Saturday, February 21, 2009

Pranayama for the Svadhisthana Chakra

Pranayama is a yogic practice that should be approached with caution because some of the practices can be dangerous. If you have high or low blood pressure, you need to make sure that you do not do any breath control practices without first researching what is or is not safe. For the muladhara chakra, I chose the alternate nostril breathing practice because it is an all purpose practice and cleanses all of the chakras. This pranayama practice is called Nadi Sodhana and is a very basic beginner’s practice. Always listen to the body. If you feel dizzy or uncomfortable at any time, stop the practice, allowing your breathing to return to its natural state. A slightly more advanced method is Dirga Pranayama and is a deep breathing practice that is deeply relaxing. You can do this practice sitting in a comfortable meditation position or lying down. For the purpose of this svadhisthana chakra focus, I am asking you do this in Corpse Pose the first time, to get a better feel for what you will be doing.
Lying in Corpse Pose, place your hands on your lower abdomen so that when you exhale fully your fingertips are barely touching, as if lightly kissing one another. Keep your hands in this position as you allow your breathing to slow down. You should feel your fingertips drawing slightly apart as you inhale and then coming together as you exhale. If your abdomen is not moving freely, begin here and go no further. Simply practice the wonderful habit of belly breathing. Many people only breath into the lungs and although, technically speaking, you never actually breath into the belly, when you allow the belly to move as you breathe, much as an infant’s belly will rise and fall as it sleeps, your lungs will fill with more air. If you are already comfortable with breathing into the belly, move onto the actual pranayama practice. When you are ready, mindfully focusing on the svadhisthana chakra, begin to inhale, drawing the breath first into the deepest part of your belly. This may come easily or feel somewhat peculiar, depending on your experience. It is more natural to into the top of the lungs first but you will want to draw the breath into a deeper part of the body. As you continue to inhale, allow the breath to fill your body upwards from the belly, into the solar plexus, up through the lungs until even your collar bones are filled with oxygen. Once you have pulled in as much air as you can actively draw into your body, begin to exhale slowly beginning at the top of the chest and moving back down slowly into the belly. Take your time with the inhalation and the exhalation. Try to count to ensure that they are of equal lengths. For some people this may be a count of four or six or eight or more. Only do this for a cycle of five to six breaths. Leaving your hands where they are, allow your breathing to return to its natural rhythm. As I said before, you can do this practice sitting up but it is often easier for beginners to do this lying down to get a better feel for the deep abdominal breathing required. When you are comfortable doing this practice sitting up, you may want to try a prolonged pranayama practice beginning with Nadi Sodhana and moving into Dirga Pranayama. Or you may want to do one or the other as a transition into meditation as both pranayama practices lend themselves very well to slowing down the breath and centering the body before sitting in silent meditation. Enjoy!

Becoming Light by Erica Jong

Becoming Light by Erica Jong is a collection of poems by an author who is notorious for writing a sexually scandalous novel published in the 60s. Apparently, based on what she has written in this collection, she is better known for her prose than she is for her poetry although poetry is her first love. But like many first loves, the relationship clearly hasn’t gone very far and most of her poetry is banal and boring. Although poetry is highly subjective, I can’t imagine most readers not finishing one of the poems in this collection and thinking, “I could have written that.” Frankly, most people could have. The images are not interesting or even inspired. Most have been written many times before to the point of being cliché and even Jong’s inevitable use of sex and sexuality is tedious. Perhaps when first published, some of these poems were shocking or even surprising for their content but shock value is not enough when the technique is just not there. In the end, Jong brings nothing new to the page which is what poetry should always do. Even the familiar should be surprising when it is shared in a poem.
Middle Aged Lovers I Unable to bear the uncertainty of the future, we consulted seers, mediums, stock market gurus, psychics who promised happiness on this or another planet, astrologers of love, seekers of the Holy Grail. Looking for certainty, we asked for promises, lover’s knots, pledges, rings, certificates, deeds of ownership, when it was always enough to let your hand pass over my body, your eyes find the depths of my own, and the wind pass over our faces as it will pass through our bones sooner than we think. The current is love, is poetry, the blood beat in the thighs, the electrical charge in the brain. Our long leap into the unknown began nearly a half century ago and is almost over. I think of the amphorae of stored honey at Paestum far out-lasting their Grecian eaters, or the furniture in a pharaoh’s tome on which no one sits. Trust the wind, my lover, and the water. They have the answers to all your questions and mine.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Svadhisthana Meditations and Affirmations

Yesterday I posted a yoga practice that ended with a meditation, your hands held in Ushras Mudra in your lap. Because the Svadhisthana Chakra is associated with the sense of taste, you may want to stimulate your taste buds while meditating by placing a bit of honey or something else sweet on your tongue. If you wish to chant while meditation, the seed sound for this chakra is VAM and you can hear it intoned at this site. Because the svadhisthana chakra is associated with water, another possible meditation you might want to try is to make and drink tea mindfully. Usually, when we make ourselves a cup of tea, we move quickly, almost by rote, through the various steps. But to practice it as a meditation, the making and drinking of the tea, can be very restful and bring you pleasant surprises. Before you enter the kitchen or room where you will make the tea, pause and place your palms together in prayer. Set an intention that you will make a cup of tea as part of your clearing your svadhisthana chakra. Now slowly, as if you were moving in a walking meditation, enter the room and fill your tea kettle or pot with water. Do each step individually, pausing to focus on each action. For instance, I have an electric tea kettle which I leave on my kitchen counter all of the time. So my steps may go something like this:
Enter the kitchen. (Think or say: I am entering the kitchen.) Move to the counter where the tea kettle is. (I am moving towards the counter.) Reach one hand to lift the tea kettle. (I am reaching out to lift up the tea kettle. I am lifting the tea kettle.) Turn slowly towards the kitchen sink. (I am turning towards the kitchen sink. I am moving to the kitchen sink.) Move the tea kettle below the kitchen faucet. (I am moving the tea kettle to the faucet.) Turn on the water. (I am turning on the water.)
I won’t write more because obviously it would be tedious to read and the idea by now should be obvious. Move through each of the moments, mindfully, focusing on each event as you experience it. Even when the tea is steeping, once again place your hands in prayer. You may want to chant or meditate silently until the tea has finished steeping. Drink the tea very slowly, holding the liquid in your mouth and allowing your taste buds to savor the flavor of the drink. Then, after you have swallowed the first sip, put your tea cup down and allow yourself to continue tasting the tea flavor lingering on your tongue, how it changes as it fades. On your next sip, after you have swallowed, try inhaling through your mouth to see how the taste changes. The next time you take a sip, swish the liquid around in your mouth. Always, between each sip, put the tea cup down. You may even want to return your hands to the prayer position or Ushras Mudra cupped over your lower abdomen. By the time you take the last sip the tea may be tepid or even cool. Pay attention to the different flavors that you are experiencing now. Excellent choices for this meditation include the following teas: peppermint, ginger, and chamomile. All of these teas are restful and cleansing. You may also want to do a meditation in water, preferably not chlorinated. Chant while you are soaking in the water or give yourself a slow self-massage with your abdomen and hands beneath the water. Finally, here are some affirmations to use while working with the svadhisthana chakra, using a pen with orange ink, an orange pencil, or even on a piece of orange paper. As before, you want to write very slowly, possibly using your non-dominant hand, repeating the words aloud to yourself as you write them. Write each once and if one in particular resonates with you, repeat that one several times. Or write each one several times. There is no need to rush through this. Write these affirmations not as an activity to cross off your “to do list” but as a meditative practice.
I am able to surrender my fears.
I trust myself to follow my dreams.
I am in tune with my emotions.
I adapt with grace to any situation.
I am in the flow of my life.
I release ideas that are no longer useful.
I am alive and joyful.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Svadhisthana Yoga Practice

First, I want to apologize for the delay in posting more information about the svadhisthana chakra. Life got in the way but I also felt a need to stay where I was with the chakra clearing rahter than move hastily through it. I may wish to spend two weeks on each chakra or not. We shall see. In the meantime, here is a yoga practice that helps stimulate the digestion and will warm the area. This practice has several twisted poses, all of them seated. Next week the poses will be twists as well but will be mostly standing poses. As before, I encourage anyone to look at the Yoga Journal website where you can find all of these poses and suggestions for how to modify the more challenging poses. Begin in Hero's Pose. Allow your breath to slow down as you focus on the svadisthana chakra located between the navel and genitals. Breathe down into the svadhisthana chakra and exhale from it. Always breathing through the nose, if possible, do this for a cycle of predetermined times. (I usually hold each for a series of nine inhalations and exhalations.) Shifting your body so that your feet are to the left and your knees to the right, inhale and on your exhalation gently place your left hand on the right knee. Inhale and, as you exhale, place your right hand behind you. As you move igently nto into Bharadvaja Twist, do these things very slowly. On your next exhalation, turn your head to look over your right shoulder. On each inhale lengthen the spine and on the exhalation deepen the twist. Return to Hero's Pose and then shift to the other side and repeat the steps. Once again, return to Hero's Pose. Once you feel centered, move into Easy Pose. Place your hands palm down on the knees and on your inhalation, lift the chest, arching your back slightly, and look up. On the exhalation, curve your spine, lower your chin towards your sternum, and turn down your tail bone towards the floor. (This is a seated form of Cat and Cow Pose.) Always on the inhalation, focus on the breath moving down to your svadhisthana chakra. Return to a neutral and straight spine. Inhale and exhale a few times. Then, on an exhale, take your left hand and place it on your right knee and place your right hand behind you. Inhale, lenghtening through the spine, and on your exhalation, deepen the twist, turning to look over your right shoulder. Hold for several cycles. Returning to the center on an exhalation, inhale and exhale a few times before either moving to turn towards your left or you may choose (and I recommend this) once again curving and arching your back, in rhythm to your breath, as you described above before twisting gently towards the left. Using your hands, move your right leg over your left and towards the outside of your left hip. Pull the left foot back and towards the outside of your right hip, gradually moving your body into Cow Face Pose. However, rather than moving your hands into the full pose (as pictured to the left), move your arms into Eagle Pose, your right elbow crooked into your left, pressing your palms together. Inhale and exhale as you hold this pose. Repeat the pose on the other side, with your left leg and arm on top, holding the pose for the same cycle of breaths. The previous poses opened up the svadhisthana chakra while this one closes in around it. You may choose to do the full Cow Face Pose with the right leg on top, after you have held it with Eagle Pose arms but before moving the left leg on top of the right. Return the right leg to the top but this time extend the left leg out before you so that it is flat on the ground, the left foot flexed. On your next exhalation, lower your torso over your folded leg. This is a lovely and deep stretch and you do not have to go far to get the full benefits. Use your hands to balance yourself or, if you are more flexible, allow your upper body to rest on your lower body. Hold for your cycle of breaths. Stretch your right leg out to Staff Pose. As you did in Easy Pose, lift the chest on your inhalation, looking upward and on your exhalation curve your back and lower your chin towards your sternum. Do this slowly, without haste, focusing on drawing your breath down towards the svadhisthana chakra. Before repeating the above stretch on the left side, pull the right leg so that your heel is as close to your right buttocks as you can make it. Wrap your left arm around your right leg and, on the exhalation, twist and place your right hand behind you. (If you are more flexible and able to hook your left elbow around your right leg as pictured to the left, all the better.) Stay in Twisted Sage Pose before repeating the last three poses on the left. Return to Staff Pose and hold for the cycle of breaths you have been using for all of the practice. Do not arch and curve your spine, this time. When you have finished, lower yourself slowly into Corpse Pose. Place your hands on your lower abdomen. Your fingertips should lightly touch, your fingers close together and covering the area where the svadhisthana chakra abides. Inhale and feel how your fingertips flow apart with the rising of your adbomen. Exhale and feel how they move towards one another to touch again. Your breathing should be very slow, very steady, and very deep as it moves down to the svadhisthana chakra. When you are ready, lay your hands to either side, palms facing up, and stay in Corpse Pose until you are ready to roll over onto your right side and sit up. You may now move into Lotus, Half Lotus or Easy Pose. Placing your hands in prayer position at the level of your heart, shift your palms so that your right thumb is closer to your body than your left. On the exhalation, allow your hands to slowly lower towards your lap as your fingers interlace as if your right hand and your left hand were holding one another. Rest your hands in Ushas Mudra and sit in silent meditation. If you like, you may also want to do this for the cycle of breaths and then raise your hands again into prayer position before repeating the same mudra but with your left thumb on top. Feel the subtle difference in your hands feel when the one thumb lies over the other. Hold this repetition for the same number of breaths.

The Gift of Change by Marianne Williamson

The Gift of Change: Spiritual Guidance for a Radically New Life by Marianne Williamson is perhaps the closest she’s ever come to writing a follow up to her seminal A Return to Love. The problem with writing a brilliant first book is that rarely can the author ever achieve the same level of surprise and relevance. M Scott-Peck suffered the same consequence when his book The Road Less Traveled exploded onto the best-seller list. In this book, Williamson explores many of the themes she has touched upon in her other books but has never sunk deeply into them. Drawing on the principles of A Course in Miracles, she looks at how we can change our world not by force but through love. Ultimately she promotes an idea of changing our perceptions and ourselves to do what we think needs to be done suggesting that it is not until we first change that our perceptions can change and when our perceptions are changed sometimes we no longer see a need to change the world. Ahhhh . . . the irony! While I respect and even appreciate her drawing upon the teachings of A Course in Miracles, I would have preferred for her to give specifics. It is said that people can make the Bible say anything when they take quotations out of context. This is why it is necessary to look up the references when quoted to ensure that the author is not misapplying or misinterpreting the text. My frustration with The Gift of Change merely grew with every quotation from A Course in Miracles that was not contextualized with a clear reference for me to look up. Of course, most readers will not bother nor care. But when I read Williamson saying that God had to tell the Israelites to stop celebrating after God closed the Red Sea over the pursuing Egyptians, my skepticism rises. (See Exodus 15 for the praise song that Moses and Miriam both sing and you will see no reference to God telling them to stop.) What I do appreciate most about Williamson’s teachings, and what I found the most threatening when I first read A Return to Love ages ago, is her ability to take the stories from the Bible and make them metaphorically meaningful. At the time I read her first book, I resisted this. I was new to Christianity and took the teachings more literally than I do now. As I matured in my faith, I found myself wondering why interpretation of the text had to be so literal. Now I feel more comfortable with Williamson’s ability to take these stories from the Old and New Testaments and give them meaning for our twenty-first century lives. I just wish she weren’t careless about the details. Hopefully someday she will write a book in which she references A Course in Miracles and actually give a chapter and verse for her quotations. Or maybe someday the publisher will come out with an annotated/footnoted version that will include these things. In the meantime, for those who wanted a sequel to A Return to Love, this may be the closest thing one can find.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Atonement by Ian McEwan was loaned to me by my glorious friend, Gina. I plowed through another book she lent me but this one sat on my shelf, waiting for the two of us to slow down long enough to see one another. The other day as I was organizing my bookshelf, I realized that we haven’t seen one another for a long time. So I guess, in a way, reading this novel was my way of reconnecting with Gina. On the back of the novel is a blurb about McEwan that states he “could be the most psychologically astute writer working today.” I cannot agree more. The entire first part of the novel leads slowly through the detritus of living. Small actions and decisions lead to an almost predictable outcome. What seems to be a tedious telling of too many details proves to be a subtle unwrapping of the various personas that people the pages. As the story continues, what was known becomes unknown, what the reader might assume becomes surprisingly irrelevant. However, I confess that something happens in part three that so offended me I nearly stopped reading. I only persevered because I was sick in bed and didn’t want to bother finding another book. I had come so far, I figured I would finish. I’m glad I chose to finish. The conclusion is perfect and while some may disagree with McEwan’s choice, I cannot praise it enough. I haven’t seen the movie. I am debating if I should. I like the book enough to want to leave it uncompromised.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Spring of My Life by Kobayashi Issa

Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku by Kobayashi Issa (trans. by Sam Hamill) is a lovely collection of haibun and haiku by the poet traditionally known as Issa. The elegance of his prose, his ability to communicate Buddhist tenets is elegant, and I didn’t want the reading to end. But his writing is not only about the elevated. Rather, he draws profundity from things as mundane as frogs to something as heartbreaking as the death of an infant daughter. For those who are trying to practice living in the now, who may have heard of Bassho’s The Way of the Haiku but not seen how it is practiced/applied, this book is a lovely example of these things. As Kobayashi describes first in prose a moment from his experience and then condenses it into the traditional seventeen syllables of a haiku, the reader is witness to the delicacy, the impermanence, of each moment. Here is the fourteenth haibun in the collection, only the first paragraph and the haiku beautifully translated by Sam Hamill.
It is often said that the greatest pleasures result in the greatest misery. But why is it that my little child, who’s had no chance to savor even half the world’s pleasures—who should be green as new needles on the eternal pine—why should she be found on her deathbed, puffy with blisters raised by the despicable god of smallpox? How can I, her father, stand by and watch her fade away each day like a perfect flower suddenly ravaged by rain and mud?
This world of dew is only the world of dew— and yet . . . oh and yet . . .

Monday, February 16, 2009

My Mother My Self? Whatever!

Back in 1977 My Mother, My Self by Nancy Friday became an instant best-seller, coming out at a time when feminist ideals were riding high. My mother brought home a paperback copy of the book (probably a year later) and I remember reading it voraciously, even underlining passages. So last year when my mother suggested we reread it, I was eager to do so. She said she wanted to read it to better understand her relationship with her mother and that it would be interesting to read now that I am a mother and we have even more generations of women to consider (meaning my daughter) in our reading. I started reading it but nothing was clicking. I set the book aside but then after reading Bitch by Wurtzel I decided to give Friday’s book another chance. I figured that if I could not identify with Wurtzel’s feminism, maybe I needed to revisit Nancy Friday’s. I made it through another chapter and started another before I stopped again. I simply can’t recognize myself in these pages at all. Nor my mother. When Friday writes about how little boys know when they are aroused because they have a penis that gets harder but that little girls, because their anatomy is hidden and layered cannot tell, saying “there is no physical signal by which she can connect the inchoate feelings in her mind to the life of her body” she is not speaking for me or for my experience at all (102). It is disappointing, trying to re-read a book that clearly inspired me to underline with enthusiasm once upon a time and find it so utterly lacking in any relevance. I have a little more sympathy for Wurtzel when she says her generation (and she is only 5 years younger than I so not far removed from my own) cannot find themselves in the pages of feminist literature of the Steinam/Ms Magazine era. Then again, Ms Magazine declared that Friday is not a feminist so maybe it’s just a matter of one woman’s opinion over another. I wonder if my mother, upon rereading it, found anything relevant.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Red Azalea by Anchee Min

Red Azalea by Anchee Min is a memoir that takes place in China during the 60s and 70s after the Cultural Revolution. The impact of communism on her family is evident when she says very early on in the book that she was already an adult at the age of five. The responsibility of taking care of her younger siblings while her parents served the party ages her quickly. I read her semi-autobiographical novel Katherine about ten years ago and wanted to read this memoir even back then. Although the same story spans a very brief part of Red Azalea, reading the details without the distance, the pretense, that fiction affords makes the events all the more heartbreaking. And that is the one word that comes to mind throughout. As Min’s life moves from place to place, the party telling her where she can best serve, the inevitability of her experiences is so compelling in spite of the predictability of the tragedies to come. Although the book is not written with the now familiar narrative style of most memoirs. The only time Min uses quotation marks is when one of the characters is quoting Chairman Mao. This stylistic affectation is effective and although obvious at first soon becomes as natural as reading dialogue broken into paragraphs and defined with the appropriate punctuation. The author also chooses to name the people not by their Chinese names, although there are exceptions to this. Rather than offering a transliteration of the Chinese names, she calls the characters by their names’ meanings. So her sister is called Coral and a friend Little Green. This makes the memoir perhaps easier to read for an English reading audience so I am not begrudging the necessity of it. I found this book difficult to put down and found the story invading my dreams. A truly compelling and fascinating memoir. As seems to be the norm, the ending is hasty, rushing through six years of living in only a couple of pages. While it affords some closure for the story, I would have preferred either a more inconclusive ending, with perhaps an epilogue describing in slightly more detail her life after Chairman Mao’s death. I am now eager to read more of her books and regret waiting so long to read this wonderful book.