Category Archives: Yoga and Growth

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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Learning to let go

Autumn is such a lovely time of the year.  I always marvel at the beautiful display that nature puts on before she decides to have a rest over the winter and watching autumn leaves fall is such a peaceful pastime. Recently I was thinking about how clever nature is to cast off that which is no longer needed  and was reminded of the value in doing just that ourselves!

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How often do we get stuck repeating the same old patterns and habits that we know do not really serve us anymore? These old patterns or conditionings are known as samskaras to the yogis.  They are based on past experiences and if left continue to influence the way we function in this world.  Perhaps you find yourself always apologising for your behaviour?  Putting others needs before your own? Not taking time out for yourself,  feeling that you somehow do not measure up or need to work harder, faster, to feel good about yourself??

There may be some things that really push your buttons; people who don’t appreciate you,  people who think differently or treat you in a particular way.   At some stage we all need to ask “is my behaviour and response helping me to grow?”  If this is not the case then perhaps it is time to let some of this stuff go.  Just like the deciduous trees around us it can be healthy and a great relief to just drop it!!

How can yoga help us to do that?

To begin with true yoga requires you to be fully present.  This is something that develops with time and practice.  You make a conscious effort to keep the mind with the practices by following the breath, counting rounds and focusing on different parts of the body as you move into postures or asanas as they are called.

By becoming fully present you begin to notice the mind and how quickly it jumps from one thing to another …how easy it is to be distracted by thoughts.  Some of these thoughts are quite repetitive and they generally have no basis in truth but are based on some past experience where you felt a certain way or reacted to something.  To watch without getting caught up is the secret because this allows us to detach from all the emotional baggage around the thought.

By using particular breathing practices you can balance the breath and learn to control our breathing when we are anxious and stressed by events around us or things that people say.  This creates the space necessary for you to take that step back to “see” your usual reaction or response and decide consciously if this is what you want to say or do.

The practice of yoga nidra (see post from Jan 2012) allows the time and space for physical rest but also offers the opportunity for the samskaras to become apparent and be released.  Particularly when the teacher is using opposites and visualisations as these may invoke feelings and memories that you learn to watch in a relaxed and detached state and they begin to lose their power in your waking state. In yoga nidra you set an intention for your life.   A short positive statement about something you are working toward (a sankalpa) when you are in the deeply relaxed state that yoga nidra brings about  can guide your actions and thoughts in your waking state.

Letting go is not instantaneous  but the benefits of practising the art of “just dropping it” are so worthwhile.  You are no longer reacting to things but choosing how you wish to respond.  It does not matter how many times you need to practise..it is the fact that you do which will make the difference.  So take some inspiration from the deciduous trees and stock up your yoga toolbox..it will change your life.