Tag Archives: breathing

Pranayama Intensive: Sama Vritti

For the past five weeks (concluding last weekend) I was engaged in the Pranayama Intensive online class with Judith Hanson Lasater and Lizzie Lasater. Last summer I was a student in their Experiential Anatomy online class led by the highly talented teaching team of Judith, Lizzie, and Mary Richards. When the opportunity arose to participate in another class with them, I immediately jumped in. The class was intentionally offered at this time, when so many of us are sequestered in our homes as a result of the pandemic, making it for me an auspicious time to study the breath. When breathing is slowed and exhalations become longer, the slower, deeper breath calms the nervous system. 

Judith noted that Pranayama and Breathing are NOT the same thing. Pranayama is intentional control of one’s breath. Prana refers to energy, and yama is restraint. Taken together, pranayama is “working with the physics and energetics of breathing.” Within the yogic umbrella there are several types of controlled breathing patterns; the first one we explored was Sama Vritti.

But before we could practice, we had to set up the yoga mat with props to enhance the sensation of the practice. The photo just below is the suggested setup. I have tried this and did not find it sufficiently conducive to my practice so have made subtle changes. Pranayama ProppingIn place of the stair-stepped stacked blankets I used a soft bolster with a sweatshirt rolled at the front to fill in the space between my low back and the bolster. In place of a rounded bolster under the back of my knees I used a squishy bed pillow. And I prefer a small, soft pillow under my neck and head. Delightedly, the first time I practiced was on a lovely warm, sunny Saturday afternoon when our back deck beckoned. Propped next to my head was my iPad for playing the guided pranayama audio file. my setupSama means same, which appropriately is what the spell checker usually tries to change “sama” to each time the word is typed. Vritti refers to busyness and activity. Sama Vritti Pranayama is a balanced breath pattern, each inhale and each exhale being of equal duration, like a balanced seesaw. In this manner, the breath balances the busy mind. 

I have seen this breath referred to as Box or Square Breathing, though I prefer the Sanskrit flow of the words on my tongue, like the flow of my breath. I enjoyed 22 luscious minutes listening to Judith guide me in to the setup and practice, listening to the quiet as I breathed, listening to the silence in my mind, returning at the sound of the chimes and listening to Judith guide me out of the practice. 

I would like to write that my practice has been in earnest, taking the time every day to practice, be it five minutes or twenty. Alas, that has not been the case. Twice. That’s the total number of times I have practiced. Partially this is because I lead yoga practices online three times a week, and partially because I still have a day job. However, the day job concludes next week and it marks not only the end of a school year but my retirement from the world of school teaching and transitioning more fully to the world of yoga teaching, something for which I have been preparing for the past four years!

The Gene – An Intimate History (1/2)

In January I finished reading and wrote about The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I was bemused that the history of cancer could be so captivating, all due to Mukherjee’s story telling prowess and facility with language. I immediately wanted to read more by him, and last night completed The Gene – An Intimate History.

Reading this book was no small feat! Night reading was difficult as my mind tended to wander or my eyes would droop into tiredness. I had no choice but to make this purely a the genedaytime read, meaning it took awhile to make my way through the 495 pages of text. Mukherjee’s writing sparked many questions and points of interest, as the sticky tabs attest. At one point I grabbed the nearest piece of paper, a page from the Sunday Times with sufficient white space for me to jot down my thoughts after reading pages 274-275, which is one of several times that eugenics and newgenics are discussed.

My response whilst reading those pages: If we are all alike we lose the beauty of our unique human differences because often a disease in one area yields a strength in another. That variety of strengths is what creates the range of thoughts, actions, and ideas without which we become more mono-thinking, mono-acting; we give up potential creative approaches and solutions to obstacles that life presents. “Uber-normalcy” yields inability to sustain life when, as will happen, an abnormality occurs.

Turns out, Mukherjee feels similarly. As he went on to state on the next page, “What if ‘disease-causing’ gene variants were also genius enabling?” To a certain degree, this theme percolates throughout the book as scientists uncover the foundations of genes, heredity, DNA and their inner related worlds, and discover (an ongoing process) ways of meddling in that soup. To be sure, sometimes the meddling is phenomenally beneficial, such as highly targeted approaches to cancer care. But the ability to meddle with our humanity opens up numerous safety, philosophical and ethical questions to which there are no easy or quick answers. Taken as a whole, this is a book about science, philosophy, ethics, social science, history, medicine, disease, and people.

I have gotten ahead of myself! Let’s back up to page 61, where I chuckled at chicken…was merely an egg’s way of making a better egg. This was the conclusion of Hugo de Vries, a Dutch botanist turned geneticist. de Vries built upon the work of Mendel and is credited with using the word mutants (change) to describe variations in plant life. From there he postulated that “these mutants had to be the missing pieces in Darwin’s puzzle.” And from there it became apparent that “natural selection was not operating on organisms but on their units of heredity.” Hence the italicized quote at the start of this paragraph.

Parts of this book were like biology and vocabulary lessons. (I was once exposed to some of this in high school.) The interplay of natural selection and evolution as they relate to genetics results in the words genotype, “an organism’s composition…[referring] to one gene, a configuration of genes, or even an entire genome” and phenotype, “an organism’s physical or biological attributes and characteristics–the color of an eye, the shape of a wing, or resistance to hot or cold temperatures.”

Along the lines of more basic biology and chemistry, how often do any of us stop to remember that sugars provide energy, fats store the energy, and proteins enable the chemical reactions that manage the process.

With the contemplation of the interplay of nature (genes) and nurture (environment), this led to some of the early stepping stones delineated by Mukherjee (p 107).

  • a genotype determines a phenotype
  • genotype + environment = phenotype
  • genotype + environment + triggers chance = phenotype

Slight digression – as a yoga teacher who has been known to say “let your breath be your guide” and “move with your breath,” I enjoyed the visual that came from an early chapter about the “gene molecule.” Mukherjee writes “Cells depend on chemical reactions to live: during respiration, for instance, sugar combines chemically with oxygen to make carbon dioxide and energy. None of these reactions occurs spontaneously (if they did, our bodies would be constantly ablaze with the smell of flambé sugar).” 

As the story of the gene unfolds, Mukherjee paints a picture that perfectly clarified for me the process of trying to understand DNA. He explains that

Chemists generally piece together the structure of a molecule by breaking the molecule down into smaller and smaller parts, like puzzle pieces, and then assembling the structure from the constituents. But DNA, broken into pieces, degenerates into a garble of four bases–A, D, G, and T. You cannot read a book by dissolving all of its words into alphabets. With DNA, as with words, the sequence carries the meaning. Dissolve DNA into its constituent bases, and it turns into a primordial four-letter alphabet soup. (p 216)

This post covered a little less than half of the sticky tabs stuck throughout the book as I marked pages to return for further thought. As most of the remaining tabs deal with a particular interest of mine, I will save them for a second post.

It’s Alwayz Now!

Circling back to a post from 2010, in December of 2018 I crafted my first blog post on my newly created professional yoga site. Since then, having written several more posts, I’ve opted to include them here as they are relevant to our always firing neurons.


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NOW it’s now… NOW it’s now… NOW it’s now… It’s ALWAYZ now!

These accurate words were categorically stated in the December 14, 1986 Boston Sunday Globe comic strip, Rose is Rose. A young ice pop munching child asks for “Nudder ize bop pleez!” and his mother replies “No, you may not have another ice pop!” You might think the discussion is over, but being a typically concrete (and ice pop loving) child, her son asks, “Not EFFER?” and his mom comes back with “I don’t mean not EVER… I mean not NOW!” Of course, as you can see in the comic, the child has a reply.

Mom’s conclusion, as she and her son sit down to more ice pops: Your philosophy better not be rusty when you’re in charge of the ice pops!

This comic has graced our refrigerator, and more recently a wall, since 1986, when my father-in-law cut it out of the paper and sent it to us to commemorate our then two year old’s absolute love of ice pops.

It is always now. That is what yoga celebrates, to focus on the moment at hand. It is the only moment there is. Take a respite from what happened the moment before, and take a break from imagining the future. Breathe in a soothing inhale, breathe out a calm, slow exhale. Now be present in this moment and breathe again.

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Smiling Meditation

Awhile ago one of my yoga teachers, Jillian Pransky, shared a meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh. Jillian called it a smiling meditation, and I have since shared it with the yogis with whom I practice. This evening, while thumbing through Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Being Peace, I came upon the poem again. Here is what he has to say.

I would like to offer one short poem you can recite from time to time, while breathing and smiling:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.

“Breathing in, I calm my body.” Reciting this line is like drinking a glass of ice water – you feel the cold, the freshness, permeate your body. When I breath in and recite this line, I actually feel the breathing calming my body, calming my mind.

“Breathing out, I smile.” You know the effect of a smile. A smile can relax hundreds of muscles in your face, and relax your nervous system. A smile makes you master of yourself. That is why Buddhas and bodhisattvas are always smiling. When you smile, you realize the wonder of the smile.

“Dwelling in the present moment.” While I sit here, I don’t think of somewhere else, of the future or the past. I sit here, and I know where I am. This is very important. We tend to be alive in the future, not now. We say, “Wait until I finish school and get my Ph.D. degree, and then I will be really alive. When we have it, and it wasn’t easy to get, we say to ourselves, “I have to wait until I have a job in order to be really alive.” And then after the job, a car. After the car, a house. We are not capable of being alive in the present moment. We tend to postpone being alive to the future, the distant future, we don’t know when. Now is not the moment to be alive. We may never be alive at all in our entire life. Therefore, the technique, if we have to speak of a technique, is to be in the present moment, to be aware that we are here and now, and the only moment to be alive is the present moment.

“I know this is a wonderful moment.” This is the only moment that is real. To be here and now, and enjoy the present moment is our most important task. “Calming, Smiling. Present moment, Wonderful moment.” I hope you will try it.

Book Review – The Breathing Book

From my Goodreads Review:

Screen Shot 2018-04-14 at 1.24.11 PMI practice yoga and guide yoga; from both perspectives this book is a must read. Written in 1996, Donna Farhi’s guide is every bit as helpful and relevant now as it was then. I have been reading this book over several weeks (it was due yesterday!) and have taken copious notes on approaches that will surface in my personal practice and the practices I guide.

If this book or the author are interesting to you, you might find her November 2017 talk, Tradition, Innovation & Evolution – What makes yoga…Yoga, an informative and entertaining way to spend 58 minutes.

Book Review – The Relaxation Response

From my Goodreads Review:

Screen Shot 2018-04-14 at 1.16.49 PMI am smack dab in the midst of a Herbert Benson reading spree, beginning with The Wellness Book coupled with reading this book, and Timeless Healing (here’s my review)
If you are interested in the Relaxation Response, I do suggest also reading Timeless Healing, as they complement one another, with Timeless Healing providing much background material.

You can learn more at RelaxationResponse.org and try it for yourself by following the steps listed here or just cut to the chase and watch this video.

Regardless of your chosen method of discovering more about the Relaxation Response, my experience has been it is a wonderful tool for managing stress and promoting a sense of calm. I recommend trying it for yourself as it is free and something that resides within you; all you need to do is provide the circumstances for invoking it.

The Relaxation Response

I have mentioned the Relaxation Response in several posts; now it’s time for a post dedicated to this built-in self-help system that you might not even know you have.

On my other blog, Neurons Firing, I just completed two posts explaining the Relaxation Response, part 1 and part 2. If you practice yoga or meditation then you will perhaps have experienced the Relaxation Response. It is the natural, built-in antidote to our automatic “fight or flight” response, with a crucial difference being that the “fight or flight” response kicks in whether we want it to or not, and the Relaxation Response needs to be intentionally invoked. However, my experience practicing yoga has led me to believe that the Relaxation Response can be invoked without realizing that is what is happening.

During my yoga practice when my body flows as if it is immersed in a moving meditation, when my asanas are fully guided by my breath, when my practice concludes with some form of guided or un-guided stillness, I am deeply attuned to my Relaxation Response. This does not happen every time I practice, and it happens less so when I do a home practice and more often when I practice with certain teachers rather than others.

No matter when or how I practice yoga, though, what yoga does for me is release the excessive energy in my body, thus calming my mind. With my mind calmed, I am able to elicit the Relaxation Response, whether I set out to do so explicitly or not. As Dr Herbert Benson is quoted on the site relaxation response.org:

The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress…and the opposite of the fight or flight response.

This response also seems to kick in when I lead restorative yoga sessions. On Neurons Firing I have written about mirror neurons, the idea that “watching somebody do something is just like doing it yourself.” In particular, “Mirror neurons can send messages to the limbic or emotional system in our brains.” Thus, while I am guiding restorative yoga and not actually participating as a yogi, my brain is actively processing what I see the yogis doing. This act of active processing causes my brain to feel the same stimuli as the yogis – the calming, the relaxing – and that, in turn, causes my brain to tell my peripheral nervous system to kick in and  turn on my Relaxation Response.

Truly, we have an amazing capacity for self-care and self-healing, our very own built-in stress  management system!

The Relaxation Response – part 2

My previous post introduced Dr. Herbert Benson and his work on the Relaxation Response. In particular, I wrote about the opposite of the Relaxation Response, the “fight or flight” response and its relationship to stress and how stress impacts the human body. Benson’s research illuminated what he termed the Relaxation Response, the body’s natural capacity to counter the stress response.

While both responses are inherent in our nervous system, the “fight or flight” response is involuntary, meaning it is automatically set into action by the brain, and the Relaxation Response needs to be consciously called upon.  RelaxationResponse.org lists the Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response. and you can also hear Dr Benson explain the steps in the video below.

What interests me about the Relaxation Response is how it relates to the practice of yoga. I have been practicing yoga since 2005 and teaching it since 2016, and have experienced as a yogi and a teacher how yoga can help calm the body, calm the mind, and set the circumstances for invoking the Relaxation Response. The reading I have been doing over the past two weeks (yippee for vacation!) has been to help me understand the underpinnings of why yoga can be a powerful entry to eliciting the Relaxation Response, and to guide my thinking as I plan and cue yoga practice for others.

Dr Benson begins by describing the ancient yogis and their meditation practices. As a scientist, Benson was not content to merely accept what history told him. He studied, measured and monitored monks practicing yoga in Asia (Hemis and Rumtek monasteries) as well as practitioners of Transcendental Meditation who came to Harvard asking to be studied because “they felt they could lower their blood pressure through” TM.

Benson’s research found that Yoga caused physiologic changes that elicited the Relaxation Response: decreased oxygen consumption, deceased respiratory rate, decreased heart rate, increased alpha waves, and decreased blood pressure in those with elevated blood pressure. [the Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson, pgs 74-75.] In his book the Relaxation Response, Benson explains

Yoga meditation is concentration on a single point – for example, a physical object or a thought. By dwelling upon an object one may cancel out all distractions that are associated with one’s everyday life and thus achieve a passive attitude.

In my years of practicing yoga it has not been the meditation, per se, that appealed to me. Rather, it has been the physical practice of yoga – the flowing through the asanas, or poses, while moving with my breath. This breath-guided movement has calmed my body and, with it, calmed my mind, and has likely and unknowingly caused me to invoke the Relaxation Response. For the majority of my early years of practicing yoga I was not tuned in to doing any form of conscious meditation, focusing instead on absorbing the asanas into muscle memory and refining them thru subsequent yoga explorations. Still, I did practice forms of silent sitting as my various teachers each guided breath explorations during silent sitting or lying down.

Now that I am a bit more seasoned as a practitioner and as I learn to be a teacher, I believe an initial benefit of yoga is to calm the body. This is akin to Step 3 of how to elicit the Relaxation Response:

Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed. 

A good yoga practice is grounded in stretching, strengthening, and relieving tension in the body, the end result of which is often relaxed muscles. With that physical relaxation present, sitting to invoke the Relaxation Response becomes a natural next step, one that is often guided by yoga teachers as they cue breath explorations, and quiet or guided meditations toward the end of a practice. It is where I find the therapeutic benefits of yoga to truly kick in, and why yoga provided such solace for me when I initially began practicing and continues to nourish my psyche and, I hope, that of my students.

Patricia Gerbarg

Dr Patricia Gerbarg and her husband, Richard Brown, are each professors in psychiatry, she an assistant clinical professor at New York Medical College and he an associate clinical professor at Columbia University. Between them they have impressive credentials and experience integrating mind-body practices into their treatment programs where they have worked extensively with children and adults who have undergone some form of trauma. Patricia was interviewed by Catherine Spann in this week’s Being Well in a Digital Age – The Science and Practice of Yoga online session.

Earlier in the course Patricia took us through the practice of Coherent Breathing, which involves taking 5 breaths per minute. I had difficulty with this practice because the quality of the recording and the sound of the tone both were irritating to listen to, resulting in a continually interrupted practice. About a year ago the New York Times published Breathe. Exhale. Repeat: The Benefits of Controlled Breathing, which explains Coherent Breathing along with other breath practices. In the video below Patricia and Richard demonstrate Coherent Breathing.

During the interview Patricia explained that this type of breathing is one of numerous breath practices all referred to scientifically as VRBP (Voluntarily Regulated Breathing Practices). Her client approach utilizes “integrated treatment”, which consists of “standard treatments combined with herbs, nutrients, and mind-body practices.” I found it heartening to hear that she tries to prescribe few, if any, anti-anxiety medications because they can be addictive and studies are showing that increased reliance on such drugs over a twenty year period can lead to dementia.

I was all ears when she began speaking about caregiver’s stress and stress of people who generally maintain their calm when in the face of adversity – people who can manage a high degree of stress. She noted that even people who describe themselves in that manner are still susceptible to “accumulating internal stress without realizing and noticing until something happens.” Essentially, caregivers, doctors, people in similar professions cannot go through life unscathed by the intensity of circumstances they come in contact with. Therefore, as Catherine commented, VRBPs such as Coherent Breathing provide both a preventative technique as well as a coping technique.

The other portion of the interview that caught my attention had to do with the vagus nerve. Patricia described the vagus nerve as the true mind-body connection as it carries messages from the mind to the body, and from the body to the mind. As she explained, each breath we breathe influences the messages that our respiratory system sends to our brain. Slow, steady controlled breathing sends a powerful positive message to the brain, providing a short-cut to self-regulation.

Typically, during an INhale the message is to speed up the heart rate, which in turn activates the sympathetic nervous system. This automatically kicks in when we feel stress. During an EXhale the heart rate slows and that, in turn, activates the parasympathetic nervous system. The other piece of this process is HRV (heart rate variability). Whereas heart rate refers to the number of beats per minute, and can be measured by taking a pulse, heart rate variability is the time between each heart beat and requires an EKG machine for measurement. The higher HRV, the more parasympathetic activity there is, which bodes well for long-term health. Curiously, this is a measurement that is rarely provided during an annual physical! [Update 6/10/2019 – An Experiential Anatomy course I am taking shared a resource that has a helpful explanatory video and article about HRV.]

To quote from the quiz at the end of Session 5:

Higher heart rate variability (HRV) is a reflection of greater vagus activity, which is associated with better health and living longer.

Doodle Draw (visual artifact)

In my previous post I explained why this visual artifact would likely be done as a doodle draw rather than created digitally. The drawing below could use some refinement, including finer-tipped pens and use of color. Nonetheless, it represents how I see the intersection of breathing and the nervous system, and what happens when our nervous system is out of whack. (Heads up: gray scale image lower right corner, under Allostatic Load, the word that looks like “frequest” was meant to be “frequent” and the color version, though at the top, was added later just to see if color made a useful difference. I should really redraw the diagram since this is a first doodle… )

draw doodle 2

doodle draw

Week 5 Discussion and Activities

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This week, we will focus the creative time in this course on creating a visual artifact. This can be a graphic design or concept map of the content covered in the course. The intent here is to spend time detailing how course topics are connected and intersect to you. If you need help creating a visual artifact, try some of these websites:

Once you have created a visual artifact, please share it in the Week 5 Visual Artifact Discussion below.