Just breathe

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The wind is an incredibly powerful scientific phenomena. Areas of high pressure send air into areas of low pressure causing wind, and in doing so these winds can create what are sometimes massive storms. Hurricanes and tornadoes are winds which create so much power that they can be especially destructive to our, human’s, way of life. While we at the Playful Yogi would never want anyone to suffer, quite the opposite actually we’d rather everyone be happy and healthy always, we also think it’s super cool that the simple manifestation (a perceptible, outward, or visible expression – thank you Merriam-Webster!) of wind can change so much. In fact, while wind possesses the power to destroy, wind also has the power to build; wind can be used to generate electricity. It’s amazing that what seems like a the simple act of air transfer between high and low pressure zones can do so much!
What’s more, wind moves things: the earth can be picked up, and moved to another spot by the wind; the wind can create waves in our oceans, disturbing and moving otherwise calm water; and wind can stoke and spread fire. Wind is universal, meaning that the idea of wind moving and transforming (did we mention that wind has the power to break down rock) affects everything and everyone, everywhere. And, there’s an individual form of wind, i.e. the breath.

The breath moves the physical body, every time we breathe our lungs physically expand on inhale and contract on exhale and our diaphragm (a muscle at the base of our rib cage) domes and contracts on inhale and exhale, respectively. While practicing flow, a type of yoga often referred to as Vinyasa, to place with intention, we assign a breath to each movement. For instance, from standing tall at the top of your mat with arms by your side, in mountain pose, tadasana, “Inhale lift your arms overhead for urdhva hastasana, upward facing salute, exhale bend forward at your bellybutton for uttanasana, standing forward bend,” or from forward fold, “Inhale halfway lift, ardha uttanasana, exhale plant the hands and step back to downward facing dog, adho mukha svanasana.
In this practice in particular, the breath is the primary focus while the movement begins after the breath. It’s challenging in yoga to take a sip or two of air into our lungs before we begin to stand up from folding forward, but that is in fact the practice, to be so focused on the power of the breath (eh-hem, air or wind if you will…) that the movement is nearly automatic, as in muscle memory. And beyond movement, because of course yoga is far more than the posture, the breath, like the wind, can change anything in a moments notice. So like it reads above: just breathe.

A fire in the belly…


Fire, agni, is the third of our five elements, Pancha Mahabhuta, and it rests within our core (front belly, left and right side belly and our lower and middle back). Our belly fire represents our digestion, the chemical breakdown of the food we ingest, and there’s so much more to the fire in our bodies than just the digestion of our food. A balanced fire helps us to better ‘digest’ the information we receive from all five sensory organs: eyes, nose, tongue (of course), ears and skin. We gather information through all five mechanisms and our fire breaks down what we take in, processing and saving what we need and burning off and releasing the things we don’t need. 

It’s pretty cool when you think about it, our fire ignites our bodies and makes sure we learn. In order for our bodies to work at their best though, we need balance to the fire; for instance, if our fire is overly active we might just burn off more than we want resulting in a loss of valuable information. But, if our fire is working at below its true capacity then we may not burn off the leftover junk that we don’t need, i.e. holding on to invaluable information. What’s more, our fire supports our internal power and strength, a balanced fire creates a space of self-confidence and joy while too little fire can create self-doubt and insecurity, too much fire on the other hand can result in steamrolling over the thoughts, opinions and feelings of the people we love. So, how do we cultivate (acquire or develop) a balanced belly fire? I’m glad you asked… ;0) 
Within our asana, posture, practice, we can build fire in our bellies through building strength in our core by practicing high-plank (top of a push-up) or boat pose (a sits-bone balancing pose during which you sit on your bottom, lifting your lengthened spine and contracting your belly muscles, feet can be firmly planted to the floor or lifted in line with your knees as the kneecaps point up to the ceiling). You can also practice twists, turning your torso (the trunk of your body) from center facing to right facing, back to center facing and then to face the left and back again. Twists can be done laying down, standing or seated – in that order. 

As always, posture isn’t the only way to practice yoga, deep belly breaths can help activate our fire, too. Sit or lay down with a long spine, breathe deeply in through your nose, let the breath expand your collarbones (clavicle), rib cage, bellybutton and then your low belly. During the exhale contract your low belly and bellybutton softly towards your spine and then let your rib cage soften and your collarbones fall; repeat the process for as many breaths as feels really good in your body. 

It’s also important to know that the fire in our body, when balanced, affects and is affected by the other elements. For instance, water out of our bodies puts out the fire outside of our bodies, the same is true for the water we put inside of our bodies. Too much ice cold water can diminish our fires so consider instead drinking room temperature water or even warm or hot water to aid in digestion. The same is true for our earthly element, dirt suffocates fire and too much highly processed foods can create a space in which our belly fire suffocates a little, too. When available do your best to eat highly nutritious plant-based food (i.e. fruits and vegetables), but don’t worry, we know that everything is a balance so fun foods are great sometimes, too… Now that you’re armed with the knowledge of how to build your best belly fire, give it a try. And feel free to share your favorite fire building activity by finding and tagging The Playful Yogi on Facebook, Instagram and/or Twitter.       

Water, water everywhere

Water is everywhere; it makes up approximately 71-percent of our Earth’s surface, it’s in our air, it’s in our bodies and it’s in all things everywhere. And while this next point isn’t the purpose of this week’s blog, it would be irresponsible of us not to mention that with all of this water there are still so many people without access to clean drinking water; according to water.org, a website devoted to creating awareness of our global water crisis, approximately 1 out of every 10 people worldwide are faced with unstable water conditions. But, again while that is inexcusable and something most definitely needs to be done to correct this error, that’s not our topic of conversation this week.
Rather, we’re continuing our conversation about the Pancha Mahabhuta, five elements, and this our second element, water, jala. As noted above, water is in all things, including our bodies and it’s what is used to keep the our bodies and our world moving. Water has the capacity (ability) to move and break down hard rock, and on the microlevel of our individuals bodies it helps keeps our joints moving. What’s more, water helps nourish the earth from which we grow our food, and on the microlevel of our individual bodies, water helps to maintain a state of homeostasis (balance) in our cells. Touching back (for a moment) on the fact that so many of our world’s people lack access to quality drinking water, we are starting to see that nations without water are the most impoverished, leading to my next point that water is our element of security. 
Once we’ve met the conditions of our grounding earth element (safety) we can move on to the security of knowing that we can move through this world freely and still maintain the conditions of our basic needs. We start to tap into our ability to be flexible and creative, to move on to new projects and opportunities to grow because we know that our our food, shelter and those we love will be there waiting for us when we come home. We first find stability and then we begin to move. One way to find freedom in our asana, postural, yoga practice is to flow: for instance, flowing through cat and cow. Begin on all fours (hands and knees), with an inhale look up to the sky, drop your belly and lift your bottom high. Then, with an exhale, bring your bellybutton to your spine, press into the mat and curl your back, just like a scaredy cat. Feel your spine, shoulders and hips move and feel free to adapt (make changes) by moving forwards and back or side to side as feels good. 
Yoga goes beyond the physical practice of course and we can tap into our water element through visualization. Have you ever closed your eyes and imagined something? If so, well then you’re an expert at visualizing! Try to visualize water, maybe you see a beautiful warm waterfall or a lovely lake, either letting the waterfall softly pour over your head and down your body or floating sweetly on the lake. Any body of water will do really, as long as the practice of imagining makes you feel good and calm, if at any time you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, think about your breath and let go of the visualization. Give it a try and feel free to find us on Facebook or Twitter and let us know how it goes!    

“Unless”

The Earth is our most precious commodity, and it belongs to everyone and no one all at the same time. Without our Mother Earth we would literally be nowhere. This blog post isn’t about global warming or anything like that (although I’d be all too happy to write about the legitimacy of global warming, but today I’ll leave that to the experts) instead what we’re talking about is the earth as it relates to the soil under our feet. In yoga and Ayurveda (the sister science to yoga) we pay our respect to the Pancha Mahabhuta, the five elements, and the first of those elements is the earth element, pruthavi-dhatu.
The earth element is our survival element, it is the element in which all of our worldly needs are met. Our needs, which are comprised of standards such as food, safety, security, shelter and the like, our provided to us by our Mother Earth, and for that we owe her everything. Maybe the idea that yoga is a science is something that’s new to you, yes it’s a philosophical practice in that the yoga sutras laid out for us the ways in which to live our lives as our best selves, but there’s more to it than that. Yoga is a physical science just like any other science of movement, it’s also a science of the mind like psychology, and it’s a science of energy as well. 

The gross (physical) body is one that needs food and water, shelter and cover from the elements, and our energetic body, while also fueled by these things, brings us closer to each other and our world. The first of our five elements, earth, is our most stabilizing element. It’s characteristics are that of grounding, of being rooted and of being nourished, without which we might simply float away. You see, being fully planted on our Earth is in part metaphorical and in part physical: the energy body can be agitated and flighty when we, as humans, are not connected to our world, and without gravity we would in fact float off of the Earth’s surface and into space. We need grounding practices in yoga through forward bending and planting our feet to the Earth, when lying down, seated or standing in posture. 

But, there are other yogic ways to ground and center when an asana, posture, practice isn’t easily accessible. For one thing, whole foods are incredibly grounding, root vegetables which are pulled from underneath the surface of the Earth can provide us with a great deal of connection, especially when cooked. And remember a couple of weeks ago when we wrote to encourage you to connect with nature; this is another excellent way to engage a grounding practice, after all you’re in the middle of all that our Mother Earth has to offer. 

A third way to connect is through breath; sounding breaths are a wonderful way to calm the mind and body. Begin by sitting with a tall spine breathe out all the air from your lungs through your nose and then breathe deeply in through your nose. As you’re ready open your mouth and sigh out your exhale, repeat this pattern a few times and then rest in the effects of your practice. And remember, the earth element isn’t only all around us, but it is us, we are it; you can create a sensation of connectivity by truly connecting with other people on a personal level. Let us know how you tap into the energy of our earth.