Tag Archives: yoga practice

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

 

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.

autumn

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!

 

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.

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??

IMG_1860

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.

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 !!!

 

Compression Versus Tension

Earlier this year whilst doing some teaching at the Rocklyn Ashram I had the opportunity once again to watch Paul Grilley’s Anatomy and Physiology DVD and I feel the need to remind all of my yoga students and interested readers of Paul’s message that no two people will look  or experience the same yoga pose in the same way.

Yes that is right!  We could all be doing a mountain pose (in some traditions called the downward dog) but none of us would look exactly the same or be experiencing it exactly the same for that matter.  Why is this the case?

Well according to Mr Grilley the difference lies between experiencing compression or tension in the body.  In this instance compression is literally the meeting of bone on bone in a joint that restricts further movement whilst tension is tightness in muscles and ligaments that restricts movement of the joints.

Although each of us has the same sort of bones in our skeleton they are very unique to each person.  For example some people will have a large femoral head on their femur whilst others will be smaller.  Some will have more rotational capacity in their radius than others, some will have bigger hook on their ulna connecting ulna and humerus etc etc…Therefore a persons inability to move into a posture in the same way may well be due to structural differences.

Tension on the other hand is where muscles and ligaments are tight through previous injury, scar tissue or lack of appropriate stretching.  A person may not be able to hold a pose in the same way as another simply because they lack the muscle flexibility and strength and this over time can be improved.

What does this mean for all of us out there practising yoga?  It simply reinforces the idea that every one’s yoga experience is a very personal one and that what suits some people will not suit others.  Your yoga experience is unique and you can measure your transformation not on whether you look the same as someone else but how you feel in the pose…what is happening for you personally and how these experiences change over time for  you.

For more information about this check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ve_GUyEHdfI

Parvartasana or mountain pose

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

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