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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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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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Yoga for Every Body

I have just finished reading a great article published in a yoga magazine by a yoga teacher who sounds very much like me.  I am an older teacher who has been practising yoga for over 17 years and teaching yoga for at least 7 of these in the small country town where I live.  Like my fellow yoga teacher I do not travel the world giving demonstrations, write books on yoga or manage a couple of yoga studios.

My role is simply to share what I have learned about yoga with as many willing people as possible.  To help others learn to accept their bodies with all their imperfections and to nurture their physical, mental and emotional selves.  I run classes in a community facility and many of my students are my friends who I would and do happily sit down to enjoy a chat and chai with.

The gist of the article I read was that as yoga becomes more popular and we hear about all the different styles and add ons to yoga we can become confused as to the true purpose of yoga…yoga is not just for young,  fit , skinny, active, injury free,  health aware, new age people.   It is for everybody!  Sometimes it can be overwhelming when you are bombarded with images of lithe young women and men doing incredibly challenging physical poses.

The very meaning of yoga has nothing to do with your age, shape and size.    Yoga according to Patanjali  ‘ is the blocking (nirodha) of mental modifications (chitta vritti) so that the seer (drashta) re-identifies with the (higher) Self.   To me this is when you learn through conscious action about the fluctuations of mind…you practise awareness in all that you do and eventually you begin to realise that you are not your mind or your body….you begin to re identify with your higher self.

Of course this emerging awareness often begins with asana, pranayama and meditation practices.  However you do not have to be able to hold the perfect  Eka Pada Pranamasana (one legged prayer pose) or  perfect Trikonasa to be practising yoga.  Many of the postures or asanas can be performed using modifications to suit you specifically.  You do not need to wear the latest yoga clothes nor hold postures for as long as others in the class.  The fact is ..it is your yoga and yours alone….your experience will be very different to everyone else based on your beautiful individual self.  There is no need for mirrors in my classes, mirrors encourage us to look outward and yoga is about looking inward.  You do not need to watch the teacher ( I only demonstrate if my students appear to be having difficulty with my instructions)  …..you just need to listen to the instructions, feel into your body and be open to possibility.

My students range in age from their 30’s to 80’s.  I run classes specifically for those with back issues and a class just for the “blokes” in my town.  I run a weekly session at our local aged care facility where everyone practises chair yoga.  My oldest student in this group is over 90!

In my regular classes my eldest student is 82. She lives at home,  rides her bike twice a week, does water aerobics and comes to her weekly yoga class. When I asked her why she was coming to yoga and what she gets out of it her reply was simple.

“I did practise yoga many years ago and found it very relaxing but life gets so busy with its comings and goings.  I have had a lot of stress in my life over the years raising my family of 5, supporting my husband on the farm and working as a nurse.  But I like to keep busy and even when I retired I did voluntary work for many years. Now I am doing something for myself.  I find that yoga keeps me supple and helps me tune into my body more.  I really enjoy the calming environment and the quiet introspective aspect of breathing practices.  I enjoy the practice of yoga nidra and I sleep well at the moment.

I think you have to have a certain openness to practise yoga and I enjoy meeting like minded people.  I enjoy having a coffee or tea together after class and I feel good after yoga. Some of the things I find challenging are the balancing practices and some of the stronger poses.”  When I asked her what advice she would give to other older people contemplating yoga she said”  persevere a little if you are stiff…..you have to want to become more supple and take it slowly”

So if you are older, have back issues, dodgy knees or are overweight do not let that hold you back from joining a yoga class.  Just find the right type of yoga for you and a skilled teacher who can help you with modifications as necessary and lead you carefully in yogic journey.

yoga pic from Jhoti mitra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The power of the breath

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All life requires air to survive.  It is the essential force that creates our very existence and yet it goes unnoticed until we find we cannot breathe.   You know that feeling when the breath becomes faster and feels tighter and each inhalation seems not to satisfy the body’s needs.  You feel light-headed and weak and begin to wonder if you will ever feel better again.  Then somehow either through external intervention or your own ability to regain control of the breath things start to return to equilibrium and your breath settles back into its normal rhythm. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could stay tuned into our breath…to receive the messages from the body about its state by checking in with that incredible force??  Of course you can begin this process by practising yoga and exploring the different breathing techniques taught in yoga classes.

Being aware of the breath gives you the perfect opportunity to be present.  To truly experience that which we call life.

The practice of combining an awareness of breath with movement is what makes yoga quite different to exercises at the gym.  As you move through poses there is conscious inhalation and exhalation with the exhalation used to soften and relax the muscles…allowing lengthening and gentle stretching of the muscles.

By tuning into the breath you become more aware of the effect of the stretching and strengthening  practices on the body.  You are able to fine tune and explore the pose.  Each breath you take gives you a perfect snapshot of that moment.  For on  your mat there is no past, no future there is just the present.  The mind can jump about in its usual fashion but by allowing thought to come and go and focusing just on the breath …that is how yoga asana can become your meditation practice.  You become absorbed in the present moment. …not rushing to move to the next pose.

Patanjali tells us that asana is one of the early steps in the yogic journey because it requires discipline and a preparedness to explore the present. The only instruction that he offers us is “sthira sukham asanam”,  that the posture should be steady and comfortable.  You may come to your yoga class for many reasons but if you leave with a sense of peace ..a realisation that life is not all about doing …then that class has done its job and you will return because nothing beats that feeling of being “in the moment”..or as I like to think of it “with the breath”.

Let the breath become your friend, your teacher.  Be open ..be steady, be comfortable in your yoga practice and life.

 

 

Building a foundation

DSC_0125As we move into the season of Autumn it could be a great opportunity to look at what is truly important in your life. It can be a busy time over the summer with friends, relatives, holidays, work and getting children back to school.  It is at times like this when our yoga practice can suffer as we get caught up in all the “doing” of life, but one thing is for sure if you have built a  strong foundation in your yoga practice then it will support you as you navigate your way around the “busy-ness” of life.

How do you build a strong foundation?  One of  the most important features of yoga is its ability to keep you grounded.  When all around you seems to be flying off in many directions…taking  time to be still and focusing on the breath is the perfect way to ground yourself.  The many pranayama or breathing techniques taught in yoga provide tools to help (literally)  keep your cool ( try Sheetali or Sheetkari breathing) and focused on the here and now.

Asana practice too will provide you the opportunity to be in your body…. to feel the parts that feel good, the parts that need more TLC, the parts you worry are not quite right and the parts you love (yes loving your body is part of a solid foundation!!).  As you move through a small sequence of postures listen to the messages from your physical body, not the chatter in your head and allow your body to move with the breath.  No matter what state you are in when you move to your yoga mat it is as if all the other stuff dissolves  (sometimes it takes a little longer but it will happen) …

Developing your own meditation practice is also the basis of a strong foundation in yoga.  There are many different meditation techniques and it is worth exploring different ones to find what suits you.  If you find sitting still difficult try a walking meditation.  You don’t have to meditate for very long for meditation to be effective.  Again it is the practice of often being present …of allowing yourself to simply be.  Some people find the regular activity of simply lighting a candle and some incense or exploring nature as way to stop the clock for a brief moment.

All of these practices contribute to what we call a sadhana.  A sadhana  is a regular spiritual practice that helps you to find balance in your life by giving you the opportunity to turn inward.  It is not a religious “thing” ( you may or may not have a connection to some higher God and you could incorporate this)  but it is an attempt to connect with the bigger picture…nature, your place on this earth, the bigger YOU.

Having a sadhana means you are making a commitment to yourself.  It requires discipline (even if it only 10 mins a day) so cultivates this.  It allows you to grow as a person affecting your relationship with yourself and others. A sadhana  provides an opportunity for self reflection…to look at the patterning of the mind, to see your thoughts as they come and go…to discover that your thoughts are not you.  And of course it builds a foundation…just like your sankalpa ( see post from Jan 2012) .  A strong platform from which you can make decisions about your life, your work, your health, your relationships with others.  This foundation is strengthened by the repetition and regularity with which your sadhana is performed.  No matter how small you start, by developing this regular practice you will slowly notice a shift in the constant demands of the mind…you will not feel so swayed by the fluctuations of mind and emotions and find yourself more accepting of yourself and life ups and downs.

So how do you go about this?  First of all find a space that you feel comfortable in – a part of your room,  a separate room, somewhere outside.  Decide how long you wish to practice each day and what your sadhana components will be.  Remember this can be as small as lighting a candle and sitting quietly for a few moments.  It may include asana practice, breathing practices, chanting, singing, meditation, walking in nature…choose what you know makes you feel good.  It does not have to be a long session…it is the regularity that provides the benefit not the length of practice.

I find practising my sadhana first thing in the morning the best for me..it allows me not to get caught up in the day and make excuses for missing it and I always find mornings more peaceful (mind you I am well past the age of having little ones awake before me and making their own special demands on my time!!) so if mornings don’t suit find a time that does and make it your time.

May you find time to be you.

 

 

 

 

 

Spring practices to get you bouncing!

Spring is a time of new beginnings when we feel the vibrant surge of new growth amongst the plants and emergence of new little birds and animals.  The bees and butterflies dart from blossom to blossom drawing up the bountiful nectar, pollinating plants as they go.  You can almost feel the energy in the air.

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After a long cold winter everything is on the move again.  If you have been struggling to maintain your yoga practice during the winter now is the time to move forward with renewed vigour and commitment with a few of these simple practices.

One of the most invigorating practices is the practice of salute to the sun or Surya Namaskara. This practice of 12 postures performed dynamically is designed to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and the energy channel known as Pingala.  This energy channel corresponds to the left hemisphere of the brain and is said to be concerned with masculine aspects of the self.  It provides an antidote to lethargy, generating heat and burning up toxins in the body.  You can begin with 3 rounds and build up 10 or more.  Be sure to lie in Shavasana for a good 5 minutes on completion of your rounds to allow the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in and maintain homeostasis.

Spring also heralds a time of hay fever for those people who are susceptible and the yogic cleansing practice known as Neti is a great boon for sufferers.  Neti practice involves using a small pot (known as a neti pot) filled with warm slightly salty water to cleanse the nasal passages…this removes trapped pollen and dust from the nasal passages and results in an amazing sensation of clarity.  From a yogic perspective the practice also awakens ajna chakra at the eyebrow centre..allowing you to tap into the energy at this centre.

If the sun is shining, grab your props and head outdoors.  Practicing your yoga outdoors can be a good way to ground yourself and reconnect to the rising energy of season, even if all you do is take your shoes off for a bit and feel the grass underneath your feet.   It helps you to be present and get out of that headspace that we often get stuck in.  Nature has a way of soothing the soul and inspiring a feeling of gratitude.