We Christians have been through the Lenten fast, which we’ve kept more or less, and now we’ve enjoyed the Easter feast, along with some bingeing on chocolate bunnies, peeps, jelly beans, and other Easter basket delights. This is a recipe for a good case of indigestion. You won’t be surprised if I report that yoga has a way of dealing with it.
Not surprisingly, the old yogis, who gave much attention to bodily functions, also gave a great deal of attention to food and diet and developed practices related to both digestion and elimination.
When I went to Indonesia in June 2014, I was worried about how Indonesian food might affect my digestive processes. I had a private lesson with my yoga teacher, Nick Beem, co-owner with his wife Lela of Grateful Yoga, Evanston, IL. (see http://www.gratefulyoga.com/). He gave me a simple sequence for tonifying and soothing that I could take with me to central Java and do in my room. I used it during my stay in Indonesia. Because the floor of my room was hard and cold (uncarpeted), I found I could use it on my bed (hard mattress). I still sometimes use it in the mornings after a big meal the night before.
This is an agni or fire practice, which seems especially appropriate to the spring of the year. As we drive through the countryside we see fires on farms that are burning winter debris or the stubble in the fields. This is also very good for the soil. Fire transforms matter. The yoga fire practice transforms the fuel we take into our bodies into energy. Perhaps it also raises the question of how we are being transformed in our daily lives. That’s a good question for Christians to raise during the paschal (Lent/Easter) seasons.
The agni yoga practice goes back about 4,000 years to the Vedic ritual fires (vedi means a sacrificial altar). Of course, yoga has internalized the ritual fires in the body. But fire ceremonies are still maintained by Hindu families today and play an integral part in daily worship. They are used as a way of communicating with and honoring the gods. Everything offered into Agni, the sacred fire, is believed to reach the gods.
Homa or domestic Hindu ritual fire
I find it interesting that the Easter season in the Western Church has begun with a fire. I think of the fire at the beginning of the Easter Vigil as a burning up of the debris of the old creation. It is from this fire that the new paschal candle is lighted. The tall paschal candle is carried into the darkened church, evoking the darkness of the tomb of Christ, to proclaim the light of the new creation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. At different stations along the way the deacon holds up the paschal candle and sings, “The light of Christ.” The people respond, “Thanks be to God.” The darkened church is illuminated as the light of hand-held candles spreads and dispels the darkness. This paschal candle continues to burn in the churches for 40 days (until Christ’s Ascension) or 50 days (until Pentecost).
Lighting the paschal candle from the Easter Vigil fire. The bishop in the photo lights the candle from the new fire, saying:
May the light of Christ, rising in glory,
dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.
The burning of this flame during the 50-day Easter season (the springtime of the natural year in the northern hemisphere) is, I think, a good time to do agni yoga practices. Easter or Paschaltide is a fifty-day feast, and if we take that seriously there’s always a lot of excess intake to burn off. We also have a lot of internal debris to burn off from the more sedentary (and sedimentary) time of winter. There’s also the possibility of enlightenment as the released energy soars (kundalini in Tantra, indwelling Spirit of the risen Christ in Christianity). Fire is light as well as heat. It brings enlightenment as well as transformation. We are doing this fire practice in yoga classes this spring at Grateful Yoga in Evanston, IL where I practice yoga.
In Indonesia I usually did my angi sequence first thing in the morning. It is comprised largely of abdominal poses and twists that create heat (tapas) in the belly. In the Vedic literature tapas refers to heat in the sense of generating energy. But it also refers to austerity, penance, and pious activity. Taken in its literal sense of “to burn,” it can refer to overcoming the challenges in life by lighting a fire in the belly.
My little sequence served the much simpler purpose of helping with the challenges of digesting an unaccustomed diet. This is the sequence Nick gave to me. I included it in my just-published book, Embodied Liturgy. Lessons in Christian Ritual (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), p. 162, in a section dealing with fasting and feasting, and I share it here. (Yes, there are some yoga sequences in the book as a way of getting in touch with our bodies.)
Lay on your back. Bring your knees to your chest. Take hold of them with your hands; bring them in and extend them out five times. Inhale as you bring your knees toward your face; exhale as you push them away. This is apanasana.
Put your hands behind your thighs. Raise your legs straight up and lower your knees to your chest five times. Inhale as you raise your legs; exhale as you lower them.
With your legs straight up, circle them like a windmill five times in one direction and five times in the reverse direction. This will really churn the abdomen.
You could add to this sequence navasana—boat pose—which is a great core strengthener. (Don’t forget to breathe. The breath like the wind provides the energy that supports the poses.)
Now place your feet on the floor behind your buttocks, body-width apart. Stretch out your arms in a T. Lower your knees to the right and then to the left (like windshield wipers) five times. Turn your face to the left when your knees are to the right, and vice versa. Then do the same thing with your feet off the floor, bringing your knees toward your armpits.
Yogi Patrik Bitter of Essen, Germany is doing a version of supine spinal twist.
Roll over onto your belly.
Place your hands alongside your ribs and raise your chest for a low cobra. It is important to press the tops of your feet and your pelvis into the floor. (Your knees will then not be on the floor.) Inhale as you lift your chest , exhale as you lower—five times. Then hold cobra pose while you breathe in and out of your belly. In low cobra lift one leg and lower it back down—five times for each leg.
Low cobra pose (click on image to read directions)
Raise both arms and legs off the floor (locust pose) and hold for five breaths. Breathe in and out of your belly.
Doing locust pose with my Embodied Liturgy class at Satya Wacana Christian University in Salatiga, Central Java, Indonesia
Then EITHER Uddiyana Bandha
A bandha is a lock—in this case an abdominal lock. It is created by exhaling completely, chin down to lock out more incoming breath. Without inhaling, suck the abdominal muscles in and up, pulling the navel toward the spine. Pull the abdominal organs and diaphragm up into the cavity of the rib cage. This can be done in one of several poses. 1. As you move from table pose into child pose. Or 2. In bridge pose with arms extended overhead exhale and pull up abdominal organs as you lower down while leaving your arms overhead. Or 3. In standing position bend over with your hands resting on your thighs. Exhale and pull up the abdominal organs as shown below. In all cases , and hold the lock as long as it is comfortable. Do this a few times, slowly. Then relax.
Demonstration of uddiyana bandha
OR Tadagi Mudra
Sit up with legs extended forward. Inhale. With straight back fold over legs while exhaling. Lower chin to chest and suck in the abdominal muscles, pulling the navel toward the spine. Hold as long as possible. Then inhale while sitting up. Repeat several times.
Demonstration of tagadi mudra.
Lay on your back and prepare for a brief savasana (corpse pose). Extend arms and legs in a V formations. Allow feet to flop sideways to the floor. Turn hands upward, which will help to bring the shoulders to the floor and open the chest. Inhale to the belly, exhale, and resume normal breathing. Just sink into the floor and let go of everything. The point of savasana is to absorb the practice.
Demonstration of savasana.
This practical sequence involves no standing poses, which can be useful while traveling and living in different size rooms since the poses don’t require much space.
Did I say it is best to do this agni practice before breakfast? Well, it is. But having burned up some of last night’s meal, enjoy your breakfast now.
Yogi Frank Senn