Before I took my teacher training, personal study of some the more esoteric yoga techniques had taught me about mula, uddiyana and jalandara bundas; or the yogic locks. Further inquiry led me to a jewel of a practice called ashwini mudra. Mudra can be translated as seal and sometimes posture, and is usually associated with hand gestures. These movements can be seen in east Asian dances. But ashwini means mare, as in a female horse.
The ancient yogis were keen observers of animal behavior as is evidenced by the names given to so many yoga poses. Cobra, down and up dog, cat, cow, peacock et cetera. Though it may seem odd, the yogis noticed that a defecating mare strongly puckered its anus to help dispel the contents of its bowels. We humans unconsciously use the same muscular contractions when we regulate our elimination. Well, whoever started exploring these normal muscular contractions noticed the deep internal massage one receives when tensing this region of the body. This undoubtedly led to experimenting with using this mudra in different postures and noticing how the combination of position, gravity and the technique itself increased or decreased the intensity of the experience. As the practice was handed down from guru to student it was finally accepted into yoga tradition which precedes recorded history.
During my teacher training I became known as “agni sara man” because of my fervent interest in the bundas, fire dhauti, and nauli kriya, all of which deeply promote blood circulation in the organs in the abdomen. At our graduation three of my female classmates (I was the only male in a class of 30) sang me a song of the same title to the tune of the old Johnny Rivers ditty, “Secret Agent Man”. As a sufferer of Crohn’s Disease (an ulcerative bowel condition), I wondered if these methods could help me.
For my birthday in 2008 my beloved Michele presented me with a copy of the great classic, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika. It is not uncommon for the ancient yogis to make what seem like extravagant claims that a particular action will prevent certain diseases if practiced intensely. This scripture hints that what we might call super humanity is available to the devoted yoga student. Usually the recommendation of practice frequency and diligence required is beyond the dedication of all but the most ardent practitioners, and therefore easily discounted. But I decided to take the Pradipika at its word.
Besides my own Crohn’s Disease, Americans suffer from many maladies of the abdominal organs. Colo rectal cancer, ovarian cancer, cervical cancer, prostate cancer, liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, stomach cancer, constipation, incontinence and other urinary complaints, sexual dysfunction, and so on.
Before I moved from Las Vegas to the rural Piedmont of North Carolina in 2002, one of my dear friends was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. At 42 this vibrant, intelligent, beautiful woman succumbed after a valiant four year battle. I was but a helpless witness to her frequent rounds of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. The grace with which she handled her suffering was amazing. Perhaps you know someone like her.
An elderly friend of mine now possesses only a cinder of a prostate after 40 days of radiation for prostate cancer. Ironically, one of the exercises recommended by his doctor: the kegel which is an adaptation of ashwini mudra.
As I practiced these methods, I could feel the heat of my core dramatically increasing. I was getting extraordinary blood flow throughout my entire abdomen from diaphragm to anus. That means greater oxygenation in all the organs effected. That’s what yoga is all about; increased prana or life force. For terrestrial mammals the physical components of prana are earth’s atmospheric gases: oxygen and nitrogen carried by the blood to nourish our cells.
I tell my students that decrepitude is a choice. We lose the deep venous circulation to our bodies because we neglect the proper exercise to reach the deep cells within our muscles, organs, glands, bones, tendons and ligaments. The three basic adult postures: standing, sitting and lying are not enough to promote the depth of circulation necessary for robust longevity. Watch children at play and you’ll see that they are repeatedly putting their bodies into many different relationships to gravity as they express the simple joy of being alive. As we get older, tied to conventional lifestyles, we become more sedentary and begin to seize up with the rust of inflammation a harbinger of a plethora of diseases.
Even if you go to aerobics, run, lift weights, practice martial arts et cetera, you’re probably not getting the profound circulation fostered by the abdominopelvic specialties of yoga.
I mentioned that these practices are sort of esoteric, rarely taught in the yoga studio let alone the gym. Few yoga students have even heard of them. The reason? In the past, the priesthood of yoga had decided that these practices should be revealed exclusively to only the most dedicated students. Also, modern day yoga in the U.S. is mostly taught and treated like a glorified calisthenic rather than the universal tool box for human health that it precisely is. I think it’s wrong to withhold life-saving knowledge from people just because they’re not in the clique. So I decided to teach the most accessible of these techniques, ashwini mudra, to my yoga classes. The reactions were, to put it mildly, varied.
The older folks understood the importance of these methods immediately. Some of the younger women, however, were apparently aghast that I would even speak of the unmentionable body parts. Several of them quit coming to my classes. Fortunately, a student who seldom missed one of my classes told me that some of the others were “uncomfortable” with ashwini mudra.
For those who might think these teachings inappropriate for some reason, I would respectfully ask that they check in with themselves and perform a self inquiry to see why they feel squeamish about addressing the health of these important organs.
At future classes I related the stories of my cancer stricken friends in hopes that students would better understand my motivation for giving detailed instruction in these ancient teachings. After one of those classes, an elderly male student of mine spoke with me privately about the wonderful and unexpected results he’d been achieving with ashwini mudra. The man is well into his seventies and had been plagued by incontinence. He reported that this condition was improving markedly. I was so pleased to hear this, but he saved his proudest announcement for last. Apparently he also suffered from the sexual dysfunction experienced by so many older men, and some younger: failing to reach orgasm. With a big smile he exclaimed with zest, “I’ve had three orgasms recently”! Happy that he felt so comfortable to take me into his confidence I congratulated him on his renewed vigor.
As the national debate over health care ebbs and flows to some congressional action this autumn, I’m grateful that I’ve learned how to take care of myself and others with the ancient wisdom of yoga. No amount of insurance coverage or money can confer health upon us like these teachings that have descended to us from the prehistoric observations of simple men and women. As a mere beginner on this path I can only give the advise that echoes in my heart every time I sit on the yoga mat: keep practicing. Mysteries are contained in these timeless teachings and await the probing, persistent practice of those who seek an ever greater fullness of the human experience.
Tim… I’m wanting to become involved in a beginner yoga class — I’m fairly new to Chatham County — a member of the coop… Is your free class tomorrow (Wed.) AM a beginner class?
Thanks for this clear explanation not only of the benefits of this practice but the importance of teaching them.
Nancy from San Diego here (though residing in rural Maine now). Wonderful blog piece! Glad to see you are still involved in Yoga.
My thought s were along the lines of “What can I do to get relief from my piriformis syndrome?” (long-range affect from a bad car accident 2 years hence).
Picking your brain:)))