Tag Archives: Focus

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Is your energy feeling a little low?

There is a selection of asanas concerned with improving the energy flow in the body and breaking down neuro-muscular knots.  This group is called the Shakti Bhanda asanas.  The word shakti  in sanskrit means energy and the word bhanda is a sanskrit word for holding or locking so  the shakti bhanda series of asanas is concerned with releasing the energy blocks within the body, mainly in the pelvic region, the spine and the chest.

These asanas are  particularly helpful for those whose energy is feeling low and needs a boost.  In winter you may find that long periods indoors, lack of sunlight and reduced exercise routines can lead to a reduction in your energy levels so this is a good time to explore the practices of  the Shakti bhanda group.

According to the APMB* these asanas clear the energy blockages, activate the heart and lungs and improve endocrine function.  They are  especially helpful for menstrual problems and can be used before and after pregnancy.

Some of the practices like Chakki Chalanasana (churning the mill) are excellent for toning the nerves and organs of the pelvis and abdomen whilst Namaskarasana (salutation pose) has a positive effect on the nerves and muscles of the thighs, knees, shoulders, arms and neck.  As this posture is practiced in a squatting position it also helps to increase the flexibility of the hips.

Kashtha Takshanasana (wood chopping pose)….. a favorite of mine, which can be performed squatting or standing  helps to open the hips and works the muscles of the back between the shoulder blades as well as the shoulders and the upper back muscles.

It is also useful to raise the prana shakti during times of lethargy by focusing on different types of breathing practices such as Bhastrika or the bellows breath.

This breathing practice where you focus on taking short sharp inhalations and exhalations through the nose generating  a pumping action in the abdomen, whilst the chest, shoulders and face remain relaxed, burns up toxins  and charges the pranic system, creating alertness, heat and arousing  body and mind.  The rapid exchange of air in the lungs increases the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide into and out of  the bloodstream., stimulating the metabolic rate and producing heat, flushing out wastes and toxins.  The practice of Bhastrika, however  is contraindicated for people with high blood pressure, heart disease, hernia, gastric ulcer, stroke, epilepsy and retinal problems.  Generally speaking    you should seek guidance from a teacher before commencing bhastrika as it is a strong practice and needs to be done correctly to be effective.

Of course another way to keep warm this winter and beat that winter sluggishness that often strikes about the middle of winter is to reconnect to your practice of Salute to the sun or Surya Namaskara.  The dynamic movement of this practice and the added visualisation of drawing within the qualities of the sun such as  vitality, light, warmth and life force have a profound effect on all levels.

for more information on shakti check out …http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1980/emay80/sechealth.shtml

* APMB or Asana, Pranayama,Mudra ,Bhanda by Sw Satyananda Saraswati Yoga Publications Trust, Munger , Bihar, India

 

Getting to the core of the matter

Well hello again to all my yoga friends. I wanted to share with you a few thoughts on the notion of core strength as it is certainly something that has been a focus in most of my classes.  It became very popular to talk about “activating the core” with the increasing interest in Pilates many years ago and although perhaps not always discussed in terms of “core strength” it is still very much a part of a good yoga asana practice.  It is more often referred to as developing abdominal strength and there are specific asanas that work this area of the body.  However we are not merely talking about the rectus abdominus or “six pack” as is commonly identified with your abs but the deeper muscles of the abdomen including the transverse abdominus, the obliques, multifidus, diaphragm and pelvic floor.

Developing strength in this area is important because it is these muscles that support the lower back in particular and play a significant role in posture. As we age our abdominal strength can be diminished through lack of exercise, childbirth and poor postural habits.  By including regular practices that maintain and strengthen the core you will definitely help to support your back and experience less back pain.  Many of the practices found in the PMA 2 series of the asana handbook by Sw Satyananda  focus on this muscle group.  These include the boat pose (Naukasana),  leg raises (Paddotthanasana) cycling (Pada  Sanchalanasana) and many more.  Stronger practices can be found in the plank pose (Santalonasana), the spinal column pose (Merudandasana) and of course any balance pose will rely on core strength to maintain stability.

Is core strength just about strong abdominal muscles then???

I personally think Manipura Chakrathere is much more to it as this area of the body coincides with the energy centre or chakra known as Manipura chakra. Manipura chakra is symbolised by a bright yellow lotus with ten petals,  a fiery red triangle, the yantra of agni tattwa, or  fire element and is the seat of the digestive fire or agni.  The animal which serves as a vehicle for Manipura is a the ram, the symbol of assertiveness and energy.   So  this is the chakra which is  involved in self-esteem, warrior energy, and the power of transformation.

A balanced, energised  third chakra helps us to overcome lethargy (Tamas). It can kick-start our way of being and attitude so that we can take risks, assert our will, and assume responsibility for our life. This chakra is also the place of our deep belly laughter, warmth, ease, and the vitality we receive from performing selfless service or karma yoga.

Manipura chakra  is closely connected to the psyche and it is often the case that psychic problems give rise to digestive problems. For example, many people react to fear or stressful situations with abdominal pain or diarrhoea. Building strength in Manipura is way to help manage stress and anxiety.

Self-awareness and self-confidence are other pearls of the Manipura chakra. 

So when you are practicing your asana to build your core strength try to keep your awareness at Manipura…..to feel the strength building not just in muscles but in your whole being.  You may even want to mentally repeat the bija  mantra Ram!

A few more thoughts on meditation

For many people the thought of sitting “doing nothing”  is pretty scary…..so is that what meditation is really about??

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I guess it is important to clarify here what we mean by meditation.  There are certain elements that need to be present to be meditating and perhaps the most important of these is being relaxed.  When you are relaxed your whole body is able to sit comfortably, or move more fluidly and there is a correlation between relaxing the body and the mind.  When your body is relaxed the mind is able to relax – when your body is tense then the mind tends to run at 100 miles an hour!

Meditating does not mean not having thoughts.  Thoughts are constantly flowing in the mind but someone in deep meditation is able to “let the thoughts go”… to not get caught up in the mental chatter.  At the retreat in central Australia, Ian Gawler who was leading the retreat used a lovely analogy of blue sky and clouds which I really liked.  He suggested that the blue sky represented the still, quiet mind that is always there and the clouds represented the thoughts (the active mind).  In meditation what we are hoping to achieve is to “break through” the clouds to the quiet mind.  He said that there were 2 ways to do this directly or indirectly.

The direct approach according to Ian is to just “do it”..sit in a relaxed quiet state and wait for the clouds to disappear.  (this may prove challenging for most of us and we could be waiting a long time!!)  The indirect approach is to use some technique to lead you to that quiet state and this often involves engaging the active mind in watching the breath, counting the breath or repeating a mantra.

Ian spoke of the difference between relaxation, mindfulness, concentration and meditation.  The first three are the basis of most meditation techniques — you are training your thinking or active mind but the purpose is to lead you to meditation.

In the Satyananda yoga tradition one of the first things we learn in preparation for the practice of meditation is Pratyahara or withdrawal of the awareness from the senses.  The purpose of this is to allow an internalisation of awareness.  Developing body stillness through the practice of Kaya Sthairyham …learning to sit  relaxed  in  a comfortable meditation posture without being distracted by the body is also very important.   The next stage is inner concentration or Dharana ….training the thinking mind and this may well be done using the breath as a focus or chanting a mantra either out loud, in whisper  or mentally.  The final stage is known as the state of meditation and  is called Dhyana where you have achieved internal concentration and develop the experience of unity, internal harmony and equilibrium.

According to Sw Satyananda  “There is a fine difference between Dharana and Dhyana.  In Dharana the mind continually tries to think of things other than the object, and the practitioner  has to bring the awareness back to the object; distractions still exist in one form or another.  In Dhyana however the mind has been subjugated and is totally and continually absorbed in the object.  It is in meditation that the deeper aspects of the object start to manifest themselves.” (Meditations from the Tantras 1983,  p 80)

Both Sw Satyananda and Ian Gawler  stressed the point of regular practice to develop  concentration ….to break through the clouds and experience the blue sky beyond.  This practice does not need to be considerably long the most important factor is really regularity…start small and it will build of its own accord.

See the world from a different perspective

Do you remember when you were a child and you hung upside down on the monkey bars with your arms dangling in the air?  Or perhaps it was when you were on the trapeze swing, gliding through the air, your hair hanging down and the breeze in your face?  How much fun it was to see everything upside down..it made you feel like Alice in Wonderland at the Mad Hatters tea party.  Notbirds of a feather 2010hing seemed  the same.

There is something quite invigorating in changing your perspective and seeing things differently and the yogic practices of inverted asanas provide you with just that opportunity.   We can all get “stuck” in our way of seeing things or doing things – being led by the ego and striving to fulfill our desires or feeling that we are “right”.  Often it is necessary to break that pattern by getting out of our comfort zone and “tipping everything upside down!”  I regularly open my eyes and look behind me whilst practising Parvatasana (mountain pose or downward dog as it is known in some traditions).  It always surprises me, makes me smile, reminds me that there is more than one way of viewing things  and I feel so  refreshed  when I come back to upright.

Of course that is the point of inverted asana, they do turn everything upside down not only on a physical level but also on an emotional and psychic level, throwing new light on old patterns of behaviours and being.  Thus giving you the opportunity to reflect, to modify and change habitual practices.

From a purely physical point of view, the inverted asana, by reversing the action of gravity on the body, provides a rich blood supply to the brain, nourishing neurons and helping to flush out toxins.  The accumulated blood and lymph in the lower limbs is drained and purified with fresh oxygen.  The pituitary gland, a tiny organ near the top of the spine in the brain, is stimulated and this adjusts the whole endocrine system.

Whilst Parvatasana and Pranamasana (bowing pose) or simply placing the legs up the wall give some of the benefits of inverted asana the stronger inverted asanas like Sarvangasana (shoulder stand), Halasana (plough pose) and Sirshasana (head stand) should only be attempted under the guidance of an experienced yoga teacher as they put quite a bit of pressure on the neck.  These practices are actually contraindicated for people with high blood pressure, back and neck problems.  Women should not practice these asana whilst pregnant or during menstruation.  If you are new to yoga or  not sure if these asanas  would be suitable for you please consult your teacher.

For more information about inverted asana check out the following:

http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1979/ajan79/theryog.shtml

http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1980/ldec80/ed1280.shtml

http://www.ayl.com.au/pdf_docs/Headstand_ART_23.pdf

A Fresh Start

Well, over two weeks in to the start of 2013 and I am curious as to what may have happened to all those well-intentioned New Year’s  resolutions???

It is easy to sit down and wish for things to be different – for life to change in some way.  What is harder is to actually make lasting changes that help us in fulfilling our Sankalpa or resolve.

My daughter was holidaying with me during the festive season and on December 31st she sat down to prepare her vision board.  “You know mum”, she said to me. “Everything on my vision board from this last year has come into being”.  Having thought about this for a while I was able to see the power of the vision board.  Not just a decorative wall hanging but a constant visual reminder of the things that are important to you and that you are working toward in your life.

If you relate this back to the concept of Sankalpa (see Jan 2012 post) in which Swami Niranjan stated, “it is not merely a wish, it is a process of training the mind to develop the will and to develop clarity of thought”. The Sankalpa then works to sustain motivation and drive as you work toward your goal.

So the vision board is really a tool to keep you focused on your life’s  goal.  There may well be a number of other smaller goals that will ultimately help you to realise your life’s goal.  For example a Sankalpa for inner peace may require you to work on your relationships with others and your relationship with the divine.   You may need to change jobs, to root out old ways of behaving and perceiving things, to learn to be content when your usual nature is discontent.   All of the things in this example require effort and work in the present…the vision board reminds you that the present is here and now …not in 2 weeks, 2 months or 2 years from now.  It is what you are working on right now!

The seed of the largest tree begins as a seed..but implanted in its DNA is the potential for the greatness of the tree…it does not know limitation.  Likewise do not let yourself be intimidated by any sense of limitation…allow yourself to reach your full potential in all aspects of your life and if you need another tool to help you, go on…….. make a vision board!   beechworth 014

Musing about Mudras

Perhaps you have been to a yoga class where your teacher has explained something about mudras to you or perhaps this is the first time you have even heard of them…either way an understanding of mudra and how it affects yoga practice can greatly enhance your spiritual experience of yoga.

The word “mudra” is a Sanskrit word that literally means gesture or attitude.  A mudra can be psychic, emotional, devotional or aesthetic in nature. The mudra will have an effect on the mind creating a sense of peace, well-being or even a connection to something “bigger” than yourself.  From a Tantric perspective a mudra will provide a way of capturing dissipated prana (vital energy) and therefore will calm and introvert the mind helping to create a state that is more conducive to deeper meditative experience.

There are different types of mudras but the most common are those of the hands particularly ….Chin and  Gyana (sometimes spelt “jnana”) mudra where the index finger is connected to the base of the thumb or thumb tip  and the hands are placed in a relaxed fashion on the knees facing up or down respectively.

In these mudras the index finger represents individual consciousness and the thumb represents higher consciousness.  The curling or bowing of the finger to the thumb is symbolic of the desire for unity of the individual with the higher consciousness….the very essence of yoga and life…that of union.

Some of the specific benefits of mudras include:

  •  bringing awareness to large areas of  the cortex – physiologically the hand and the head areas take up 50% of the cortex
  •  establishing pranic balance (keeping the energy within the body),
  •  helping  to express some of the more elevated states of mind like peace, joy, compassion, devotion, surrender and inner beauty
  • linking the yoga practitioner with higher cosmic forces
  • deepening awareness and concentration

Swami Niranjananda (Prana, Pranayama, Prana Vidya 1994) describes the activity of mudra in this way ….There can be no expansion of awareness without firstly starting to become  aware. During mudra practice, we start to become aware of the thoughts which emerge before, during and after the practice. We are creating fixed, repetitive postures and gestures which can snap the practitioner out of  instinctive habit patterns and establish a more refined awareness.

To read more about Mudras try the following links:

http://www.yogamag.net/archives/2002/bmar02/mudras.shtmlo

http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1979/cmar79/mudras.shtml

http://yogatherapy.org.au/doc/mudras_abstract_poster.pdf   —-  an interesting study on how hand mudras help to deal with particular health problems

Salute to the Sun…Surya Namaskara

As winter settles it can be difficult to keep active and vitalised.  Levels of  energy can drop quickly  and one of the best ways I know to keep the pranic energy active is through the practice of Surya Namaskara or “salute to the sun”.

This practice  combines  several asana or postures into a series of 12 movements each designed to stimulate different parts of  the body and in this way all the body systems are massaged,  charged with energy and finally relaxed.

The sun in Surya Namaskara represents your inner light…it helps you to recognise the radiance and power within yourself…your potential to expand beyond the known into higher realms of clarity and consciousness.

Care must be taken to become familiar with each pose and maintain the correct alignment so slow practice is best to begin with.  This can be accompanied with slow rhythmical breathing to strengthen, stabilise and to take the awareness within the body (pratyahara).  Once you are familiar with the practice you may wish to practise more quickly, making the practice more energising and revitalising.

The practice of Surya Namaskara can be modified to suit different levels of yogic experience and different physical abilities. (you could talk to your teacher about this)

This practice is both a physical and mental practice as you need to concentrate on the transition from one posture to the next  and counting the number of rounds you have decided to do.  Swami Niranjan suggests that 4 rounds each day is sufficient for general health and wellbeing whilst practising 10 rounds each day will lead to higher levels of spiritual development.

You may have experienced practising Surya Namaskara whilst mantras have been repeated for you and if you can learn these they will strengthen  and uplift the mental state making the practice a complete sadhana.

It is wise to always rest in Shavasana after completing the practice of Surya Namaskara.  This allows the full benefits of the practice to be integrated as the para sympathetic nervous system is able to “kick in” so to speak after the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (stimulated by the practice) and the body is brought back into balance.  Resting until the heart rate and breathing returns to normal is recommended.

For more information on solar energy and the practice of Surya Namaskara see the following link:

http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1977/haug77/solar.shtml

A balancing act

How do you get a more balanced perspective on life and develop equanimity?

You are standing on one leg with your arms raised above your head and feeling very wobbly as your teacher asks you to breathe through the practice…to ground yourself in the supporting leg, to focus your awareness and  feel the strength of the pose.

Then one day without realising it you suddenly notice that you are not wobbling anymore.  All the conscious effort in the practice evaporates and the pose seems to flow smoothly as you maintain your awareness on your breath.  What has caused this transformation? How have you been able to ward off the wobbles?

Through balancing asana you develop physical balance but also a mental and emotional balance.  The strength required in these poses develops a strength of will.   You know that you are supported and consequently you know that no matter what life throws at you…. ..you will manage it.

The steady breathing required to maintain the pose is exactly the same steady breathing you need when faced with the ups and downs of life.  All too often we panic when things start to get difficult …we breathe shallowly and allow the mind to race off predicting the future or reliving the past rather than staying present.  It is the balancing poses in particular that teach us to be present.  (you may have noticed that you become wobbly all over again if you let your mind drift and the awareness is lost).  To balance successfully you need to feel your whole body, to focus the awareness, to breathe steadily and ground yourself into the supporting leg.

If you are interested in exploring balancing asana a bit more here are a couple of useful links:

http://www.yogajournal.com/practice/1242

http://www.ayl.com.au/pdf_docs/Adam_asana_25.pdf