Silent Sundays: Not Staying Silent (About Constipation!) 

While the inability to eliminate may seem an unusual topic for Silent Sunday, the causes and consequences of constipation inarguably affect one’s physical and psycho-spiritual health. At some point, most of us have had to reckon with sluggish—or completely halted—digestion. I decided to address this issue when a friend informed me that she is currently “backed up.” She is a forthright woman: It is no surprise that she announced her condition as if she had stubbed her toe.

Her plight reminded me of several situations when others I know have had to wrangle with constipation. One instance involved a former boyfriend. He let his predicament go unattended for more than a week; one day, I came home to find him curled up on the floor in pain. He was so loathe to discuss “bind” that he became quite ill. Fortunately, a trip to the doctor and a simple prescription quickly helped him.

But why the embarrassment over a bodily function gone wrong? A stomach ache or intestinal flu is readily discussed; on the other hand, the act or product of elimination is a hush-hush subject. My sense is that when discomfort is imparted upon us—the force of impact or the invasion of bacteria—we do not feel responsible for the problem. But when the process of elimination goes awry, we wonder what we did wrong: dietary choices, activity levels, stress management, etc.

The digestive system is sensitive, though: Tied directly and powerfully to the nervous system, the organs connected to digestion and elimination pick up quickly on emotional changes. The systems respond well to calm and consistency; they do not abide upheaval.

And here I can add personal experience.

After our mother died a couple of months ago, my sister and I compared notes about our emotions. Less discussed was the physical impact: Perhaps we mentioned fatigue or fogginess, but little else. Then, one day, a couple of weeks after the passing, my sister commented that she was constipated. For her, the state is a common response to stress: travel, emotional upset, small shifts in dietary routine—they all tend to manifest in constipation.

I remember thinking in the moment how grateful I was for a gut that seemed to flow consistently, despite shifts in circumstance. I should have knocked on some wood: Within three days, my bowels staged a firm, unbudging protest to the deep-seated emotions that had been stirred.

It may be helpful to momentarily contemplate words related to “elimination.” When the stress of physical or emotional imbalance accumulates, we can not “process,” “digest,” or “let go.” There is little stigma surrounding a sense of feeling stuck personally or professionally; nor should there be any hesitation to address physical impediments.

What is required for the elimination of both bodily and mental waste is a concerted, yet tempered effort. The following suggestions and accompanying routine are exactly what I did to help my body resume its eliminative function.

Special note: Certainly, there are potentially serious conditions of which constipation is a symptom. The thoughts and suggestions here concern situational constipation: brief periods of irregularity that can be remedied with a little time, attention, and technique.

First, a quick nod to some simple and accessible aids in the process: Many teas, for example, purport to have qualities beneficial to digestion and elimination. I drink both ginger and fennel every day; others swear by simple lemon juice in warm water. (It may well be that the warmth of the concoction is as helpful as the main ingredient.) Further, dehydration is the nemesis of all the body’s systems: sluggish digestion and hampered elimination need plenty of simple fluids (especially water).

Also, certain foods can help the process along: Prunes are a typical—and potent—choice. Whatever easily digested fiber food you choose, start sparingly; give it some time, see how the body responds, and then choose further portions accordingly.

And now, we arrive at The Routine. There are numerous physical approaches that will help you address a bout of constipation; the same techniques and movements will help to keep you regular in the future. 

First, find a small ball: a tennis ball will do. (If you do not have a ball, try a soup can or water bottle.) Place the roller (ball or otherwise) under your left arch: Lightly begin to roll the foot back and forth on the ball. Move up and down through the mid-foot; then, begin to roll down toward the heel. Ultimately, roll from just underneath the toes, through the width of the arch, and all the way to the heel.

Roll out the left foot for about 2 minutes; then, switch to the right foot. Localize the roll first in the arch; then, down through the heel; and finally, ball of foot, through arch to heel. Again, continue for 2 minutes.

This technique is rooted in reflexology. As the foot houses acupressure points that correspond to the entire body (where the toes roughly align with the head; the mid-foot comprises the vital organs; and the heel contains the hips and adjacent organs), the ball-roll triggers the body to relax, as if it were having a traditional massage.

When giving an actual massage to assuage digestive issues, one would gently but purposefully stroke down the left side of the belly first: i.e., begin to unlock the end portion of the intestine. Once that area is free, the “earlier” parts of the system are addressed. Think of plumbing: The deepest part of the block needs to be addressed first; to dislodge the upper obstruction is pointless, unless there is a place for the blockage to be released.

Thus, left foot first; then the right.

After the foot-roll, spend a few minutes manually applying firm pressure throughout the mid- right foot. (Both sides have been relaxed and released by the ball-roll: Now, the idea is to remind the body of its natural direction of digestive flow—right to left.) Press with the thumb tip or a knuckle: Move along and around the arch, then down into the heel mound. Focus extra attention on any hard or tender areas. 

Continue for 1 minute. Then, switch to the left foot for 1 more minute.

Now, lie down on the belly. Make soft fists of each hand, and slide them to either side of the low belly, near or under the hip bones. Simply lie on the hands, breathing deeply through the nose, for 1 minute.

Then, press back into Baby Pose. If you like, take a couple of relaxing breaths before rising to sit on the heels.

Feel free to place a pillow between the bottom and feet for comfort. This Rock Pose is inherently beneficial to digestion. Today, add another profound technique: As you are seated, begin to lightly pummel all around the buttocks and hips with soft fists. Move rapidly and intentionally, pounding assertively, yet kindly through the area. Continue for 1-2 minutes.

Next, extend the legs straight forward, or assume a crossed-leg position. Begin Sufi Grinds. This kundalini yoga movement is one of the best exercises I know to signal both the body and mind of the need to release: The move helps to eliminate detritus of all kinds.

Circle the torso first to the right: Let the body undulate with the movement. Circle fully and deeply clockwise for 1 minute; then, reverse directions, circling to the left for another minute.

Finally, come into your favorite seated position, either on the floor or in a chair. With the thumb of the left hand, begin to massage firmly the fleshy mound and adjacent “triangle” between the right thumb and forefinger. Chances are that the area will be quite tender: Apply enough pressure to address the tension. These knots of constriction and discomfort tell the story of your constipation: When all is flowing smoothly, the area will be soft and at ease.

Spend as long as you like on the right hand (usually about 2 minutes); then, switch to the left hand.

After you have massaged both hands, hold them aloft. Inhale deeply: Suspend the breath as you shake the hands vigorously. When you need to exhale, float the arms back down. Repeat 2 more times: Inhale to raise the arms and shake the hands; exhale to lower.

Now, sit quietly, eyes closed, gazing to the Third Eye. Breathe slowly and deeply enough through the nose that you feel the belly expand and release upon inhale and exhale. Rest the hands on the thighs, palms down. Relax the tongue completely: Let it float easily in the mouth. Simply sit and breathe, knowing that you have begun the process of elimination. 

Repeat any or all of the above steps as needed. Eventually, you may consider including those to which your body responds most readily as part of your daily routine.

Happy Sunday…

Silent Sundays: Top to Bottom, Conclusion–Knees and Feet

… [A] ‘sacred physiology’… maps out the body according to subtle energy currents and power points. The body has its own special sacred points just as the Earth has its sacred sites and energy currents according to sacred geography. [One] must learn this sacred geography of [the] body in order to attune… to the Earth [and] to the greater cosmos.

                              —Frawley, Ranade, and Lele: Ayurveda and Marma Therapy, 2003.

On this Silent Sunday, the final part of the “Top to Bottom” series addresses what may be the most significant aspect of the head-to-toe practice. While my belief, experience, and practice always consider the energetic vibration associated with the physical body, some areas of the body seem to transmit a higher psycho-spiritual frequency than others. The feet certainly hold an abundance of such energy, as well as portals and points corresponding to the rest of the body. This idea is underscored in bodywork modalities: reflexology, acupuncture, and marma therapy.

Special note: Marma therapy may be thought of as the yogic equivalent of Chinese medicine’s acupuncture, or of the Western massage practice of reflexology. Marmas, however, are less fixed than pressure points: Their general location on the physical body becomes specific according to the individual’s constitution, history, and current state of being.

The knees, too, are a perhaps surprising source of subtle energy centers. While many meridians flow past the knees, and several acupuncture (or qigong pressure points) may be found at the site, the knee joints represent and house a profound, awe-worthy purpose: To steady oneself on Earth, in order to further spiritual development. (As Louise L. Hay points out in her book, You Can Heal Your Life, a helpful affirmation for any joint is: “My life is divinely guided, and I am always going in the best direction.”)

One of my earliest bodywork experiences as a client—and one that triggered my interest in “sacred physiology”—occurred when the massage therapist (working on my knees) said: “The knees relate to depression.”

At the time, I was in my mid-20s, reeling from post-college uncertainty, and in the midst of a soul- and self-crushing relationship: Depression had begun to set in. My knees did not bother me, nor had I complained of any tenderness. The bodyworker, however, had zeroed in on them; her statement was matter-of-fact, and she could not have known how deeply it resonated. But the correlation between “knees and depression” stuck with me.

Now, years later, having been steeped in the practice and study of yoga and various bodywork modalities—all bolstered by a “knowing” of their effect on and relationship to the spiritual body— the idea seems “normal.” Because Traditional Chinese Medicine introduced me to the organ systems, elements, meridians, and corresponding emotional and psychological states, the body as a vessel for spirit and emotion is a concept that comprises how I live in and see the world.

Such is the nature of today’s routine: To bring a reverent focus to the hidden spiritual bounty that can be found in the physical body.

To begin, round up an array of essential oils. You certainly may proceed and reap benefit from the following practice without them; however, to anoint the knees and feet will add a depth of devotion while simultaneously enhancing the physical intentions.

For the knees, try peppermint or wintergreen oil—a few drops in a carrier oil, e.g., almond or jojoba: Gently, but firmly apply all around the joint using circular, rhythmic movement. Use both hands for each knee. Then, dot one drop of lavender onto each kneecap, and rub it in with the index fingers: right finger for right knee, left for left. Finally, tap a drop of lavender onto one index fingertip, then press that into the other index tip: Take both tips to the back of their respective knee; inhale to press in firmly with the finger, exhale to release. Repeat two more times.

Next, for the feet, try frankincense, myrrh, or sandalwood for the toes and just below (i.e., into the balls and webbing of the feet). For the heels and ankles, grounding oils (patchouli, vetiver) support stability. For the mid-foot, try any of your favorites: geranium, bergamot, or sweet marjoram are lovely options.

Now, come onto the belly. With the forehead resting on the backs of the hands, bend the legs at the knees. Begin to sway the lower legs from side to side; the hips and pelvis should remain still. Move back and forth, and consciously deepen the breath as the legs move side to side. Continue for 1 minute.

Then, release the legs to the floor, letting them straighten out naturally. You may remain with the head on the hands; or, If you like, come up onto the forearms, as in Sphinx Pose. Begin to double-kick one foot in toward the buttock, and then the other: This is a quick, “beat-beat” rhythm. Two quick kicks toward the rear with the left foot; release it as the right foot “beat-beat’s” in toward its side. In this first round of swift, small double kicks, the foot is in flexion, i.e., the heel leads the way. Complete a total of 8 beat-beats (alternating, thus a total of 4 on each side).

Repeat the kick-kicks with pointed feet: again, 8 total.

To close the set, alternate the foot position each time you double kick: The first beat is a flexed foot; the second is pointed. Then, quickly switch to the other side: flex-point is the “beat-beat.” For this portion, complete 16 double-kicks, i.e, 8 each side, alternating.

Now, roll onto the back, and extend both legs straight up into the air. As you inhale, bend the knees, and flex the feet at the ankle joints. Exhale to press the legs straight up as you point through the feet (extending the ankle joint). Inhale to bend and flex; exhale to straighten and point. Repeat 12 times. 

Then, let the legs open into a wide straddle in the air. Repeat the same inhale/exhale with bend/flex and straighten/point; you will feel a deep stretch, perhaps a tightness, through the inner thigh and groin. Move gently and purposefully with steady breathing, and the tension will ease. Also do 12 bend-and-lengthen moves in this position.

Next, lengthen both legs onto the floor. Repeat the previous movement: Inhale to bend the knees as the feet flex; exhale to lengthen through the knees and point the feet. Again, do this 12 times.

Now, help yourself up into a seated position, legs straight in front of you. If this posture proves difficult, bring a bolster under the bottom to help pitch your pelvis forward a bit. Also, you may slide a cushion or rolled blanket under the knees. Move gently into Forward Bend; keep the spine long as you bend from the hips. Ideally, wrap the thumb and index finger around their respective big toe, and press firmly into the nail with the thumbs. Keep a determined gaze upon the big toes. (If you can not reach the toes, place the hands wherever you can along the leg; maintain a powerful visual focus on the big toes.) In the posture, as deep into the bend as you can go while holding the intense focus, begin Breath of Fire. Continue for 1 minute.

Now, release the Forward Bend, and sit in whatever way allows you to comfortably repeat the circular massage of the knees. Inhale deeply through the nose; exhale through the mouth as you rub this joint. Continue for as long as you like.

Then, one foot at a time, use both thumbs to press into either side of the Achilles tendon as the back of the ankle. Press in and move up and down a few times. Then, begin to use all the fingers of each hand to pinch the inner and outer edges of the feet; again, move up and down along the sides a few times, breathing deeply (inhale nose, exhale mouth).

When you are ready, hold the foot with its same-side hand, bending the knee if necessary. In a soft fist, use the opposite hand’s knuckles to knead the sole of the foot: first, the bottom of the heel; then the arch, and finally the ball of the foot. Follow that progression a few times.

Now, switch sides and repeat the  full sequence (beginning with the Achilles tendon) on the other foot. When you have completed the massage, return to the Forward Bend position, but in a relaxed manner: Allow the spine to round if it needs to, in order for you to reach the feet.

Beginning with the left pinky toe, “snap” the tip of the toe with the thumb and first two fingers of either hand. The sense is one of a quick pinch-and-pull, as if to clip off the end of the toe. Move quickly from toe to toe, moving left to right; when you arrive at the left big toe, “snap” it, then proceed directly the right big toe. Continue moving toward the right pinky toe, which will complete the process.

Finally, prepare for Svasana. In this supine rest pose, inhale deeply through the nose: As  you do, squeeze the anus and genitals (Mula Bandha) as you turn your closed eyes up to gaze at the Third Eye. Exhale to release, feeling that the breath—the Prana—is sailing through and out the backs of the knees and the soles of the feet. 

This breath pattern underscores the need to balance Root and Third Eye—the earthly and spiritual. It further ensures that this dynamic duality flows evenly and beneficially throughout your physical and subtle bodies. Complete at least 8 full rounds of the pranayama with visualization. Then, float into deep rest for as long as you like.

Happy Sunday… 

Silent Sundays: (And When They Are Not…)

On this Easter Sunday—a Sunday of all Sundays to submerge into silence—I will not be dwelling in that inner sanctum.

Instead, I will be traveling with friends to a nearby city. There, two of us will receive our COVID-19 vaccines. (The third in our party has already done the deed.)

And I am somewhat torn. Torn, that I will be introducing a “new brew” into my body; torn, that in order to feel one with society, I must do this; and torn, most of all, that what has become a truly sacred time for me must be sacrificed.

Yet, I venture forth. For when one is torn is when one calls out most vehemently for guidance. I do feel the presence of divine accord with my choice: More accurately, I sense the guiding omniscience that led me to this day, with the company I will have. I followed several serendipitous bread crumbs to get to this point: each one seamlessly sprinkled after the next, as if I were barely a part of it.

So, while “torn,” my rend is a small one, and one that can be repaired with resilient faith. On this day, when silence will be had only on the inside, I suggest the following techniques to feel at one with the Divine Universe—centered, guided—even in the midst of whatever fray one must enter.

Each of the following practices may be done individually, or combined. None will garner curious eyes or questions: They may be done at any time, in any situation. What matters most is that you summon your focus; use it to quietly connect with that which you abide as divine.

First, find the breath: As you inhale and exhale through the nose, steady and deepen each intake and release. With your mind’s eye, track the inhale from the First, or Root Chakra (basically, the perineum) all the way up the front cross-section of the spine and through Chakras 2-5, to the Third Eye, or Chakra Six. 

Upon exhale, draw the breath from the Third Eye to the back of the skull, attuning with the pituitary gland: Continue a long, slow exhalation as the breath travels down the back cross-section of the spine, to return to the Root. Breathe in and out with this visualization at least 3 times, more if circumstances allow.

The next piece engages the fingertips. From a reflexology standpoint, when the fingertips are activated, the brain and nervous system receive stimulation. In this sequence, the orderly and repetitive nature of the move helps the nerves to settle and balance. On both hands, touch first the index finger to the thumb; release, and touch middle finger and thumb; release, touch the ring finger to thumb; release, and finally touch pinky and thumb tips together. Continue this pattern, over and over.

If the situation allows, silently chant, “Sa” with the index touch; “Ta” with the middle finger; “Na” on the ring finger; and “Ma” with the pinky. This mantra represents the eternal cycle of Life, and as such, helps one see beyond earthly confines.

Still using the hands, interlace the fingers; leave the thumbs free. With the right thumb, begin to make a tiny, massaging circle, counter-clockwise, in the center of the left palm. The circle is so small that no movement will be perceptible visually: The firm, but slow pressure is detectable only by your sense of the touch. Breathe slowly and completely with the massage of this Heart Point for about 1 minute. Then, with the fingers remaining interlaced, switch sides: Use the left thumb to circle the center of the right palm. Continue for another minute or so. 

Finally, as a closure to whatever combination of moves you have selected—or, as a practice unto itself—sit upright, and draw your attention to the soles of your feet. (Even with shoes on, this visualization is effective.) Inhale long and deep through the nose: Exhale through the mouth to send the full breath down through the torso and legs, and out the soles of the feet. The lips are only ever-so-slightly parted; no observer will notice any change. This breath will shed any unwanted energy that may have entered your system when surrounded by others. Continue for as long as you like.

Happy Sunday…