Tag Archives: letting go

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.

 

 

 

 

Changing seasons, changing direction

Having just returned home from a wonderful yoga retreat in Bali with One World Retreats I have found myself looking out at the most glorious autumn color here in Beechworth.

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The retreat in itself was a great opportunity to stop, reflect, challenge myself and meet new friends but returning home has reminded me that with the changing of each season we also get the opportunity to stop, reflect and challenge ourselves…you may even meet new friends ..people who will help you on your journey of inner discovery.

As the trees prepare for winter by shedding their leaves so too can we prepare for the next stage in our lives by looking at what is no longer serving us and letting it go.

We had a lovely ceremony in Bali where during the week each person was asked to write down on small bits of paper what we would like to let go of and at the end of the week we gathered together to burn these unnecessary thoughts or behaviors and send them off down the river with a colorful spray of flowers.  It was very moving for all and I somehow suspected that much of what we had written down would be the same! Bali retreat

We often find ourselves plagued with doubts, fears and negative thoughts,  all of which do nothing to serve our higher purpose but these patterns of thinking can be very hard to let go of as they are quite entrenched. The old saying that what you practice you get good at comes to mind here!!

So here is the challenging part!  To look closely at ourselves…not with anger and judgement but simply to observe the way we think and behave.  The practice of silence or mauna is a wonderful way to do just this.    Learning to be silent is a practice of pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses.  According to Swami Sivananda the practice of mauna develops will power.  It checks the impulse of speech and is a great help in the observance of truth.   Spend some time each day not interacting just watching and notice what is going on…you may be surprised! You may notice thoughts and patterns that you want to let go of and just like the autumn trees you can choose to release them.  You may even like to create a small ceremony for yourself ..using the autumn leaves.  It is up to you.

I know that it is not easy to let go and it may be that this becomes a regular practice of yours but then again the changing of the seasons is a regular practice too!

 

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.

Meditation in the Desert

Having just returned from a 10 day retreat on Meditation in the desert of Northern Territory I can honestly say that it was one of the most challenging things I have done.  Each day was broken up into 45 minute meditation sessions, including walking meditation interspersed with other activities.

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The first thing I found challenging was the environment.  Beautiful as it was in a very raw and earthy way it was also very hot and windy and it was the first time I had needed a fly veil to practice my meditation. (very annoying when the little devils managed to sneak under occasionally and get trapped!!) Needless to say here I had the opportunity to reflect on the importance of creating an environment conducive to meditation and then settling in to “as good as it’s going to get”  It was interesting to watch my ability to develop a “let go” approach to all things beyond my control.  A great start for any meditation practice!

The second challenge was the sheer number of meditation sessions.  I like  to practice meditation in the mornings before breakfast and last thing at night. Now I found myself  doing 5 or more sessions a day and again there was a learning opportunity here.  Why was it that I felt I should be doing something else?  It seems that I had placed a value on meditation only if it fitted in with the rest of my life.  Well of course out there in the desert there really was nothing else I had to be doing but I was somehow conditioned to feel that simply sitting doing “nothing” was idle  of me!!  This took a few days to leave me and once I settled into the pace of the desert I found it much easier.

The final challenge was actually getting sick whilst I was there and wrestling with my ego’s need to be “doing everything”  and my body’s need for time out to rest and recover.  I had to find that compassion for myself….to let go once again!

So whilst I did not wander the desert eating locusts and wild honey I did experience the soul-searching that occurs when you remove yourself from the familiar and your comfort zone.

So what were the benefits you might say??  Well it is a truly wonderful experience to meditate with others.  We had a big group of about 40 people and the positive energy of the group was just marvellous.  I would recommend group meditation to anyone who is thinking about beginning a practice.  You may have even begun some meditation practices in your yoga class.

Another great benefit was having the opportunity to practice walking meditations.  I have done some of these at the Ashram before but have never really integrated them into my practices.  It was exciting to walk in such an ancient land and feel the connection to the earth below whilst carefully focusing on the breath not the scenery and then when we did some whole senses walking I was amazed at just what I could see, hear, smell, feel and even taste (though  I think this was mainly dust!) Opening up to all of your senses gives you the perfect opportunity to be fully present.

Each day we had a teaching session on meditation which built on my previous knowledge and gave me many new insights into ways to approach meditation. More on this in the next post.  So to sum up for now …

  • Meditation is about letting go!
  • Meditation can help you learn more about yourself
  • It is Ok to sit quietly in the moment…you are not being lazy!
  • Maintain that compassion for the self!
  • Meditating with others can be a very enriching experience
  • Vary your meditation practice by including a walking meditation

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Learning to let go….forward bends

These asanas rely on gravity to bring the trunk of the body forward.  In many the hands are raised above the head such as in Pada Hastasana (hand to foot pose).  Forward bending asanas loosen up the back, gently stretching the back muscles and separating the vertebrae whilst the compression in the abdominal area provide a gentle massage for the digestive system.  An exhaling breath is used as you bend forward activating relaxation and there is a general sense of letting go.. “surrendering to the moment”.  When bending forward it is important to lead with the chest, to use the abdominal muscles to support the lumbar spine and to bend from the hips not from the waist.

Of course care must be taken with forward bends to ensure that you do not force the back to bend further than its present flexiblity will allow.  Forward bends also put some stress on the lumbar spine particularly as you pass through the 20 degrees so people with lower back problems especially disc problems need to seek advice from a qualified  yoga teacher and may need to check with their doctor.  Often the practices can be performed in a modified way with shorter levers and for those people with high blood pressure you can ensure that the head does not move below the heart.

Forward bends such as Shashankasana (pose of the child) can be very soothing and are often a good way to release anger.

Forward bending poses should be followed by a backward bending pose to balance the practices out.  A good one especially for beginners is also a relaxation pose known as the Crocodile pose (Makarasana)

Some useful links  for yoga  and the management of back pain are  http://www.yogamag.net/archives/2000/cmay00/back1.shtml

http://www.yogamag.net/archives/2000/djuly00/back2.shtml