Uddiyana Bandha – the abdominal lift
Using our abdominals isn’t limited to building muscle, or getting a six pack. It includes learning how to relax them. To me, strength means finding intelligent ways to use our muscles at each end of the spectrum. That’s why I often teach and emphasize the importance of Uddiyana Bandha practice in class. Not only do your abdominals move in new ways, but the neighbouring diaphragm is stretched and lengthened, to heighten our capacity to breathe. This practice commonly causes anxiety as well as confusion and it’s hard to address all issues in every 60 minute yoga class. Thus, following are tips on how to practice and common problems with this abdominopelvic exercise.
(following excerpt from Anatomy of Hatha Yoga by Coulter)
Once you have become proficient in Mula bandha (seal of the perineum), you are ready to learn the second great lock in hatha yoga: Uddiyana bandha. To do it, you must exhale all your breath out, and create a vacuum in your chest that sucks your diaphragm and abdominal organs to a higher than usual position in the torso. This can happen only if the body is sealed above and below – above at the glottis (Jalandhara bandha) and below at the perineum (Mula bandha).
Where does the vacuum come from? In Uddiyana bandha we are trying to inhale without inhaling, and this makes the thoracic cage larger, expanding it from side to side and from front to back. And since no air is allowed in, the air pressure inside the chest has to decrease, which in turn creates enough of a vacuum to pull the diaphragm up in proportion to the expansion of the rib cage.
Uddiyana bandha is the only practice that frankly stretches the respiratory diaphragm. Uddiyana goes beyond other complete exhalation practices because the vacuum of the chest that is superimposed on full exhalation pulls the diaphragm to an incredibly high position. We can surmise that regular practice of Uddiyana bandha will stretch, and in time lengthen the diaphragm’s muscle and connective tissue fibers. You will be able to exhale more completely as you gradually lengthen the muscle fibers, and you will be able to breathe more comfortably and efficiently as you increase the diaphragm’s mobility.
- You may not be exhaling enough at the start. The less you exhale, the less convincing will be the lift. You have to exhale the entire expiratory reserve volume.
- You may be letting in a little air on your mock inhalation. You have to try to inhale without doing so. That is the whole point of locking the airway at the glottis (Jalandhara)
- You are not relaxing the abdomen during the mock inhalation. You must learn to distinguish between pressing in with abdominal muscles, which we want only for the preliminary exhalation, and allowing the abdominal wall to be pulled in passively by the vacuum in the chest. Many students hold their abdominal muscles rigidly or even try to keep pushing in with them during the lifting phase of the practice, and this prevents the abdominal organs and abdominal wall from being sucked in and up. It is also common for students to relax their abdominal muscles momentarily but then get mixed up and try to assist the inward movement with an active contraction. It won’t work. You have to keep them relaxed to do this exercise.
The energetic benefits of this practice:
Uddiyana bandha changes the course of the downward moving apana vayu and unites it with prana vayu and samana vayu in the navel centre. When the two opposite energies of apana and prana meet in the navel region, there is an explosion of potential force which travels upward through sushumna nadi. Powered by udana vayu, it is taken up to the higher centres. Of course, this is a major event in the course of one’s sadhana and it does not take place with one or two rounds of practice. It requires patient and ardent performance in combination with other techniques.
(Hatha Yoga Pradipika)
(This article was recently posted on the lululemon lab’s website, in anticipation of a yoga & meditation class I’m leading tomorrow. Joni McKervey and I happily discuss meditation, fears, transformation and road rage.)
Even before the whistling screams of the last fireworks of Halloween had faded into silence, businesses all over Vancouver were stealthily hanging strings of lights and preparing their Christmas displays. And now that we’re well into November, reminders of the approaching season – and all the gifting and celebrating that await – are everywhere. But, for all the merriness, joy and good will of the winter holiday season, this time of year can also be one of incredible stress. For some it’s work, for others it’s family. Maybe you’re the only vegan in a family full of cheese-loving carnivores. Maybe you’ve been invited to too many parties on the same weekend. Everyone’s stress is different, but we all go through it.
Which is why the Lab is hosting its Candlelight Yoga and Meditation workshop with Carolyn Budgell later this month. The workshop will create a space for everyone present to not only relax and destress in that hour, but to also acquire the tools to manage times of stress as they arise over the following weeks (or lifetime! Stress isn’t seasonal, am I right?)
The Lab recently sat down with Carolyn to talk about meditation, stress, and other cool stuff like Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, road rage and fruit cake.
Lab: How do you define meditation
Carolyn: I define meditation as… this is a hard one. I don’t even feel like I’m qualified, or ever would be qualified, to define it. For me, it’s a process towards finding space in my mind, space in my thoughts, space in what I think is reality. To try and hover between thoughts and expectations.
It’s also a process towards being present. For example, one way I practice often is, when I’m walking down the street I notice, “oh, I’m walking through leaves right now,” or “there’s a person approaching me, I’m going to look at this person.” It’s just constantly being present.
L: What does that give you? If meditation is a process toward these things, what do these things bring to your life?
C: More and more I try to think less about what it will give to me, and think about what it will give to my communication with others, or my experiences with others. We do need to think about ourselves a lot, but I feel like I’ve been through a lot of moments of self-growth and thinking about “I need this. I need that. I need to let go of these things, I need to give myself more of these things.” And now I’m thinking more about how will my life with others be enhanced, rather than how just my life will be enhanced.
L: What do you hear from others about what they see as barriers between them and meditating?
C: The biggest one is “not enough time.” People think they don’t have enough time. And it is kind of ironic because one of the things we are trying to change are these thought patterns, and people immediately fall into the thought pattern of “I think I don’t have enough time,” when it is a choice. This is why I praise different events, like the 21-day meditation challenge, anything that people can sign onto that helps them move through those barriers. A lot of these 20-day or 40-day challenges require only 5 minutes a day. And I think, even one minute a day is good. Any amount of time you spend working towards something is better than nothing. I get that from my mom.
Another barrier is, we can be so hard on ourselves when we start something and we can’t complete it, or distractions come in. That’s why it’s a practice, and why I call it a process. We’re not going to be perfect, we just keep trying and trying, and keep coming back. So that’s another barrier – working towards perfection. That is definitely not going to aid your process, trying to be perfect, trying to get it “right.”
C: On November 25th, it’s a Monday night, we’ll be doing a meditation and yoga session by candlelight. Yoga and meditation go hand in hand. Some people try to jump into mediation and they find a lot of physical pain in their body. So, I like to tie them both together. We’ll be doing a bit of stretching, I’ll lead the group through a few short, guided meditations. I like to give people a taste of different styles of meditation – chanting is one form that we’ll try. A lot of yogis, and just people, love singing. It’s a really great way to get out of your thoughts, even if you’re bad at singing (laughs). We’ll do some chanting, we’ll do some focusing on the breath, maybe a meditation focusing on sounds [in the environment]. We’ll listen to some good music during the yoga part. Should be a good time!
L: This night is part of a holiday series, and has the intention to help people deal with the stress we all encounter in December due to the holidays etc. What kind of tips do you have for people who find themselves anxious or overwhelmed this season?
C: This is something that I’ll talk about more in the workshop, and I’ll post online on my blog about this as well. When it comes to holiday stress – whether it be family stress or work stress or whatever – there are tools that we can all use. Different tools work for different people. One thing, I’m sure we’ve all heard it a million times: stop and take a deep breath. It’s so much easier said than done.
Another thing you can do is phone a friend (laughs).
L: Is this Who Wants to be a Millionaire or meditating??
C: Lifeline, please! What’s my option right now? Flip out, or buy chocolate and calm down. Yeah, it’s kind of like, when you want to get back into a bad relationship and you call your friend to talk you out of it. Same thing with negative behaviour patterns: call your friends.
I do a lot of journaling, so I often stop and journal before I take something out on someone else. But that, again, has been a process of learning, figuring out that this tool really works for me.
There are also a lot of great online resources now, things that help you find yoga classes nearby, guided 5 minute meditations you can listen to. I like listening to classical music when I’m driving –
L: To help with your road rage?
C: (sighs) That’s something I haven’t quite mastered yet…
When I first became excited about the idea of transformation, realising the potential that I had to actually change how I acted in the world, I began every week with a different affirmation and I would repeat that affirmation in my head all week long. And I’ve talked with other students and meditators who find working with affirmations and mantras very helpful as well.
L: Right, so you could choose an affirmation that addresses your holiday anxiety.
C: Yeah, like “I love my family” or “I love fruit cake”
There is nothing easy about becoming conscious. My own life was much easier before I knew about the deeper meaning of choice, the power of choice that accompanies taking responsibility. Abdicating responsibility to an outside source can seem, at least for the moment, so much easier. Once you know better, however, you can’t get away with kidding yourself for long.
My heart goes out to people who are working hard to release their negative attitudes and painful memories. “Just tell me how, and I’ll do it,” they say to me. We are forever looking for the easy meditation, the easy exercise, that will lift us out of the fog, but consciousness doesn’t work that way. Ironically, there is a simple way out, only it’s not easy: Just let go. Let go of how you thought your life should be, and embrace the life that is trying to work its way into your consciousness.
Here’s my point – nothing lifts me up like a solid, deep breath. It used to be a glass of wine that relieved me, or watching hours of Sex and the City or forcing myself to take a sweaty power yoga class. I’m still guilty for all the above but I now follow my gut (ahem, my lungs) when looking for peace rather than the persuasions of my mind…
It took 14 years of practicing yoga to reach this point.
Breath – what’s the big deal?
It’s commonly referred to as: a life force, purifier of toxic energy, a de-stressor (or a source of anxiety), it is how our organs receive oxygen and is an agent to help find pauses in time or pauses before reactions. It is symbolic in its power as the giver of life from the first breath in as a newborn to the final expiration at the end of life. As Georg Feuerstein says “it makes sense to want our every breath to count and Yoga makes this possible”.
This sentiment is what makes a yoga practice special: opening to a deep appreciation for our inherent ability to breathe and create calm in our lives. Pranayama (breath expansion or breath control) techniques are intentional breathing exercises that are incorporated into yoga classes, united with poses and movement, practiced during meditation practice, or even while walking down the street. Regular pranayama practice is a big deal because it can alter the state of any nervous system.
“Slow, deep, rhythmic breathing causes a reflex stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system – the rest, relax and digest part of the nervous system – therefore reducing the heart rate, relaxing the muscles, relaxing the mind and normalizing brain function.” (Georgina Morgan)
“When you learn the breathing techniques it will positively affect your actions and thoughts. Every thought we have changes the rhythm of our breath. When we are happy breathing is rhythmic and when we are stressed breathing is irregular and interrupted. Mastering the art of breathing is a crucial step towards self-healing and survival.” (Nahid Ameen)
Today I dropped into a yoga class in New York City and no matter how diligently the teacher emphasized Ujjayi pranayama, the erratic breathing habits of yogis around me were pronounced. One person next to me wouldn’t (or perhaps couldn’t) stop her erotic sighing. Her emotions were dripping off her. One person in front of me was taking such short breaths, it’s no wonder they kept manically pacing from the prop wall to the water fountain throughout class. I left class slightly disheveled and feeling like I had misplaced that feeling of ‘oneness’ that often lingers after practice. It’s these moments that I remember we all have to start the process of changing habits somewhere…
I walked out into the diverse crowds in the streets of New York and observed all the people zipping past me as individual containers in which energy and breath are created and need to be harnessed. No matter our level of experience or what state our minds are in – a grounded connection to ourselves and others is attained through awareness of breath: returning home to the involuntary and natural action of breath. And returning home is a shaky journey that involves stops along the way, getting lost, asking for guidance and at best: a few steps forward.
My teacher says that we only use about 70% of our lung capacity, a number that I share with students in class to express how we exclude a part of ourselves in our daily interactions. Our minds and breaths rarely work in synchronicity – now that’s a big deal! In simplest terms pranayama is a way to find control when any illness or imbalance takes over. I like to have control over my breath, my reactions, my schedule and basically whatever storms rumble my way. I love introducing pranayama this way to students – take the power back! You’re the boss of your life and your breath! (ie, don’t let that water fountain fool you! YOU are the boss!). And this perspective works, initially.
Naturally, when learning about breath, we need a hook (ie-my emotions are out of control or I cannot sit still during yoga class) and a starting point (a style of pranayama that will tend to my dis-ease) to encourage us that we can create change. We need to be convinced that it’s worthwhile to ‘make every breath count’.
I strongly believe that yoga teaches us awareness and self-control. I used to preach about the self-empowerment I discovered through breath and movement but my tune changed as my relationship with self and breath changed. My drive to test my physical limits and focus on intense pranayama work has decreased. The people I look up to as mentors have shifted as well. Now it’s intention and commitment to ‘letting go’ of the fruits of my efforts that feel right for me. Therefore, I constantly turn to the wise words ‘let go’. Now that is a big deal. After years of dedicated efforts to consciously make every breath count, we can slowly turn to ‘let go’ (a fundamental tenet of yoga is ishvara pranidhana, surrender of all actions up to the universe/god). In this selfless philosophy lies the subtle teaching of guiding breath without control and only trust. The effects of being with breath and trusting its soothing nature can affects our emotions, as Leslie Kaminoff so beautifully explains…
“Stop struggling to inhale, and when you take care of the exhale, the inhale takes care of itself. That’s sort of one of the aphorisms that we work with breathing. In other words, make the space in your body, and the universe will fill it. It always does, it always will. Someone who has a chronic breathing disorder does not live in that universe. They live in the universe of “I need to take this next breath because it’s not there for me and it’s my effort, my inhale that’s filling me up.” But that’s actually not true. The energy that gets the breath into your body is not in your body at all. It’s outside of you. It’s the atmospheric pressure. It’s the weight of the air molecules that we live inside of, which is pretty heavy. It’s 14.7 pounds per square inch at sea level. And those molecules want to push their way into your body. All you need to do is make the space.
… sometimes just hearing a concept can shift your whole perspective including your body and your breath… you can just relax and let the universe do its job of filling your body with air molecules and you’ll have a whole lot less of a struggle. And you can just see something shift. And you relax. And finally, for the first time maybe, you trust that the breath is going to be there for you.”
It’s so simple – no mat needed, no fancy clothes, no soundtrack, no elaborate moves or sequencing. Keep presenting just yourself. Keep in mind that pranayama will lengthen your life energy and undoubtedly shifts perspective. Try different breath techniques, as each pranayama will affect you differently and at different stages in your life. More and more, yoga and pranayama teach us to let go of control and to trust that the universe and the breath will fill you. They always have.
Just as a jewel that has been buried in the earth for a million years is not discolored or harmed, in the same way this noble heart is not affected by all of our kicking and screaming. The jewel can be brought out into the light at any time, and it will glow as brilliantly as if nothing had ever happened. No matter how committed we are to unkindness, selfishness, or greed, the genuine heart of the bodhichitta cannot be lost.
It is here in all that lives, never marred and completely whole.
“We need to listen fully. It’s the basis of all compassionate action. We need to listen not only to the voice of the person who is hurting, but to her bare feet, the baby wrapped in her shawl, and the stars in the cold night. Such full listening helps us to hear who is calling and what we can do in response. When we listen for the truth of a moment, we know better what to do and what not to do, when to act and when not to act. We hear we are all here together, and we are all we’ve got.”