Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Stoking the inner fire

Winter brings out the inner animal in many of us... I'm thinking grizzly bear. Not that we are (all) grouchy and irritable, though some of us get a little spiky when it's cold, but generally, that wish to hibernate, withdraw from the cold and just retreat inside, whether that's to the safety of the sofa, duvet, or pulling up our shoulders and huddling inwards in our personal space. When I look around at my students I see that last one so clearly and feel it in their tense upper back and neck muscles.

Tempting as it is to cuddle up in your cosy home when you get in from work, or stay in bed in the mornings, come stoke the inner fire (or agni) at a yoga class and you will walk out warmer, taller, more energetic and confident... and in fact more resistant to those winter bugs!  

Using breath work and postures can stimulate the third chakra (or energy point), the solar plexus, which is our personal powerhouse and seat of confidence. While creating heat in the belly improves the digestion, which in turn strengthens the immune system.

Most of us humans (and bears probably) hold far too much tension in the belly — both physical and emotional, and releasing that can help not just with warming and energising the body but if you can release tension in the belly, your digestion improves and you can boost your immune system. In the Ayurveda system, a warm belly means a healthy gut and immune system and having a cold sluggish belly creates health problems.

Stimulating the prana, or energy in the belly, improves our moods, lifting anxiety, and depression. As one of my favourite yoga teachers, Bo Forbes, a clinical psychologist who mixes yoga with psychotherapy, explains in her courses, the "belly brain" or our enteric nervous system, holds 75% of our immunity. The system creates hormones, such as serotonin, which work to balance our moods. Most of us have noticed how being anxious, tense or upset, can cause stomach upsets and change our relationship with food, which in turn affects our health... 

So, where do we start? Put your hands on your belly. 
It is always good to start with some deep belly breathing, feeling the belly move into the hands on the inhale and soften towards the spine on the exhale. You can lie on your belly with a yoga brick lengthwise from just above the pubic bone to the lower belly, or over a folded blanket to focus your efforts. The light pressure increases the stimulation and gives greater feedback.* One you have got into an easy rhythm, you can add a gently mulha bandha, gently engaging the pelvic floor muscles (see my last post) and gently drawing in and up with the lower abdominal muscles, to activate uddiyana bandha.*

*Do not do this if you are pregnant or if it is the first few days of your monthly bleed, ladies. Stick with gentle breathing into the hands, and if there is a baby inside your belly, visualising the little bean and sending and receiving warm thoughts through your fingers and breath.

And, while your hands are on your belly, give yourself a belly massage. You can do this sitting up with a tall spine or lying on your back with your knees bent (still in bed is fine if you haven't made it out of the blankets yet!)
Gently massage the belly in circular movements moving clockwise to follow the direction on the large intestine. Belly massage is comforting, warming and great for wind and constipation, for babes and kids too. You can do this after your morning shower or bath using oil, too, and make it part of your morning ritual.

Let's hot things up — add breath of fire
Inhale through the nose and as you exhale strongly through the nose, draw the belly in and up, release on the inhalation. In breathe of fire you are trying to keep the inhale and the exhale even but short, so best avoided if you are asthmatic or suffer from breathing difficulties. As always, start very gently and slowly, and as you become more comfortable, increase the speed a little, keeping the same amount of power on inhale and exhale. Once you find your rhythm, you should be able to keep going for a few minutes without tension. Always observe your body and stop if you become breathless or your shoulders hunch! You can also add breathe of fire in dog pose during your sun salutations or posture practice. Breathe of fire is also known as bhastrika or breath of bellows, so the intention is to fan the inner heat, activating the navel centre.

Heating postures
Sun salutations are warming and energising, though some of you may want to start with gentle floor-based stretches on your back to ease tight psoas, hamstrings or lower back, and it's always good to add in a few rolling cats — on all fours — before you begin salutations, to ease the body into the day.

You can also add in heating breathwork during your asana practice (the postures).

Rolling cat
In Marjariasana, or cat posture, as you arch your spine towards the ceiling on your exhale, draw the lower belly in and up to stimulate uddiyana bandha (the body's upward lock) and draw the tailbone down. Sit back on your heels into child pose at the end of the exhalation, then draw your chest forward between your hands almost coming to cobra, on the inhalation — keep the belly lifted so you don't drop into the lower back! 

To take it further, arch the spine to the ceiling as you exhale, then at the end of the exhalation, draw the lower belly in and up to activate uddiyana bandha, and "on empty" tuck the toes under and lift the hips into downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana). Your belly will disappear like an inverted bowl. When you need to inhale, come back to all fours and lengthen the spine (without dropping the belly!) Repeat 2 or 3 times.

Add in lunges — stepping forward with the right foot first, again to follow the workings of the digestive system, and add twists, remember to keep the spine long, with crown of the head reaching away from the tailbone, as you twist.

Boat pose with breath of fire 
Finally, as my ashtangis and vinyasa students know well, I love Navasana, the boat pose. You may want to sit to the front of a flat foam block if you have a pronounced coccyx or a bony bum! Engage your pelvic floor and stomach muscles and lengthen the back as you bend your knees and lift the feet and legs from the floor. Lift your chest and reach your arms out in front of you. Hold for a few breaths if you can. Keep your knees bent (and perhaps toes on the floor) if you have a weak core or if you feel it in your back. If you are fine, straighten your legs. And, if you want to really get the heat going, add in breath of fire here. No slouching, soft jaw and relaxed forehead, please. 

Breath and mudra
Finally, one of the mudras (symbolic hand positions) associated with restoring harmony in the inner powerhouse that is the manipura chakra is matangi mudra. To do it, sit with a long spine, bring your hands together and interlace the fingers, except the middle fingers. Extend the two middle fingers to touch. Hold your hands by your navel with the fingers pointing away from you, as you breathe in and out perhaps visualising the inner fire that you have created, burning brightly within. 
Matangi mudra - draw you hands towards your belly
as you breathe deeply into the belly

Warmer now?