Bridge Pose to the Soul

If I had to choose my single favorite yoga pose, Bridge (Setu Bandhasana) would be it.

Bridge is how I started doing yoga many years ago… After working a long day in my heady corporate job and after all my evening chores were done, I would retreat to the carpeted floor in my bedroom (I don’t think I even had a yoga mat back then) and do a series of stretches to wind down and reconnect with my body.

Having been “upright” (and uptight) throughout most of the day, I didn’t go for standing poses – my body wanted to be supine… and my spirit wanted to be uplifted… Bridge pose delivered.

Bridge is a type of backbend that strengthens the quadriceps, stretches the abdomen, squeezes the kidneys, and provides an all-around detoxifying “lift” for the body. But it also delivers something more – for me, something deeply soulful.

When I hold Bridge pose with a steady Ujjai breath, my heart is open, my gaze is focused and I feel supported by my own being… I feel empowered… I feel I can “span the chasm between two contradictions,” as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes below, and I feel the god in me.

As Once the Winged Energy of Delight
Rainer Maria Rilke

As once the winged energy of delight
carried you over childhood’s dark abysses,
now beyond your own life build the great
arch of unimagined bridges.

Wonders happen if we can succeed
in passing through the harshest danger;
but only in a bright and purely granted
achievement can we realize the wonder.

To work with Things in the indescribable
relationship is not too hard for us;
the pattern grows more intricate and subtle,
and being swept along is not enough.

Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two
contradictions… For the god
wants to know himself in you.

Warming up for Bridge
After studying yoga and becoming a teacher, I learned a simple routine to warm up for Bridge that has become a staple in my daily practice. This routine is considered a vinyasa because it’s a series of movements coordinated with the breath. It goes like this:

STEP 1 – Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor/yoga mat, and arms by your sides. Take several deep, cleansing breaths through your nose (mouth closed).

 

 

STEP 2 – On the next inhale, press into your feet, rotate your arms over your head, and lift your buttocks off of the floor.

 

 

STEP 3 – As you exhale, lower your buttocks, draw your knees into your chest, and hug your hands around your knees.

 

 

STEP 4 – On the next inhale, press your feet toward the ceiling straightening the backs of your legs and rotate your arms overhead again.

 

 

STEP 5 – As you exhale, bend your knees, bring your feet back to the floor and your arms back down to your sides to return to the starting position. Repeat Steps 1 – 5 several times coordinating with the breath.

 

 

To come into the full Bridge pose, on the next inhale, lift the buttocks but this time keep your arms at your sides and draw your shoulder blades in toward each other. If it’s comfortable, clasp your hands together and press the backs of your arms into the floor. Breathe. Watch your belly rise and fall. Feel the possibilities of your own being.

To release from Bridge, unclasp your hands and allow your arms to move back to the sides of your body as you slowly lower your back onto the floor/mat one vertebrae at a time, as if lowering a pearl necklace. Hug your knees into your chest and massage your lower back by rotating gently side to side.

The next time you need a lift, try doing Bridge pose. Namaste.

3 Keys to Practicing Yoga Safely

When I first started teaching yoga several years ago, one of the things I worried about the most was making sure my students avoided injury.

I knew that proper alignment was an essential part of practicing safely, but my Kripalu training also taught me a lot more…

Synthesizing what I learned from my training, I came up with a 3-part mantra that helped guide my teaching and continues to guide my personal practice today…

Breath, Length, Compassion…

1. Breath – All forms of yoga and meditation start with connecting to the breath. This is the foundation for bringing our minds into the present moment and our awareness into our bodies.

But it’s not just about starting your practice by focusing on the breath… It’s about staying connected and returning to the breath repeatedly throughout each transition into and out of a yoga posture.

The breath is like a traffic light… When your breathing becomes strained, it tells you you’re pushing too hard and you need to yield or release a stretch. When the breath is free-flowing and unrestricted, it’s an indication it’s safe to continue deepening or holding a stretch.

2. Length – This is the alignment part of safe yoga practice. Our bodies are skeletal structures stabilized at the core by the spine, pelvis and sacrum, along with the surrounding muscles. Before moving into or releasing a yoga posture, it’s essential to stabilize the core by lengthening the spine and engaging the abdominal muscles.

Keeping your spine long during yoga practice not only protects you from injury, it also allows your breath to move more freely and deeply.

3. Compassion – Being compassionate toward ourselves (and to others) is part of the practice of ahimsa (non-harming), one of the key principles of yoga.

Think about it… If you’re feeling critical or judgmental toward yourself—including comparing your body to other yoga practitioners—you’re more likely to be careless in your movements or to push your body too far. But when you bring a sense of self-compassion to your practice, you learn to honor your body (including any physical limitations) exactly where it is in that moment.

The beauty of remembering breath, length and compassion is that they apply “off the mat” too… In other words, stand tall, breathe and show yourself some love — not just when you’re doing yoga.

Free, Organic and No Negative Side Effects: The Breath

 

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

-Mary Oliver

For me, the concept of wellness always starts with the breath… It’s where I go first thing when I settle onto my yoga mat, or when I’m out in the world and catch myself feeling anxious, fearful, sad or alone.

Nature’s Cure-all

What’s striking is how simple yet profound this wellness technique is: Focusing on the breath, and breathing deeply, is the greatest cure-all in life. And the beauty of it is that it’s free, organic, easily accessible and has no negative side effects…

So how does it work? In very simple terms, there are two key benefits to focusing on the breath: First, it brings your mind into the present moment, allowing you to let go of outside distractions. Second, by deepening the breath, you trigger a number of important—and beneficial—physiological changes, such as reducing your heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension to name a few.

Form Matters

Most living beings breathe automatically through no effort at all. But to truly achieve the wellness benefits of the breath, there are a few important techniques to keep in mind:

  1. The breath needs space. Try breathing deeply when you’re slumped over on your sofa… Your chest cavity is compressed like the letter “c,” which gives the diaphragm very little room to take in or release oxygen. That’s why it’s important to keep your spine lengthened by sitting (or standing) up straight, or by lying down flat on your back.
  2. Use your nose. Breathing through your nose is better than breathing through your mouth in many ways—from warming, moisturizing and filtering incoming oxygen to allowing the lungs to absorb more oxygen on the exhale. Nasal breathing also promotes deeper relaxation and stress reduction.
  3. Lengthen the exhale even more than the inhale. Deep breathing involves deepening and lengthening both your inhalations and exhalations. And extending your exhalations even a little more helps stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls your rest, relaxation and digestion responses. For example, try counting to 3 on the inhale and to 5 on the exhale.

While we’re all born with unique talents and characteristics, the breath is the one universal gift of all beings. By bringing awareness to the breath, and breathing deeply, we can learn to harness its incredible healing power and live more fully.