I am interested in having a dialogue with you, conversation with those who are enticed to read it or feel inspired to share a picture, poem, video, or concept. I welcome your feedback, your experiences from using the yoga lessons and dietary ideas. I am interested in your relationship to wildness and nature, for this blog to be an experiential sharing space.
I have recently been studying Wild Therapy, Nick Totton’s book. He says “It is true that ‘individual’ and ‘culture’ are mutually dependant & co-arising. A human individual can only organise herself authentically and spontaneously in and through culture, while at the same time there can be no culture without the individuals who carry and express it”. These writings are helping me to consolidate learning, exploring who I am and how to express my culture.
It is interesting reading for study, relating everything to personal experience. I feel that from life experience I have an authentic space from which to relate to a subject. Learning at school was categorised and I did not feel a relationship to many subjects I read about. This is a new relationship to learning for me.
I am currently reading Jay Griffiths ‘Wild’ and Nick Totton’s ‘Wild Therapy’. They research terms I have a tangible interest in, such as, ‘wild’, ‘wilderness’, ‘civilisation’, ‘nature’. It is so wonderful to connect with psychology and to be in relationship with other writers. It takes time to understand the way they are thinking and what they are saying. I aim to share subjects from my personal perspective, so that you can relate with me and be inspired to share from your own life experiences.
Something as human beings I feel we all share relationship to is an innate sense of survival, so we begin here.
For each of these blogs I intend to consider a core subject to web out from.
What better place to begin than Earth element, researching our sense of ‘Survival in times of change’. This subject, our survival, being the core from which we weave.
This stunning sketch by Nicola King captures the magic of nature of which we are part. See more of her creations at www.facebook.com/henna00heaven
Air element in the Vedic and Classical traditions relates to movement, direction, mind, intelligence, reason, communication, and order, in the Chinese traditional system, these qualities are attributed to Metal. This gives us an apparently contradictory combination of metaphors that nevertheless yield rich complementary perspectives.
In nature metals are communication channels, silver, copper, gold, magnesium and other metals provide the medium through which heat and electricity can travel, forming the web of communications material through which the modern world is sustained and connected. In the body too metal provides pathways for information to travel through. Metal crafted by human intelligence into the form of a blade cuts, divides things into parts, in the same way our analytically trained minds divide and separate reality in order to understand the world.
A blade, like thought, can be used for good or bad, good or evil, the same knife used to prepare a meal made with tender affection can be used to kill in a moment of anger. Metal in the form of a sword wielded by a master flies with ease and rapidity through the air, as the tip of an arrowhead it arcs its way towards the target with unfailing precision and speed.
Air of course is the material through which life is sustained and connected, it too is a vehicle of information and communication, by which life is not only connected, but also sustained. Air like thought is invisible yet tremendously powerful, we know it by its effects in the world. Air is not the movement of the leaf on the tree it is the silent animation that lies behind the movement. Air is always silent; we only ever hear the noise made by the objects it moves. In the same way thought is not the spoken word, it is the silent activity that lies behind the birth of the word, a seed that travels through air before being reanimated as meaning in the mind of another.
Air exists always in relationship with the other elements, without the animating power of fire, air eventually returns to total cold and stillness; without the boundaries and gravity of earth, air is chaotic and without direction; without the life giving power of water, air is king of a dead and purposeless world. In the same way the heat of the sun animates the air, the heat of our passions, our emotion and essential drives, move our thought towards action. Air of course can become chaotic and random, even violent, thought too when fuelled by passions can become destructive. To see things clearly, to act intelligently, we need to be able to cool our minds, to take the heat out, in this way we can embody the coolness of reason, intelligence free from passion transforms into the blade of reason that is able to cut through delusion to reveal truth. Picture a straight shining silver sword reflecting the movement of clouds in a bright blue sky.
Central Nervous System
Air element in the body then relates to the brain and central nervous system, and to the sensory organs that take in the information of the world. As a result of historical ways of conceptualising the mind, it is common to imagine thought as some kind of disembodied abstract activity, yet modern inquiries are revealing thought to be something very concrete, the internal experience of the architecture of our brain and nervous system, an astoundingly complex web of neuronal circuitry, powered by electrochemical energy flying between neurons at tremendous speed, alternately inhibiting or disinhibiting neural gates. Our emotional and psychological lives are governed by the intensely complex dance of our nervous system, continuously equilibrating itself to external and internal stimuli. Thought then is the symbolic expression in mind of the physical architecture of being, a living temple of electro-chemical light.
The individual experience of the nervous system is governed by a combination of electrical signals and chemicals called neurotransmitters, which control the action of the neural circuitry. Some of the most well known neurotransmitters are dopamine, a reward molecule which makes us feel good when we are achieving our goals; noradrenalin which is released when we are in danger and prepares us for physical action; serotonin which is related to our position in hierarchy, exposure to sunlight and physical exercise; and GABA which inhibits the actions of noradrenalin, returning us to a calm and balanced state of being. In contrast to hormones whose actions can take place over minutes, weeks, months or even years, the neurotransmitters of the central nervous system are immediate in nature, constantly active in response to the never-ending fractal permutations of lived reality.
The nervous system is called autonomic because all of this incredible complex activity is happening for the most part beyond our conscious control, thankfully we do not have be in command of this mind bogglingly complex dance of chemistry and electricity, otherwise we would get very little done. Our nervous system is divided for the purposes of understanding into two parts, the sympathetic, which relates to our ‘fight or flight’ response and relies primarily on noradrenalin to keep us alert and safe from danger. The second part is called the parasympathetic which helps us to ‘rest and digest’, and uses the GABA neurotransmitter among others to inhibit the effects of the adrenalin running round our bodies thanks to the sympathetic nervous system.
Its important to recognise that both of these sides of the nervous system are essential, we need to be alert to the dangers of the world, and we need to be able to rest and relax. As living human beings we have to find the balance between the two. Of course, for most of us who have the luxury to be able to take the time and have the space to practise yoga, we do not face the dangers that many humans do, and historically most humans have. Really our lives, especially in the modern western world, are incredibly safe, yet our sympathetic nervous system does not know this, and is still wired to keep us safe from tigers, snakes and giant birds of prey. One feature of the modern world is the massive flow of information that we are bombarded with almost constantly, our nervous system has to assess each piece of information that it is exposed to, and does not distinguish between the threat of a tiger, and for example, the threat of economic instability on the evening news. If we do not want to be at the mercy of our sympathetic nervous system, constantly moved towards stress, that in the long term becomes damaging to our body, we must learn to be able to activate the parasympathetic system, in order to help our body to return us to a state of calm well-being, this is where yoga can help us.
Our nervous system has evolved in order to serve and protect us, it is not helpful to resent the aspects of it that bring us stress, but to understand the part they play and to bring them into equilibrium, towards a harmonious balance of inner chemistry that can support us to live intelligently. There have now been many studies that prove the effectiveness of yogic techniques, particularly, breathing or pranayama techniques and meditation in restoring balance to the nervous system. These are simple techniques, which if practised regularly bring great benefit to body and mind.
This is a short video from Yoga International showing how to practise Nadi Shodhana, a good place to start learning the essentials of pranayama, and beginning the journey towards greater happiness and peace of mind.
Unlike Fire, Earth and Water the Air element is invisible to us, we see and feel its effects but we never see Air itself. It is the agent of movement and change in the natural world; the carrying medium for information in the form of sound and light; and traditionally is related to communication and intelligence, which in the body are aspects of the brain and central nervous system.
Air, obviously, also relates to the breath, to the movement of the breath in the body, and to the breath as the prime energy source of the body. Most of us probably don’t think of air as being a source of energy, it is true we cannot do without water or food, but it is without air that we will most quickly perish.
So how does yoga help us to breathe better, and how does this help us in our day to day lives?
The lungs act as vehicles for the transportation of gases in the body. Every cell of the body is absolutely dependent on the free movement of oxygen into the body, and carbon dioxide out of the body. Without oxygen the cell has no energy, it needs the oxygen in order to break down sugars, in the process of which Co2 is created, in turn, without the removal of Co2 the cell will quickly suffocate in its own waste. The less oxygen the cells have, the harder the heart has to work to move oxygen around the body.
Lung capacity is the measure of the total amount of air that our lungs can hold. On average a man’s lung can hold about 1.5 pints of air, and a woman’s about 0.6-0.8 pints, we generally only use about 70% of our lung capacity. Our lung capacity is important, because, simply put, the more air we can bring into our body, the more oxygen our cells have to create energy, the less work our heart has to do, and the longer we will live.
Yoga asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathing) practises help by simultaneously strengthening and relaxing the muscles of the abdominal and chest areas. When we strengthen the breathing muscles (primarily the diaphragm and the intercostals), it means they use less energy when we breathe, meaning the energy can be used elsewhere by the body intelligence. The ability to allow these muscles to relax literally gives more room for the lungs to expand into. If there is less muscular restriction on the lungs, they can take in more air. So it is easy to see how even a simple yoga practise, holding basic postures while maintaining attention with the breath, can over time support lung capacity to improve and increase.
Certain pranayama techniques such as Bhastrika Pranayama, which is a type of fast bellows breath, help to clear obstructions from the breath pathways, and train us to make full use of our diaphragm and abdominal muscles. Slower pranayama practises actually stretch elastin and collagen fibres deep inside the lung. In these ways, the postures and breathing practises work together to improve lung function, we don’t know what the upper limit of this improvement might be with continued steady practise over time. We do know for sure that the power to improve our quality of life by improving our quality of breath is in our hands, should we choose to use it.
Earth element relates to stability, security, structures, boundaries, materiality and form.
In the body Earth element relates to the most stable, supportive and slow changing parts, the skeleton, connective tissues, muscles and skin. These provide the structure within and through which the physiological actions of the body take place, and the forces of gravity and locomotion are transmitted.
In our classes we have been focussing our practise on the core muscular and skeletal structures, which give the basis for balance and safe, grounded movement. By bringing our attention to, and learning to trust in the support of these central musculoskeletal structures, we can rely less on the outer muscle body to support us, discovering the powerful support structures arising from our centre.
The core is formed first by the spine itself, which has what yoga educator Leslie Kaminoff terms ‘structural prana’, that is, the architecture of the spine itself has an inherent tendency towards equilibrium and alignment.
The spine can be helpfully viewed as two columns, inner and outer. The spinous processes of the outer spine, are, spiny! They jut outwards in three directions, and through the action of the ligaments that bind to them seek to maintain the spine in upright equilibrium at all times.
The discs of the inner spine are round, strong, and evolved for load bearing. Between the discs are gel-filled pockets surrounded by concentric sheets of fibre, called intervertebral discs. These too act to maintain the spine in equilibrium. As the spine moves from side to side, or forward to back, the nature of the intervertebral discs is such that they will automatically seek to return themselves to a neutral centred position.
In this way the inner and outer parts of the spine work together to transmit the forces of gravity and of locomotion, and continuously maintain a state of dynamic equilibrium. Our work as yogis is to support this inherent equilibrium seeking nature of the spine by simultaneously releasing tension and building balanced strength throughout the musculature. An aspect of how we do this is by connecting with the deeper layers of muscular support in the body, in particular the muscles of the core.
The core muscles of the body form an egg shape, at the top of which is the diaphragm, an upside down bowl shaped web of muscles that is situated in the base of the rib cage, and is the engine of breath in the body, in continuous movement as the breath moves in and out 24 hours a day. At the base of the core is the pelvic floor, another web of muscle, or diaphragm, a diamond of muscle across the base of the pelvis. The sides of the egg are formed by a group of muscles among them, the Transverse Abdominus which wrap like a band around the abdominal area, the Multifidus which travel from the sacrum upwards along the spine, the Rectus Abdominus and Obliques which wrap around the front and sides of the lower body and the Quadratus Lumborum which rises from the upper back of the pelvis to attach to the upper lumbar spine.
In the centre of this egg of criss-crossing muscle is the Psoas, which connects from the lumbar spine downwards to connect with the Iliac muscle and then join at the top of the Femur. The Psoas and Iliac muscle together are known as the Iliopsoas muscle, and weakness or tightness in this muscle can lead to all sorts of problems, including back pain, breathing issues, leg pain and more. The Psoas is sometimes called a ‘hidden treasure’, as all of its functions can be taken on by outer muscles, and so it can be hard to connect with at first, but connecting with this important core muscle leads to a sense of grounded-ness, safety and stability in the body, as well as contributing to healthy alignment and movement.
In our asana practise we first connect with our ground of support, we feel into our base, whichever part of the body is supporting, be it hands, feet, sit-bones or head. Having connected with our base of support we connect with our core, feeling into the meridian lines of support running from our base in towards our centre. Then from this grounded, centred place, we can move with our breath into the full expression of the pose. In this way we always know that we are moving safely, and engaging the deep structures of support within.
There is much more to this subject, and in future blogs we’ll look in more depth at the core structures of the body and how our yoga practise can bring us into a more meaningful functional relationship with them.
Fire element in general relates to transformation, will, choice, creativity, action and movement. Physically it relates to the transformative actions of the body as a whole, to the metabolism, to the organs in general, and specifically to the heart and small intestines.
Our body is a continuous, constant process of transformation. Our body systems are working continuously for our survival, and they are transforming in response to the context we give them. If we spend much of our life still and static our body will transform in this direction, eventually shutting down signals to certain muscles, in time taking on the shape of the sofa we love so much, or the car seat we spend so much time in. The parts of our body that we consider to be the most static, such as the bones, muscles or the skin, too are in a state of continuous change, and over time are completely replaced and renewed.
When we practise yoga we channel the transformative action of the body towards flexibility and mobility, restoring function and flow throughout the body. We harness the natural transformative properties of the body towards health, balance and strength. By tuning into our innate tendency to move into alignment and dynamic balance, we direct our body to transform in this direction, to support the development of muscle and bone that in turn supports us to be in alignment and balance. In the same way that if we sit all day in a car, we create a body that is developed for that context, if we practise actions of upright dynamic balance we create a body oriented towards these qualities. By practising yoga we place ourselves in the flow of transformative action and orient it in the direction we wish to grow.
Metabolism refers to the chemical processes happening in the body, energy being taken in, in the form of food, drink and oxygen, which is then broken down and turned into forms usable by the body (that which is not usable being ejected in the form of waste), the energy from this process is used by the body to synthesise new substances necessary for life. These two processes are called Catabolism – breaking down or destructive metabolism, and Anabolism – the synthesising of new substances or creative metabolism. These processes are going on all the time in our body way beneath our conscious experience, except of course when our body lets us know we need to expel some waste materials, or when something has gone wrong.
Each individual’s metabolism is unique, varying dependent on age, sex, gender and physical condition. On the whole yoga practises serve to slow our metabolism, the synthesis of deep breathing, meditative focus, and movement, all work towards bringing us into a state of calm relaxation. In the most extreme cases, it appears that advanced yogis may be able to slow the metabolism down to a complete stop, one of the Grandfathers of modern yoga, Krishnamacharya in a public demonstration, slowed his heart to a stop for two minutes.
There are many benefits to a slow metabolism, primarily it is more efficient at turning food into usable energy; it may slow the ageing process due to its beneficial effect on the thyroid gland; the mind is calmer, and more thoughtful; William Broad the author of ‘The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards’ says that yoga helps develop an “inner physiological flexibility” meaning “your overall metabolic rate tends to go down. You get this kind of inner flexibility that mirrors the outer flexibility.”
In this way our practice serves to control the fire of the body in a way that serves to bring us more life, more energy, and to bring the individual into a deeper connection with the reality of their own being, and with this deeper listening, the ability to tune in to what the body needs at any given moment. We learn to trust in the tremendous intelligence inherent in the body, and seek to be able to listen so that this inherent intelligence can guide us towards healthy choices that support us to grow upright, balanced and strong, and in so doing we can support our friends, families and community to do the same.
In future blogs we will delve deeper into the subject of fire in the body, hopefully this has been a good introduction to the subject, which may provoke further investigation. Please do leave any questions or observations below, they are very welcome.
Our next cycle of blogs will look into the study of yoga, the five elements and the mind.
Yoga teachers often talk about creating space in the body, but what does this actually mean?
Our organs continuously transform and process incoming nutrient in the form of air and food and in the outgoing form of waste. The heart and other organs keep the many fluids of the body in constant motion, making sure that all parts of the body are continuously restored, refreshed and maintained in equilibrium, or homeostasis.
The organs in turn are supported, and contained by the musculoskeletal structure, formed by the voluntary muscles and the skeleton, and by the connective tissues, the joints, tendons and ligaments, and fascia, which surrounds and contains the distinct parts of the body, something like the white pith inside an orange.
The shape of our muscles and skeleton is formed through our daily activities throughout our lives. Our muscles adapt continuously to what we ask them to do, and can become fixed in positions that in turn can distort our skeletal structure. If for example, we spend a lot of time hunched over a desk at a computer screen, our muscles learn to develop and maintain this hunched position, in turn distorting the shape of the shoulder girdle, upper spine and ribcage.
These distortions in the muscles and skeleton, in turn restrict the ability of the diaphragm to move freely in the body, which inhibit our ability to breathe freely. Also the actions of our organs, and the flow of fluid can become similarly restricted and inhibited.
Our practise of pranayama (breathing) and asana (posture), slowly but surely lead us towards a more open and relaxed, balanced, upright posture. We learn to listen to our body to feel into areas of rigidity, restriction or tension, and with focussed movement, begin to release them. As we release muscular stress and inhibition from the outer body and learn to listen to the deeper communication arising from our core body, we can begin to return naturally to the alignment inherent in our living being.
The practise of yoga is a way of re-awakening, or re-establishing this natural alignment by bringing us into experiential contact with the structural prana of our living body. We were born tremendously curious, flexible, spontaneous and open to experience, and through our practise we can, to some degree, restore and recover these innate properties.
The conscious re-alignment of the body is both an expression of prana in itself, and a process that will allow prana to flow. Prana is not some kind of magical or mystical energy arriving in our bodies from some unknown outside source. It can be viewed as simply the natural propensity of the living body to seek alignment and equilibrium, though when experienced, it can feel magical. When we let the breath and body move us, and begin to realise for the first time the tremendous intelligence inherent in our living being, it can be a profound and transformational experience, as we learn experientially that there is far more to our intelligence than simply our conscious, rational, everyday mind.
When we return to the space element in our next cycle we will explore this subject in relation to the mind. I hope this has given some insight as to how the practise helps to create and maintain space in the body, and how this in turn supports our life as a whole.
In our classes we work with the powerful and ancient metaphor or model of the five elements. This way of looking at the world is found in all cultures, and is a naturally arising, easily understood way of looking at reality that can help us to better understand ourselves and the world we live in.
This week we are working with water element, which relates to feeling, fluidity and balance in body and mind.
A key aspect of yoga practise is balance, the form of yoga that we practise, Hatha, means ‘balanced effort’. We seek to integrate and harmonise, to balance, the different parts of our being, as represented in the form of the five elements, fire, water, earth, air and space.
In the body water element relates to physical balance, our ability to maintain our physical being in a state of dynamic equilibrium. It is the nature of water to seek equilibrium, and evolution has harnessed this property to allow us to do the same, tiny fluid filled canals in our inner ears act as 3-dimensional spirit levels to let us know when we are in balance.
To be able to find and maintain our centre and our balance we need to know where our body is in space, this is a kind of sixth sense, and is called proprioception. Through practise we learn to feel into our body and develop this sense of ourselves as a 3 dimensional body moving in space and time.
To keep our balance we need to be able to be both strong and flexible, so that we are able to adjust to our changing environmental circumstances on a moment-to-moment basis, able to hold our ground when it is necessary, and to give ground when that is necessary. To do this we want our muscles to be strong but not rigid. We can work with our physical practise, to restore fluidity and ease to muscles that have become restricted through habituation or trauma. Also we can work to build balanced strength where muscles have become weak through lack of use or postural imbalance. There is an essential relationship between fluidity and balance, if we are not fluid we are less responsive and so less able to maintain equilibrium, and we if we are not balanced we cannot maintain fluidity and gracefulness in our actions.
Water element of course relates to the liquids of the body – the water, blood, interstitial fluid, synovial fluid and lymph – which work together to transport nourishment and information around the body systems, these always flowing oceans, rivers and streams of the inner body. Our physical practise helps these different fluids to do their work, by maintaining ‘good space’ or ‘sukha’ in our bodies, we can make sure that restrictions are not developing that block the flow of fluid. It is said that ‘motion is lotion’, the lymph fluid for instance does not move on its own accord, and needs our movement to help it move and flow, so that waste from the cells can be recycled in the body or removed through our waste systems.
The more we get to know our body and its systems, the greater appreciation we develop for this intricate and tremendously intelligent vehicle that we have been gifted by evolution. Our work is to establish a deeper conversation with and understanding of our body so that we are able to better harmonise with our internal systems to support them to support us. Imagine that these body systems are all working without rest for 24 hours every day so that we can do all the things we have to do, it is not so much to ask that we make some effort to understand their functions and give them some attention from time to time.
Good question! It is curious to note that the original practitioners of yoga in India, and the teachers who bought yoga to the west were almost all male, yet it is women in the main who have embraced yoga in the west, and it is thanks to them that yoga has become part of the western cultural and spiritual fabric.
We know how beneficial yoga is for body and mind, and started these classes in part as a way to encourage more men to practise yoga. We also wanted to find out what men wanted and needed from a yoga practise, and to work with them to develop a practise that is tailored for them.
There are differences between men and women, both physically and mentally (of course, there are many similarities too), yoga with its emphasis on harmonising the masculine and feminine principles recognises these differences, and the strength that arises when these polarities are working together in harmony internally and externally.
Felix is teaching men’s yoga classes in Cadiar every Friday at 5:30pm to 7:00pm. Classes are designed with the intention of giving the practitioner all the tools they need to develop their own individual practise and make yoga a part of their day to day to life. Visit the Classes page here on our website for information on venue, email and phone number to contact.