Sunday morning: a little trauma release, a fine buzz, then some yoga jazz, and a tribute to a teacher

Long-time readers know I spent some time and energy on learning the trauma releasing exercises of David Berceli and practicing them. (If you’re a new reader, go to the tag cloud in the right panel and click TRE or trauma releasing exercises to see the many posts on the topic. If you want to learn them, I recommend Berceli’s book and video.)

I haven’t written much about them for a while. I still value them very much as a tool for releasing tension.

Sometimes at ecstatic dance, I allow my legs to shake for a little while, which releases leg tension, especially around my hip joint. (Nobody notices or comments, ever.)

Some mornings I wake up and just know I need to do them. I may tremble for 30 seconds to a minute or two. It doesn’t have to last long to be effective.

I imagine that the more you do them and really surrender to them, the less you need to do them. Also, the more you do them, the more aware you become of tensions accumulating in your body, and you adjust sooner — taking a deep, cleansing breath to let it all out, stretching and moving the tense area.

This morning I did them for longer, because my body wanted to keep going. First my legs surrendered to the shaking, then left my arm flapped, then right my arm flapped, then my lower spine hammered, then my upper spine waved, then more legs, and so on. It’s entertaining to witness where the surrendering moves!

Then afterward, the fine buzz inhabiting my body. Mmm.

Walk to my yoga mat. Tadasana, feeling feet, upward energy. Stretching arms up into hastasana circling to anjali mudra several times to warm up, each with my gaze a little higher, a little more backbend.

Then from hips, float down into uttanasana and just hang. Feel my tight hamstrings. Hold. Breathe. They become like rubber bands, surrendering to the stretch. Then extend spine and re-bow.

Left leg back into lunge. Feeling the tight gastrocnemius and soleus. Push heel back and breathe. Right leg back to join it. Breathe length into calves.

Plank, with spread fingers, sturdy column arms under shoulders. Feel strength. Pressing palm and fingers evenly into mat, slowly lowering into chataranga, feeling creaks and twinges in shoulders and elbows.

Once flat, press pelvis and tops of feet into floor and lift up into bhujangasana, cobra. Imagine the fronts of my vertebrae, deep in the middle of my torso, fanning wide open to give and receive and expand my energy. This spine, this flexible column of bone, fluids, muscle, nerve, this backbone. Yes.

Turn toes under. Strongly lift my body up, elevating my pelvis as high as it will go. Push palms and fingers evenly into floor. Push heels back to stretch my soles (I’m hearing my teacher Eleanor Harris now). Lift sit bones to ceiling. Feel strong shoulders. Downward-facing dog, adho mukha svanasana.

“Enjoy your breath,” as my teacher Brigitte Edery is fond of saying. And I do.

Then bring right leg forward into lunge. Then today’s standing sequence: warrior two, extended side angle, reverse extended side angle, triangle, reverse triangle, ardha chandrasana, warrior one, warrior three. Nice standing vinyasa (with room for improvement in the sequencing, I notice), and I am aware of all the different stretches each pose brings where spine meets pelvis meets thighs.

I am pleased with my balance in ardha chandrasana, but I need to put my extended arms on the top of a stool to hold warrior three. There’s always an edge. Today, and probably for a few weeks (or months, who knows?), that’s mine — balancing in warrior three.

Then back to lunge, uttanasana (notice how much deeper my fold is), extending spine, and reverse swan dive up, arms circling into anjali mudra.

Repeat on other side.

I follow with pigeon, a deep twist (thrilling as my shoulders reached the floor), happy baby, and rock to standing.

I am in my body, ready for today, for ecstatic dance, for community, for work, for learning prenatal massage.

Feeling very grateful for my friends, and for my teacher Gabrielle Roth, whose work I knew better than I knew her personally, who was so influential in opening my awareness up to new movements, rhythms, and energies in life, who is in her own life now moving into stillness. She dedicated her life to healing the mind-body split. Amen to that.

Here’s my favorite Gabrielle quote:

After you jump, before you land is God.

I’m going to light a candle and open myself up to God.

Downward-facing dog and the bladder meridian: why it feels (and does) good

The Real Reason Downward-Facing Dog Is So Good for You. | elephant journal.

The connection between yoga and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) fascinates me. When we do yoga poses, we activate various meridians in the TCM system, usually without awareness that we are doing so.

Here’s why doing downward-facing dog pose (adho mukha svanasana) feels so good (once your shoulders open up and the muscles in the back of your legs lengthen) and why it’s so good for your health.

Downward-facing dog  is arguably the most common pose in yoga. It’s done in Iyengar, anusara, vinyasa, ashtanga, bikram, and other styles of hatha yoga. It’s a cornerstone of sun salutations. It’s considered a resting pose in post-beginner yoga classes.

It’s so well-known, even many non-yogis recognize it: palms and soles flat on the floor several feet apart, buttocks high, back and legs straight.

Downward-Facing Dog

Downdog does our bodies so much good because it activates the bladder meridian, the longest channel in the body, running from the inner eye, up over the top of the head, down the back and the backs of the legs, ending at the pinkie toe. It even doubles up on part of its path:

To do downdog is to activate the bladder meridian’s 67 points, more than any other meridian (times two, because there are left and right meridians).

The bladder meridian is yang, meaning it deals with the outer world. The bladder channel is our first line of defense, so activating it boosts immunity. Not only is this meridian related to the urinary bladder, it also relates strongly to (and balances) the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-restore) nervous systems.

If you are stressed (and most of us are most of the time), stimulating the bladder meridian activates the parasympathetic nervous system, inducing relaxation. It’s why people get so much out of having their backs massaged. Notice all those BL points in the sacrum area? The parasympathetic nervous system is activated by S2, S3, and S4 spinal nerves at the sacrum, and by several cranial nerves as well.

So doing downward-facing dog helps you relax and release tension.

There are also “Back Shu Points” located along the bladder channel. They are associated with organs and with chronic issues like insomnia, asthma, menstrual problems, IBS, anxiety, and so on. Doing downward-facing dog could prevent or alleviate chronic disease.

Downward-facing dog is also an easy inversion for the upper body, refreshing blood to the head and moving lymph.

Plus, you know, it just feels good to stretch like that! Do down dog to stretch the glutes, hamstrings, calf muscles, and Achilles tendons. Even the soles of the feet!

Let it open up your shoulders. Really feel your hands and feet connecting to the ground. Relax your neck and let your head drop toward the ground. Feel your strength. Straighten your legs and work toward lowering your heels to the floor. Do variations (on tiptoes, pedaling your feet, 3-legged dog, wild thing).

Then come down onto your knees, push your butt back toward your heels, and sink into child’s pose to enjoy that relaxation.

Downward-facing dog is a cornerstone of my yoga practice. If I could only do one pose, that would be it! Jai, adho mukha svanasana.

How yoga changes the brain’s stress response

Ha ha! Psychology Today includes a column called PreFrontal Nudity: The Brain Exposed. Love it!

This column, Yoga: Changing the Brain’s Stressful Habits, by Alex Korb, Ph.D. in neuroscience, is about the stress of yoga.

Yoga is controlled stress, as Leslie Kaminoff says.

Yes, that’s right. Yoga is stressful. If you don’t believe me, then get down on all fours with your hands shoulder width apart and your feet hip width apart. Push your hands and toes into the floor and lift your butt high. Stick your sacrum up as high as it will go.

Let your head drop.

Oh, and be sure your fingers are spread as wide as they can spread, middle fingers pointing forward, and without moving your hands, rotate your arms so your inner elbows are pointing more forward than toward each other.

Straighten your back. Don’t let it collapse! Let your shoulder blades flatten into your back but keep your kidney area full. Imagine you’re making one long line from wrist to tailbone.

Pedal your feet up and down if you need to, but really, try to get your heels to the floor with your legs straight. Feel that hamstring stretch! Feel those calf muscles and Achilles tendons!

Now push your hands and feet into your mat and away from each other!

Are you feeling relaxed yet?

So don’t forget to breathe. Keep your breathing calm and steady. Breathe through your nose while constricting the back of your throat to make a sound like the ocean.

Now how are you doing? Congrats on your downward facing dog, by the way.

Korb accompanied his dad to a yoga class and learned first-hand how yoga retrains the brain. He thought it was going to be all pretzel twists and enlightenment, until his dad explained ujjayi breathing to him.

This next statement may sound to you either profound or extremely obvious, but it comes down to this: the things you do and the thoughts you have change the firing patterns and chemical composition of your brain. Even actions as simple as changing your posture, relaxing the muscles on your face, or slowing your breathing rate, can affect the activity in your brain…. These changes are often transient, but can be long-lasting, particularly if they entail changing a habit.

As a neuroscientist, despite my initial incredulity, I came to realize that yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful. It is your attempts to remain calm during this stress that create yoga’s greatest neurobiological benefit.

 The fascinating thing about the mind-body interaction is that it works both ways. For example, if you’re stressed, your muscles will tense (preparing to run away from a lion), and this will lead to more negative thinking. Relaxing those muscles, particularly the facial muscles, will push the brain in the other direction, away from stress, and toward more relaxed thoughts. Similarly, under stress, your breathing rate increases. Slowing down your breathing pushes the brain away from the stress response, and again toward more relaxed thinking.

It [the physiological stress response] is, in fact, just a habit of the brain. One of the main purposes of yoga is to retrain this habit so that your brain stops automatically invoking the stress response.

Here’s the real kicker in my opinion, where a Ph.D. western scientist new to yoga really gets what it’s all about:

The good news is that you don’t actually have to go to a class to practice yoga. The poses most people associate with yoga are just a particular way of practicing yoga called the asana practice (“asana” translates to “pose”). The asana practice challenges you in a specific way, but life itself offers plenty of challenges on its own. Under any stressful circumstance you can attempt the same calming techniques: breathing deeply and slowly, relaxing your facial muscles, clearing your head of anxious thoughts, focusing on the present. In fact, applying these techniques to real life is what yoga is all about. Yoga is simply the process of paying attention to the present moment and calming the mind.

Yogis, does that not warm your hearts?

Nonyogis, does this not inspire you to practice yoga?

Couldn’t we all use a little more attention in the present moment and a calmer mind?