Category Archives: breathing

The force that binds and fules the practice and life

Breath work back on track

After a scare last week (bloody nose), I have restarted doing my pranayama, fitting in sudarshan kriya every day, followed by meditation. I just have to make sure that I don’t get too carried away with the exhales. As I knew from five years ago, sudarshan kriya and meditation make a compact fit, require modest amounts of time and really purge a lot of mental and emotional toxins. I don’t practice Sahaj Samadhi meditation because I tend to need a technique that allows me to pin my mind to something and return to it frequently, but it allowed me to start a structured meditation practice.

Over the past six months, with multiple demands on my time and energy, I’ve had to strip my practice down to the bare minimum — or less, which is when I start noticing that my personal gyroscope starts wobbling.  The essential factor is daily practice.  Sure, it would be great to push my meditation to an hour a day (not in one sitting, my monkey mind can be lured into stillness for short lapses), but I’ve got to keep this practice manageable; otherwise, I will just talk myself out of doing it.

This blog has also been cut back to a minimal expression because I am in survival mode.

A little insight into yoga anatomy

Leslie Kaminoff’s YogaAnatomy.net has an interesting video extracted from his Online Course, which illustrates the functioning of the lungs and abdomenal cavity: Breathing: The Accordian & the Water Balloon. Leslie’s Yoga Anatomy is among the best yoga anatomy references available. More details about his online course are here. It’s expensive ($2,200), but it is a nine-month program that drills down into the finer details of the human body activated through yoga. This year’s course started on October 6, but Leslie keeps release 5 minute segments of class video that contain little nuggets of knowledge, like the accordian and balloon piece.

Clear as a bell

Photo: yogis seated with hands over abadomen
Master class at Thrive Yoga

In tonight’s hatha yoga session with Marylou McNamara at Thrive Yoga, I had one of those epiphanies that come when you’re least expecting. I was seating during the opening centering exercise, listening to Marylou talk about truly listening. I subtly adjusted me Easy Pose (Sukhasana),  helped by the blanket I had under my sit bones, shifting the angle of my hips forward so that there was a curve in the small of my back. When I hit a particular angle, I could feel the rest of my spine almost click into place and my rib cage balance like the arms of a scale. When I hit that spot, I also noticed that my breathing became measurably smoother, more effortless, deeper. It would reach all the way up to the crown of my head. I’d play with the tilt of my hips by moving too far forward or backward, and it would send a ripple effect up my spin: I could feel core muscles tensing up, grabbing at the edges of my rib cage, and degrading of the quality of my breathing. I switched back to the sweet spot of my hips and my spinal column seemed to hum.

While sitting there, I visualized a bell at the front desk of a hotel. The bell itself is balanced on top of a column, suspended above the rest of the apparatus. If the apparatus is tilted, the bell no longer is free but presses against the base. When the bell is struck, it does not ring true; it clanks with a dull thud. When the apparatus is leveled so that the bell does not touch the base, then the bell rings clearly, resonantly, when struck. The vibration is held longer.

That’s how I perceived the relations between my hips, my spine, my rib cage, up to my head. If I achieved the right foundation from my hips, it resonates all the way up my torso in a kind of chain reaction.

My sense of smell back to normal

I am happy to report that my sense of smell has returned to normal. As reported in early March, I noted that I had a persistent scent of concentrated tobacco smoke lingering constantly in my nostrils. It seemed to intensify when I was doing my yoga practice, especially when in inversions. By about a week ago, the smell had abated to a kind of faint pine tar smell, and this weekend it completely disappeared. As suggested in my previous post, I think that I was opening up some blocked sinus cavities, which was clearing out old nicotine-saturated mucus from my previous incarnation as a cigarette smoker.

Nicotine on the brain

My scent is driving me crazy. I smoked my last cigarette in January 2004. That’s five years plus, 62 months exactly. I have avoided smoking environments and pray that I am never tempted to take another drag on a fag. But for the past week, I have been distracted by a persistent scent of concentrated tobacco smoke — the kind that gets absorbed into nasal mucus when you’ve been smoking despite a head cold. This persists throughout the day, at my work desk, at home at the dinner table, on the Metro, everywhere. I have tried spritzing them with saline nasal spray and rinsing them out with salt water and a neti pot. To no good. The odor of nicotine tar lingers in my nostrils.

Back in my days in freelance journalism in Peru, I used to chain smoke while working on deadline. For years, my brand was a nasty Peruvian brand that stained my mustache orange. I later switched to imported Benson & Hedges, but I doubt that it was any better for my health. My office had the door opened onto a open-air stairway landing. Caffeine, nicotine and adrenaline were my antidote to stress. And there were days when I literally overdosed on nicotine. My sinuses could not take any more abuse and would erupt in mucus, purging the poison from my nasal passages. Almost always, I’d develop a bad head cold.

My current phantom scent reminds me of those bouts of nicotine abuse. I shutter at the memory. As I’ve mentioned before, for several years I had my left maxillary sinus (think cheekbone) was completely obstructed and densely packed with mucus, and have had multiple rounds of antibiotics to fight an infection. Although the inflammation abated, I don’t know if the sinus ever cleared up because there was never a CT scan after treatment.

My educated guess now is that somehow the sinus has loosened up and old mucus from my smoking days is exposed to my scent glands. I am trying to give a rational explanation by identifying where the scent could come from. Another option is that my brain is playing a trick on me and there is no nicotine anywhere in reach of my olfactory system.

My miracle cure for my sinuses

My ears, nose and throat specialist told me today that my obstructed left maxillary sinus had cleared up remarkably from what he saw a month ago. I took penicillin for about three weeks and on Monday I had another CT scan done and the x-rays showed that my previously blocked sinus had air inside it. The doctor told me that he expected that I would need to have a surgical operation to clear it up. It was not completely recovered so I’ll have to go back in three months to see if it’s gotten any better.

Shortly after the original diagnosis, I purchased a Grossan Hydro Pulse ® Pulsatile Sinus System because my usual way of doing nasal washes, with a neti pot, did not stand much of a chance to clearing up a blocked sinus. This device seens a stream of warm water in one nostril and out the other, with a rhythmic pulse. I knew I was improving when I had to clear water out of my left sinus by standing in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). It is expensive, but I feel it was an investment in my health. It was certainly less expensive and disruptive than surgery.

As I’ve stated here before, I am experiencing pranayama as if it was the first time. The sensation of moving larger volumes of breath unimpeded through my nose is an exhilarating feeling. I relish every time I sit down to do my kriya.

Giving some spin to my breathing

I have been paying closer attention to my breathing during my yoga sessions and meditation since I’ve regained some space in my nasal passages. It’s almost as if I were breathing for the first time. I’ve noticed that what might appear a slight adjustment in my spine can result in a dramatic difference in the quality and depth of my breathing. As a person who works constantly stooped before a keyboard and monitor, I have a strong tendency to round my spine forward. That’s the direction that my body is being pushed By keeping a small curvature to my lower back and a slight tilt forward of by pelvis, I seem to find the optimal position for getting maximum movement from my diaphragm, my rib cage opens up and my shoulder blades draw together. If I ever so slightly move towards a straight back (no natural curvature in my lower back), my breathing seems to start shutting off. It’s almost as if my diaphragm got turned off.

Why is this important for me? Because I’ve noticed times in my practice when my breathing seems to shut down. I could never understand why. Now I think that in certain movements or positions, I lose form in my lower back and that triggers what seems like a diaphragm freeze.

I first felt the difference when I was seated in meditation. I usually sit on a block because I want to keep my knees below my hips. In that position, it’s very easy to slip out of the correct posture because the back gets tired of holding the position and I start gradually slipping into rounding my back forward. I then sensed the quality of my breath as I tilted my hips forward (putting in curvature) and then released my hips to a lazier position. This has almost before a focus of meditation as I savor the quality of my breath depending on the slant of my back.

Minus one sinus

About two week, I noticed that I had a very bad sore, scratchy throat and a cough caused by the inflamed throat. I had trouble swallowing. Aside from that, I was not feeling any other symptoms. After it did not get better in a week, I knew something was wrong. I thought that I had inflamed tonsils or, at the worst, throat cancer from my long years of smoking so I got an appointment with a specialist.

I had a thorough examination of my nasal passages and throat. It was not the tonsils or cancer (thank God!). My left maxillary sinus (think cheekbone) is completely obstructed and densely packed with mucus or something else. On the CT scan, it shows up as if it were solid, not hollow like the right one. My doctor tells me that this condition has probably existed for some time, and he is surprised that I feel no pain. My body has evidently contained the infection until recently when the inflammation spread to tissue at the back of my throat.

I am on penicillin for the next two weeks to try to clear up the infection. Within two days of popping the pills, I felt some of the swelling go down in my throat.

I had not been going to yoga this past week because I didn’t know if I had something that might be contagious. Today I went to class at Thrive and it was amazing. For the first time, I practiced without feeling my breathing obstructed. My sinuses had swollen so much that they partially blocked my breathing. This affects me especially at the early phase of the session before I was warmed up.

I know that this condition has existed for years because when I started my pranayama and yoga practice three and a half years ago, I noticed that I did not seem to breath fully. I also tended to make more noise breathing because I was forcing air through smaller air passages. I thought it was rhinitis (when the nasal passages get irritated and swell up) and consulted a doctor at work, but he seemed to think it was not anything serious. I started doing nasal rinses with saline water to clear out my nose. Although the use of a neti pot did (and does) clean out my nasal passages, it did nothing for my sinuses. Today on the mat, I noticed that I had adjusted my ujay breathing to take advantage of my swollen sinus, tightening my throat higher up. Now I have to relearn how to do ujay all over again.

Perhaps the most serious thought is that I’ve been carrying around an infection for years and my body has been fighting it off, confining it and clearing away the toxins, but never completely getting better. It has probably been a drag on my energy and health all that time. Maybe my yoga practice has helped ward off the worst symptoms.

Back to basics — mind and breath

I’ve been doing my body scans nightly as a kind of back-to-the-basics initiative to rein in my central nervous system. I have not had another bad scan in which I get jittery and overanxious for nearly two weeks. At most, I’ve had a couple of arm jerks in which my hand and forearm snap up. A more serious problem is not dozing off momentarily. Laying prone on the ground at 11:00 pm at the end of a long day is probably an invitation for sleep so I should not be surprised. I’ll just have to find a coping strategy — maybe opening my eyes for the whole session.

This week, I’ve been fitting in my sudarshan kriya practice in the morning before heading off to work. It has really kept me upbeat the whole day. It’s amazing how a breathing practice can change my outlook to sunny. Why do I ever skip my breathwork?

Body scan gone bad

I have a problem with savasana or more precisely the flat-on-my-back position that I take in order to do a body scan, following the audio instructions of Jon Kabat-Zinn. This exercise is part of a process to increase awareness of the body and sensitize the mind. In effect, I focus my attention on specific parts of my body progressively — my toes, ankles, knees, thighs, hips, etc., up both legs, both arms, through my torso and up to the crown of my head. Kabat-Zinn recommends that a novice to meditation do this exercise for at least two-three weeks before actually starting to meditate in a seated practice.

What happens? After I settle prone onto my mat for five minutes, I start feeling really fidgety, antsy and with a strong desire to get out of there. My leg muscle become jittery and I feel tingling in my fingers. I feel as if there’s a little motor running inside me and I can’t turn it off. My mind becomes restless and all kinds of reasons for getting up bubble to the surface. I start paying more attention to this anxious sensation than to the narrator’s voice. I am definitely not at ease. I’ve cut the session off a couple of times and on some evenings, I’ve avoided doing the exercise.

It’s really disconcerting because I can easily maintain meditation in seated pose for 15-20 minutes. After a good yoga session, savasana is a welcome respite and I do not have the urge to bounce up. When I go to bed, I usually drop off into sleep immediately and do not lie in bed twitching. In this case, with the CD, I actually have a voice to listen to and explicit instructions to follow. I don’t have to purge my head of mental processes or zone out everything but my meditative focus.

Three years ago, when I got my first Kabat-Zinn CDs, I tried to do the body scan and I had the same edgy feeling to the point that I did the exercise seated in a chair, rather than lying on the ground. After a while, I stopped doing it. Since then, I’ve been practicing meditation and added yoga to squeeze out the pent-up energy in body and train the mind to spiritual disciplines. I thought I would have outgrown this reaction to the body scan.

A friend of mine said that I should not get too uptight about the whole thing, looking at the phenomenon as a symptom of some kind of disorder. It may be a natural way that the body has of venting energy or it could actually be something like restless leg syndrome that might need medical treatment. But I am not going to cure the problem by fretting about it — if anything, it will make it worse. I just need to observe dispassionately what’s happening as I move through the process.