Wednesday, 30 April 2014

From the ground up: where your roots become your trunk

In this third article in the series looking at how we can best take care of our roots, I'd like to concentrate on the top of our root structure – where our roots turn into our trunk. In the first article we looked at the tips of our roots, our feet, and some of the common problems that arise in that area. In the second article, we looked at the middle section and our knees, focusing on alignment and stability.

As I said previously, I define our roots as everything from the pelvic floor downwards, so here we're going to zoom in and have a look at that very important area – the pelvic floor. It's important both physiologically and energetically in the context of our yoga practice, and it's associated with the practice of Mulabandha (more on that later).

To start off with, let's look at this area physiologially – and for this I've enlisted the help of my sister Kim, a physiotherapist who lives in Stockholm.

In Latin, "pelvis" means basin. The pelvic floor or pelvic diaphragm is composed of muscles and fascia (connective tissue) which span the area of your undercarriage (between your anus and genitals). Physiologically it's function is to provide support for the lower organs (bladder, intestines, the uterus for women) and maintain intra-abdominal pressure (if it wasn't there, each time we took a breath in our organs would slip out between our legs...), to give us control over our bladder and bowel, and to help in child birth (only for women of course). They're also important for sex – for erectile function and ejaculation in men, and for sexual sensation and arousal in women.

The muscles of the pelvic floor are composed basically of three layers or structures. The deepest layer is the pelvic diaphragm (the levator ani), which supports the rectum, and in women the upper two thirds of vagina. The levator ani is actually made of two main muscles, the pubococcygeus and the ileococcygeus. The former is found in the middle, whereas the latter is found along the outer edges of the pelvic floor area. Next there's the urogenital diaphragm. It closes around the urogenital organs supports and has a sphincter-like effect around the vagina in women and contributes to continence. The third structure we find between the anus and the vagina is a structure called the perineal body (or the perineum). This fibromuscular structure is shaped like a pyramid with its base sitting between the genitals and the rectum and its tip pointing upwards.

Image from the book "Mulabandha" by Dr. Kathleen Summers (

Back in the 40s, a gynecologist in California called Dr. Kegel started encouraging his patients to practice pelvic floor contractions in order to build up and strengthen the muscles in this area since he thought that would help prevent urinary incontinence and uterine prolapse. Decades of research since has shown that he was onto a winner. So-called "Kegel exercises" are now the first-line therapy for urinary incontinence, primarily resulting from ageing, childbirth, obesity, and the associated straining of chronic constipation. They've also been found to be effective in men undergoing prostate surgery.

So how should we go about finding this complex and rather obscure set of deep musculature? Start off by trying to lift up the whole area by contracting the entire pelvic floor. You’ll feel this as a tightening of the muscles around the anus (as if you are trying to stop a bowel movement), the genitals (as if stopping the urine stream) and the bit in between. This is basically a Kegel exercise.

How did that go? Did you feel a contraction?

If you did, then we can start looking at this in more detail, and try to identify some different structures within the pelvic floor.

First try activating only the muscles you need to stop yourself from peeing – this will be the urogenital diaphragm and the sphincter around the urethra.

Now try activating just the muscles around your anus – you should feel the contraction towards the back of your pelvic floor in the anal sphincter. (Personally I can't do these two separately, but Kim can, and I know others who can too – don't ask me how that came up in conversation though!)  

If you've successfully managed to isolate those two, try activating (contracting, pulling up) the area of the pelvic floor that's between. Now there should be no movement of the anus, the urethra, or the penis/clitoris. What we're finding here is the perineal body and the central portion of the pelvic diaphragm (levator ani) – and can be quite tricky to do. You might need a good bit of time and practice to find this subtle contraction (or it might just work straight away!).

Let me know how you get on using the comment box below.

Next week we'll be looking at why all this physiological detail is necessary for understanding and accessing the more subtle, energetic side of the pelvic floor area. We'll look at why all this is so important in yoga and how it relates to things like the practice of mulabandha (or root lock).

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Mindfulness for rifle shooters

You might think shooting to be a very unlikely sport for a yoga and meditation teacher, but there's been a very strong connection between the two in my life.

Back when I was at university, I was quite seriously into shooting – the variety where you're lying on your front with a target rifle, shooting at paper targets. I started off with an air rifle, then at university shooting .22 calibre (small-bore) rifles at distances of 25-50m, then quickly found it much more fun to shoot outdoors at targets between 300-900m away using 7.62mm (full-bore) rifles.

I remember reading a training manual just as I was getting going with it all, and it suggested that having a body-movement practice such as Alexander Technique, yoga, or Pilates would be extremely beneficial (as I've written about before). Target shooting is a surprisingly meditative sport, involving steadiness of the body, control of the breath, and a strong emphasis on rhythm and repetition – it was good advice!

So that's what got me into yoga in the first place.

And what goes around often comes around – last weekend I went down at the famous Bisley ranges in Surrey to give a workshop on mindfulness to the Great Britain full-bore rifle team.

Bisley range 600yds

GB rifle team in Australia 2011

To me, the application of mindfulness in shooting is obvious, and potentially incredibly useful. It can help us to stay focussed on the present moment and not worrying about the outcome of any shot; it can help develop the focus and concentration needed to perform; it can teach us how to enter that elusive flow state (or "the zone"; see my previous blog article on flow here); and it can help us manage the stress of a competition.

Millennia of evolution have hard-wired us humans to react to danger and stress in a very specific way. If we're walking in the hills and come across a wolf, or beating our way through the jungle and come across a tiger, the body responds by preparing us to either fight or run away (or sometimes to freeze/play dead). This is the famous fight or flight response.

The thing is, it doesn't matter whether it's something small (like missing the bus), something imagined (like being scared of the monster under the bed), or something big (like slipping off a cliff) – we react the same. The body diverts energy from our non-essential systems such as digestion and reproduction to our muscles, and releases adrenaline and cortisol (and other hormones) to help boost our energy, deal with possible inflammation and damage, and focus our concentration.

In an active sport, running around or shouting can provide a good way of releasing all the extra energy and adrenaline that comes as a result of this stress response. However, in shooting you have to find a way to deal with it in a different way – there's no physical outlet. And that's where mindfulness can really help.

Now, traditional sports psychology approaches such as goal setting, positive self-talk, or visualisation all aim to optimise performance by controlling the internal, mental factors that affect performance. They're control-based techniques. However, despite their wide-spread use and popularity, research has found (at best) inconsistent results for these approaches.

In recent years there have been a number of suggestions in the scientific literature (e.g. Gardner and Moore 2004) saying that "rather than trying to control internal phenomena, it's better for athletes to develop skills in present-moment awareness and acceptance."

"[These] control-based approaches may inadvertently result in excessive cognitive brain activity [that] prevent you from automatically engaging your previously developed athletic skills, to appropriately respond to environmental cues, and to maintain task-relevant focus."

And sports coaches often talk about the importance of being in the present moment, focussing on process rather than outcome, letting go of the uncontrollable, significance of letting go of memories of shots, staying in the present, accepting whatever happens without judgment, looking for rhythm in the game, etc, etc.

All these things precisely describe the practice of mindfulness! As opposed to control, mindfulness is a "letting-go-based technique".

As I always say to people, mindfulness isn't something alien to us. We are all mindful, to a lesser or greater extent, every day. The thing is, not everyone is aware how useful it is to be mindful. And once you realise it's effectiveness, how can we then learn how to be more mindful?

What I teach are tried and tested techniques for learning how to become more mindful. A nice, simple, and accessible place to start is by practising this short 3-minute meditation. Try doing it every day (or more) and you'll soon start feeling the benefits. That's what I suggested to the shooting team, so we'll see how they get on!

And if you end up using this 3-minute meditation, let me know how you get on by commenting below.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Compassion in Zen

Last Saturday (5th April) Daizan Roshi led an excellent 1-day retreat at Yugagyo Dojo focussing on the subject of compassion within Zen practice. Some people, it seems, criticise the Zen approach for lacking that strong emphasis put on compassion that's found in other Buddhist traditions. As Daizan Roshi pointed out at the very beginning, this is potentially a weak point of Zen if not properly understood. Most people associate Zen with the practices of generating personal power, energy, and presence, and its emphasis on developing insight, whereas the development of the heart-aspect is much less well-known. However, as Daizan Roshi said, understanding and practising compassion is just as important and central a part of our spiritual development as any of the other things mentioned.

"Karuna" is the Sanskrit word for compassion, or in Japanese "Jihi". The Buddha said:
"Karuna is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others... It is called karuna because it shelters and embraces the distressed."
The English word "compassion" actually means pretty much the same thing. It's from the Latin "com" meaning "with", and "passion" meaning "pain" – to be with pain.

Often what is thought of as compassion practice, though, is actually better thought of as loving kindness, or "metta" – a practice emphasised in the Theravadan and Tibetan traditions (known as tonglen). Where karuna, Daizan said, is "the desire to remove harm and suffering from others", metta is "the desire to bring about the wellbeing and happiness of others" – there's a distinct difference.

Over the centuries since the Buddha, a number of archetypes, or idealised figures have developed within Buddhism that embody certain virtues of practice. The archetype, or Bodhisattva (meaning a fully awakened being that has put off entering nirvana in order to live in the world to help others) of compassion is called in Sanskrit Avalokitesvara, or in Japanese Kannon or Kanzeon. The name literally means "regarder of the cries of the world", and in east Asia has takes a feminine form. She's often depicted as having 1000 arms, each with an eye in the palm so she can see all the world's suffering.


We explored three meditation practices in this retreat day. The first is something that in modern-day psychology terminology is referred to as "responsibility transferral". It's where we literally give our (or any other) worries, doubts, and suffering to another – in this case Kannon. To help us bring to mind the spirit of Kannon we used a short sutra called the "Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo" (the Ten-phrase Boundless-life Kannon Sutra), which was a big favourite of the great Zen master Hakuin.

Enmei Jikku Kannon Gyo

kan ze on
na mu butsu
yo butsu u in
yo butsu u en
bu pō sō en
jō raku ga jō
chō nen kan ze on
bo nen kan ze on
nen nen ju shin ki
nen nen fu ri shin.

Praise to Buddha!
Buddha is my origin;
Buddha is my causal factor.
The Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) are my causal factors
eternal, joyous, selfless, pure.
Through the day mindfulness of Kanzeon—
through the night mindfulness of Kanzeon.
This moment arises from Mind;
this moment itself is Mind.

The idea is that in surrendering to something greater than our small finite selves, we can let go and become free of that suffering. We chanted the short sutra a number of times, and after each, spent some time looking within for any suffering on any level, then lifting it off and giving it wholly to Kannon.

One of the interesting things Daizan Roshi pointed out about this practice is that it makes a deliberate (dualistic) distinction between "I/me" and "Kannon". In fact only after a short time of practising this meditation it was obvious that the line separating me and Kannon really is quite blurry. What is my suffering? Who am I giving this to?

So in the second practice session we explored actually becoming Kannon. Zen master Hakuin explained this in terms of the koan of the one hand clapping. In the world of duality, we all know what the sound of two hands clapping is – but what about with just one hand? Here we're looking into the place where there's no separation between self and other, where there is no split. Hakuin said "if you understand this meaning then you're truly awake. And when you're truly awake, the whole world is Kannon." The essence of this practice is that when you become one with even the tiniest thing, you become one with everything; and when you become one with everything, there are no problems, there is no suffering.

The third compassion-related topic we looked at was in the area of merit (punya) and the wishing of wellbeing and happiness (metta). There's a Zen saying, said Daizan Roshi: "The universe is not answerable to my personal will" – meaning you can't just wish for a Ferrari and one will turn up! But, he said, the universe is very much influenced by our personal will. In fact our wills and intentions shape everything around us, especially living in the city. Merit (punya in Sanskrit) is defined as "that which accumulates as a result of good/wholesome deeds, speech and thought." One way to think of this is in terms of building up positive energy. It's a tricky concept to get your head wrapped around since there's some subtlety around the idea of accumulation...

The Buddha taught that merit particularly applies to the areas of generosity, virtue, and mental development (i.e. meditation). So being generous generates positive energy (merit), but one of the best things to do with this energy is give it away (being generous), and that generates further merit... Daizan Roshi calls this the law of multiplication. His teacher, Shinzan Roshi, says it's a bit like a bank account where the more money you spend, the more money ends up in the account! So there's the subtlety – it's in direct opposition to our culture of accumulation, where more, bigger, faster, stronger are seen as the only ways to measure progress. However, since merit is all about positive development and generosity we don't actually end up accumulating anything!

The Zen tradition has developed a formalised way of practicing this 'offering of merit' in the form of an Eko. An Eko is a chant read to dedicate the merit of practice to all beings (and/or any particular beings). The example Daizan Roshi gave was:
"Having chanted the preceding sutra, we offer the merit generated thereby to [the deceased family member of ...] and to all beings in all worlds. May they be well and happy, wherever they may be."

In the final practice of the day we followed this last line of the Eko, in wishing all beings to be well, to be happy, and to be at peace. Beginning the meditation by invoking a feeling of wellbeing in ourselves and centring it in our belly/hara, we made the intention to radiate it out to the whole universe and to all beings. Likewise with feelings of happiness, and with wishing all beings to be at peace. This beautiful practice is the Zen version of metta. (In the Theravadan tradition, this is often taught as bringing to mind a friend or loved one and wishing them loving kindness, then a neutral person, and finally someone you find difficult.)

For more information about Daizan Roshi, our Zen group, or about activities and events at Yugagyo Dojo see

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Yoga to work with the seasons

How are you affected by the changing seasons? Do you just feel hot in summer and cold in winter, or do you feel some other effects of the seasons?

On Saturday (29/3) I went to a yoga teachers workshop run by my Zen teacher, Daizan Skinner, on the topic of the seasons – exploring the needs of the human system through the changing year, and how we can adapt our yoga practice to work best with each season.

Living in harmony with nature includes bringing body and mind into harmony with the changing seasons. I'm sure this was obvious to people in the past whose lives were much more connected to the outside environment, but these days, with our new fangled electric lights and central heating, we can live like there's no difference between winter and summer!

In the Indian yoga tradition, less emphasis is put on the seasons since India mostly has a sub-tropical climate. In the Ayurvedic system there are only three seasons: autumn/winter, spring and summer, whereas in the Chinese/Japanese system there are five (as we'll see below).

As I've written before, in the Chinese energy meridian system, each organ and organ meridian (see this page for simple meridian diagrams) is associated with a different quality, and the seasons are no exception. Each season is associated with two paired organs, and the properties of each organ and the effects of opening their meridian line dictates the flavour of your yoga practice for that season.

Here is a summary of what we learnt for each season.

Associated organs: liver and gall bladder

The liver is located on the right side of your body just under your rib cage, and the gall bladder is tucked in right next to it. The liver's function is to remove toxins from the blood, and the meridian line runs from the big toe up the inside of the leg up to the side of the belly.

The gall bladder stores and secretes bile to aid in digesting fats and acids, and its meridian line runs from the little toe right up the side of the body up to the head.

Any imbalance in the liver-gall bladder system tends to show up in the eyes, and/or as ligament/soft tissue tension or stiffness. When it's impaired the associated emotion is anger (we English have the term "a liverish person", or to be "livid"), and when functioning well we feel creative and kind.

So in the spring, our yoga practice should concentrate on working with stiffness in body (waking up from the winter) and stiffness in our attitudes, to help us detox, release anger, working with the eyes, and encouraging creativity and kindness. Postures should concentrate on stretching/opening the sides of the body and the insides of the legs.

Myself and Yulia teaching our Spring yoga sequence

Associated organs: heart and small intestine

As we all know, the heart pumps blood around the body. It is seen as the home of the spirit, and governs joy. Interestingly, the tongue has a special relationship with the heart, being thought to be an a kind of "offshoot", and our facial complexion often reflects the state of our heart. The heart meridian line runs down the inside of our arm into the little finger.

The small intestine is five metre long narrow tube in your belly that does about 90% of the work of digestion, absorbing nutrients from the food as it passes through. It's meridian line runs from your little finger back up the outside of your arm, zig-zagging across your shoulder, and finishing on the side of your face.

When the heart-small intestine system is impaired we feel arrogance and hastiness, whereas when it's functioning well we feel love and connection.

Yoga for the summer should concentrate on opening the chest/heart area, and make use of flowing postures with an emphasis on that quality of timelessness in order to counter any hastiness. This would be the time to explore a more athletic practice to get the heart rate going, and at the same time foster an appreciation and love of the body and mind. Bear in mind though, that in the summer the mind is at it's most outward looking and distracted, so balancing this with some time for quiet introspection and calmness would work well.

Late summer (harvest)
Associated organs: spleen and stomach

In our western medical understanding, the spleen is part of your lymphatic system, and acts as a blood filter, destroys old red blood cells and helps fight infections. In the traditional Chinese medical system though, it's understood to have a very different function! It's seen as governing the transportation and absorption of food and water, turning digested food into usable nutrients, and ki (chi) energy for the body. It's also understood to control muscle strength, thinking and pondering, and is connected to the lips and mouth (like the heart is to the tongue). The spleen meridian runs from the big toe up the front inside of the leg, over the front of the hip up to the arm pit.

The stomach is located next to the spleen, on the left just under the rib cage. It's function is to receive food from the oesophagus, and secrete acid and enzymes to digest the food. The stomach muscles contract periodically, churning everything around to help everything digest fully. It then passes this partly-digested food onwards to the small intestine for further digestion and absorption. The stomach line runs from the 2nd toe up the front of the leg, front of the hip, the front side of the belly and chest, finishing up on the cheek next to the nose.

When the stomach-spleen system isn't working too well then we feel worried and insecure; or if it's functioning well then we feel empathetic, and nourished.

Yoga for the late summer should emphasise our connection to the earth, perhaps with poses close to the floor. Smooth continuous movements help to extend and challenge the muscles, particularly along the front side of the body where both these meridians run. Obviously back bends work well for this, but beware that going into a backbend too strongly can stimulate worry and insecurity in some people, not release it. Exercises using the voice and explanations that encourage a very detailed attention to bodily sensations helps to assuage any pondering and worry.

Associated organs: lungs and large intestine

The lungs obviously get us breathing – they control respiration. However, in the Chinese system, they are also associated with governing ki (chi energy), disseminating and regulating water in the body, and controlling skin and body hair. They are also connected to the nose. The lung meridian runs from the thumb along the inside of the arm to the shoulder.

The large intestine's job is to remove water and any remaining absorbable nutrients from the food as it passes through, before sending the indigestible matter to the rectum. As a matter of interest, the full digestion of our food takes about 16 hours from start to finish! The large intestine also absorbs vitamins that are created by the colonic bacteria, such as vitamin K, vitamin B12, thiamine and riboflavin. It's meridian line runs from the index finger along the top of the arm up, over the top of the shoulder, up the side of the face to the nostril.

When these organs and their energy systems are functioning well we have an ability to let go and move forward; when they're not there's a sense of grief or depression. There's a clear connection here between these emotional qualities and the organ functions!

Yoga for the autumn should therefore focus on releasing and letting go on all levels. Shaking movements very helpful for this. Since the lungs are involved, a focus on breath-work would also be good.

Associated organs: kidney and bladder

Physiologically, the kidneys act like a filters to remove wastes and fluids from the blood – each day they process around 200 litres, removing about 1-2 litres as urine. The kidneys make three important hormones: erythropoietin to stimulate the production of red blood cells, renin which is involved in the control of blood pressure, and vitamin D which controls calcium uptake and helps make strong bones. They are connected with the ears, and energetically, thought to govern the reception of qi (chi) from the air. They kidneys suffer a lot when they get cold, so in Japan, they often wear a 'haramaki' – a garment worn around the abdomen (hara) to keep the stomach and kidneys warm. In the days of the samurai, it was a long piece of cloth (often augmented with chain mail or other metals) wrapped around and around the belly, but these days you can get something far more comfortable and convenient. The kidney meridian runs from the ball of your foot, up the inside of your leg, and up the front of your belly and chest, finishing at your collar bone.

The bladder the waste fluids filtered out by the kidneys, meaning that we don't have to constantly leak waste fluids – we can go to the loo and release a batch at a time... It's normal capacity is 400-600 ml. The bladder is lined by layers of muscle tissue. During urination, the bladder muscles contract, and two valves open to allow urine to flow out to the urethra (which passes through the centre of the penis in men). The bladder meridian runs from the little toe, up the back of the leg, splits and runs in two parallel lines just to the side of your spine, over the back of the head and finishes in the corner of your eye.

When this paired system is functioning well we feel a sense of courage, or a can-do attitude; when it isn't we might feel emotions relating to despair. When the kidneys are feeling down, the whole system can feel down, so that's why it's so important to protect and take care of your kidneys.

Yoga for the winter should therefore focus on warming the body (particularly the lower back and kidney area; perhaps through tapping or rubbing), and opening through the kidney and bladder meridians. The feet can also suffer a lot at this time of year, getting cold and never seeing the light of day, so giving them some attention can be nice. Mobilising the joints can help to release trapped cold, and a slower, more restorative practice connects in with our winter hibernating tendencies.

Kidney tapping/rubbing

In the workshop, we then split into pairs, each taking a season and coming up with a 30min yoga sequence relevant to that season. Teaching these sequences back-to-back, we experienced a whole year of yoga in just 2 and 1/2 hrs!