Have you ever woken up, all snuggled up under the covers, dreading the thought of leaving your womb of slumber behind, only to face the fold dark truths of the seasons turning? Alright, so that may be a bit dramatic, but it’s not always easy to get out of bed, right?
For today’s contemplation on gratitude: AGNI SARA, a yogic kriya (cleansing exercise) that gets your day off to a warm and energized start. I’ve been using this kriya each morning in my transition to the big bad city, to keep my mornings bright, my digestion regular, and all my organs well-massaged.
“Agni” means fire, the element associated with digestion, discrimination and transformation. “Sara” means essence. To get an idea of what the technique looks like, here is a video, courtesy The Himalayan Institute:
Sivananda Centers recommend practising 3-5 rounds of 5-10 pumpings daily (note: the pumpings are done with the breath fully exhaled – in rechaka).
Here are instructions from Himalaya in black and white:
Stand comfortably with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Bend the knees and rest the hands on the thighs. Bend forward slightly to bring the weight of the torso over the arms so you can relax the deep muscles of the abdomen which support the lumbar spine. Lengthen the back of the neck and tuck the chin by looking down at the lower belly.
First exhale and hollow out the belly, tucking in the tail, and contracting the sphincters and pelvic floor, drawing in and up. Then inhale and soften, reaching the tailbone back, and dropping the pubic bone back between the thighs so the pelvis again rotates slightly over the head of the femurs. Isolate the movement in the pelvis; the rest of the back is completely still.Repeat a few times, and then begin to concentrate more on the belly and pelvic floor, and less on the bones and external movement. Exhale and contract the pelvic floor and belly without moving the pelvis. Repeat 5 times. Exhale, draw the abdomen back toward the spine, squeeze the pelvic floor and buttocks and inner thighs. Inhale and soften and completely relax. This is akunchana prasarana (abdominal squeeze, or A & P). Practice this for some time if you are new to asana practice, or if it feels a little awkward or clumsy. When A & P is fluid and supple, agni sara will be easy.
With a few more refinements, we’ll have the full practice of agni sara. This requires a sequential contraction and release of the abdominal muscles. Start by contracting the pelvic floor and the lowest portion of the abdomen (just above the pubic bone) as you begin to exhale. Then contract and pull the lower belly in and up. Continue exhaling and contract the upper belly. When the whole abdominal wall is strongly contracted and drawn in and up, and the breath completely emptied out, suck the diaphragm up under the ribs.
Immediately release the diaphragm and begin the inhalation by releasing the upper abdominal wall above the navel center. Then release the lower belly, continue inhaling, and release the pelvic floor as you finish the inhalation. Without pause, begin exhaling and draw the pelvic floor and the lowest portion of the abdomen in and up. Continue exhaling and contract the lower belly. Continue exhaling and contract the upper belly, and draw the diaphragm up. Then release the diaphragm, and as you inhale, release the upper abdomen, then the lower abdomen, and finally the pelvic floor.
Don’t worry if you don’t feel the diaphragm moving up under the ribs. Instead concentrate on a smooth, deep, wave-like contraction, and turning the exhalation around into the inhalation while maintaining the contraction of the lower abdomen. This is a crucial point. Keep the lower belly and pelvic floor contracted and pulled up as you inhale and release the upper abdomen. Notice how you can work the diaphragm independently of the lower abdomen and pelvic floor.
After you have mastered the basic practice, draw awareness more deeply into the body. The more deeply you can feel the work, the better. The front and back sides are drawing into the center, and the center is energetically moving up. Your energetic awareness allows you to pull energy from the reservoir of vitality in the thighs and buttocks into the center and up through the spine. You’ll also find that your attention is drawn to wherever your body needs it. Go ahead and direct your energy wherever you feel the need. You can move energy and awareness into stiffness anywhere in the spine—into any stuck spot or cold, immobile place—until you feel light and warm from the inside out. You may even become creative in your movement. Sweep your arms down across the center and up overhead, or twist to one side. Then take this work into your asana, or sit down for pranayama practices or meditation.
Agni sara requires long-term training, and daily practice is a must. Early morning when the bowels and stomach are empty is the best time. You can also practice before meals, before bed, and during an asana routine. Start with 5–10 repetitions, or whatever is comfortable for your current level of strength and control. Build up to 40–50 repetitions at least once a day.
Avoid agni sara if you have a hiatal hernia, are menstruating or pregnant, as well as if you have ulcers, cardiovascular disease, or high blood pressure. This exercise can be irritating to women with IUDs. Practice on an empty stomach. Generally this means waiting three hours following a normal meal.
As with any practice that works with prana (the subtle energy of the body), too much too quickly can energize negative tendencies rather than transform them. Practice should leave you feeling peaceful and rejuvenated, not angry, irritated, or spaced out. It is normal to feel heat. It arises from the deepest center of the body and purifies the organs and the subtle energy channels. It has a quality entirely different from the heat generated by aerobic activities, such as jogging or tennis.