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Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
Intimacy with the Body: Energy Medicine Yoga
Tami Simon: You are listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Lauren Walker. Lauren has been teaching yoga and meditation since 1997. A writer since childhood, Lauren’s work has been featured in the New York Times, the Jerusalem Post, and in Yoga Journal. She's a teaching assistant for Donna Eden and is a certified Energy Medicine practitioner. Lauren founded and ran the yoga program at Norwich University for four years and she now teaches Energy Medicine Yoga across the world.
With Sounds True, Lauren Walker has written a new book, Energy Medicine Yoga—which combines the techniques of energy medicine with yoga to enhance your health and vitality.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Lauren and I spoke about the release of trauma through combining techniques from energy medicine with yoga poses. We talked about specific energy medicine techniques you can do on the spot to calm the fight/flight response in the body and to awaken the proper directional flows of energy in the body. Lauren also shared with us the Pure Breath technique, a profound transformational breathing practice that she learned from her yoga teacher Rod Stryker. Finally, Lauren talked about her wilderness experiences and how they informed her development of energy medicine yoga. Here's my conversation with Lauren Walker:
Lauren, to begin with, I'd love if you could tell me a little bit about the history of how you started combining your practice of yoga with techniques from energy medicine.
Lauren Walker: Sure. Well, it's kind of a long and winding road, really. I had been teaching yoga for many years and had a yoga studio and left that in a kind of—it was really a shattering series of events that made me—sort of forced me—to leave that. And then I moved up to Canada as war resister [in] ‘03 and found a yoga teacher up there that was just wonderful.
I was really excited to sort of just leave behind my business and just focus on my own practice again. And within, I would say a month, she got into a horrible ski accident and became a quadriplegic. That really was sort of an additional shattering experience that was completely unexpected. I really left the yoga world completely for quite some time after that.
So, I stopped teaching and I didn't fully stop practicing because it was so part of my just body and life at this point. But I really just came away from the yoga world completely. Within that time, I had two different people in two different countries introduce me to Donna Eden's work. It just really resonated with me. And so I kind of dove into her work and very quickly did a workshop with her and met her.
She is an absolutely phenomenal person and bright light, and I really can't say enough about how incredible she is. She really helped me personally—but also her work —through this very challenging period that I was going through.
So, I just was more focused on her work and a lot of the work that I was doing of hers was really doing trauma release. A lot of that is doing these very long holds on different parts of the body. So, I would be doing these holds and it kind of was like, “Well, what else am I going to be doing during this time?” I had studied a lot of yin yoga, so I sort of started combining those together. So, doing long yoga poses with these long trauma-releasing poses. They just really kind of went together. It was sort of just a natural evolution.
And then many years later, my yoga teacher basically implored/demanded that I teach yoga again and when your teacher tells you to do something you kind of do it. So I did it. And at that point I had moved back to the States, after Obama was elected. I was living in Vermont, and serendipitously was living in a town where there was a military university. I just went to the university and said, “You know, this is who I am, this is what I do. Is there any way that I can teach some yoga?”
Everyone was really interested, but nobody had any funding so they kind of just kept shunting me around to different departments and finally set me up with the student activities people. They said, “Sure, let's give it a try.” And so I started teaching a little bit and it didn't really hit very well. The time wasn't great, I think. They said, “In the fall, let's try one more time and see,” and they changed the time. And all of a sudden, my classes just started becoming full and I started teaching these military students that were preparing for, you know, going over and fighting in various areas in the world.
I started showing up to teach in a different way than I ever had before—because these kids were so incredible to me. They were so earnest, they were so fearless, and also incredibly stressed out. At this college—it's Norwich University—it's the oldest private military college in the country. Their schedules are just beyond what any regular college student has, because on top of it they're doing all of these—whatever division of the military they're in. They have Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines all represented there.
So I wanted to give these people—these men and women—tools that they could take not only to use in classes to kind of de-stress and calm themselves and just learn how to breathe and learn how to stay centered and learn how their bodies work—but how to take that also into the field. Into the battle, really.
So, I started incorporating more of these energy medicine practices into the yoga and it sort of just became this—it was like the chocolate and the peanut butter together was more bang for your buck .All of a sudden, everything started escalating. All the practices and techniques started working faster and more powerfully. These kids just were teaching me as much as I was teaching them. And it just was this natural evolution—the more I put it together, the more it kept growing and showing me more ways to put more techniques together. It just kind of grew from there and became what it is now.
TS: I'm wondering—if during this process—you ever had the thought like, “This is kind of audacious to try to improve upon yoga,” if you will. I mean, here is yoga, this ancient science. “Who am I to be bringing in new techniques or holding reflex points in a new way,” I mean, didn't the yogis know what they were talking about?
LW: Absolutely. I mean on both of those questions—absolutely. The audacious part of it is saying, you know like, “This is this new style of yoga.” The truth is, a lot of these techniques were built in to the yoga practice and have been lost. There's like a class that I teach that's called “The Lost Art of Yoga.” A lot of things that are already in just the regular yoga practice that you would recognize in any class are actually energy techniques that just aren't spoken of—and not only not spoken of, but not even understood. Things that I learned studying with Donna that I thought, “Wow, that's—you know, we do that in yoga class, but nobody has ever said what that was for.”
So, those kind of things absolutely were already there. But the other techniques—I mean, it wasn't so—I mean, I started putting it together before I started putting it down on paper. It was already formed when I kind of took it to Donna and said, “Should I put this down and write this into a book and make this into a program?” So I guess that sort of circumvented that audaciousness.
I guess I'm also that kind of person, I just sort of go after something and the rules be damned. I just—if something needs to happen and needs to be done, I'm just going to do it, no matter what. [Laughs.]
TS: Alright! Alright! I like it! Now, I'm curious to hear more about this lost art of yoga. Because, you know, I've heard a lot from different yoga teachers and the idea that there would be aspects of the yoga tradition that have not made it into contemporary culture—I'm curious to know what aspects you're pointing to.
LW: Well, the main thing that I teach in that workshop is a Sun Salutation through this Energy Medicine Yoga lens. When people do Sun Salutations, you know, there's so many reasons that they say, “Why are we doing Sun Salutations?” Well, it warms up the entire body. It puts the body in all of the different positions—extensions, laterals, inversions, forward bend, backbend. You know—it hits all of that. It welcomes in the sun and it's a part of setting your intention for your practice.
But beyond all of that—or I would say before all of that—when done with these specific techniques, it is actually realigning the energetic flows of the body in the direction that they are most beneficial. And so we start to bring in these ideas of the aura and the Celtic weave—the crossover pattern of the body—which is one of the most important fundamental directions that energy flows in the body. We start to use that on the physical body, but also off the body in the bio-field.
So all of these things in Sun Salutation where [you're] floating your hands up and you're bringing them down—but it sort of after a while seems like you're just kind of flinging your arms around and not really doing anything specific. But if you actually are cultivating that specific directionality of energy—the yin energy, which comes up from the earth, up the inside soft areas of the body into the core of the body—and then the yang energies, which come down from the sky—that's literally the salutation to the sun—and come down the back of the body. Then you start to smooth those energies along the flows of the body.
It's like running your hand down the back of a cat the right way and the cat's all happy and starts to purr. But if you run your hand the back way on a cat, it raises up its hackles. We have the same flows of energy in our body, but nobody talks about those and bring them into consciousness with enough specificity that we can understand, “Well, which is the right way to run the hand down the body so that we're encouraging those flows of energy?”
I'm going to use that metaphor of “grooming the mountain,” because I'm an avid skier and it just made so much sense to me. Every day, they groom the mountain. They clear off the snow and they set it down in tracks and make it easier to ski. But we have the same systems in our body. If we can know how to smooth off the energy that accumulates every day in our bodies and clear those systems out, then we function more optimally.
And so that's what I teach in that class—what are those flows, how to access them. They fold very easily into any kind of yoga tradition that you're already doing and some of them are—I mean, there's one move that's almost exactly like what you in an Ashtanga—where you grab the toes and lift the body back up—that's right out of one of the yin bridge flows. So, these energy pathways are ancient traditions. I didn't invent any of them and Donna didn't either. But bringing them in and making them acknowledged so that we have this intention—and understanding when we're actually practicing—increases the benefits of what you're doing.
TS: So I just want to dig a little deeper to see if I'm following you here—which is, is it fair to say that in yoga itself these energy medicine awarenesses—if you will—and even practices and techniques are there encoded, but have been lost? Or do you feel that you're bringing something to yoga through what you learned in Donna Eden's approach to energy medicine that's actually a new evolution? Which one, do you think?
LW: I want to go with both, actually They're both there.
TS: I love it! I love it, Lauren! That's good!
LW: [Laughs.] Some of them we're just uncovering and bringing to consciousness. The yogic toehold, which is the first two fingers around the big toe, activates liver and spleen meridians and gets them working in harmony together. Those are really important for our endocrine system and our overall health of those yin meridians—as well as kind of tapping into the etheric layer of the aura, which is the blueprint of your body.
So, we do that in so many different traditions—that yogic toehold. But until I studied with Donna, I really had no idea what I was actually doing. So that was already there.
But then there's a lot of other techniques that I've just brought in and layered onto different things that we do that aren't done in any other yoga classes that you'll take. Things like strengthening different meridians that weaken with age and doing those in very familiar yoga poses. Again, you're doing these long holds—which I'm a big fan of—so why not incorporate these in? Otherwise, you're sort of just sitting there in this pose and you add these holds in. Then you're actually then increasing the efficacy of the pose, as well as strengthening these meridians.
A lot of the trauma release holds are very similar [as well]. You're doing these long forward bends. You can sort of be reprinting your limbic system and retraining these neural pathways while you're doing these poses.
So, those things are things that I've brought in that I've never done in any other yoga class. Not to say that other people aren't out there doing it, but it's nothing that I've encountered before and it's certainly not mainstream yet. But hopefully someday soon, it will be.
TS: Now, Lauren, you've talked a couple of times about this trauma release and how energy medicine can help with that. You referenced your own story as well in terms of what inspired you, actually, to experiment with this combination. I'm curious to know more how you view the body storing and releasing trauma, and how energy medicine helps with that—the release part.
LW: Yes, well—so the body holds everything. Your chakras, which are aligned on the core of the body—from the pubic bone up to the crown—they are basically the hard drive of your life. Every situation, every experience that you've had for your whole life—and if you believe in past lives, those as well—are all imprinted in these spinning discs. That's what “chakra” means—disc or wheel. And they're all held there.
So, all of the trauma that you've experienced is also held in those hard drives—as well as just the cells of the body hold these memories. If you've ever been in a yoga class where somebody has an emotional release, often that comes because they're stretching and opening these areas of the body that have held these traumatic experiences and all of a sudden they're being released now.
So doing these different techniques—working with the chakras in some specific energy medicine ways and holding different points—there is one that is so simple that I give [it] to everybody that comes to my class. [It] is just one hand over your forehead. It's holding what's called the frontal neurovascular reflex points. What it does is it holds—it keeps blood in the forebrain, which circumvents the fight-or-flight response so that you don't lose your ability to stay present.
So when you're having either trauma that's happening right now or a memory of trauma—and the body can't differentiate those two. That's kind of the definition of PTSD—[it's that] your body can't differentiate between what happened before [and] the memories still [triggering] all of the same responses in the body. All of those hormones that—the fight-or-flight responses in the body.
But if you keep your hand over the forehead and that's—you know, it's kind of one of those automatic things that a lot of us do. It's very intuitive to do that. It keeps the blood in the forebrain and allows you to think critically and creatively and stay present with what's going on. It's a way, as well—and Donna teaches this specifically—to start to reprogram those traumatic experiences. You're never going to get rid of the experience itself, but you can get rid of the charge that sends you back into that physical response of the trauma again and again. So, the longer you hold—as those thoughts kind of re-circulate through the body—you start to weaken that charge and ultimately let it go completely. So, then it's just part of your story and you can talk about it without getting sent right back into the whole physiological response.
So we do that hold often in forward bending poses. I say, “Any time that you have a chance to put your hand on your head, do it. Hold that. It's a way to start to release that static and that excess energy.” Because everything is energy—that's all we are. Everything is energy. So, if we can start to learn those different layers and subtleties of energy—whether it's in the gross body or more subtle—then we can start to kind of mitigate our responses to the world so that we're more present and calmer with what's going on.
TS: Now, are you talking about putting one hand specifically in the center of the head? Or what about both hands on the forehead above both eyes? Can you tell me specifically—where do I put my hands? I need to know!
LW: [Laughs.] So, there's actually several different holds that you can do. The easiest one that I offer is just one hand right across the forehead, as if you where taking your temperature. So, you put your whole hand across your forehead. You can also do a technique where you put the heel of your hand on the bone underneath your eye and you lay the hand over the eye socket. The fingers drape up into the hair line and the thumb actually goes over the temple, towards the ear, over the top of the ear. That's a triple-warmer point. And it's triple-warmer that governs the fight-or-flight response.
So, holding those, you're covering some stomach points and some liver points and that triple-warmer point. You're covering your eye socket as well, which helps to take tension out of the body. So, that's kind of a really lovely one to do when you can kind of have both hands, and maybe you're in a child's pose and you come forward on your elbows a little bit and you rest your head in your hands that way.
So, there's many different ways to do them. I taught a class this summer, “Energy Medicine Yoga for Healing Trauma,” and of course at the end of the class, you know, everyone is coming up with their specific things. People are having, you know, different experiences and—to a T—I tell everyone, “OK, while we are talking, put your hand over your forehead so that you can stay present, because you're telling me about these experiences that you have.” You know when you start to tell somebody a story, you start go back into it, you can cry or you can feel all tension coming to the body and start to even, if it's real intense, start to leave, start to go into a deep stress response. So I'm telling them as they're talking to me, “Put your hand right over your forehead.” Then they can center and stay with themselves as they're communicating.
TS: In talking about something as simple as putting your hand over your forehead like you're taking your temperature, that's the kind of thing you could do in a yoga pose, but you could just do that at any point, huh? You can just do that while you're on the phone, or something.
LW: Absolutely. And as a matter of fact, when we started our conversation, I put three fingers in the throat hollow—so that little hollow notch at the base of your throat is also a triple-warmer calming point. So any time that I feel nervous or that I feel freaked out or afraid of anything, or I start to kind of have any kind of response that is taking me out of the present, I'll put three fingers in the throat hollow and if you wear a necklace you can sort of, as if you're playing with the bead on your necklace, you know, so you don't even have to be—nobody else has to know what you're doing. And somebody cuts you off in traffic or you have a weird interaction with somebody at work, if you just put three fingers in the hollow of your throat, it just kind of calms you right down and you're able to, “Ah, ok, be present. So, what's important here to look at?” So, yes, a lot of these techniques, I teach them in the context of yoga and I say, “Do this—you know, this one you can do here and this one here and take it out, do it everywhere,” because life is going on off the mat and we need to be able to process information and stay calm and present and, you know, go through our lives all the time and [be] able to deal with different situations. So absolutely, I use this stuff all the time out of class.
TS: And now—just to help me, as well as our listeners, understand how energy medicine works. Help me understand, if I have three fingers in this little hollow space at the bottom of my throat, how does that work so that I feel less anxious? What's happening in my body as I do that?
LW: So that is a triple-warmer neurovascular reflex point.
TS: Now, you're going to have to explain all those words to me.
LW: I'm going to explain all of that.
LW: So you're basically keeping blood in a specific part of the body. And so when we held on the forehead we are keeping blood in the forebrain, which is our critical part of the brain, instead of going to the back brain which is the, you know, the amphibious brain that goes into fight-or-flight response. So all over the body we have these different points and buttons and levers, and different areas that we can tap into different functions of the body, different energy systems of the body. And how that works is we are electromagnetic, and so everything—it's like those iron filings with a magnet underneath. And for these specific points, because they are blood capillary points, it's the iron in your blood contacting with the other iron in your fingertips, contacting with the other iron in your blood to these reflex points. Just like when the doctor hits your knee and your knee kicks at the reflex point. So these points are reflecting back to these areas of the body that control these different systems of the body.
So triple-warmer is a bit different than these other systems that have, you know, spleen actually has an organ and heart has an organ and [the] pericardium, but the triple warmer is actually—it's a huge system of its own and it doesn't have a specific organ, it functions more holistically, it kind of runs the whole show. Donna talks about it as being a general of your immune system and kind of the whole body; it's the one that conscripts energy from everybody else.
And so, that's the main one when we go into any kind of trigger response, any kind of stress response, that's the system that's most triggered. Because just like a general when, you know, there's an intercept, somebody coming in that the general doesn't think should be coming into camp, right, it whips up all the soldiers to go and fight.
But most of the time we don't need to do that, but our body hasn't evolved to understand that, so we think, somebody cut us off in traffic and we got to go fight the war, but that's really not the case, so wee need to kind of calm ourselves back down. Most of the time it's very rare that we need to tell triple-warmer to go ahead and get the army going, we mostly need to say, “Your computer just crashed, that's not cause for the whole body to go into this revolt system.” But you know how it is, if your computer crashes when you're working, you feel like, “Oh my God, the worst thing just happened!” right? And so your body does go into this whole revolt, but that's not the way that you can deal with that situation. So those different points on the body are specifically to keep the blood flowing to those different areas that are going to keep us calmer. That's kind of a very gross description of it, but I think maybe that's the easiest way to start. Does that help at all?
TS: It does, and what I love about the way you're presenting this is I feel like you're giving me some immediate energy medicine techniques that I can use in my life, whether I'm in a yoga posture or not. And I'd love to know a few more, whether they're reflex points or points that I would tap or sort of simple techniques I can use that will help me in my day-to-day life, simple things.
LW: Absolutely. So the first thing that we do in any energy medicine yoga class is—you're going to laugh, but it's called the “wake-up,” because you just had your big Wake Up Festival, but we call it the wake up as well because it's waking up the energies of the body and getting them to move in the most optimal directions. And it's these four easy little techniques that we start every yoga class with, but I also say [you should] do this no matter what you're doing; first thing when you get out of bed in the morning, before a business meeting, before you go to work, before you play tennis, because without the body's energies going in the right direction, you're kind of like swimming upstream, paddling against the flow.
So if you just find your collar bones and slide to very bony tips at the end, and then if you drop straight down—and you might drop straight down and slightly out or it might be straight down, everyone's body is a little bit different—but you're going to find you drop right into a little bit of a hollow, do you feel that?
LW: OK. So those points, that's your “on” button. That's like turning on the iBody—I use the iPhone reference a lot because everybody's got one in class, right? So that's your “on” button, that's the end point of your kidney meridian, which is the kind of main energy force that animates the body is the kidney energy. So those two points, if you deeply massage them and they're sore, they really need this. So a lot of times we feel soreness in the body and we tend to go away from it, but the truth is we actually need to go into it. That's the body speaking to us and we need to start to learn that language.
So you can deeply massage them, but then you can also thump them. So, you're kind of just beating on your chest just like the apes do, that's what we need to do because that turns the energy on and gets it moving forward. So when you get tired, what happens first is, your energy starts to go backward and then you get tired, and that what's allows you to kind of turn off, unplug from your day and go to sleep. But if it happened when you're driving or when you're in the middle of your workday or you just get up in the morning and the first thing most people do is they go and turn on the pot of coffee, I say, stop.
Instead of doing that, thump those points and get your energy awake and moving forward. That's the primary thing that we need to do with our energy. Because if you're not doing that, you're working at 50 percent of your capacity and you'll be tired or sick and you can't get well, or depressed—a lot of depression is energy that's just not tracking the way it's supposed to be. And so just thumping those points gets your energy moving forward.
The next major pattern that energy needs to do and I mentioned this before, is that it needs to cross over. And this is from every cell, the DNA in the cell is in a crossover pattern all the way up to the hemispheres of the brain, which control the opposite sides of the body. So again, if your energy isn't crossing over, you'll be tired, you won't be able to get well if you have a sickness, you'll feel depressed, you'll just feel off in some way.
And so a really simple way—there's several ways to get your energy crossing over, but one that I really love to do, you can do it in the car, when you're standing in line, I'm going to do it right now on the phone with you—is you turn one palm facing up, you take the other hand and you sweep it up the arm to your shoulder, and then you cross through the center of the body to the opposite hip, and then you do the other arm. So you just sweep up the arm and cross the center of the body to the opposite hip, and do that a couple of times. And what that does is it starts to reset that pattern so that the energy crosses over the body. So just those two things are so important to getting your energy working for you instead of against you.
TS: Now, I'm curious how the process worked for you as you started combining your study of energy medicine with your yoga teaching world. Meaning, did you just start experimenting, and then did you ever discover like, “Wow, actually touching these points while in this posture, it doesn't work, it's not having the [right] effect.” I mean, how did that all go for you—your laboratory, if you will?
LW: Right. Well, you know, I started with a really basic level, doing some of those things, those techniques that I just taught you and a few other basic techniques that Donna teaches in her—she calls it, “the daily energy routine,” and I started doing those and kind of seeing how those worked in the yoga practice. And then, as I said, I was doing a lot of those long holds to strengthen certain meridians in the body.
And then I finally, after many, many years of studying with Donna and being urged to take her certification program but resisting, as is my wont, I finally took the certification program and through there, my knowledge of energy medicine just went through the roof and every technique that I was doing lent itself to one or another yoga pose. It was really just this magical kind of puzzle that just kept interlocking all of these pieces.
And still, I mean, when I started I sort of thought, “Ok, I'm a one-trick pony here, here's this one, two, four things that I do in the yoga class and that's great,” but then it started expanding and every new technique that I learned in energy medicine seemed to have a home in a specific pose or technique in yoga. And it still hasn't stopped, I still keep doing new things and, “Oh, ok, well I can do this here. Wow, look at that,” you know, this hold in King Dancer!
So it keeps expanding, and the more people that are learning energy medicine yog,a then they bring in their ways of doing things. I mean there's not just one way of doing—for example we strengthen spleen every day because that's one of the most important meridians to strengthen and it's one that weakens most with age, so I strengthen it every day. Spleen is responsible for the upward-moving flow of energy in the body, and as we age everything sort of starts to go the other direction, so we strengthen spleen every day. Now, I do it in a forward seated bend, Janu Sirsasana, but you can do it in many different ways.
So my students come and teach me as much as I teach them with different techniques that they're learning and different ways that they're doing the poses and changing them for their specific body type, ways that work for them or don't work for them. Then we kind of work together—“Well, how could this become more efficient for you?” So it really just keeps expanding, and it's exciting how that keeps happening. There's so much—both practices are unbelievably huge. There just doesn't seem to be an end to either one of them.
TS: Now, because of my own personal interest, I'm going to take this a little further, which is, I'm so curious about people who are innovating within spiritual traditions and finding new, evolving ways of teaching practices in our contemporary world.
And what I'm curious about is, there are always purists out there who are critical of such evolutionary new forms, do you know what I mean? Purists within traditions who just say, you know, “Come on, don't mess with what was taught [by] X, whatever.” And I'm just curious, within yourself, how you have worked that out so that you're confident in what you're doing. You're publishing a book on energy medicine yoga with Sounds True, and you're having this conversation with me and you seem really relaxed about it, and I'm just curious how you face that potential criticism with such a relaxed attitude?
LW: Well, the techniques that I'm teaching, they're ancient. I mean we're working with the meridians that are, you know, 5,000 years old and the chakras and, you know, it all comes from the body. There weren't textbooks 5,000 years ago, that gave you the meridian points for spleen, so how did somebody find them? In deep, deep meditation with their body in a way that I almost can't even comprehend the depths of that meditation, to be able to actually feel and find the specific meridian points on the body—it's kind of mind-blowing to think about.
And so it all comes back to the body, the deeper intimacy that we have with the body, the more we learn how it works. And for me, I mean, I guess I feel a bit like a mutt in terms of the traditions that I've studied and the background that I've had, and I just feel like—not to be disrespectful, because I'm deeply respectful of the work that's gone before. I'm so grateful that I don't have to sit and figure out where the spleen meridian points are. And at the same time I want what works. I don't have a lot of time—you know, we have a limited time here on life—and I feel like I've got a lot to do, and so whatever is going to work and if something is going to work faster than something else, I'm going to do it.
And if somebody doesn't think that's right, well, that's fine for them, that's not going to affect what I do. Like I said before, I just do my thing and I kind of—in the Five Elements tradition, which is one of the energy systems, I'm a wood, which is very much sort of ‘stand your ground' but also ‘take what's yours.' Not in a greedy way, but in a way of that understanding that we're each here for a purpose and we have work to do in the world, and I just feel like I don't really have a lot of time to—I don't want to argue with somebody. If somebody is a purist, that's great—if that works for them, awesome. I'm not going to try to convert them and I don't want to be converted. I found something that works for me and I found that it works for a lot of people that I've worked with.
And so great, if I can help other people kind of—it's not even cutting corners, but get to where they want to get to faster—I mean if people are suffering, especially with, you know, [any] kind of lingering trauma that's holding them back, I don't care what, you know, is supposed to happen. And you know all of the studies, studies upon studies, upon studies, we don't have time for that. We have people that are suffering and they need relief and they need help now. And if this can help them, go for it. And so that's kind of my take on [that].
TS: I love it. Thank you, thank you. Now, I want to read you a sentence from Energy Medicine Yoga and then we can talk about it, and the sentence is, “The breath is a reflection of the emotional body.” I'm curious to have you comment on that, and talk a little bit about how you work with the breath and breathing techniques in energy medicine yoga.
LW: Hm. Yes, I think about that a lot because as I've studied yoga more and more, the breath work becomes even more crucial than any of the other practices except for meditation. So I notice my breath all the time, and I notice just sort of the basic—you know, that when you get afraid, you'll have a [gasps] gasping response; and when you're very calm, sometimes if you tune in you're like, “Wow, I'm barely even breathing,”—your breath gets very, very subtle.
And so the breath really reflects our mental state in that way and when you start to listen to it and work with it more, you start to see that happen more and more and how it does reflect. Just last night I had an experience where I bumped into somebody, [and] that was kind of shocking, and for the whole rest of the evening when I was back home, I noticed that I kept doing that gasp [gasps] and it wasn't— it was just a reflection of my mind state that was still kind of in shock about seeing this person.
So the techniques that we use [are] first to just tune in and listen to your breath and start to hear what your breath is doing, and then using the different practices. I've only written about a few in the book because there are so many, but to start to smooth out those imbalances in the breath—because just as the breath reflects the body, it goes both ways. So if you can start to control the breath, you can start to—control isn't quite the right word, but you can affect the states of mind. Just as you gasp when you're kind of in shock or nervous or scared, you can smooth out the breath so that you affect the body and mind to be in calm and centered, and at ease.
One of the main differences between the typical yoga breath and the energy medicine breath is, in most yoga practice when you're working with asanas you breathe in and out through the nose and the reason of that is to contain and build energy, or prana, in the body as you practice. In energy medicine yoga and in energy practices specifically, you breathe in the nose and out the mouth. And that does a couple of different things. Exhaling through the mouth allows excess energy to leave the body, so again, when you're in one of those classes and somebody is having an emotional buildup or and emotional release, or even when you're feeling some stress or pain in the muscles, you can exhale through the mouth and release some of that stress from the body. [This] is different than you're working too hard so you're panting through the mouth—that's not what I'm talking about. But that intelligent use of, “Now I need to exhale through the mouth to release this excess tension or emotionality.”
The other reason is that breathing in the nose and out the mouth connects the two main meridians that circle the core of the body, they're called the “central” and “governing” meridians. It's called the microcosmic orbit in some tantric practices, and those meridians kind of keep the core not only physically of the body but metaphorically keep your core together. And so when you breathe in the nose and out the mouth, you're actually connecting those meridians because they meet in the back of the mouth where the hard and soft palate connect. And so that breath pattern actually facilitates that joining and circulation of energy through those meridians. So we use both of those in energy medicine yoga depending on what we're doing.
TS: And how do you recommend somebody work with smoothing out their breath if they discover [that] at any moment? Let's say they might already have their hand on their forehead or three fingers, you know, at the base of their throat in that little hole, but how might they work with the breath to help it become more smooth?
LW: So there's a couple of techniques. The first that I would recommend is to just to do what's called the sama vritti breath, which is an equal breath—trying to equal the amount of inhale with the amount of exhale. So you would sit in a comfortable meditative seat or lie down if you can't do something sitting comfortably, and you would put a count to your breath, so you would breathe in the nose and out the nose—this would be in and out the nose—and you would put a count to it, say five or three at start. And as you start to deepen your breath and relax more, that number may change and so you would just stay with that. So now maybe your breath is inhaling for six and you're trying to exhale as well for six. And you're trying to do it without gasping, without introducing more tension into the body, so you're just trying to equalize the breath.
And when you get to a place where that's easeful for you, there's a technique that my yoga teacher, Rod Stryker, teaches, that he's encouraged me to share unequivocally, even with first-time students that have never done any work, and it's called the ‘pure breath.’ And what that is—it's similar to that sama vritti, that equal breath, but it's even subtler, so it's without any gasping or any even hearing your breath. It's [a] very, very soft inhale and exhale and you're trying to eliminate the pause between the inhale and the exhale.
And it sounds very easy, but it's actually quite difficult to master, but what happens if you really start to see all of those little ragged bits and jags within the breath. Because those ragged bits are there not only when you're kind of shocked by an experience or in exultation by an experience, but they're just there all the time because again, the breath is mirroring your responses, your brain states. So to have this very, very soft breath where you, if you put your hand in front of your mouth or in front of your nose, you wouldn't even feel any breath coming out, and to work with smoothing out those little jags, those gasps, those pauses on both the inhale and the exhale so it becomes this continual circle of breath that's very, very soft and silent.
And that—he has said that one month of doing that breathing practice can equal years of psychotherapy, so it's that powerful, and it works in a way that you don't obviously have to go into the mental constructs of what's going on—you're working at it from the other direction. And that's a practice that I do often on my own. And I recommend starting that one lying down, because it's really, really difficult to start that one sitting up. It's just— there's so many different components of it, and to actually be able to fully relax the diaphragm so that you do take away that pause between in- and exhale, it's easier to do lying down.
And I say, you know, do it in bed in the morning before you get up for the day. There's a lot of techniques that I like to give to my students that they can do, again, lying in bed in the morning starting to visualize things so that they can kind of have a slow and gentle entry into the day, into consciousness and starting to get your energy aligned with you as you go. So those are two techniques that I would start with.
TS: And just to clarify with the pure breath, there's no pausing at the top of the inhale or during the exhale, there is no extra beats, you just count whatever your breath count in and out in this subtle way. What's the reason for that, no pause at the inhale or exhale?
LW: Well, so that one—it doesn't have a count on that one, that's just like a circular breathing pattern. The point really of that is to absolutely to smooth every inconsistency of the breath and so by doing that you're starting to train the mind to smooth out any inconsistencies in the mind and thought patterns, and that's why you take out that pause at the top and the pause at the bottom, is to create this continual circle of breath. There's no beginning and there's no end, which is kind of how the mind works as well, right? Our thoughts just continually spin, but when we can smooth that out completely, then we can start to smooth the mind waves out as well.
TS: Now, Lauren, I'm curious about something, I read in Energy Medicine Yoga that during this period of time where you took a hiatus from teaching yoga and before you had discovered the energy medicine practices, that you explored developing wilderness skills and that you became what you called “a primitive skills enthusiast.” I've never heard that phrase before, so I was curious to know what primitive skills are you enthusiastic about? And how, perhaps, has that helped inform energy medicine yoga?
LW: Hmmm, that’s interesting. Nobody's ever asked that in that way before, in how it’s informed energy medicine yoga. So the primitive skills that I studied—I started studying with Tom Brown Jr. in his school, it’s basically how our ancestors lived, so I made fire by rubbing sticks together and I learned how track.
TS: Ok, how long did that take you? How long did that take you to actually make a fire?
LW: That took a very, very long time, and when the spark actually hits and the flame goes, it’s—honestly, it’s one of the most exciting experiences I ever had, it’s really—it was remarkable.
TS: And you can do this at home, but—OK, if I gave you two sticks how long would it take for you to start a fire?
LW: Oh, I’ve been out of practice. As Tom says: dirt time. I’ve not been putting in my dirt time because I’ve kind of gone a different path and I don’t spend so much time in that particular—you have to—it’s like yoga, you have to practice that. So honestly, I would not want to be out in a rainy night with the sticks. [Laughs] Right now, it would take me a really long time, but I probably could do it again.
But I sort of went off in different directions with his work and spent, which is in some people’s mind completely un-yogic, but I spent a couple of—well, several years—living and working on a trap-line when I lived up in Canada, so trapping animals and skinning animals and tanning hides. So for a long time, I was really interested in reclaiming fur from the kind of dustbins that they where going into and giving them new life again and making different things with them. I got into bow-making quite a bit, which I still—I’m still enthusiastic about. I’m a Sagittarius, so anything with bow and arrows is great for me and I love shooting archery.
So some of those skills I still use—flint knapping I love to do, that’s really fun. And just kind of, you know, putting by—I’m actually going to go huckleberry picking this afternoon on the mountain here and, you know, putting stuff by, gathering stuff that I can just find out in the wilderness.
How has that informed my practice? I think there is a connection that I have to the natural world that really speaks this energy piece. I showed you where those “on” buttons are, those energy points, the end points of kidney meridian, but the beginning point of kidney meridian is on the base of the foot in that little divot between where the ball of the big toe meets the ball of the four toes. That’s Kidney 1, and that’s the point where we get earth energy—yin, earth energy enters our body through that point. So walking barefoot on the earth is incredibly powerful, grounding, and recharging for our systems.
I used to—a couple of summers ago I started barefoot hiking and it was amazing to me. I would skip up mountains where I before I would sort of labor up them, because it’s a circular flow of energy that’s just feeding the body. And so having those experiences with really being outside extensively, not just going outside for a couple of hours, but living outside—getting back in touch with our animal nature, I think has given me— has really fed that energetic practice that I teach.
I really teach about becoming intimate with the physical body, which I feel like we’ve gone so far away from, even in the yoga community which is all about—for the most part in western culture yoga, it’s all about asanas, all about the physical body and even within that I don’t really see an intimacy with the body. I see a lot of strength-building, I see some people doing crazy yoga poses which looks so beautiful, which I cannot do and I just look at with awe, but still I don’t see an intimacy with the body—knowing how the body functions, how it works.
I mean, we do work in energy medicine yoga working on the feet—the “gates of the feet,” it’s called—and a lot of energy gets stuck in the feet because there’s all these meridian beginning and endpoints there. And people start massaging down between their metatarsal bones on the feet and they’re just so sore, excruciating, people are jumping out of their skin—they never touch their feet, they never massage their feet. Most of the bones in your body are in your feet and in your hands, and all of my students they’re just like, “Wow, I never thought about that before.” We don’t—there’s just not this intimacy, even though in asana your feet are the base of so many poses.
So I think this experience that I have had has made me unafraid of all of the viscera of the body—the real kind of guts, literally, of the body—in a way that I freely talk about, digestion, elimination, sexuality, just how our bodies function and work and to reclaim that body for ourselves instead of all of the other purposes that the body has been subverted for.
TS: OK. I just have two final questions for you, Lauren. Here’s the first one. What’s your vision for energy medicine yoga in the world, if you have one?
LW: Wow. Well, I’d love to see every yoga class everywhere start off with the wake-up, these four little techniques to get the body’s energy moving. I would love to see more understanding and dissemination of the information of how the body works on an energetic level and how we can utilize that to work better, to achieve our goals and dreams in our lives and almost to take it out of yoga. Instead of focusing on getting your leg behind your head, I’d be really more interested in creating joy and happiness and peace and people being able to fulfill their potential.
I just meet so many people that are just dissatisfied in their lives and aren’t fulfilling their dreams and don’t even know what their dreams are, and are kind of just living lives of quiet desperation. And I feel that if they could learn these tools to kind of understand where those feelings come from and to transmute them, that we could all do our work in the world and stop fighting against each other and against ourselves so that we can—I mean, really, it sort of sounds naïve, but I am naïve. II really just think if we were all doing what we wanted to do, following our bliss, following our dharma, then all of the strife would start to fall away because that comes from working against our own energy pathways on a real basic level.
So I guess my hope would be that this really touches people and that this spreads because it’s so simple, it is so intuitive. This work is easy—you don’t have to know what neurolymphatic reflex points are to be able to use them. You don’t have to read all of the sacred texts—you can just use this stuff right now and change your life for the better and I would love that to reach a lot of people.
TS: And just for the record, Lauren, I don’t think you’re naïve, I would never say that, but you do sound like you have strong idealism, which I think we need a lot more of, actually, people to hold ideals.
OK. My final question: Our program’s called Insights at the Edge and I’m always curious to know what people’s personal edge is, and what I mean by that is what you might be working on with yourself in your life. Not so much a creative project, although it could be that, but sort of what your growth edge is.
LW: Hmmm. Wow. Well, I definitely have a lot of projects, a lot of things that I’ve got going on, but my personal edge, I guess it keeps getting further away from and being the same thing and that is—I don’t know if I’m just more sensitive than a lot of the people that I know. I certainly had a very blessed and charmed life in a lot of ways. I’m a Sagittarius and Jupiter is my ruling planet—that’s lucky and I’ve had a lot of luck in my life.
But that said, I’ve also experienced and continue to experience incredibly deep suffering and pain and sadness and grief—my own and the experience of the world’s pain and grief that I tend to take on and struggle and suffer with. And at times it’s felt like my life is kind of this shamanistic journey of going just deep, deep, deep down into the depths and then coming up and bringing that back and sharing that, but also for myself hopefully transmuting that. And that’s kind of that wood element as well, that I mentioned before—it’s like you can only go as high as the roots go deep.
And so the edge for me is not that I think I’m ever going to stop diving those depths, but I think I am ready to stop suffering so much and to stop grieving so much. I use energy medicine techniques every single day of my life, and I would like for my edge actually to move a little further away from me, [laughs]. I’d like to step back from the edge a little bit and, as I was saying, my hope for others [is] that they can live a peaceful, calm existence, but I say that because that’s really what I want for myself. I want to just be able to live a beautiful and grounded, content life. I don’t know that I’ll ever stop seeking, but I’m ready to stop suffering so much. So I think that’s my edg— I’m trying to move away from the edge! It’s kind of the opposite of what you’re asking, but that’s what I’m trying to do.
TS: Thank you for a very honest answer and I think you’re quite courageous and very brilliant and articulate, and I’m excited myself to try more of these energy medicine yoga practices. I’ve been speaking with Lauren Walker—she is the author of a new book from Sounds True called Energy Medicine Yoga: Amplify the Healing Power of Your Yoga Practice. Lauren, thank you so much for being with us.
LW: Thank you, Tami.
TS: Really a pleasure. SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.