Have you been feeling a little tired lately ? The change of seasons can often affect us in very subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways. Sometimes it is hard to adjust and the body and mind need a little catch up time to get there.
Here is Australia the evenings are cooler as are the early mornings but we can still have some quite hot days. I gather that in the northern hemisphere it is still quite cold in many places and you are longing for the warmth of spring sunshine. Once again I am looking into my yoga toolbox to help me adjust and you might like to as well.
For those of us “down under” getting into some more dynamic practices like Salute to the Sun will help to get you going in the cooler mornings and if this is not something that you are ready to practice you could try practices like Nauka Sanchalanasana or rowing the boat, Utthanasana (squatting and rising ) to get the heart rate up and the prana moving. These would also be useful for cooler mornings up north until the sun is really warming you up.
Cleansing practices like Neti , Kapalbhati, and Lagoo Shankaprakshalana are also suggested by the yogis to help the body cleanse and prepare for the changing seasons. The first practice is a nasal washing practice good for cleansing pollens of springtime or indeed clearing the mucus that can develop with the onset of viruses as you move into cooler weather. The second practice is a breath practice to clear the mind and the third one is used to clear the digestive tract. All of these practices should be taught by a trained yoga teacher before you really attempt them on your own.
Eating according to the season is also something recommended so moving away from the heavier winter foods in the north to lighter meals whilst those in the southern hemisphere may be drawn to more easily digested soups and dhal, away from the many salads and lighter food we have been eating.
Last but certainly not least would be incorporating a regular yoga nidra practice (for more on yoga nidra see blog post Yoga Nidra) into your day. Disturbed sleep can leave you tired and cranky but a 15 min yoga nidra will leave you refreshed and completely relaxed. If you haven’t tried it yet then please give this little offering a go.
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?
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!
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.
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 there 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!
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.
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
One of the difficulties you can encounter when you commit to any significant change in your life is maintaining the momentum. People often come to yoga because there has been an impetus for change in their life. They have decided that they need to “become more flexible”, “learn to relax” or “combat stress”. Whatever the reason for commencing yoga there is guaranteed to be some benefits that you never expected and some times when you feel that because of changes in your circumstances or health, it is difficult to maintain.
How do you maintain that momentum? Well the first thing to realise is that yoga is all about listening to your body. In some instances your body may just need some rest. There may be times when the most important part of your practice is simply doing a yoga nidra and some breathing practices. At other times sitting quiet and still for meditation may seem impossible and what is really needed is some solid asana practice to ground yourself.
Listening to where you are at is the first part, having compassion for yourself is essential.
That is a little harder for most of us. Living in a world where we are supposed to “toughen up”, “be strong” and “keep on going” is not such a compassionate place to be. Compassion requires really opening the heart and listening ….listening to the birds, listening to the breeze, listening to the breath, listening to the feelings and often makes one feel vulnerable but vulnerability in itself is a beautiful and honest expression of self. It does not mean that you put up with everything that is thrown at you and devalue your worth but it means being true to who you really are…that wonderous inner spirit of self.
So if you are having trouble hanging in there ….STOP…listen and love. Be gentle with the practices, do only what feels right not what you think you ought to be doing or what you used to be able to do and you will soon find that yoga WILL bring you back to your equilibrium, BUT please be patient !!!
The use of Mantras adds a whole new dimension to your yoga practice whether it be simply chanting the Surya or Beeja mantras as you practice the series Surya Namasakara or if you spend some time chanting the Mahamrityunjaya mantra or the Gayatri mantra as part of your home practice.
Both of these mantras like all mantras have a powerful effect on the body and mind by connecting you to higher vibration, with the mind and body becoming filled with something that is positive and uplifting.
The continued repetition of the mantras (or just listening to these vibrations) can cause changes within the chanter or even to the environment. Some of the immediate changes include relaxation as the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are brought into balance. Other potential benefits include improvements in the voice and lifetime changes like attaining self-realization.
According to Swami Niranjananda “mantra is the force that liberates the mind from bondage”
Many people get caught up in trying to understand the literal meaning of mantras and whilst it is pleasant to know the translation of the mantra it is not essential for the mantra to have its effect. For it is the vibration that counts. These ancient Vedic sounds resound within the body and the external environment, uplifting both energy levels and thought patterns.
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:
Home practice is one of the key elements to integrating yoga into your life. It is often something which people find difficult to apply and the reasons vary from “not enough time’, “nowhere quiet and comfortable to practice” to “I can’t remember all the poses” and “I just don’t know how to sequence practices”.
Some of these may sound familiar to you if you have been putting off starting your own yoga practice at home. You may well be attending weekly classes but have just not got around to finding time to explore yoga yourself in your own home. One of the most rewarding things I have done is to establish a routine of home practice for myself. Sure there are times when I am too tired or not well enough but that is ok because Yoga is about listening to your body (but be careful that you are not listening to your mind..which has the habit of finding reasons why this or that is no good or not working!)
So how do you go about it? Well the important thing is to begin….set aside a short period of time each day either early morning, or late afternoon. Do not restrict yourself with unrealistic expectations like “I will do a one and half hour class every day before I have breakfast. (this may be quite easy to do at the ashram where you do not have your other obligations of family and work) Start with a shorter session but try to allow enough time for a few asanas as well as some breathing practices and or relaxation. This may even be making sure that you allow yourself 5-10 mins lying in Shavasana at the end of your other asanas.
Find a space that feels right. It does not have to be huge. You can enhance the energy and atmosphere with a candle and some incense if you have some. I have set up a small yoga room in one of the spare bedrooms but I often just go outside especially if the weather is good. ( I find that nature is the best atmosphere for me)
Let your body tell you what poses are right for you on each occasion. Some will be repeated perhaps each day but sometimes you will just feel like doing one pose more than others. Begin with gentle movements and warm the body up then try to balance the practices out a little with a few forward and backward bends, a couple of standing asanas, a twist and if inversions suit your body an inverted pose to increase the flow of blood to your brain (it is also a great way to gain a new perspective on something!)
Swami Niranjan suggested the practices of Tadasana, Tiryaka Tadasana and Kati Chakrasana as excellent general practices for the spine.
I like to do at least some observation of the natural breath at the beginning and end of my practice and usually incorporate at least one other pranayama or breathing practice. (A good one for beginners is abdominal breathing )
Do not despair if you find that your practice is a little erratic at times…show compassion to yourself …just roll out the mat once again and begin with stillness. There is a great article in the current issue of Australian Yoga Life Magazine….sequencing a home practice if you would like to read more.
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)