Seattle Yoga News – Part Three – Deep Breather

This is the third in a six-part series about the experiences of Sarvesh Naagari while he lived in a Yoga ashram in southern India for 6 months in a 2,000 hour teacher training program. The series focuses on what it was like to practice Yoga in a Gurukula environment and to learn about and experience one of the oldest and most respected lineages in the Yoga world, Gitananda Yoga. Sarvesh is the owner of Ripple Yoga in Seattle, WA and the author of the newly released novel, 20,000 Oms and a Cup of Chai, an inspirational true story of the spirit that follows Sarvesh on his journey in India while recounting his near death experience 7 years ago and the courage of the spirit to come back to life and flourish. Sarvesh was in India from October 2015 through the end of March 2016.

Expansion and the Lost Art of Pranayama

“You are a shallow breather; in fact, you are all shallow breathers.” Our teacher said this to us during our first week at the ashram in her thick Eastern European accent. I didn’t really know what to make of this statement. Am I a shallow breather physically? Physiologically? It turned out both. It was explained to us that through our social conditioning and basic physiological functioning of the body, we as a race of humans are shallow breathers. To put it another way, we breathe only enough to stay alive. This is because the old animal part of the brain that controls our breathing is not interested in anything beyond Abhinivesha, or the survival instinct. We only take in as much oxygen in each breath that we need in that moment.

My immediate thought upon hearing that I was a shallow breather was one of defiance. I am an athlete! I play ice hockey! I practice a lot of yoga! I teach yoga! How can I be a shallow breather? It turns out that even with athletics, yoga practice and prior teacher training, I was still a shallow breather. Tape measures do not lie, and as we had our lungs measured, I only had 2 inches of expansion in the low, middle and high parts of my lungs. Some of the fellow students had less. Learning that we have three parts to our lungs and that we can control them independently of one another was both beautiful and surprising. The only cure for shallow breathing is conscious breathing, or the practice of Pranayama and techniques that are designed, sometimes in combination with certain Asana, to expand the lung capacity.

The continued practice of these Pranayama techniques allows us to move beyond our breath and the conscious breathing eventually becomes the subconscious breath pattern. As I looked back at my experience with western Yoga, I was never taught Pranayama in any form in a class or in teacher training, with the exception of a teacher telling me to breath across the back of my throat and calling it Ujjayi breath, both the technique and the purpose being stated incorrectly. Pranayama is not part of the western practices except in very rare occasions. This is through no fault of anyone other than the evolution of western Yoga, which is almost primarily based in Asana. That is where the profit lies for Yoga as a business and it is a reality of our society, so that is what is taught.

Our culture is not yet ready for Pranayama except in small numbers because it requires the student to sit quietly for periods of time when our social conditioning is to do just the opposite. We as a society are conditioned to minute attention spans. In order to practice effective and useful Pranayama, we must first overcome both our social conditioning and shallow breathing.

As we practiced Pranayama daily and the lung expanding Asana practice, I could feel more space in my chest and developed independent awareness of the movement of the diaphragm, intercostals and accessory muscles that ultimately control the respiratory system and the space the lungs need to expand. My breath moved from shallow and mostly subconscious to long periods of conscious deep breathing. The benefits to my practice were astounding. I noticed an immediate change in metabolism and efficiency in digestion and lost 30 pounds of excess fat from my body, and more importantly kept that unhealthy fat off. I noticed that the mind was calmer and that there was less reaction to circumstances and more ability to respond. I noticed an amazing opening of the joints as they detoxified from the greater ability to exhale toxins from the body.

Most importantly, I took out a health insurance policy without the expensive premiums. By deep breathing, we are building in disease prevention and also preventing the atrophy of the lungs as we age. The primary cause of well over 90% of human disease is from acidosis, which is a carbon dioxide imbalance in the bloodstream which can effect anything that the bloodstream supplies. By supplying more oxygen to the body and expelling more toxins through expanded respiration, we are able to significantly decrease the occurrence of acidosis. Our respiratory system accounts for over 80% of our metabolic energy on the inhale and over 80% of the body’s purification on the exhale. And along the way we learned about 100 Pranayama techniques that have been handed down from Guru to student for hundreds and hundreds of years. These techniques range from lung expansion and physical, emotional and mental cleansing (Sauca) to Samyama (Dharana, Dyana and Samadhi) to higher level techniques used in Chakra and Kundalini management.

By the third month of lung measurements, my lungs had increased from 2” in capacity to almost 5” in capacity. What this means is that I was breathing about 250% more efficiently, taking in almost 3 liters of additional air with each breath. My rate of breath moved from 12-15 breaths per minute down to 6-8, resulting in a more relaxed body, mind and nervous system.

I became a deep breather!

If you would like to learn any of the practices outlined in this article, please stop by Ripple Yoga where Sarvesh teaches what he learned and practiced in India. Sarvesh is also the author of 20,000 Oms and a Cup of Chai, an uplifting true story of inspiration that follows Sarvesh through his 6 month journey in India and recounts his past brush with death and how his spirit found the will to live. Sarvesh is also a life coach helping people to reduce stress, anxiety and other negative emotions that tear at the fabric of our health and happiness. His proven methodology utilizes actions to change perception.

Seattle Yoga News – Part Two of Six

Hello Ripple Community!  Here is part two of the six part series for Seattle Yoga News – I hope you enjoy.  Here is the original link – Seattle Yoga News

This is the second in a six- part series about the experiences of Sarvesh Naagari while he lived in a Yoga ashram in southern India for 6 months in a 2,000 hour teacher training program. The series focuses on what it was like to practice Yoga in a Gurukula environment and to learn about and experience one of the oldest and most respected lineages in the Yoga world, Gitananda Yoga. Sarvesh is the owner of Ripple Yoga in Seattle, WA and the author of the newly released novel, 20,000 Oms and a Cup of Chai, an inspirational true story of the spirit that follows Sarvesh on his journey in India while recounting his near death experience 7 years ago and the courage of the spirit to come back to life and flourish. Sarvesh was in India from October 2015 through the end of March 2016.

Part II: It’s a Lab!

I think that we as human beings like to experiment and think that a lab is fun place. On a macro level, I have often thought that the Earth was a lab experiment for human beings, and as a microcosm always remember hoping in high school chemistry that I would be the one who blew up a small part of the lab by mixing the wrong chemicals! That fun seems to take on a different perspective when we find out that we are the experiment, and not the scientists.

Living in the ashram for 6 months in Pondicherry, India had that feel. I asked one of the other students at 5:15 one morning, when we were supposed to be practicing Mauna (silence) if he had ever seen the movie Groundhog Day and if he knew that we were secretly re-filming it. Our schedule was a rigorous form of Tapas (discipline) which we practiced daily except Thursday and Sunday.

The ashram is a true Gurukula environment, where the students live with the Guru and their family. The students were asked to live with each other for 6 months in close living quarters. We were forced to bond, to serve each other food, to work together in Karma Yoga (service to others without expectation of anything in return, and is one of the paths to enlightenment identified in the Bhagavad Gita) for the love and respect of the ashram and ourselves, to practice together and most importantly to hold the mirror of life up to each other and be kind, respectful and supportive in the process. There were 7 of us in total. If it is in one’s human nature to put on airs or to behave in a certain manner to try to impress others, that inauthenticity is eventually exposed in this environment. It is not possible to uphold such behavior for a length of time without reverting to who we truly are. That is one aspect of the many faceted mirror that is ashram life. We become exposed to who we are and we must either accept it or change. This is something that happens all the time in real life. We enter into relationships, put forth our best behaviors but eventually the real “us” comes to the surface. What usually happens is we end that relationship blaming the other person for what went wrong. And as criminal as that is, what is worse is that we don’t change and we don’t grow from the experience and move on to the next relationship and repeat the same mistake. The ashram environment breaks that pattern; it takes us out of our own personal groundhog day. It forces us to evolve with Swadiyaya (self-analysis) whether we want to or not, and it ensures that there are other people in place to assist in the process, whether they want to or not! The beauty of this experience and the gratitude that I have for living it is profound. I was able to see things in myself and either decide to accept them or change them that it would have taken me another 5 lifetimes to figure out. And if the ashram is a lab, then the name of the lab is Yama-Niyama. Part of the beauty of the learning process in the ashram as it can take a student with little to no awareness of Yama-Niyama and bring them both a level of awareness and knowledge through experience in just a couple of short months without the student even realizing they were practicing them. Yama and Niyama is taught in detail two months into the program after the cleansing phase and the student realizes that they have been practicing these principles since the day they set foot in the door. For students already aware of Yama-Niyama, it is apparent when signing up for the course, but even with that basic understanding, the depth of the practice at the ashram is astounding because of the lack of true understanding of Yama Niyama by most western students.

Yamas are the restraint of our animal natures and tendencies and is a way to consciously overcome the animal parts of our brain. They are Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (reality), Asteya (non-stealing),Brahmacharya (correct use of creative energy) and Aparigrahah (non-greed).

Niyamas are the evolution of our human selves and is the action of using the neo-cortex, or frontal lobes of our brain. This is the human part or more highly evolved part of the brain. They are Saucha (purity),Samtosha (contentment), Tapas (discipline), Swadiyaya (self-examination) and Isvara Pranidana (turning the will over to the greatest good within us).

In my teachings at Ripple Yoga, I like to use the example of Asteya, which when translated from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, means non-stealing. Sutra 2-37 states asteyapratisthayam – sarvaratna – upasthanam. When we are established in non-stealing, we get everything we need. What this means is that until we can be trusted with things, the universe will not allow us to have them by moral or ethical means. Note that this says needs, not wants. We must also understand that the Yamas and Niyamas move from gross to subtle. Most often we think that we are practicing Asteya simply because we don’t rob banks or shoplift, which is true, but it is at the grossest level. We should ask ourselves how much time we steal from others by being chronically late. Or we should ask ourselves how much respect we steal from others by ignoring or shunning them based on our own fears. These are more subtle levels of Asteya but just as potent in practical terms.

Ashram life taught us these lessons in a real life daily experience, and through not only learning the deeper meaning of these principals but living them in an intense manner for six months, I was able to have profound growth over the six month teacher training course. Our guru flatly states that the intensity of the six month course is the same as studying Yoga for 8 years outside of the ashram environment. I was hesitant to believe this when I first heard it expressed and am now a believer. In all its beauty, difficulty, challenge and reward, it has made me a better person and a better teacher. Yama and Niyama are not only the foundation of Yoga and something that is rarely taught in the West, it is the foundation of life. To be a true Yogi, we must practice Yoga in our life, not just on the mat, and Yama and Niyama are the keys to that kingdom. Through the doors of Yama and Niyama unlocked and practiced, is the kingdom of happiness and the end of groundhog day, because we learn the lessons we are supposed to learn with these beautiful tools.

The ashram was the lab and the safe haven for us to study self, and to study the conscious evolution of the beauty of our souls, to become awakened and to realize the loving and divine energies that exist within all of us. And while our initial perception may have been that we were part of a science experiment, we eventually became one with it in a union of beauty, growth and spiritual stimulation that moved us closer to unity with our highest self.

It’s a lab!

If you would like to learn any of the practices outlined in this article, please stop by Ripple Yoga whereSarvesh teaches what he learned and practiced in India. Sarvesh is also the author of 20,000 Oms and a Cup of Chai, an uplifting true story of inspiration that follows Sarvesh through his 6 month journey in India and recounts his past brush with death and how his spirit found the will to live. Sarvesh is also a life coach helping people to reduce stress, anxiety and other negative emotions that tear at the fabric of our health and happiness. His proven methodology utilizes actions to change perception.

Seattle Yoga News – Part One of Six

I have been asked to write a six part series for the Seattle Yoga News on my experience living in an ashram in India.  Such a beautiful honor to be able to share this experience in writing.  Here is part one.  The original article can be found here:  Seattle Yoga News – Part One

I Sat on the Floor

This is the first in a six- part series about the experiences of Sarvesh Naagari while he lived in a Yoga ashram in southern India for 6 months in a 2,000 hour teacher training program. The series focuses on what it was like to practice Yoga in a Gurukula environment and to learn about and experience one of the oldest and most respected lineages in the Yoga world, Gitananda Yoga.

Sarvesh is the owner of Ripple Yoga in Seattle, WA and the author of the newly released novel, 20,000 Oms and a Cup of Chai, an inspirational true story of the spirit that follows Sarvesh on his journey in India while recounting his near death experience 7 years ago and the courage of the spirit to come back to life and flourish. Sarvesh was in India from October 2015 through the end of March 2016.

Part One: I Sat on the Floor

Sit on the floor. This simple request back in October seemed mundane enough. So I sat, and realized within about 30 minutes that this benign request was going to become my yogic challenge for the course. I was unaware of both the length and consistency of floor sitting required not only in practice where we utilize Vajrasana and the seated variations (Padmasana, Sukhasana) but the class time spent in this position. During the first couple of months, I was usually in tears by the time Satsangha was 20 minutes old.

When I arrived at the ashram I was in very good physical condition for a 46-year old male. I was athletic and had the hard formed muscles from the primary sports that I played. These same hard muscles were quite inflexible and the fascia tissue around them was stagnant from years of lackadaisical stretching before and after playing these sports. In addition, my joints were stiff and toxic from years of abuse, primarily due to sitting at a desk in front of a computer for 20 years and a diet where while I tried to eat healthy, was toxic from years of Western influence. In addition, the mental and emotional tension that I carried with me were a burden on opening up and relaxing due to the tension it created up and down the nervous system.

As we began detoxification, I went through a series of processes in my body that built the foundations of the changes that would be necessary to allow me to sit on the floor. This process was one of pain in the back and hips for 4-5 days followed by an intense itching for 12-16 hours with the process completing with a purge from the digestive system in the form of diarrhea. This repeated itself 6 times from October to the end of November. This detoxification and mental cleansing would require me to raze who I was physically to the ground and start over. I would have to reconstruct my musco-skeletal system at the cellular level, and this is just what we did. The practice of Shanka Prakshala, the diet at the ashram and rhythm, repetition and regularity of the Hatha practice began the physical process. But what really moved the needle was the Pranayama practice, expanding the size and surface area of the lungs to allow for a quicker detoxification of the joints utilizing Hathenas and the sectional breathing. This awareness and use of the lungs significantly detoxified my body, mind and emotions and then I believe that the Eka Dasi practice fine tuned the grosser level practices.

As we moved into the study of Yama and Niyama it occurred to me that sitting on the floor was my own personal practice of Yama and Niyama. I had been committing Himsa to the self for years by not treating my body with care by sitting at a desk for 20+ years and not stretching and maintaining mobility in my athletics. I was now paying the price for that in this transformation which also was correcting 30 years of poor posture! I had been lying to myself for years about the condition and not practicing Satya. I would tell people that I was in such great physical condition that I didn’t need to stretch. This was clearly both the Kleshas of Avidya and Asmita in play only I was so attached to my body that proper discernment of what I was both doing and saying escaped me. The result of this behavior was stealing future happiness from myself as I would surely have ended up stiff as a board as the aging process marched onward and this would have effected my mobility and happiness. Asteya comes in many forms and this more subtle form was stealing time from myself, and the ability to be mobile in comfortable as I aged.

It is an interesting perspective that by breaking these three Yamas in floor sitting, I found they were tied so deeply into my mental and physical well-being. I also see that if we look at life as a being part of the problem or being in the solution that breaking against the Yamas is the problem and applying Niyama is the solution. And to be part of the solution we also must change the behavior that produces the Yamas. Pratipaksha Bhavanam is practiced on the behavior that is leading to conflict of the Yamas, or the practice of the opposite. When we practice the opposite, these actions eventually change our thought processes which eventually change our behavior. When we change our behavior, we become something different because our behaviors make up who we are, not what we have as is so commonly misperceived in this world. These practices become our new primary nature.

I realized that the ashram life had put the practice of Saucha in place for me to help me accomplish the goal of sitting on the floor. I realized this sometime in late October and that this was part of the solution. I have known great pain and suffering on my spiritual path, all of it self-inflicted. I understand on a deep level that pain is a necessary touchstone for spiritual growth and also recognize the difference between pain for pain’s sake and the pain that is growth. Despite the intense suffering of the body, I was intent on moving forward and with my daily practice of Isvara Pranidana (last of the Niyamas), I used that great will to march forward. When faced with an obstacle that I know in my heart is there for my growth and needs to be overcome, I channel this willpower as my own and with it, so long as it has good intentions, I can move mountains. It provides me with an intense ability to concentrate and to focus my mind in Dharana (focus) on the goal at hand and to overlook the discomfort of the moment.

This became my Tapas (heat) for the first 3 months of the program. My fire, my discipline. I started to name each class by the level of floor sitting required, much to Rahul’s delight. If the class was short and earlier in the day I would call it beginner floor sitting. As the day wore on or if the class ran long, it became intermediate floor sitting all the way up to advance floor sitting which was usually the Satsangha. There were many occasions where the Tapas of this practice brought me to tears during the Satsangha but with every tear I could feel the growth and the strength building in me, both mentally and physically. I told myself that this had to be done, not solely for me, but for the students who would come to me. They all had the same issue with floor sitting and I would need to experience the fire of this Tapas and get through to be able to teach it both effectively and empathetically.

There could be little Samtosha in the higher practices unless I could sit comfortably and have as Patanjali states in 2.46 of the Sutras: sthira sukham asanam. Ease in the state of being.

As with everything, this practice of learning how to sit on the floor was a beautiful exercise in Swadiyaya (self-study), both in looking at my past and realizing how I had treated my body and in the present finding that balance that we seek as Yogis to make the required changes in the body, mind and emotions, but not to push it too far; to not go into an extreme practice. The ashram was a perfect environment for this as we were being carefully monitored through all our practices.

As we continued with the physical practice, there were two Hatha sequences that were particularly beneficial once the detoxification and change in the muscle structure was complete. My muscles were now soft and supple, the muscles of a Yogi, but with strength. And what strength was lost I could feel returning daily. The Loma/Viloma practices and the Hip Opening sequences were key in the continuation of the opening the physical body as leg lifting was improving the strength of the hip flexors and muscles on the front side of the body. They had no strength because I had either not been using them and they had atrophied or the other muscles in my body had been overcompensating for them. I know that when I had practiced leg lifting in the past my core was doing all the work and the hip flexors were idle. And for people that are not naturally flexible like me, it is not a matter of getting flexible, it is a matter of getting strong. It is with strength that flexibility comes. Each day the leg lifting via these two sequences I could feel the strength building in those parts of my body that had been idle for so long.

One day in early January we were sitting in music class and sitting on a pillow with my hips lifted a mere one inch from the floor I crossed my legs and my knees relaxed to the floor with ease. I lifted my head and my heart and straightened my spine and felt no pain in the muscles up the spine that support the back muscles. I closed my eyes and listened for a moment to the beautiful and enchanting sound of the music teacher’s voice and felt gratitude in my heart for this place, these people, this opportunity and the love of life’s second chances. Because for me, every day is a second chance at first opportunities, and for that I am truly grateful. And by the grace of the Divine, I did it.

I sat on the floor.

Please tune in next week for Part Two in Sarvesh’s journey to India series. If you would like to learn any of the practices outlined in this article, please stop by Ripple Yoga where Sarvesh teaches what he learned and practiced in India. Sarvesh is also the author of 20,000 Oms and a Cup of Chai, a true story of inspiration that follows Sarvesh through his 6 month journey in India and recounts his past brush with death and how his spirit found the will to live. Sarvesh is also a life coach helping people to reduce stress, anxiety and other negative emotions that tear at the fabric of our health and happiness. His proven methodology utilizes actions to change perception.