Navaratri

Well we are in the middle of the 9 nights of the Devis called Navaratri . A celebration of the inner Devis, Durgha , Lakshmi, and Saraswati and the mother Devine.

Understanding the importance and meaning within this celebration connects you to the wonderful rejuvenating cycles of nature. This in turn is intricately linked to our own biological rhythms and energies. In Navaratri you can draw on the auspicious energies of the time to affect your own life.

Durgha is the goddess of protection and the one who can help to free us from the forces that keep pulling our energy or Shakti down such as negativity, jealousy, greed, illness and the waywardness of ego.

We can ask Durgha for protection from these forces when we light a candle to her,chant the Durgha mantras 108 times, or participate in a havan or fire ceremony for the first 3 days.

Lakshmi is the goddess of abundance where we can seek more of what we what we need in our lives, eg patience, love, compassion, health , energy to name a few. There are 3 days of celebration of Lakshmi and again you can participate in various ways, chanting , candle lighting , setting up a special puja table with flowers, incense etc or joining in the havan at your local ashram or even on line in some cases.

After these 6 days we honour Saraswati for 3 days. It is believed that Saraswati endows human beings with the powers of speech, wisdom and learning. During these 3 days the focus is on the growth of the individual by the blessings of Saraswati. We can connect with the wisdom mind or higher mind, learning more about the illusion of Maya and speaking our truth or Satya.

You might like to think about these 3 goddesses during the remaining 5 days and nights and connect to them in your own way.

Durgha Photo by Souvik laha on Pexels.com

Changing seasons

It has been a while since my last post but life as always throws curved balls your way and plans are often destined to change to meet current needs.  As I sit here and write this I am gazing at the glorious colours of  autumn here in the southern hemisphere.  The sky is a brilliant blue and contrasts so beautifully with the reds, yellow and green of autumn.  What has all this got to do with yoga you ask?

Being able to sit in the present moment is very much a part of yoga.  You may have heard  about mindfulness over the last few years.  In fact it is something that everyone is advocating lately.  Well the yogis were practising mindfulness long before this phrase became popular.  What is mindfulness from a yogic perspective?

I personally think of mindfulness as consciousness of the present moment, an awareness of where you are, what you are doing.  It is being awake to life.  Not simply moving through one experience while planning the next or reviewing the last.  It is total presence. So you can be mindfully brushing your teeth, watching leaves blowing in the wind, listening to people who are speaking to you, driving your car or observing your breath.

In yoga we hear about Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga which include Dharana and Dyhana ..concentration and absorption.  Dharana where you are relieved of outside distractions and the distractions of the mind (its desire to move between the past and the future)  You keep returning to the single point the present, often using the breath as your anchor.   Dhyana is a refined meditative practice where the mind is totally absorbed in the present.

Both Dharana and Dyhana are developed by building on the earlier 5 limbs of yoga including the Yamas (restraints) the Niyamas (observances), Asana (postures) , Pranayma (breathing practices ) and Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses). *  For information of the Yamas and Niyamas see blog post DEC 2014  and for those of you familiar with the practice of Yoga nidra you will have experienced Pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses when your yoga teacher gets you to focus first on the sounds in the surrounding area and gradually draws your focus to the inward to the breath , heartbeat.

In this way these previous practices prepare you for  both Dharana and Dhyana the sixth and seventh limbs of yoga according to Patanjali …with the ultimate aim of Samadhi the eight limb pure contemplation …an experience of bliss where you merge with supreme consciousness.

That is not to say that you must complete the first 5 limbs to achieve the 6th and 7th but when you practice asana, pranayama, the yamas and niyamas and pratyhara you are drawn to the others.  Your body is more supple, you understand your breath and the effect it has on mind and vice versa, you treat yourself and others with respect and kindness and you can more readily withdraw yourself from the current going ons.

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Restoration and Hope

2022 has started with a renewed sense of hope even though we all still grapple with the COVID pandemic and we wonder about its longer term implications. The past 2 years have been a time of tension, fear, anger and exhaustion for many and no doubt we will be feeling the effects of this pandemic for some time. How can yoga help?

One of the best things about a yoga practice and lifestyle is its capacity to keep you in the present. As you stretch and move into postures you can focus on breath, the sensations in the body and your emotional state. When we do this the body has a chance to move from the flight and fight response to the rest and recover response. By practising breathing techniques you can learn to calm your breathing and therefore your response to changing stimuli.

If you tune in to the natural rhythms of your body you will find that quiet space that is so essential for maintaining equanimity.

Some practices you could try:

  • breathing deeply in child’s pose
  • sighing out the breath as you swing your arms forward from a standing position
  • resting in Shavasana or legs up the wall
  • using a bolster to support your spine and open your chest in any of the reclined poses like Supta Bhada Konasana
  • constructive rest – lying on your back and using the seat of a chair for your lower legs keeping the knees at right angles

How can yoga help us to instill hope and resilience ? By becoming grounded and strong you can connect to the earth and its rhythms. We can feel the impermanence of all things and learn to adjust to the changes and challenges that life presents us with.

The seven principles of resilience can be interpreted through yoga

  • Cultivate a Belief in Your Ability to Cope. ( you become aware of your physical self, mental self and emotional self – using your resolve or sankalpa to guide you)
  • Stay Connected With Sources of Support. (a yogic community offers support in the practices of yoga and a yogic perspective on things that happen)
  • Talk About What You’re Going Through. ( a yogic community allows one to share life experiences )
  • Be Helpful to Others. ( by practising Karma yoga ..the yoga of service )
  • Activate Positive Emotion (through the chanting of mantra)
  • Cultivate an Attitude of Survivor-ship ( developing confidence in yourself)
  • Seek Meaning ( spending time in meditation )

Be Here

Well 2020 has certainly given us our challenges as we grapple with fires here in Australia and now a global health crisis to send us all back into our homes and many out of work.

It is hard to adjust to the changes we are experiencing at the moment and many people are feeling stressed and anxious about the future. What can yoga teach us about being here – not running away from the present moment to something that has passed or into the future and something that has not eventuated?

To stay in the moment, to just do this minute, this hour, this day . Your yoga practice teaches you just that .. to be in that moment. …to hear your breath and your heartbeat, to feel your muscles moving and stretching, to keep your mind with the practice and notice as it wanders.

Now is the time to draw on your yoga toolbox. The asana, the pranayama, the meditation and deep relaxation that yoga brings.

Some of the asanas I find really helpful are those grounding asanas like the warrior series or Virabhadrasana. This is especially helpful if you can do this outside with your feet grounded into the earth. Inversions are a great way to stimulate blood flow to the brain and boost immunity and confidence. You can do a simple inversion like downward dog or mountain pose (Parvartasana) as we call it in our tradition or a head stand if this is something you are experienced in . Twisting practices stimulate the digestive system and the circulation in general, boosting metabolism. The key to good twists is to keep the spine elongated ..no slumping and exhale with the twisting action ..allow the neck as part of the spine to follow the twist. Let the twist gradually unfold up your spine, as though you were walking up a spiral staircase, so that each vertebra participates in the twist.

Another great asana at this time is the bridge pose or Khanderasana. This gentle backbend allows for the stimulation of the thymus gland as the chin moves toward the chest. The thymus gland is a small organ behind the breastbone that plays an important function both in the immune system and endocrine system. It also calms the body, alleviates stress and opens the heart space.

The best breathing or pranayama practices include Bhastrika (see post from July 21 2014 or bellows breath that stimulates the digestive system and alternate nostril breathing or Nadi Shodana to balance the breath and the mind.

And of course our tool box would not be complete without meditation or a Yoga nidra. I find yoga nidra to be a very essential element to good health. It has the capacity to allow us that deep relaxation and release of mental tensions. In this restorative state, your monkey-mind abates and the body maximizes it’s ability to take in nutrients, regulate hormones and glucose levels, and boost immunity.

So there are many ways in which yoga can help you through this difficult time. Be patient, allow time for slowness and be kind to yourself and others.

Slow Yoga

Hello and thanks again for checking out Beechworth Yoga.   I know my posts have been a bit erratic but felt it best to write only when I had something that I thought was really important to say.

I have been contemplating the question of what has now been coined as slow yoga.  What is slow yoga you say ? Well from my understanding it is a desire to get back to the basics of yoga to develop a practice that allows for reflection.   Postures are held with an emphasis on the breath and allowing yourself to explore the sensations within the body and the fluctuations of mind.   Perhaps it has been a reaction to the westernization of yoga to be another form of exercise to tone and shape albeit with a focus on breath.

We live in a fast paced world where there is pressure to achieve, attain and move on with little opportunity for savouring the experience and yoga is an experience.  It is not something that you do as you would a bike ride or a cross fit class.  It is much more about the way in which something is done and making it a way of living.

To experience yoga in the true sense is to live yoga.  How do you live yoga?  To live yoga you must be prepared to live consciously.  To be aware of the effects of your actions, your thoughts both upon yourself, others and your environment.  You need to discipline yourself to slow down, to find  balance in all things.  To become aware of the effects of all things on your body and mind, from what you eat to what you read.  If this sounds familiar that is because it illuminates Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga ..the yamas the nyamas,  ( your ethical practices and and self discipline) asana, ( your movement of the body to enhance it) pranayama, (your control over breath ) pratyahara, (your ability to withdraw the senses) dharana, ( your concentration) dhyana  ( meditation) and finally samadhi. (the state of bliss ..transcendence).

Winter is a great time to reflect on these things..to find the still in your life for yoga is not about the shape of your body but the shape of your life.

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getting started again

What an apt post for me when it has been ages since I have I have been active on my yoga blog.  What is it that makes it so hard to restart something when you have been away from it for whatever reason?  Many of you will have experienced a break in your yoga practice for a period of time and it can be very hard to kick-start the healthy habit of spending time on your mat.

spring garden 006Spring is such a great time for new beginnings though and it is worth reflecting on just what has happened over the winter season.  That period of dormancy or quiet time has provided the opportunity for a much needed rest for nature and perhaps yourself.   With the rising soil temperatures and warmth of the sun there is increasing vitality and energy resulting in all sorts of growth and the need to be pare back the dead wood which in itself is a good thing.   If you spend some time outdoors you can feel the promise of spring ..an opportunity for movement forward.

In the same way look at your own life ..what needs to be pared back?  Ask yourself “am I aware of increasing vitality of spring?  Is there anything I can do to embrace this period of growth to enhance my  life?”  If your yoga practice has slipped do not be afraid to roll out the mat again…be kind and gentle with yourself.  Start slowly and build up using practices like gentle back bends – those wonderful extroverting poses, include a few rounds of salute to the sun, take your shoes off and free up your feet, start your day with mantra chanting or join a new class.

The Koshas 3

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 Whilst the previous two Koshas, the annamaya and pranamaya koshas are those that create the physical structure the manomaya and vijnanamaya koshas are the mental functions which allow us to deal with the knowledge aspect of being.

Manomaya Kosha is the third layer identified by the ancient yogis as part of the individual’s physiology.   It refers to the mental body, that is the dimension of experience that occurs for individuals on a mental level.

Psychologists identify three aspects of mind – the conscious, sub-conscious and unconscious states.  From a  yogic perspective the mind is divided into 4 parts:

Manas is that part of the mind that responds to sensory input and related to survival therefore this aspect of mind is associated with measuring, judgement, thought and counter thought.

Chitta is that part of mind associated with registering and storing impressions and memory…it is also the basis of the unconscious mind.

Ahamkara is the aspect of mind concerned with identity, the separation of “me and you”

Buddhi which means to know is discrimination, awareness and understanding and assists Manas with the process of rational thinking.

To a large extent the these last three parts are forced to act through the limitations of Manas with our awareness focused on our needs and desires for survival, security and social engagement ..  “trying to work out what’s in it for me ” so to speak.

Through yoga practices such as Pratyhara  ( the withdrawal of the senses in the beginning of yoga nidra, where we disassociate from the outside world ) you are able to become aware of the subtleties of the mind.     NB: You will remember this as that part of the yoga nidra practice where you are encouraged to search out sounds without naming them, gradually drawing the awareness inwards to the internal sounds.

By practising Antar Mouna meditation   ( the witnessing of thought and counter thought) you can also become aware of the workings of the mind and in doing so you can  begin to identify more with the higher aspects of mind.  Once you begin to see how the mind operates it is possible to transform and control thought processes through self-awareness and mindfulness.

Of course working through the other layers or koshas through asana, breathing practices, mantras and cleansing practices will also help to harmonise the mind, so once again yoga gives us many tools to explore the koshas and find balance and equanimity.

 

The Koshas 2

100_8643The second Kosha or layer identified by the yogis in yogic physiology is the Pranamaya Kosha .  Prana is the vital force permeating the body and every layer of matter.  It is related to energy.  In fact Prana is associated with all the koshas and it is vital for life.  It animates the body.  However there is energy specific to Pranamaya kosha .

It occupies only about 2 per cent of our awareness and takes up the same space as the physical body.  According to the ancient yogis prana flows through energy channels in the body referred to as Nadis which correspond to the physical nerves.  There are said to be 72000  nadis with three prominent ones — Ida, Pingala and Sushumna.  Both Ida and Pingala wrap around the main energy channel Sushumna like the double helix…where the networks converge at 7 points are the chakras ( or wheels of energy ).

In different parts of the body  the yogis believe that prana serves different functions and they identified 5 pranas or pancha pranas as they are called:

  • Vyana – flows through the whole body and is always present, it is said to be the last to leave when we die
  • Udana – flows through the head, arms, legs and is associated with the mind and senses and movement..energy used in actions.
  • Samara – is equalising and balancing  the mid torso and has a side to side movement.  It regulates the flow of prana and Apana.
  • prana – is the upper torso navel to throat flowing up with inhalation and down with exhalation ( Think of the practice of the So Hum breath here)  ..the lungs, heart
  • Apana – flowing from navel to pelvic floor.. a downward movement associated with excretion and childbirth

Obviously breath has a very close association with Prana and the way to become aware of the actions of prana and to effect change is through breathing (Pranayama) practices By practising these techniques even something as simple as natural breath awareness  you become aware of your own personal breathing patterns.  You notice changes in breathing patterns associated with your state of mind.  However things like meditation and asana also affect Pranamaya kosha so your yoga class may contain all of these elements.  A balanced personal practice would include not just asana practice but also time for pranayama practice and some meditation.  Remember this does not have to be a long time but it is worth thinking about making your practice (or sadhana) well rounded.

 

The Koshas

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What is the yogic approach to physiology?  The ancient yogis believed that the individual was made up of 5 layers or sheaths of experience and these were called the koshas.   These koshas explain our relationship and experience with the environment, the breath, the mind and higher levels of consciousness.  They provide a way for us to find our way into the subtler layers of our being.

The first layer or kosha which we are most likely to be aware of is one called annamaya kosha  or the body sheath.  It occupies about 75% of our awareness.  This is our relationship with the body, the bones, muscles, ligaments, organs  and how we interact in our environment through the senses of sight, touch, taste, smell and feel.   It concerns the foods we eat, the things we do, our sleeping habits, the media we expose ourselves to, the people in our lives and places we visit.   You may notice that some people or places make you feel content, happy and positive whereas others make you feel anxious, exhausted, fearful.  Similarly you may find that when you get regular sleep and take regular meal breaks with healthy food choices you generally feel better.  The same goes for exercise be it yoga or some other form of physical activity.

Once we become conscious of these things we are able to use yoga to create a steady experience of annamaya kosha.   Some things to consider may be setting a regular time for going to bed,  making changes to our eating habits in terms of what you eat and when( you could even use Ayurvedic principles here).  Making conscious choices about the people we spend time with, not just putting up with it.   Establishing a regular yoga practice and taking time for stillness in meditation.   Creating balance in annamaya Kosha creates a ripple effect to the higher koshas or layers affecting energy levels and or mental balance.

Yoga practices for harmonising the physical body include:

  • asana by toning and strengthening the body,
  •  pranayama (breathing practices)  by increasing breath capacity, physical energy and balancing the cerebral hemispheres
  • meditation and yoga nidra to provide stress relief and balance the fight/flight response
  • cleansing practices like neti, kunjal  to keep mucus membranes and tracts lubricated and healthy

Some of the principles in the management of Annamaya kosha include:

  • regularity of sleep, meals, yoga practice
  • simplicity of food, daily routine
  • moderation – not overdoing any addictive behaviours
  • discipline – not rigid or suppressed but in developing the ability to control the mind
  • awareness i.e.. consciously listening to the body’s needs
  • tapas or sacrifice ..opportunity for fasting
  • cleanliness
  • flexibility
  • adaptability

 

 

Restoring the soul

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I have just commenced teaching my first fully restorative yoga class having completed Level 1 training in restorative yoga teaching last year.   Since this course I have introduced a few restorative poses into my mainstream classes to stimulate interest and invested in some bolsters with a view to running a group that was dedicated to restorative yoga.

 

So what is restorative yoga and why do we need it?  A restorative yoga class typically has only 5-6 poses which are held for longer periods of time using the support of props such as bolsters, blankets, blocks and even straps.   These poses are designed for you to move more deeply into the stretches while your body softens and rests on  the supports.     They include, forward bends, backbends, twists, lateral stretches and passive inversions and many are based on the teachings of BKS Iyengar.  As you are holding poses for longer there is greater capacity to tune into the breath, to explore the effects of breath on the physical body and the mind.

Some of the benefits of restorative yoga include, soothing the nervous system, encouraging mindfulness, cultivating heightened body awareness, creating a sense of acceptance and detachment and feeling safe and nurtured.

At the time when I was looking for a restorative practice myself I was grieving the death of my beloved mum.  I felt that I just wanted to be held in a warm and comforting space where my body could release the tensions both physical and mental that had built up during that time.  It was about letting go of doing anything in particular and just experiencing the present moment in a safe and comfortable environment.

According to Liz Koch international teacher and author “We need more capacity to endure pleasure…we only do something to get out of pain.  We don’t do something because it brings us pleasure; a sense of calm and nourishment.  We don’t know how to nourish ourselves with movement as well as food…we need to learn to take care of ourselves and to explore this concept of nourishment.”

Restorative yoga is about that exploration.  It is about taking more time to feel into poses,  to allow for rest, rejuvenation and not trying to “fix things”.  It is about surrender… whether it is to your day, your life, your pain, your grief (as it was and still is on many days in my case), your happiness or joy, and loving and respecting your body.  So of course what better time to start a restorative class than in winter when we look for comfort and restoration?

 

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