Tag Archives: yoga

Slow Yoga

Hello and thanks again for checking out Beechworth Yoga.   I know my posts have been a bit erratic but felt it best to write only when I had something that I thought was really important to say.

I have been contemplating the question of what has now been coined as slow yoga.  What is slow yoga you say ? Well from my understanding it is a desire to get back to the basics of yoga to develop a practice that allows for reflection.   Postures are held with an emphasis on the breath and allowing yourself to explore the sensations within the body and the fluctuations of mind.   Perhaps it has been a reaction to the westernization of yoga to be another form of exercise to tone and shape albeit with a focus on breath.

We live in a fast paced world where there is pressure to achieve, attain and move on with little opportunity for savouring the experience and yoga is an experience.  It is not something that you do as you would a bike ride or a cross fit class.  It is much more about the way in which something is done and making it a way of living.

To experience yoga in the true sense is to live yoga.  How do you live yoga?  To live yoga you must be prepared to live consciously.  To be aware of the effects of your actions, your thoughts both upon yourself, others and your environment.  You need to discipline yourself to slow down, to find  balance in all things.  To become aware of the effects of all things on your body and mind, from what you eat to what you read.  If this sounds familiar that is because it illuminates Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga ..the yamas the nyamas,  ( your ethical practices and and self discipline) asana, ( your movement of the body to enhance it) pranayama, (your control over breath ) pratyahara, (your ability to withdraw the senses) dharana, ( your concentration) dhyana  ( meditation) and finally samadhi. (the state of bliss ..transcendence).

Winter is a great time to reflect on these things..to find the still in your life for yoga is not about the shape of your body but the shape of your life.

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getting started again

What an apt post for me when it has been ages since I have I have been active on my yoga blog.  What is it that makes it so hard to restart something when you have been away from it for whatever reason?  Many of you will have experienced a break in your yoga practice for a period of time and it can be very hard to kick-start the healthy habit of spending time on your mat.

spring garden 006Spring is such a great time for new beginnings though and it is worth reflecting on just what has happened over the winter season.  That period of dormancy or quiet time has provided the opportunity for a much needed rest for nature and perhaps yourself.   With the rising soil temperatures and warmth of the sun there is increasing vitality and energy resulting in all sorts of growth and the need to be pare back the dead wood which in itself is a good thing.   If you spend some time outdoors you can feel the promise of spring ..an opportunity for movement forward.

In the same way look at your own life ..what needs to be pared back?  Ask yourself “am I aware of increasing vitality of spring?  Is there anything I can do to embrace this period of growth to enhance my  life?”  If your yoga practice has slipped do not be afraid to roll out the mat again…be kind and gentle with yourself.  Start slowly and build up using practices like gentle back bends – those wonderful extroverting poses, include a few rounds of salute to the sun, take your shoes off and free up your feet, start your day with mantra chanting or join a new class.

The Koshas 3

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 Whilst the previous two Koshas, the annamaya and pranamaya koshas are those that create the physical structure the manomaya and vijnanamaya koshas are the mental functions which allow us to deal with the knowledge aspect of being.

Manomaya Kosha is the third layer identified by the ancient yogis as part of the individual’s physiology.   It refers to the mental body, that is the dimension of experience that occurs for individuals on a mental level.

Psychologists identify three aspects of mind – the conscious, sub-conscious and unconscious states.  From a  yogic perspective the mind is divided into 4 parts:

Manas is that part of the mind that responds to sensory input and related to survival therefore this aspect of mind is associated with measuring, judgement, thought and counter thought.

Chitta is that part of mind associated with registering and storing impressions and memory…it is also the basis of the unconscious mind.

Ahamkara is the aspect of mind concerned with identity, the separation of “me and you”

Buddhi which means to know is discrimination, awareness and understanding and assists Manas with the process of rational thinking.

To a large extent the these last three parts are forced to act through the limitations of Manas with our awareness focused on our needs and desires for survival, security and social engagement ..  “trying to work out what’s in it for me ” so to speak.

Through yoga practices such as Pratyhara  ( the withdrawal of the senses in the beginning of yoga nidra, where we disassociate from the outside world ) you are able to become aware of the subtleties of the mind.     NB: You will remember this as that part of the yoga nidra practice where you are encouraged to search out sounds without naming them, gradually drawing the awareness inwards to the internal sounds.

By practising Antar Mouna meditation   ( the witnessing of thought and counter thought) you can also become aware of the workings of the mind and in doing so you can  begin to identify more with the higher aspects of mind.  Once you begin to see how the mind operates it is possible to transform and control thought processes through self-awareness and mindfulness.

Of course working through the other layers or koshas through asana, breathing practices, mantras and cleansing practices will also help to harmonise the mind, so once again yoga gives us many tools to explore the koshas and find balance and equanimity.

 

The Koshas 2

100_8643The second Kosha or layer identified by the yogis in yogic physiology is the Pranamaya Kosha .  Prana is the vital force permeating the body and every layer of matter.  It is related to energy.  In fact Prana is associated with all the koshas and it is vital for life.  It animates the body.  However there is energy specific to Pranamaya kosha .

It occupies only about 2 per cent of our awareness and takes up the same space as the physical body.  According to the ancient yogis prana flows through energy channels in the body referred to as Nadis which correspond to the physical nerves.  There are said to be 72000  nadis with three prominent ones — Ida, Pingala and Sushumna.  Both Ida and Pingala wrap around the main energy channel Sushumna like the double helix…where the networks converge at 7 points are the chakras ( or wheels of energy ).

In different parts of the body  the yogis believe that prana serves different functions and they identified 5 pranas or pancha pranas as they are called:

  • Vyana – flows through the whole body and is always present, it is said to be the last to leave when we die
  • Udana – flows through the head, arms, legs and is associated with the mind and senses and movement..energy used in actions.
  • Samara – is equalising and balancing  the mid torso and has a side to side movement.  It regulates the flow of prana and Apana.
  • prana – is the upper torso navel to throat flowing up with inhalation and down with exhalation ( Think of the practice of the So Hum breath here)  ..the lungs, heart
  • Apana – flowing from navel to pelvic floor.. a downward movement associated with excretion and childbirth

Obviously breath has a very close association with Prana and the way to become aware of the actions of prana and to effect change is through breathing (Pranayama) practices By practising these techniques even something as simple as natural breath awareness  you become aware of your own personal breathing patterns.  You notice changes in breathing patterns associated with your state of mind.  However things like meditation and asana also affect Pranamaya kosha so your yoga class may contain all of these elements.  A balanced personal practice would include not just asana practice but also time for pranayama practice and some meditation.  Remember this does not have to be a long time but it is worth thinking about making your practice (or sadhana) well rounded.

 

The Koshas

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What is the yogic approach to physiology?  The ancient yogis believed that the individual was made up of 5 layers or sheaths of experience and these were called the koshas.   These koshas explain our relationship and experience with the environment, the breath, the mind and higher levels of consciousness.  They provide a way for us to find our way into the subtler layers of our being.

The first layer or kosha which we are most likely to be aware of is one called annamaya kosha  or the body sheath.  It occupies about 75% of our awareness.  This is our relationship with the body, the bones, muscles, ligaments, organs  and how we interact in our environment through the senses of sight, touch, taste, smell and feel.   It concerns the foods we eat, the things we do, our sleeping habits, the media we expose ourselves to, the people in our lives and places we visit.   You may notice that some people or places make you feel content, happy and positive whereas others make you feel anxious, exhausted, fearful.  Similarly you may find that when you get regular sleep and take regular meal breaks with healthy food choices you generally feel better.  The same goes for exercise be it yoga or some other form of physical activity.

Once we become conscious of these things we are able to use yoga to create a steady experience of annamaya kosha.   Some things to consider may be setting a regular time for going to bed,  making changes to our eating habits in terms of what you eat and when( you could even use Ayurvedic principles here).  Making conscious choices about the people we spend time with, not just putting up with it.   Establishing a regular yoga practice and taking time for stillness in meditation.   Creating balance in annamaya Kosha creates a ripple effect to the higher koshas or layers affecting energy levels and or mental balance.

Yoga practices for harmonising the physical body include:

  • asana by toning and strengthening the body,
  •  pranayama (breathing practices)  by increasing breath capacity, physical energy and balancing the cerebral hemispheres
  • meditation and yoga nidra to provide stress relief and balance the fight/flight response
  • cleansing practices like neti, kunjal  to keep mucus membranes and tracts lubricated and healthy

Some of the principles in the management of Annamaya kosha include:

  • regularity of sleep, meals, yoga practice
  • simplicity of food, daily routine
  • moderation – not overdoing any addictive behaviours
  • discipline – not rigid or suppressed but in developing the ability to control the mind
  • awareness i.e.. consciously listening to the body’s needs
  • tapas or sacrifice ..opportunity for fasting
  • cleanliness
  • flexibility
  • adaptability

 

 

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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Yamas and Niyamas

fresh and newWe are almost to the end of another year and many of us are reflecting on the year that was…..What we achieved, what we failed at, how we have changed and in what ways that we  grew ?  So how do we live our best life and what part does yoga play in this?

Perhaps we can look back to the writings of one of the forefathers of yoga Patanjali for guidance here…in his sutras Patanjali suggests that you should follow the eight limbs of yoga.  These eight limbs make up what is known as Raja yoga or (royal yoga).  The eight limbs include Yamas, Niyamas, Asana Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samhadhi.

As yoga practitioners we are familiar with the terms, Asana, Pranayama and perhaps even Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) but that is only a small part of the system of Raja yoga.  It is interesting to note that Patanjali places Yamas and Niyamas ahead of Asana and Pranayama.  So what are we talking about here and how can  this have any bearing on living our “best life”?

Yamas are guidelines for how we relate to others  — the yoga aspirant becomes aware of others and makes greater demands/disciplines on themselves.  These yamas include satya (truthfulness), ahimsa (non violence), asteya (honesty), aparigraha (non-possessiveness) and brahmacharya (celibacy or non gratification at the expense of others on any level).

Satya here refers not only simply speaking truth but to an awareness of what is correct, right and true as it is manifesting from within and the ability to express it.  Ahimsa or non violence is not just an external act of eliminating violence from our actions but the absence of the violent nature in our personality… with regard to our interactions with others but also ourselves.  Asteya relates to finding the honesty, simplicity and sincerity of our true nature.

Aparigraha or non possessiveness is concerned with non attachment.  When we become attached to people, things, experiences we can become possessive, driven by the ego and selfishness.  This non attachment does not mean not caring but it should not be associated with selfishness and your own desires.  Finally Brahmacharya has often been seen as celibacy but in fact the word literally means higher consciousness …Brahma ( higher reality) and acharya (one who is established in ) and of course one established in higher reality is not stuck in the sensorial realm merely wanting to gratify sensual needs.

The Niyamas are guidelines relating to the self — you understand the self better and become more accepting whilst still working to create a sense of discipline in your  inner life.  The niyamas include shaucha (cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (austerity), swadhyaya (self-study) and ishwara pranidhana (generation of faith).

Here shaucha or cleanliness refers to cleanliness of the body, the mind and the environment.  Santosha  refers to finding happiness with whatever one has and enjoying living in the present moment rather than craving more.  Tapas or austerity means following a process of change or transformation for the better which may involve some sacrifice. (perhaps getting out of bed earlier for your yoga practice!)

Swadhyaya or self-study is becoming aware of our strengths, weaknesses and the individual qualities that make up our personalities…..observing your reactions and actions in the many different situations of life. Ishwara pranidhana is the cultivation of faith in an unmanifest reality which may take on any form but in itself has no name or form or attribute.

So perhaps as you reflect on the year that was you might consider some of the Yamas and Niyamas in your life.  As we move into 2015 you may even  wish to take one of these each month and work on it , meditate on it and find ways to incorporate these ancient teachings to help you create your best life.

Om Shanti and Happy New Year !

Swami Satyananda's Garden in Rikhia

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

 

Is your energy feeling a little low?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Getting to the core of the matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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