrance: If it is unappealing, trust that your body will not respond easily to your desired therapeutic goal. If an oil “sparks” or “perks” your nose, it likely will serve as an excellent mood or energy boost. Conversely, an oil whose scent immediately soothes or quiets you will be an excellent start for a grounding blend or sleep aid.

To close, the following is an example of how one might combine the above power-players into a full practice. Begin by anointing yourself with an oil or blend: If you want a more meditative session, try lavender alone, or in combination with vetiver or frankincense. If you need energy or stimulation, peppermint or sweet orange oil are wonderful choices. Regardless, dab your selection onto the soles of the feet, wrists, and temples.

Then, spend a few minutes warming up the spine. If you prefer only the seated spinal flexes, or alternatively, only Cat/Cow, that is fine. Be sure, though, that you move deeply and long enough to expel stiffness from the muscles and distractions from the mind. A thorough stimulation of the spine will aid the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, which in turn will enhance concentration and meditation.

With the body prepared, settle in for several minutes of Alternate Nostril Breathing. When you have finished, sit quietly with a selected mudra. Keep the eyes closed, gazing to the Third Eye, and allow the vibrations from movement, breath, and the imbuing oils to settle. If you like, you may further integrate the energies with a few minutes in Svasana.

Happy Sunday…

Silent Sundays: Water, Water–Part 2: “But” Check

In last week’s Silent Sunday, I described the persistent edema (swelling) of my post-surgical leg: From thigh to knee to ankle, through the entire foot, the swollen limb has been aesthetically disconcerting and extremely uncomfortable. “Pain” is not entirely appropriate to describe the sensation of the tightly encased sausage that is now my leg; however, “insidious discomfort” aptly reflects the state of my leg… and my thoughts about it.

For today’s writing, I revisit the treatment that I created last week. After a week of noting my response to queries about my healing, I decided that both my attitude and last week’s therapeutic routine needed some tinkering. Throughout the week, I would answer the question of, “How are you doing?” or, “Are you making progress?” with a pause; then an affirmation of steps forward; followed immediately with a “but…” That “but” led into the description of the edema that would not quit. I found that my focus was more on the negative, i.e., incessant swelling, than the overall positive and real demonstrations of progress.

As I thought about the way in which I responded, I realized that my one-pointedness with regard to the edema may well be the thing that is preventing the full release of fluid. I was holding on to my discomfort and disappointment in a way that usurped the wonder of a new hip. Instead of accepting and encouraging the swelling and its drainage, respectively, I felt beleaguered and betrayed by its refusal to abate.

I do believe that each aspect of the original treatment that I created last week is beneficial. My demeanor around it, however, either negated or hampered its full effect. To remedy that, I have vowed to eliminate the “but” when asked about my recovery: From here on out, the answer will contain no reference to the edema (unless specifically asked).

Further, I have redesigned the routine itself to include a more developed pranayama; an essential oil blend to aid the goal of moving fluid; and an intense cleansing and energizing portion. Anything that may have appealed to you from last week’s suggestions certainly has its place in this new version: for example, color visualization and therapeutic sound. Keep the pieces that resonate with you, or try today’s variation as a brand new routine unto itself.

Special note: Although the following treatment arises out of my need to eliminate post-surgical fluid retention in the leg, the intricate pranayama and enlivening core exercise are profoundly effective means to center and refresh. If you are on your feet a lot, or conversely, sit for most of the day, today’s offering provides a full recharge.

First, I created an oil elixir that I applied to both legs and feet before embarking on the practice. Although I typically use only jojoba oil as a carrier for essentials, I for some reason intuited the need for a carrier blend: My base consists of sweet almond, Vitamin E, and jojoba oils. Roughly, I used 3 parts jojoba, to 2 parts almond, and 1 part Vitamin E.

For the healing essentials, I chose cypress, geranium, rosemary, and lavender. My first choice would have been Juniper Berry (instead of Cypress), but they offer similar effects: Cedarwood also would be a fine substitute. Feel free to select according to intuition and your nose’s preference. 

Once the therapeutic blend has been absorbed (the Vitamin E and Almond oils need that time; jojoba, with its natural likeness to human sebum, absorbs almost immediately), position yourself on your back. Legs and feet should be elevated high enough to be clearly above the level of the heart. Cover yourself if that feels right to you.

Now, once again employing Varun Mudra on each hand—pinky finger held down into the palm by the thumb—position your hands, so that the three available fingers of the left hand (middle, ring, and pinky) line up and lie against the 3 free fingers of the right hand. Rest both hands where they naturally fall on your belly. Close your eyes, and begin the following pranayama pattern:

Ujjayi breath: 6 rounds, deeply inhaling and exhaling through the nose; the tongue rests down, away from the roof of the mouth, so that the throat gateway is fully open.

U-breath: This means that you will breath in through the mouth; out through the nose; in through the nose; and out through the mouth. For the first inhale, curl the tongue back toward the throat, touching the tip to the rear roof; breathe in through slightly parted lips. 

Keep the tongue in place as you exhale through the nose. Then, breathe in through the nose, ujjayi-style, and out through the mouth: With lips in an O shape, exhale a long, steady “whoosh.”

Repeat the U-breath 3 times.

Now, do 1 ujjayi, followed by 1 full U-breath. Repeat for a total of 6 rounds.

Next, keep Varun Mudra, but leave the left hand resting on your torso; the right hand comes to the nose. Use the right index finger to close the right nostril: Breathe in and out through the left nostril 3 times. Breathe slowly, deeply, and steadily. Change hands, closing the left nostril, and repeat 3 breaths in and out through the right nostril.

To continue, bring the left palm to rest atop the belly button; release the mudra. Bring the right hand (without Varun Mudra) to the nose: Use the right thumb to block the right nostril; breathe in through the left. Close the left with the right ring finger; exhale through the right. Inhale through the right; then block the right to exhale through the left. Repeat Nadi Sodhana for a total of 3 rounds.

Finish with one more round of the opening pattern: 1 ujjayi, followed by 1 full U-breath.

Let both hands rest on the navel, one atop the other. Rest for a moment, allowing the breath to steady and find its natural flow.

Now, bring both legs to 90 degrees. In my case, I had to use a pillow to bolster my hips, as well as hold my legs steady. If you need to accommodate any limitations, do so. Like me, you may find that after the first round, you will not need to use support.

With the legs at 90 degrees, begin Breath of Fire. Aim for 26 of these rapid, belly-bouncing breaths through the nose. Then take a brief break, keeping the legs up.

For Round Two, raise both arms straight up from the shoulders: You will resemble an upside-down bug. Again, Breath of Fire, this time for 30-40 pulsing breaths.

Relax the arms down, resting about 6 inches away from the body on each side, palms down. Repeat Breath of Fire: Aim for 10-20 more breaths than the last round.

For the final round of this purifying, energizing, strengthening set, interlace the fingers behind the neck. Give your all to Breath of Fire for at least 50 breaths.

When you are done, slowly lower the legs back onto your elevated support. If possible, ease the feet down off of the elevation, knees bent, to lift the hips either all the way or as much as you can toward Bridge Pose. Breathe deeply in whatever position you can attain.

Then, with your legs either elevated or resting down at the level of the heart, enter Svasana. Remain here for as long as feels right to you.

Happy Sunday…

How to Hang On–Day 28: Breathe, Please

Now, more than ever, as the anticipated day draws ever closer, conscious breathing needs to be front and center. Even low-key excitement can shorten and abate the breath; when the mind gets hold of anticipation, the body reads “fight or flight.” In those moments, one must remind oneself to regard complete, calming breaths as a decision. 

As I marveled this morning about how still and even-keeled I felt inside, I suddenly realized that part of the stillness was the very little movement through my belly, ribs, and chest. When I scanned a bit further, I found that my breaths were far from full and far from deep.

Ironically, when I met with the surgical nurse yesterday as part of pre-surgery protocol, she mentioned the importance of breath in pain management. I assured her that breath work is familiar to me and part of my daily practice. So, when I discovered this morning that my breath had taken a back seat to thoughts of Surgery Day, I inwardly chuckled and lightly chided myself for the lack of my supposed discipline.

So, my light movement practice this morning gave way to a focus on pranayama. One of the simplest, most effective combinations I enjoy is the following:

Begin with chest openers: spinal flexes, arm swings (criss-cross in front), arm circles, and modified back bend or Camel Pose.

Sitting, place on palm on the belly just beneath the navel, with the other hand resting on top. Inhale into the cradle of the palms for a count of 4; exhale for 4 (breathing through the nose).

Repeat 4 times.

Continuing to breathe through the nose, increase both counts to 6; repeat 6 times.

Now, release the hands to the knees, left palm up, right palm down: Breathe in through the nose for 6; pause for 2; exhale long and steady through rounded lips for 8. Repeat 8 times. (The hand position and breath change represent taking in and letting go; this is a particularly beneficial breath when coping with anxiety or distracting thoughts.)

Close with a trio of breaths that alternate nostrils. Using the right thumb to close the right nostril, place the left palm on the knee, palm up, index finger and thumb touching. Breathe in and out through the left nostril, very slowly, for 3 rounds (no count). Change hands—left thumb closes left nostril; right hand lies palm up with Gyan Mudra on right knee—and repeat through the right nostril.

Then, using the right thumb to operate the right nostril, right ring finger to open and close the left, place the left hand on the knee, palm down, no mudra. Close the right nostril to breathe in through the left; close the left to breathe out through the right; then in through the right, out through the left. Repeat the entire round 5 times.

Finally, sit quietly, left hand resting in the palm of the right, with the hands in the lap. Touch the thumb tips together, send your closed-eye gaze up to the Third Eye, and breathe in and out through the nose. Stay here for as long as you like, allowing the body and mind to integrate the calming benefits of the pranayama.

’Til tomorrow…