RESTORATIVE-YIN YOGA involves supported body/mind relaxation. This is gentle, gentle yoga that promotes deep relaxation for stress reduction while also stretching and rehabilitating connective tissue.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Gate Of Light Opens

Copyright Lance Kinseth, Wisdom Shine / Chisho, 2011

Birds of many Earthen colors peck at the iced bath
And come in close for seeds.

The teeter-totter of day and night has tipped toward light.
Daylight lengthens almost imperceptibly
But for the perceptive ones in every era
In this ice-cold landscape of death
Light becomes an opening, promising gate
And life slow-spirals forward from ice into fire.

With this change
We are wont to set resolutions to fit such a glorious new start.
All of a sudden,
We aspire to live differently, more richly, more purposively.

We look a little deeper both into the dark and into the growing light.
We see a pathway forward that twists our everyday life into something eloquent.

Still, even finding our life to be inside a vast miracle,
We try to decide if a change is worth our effort
And stand to fall back inside the dream-sleep of the everyday.

Will wind that has suddenly become a prayer cease being a prayer
And the venerable oak cease being a temple
And return to being an irrelevant background?

In this short yet rich miracle that is the life of each of us
Why do we tend to cast the very best aside?

IT IS A NEW YEAR, and a new day.  Perhaps in waking, still lying in bed, we might experience a moment of gratitude for having awakened, and the subtle “joy” that is opened by simply awakening to a new day.  As a “body-mind practice,” we might silently say, “gratitude.”  This word implies much more than one word.  It can become a “culled-down” way of saying so much more, like the Buddhist response to the Anapanasati Sutra wherein Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in gradually might slo-cook down to become simply “In.”

Perhaps this new day is the dramatic first day of the new year or less dramatically a day lost anywhere in the year, just a day after a weekend—a Monday—or perhaps a mid-week “hump day.”  But perhaps on this day, a restorative-yin yoga session is offered nearby.

We come to a restorative-yin practice session. We take off your shoes outside the practice space.  We step through a doorway. The floor is perhaps wooden and solid.  The walls are likely hard surfaces, but painted in a soft, Earthen color, unadorned, and the light subdued. 

Crossing over the threshold of the doorway into the practice room, there is an opportunity for a step—hopefully—through a gateway to a calmer terrain. 

In restorative practice, the harshness of putting the brakes on and slowing down begins, first, by the ritual of gathering supports for practice—blocks and blankets and balls, perhaps accompanied by a facilitator’s addition of the fragrance of incense and the music of soft sacred chants or flute and piano.

We begin, agreeably, to step out of the fast pace of the everyday.  We are not trying to step out of our life, as much as we are aspiring to “swell” our aliveness, to open our experience, to open the “moreness” of our living.  And so we come to the matt, to the First Excellence of yoga: to become fully present in our lives as-they-are in this moment: perhaps stillness first, aspiring to reach an interior stillpoint, but always stilled to some degree wherein breath emerges in our awareness, and we come to pranayama, “breath work.”


RESTORATIVE-YIN YOGA is not really a set of poses as it is typically presented—a set of poses especially for those “who cannot do regular yoga” due to physical limits.   Restorative-yin yoga endures because it offers great depth, and great penetration into life.  Being in restorative-yin poses provokes a deep listening and quietness that opens dimensions of body—mind-spirit that are not readily accessible in the faster pace of modern yoga. 

Still, for all of its benefits, restorative-yin practice is a dimension of yoga for which there is not enough time for nearly everyone to fit into daily life.  Modern life is jammed, perhaps, with children and work and things-to-get-done and what we did yesterday and how that went for us, all of which that make it so very important to get a good workout, to get physical.  So if it going to be “yoga” in the West, that likely will mean “fitness”—‘sweat and heat”—if possible. 

Oh, yes, it would be nice to add some slow-paced relaxation and eased stretch, but life seems to be about survival, and there is so little time.  In fact, as our lives march forward, the clock appears to be ticking faster, and there is likely to be less time than there was before, even less time than there was last week.  And weeks seem to disappear as fast as days and, in no time at all, months seem to disappear as fast as weeks and, eventually, even years seem to do the same.  Has it been two years, five, ten?

When we really begin to “get it,” to “get what life is really about,” the task is one of  “thriving” rather than “surviving.”  Health swells from being fitness, at first to “wellness,” that is more holistic [involving nutrition and something called “relaxation,” for which there is little time], to become something that is inherent and yet, somehow, vast, and even “spiritual”—something that we begin to sense that has never, really, been lost—something that is NOT wrong, rather than the excision or catharsis of that which appears to be wrong (“disease” or “disorder”).
Quieting and calming, “problems” transform from limits to be overcome to events that may offer information and opportunity.  Quieting, there is the discovery that there are no limits, rather than a sense of having limits.  We may be “limited” by the fact that we are different from someone else, but we can discover that “differences” offer a nuance of grace than someone else doesn’t possess.  Paradoxically, the pathway forward for each person is “different” and an unending story/journey of self/life/cosmos, if we have the senses for it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Yoga And Endocrines

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A VARIETY OF GLANDS produce and secrete hormones needed for normal functioning of the body: energy/lethargy, metabolism, sexual response, water regulation, sleep, mood, reproduction, and basic tissue functioning. 

“Hormones” are complex chemicals, such as melatonin, progesterone, lutropin, dopamine, estrogen, thyroxine, thyrotopin, corticotropin, epinephrine, and testosterone.  There are complex feedback loops between the various glands, and also with the nervous system and other organs that also secrete hormones.  The endocrine glands themselves are complex and have fascinating aspects such as retinal cells and neurons or gastric-like cells so that they “relate” [as an aspect of their evolutionary origins] with other body structures.

Yoga literature praises the benefits of yoga for optimizing the endocrine system, with no references to clinical research on the effect of yoga on the endocrine system.  When statements involving healthful outcomes of many body-mind practices are traced back, they often occur originally as statements by founders and previous practitioners and are essentially beliefs.  Interesting, endocrine glands occur throughout the body and are located almost at the center point of the seven popular chakra psycho-energetic centers (e.g., pineal/6th chakra/middle of forehead).  For some yoga practitioners, the endocrines are described as the physical manifestation of a subtler, spiritual body.  But here, it might be acknowledged that the popular sense of seven chakra is abstruse rather than an explicit fact, with other models of yoga ranging from 5 to 20+ chakra and, for some practitioners, even a sense of sub-chakras within each major center.

The endocrine system might function somewhat autonomously, for example, with the pituitary gland regulating the amount of thyroxine (controlling cell metabolism) or another gland regulating salt and water balance, etc.  However, the endocrine system might be more accurately termed the neuroendocrine system, wherein central nervous system (CNS) affects the hypothalamus that, in turn, affects the pituitary gland (or “master gland”) to create a system of balances, with one gland capable of stimulating a response and another gland capable of inhibiting this response.  Either an external stimuli that produces fear or an internal disorder such as physiological depression in turn provokes CNS the endocrine system.  Along with the pituitary gland, the pineal, adrenal, thyroid, parathyroid, thymus and reproductive glands form the heart of the endocrine system.

Claims of effects of a spcific pose on a specific gland have not been established.  The key point is to begin to recognize that yoga is affecting the endocrine system, just as it also affecting the respiratory, vascular, lymphatic systems as well as systems less in our awareness such as the digestive system. 

Yoga impacts the neuroendocrine system, just simply as a form of external stimuli.  Intentional or mental stimulating the nervous system to relax by stilling and reducing the breath cycle, the flowing movement of yoga sequences, and the adjunct effect of pressure on the glands through poses such as inversions and neck bends clearly affects the neuroendocrine system.  In the quiet and calmness of restorative-yin yoga, a significant relaxation response is provoked.  This will involve the inhibition of endocrine secretions that stimulate the sympathetic nervous system.

Without any physiological measures of the endocrine system [such as blood levels of endocrine hormones during yoga practice or post-practice], it is logical to assume that either very active poses/active breathing [e.g. Kundalini “Breath Of Fire,” 2-3 breaths per second] or stillness “exercise” the endocrine system.  The healthful outcomes that yoga might provide for the neuroendocrine system [such as “normalized,” “regulated” or “balanced” or “optimized,” as well as the specific degree of change] make sense but remain subjective.

Inversions, such as downward dog and happy baby and shoulder stands/headstands, are strongly associated in yoga practice with stimulation of the endocrine system.  Poses that bend neck back to affect the thyroid and thymus [e.g., throat Lotus Kriya and Breath Of Fire] or that bend the spine back or forward [e.g., Camel or Forward Folds] to affect most endocrine glands.  And the variety of the sequence of poses of a yoga practice session “massage” all of the endocrine glands.

  • inversions and
  • physiological relaxation and
  • a sense of poses massaging the endocrine glands (as well as “pumping” the lymphatic system)
are three components that will likely affect the endocrine system in healthful, balancing way that has not been adequately measured [e.g., in terms of immediate or post-practice blood chemistry measures or studies with populations with specific endocrine disorders].

A cautionary sense of healthy” self-criticism in evaluating the benefits of any body-mind practice is recommended.  It is facile and perhaps misleading to assume that a specific pose will optimize specific endocrine functions.  Neuroendrocrinology is an extremely complex field of inquiry that involves all of the tissues of the body in elaborate feedback systems with complex secretions stimulating other secretions and fitting exquisitely to target receptor cells.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Tranquil Abiding / Centering

Copyright Lance Kinseth, Round Full / Enman, 48"x48, 2011

When water becomes stone
And the atmosphere bell-crisp,
Coming in from the cold
Opens the landscapes of memory and deep imagination.

Yule approaches (Winter Solstice):
The dark yields to the light
And yet the deepest part of winter yet to begin.

The bleakness hides a fire:
The vast sweep of serenity in the physical stillness
And in the embers of sleepy seeds and mammals
And in subtle details:
In the wonder of bare, matchstick legs of birds in such cold
And in the tiny leather caps of spring buds on every bush.

IN WINTER, in the Northern Hemisphere, some might perceive a dead, skeletal landscape.  And yet, the barren might be positively equated with an “original ground,” a landscape in which we are dazzled less by the fleeting biotic evanescence of summer.  In this original ground, we might be carried a little deeper.  In a landscape that appears reduced to the skeletal, everything is still deeply present.  There is an opportunity in not being distracted by diverse expressions.  Zen adept Ikkyu lived in Japan at a time of famine, disease, riots and wars, seeing, quite regularly, a landscape of corpses.  In experiencing the desolation and a sense of “life as fleeting,” Ikkyu admonishes us that appearances are delusive.  In Giakotsu (“Skeletons,” 1457 AD),he writes in the voice of a skeleton in a temple graveyard,
            Break open
            A cherry tree
            And there are no flowers,
But the spring breeze
Brings forth myriad blossoms!
In John Stevens, Three Zen Masters: Ikkyu, Hakuin, Ryokan. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1993, p.45

In December in the Northern Hemisphere, the physical Earth has it time of glory.  Snow and ice trigger, in counterpoint, humane fire and shelter.  We might go into a landscape of crows that go easily into the stubble and find gems free for the taking.   Perhaps this canny ability to find resources in desolation is a strong part of the reason that arctic cultures praise the highly evolved family of Corvidae, while in the West, crows and ravens and magpies are disprized.  The crow is mythologized by indigenous Northwest Pacific coastal societies as the “Crow Father”—the creator-spirit that produced dry land by beating its wings—or as “The One Who Brings Light.”  Similarly, the raven might be referenced as the “Great Inventor” or as “The One Whose Voice Is To Be Obeyed” or as the “Real Chief.”

In the cold, there is time for rich fire of contemplation, for the mind, for the art of Raja yoga—“royal yoga”—at least at a preparatory level of meditation/mind-spirit work: “tranquil abiding.”

In “tranquil abiding,” there is the natural tendency to try to go inside an interiority to “strengthen self” against “superficial” / “false” everyday “distractions,” as if we really could subsume life and rise above it.  However, the real task of Raja yoga and initial tranquil abiding is one of emptying the center so that the miracle that is life in all of its expressions [that we might discriminate into “good” and “bad”] can enter and optimize us.  In Opening The Moral Eye, M. C. Richards wrote, “Centering is the discipline of bringing in rather than leaving out.”

In body-mind practices and art and life in general, the “center” is neither a physical point nor an interior place in oneself.  More than a place, Centering is gerund—a noun/verb—a process of balancing real events in life as it is, instead of being swayed this way and then that way, rather than making an “inside” and an “outside.”  Centering is an act of bringing elements that might seem to be at opposite ends of a continuum into balance and harmony: Speech and silence, the everyday and the cosmos, the natural and the artificial.

Centering is a process of developing an interior silence or calmness for clarity and for peace.  It is a process of letting go, with the possibility that by deeply calming and letting go, an interior luminescence might shine outward.

If there is a sense of “center” in the body-mind-spirit, it is perhaps somewhat effusive rather than specific.  It is likely that which is referenced in the Chinese term, xin [心], which might be translated as “heart-mind.”  “Heart-mind” is a balancing of sorts.  And it is a holistic essence that even extends beyond the body, as might be captured in the metaphor of the seventh chakra, Sahasrara, where there is a sense of unity with the cosmos.  A person expressing the attribute xin is felt to be a “good person,” which is to say, simply, that the person is considerate of others, but more than this, that his or her actions are likely to be deeply balanced and luminescent.

In winter, in the Northern Hemisphere, when nothingness seems to prevail over abundance, we are offered this metaphor of emptying, opening, and receiving that which the crows know well—an overlooked abundance that is always present in every season.

In the quiet of restorative practice, we are offered a stillness that might bring us to a center that is not an interior island, but rather, is a process of magical arrival and of the flow of energy.  Each incoming breath is the flow of the Earth, like an incoming wave in the ocean that is, ultimately, the expression of the ocean itself.  Such a perception can seem esoteric or even intellectual at first, and then, by returns, might be understood to be the real, unthinking work of the world, like a snowflake that expressed a whole season, nothing exotic or special, really—just the wondrous way that the world, self, star, cold, and dark simply is.