Tag Archives: Stress management

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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International Yoga Day

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June 21st was declared International Day of Yoga  by the United Nations  last year after India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged the UN to acknowledge the valuable gift of India’s ancient tradition…the gift of yoga.  Thousands of people around the world rolled out their yoga mats in parks, streets, shopping malls, yoga studios and on beaches as yoga enthusiasts sought  to share this wonderful gift.

In my small community we were able to share a beautiful winter’s morning bathed in sunlight at the local park.   It was such a joy to see so many people coming together to not only practice their yoga but to acknowledge the benefits that yoga has brought to their life.  Later that day  I sat down to reflect on just what those benefits that I had experienced were…..

Of course the obvious is an increase in my flexibility and strength which  is probably the primary reason why many people join a yoga class. Then  I thought about the more subtle changes in my life.  The fact that I was often “noticing my breath” , observing how my breathing changed with the different situations I found myself in.  By practicing the pranayama in class I had become attuned to the relationship between breath, activity and  most importantly emotions.  I had learned ways to control my breath and use this to alter what was happening in my body and mind.

I have also found it easier to relax.  The techniques I have learned mean that it is quite easy to develop stillness in my body by either sitting or lying down.  It is as if my body now has a cellular memory for being relaxed  as soon as I get into a comfortable sitting (padmasana)  or lying pose ( shavasana). My body wants to become still and as my body stills, my mind seems to follow suit.  Of course this does not mean that I never experience tension in the body and mind but it is as if I have found an “escape button” when things seem overwhelming.

By practicing yoga I have become more attuned to myself and subsequently more attuned to others and the world around me. I see flocks of birds wheeling in the sky in perfect formation sparkling like bits of tinsel; I see small shoots bursting forth defiantly from frozen ground, lambs playing “tiggy” as they dash around the paddock, with all four legs leaping off the ground.  I see sadness or joy  in the face of strangers.  I see hope and triumph in the faces of children as they learn to master new skills.  I hear the rain, the wind, the silence ….the songs of nature. I smell the freshness of the country air, the sweet scent of lemon gums, the rich soil beneath my feet.  My world has become so much more three-dimensional.

Yoga has also taught me about discipline.  The need to set aside time for myself for physical movement not associated with work, for relaxation, for fun, for reflection.  I am continually developing the ability to simply “be” not “do” and it is wonderfully liberating.

Yoga has given me the opportunity to share  all of these benefits with others by teaching.  There is nothing more rewarding for a teacher than to see the joy of discovery on his/her student’s faces..that “ah ha I get it” moment and in my many years of teaching, especially in my yoga teaching, this has been nothing short of pure joy.

When you first set foot tentatively on a yoga mat, hoping this might ease a bit of stiffness in the body,  you could not imagine how profoundly it will change your life.  So thank  you President Modi and members of the UN, thank you to all those students who came to join me in the park and thank you to the ancient yogis for sharing this beautiful gift.

http://www.ndtv.com/cheat-sheet/pm-narendra-modi-launches-international-yoga-day-celebrations-773715?site=full

What shapes your life- drama or Dharma?

And the blossom unfolds

The blossom unfolds

As the change of seasons continues  I find myself contemplating the wonders of nature.  So much can be learned by spending time in nature and really seeing what is happening.  The birds are being industrious and raising their young, seeds are forging their way through the dark soil to emerge into the light, each plant relishes the cleansing rains, the warmth of the sun, whilst all of the insects are busy going about their business.  What has this got to do with Yoga you ask???

Well I am guessing that the birds here are not worrying about what will happen to themselves or their young in a few days, months, years.  The insects are simply following some inbuilt understanding of what it is they are meant to be doing in their life.  The plants are trusting that the light and the rain will be there to cleanse and nurture them.  Unlike us these living things are not obsessed with “getting it right”,  making sure that they prevent any foreseeable or unforeseeable disasters, or living a life that someone or something else dictates.

In yogic terms they are following their Dharma..they have an intrinsic understanding and trust in their own nature,  something that so many of us sadly lack .  Swami Niranjan said that “Dharma does not mean religion but commitment to the process of attaining total fulfillment………it cannot be understood by the intellect, the limited mind. Dharma is an experience which unfolds spontaneously from within as one begins to understand one’s place in relation to the rest of creation and beyond.”

Of course this would lead you to wonder ” can we ever be totally fulfilled?  What is this total fulfillment that he is talking about?” I think the answer to this is yes.  Total fulfillment is achieved when you become truly aware of yourself..who you really are and your deep connection to all things..your heart is filled with compassion and love….you no longer feel the need to judge, criticise, fear. As my very intuitive daughter once told me ..”things just flow mum when you are on the right path”.  Does this mean you no longer have dramas?  Of course not!  Life by its very nature is colored by birth and death..of people, of dreams, of relationships.  Some of those little birds will not survive very long.  Some of the insects will lose their way and some of the plants will thrive whilst others die off..all of this is perfectly right.  It is our perception or judgement about it that can create the dramas.

How does yoga help us on this path?  To begin with the practice of asana allows us the opportunity for self-study—to observe the effects of the asana on the body..not with the aim of perfecting the pose but of understanding and transforming yourself. Yoga asana begins the inner journey.

By meditating we can observe the mind and this also helps with an understanding of ourselves.  We use pranayama or breathing practices to help balance the body and mind. When we  experience the ups and downs of life we can use these tools to ground ourselves to remind oneself that this too will pass just as the spring which has sprung will pass.

Self discovery…exploring our strengths and weaknesses gives the opportunity for self acceptance and once we begin to accept ourselves without guilt, and frustration we can begin to discover the natural role we have to play in life.  Life becomes more about Dharma than drama!

Photo: Asana...;-) :D

 

 

For more reading on Dharma:

Yoga Darshan Vision of the Upanishads by Sw Niranjananda Saraswati, Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India 2002

http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1998/esep98/dharma.shtml

 

Body Stillness

InspirationDuring the last few weeks our meditation class has been working on a practice known as Kaya Sthairyam or body stillness. This practice is considered to be one of the essential elements in establishing  a good meditation practice and this is probably because the first step in learning to meditate is to sit still! (unless of course you are practicing a walking meditation).

So what is involved in Kaya Sthairyam?  It is a practice that focuses the awareness on the body quite intensely so that the mind eventually loses interest in the body and the body becomes quite steady and still.

There are 12 stages in the practice and it is important to develop mastery with each stage before progressing to the next.

Stage 1 is about preparation: finding a comfortable meditation asana and adjusting your position so that the spine is erect and that you  have a solid foundation.

Stage 2 concentrates the awareness on body posture: by observing details of the posture such as alignment, balance , shape, body parts etc.

Stage 3 enables you to visualise the body from different angles …as if looking into a mirror. The aim here is to saturate the mind to the point where it no longer has any interest in the body.

Stage 4 is the visualisation of the body as a tree:  using the mind’s imagination and capacity for visualisation and occupying its creative tendencies.

Stage 5 explores sensations in the body:  these are the factors that are most likely to cause distraction so once again the mind is saturated with these so it will lose interest.

Stage 6 draws attention to the body parts  and moves through them systematically to keep the internalising mind engaged.

Stage 7 focuses on the immobility of the body:  the practitioner resolves to be still.

Stage 8 develops the feelings of steadiness and stillness in the body.

Stage 9 is  the experience of psychic rigidity:  here there is total awareness of the body, its immobility and a sense of being fixed in the position.

Stage 10 is breath awareness:  allowing the breath to become more and more subtle as you focus on the natural breath.

Stage 11 is a state of concentration where the breath becomes very subtle and the mind becomes one pointed and still…a state that enables the practice of dharana or concentration.

Stage 12 is the gradual externalisation that allows the practitioner to move slowly back to the external environment.  This is also a very important part as it allows you to become more grounded and aware of your present environment.

You can try the practice  with Dr Nalini Sahay  This particular variation of Kaya Sthairyam was taught by Paramahamsa Swami Satyananda.

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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Maintaining the momentum

Have faith ...keep following the path.

Have faith …keep following the path.

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 !!!

 

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

The Ujjayi Breath

Think about that time in the evening when you are lying in bed and just about to drift off to sleep…try to recall what the breath felt like? any sound of the breath?

You may have experienced the unconscious action of Ujjayi breathing.  The Ujjayi breath is a slow rhythmical breath that almost feels like you are breathing directly through the throat.  There is a slight hissing like sound that is only audible to you as the breath is drawn steadily but slowly inward and outward.

One of the benefits of this type of breathing include creating a state of deep relaxation. According to Swami Satyananda (APMB 2002) this tranquillising breath is “used in yoga therapy to  soothe the nervous system and calm the mind”.  In this way it quite helpful in dealing with insomnia.

Ujjayi pranayama also offers benefits in stimulating the metabolic rate and increasing the blood circulation through the body. In some traditions  you may be directed by your teacher to practice Ujjayi breathing during the pose.

When you consciously practice Ujjayi breathing you begin by observing the natural breath at the nostrils then take your awareness to the breath at the throat.  Begin to slow the breath down so it is long and controlled…slightly flexing the glottis at the back of the throat which narrows the air passage just a little and it will make a sound.  Then focus on the sound of the breath in the throat.  There is no strain.

The sound may remind you of sound of a baby snoring softly. Ujjayi breathing can be practised in a sitting position in preparation for meditation or lying in Shavasana..to aid in relaxation.

Only practice for short periods of time to begin with and check with your teacher to make sure this practice is suitable for you.

Glorious Spring

What better way to make the most of the beautiful spring weather than to take your home practice outdoors?  The mornings are still quite fresh but it does not take long for the warmth of the sun to penetrate the body and combined with stimulating asanas,  pranayama and a relaxing meditation the effect can be perfect.

Being in touch with nature is such a good way to ground yourself.  Feeling the grass beneath your feet and hearing the sounds of birds as they go about their early morning activities is also a great way to connect with something bigger than yourself.

You might try starting with some  standing asanas to loosen the back and sides such as Tiriyaka Tadasana (swaying palm tree) Tadasana (heavenly stretch)  and Kati Chakrasana (waist rotating pose). This little combination is often referred to as TTK in the Satyananda tradition and it is part of a sadhana recommended by Swami Niranjan in 2006.   Even Surya Namaskara can be used as a warm up however you may like to do Marjariasana (cat pose) in place of Ashtanga Namasakara (eight limb pose) and Bhujangasana (cobra pose) in the first few rounds.  Once you are warmed up then you can  lie down on the mat (or grass if dry) and work through some of your favourite asanas.

Yoga everywhere

Mantras matter

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.

To hear the Gayatri  Mantra go to http://www.satyananda.net/prasad  and go to audio then  Gayatri Mantra

(try listening to this without knowing what the words mean first!!!!….then if you must know check out the next post!)

for more on Mantra……

http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1980/fjune80/manmind.shtml