Tag Archives: yoga

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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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

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

Using twists to get the kinks out of your life!

There are a number of reasons why you should include a twisting posture in your home practice sessions.  Even the simplest of twists such as Kati Chakrasana or the waist rotating pose can provide excellent benefits such as the toning of abdominal muscles, massage of abdominal organs and stimulation of the digestive system.

According to Bhaktipoornananda, ” When we twist the body it is the thoracic spine that  twists most, not the lumbar spine. When we have one leg shorter than the  other we get a lot of wear and tear on the junction between the 12th thoracic and the 1st lumbar vertebrae because the twist on the pelvis is imbalanced  as we walk. The lumbar spine does not turn much so this lob-sidedness  increases wear and tear on the first vertebra designed to twist (i.e.  12th thoracic).

Meru wakrasana (spinal twist) and ardha matsyendrasana (half spinal twist) are important twisting practices  which keep the whole spine supple without straining ligaments. They should  be practised initially with one hand resting close to the sacrum and the  arm straight so that it lifts the back upright and supports it.”                        (Swami Bhaktipoornananda Saraswati  2000)

Many of the twists are actually practiced from a sitting position you need to prepare sufficiently by strengthening the trunk and developing flexibility in the legs and back…so having a good sitting posture is important.  Often beginners will need to raise the buttocks slightly by sitting on a folded blanket or firm cushion.

Twisting practices help to improve the flexibility of spinal joints and muscles and stimulate the spinal nerves. They encourage digestion  and energy flow in the abdomen.  Twists also promote strength and flexibility in the trunk muscles.

On a psychic or mental level practising twists and learning to relax into these positions will help  you to realise that you can breathe through the more “knotty”or difficult parts of life. That these “kinks” in life merely serve to strengthen our core if we remain centred and move with the flow of breath.

Often people find a great sense of relief after practising twists ….as if the twist itself has allowed something on a deeper level to be released.

As with all asana practice awareness of where your body is at and it’s limitations is important.  Beginners need to be careful not to twist the trunk more than flexibility will allow and those people with serious back complaints would need to consult with their health professional prior to practising.

Musing about Mudras

Perhaps you have been to a yoga class where your teacher has explained something about mudras to you or perhaps this is the first time you have even heard of them…either way an understanding of mudra and how it affects yoga practice can greatly enhance your spiritual experience of yoga.

The word “mudra” is a Sanskrit word that literally means gesture or attitude.  A mudra can be psychic, emotional, devotional or aesthetic in nature. The mudra will have an effect on the mind creating a sense of peace, well-being or even a connection to something “bigger” than yourself.  From a Tantric perspective a mudra will provide a way of capturing dissipated prana (vital energy) and therefore will calm and introvert the mind helping to create a state that is more conducive to deeper meditative experience.

There are different types of mudras but the most common are those of the hands particularly ….Chin and  Gyana (sometimes spelt “jnana”) mudra where the index finger is connected to the base of the thumb or thumb tip  and the hands are placed in a relaxed fashion on the knees facing up or down respectively.

In these mudras the index finger represents individual consciousness and the thumb represents higher consciousness.  The curling or bowing of the finger to the thumb is symbolic of the desire for unity of the individual with the higher consciousness….the very essence of yoga and life…that of union.

Some of the specific benefits of mudras include:

  •  bringing awareness to large areas of  the cortex – physiologically the hand and the head areas take up 50% of the cortex
  •  establishing pranic balance (keeping the energy within the body),
  •  helping  to express some of the more elevated states of mind like peace, joy, compassion, devotion, surrender and inner beauty
  • linking the yoga practitioner with higher cosmic forces
  • deepening awareness and concentration

Swami Niranjananda (Prana, Pranayama, Prana Vidya 1994) describes the activity of mudra in this way ….There can be no expansion of awareness without firstly starting to become  aware. During mudra practice, we start to become aware of the thoughts which emerge before, during and after the practice. We are creating fixed, repetitive postures and gestures which can snap the practitioner out of  instinctive habit patterns and establish a more refined awareness.

To read more about Mudras try the following links:

http://www.yogamag.net/archives/2002/bmar02/mudras.shtmlo

http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1979/cmar79/mudras.shtml

http://yogatherapy.org.au/doc/mudras_abstract_poster.pdf   —-  an interesting study on how hand mudras help to deal with particular health problems

Salute to the Sun…Surya Namaskara

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:

http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1977/haug77/solar.shtml

A balancing act

How do you get a more balanced perspective on life and develop equanimity?

You are standing on one leg with your arms raised above your head and feeling very wobbly as your teacher asks you to breathe through the practice…to ground yourself in the supporting leg, to focus your awareness and  feel the strength of the pose.

Then one day without realising it you suddenly notice that you are not wobbling anymore.  All the conscious effort in the practice evaporates and the pose seems to flow smoothly as you maintain your awareness on your breath.  What has caused this transformation? How have you been able to ward off the wobbles?

Through balancing asana you develop physical balance but also a mental and emotional balance.  The strength required in these poses develops a strength of will.   You know that you are supported and consequently you know that no matter what life throws at you…. ..you will manage it.

The steady breathing required to maintain the pose is exactly the same steady breathing you need when faced with the ups and downs of life.  All too often we panic when things start to get difficult …we breathe shallowly and allow the mind to race off predicting the future or reliving the past rather than staying present.  It is the balancing poses in particular that teach us to be present.  (you may have noticed that you become wobbly all over again if you let your mind drift and the awareness is lost).  To balance successfully you need to feel your whole body, to focus the awareness, to breathe steadily and ground yourself into the supporting leg.

If you are interested in exploring balancing asana a bit more here are a couple of useful links:

http://www.yogajournal.com/practice/1242

http://www.ayl.com.au/pdf_docs/Adam_asana_25.pdf

Opening up with back bends

Back bends are probably the most commonly thought of yoga postures when you think of yoga. Just about everyone will have seen an image of someone in the cobra or Bhujangasana pose.

Back bends expand the chest and open the heart space.  Usually performed on inhalation the back bend is a stimulating practice that produces heat and energy. In contrast to forward bending (see previous post) they work against gravity and therefore require some strength especially in the lumbar spine.

With this in mind yoga students should always begin gradually with some of the less intense poses such as the flying locust (Ardha Shalabhasana), as this posture helps to develop the necessary strength in the back.  You can then move on to Saral Bhujangasana (half cobra).  Another excellent practice to prepare for the stronger back bends is Khanderasana (the shoulder pose).   As always it is important to work within the limitations of your body so that strain of spinal joints is avoided.

The stimulating nature of these postures means that they are considered to be more extroverting…allowing the practitioner to be open to life’s experiences.

Back bends should normally be followed by a forward bend like Shashankasana or pose of the child  (see previous post) as this helps to balance out the body and allows the previously compressed vertebra to open up again.

 

 

 

 

Learning to let go….forward bends

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

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

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

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

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

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