Christians have gone through the Lenten fast and journied into the Easter feast. It’s an up-and-down time for our intake of food and digestion, going literally overnight from depriving the body of its learned cravings for meats and sweets to fully satiating it with meats and sweets. You won’t be surprised if I report that yoga has a way of dealing with it. The old yogis, who gave much attention to bodily functions, also gave a great deal of attention to food and diet, developed practices related to both digestion and elimination, and focused on physical as well as spiritual transformation.
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 this practice 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. Forest fires, for all the damage they cause to human and animal habitats, also clear away underbrush and debris to renew the forests.
Ancient philosophers named fire as one of the four elements of nature. They marveled at the ability of fire to transform matter from one state to another. Philosophers pondered the transformative character of fire when applied to the other elements of nature. It boils water, which generates steam and increases the movement of water. When mixed with air (oxygen), which feeds fire, it increases the movement of air. Fire applied to the earth leads to the scorching of the trees and grass and if the heat is intense enough it melts rock into lava. In the body manifestations of heat are felt as physiological changes such as faster breathing, increased heart rate, increase in glandular secretions, the “flames” of desire, and a higher rate of semen discharge.
No wonder yoga has been interested in fire—particularly the internal fire that breaks down food and creates fuels for the body through the digestive system. The yoga of fire creates heat in the belly which transforms the food we take into our bodies into energy. Perhaps the yoga of fire also raises the question of how we are being transformed in our daily lives. Modern yogis ponder ponder the transformative character of agni yoga on our minds as well as our bodies. That’s also something for Christians to consider during the paschal (Lenten/Easter) season. This is the time of Christian initiation, the time of conversion and new life in Christ.
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 candle on the left side of the photo, called the paschal candle, will be lighted from the Easter Vigil fire and carried into the dark church. It will remain lighted during the fifty days of the Easter season. Carrying the paschal candle into the dark church will transform darkness into light, especially as the worshipers light their own hand candles from the paschal candle. At stations along the way the deacon hold the candle aloft and sings, “The Light of Christ.” The people respond, “Thanks be to God.”
In the spring of the year there’s always a lot of debris to burn off, whether in the fields or in our bodies. We 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 upward (kundalini in Tantra; the indwelling Spirit of the risen Christ in Christianity). Fire is light as well as heat. It brings enlightenment as well as transformation.
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.
First, bellows breath (bhastrika). This is a kriya or cleansing action. Sit up straight with legs crossed and press down on one’s knees. Breathe in and out forcefully through the nostrils. During inhalation the abdomen moves outward. During exhalation the abdomen moves inward. As you are breathing you will see your belly moving in and out. This can be done slowly at first and then build up speed. Do about 30 inhales/exhales. Rest. Then do another 30. This is a vigorous pranayama.
Then cat and cow to limber up the body.
My little sequence served the simple purpose of helping with the challenges of digesting an unaccustomed diet. This is the sequence Nick gave to me. I included it in my 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. The book is based on a course I taught at Satya Wacana Christian University in Central Java and I included some yoga sequences in the class and in the book as a way of helping students and readers get in touch with their 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 abdominal core.
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. In one version of supine spinal twist stretch out one leg and bring the other leg over the extended leg so that the knee touches the floor.
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.
Bhujangasana (cobra pose – this is low cobra). Notice that hands are alongside the ribs, shoulders squeezed together, chest thrust forward, knees off the floor. Floor contacts are the pelvis and the tops of feet.
Raise both arms and legs off the floor (locust pose) and hold for five breaths. Breathe in and out of your belly. (If space allows arms can also be extended forward or sideways or along the body, but off the floor.)
Doing locust pose with my Embodied Liturgy class at Satya Wacana Christian University in Salatiga, Central Java, Indonesia
Then 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. In sitting or lotus pose place hands on knees, inhale, then lock your throat and exhale completely while pulling up the abdominal organs.
Or 2. In bridge pose extend arms overhead while inhaling. Exhale completely and pull up abdominal organs. Hold your breath and the lock as you lower down while leaving your arms overhead. Unlock the abdominal lock, inhale , and exhale as you bring your arms back down to your sides.
Or 3. In a 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 some form of uddiyana bandha a few times, slowly. Then relax.
OR do 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 as you sit up. Repeat several times.
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.
This practical sequence involves no standing poses. It is a sequence that 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 Pastor Frank Senn