This month we are completing our exploration of the five sheaths, or layers, of our being. We have journeyed through our dimensions from grossest to most subtle starting with our physical body, our energetic body, our psycho-emotional body, and the wisdom body. Our most subtle layer of existence is called the Anandamaya kosha.
Ananda translates to bliss, so this kosha is most often referred to as the bliss body. Well, what does that mean? I like to think of this as the spiritual body and the qualities of contentment, joy, limitlessness, wholeness, inner peace, sense of awe, and of course – bliss – that we discover as our essential spiritual essence along our paths of yoga and awakening. In this sheath we can connect with ourselves as being unchanging awareness. In the previous sheath, vijnanamaya kosha, we begin to develop the insight to become the witness and spectator, or the seer (known as purusha) of all other materiality including our body, mind, and our environment (known as prakruti). When we cultivate this capacity to witness, we can start to see that we are awareness, and we can start to identify less with the things that keep us suffering. We can start to create space for holding it all; what we perceive as negative or challenging along with our positive qualities of joy, contentment, and wholeness. This may look like feeling contentment along with a challenging diagnosis, or joy amongst your body’s physical pain, or inner peace when facing a life transition.
We can access this kosha in a multitude of ways. Examining the yamas and niyamas may help us cultivate important and helpful qualities such as contentment (Santosha), surrender (Ishvara pranidhana), self-study (Svadhyaya) and non-attachment (Aparigraha), to name a few. The physical practice of yoga as well as pranayama may connect (or re-connect) us to our bodies and allow us to embody ideas, release limiting beliefs, move energy and digest mental impressions. Meditation and mindfulness practices are very important for the development of a healthy Anandamaya kosha as well. For example, meditating on the limitlessness of the sky can help connect us to our own nature of limitless space. Being mindful of a beautiful sunset can invite in that sense of awe. And doing something each day that brings you joy no matter how big or small can nourish the bliss body. Maybe hugging a loved one, preparing a heartfelt meal, going for a walk in nature, or taking a few moments to connect to your breath.
Through the ups and downs of life, know that this part of you, the part that is awareness, wholeness, and peace is always there for you to access.
In the previous months we explored our more gross levels of existence in annamaya kosha, our physical or food body, pranamaya kosha, our vital energy body, and manomaya kosha, our psycho-emotional body that makes up our personality. This month we are traveling to a more subtle level of existence called vijnanamaya kosha.
In the January blog, we discussed that koshas are the subtle layers of the body and that we would explore one kosha per month starting with the outer layer and working our way in. In the February blog, we overviewed the physical layer (Anamaya kosha) and in March we explored the breath/energy layer (Pranamaya kosha). The next subtle layer as we work our way inward is the mental/emotional layer, or the Manomaya kosha.
In the January blog, we discussed that koshas are the subtle layers of the body and that we would explore one kosha per month starting with the outer layer and working our way in. In the February blog, we overviewed the physical layer (Anamaya kosha). This month (March), we will explore the next subtle layer as we work our way inward, the energy/breath layer or the Pranamaya kosha.
As we mentioned last month, the physical body is the first sheath, or layer, in the Pancha Kosha model. This is where most people start their journey to wellness. The moment something hurts, or feels off physically, we notice. We often try to enact change, or at least think about the change we need to make. Sometimes it’s as simple as putting a band-aid on a wound. Other times it’s about removing foods that don’t agree with us from our daily diet.
No matter where you look there’s a new fashion on how to live your life. One thing is certain – people want to live better, happier, healthier lives. Yoga is not new, it’s been around for over 5000 years. If you’ve checked out our last few blog posts you’ll know that yoga is more than just a way to stretch and/or add body weight exercises into your daily life. We touched on how important breathing is to your overall well being, as well as a few ways to introduce meditation and mindfulness into your lives. These practices can help us find balance in all areas of life: physical, psycho, social, and spiritual. In yoga we have a model for this: the pancha kosha.
Last month we wrote about how breathing works, this month we’re offering up a few breathing practices for you to try.…enjoy!
To feel calm
Diaphragmatic Breath– also known as dirga pranayama or three-part breath. This is great for feeling calm, but also oxygenates the blood and nourishes the whole body and brain, and creates better focus and alertness. Lie on your back and bring awareness to your breath in the belly. Feel the rise on the inhale and fall on the exhale. Do this a few times and then bring awareness to your rib cage. As you inhale feel your ribs move outward and on the exhale, they draw back in. Do this a few times and then bring awareness to the breath in the chest and feel the movement of the collarbones on each breath. And put it all together…feel the belly rise, the ribs expand, the chest fill, and on the exhale collarbones lower, ribs close, and belly lowers.
Ujjayi pranayama– also called victorious breath or sometimes ocean breath. This is an audible sound made in the throat that can sound like distant waves, a baby snoring, or Darth Vader. My favorite way to teach the sensation we want to feel in the throat is to hold your hand out in front of you and with an open mouth exhale onto your hand as though you’re fogging up a mirror. On your inhale, imagine pulling that same breath back out of your hand with an open mouth. Then try to create the same sensation with your lips sealed and be mindful to keep your teeth, tongue, and jaw relaxed.
Alternate nostril breath– also called Nadi Shodhana and can have a profound impact on nervous system regulation. Every 90 minutes or so we have a nostril that is more dominant and one that is more clogged so this brings some awareness to that and can bring clarity and stress relief. If you have a stuffy nose or bad allergies, this can be done by just imaging the closing of the nostrils if that feels more comforting. Use your thumb for the right nostril and ring finger for the left. Exhale completely and close the right nostril, inhale through the left, close the left and release the right, exhale and inhale through the right, then close the right and open the left and inhale and exhale through the left. Continue this for 10-12 cycles.
To feel Invigorating
Kapalabhati– also called breath of fire or skull shining breath and is purifying, warming, and cleansing. This breath consists of shorter, more explosive exhales and more passive inhales. The power of the breath is generated from contracting the lower belly on the exhales to push the air out of the lungs. You can start slow and after practicing it might get quicker. Find a seated position and bring awareness to the belly. Take a big inhale, then with short and quick bursts and contraction of the belly exhale out of the nose eight to ten times and then take in another inhale and repeat this cycle.
Breath of Joy– one of my favorites and pretty simple to do and like the name implies, can bring a sense of joy and vital energy. For this you will breathe three semi sharp and quick inhales through the nose and then a long open mouth sigh of relief/release on the exhale. This can be done seated or I love doing it in a wide legged fold (prasarita padottanasna)…as you inhale through your nose let your arms lift straight over head, then out to the side then straight over head again (like big, floppy music conductor arms) and on your exhale fold forward and sigh it out of the mouth.
If you’re interested in learning more techniques or how to offer them to service members, their families, or veterans check out our next teacher training.
Most people don’t think about breathing because we don’t really have to. It’s part of the autonomic nervous system and happens automatically to keep us alive. We tend to become really aware of our breath when something is going wrong such as an asthma attack, anxiety, COPD, or if something were to happen to your diaphragm (the primary muscle of breathing), ribs, or your lungs. I (Tracy) became very aware of my breath many years ago (in 2004) when I underwent a surgery that required the collapsing of my lungs. Wow, was waking up from that uncomfortable, and man did it give me a new appreciation for smoothly functioning respiration!
Yoga is special for so many reasons, one reason is its focus on breath control, or what is called pranayama in the yoga tradition. In the classical yoga system laid out by Pantanjali’s eight limbs of yoga thousands of years ago, pranayama practice comes after social restraints (yama), personal disciplines (niyama), and the physical practice (asana) and is what helps lead us to withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and ultimately a state of bliss and freedom from the entrapments of our mind and suffering (samadhi). Pranayama comes from the idea of prana, meaning life force and that which sustains all of life and fills us with vital energy. Thus, pranayama literally means “life force extension.” We can sustain healthy prana in our body by eating healthy foods, sustaining healthy relationships, moving our bodies in healthy ways, and different types of breath practices.
We now know from scientific and medical studies that when we inhale, we get a small dose of adrenaline, and our sympathetic nervous system is activated which is responsible for our fight or flight and stress response. When we exhale, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for our ability to rest and digest, and feel calm. When you have this simplified understanding, it makes it easier to understand the immense power we hold in using our breathing to regulate our nervous system which also has a profound impact on our mental and physical health. For example, in the military community PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is very common and prevalent. A major symptom of PTSD is that the nervous system gets stuck in that stress response and sympathetic state which can lead to chronic pain in the body, anxiety disorders, and excess cortisol and adrenaline being pumped through the body. Enter yoga and pranayama techniques! We can use breath control techniques to regulate the nervous system and help bring us back to homeostasis, balance, and harmony. We don’t only use pranayama to calm us down…we can also use it for the opposite effect to help increase our energy and vitality which can help symptoms of depression.
If you’re interested in learning more, take a trip to your local yoga studio and jump into a class. If you’re interested in sharing the benefits of these physiological effects with your military or veteran community check out our next yoga teacher training! It’s all virtual with small classes sizes to maximize learning and teaching practices. How to see you on your mat!
Yoga gets a lot of misconceptions, sometimes people think you need to be flexible, or wear lululemon, or that it’s always in a hot room, or that you just lay around. Well, all of these things can happen but none of them are true all at the same time. There are no prerequisites to start a yoga practice. There are many styles and ways to practice, so in this blog post we’re gonna break down some of the basics of what yoga (asana) is, how to start a practice, and WHY it’s an important practice for everyone, especially the military, veterans, and their dependents.
What is yoga?
This comes up a lot, but yoga as we typically see it in the Western Hemisphere, is the physical practice, doing poses, aka “asana.” This is what you see on the cover of Yoga Journal, what you experience when you do yoga at your gym, and the P90XTM yoga sessions. There are many different styles of yoga and they range from being extremely athletic to spending 90-min laying down on the floor nearly asleep.
When you try yoga for the first, second, third, or hundredth time, keep an open mind. There are many styles, and within each style, each teacher can take a different approach to the same sequence or pose. You don’t need to be strong or flexible to do yoga, but yoga can help you develop both of these characteristics. Some poses do require a good amount of either, or both, strength and flexibility, but generally there are modifications for just about every yoga pose to help you feel the effects, without causing injury.
As I alluded to above yoga is not just about the physical. Asana for many is the way in, but it’s not the asana that keeps people coming back. Last month we covered meditation and mindfulness, and next month we’ll cover breathing techniques. Both of these yoga practices are essential to overall personal growth – including within a particular yoga pose.
Benefits of yoga
As you probably guessed yoga can help you increase your flexibility and your strength. Different styles of practices encourage different aspects of the physical. Finding a style that helps you meet your personal goals is important. Over time a yoga practice can help increase your proprioceptive awareness (where you are physically are in space), your interoceptive awareness (your internal cues to bring awareness to how you’re feeling), your resiliency (ability to bounce back after adversity), your relationship with yourself and others, and your overall outlook on life.
Starting a practice
What you need
You don’t need anything to do yoga, but generally having a yoga mat is a great place to start. It helps you define an area that is yours, and often your mat becomes a sacred space. You can buy an inexpensive mat to start, and as you find a style of yoga that you like to practice regularly you can purchase a better quality, more expensive mat, to fit your needs. We (the co-founders of PTSYA) love this Manduka Pro mat because of its lifetime warranty, its surface, and its durability. It is an investment, but each of us have had ours for over a decade now.
Wearing clothes that are easy to move in (and wick sweat if you jump into a hot yoga class) will ensure your comfort during your practice. Taking a towel and water bottle to a vinyasa or hot yoga class will ensure you can wipe off your sweaty hands so you can stick to the floor and then rehydrate as you lose all the water due to perspiration.
Where to go
You don’t have to leave your home to take a yoga class. For many people there’s a sense of insecurity the first time they take a group yoga class. This insecurity is usually unfounded, but it often takes trust in yourself to make that first step. If you feel ready to go, search for yoga studios near you or find out what times the yoga classes are offered at your gym. If you’re not ready to take the public plunge, turn to YouTube for free classes of all kinds. Yoga with Kassandra and Yoga with Adriene are both excellent channels to check out when you’re just starting.
Why yoga is good for you
Well, it’s up there☝️ Helps you build strength and flexibility, increases your proprioceptive and interoceptive awareness, increases your resiliency, and leaves you in a parasympathetic (rest and digest) state. The impact of this practice over time helps you increase your overall well being. If you have spent even just a few years traveling with the military, running through war time drills, or even just being uprooted that one time, having a yoga practice can help you better adjust to the experiences you have had and any future ones to come.
If you’re already drank the yoga kool-aid and want to help share its benefits with other active duty, reservis, guard, veterans, or dependents check out our upcoming yoga teacher training!
When I separated from the Air Force more than 16 years ago, “yoga and the military” was generally believed to be an oxymoron. I took my first class in 2004 in Baghdad from an Air Force Reserve Captain, who called it “Combat Yoga”. That certainly seemed like an oxymoron.
What I didn’t know was that almost at the same time (but not quite — 2003), Dr. Richard Miller was invited to consult on a research project at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The purpose of the project was to study the effect of yoga nidra on healing military personnel experiencing PTSD. They called the practice Integrative Restoration (iRest), probably because if you said “yoga” military people would run screaming. But it was so successful that it was immediately integrated into the PTSD regimen at Walter Reed (Miller, 2015, p. 2). And then the word “yoga” became acceptable in the military. Now it is synonymous with holistic healing for military members and veterans.
iRest and yoga nidra are types of meditation and mindfulness, practices that benefit anyone and everyone. If you don’t know how to start a meditation practice, or would like to re-start or re-invigorate a previous meditation practice, this is the blog for you.
What is Meditation
According to Wikipedia, Meditation is a practice where an individual uses a technique–such as mindfulness, or focusing the mind on a particular object, thought, or activity — to train attention and awareness, and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state.
Benefits of a Meditation Practice
Components of a Meditation Practice
Once you develop a meditation practice you will be able to meditate anywhere but to train yourself to meditate it helps to have a consistent setting with items that appeal to your five senses and prepare your mind for practice.
soft lighting that does not provide a distraction (such as a bright light on your face might). You may find that using candles provides the ambient light that gets you “in the mood”.
Lavender oil has definitely become the scent of yoga for a good reason — it promotes relaxation. Using lavender oil in a meditation practice via a diffuser or directly on your skin can facilitate readiness for meditation.
If you have the ability to set up a serene, uncluttered place to practice (even if it’s a postage stamp-size oasis) that also helps to create the setting to prepare your mind and body for meditation.
No special equipment is necessary. If you like, you can use a yoga mat.
If you are laying down in savasana (corpse pose) for meditation, you might find a pillow under your head and/or a roll under your knees, an eye pillow to cover your eyes, and/or a light blanket to cover yourself with can facilitate the ability to stay in savasana comfortably for a period of time.
If you are seated for meditation, you may find that sitting in a chair with a back allows you to stay in meditation comfortably, or seated on a pillow on the floor. You may have to experiment a bit to find out what works for you. I use a pillow that is thick enough that when I sit criss-cross apple sauce 🙂 that my knees are on the floor and my pelvis is tilted in such a way that it makes it easy to sit comfortably and maintain good posture for an extended period of time.
The Western thought for meditation is that whatever works for you, works for you. Don’t beat yourself up that is not how the monks meditate — you’re not a monk! That being said, typically most people meditate in one of two postures. You may go with one as your default, but most likely there will be certain meditations (or moods) that call for one or the other.
Savasana (corpse pose): This completely takes the focus off of figuring out how to get comfortable in a seated position. Critics will say it’s “cheating” because you could be sleeping in meditation, but Western thought is “maybe you just need the sleep” and you should listen to your body.
Seated: Can be in a chair, on a couch, or on the floor. A seated pose on the floor can be a bit distracting when you first start out because it is important to have that good posture that your mom told you about — and it can take a bit to figure out what works for you. It is valuable in the long-run if you commit to figuring it out though.
In Sanskrit the word “prana” means both breath and life-force. For good reason, you have to breathe to stay alive but most of us un-learn breathing. Breathwork is an important part of any type of yoga — it is what brings you that feeling of zen. Who knew? Breathing is good for us 🙂 There are many types of yoga breathwork to help us relax, energize, find balance. Each has a place in a meditation practice, but in the beginning a simple breathing technique such as 4 (inhale on a count of)-2 (hold for a count of)-8 (exhale on a count of) dirga breathing is beneficial to facilitating relaxation and a mind and body ready for meditation.
The reason yoga purists prefer a seated posture for meditation is because they believe that it is best for maintaining presence — in other words staying in the meditation to focus your mind. Whatever posture you choose, you can use your breath and your five senses to help to keep you connected to the present to initiate your meditation and to stay in your meditation.
We use our third eye, that space between our eyebrows and slightly above them, to facilitate focus in our meditation practice and stay present for the meditation, in order to reap maximum benefit. It is part of “clearing the mind”.
Longer meditations can bring up memories or feelings that we haven’t dealt with. In the beginning of a meditation practice, it’s important to build up slowly from 5 minute meditations on up; and also to build a safety net for yourself — that if something comes up you can use this safety net/item to visualize and bring you back from going down a path you’re not yet ready to go down. A short visualization exercise conducted in the beginning of your meditation journey can be used to help you identify your safety net.
Meditation doesn’t require any “stuff” but if you’re looking for a couple of items to facilitate your setting, or to do some reading, here are some items we like:
Samaya Meditation Cushion (a bit more than I wanted to spend but I’ve had mine for years, use it almost daily, and it has never let me down for comfort and endurance)
At the Peace Through Strength Yoga Academy (PTSYA) is to serve the military and veteran community by training members of these communities as yoga instructors, to increase access to yoga for military members, family members, and veterans. If you are a member of this community, already serve them in a VA or similar setting, or are interested in serving this community, please contact us to learn about our cost-effective and comprehensive yoga teacher training. PROVIDE CONTACT HERE OR ACCESS TO THE WEBSITE
And check out the following cool articles about veterans in yoga.