It is a fact, yoga increases your flexibility, I have seen this many times in my classes, someone walks in as stiff as an iron board, but after just a few months of practice there is a marked increase in flexibility. But is it just the yoga asana affecting the physical body or are there more behind this sudden change in the body?
Sure, it will be fruitless to deny the effect of yoga on the physical body, but I also belief that there is the hidden, unseen part of yoga that affects the body. We all have heard about the Mind-Body connection and especially in alternative medicine this plays a big role. The mind – what we think and feel – affects the health and well-being of the body. My classes are designed to include a little talk on a topic before the class starts, yoga for the mind I like to think of it. I repeat many topics over and over – we need to hear something eight times before it sinks in!
My talks can lead the yogi who listens intently to discover themselves, it can open the mind and eyes to an unseen world where they start to realise I am not only what I eat, but also what I think. And as they learn to explore their minds and start to question certain patterns, aspects and ideas they hold, the body starts to follow slowly but surely. My teacher, Sri Durga used to say: “As above so below, as within so without, the body follows the mind.”
Normal Muscle Pain
Muscle pain after exercises is commonly known as DOMS and it said to be brought about by microdamage in our muscle fibres. Years ago it was thought to have been related to lactic acid but we now know that this is most likely not the case. Microdamage is caused when we contract our muscles and the total stress on the muscles is greater than its capacity. In other words, we make a movement and our muscles are not yet strong enough to support the movement fully. With the strain we get microtears in our fibres, causing small amounts of inflammation and other signs of damage. This is one side of the coin.
Feel Good vs. Feel Bad
The other side of the coin is that yoga changes our psychology, physiology as well as our mind. In the 8 years that I am teaching yoga, I have heard it many times from my yogis the week after a particularly challenging asana session: I was very stiff, couldn’t get out of bed, but it is was a good one! Or, I can feel it when I skip a week of yoga. For me this is an indication of a body and mind that has started to interact, work together and react on the input of yoga. As the mind is challenged in the class by the talks, sub-consciously people start to adjust, adapt and accommodate different ideas, views and thoughts, so the body starts to follow in its flexibility.
However, I have also heard it many times when a yogi complains about not feeling well after a yoga class, or they feel that after a period of great progress they suddenly stagnate of feel that their bodies don’t react well to the yoga. They complain about a general feel of soreness and stiffness and as a teacher I immediately look to myself and my teaching for doing something wrong. And in the beginning of teaching I thought I was doing something wrong.
But I soon realise we react to more than just yoga. The death of a parent or friend can affect our mind in such a way that we carry that sadness in our muscles. Or a job loss or change can place undue stress on a body which may cause it to read danger in the situation and react to the stress and the only way is the fight or flight response, which cause the mind to narrow its thinking and the body to tense, getting ready to respond to the “danger” in our lives. Children, marriage, money etc. elicit such emotional reactions from us that they unfortunately do affect the flexibility of the mind and the body. If we refuse to see our part in the problem, or if we feel powerless to change an unhappy union (or don’t want to change it) it all translates eventually to an inflexible body, stiff and inflamed muscles and a body that is less responsive as the mind gets more stuck in a rut.
Flip the Switch
The mind is located in all parts of the body. From the top of our head to tip of our little toe, the brain/mind pretty much runs the show. Science had found there are brain cells located everywhere in the body. So it begs the question: Can a stiff and inflexible body mean a stiff and inflexible mind? I think so. I think our bodies tell us all the time what is going on in the dark, back rooms of our mind. It may not be obvious, but here is an exercise you can do whenever you come up against some physical resistance that may also help you clear mental and emotional “stiffness” as well.
If you practice yoga, start doing some of your poses. If you don’t currently practice yoga, just slowly stretch your body in all directions. Move your limbs, your back, your neck, bend forward, backward and side to side. When you feel resistance, imagine that there is also a thought pattern or mindset that is rigid and unmoving. Breathe into that part of your body and see if some new insights come to your mind, as well. Spend a little time there just breathing and feeling the resistance melt away. Keep moving into other areas and breathing as you encounter resistance. You might even find that some emotions start to surface. Listen to your mind talk and see what it is saying. Are you talking to yourself nicely and in an encouraging way or are you being critical or telling yourself that you can’t do this? Use this as an opportunity to release negative mind chatter as well as your tight muscles.
As you open and free your muscles to a greater range of motion, imagine that your mind is also opening to new thoughts and ways of being. Expand your range of motion physically, psychically and mentally and watch your life open to new levels of insight and joy.
In the West yoga has been marketed as a system with many benefits, so I am not going to go into it in depth. We all know how yoga can enhance your mood, calm the nervous system and focus our attention, however, most of us also know that these benefits don’t last as long as we want them to last. Sometimes, moments after leaving a class the world will challenge you with a bombastic road user or a crisis at home. We are confronted with the same issues, problems and challenges once we leave a class, which leaves us frustrated and to an extent exhausted. It seems the more we want peace and harmony, the more the world would through the opposite to us. On your yoga mat and meditation cushion, yes we can taste the POTENTIAL for growth, we feel the peace and love and light and harmony, yet off the mat we encounter greater resistance. But how can we affect a more lasting change then?
I would frequently sit before a class and just talk to my yogis and if you listen carefully most of the time they complain about tension, stiffness or even pain in the hip area and sometimes they would refer to their chests and how tight it may be after a cold or flu. The hips and heart seem to be receptacles for frustration. “My hips are so tight!” people say, or “How do I open my chest—no matter how hard I try, it doesn’t seem to respond!” This is because much of our emotional issues are concentrated in the hips and heart. It seems to me the heart, chest and hips are receptacles for our painful memories, hurtful emotions and unresolved issues. But on the other hand they are also the founts from which creativity flow, so we express a need to open the heart and hips in order to open ourselves to connect more deeply with our bodies and innate creativity. And in this connection lies the solution to our sometimes very complex emotional states. This is the gift of yoga to you, greater awareness unravels the emotional issues, yes difficult at first, but transformational as we grow and continue of our yoga path.
THE ISSUES ARE IN OUR TISSUES
Yoga doesn’t rid us of our anxieties, our fears, our sorrows or our stress: it just creates awareness that we have these fears, anxieties, sorrows and stresses and if we stay long enough on the yoga path, we start to understand why we harbour these emotions, I call it: awareness that the issues are in our tissues. From a purely Western point of view, it may not make sense that we store our “issues in our tissues” for that Western medicine has alienated us from our bodies and why we have certain diseases and illnesses. However, from a spiritual point of view, it starts to make sense that our mind, body and emotions are inextricably linked. We are much more what we think rather than what we eat! However, we are always surprised when yet another issue arises just as we think we have now worked through it all. My yoga teacher, Sri Durga, used to call it stirring the coffee grounds. There is always something more, yoga seems to penetrate our membranes of defences to reach the deepest, most primitive layers of experience. So the practice of Yoga can feel like opening Pandora’s Box: a primal storehouse of memories, emotions and experiences awaits us. The problem is that this storehouse of memories, emotions etc. seem to evade us most of our life until we start to practice something like yoga which brings us within reach of the subconscious mind. And this is the power of yoga, it transforms us, yoga forces us to live in the present, to focus on what is now in front of us and to being mindful of the here and now.
Once our yoga practice starts to be more than just another set of exercise and we connect deeply with ourselves, our body, emotions and mind, in other words when the transformation starts, we are confronted with unexpected consequences. We seek peace, but yoga brings anger and disharmony, we see happiness, but yoga brings sorrow and sadness or we seek love and yoga brings us rage and anger! We all respond differently to what yoga throw our way, I have noticed two kinds of responses:
- The nervous system sounds the alarm and moves us into a fight or flight lockdown.
- Or, the emotional energy that comes surging forth from our depths creates a state of denial or cognitive disassociation.
Whatever option we choose, each one forces us in a different way to look at ourselves and to start to acknowledge that we are on a path of change, of self-healing and making peace with the story of our lives.
Every life on this planet is worth a book! We all have a story to tell and in that story there are different chapters, actors and scenes. We constantly move in and out between the different stories and scripts. Some is simple stories: my grandmother died when I was 10 years old – this is what this sadness is about. Or more complex: my partner is abusive, cold and emotionally distant, he/she isn’t taking care of me – why I feel such anger and frustration. Or another scenario might be: look how my teacher is assisting that person over there; I’m clearly not one of his/her favourite students – reason for my resentment and jealousy. Our story usually fits our mental and emotional patterns (or samskaras). And this is the amazing aspect of yoga, it creates awareness of the patterns and the reasons why we repeat these patterns so that we can mindfully start to change our mind and say: I am not my father or I am not this pattern I am repeating, I am not this anger, this rage, this jealousy or depression. Once we cognitively start to recognise and realise that we are just repeating old samskaras, then the healing, the transformation can start to happen.
We have this amazing power within us, the power to change our story. Change is the only constant we can be sure of, so instead of fighting change, why not accepting it lovingly into your life and see how different your life might become!
Unfortunately affecting this change in our lives doesn’t come easy, the Ego will try to dissuade you from change, from transformation, it will always try to navigate back to the old familiar patterns and this is the challenge: to change before the pattern become too deeply ingrained. Our mind has specific way to cope with the different stories in life, it likes to run away with a story, give it so many add-ons that we later become confused and in this chaos of confusion we start to repeat old patterns, fear, anxiety, anger, resentment etc. reach into the depths of our consciousness and takes residence there. The danger is that later we cannot remember what the original issue was! This coping mechanism of our mind and Ego lure us away from the original and deep emotion that needs our attention. In this way, it reinforces the very patterns that clearly contribute to our suffering. And it short-circuits the opportunity the story gives us: to go inward and root out the long-standing samskaras that cause us suffering.
This might sound like a cliché, but there is great truth in the statement of my life partner: “Let’s not confuse the issues here!” Whenever we have a difference we need to sort out and I would bring in too many other issues, he would call a time-out moment and remind me of this. It is hard not to bring in other narratives and even harder to focus all our attention on this one story in the here and now. It is human nature it seems to reach to the depths of our minds and to pull out old stories and trying to connect them to what is happening in the here and now. Staying present, being mindful of the moment are tools that can assist us on our path, it can help us to handle our stories better, resolving them quicker, reaching an understanding of the why and how on a deeper level of our being. So yoga is about inhabiting our bodies in a deep way and teaching us to be mindful.
HOW YOGA HELPS
I have written about this, but I am going to repeat it here again: I have this little experiment I do in my yoga classes to illustrate certain truths – I would ask my yogis do to a simple Tree Pose, focusing all their attention on that pose for that moment. Amazingly, when we breathe deeply, focus our attention and will, we can all do a well balanced Tree Pose. I would bring them out of the pose, ask them to feel what they have done and then I would do the other side. Once they are in the pose I would ask them to think about their day, their problems, work, money problems etc. and like clockwork they would all lose the balance and focus. Yoga helps us to sort the issues, by forcing us to be in the moment, focus on what is at hand and to do that well. In that way yoga transforms us, makes us more focused, looking at the issues one by one and transform each one over time.
Have you ever left home for yoga class or work or going to a friend and when you arrive at your destination you can’t remember through how many traffic lights you are or any detail of other cars or anything from your journey? Or sometimes you read a book and three pages later you can’t seem to remember anything that happened or what you have read the last three or four pages? Of course you have, we all have! These are common examples of “mindlessness,” or as some people put it, “going on auto-pilot.”
We are all subject to the bad and good habits of our minds and bodies, of attention and inattention, of being in the here and now or being totally absent busy living in the past or future. Wherever we are the result is a us not being present most of the time in our own lives. And the unfortunate part of this inattention can be costly, we can miss really good opportunities, or we may miss information about our lives, our relationships or even about our health! However there is a way out of this inattention, we call it mindfulness.
It is important to note that we all have the quality of being mindful and the ability to apply and practice it within us. It is not a special skill you have to learn, in fact it is something natural in us and we just need to re-establish the habit and pattern to be mindful within us. To practice mindfulness is to first of let go of the idea that you are good at mutlitasking and to accept that we as humans are programmed to do one thing at a time and then we do it really good, we do it with mindfulness. It is the quality of bare awareness that knows what is here in the present moment. Mindfulness knows what is going on outside, and also, inside our own skin. However we experience life, through whichever sense gate life comes to us – eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, even the mind itself – mindfulness is capable of knowing that seeing, or hearing, or smelling, or tasting, or feeling, or even thinking – is happening in this, the present moment.
Truly living in the present moment isn’t easy, but it is highly rewarding. The best way to move forward on your own path to “here and now” is to understand the potential obstacles and plan in advance how you’ll deal with them.
It is an ongoing effort
Mindfulness isn’t something that just drops out of the sky and voila there you have it! It takes time and effort and constant reminding to be in the here and now. However, the more you practice it, the easier it gets to get into the habit of being in the here and now. As with most things in life, your mind will be fearful initially and your thoughts will be chaotic, your life would seem out of control. Previously you would cook, eat, feed the baby and dog and cover your son’s books at the same time, now you do one thing at a time and it might feel you’re wasting time, but give it a chance. Your situation will feel out of control and even helpless, but the more you focus on being fully where you are, the easier it will be to find peace of mind in the moment.
My Tip: Start small, baby steps, do one thing good and complete it and then move onto the next. Mindfulness is best practiced throughout your day. It’s not just for when you sit down and meditate. Focus on being mindful of your thoughts when you’re doing everyday tasks and it will be easier to remain mindful when things get tough.
There will always be distractions
It seems to be a law of the Universe, as soon as we start a journey there always seems to arrive more challenges with that journey as well. The distractions could be problems in your life, drama in your relationships, or old negative beliefs popping up from your past. Try to see the opportunity in the challenge – simply put you have an opportunity to practice present moment awareness and that is great! Our challenges will help us to become stronger, more resilient and better in tune with yourself.
My Tip: See the challenges, the distractions and difficulties not as negatives, but as wise teachers in disguise! They are really there to help you grow and realise who you are!
Be patient – progress takes time
We live in a world where we are forced into thinking that everything works like a McDonalds! Truth is our world needs slowing down, needs time, a plate of food that took time and attention to prepare taste so much better than a fast food hamburger, not true? Same with your progress, it might seems slow and excruciating, but have patience. There will be times when you attach to things and situations that you want, which will make it difficult to be fully in the present moment.
My Tip: It’s impossible to be mindful when you’re dwelling on the past or obsessing about the future. We all do those things sometimes. I’ve experienced it countless times in my own life. The more I want something, the more I fixate on not having it and wanting to get it. Once I release the attachment and focus on being grateful for what I have in the moment, my life seems to shift, and progress seems to happen naturally.
Don’t give up!
Any journey has that moment where we just want to give up or turn around. But it is during the times when you feel most frustrated that you are often on the verge of a breakthrough. Our lives are very similar to the seasons. We go through cold, dark winters, and joyful, expanding summers. It all comes and goes. It’s the ebb and flow of life.
My Tip: Realise that life is sometimes easier and expansive and other times it is difficult and contracting again. But, as you become more mindful of the challenging times, you realise they are there to help you grow and in time you will feel more peaceful and relaxed.
Our goals muddle our mindfulness
Being goal driven and orientated in life is necessary and fantastic. And the problem is not with having goals, but that we can become so attached to the “outcome” of our goals that we forget to be mindful of getting there. And the more we focus on the outcome and attach to the outcome, meaning we live in the future, the more frustrated, angry and negative we get. Sometimes to the point where we feel everything and everybody is against us!
My Tip: Attachment muddles our clarity. You’re likely pursuing your goals because you believe the outcomes will make you happy and not because you enjoy the journey! When we allow our goals to pull us too much into the future or even the past, it is not a goal anymore, but a chore that makes you unhappy! Focus on that which you want to achieve now, it will make you much happier!
The journey is the destination
Like the example with which I have started this article, most of us are barely aware of the journey, we miss the fact that the journey IS the reward, the utopia we looking for! Have you ever noticed that the path to reach a goal is much more exciting and interesting than reaching the goal itself? When we are young we look forward to being older and wiser and want to be older, but when we reach the milestone of a certain age we had in mind, suddenly that milestone doesn’t seem so great, but the journey to get to lets say 50 was such a great one!
My Tip: It is in the journey that we learn, grow, and become better. When you’re practicing mindfulness, remember that there is nowhere to arrive at. If you focus on what is going on right now, the rest take care of itself.
Sometimes you’ll want to be anywhere but in the now
In my life I have been in the presence of many great teachers, my own teacher Sri Durga, Sri Satya Sai Baba, Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, Swami Sahajananda of the Divine Life Society in South Africa and even they had to deal with difficult situations and chaotic thoughts from time to time. What I have learned from all of them is that it is easier to accept the moment for what it is than to fight it and trying to change it. When you do this, you become the guardian of your inner space and peace, which is the only way to feel good inside and find peace of mind, right now.
My Tip: Look to the journeys of those who went there before you and take inspiration from their journeys and know that your path will be full of opportunities to be great as well! It is up to you to recognise them!
When we set aside all the modern perceptions we have attached to yoga such as it makes you more flexible, develops core, helps you to lose weight, calms you down and we strip back the images of yoga is associated with the East, incense, chanting and mystical gurus, we are left with a system that is truly amazing in making you astute, strong and incredibly tactile on a physical, mental and emotional level. Here is why:
YOGA IS A WORK OUT
Many people are surprised that they can build up a sweat during a yoga class. It is not the same as the one you develop during a gym session lifting weights and running on a treadmill, but it is an intense sweat that tells you have done something much deeper and profound to your body. Most yogis will tell you also that they don’t know how to explain this phenomenon, but despite the stiff and sore muscles two days later they overall feel amazing, alive and much more connected to themselves. They find inner strength in their practice and I have many yogis who would tell me that if they skip a week of yoga they can feel it, physically, mentally and emotionally. So what is happening?
SO, WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?
Why has this 5,000 year old science suddenly become so popular?
Yoga does a lot more for the body than most people realize, it is not just about increasing flexibility or developing a calm mind. It is not necessary to sit in the crossed legged lotus position, chant OM, or be able to put your legs behind your head (but it does make for a very cool party trick!).
- develops strength and endurance,
- enhances your focus,
- improves your balance, and
- increases your performance in every aspect of your life
It works the whole body synergistically, working every joint, muscle and fibre improving all of your bodies functions.
Yoga is the best medicine for preventing injuries and aiding muscle recovery and repair. When the muscles and surrounding tissues are lengthened and relaxed during yoga asana it creates more room for blood to flow. And increased blood flow carries vital healing energies to those injured and inflamed parts of your body, thus accelerating healing.
This in turn attracts more oxygen to the area helping muscles to heal and grow, making them more effective for your next workout (and less sore in everyday life). As an added bonus yoga also helps to flush lactic acid from the system. The squeezing and releasing motions the yoga postures create invite the good stuff in and push the bad stuff out.
Practicing yoga also increases your range of motion (ROM) which is beneficial for all activities allowing you to swing further, reach higher, dip lower, step wider etc. With this increased ROM it is easy to see how you would be able to put more power and explosiveness behind your movements. With increase in muscle elasticity on top of this you are going to decrease you risk of injury tenfold.
BULK VERSUS TOTAL BODY CONSCIOUSNESS
Weight training and cardiovascular activity such as running tightens and shortens the muscles while yoga lengthens and builds functional strength. It teaches you how to use this strength effectively – look at an average yoga class, there are bodies of Vata, Pitta and Kapha, but they can all do more or less the same things you would throw at them during a standard yoga class. In a gym it is much more varied, some tiny body just can’t lift the same weights that a big bulky one can. But in a yoga class that same tiny body and that same bulky body will be able to do the same balance or stretch you throw at them. And this is what makes yoga so appealing and amazing, it is literally for every body!
What is the point of having all this strength if you can’t use it? The level of concentration needed to maintain balancing postures also gives you a great lesson in focus and the importance of having a calm mind.
WHY DOESN’T STATIC STRETCHING ACHIEVE THIS RESULT?
Yoga is different from other modes of stretching because it works on full muscle groups and not just isolated muscles, bringing all the little supporting muscles into the game as well. During your study of Anatomy, we have seen that many asanas can be used to help the neck, shoulder as well as the hip for example. A single asana can focus on 3 or 4 major muscles groups and work them as once. It is like opera, if you get 4 people to just speak, it will be chaotic, but is you add a tune and a piano for example they can sing that same dialogue in complete harmony to the ear. The same with yoga, the asana is the tune and adds the harmony needed by the body to make different muscles work together in great synchronicity.
Not only does yoga decrease the risk of injury it also can increase your muscle endurance and pain threshold. In yoga you learn correct breathing techniques that teach you how to have better control of your oxygen intake, monitoring the inhalations and exhalations allowing you to use the breath more efficiently as well as using it to move through pain.
Along with all the benefits you will gain physically it is also important to mention the mental clarity and focus gained from a regular yoga practise. Jumping on the mat allows you to draw the senses inwards for awhile and regain your composure and sense of self. It puts you back in touch with what is true for you and allows you to reassess where you are, and to start fresh every day.
It teaches you to work with what you have on that day because everyday the body has something different to offer and to teach. By coming more in touch with your body you are able to work with it, not against it. When you can hear what the body needs you are able to work together to go beyond your boundaries in a way you never considered before.
Personally for me one of the great benefits of yoga is that it teaches us to be present in the moment. I have done this many times in a class, I would ask my yogis to do an asana, usually a balancing one as it demonstrates this principle in yoga best, I would ask them to really concentrate, think, breath and then do it and hold the asana. The result is stunning everybody in the class is able to hold the balance in a steady manner for an extended time. I would bring them out, ask them to feel what they have done and then ask them to do the asana again. But this time as they start to hold the asana I would ask them to think about their day, problems at work or home and suddenly the whole class starts to fall apart! And this is the beauty of yoga, it teaches us that we can be in the moment, that it does help us to set our day and problems aside for a moment and that we can attain inner strength and tenacity from our practice.
So instead of asking me why you should be doing yoga perhaps I should ask you why you are not doing yoga. What have you got to lose?
Google “yoga and hypertension” or “yoga and high blood pressure” and the number of articles are just staggering in support of yoga being beneficial in assisting to regulate blood pressure. One thing is also very clear from all these articles and research and that is that yoga is not a cure for hypertension, just an aid in helping to ensure a lowered blood pressure. The one thing that is missing from most of these articles is the data to support their findings, so when one of my yogis who is busy doing her Yoga Teacher’s Training Course with me reached the module on yoga and high blood pressure, we decide it would be a good exercise for her to collect some data on blood pressures pre and post a yoga class.
The class was a normal Hatha yoga class of 45 minutes followed by a 15 minute period of relaxation. We basically took everybody’s BP before class and then again after class directly after relaxation session. And the info from that is in support of what most studies find, yoga does lower the blood pressure. With the exception of three blood pressures that showed an increase, the rest all decreased. Here with a chart of the pre and post BP’s:
Yoga can be a very effective and non-invasive way of reducing high blood pressure. It is particularly effective in reducing the diastolic number – which is the most important. It is suggested that people with high blood pressure should only practice certain asanas (postures), whilst acknowledging that there are other asanas that are not suitable for them. The yogic practices of meditation and pranayama (breathing exercises) are also particularly beneficial for people who suffer from high blood pressure. We did not include any specific pranayama, but focussed throughout the class on proper deep breathing. As an inversion we did include Halasana (plow pose) followed by Viparita Karani (legs up the wall pose). I gave no special instructions or warning during this class about what they could and couldn’t do, we decided that all classes would be uniform and the same practice was repeated for three classes.
People with high blood pressure are usually cautioned to be careful in approaching exercise. This is generally because vigorous exercise puts stress on the cardiovascular system, including raising heart-rate and blood pressure. Before engaging in any sort of exercise program, including yoga of any type or variety, people with any sort of cardiovascular condition including high blood pressure should consult their physician. However, yoga asanas are not considered to be cardiovascular exercises as such. Rather than placing the focus on cardiovascular fitness yoga is more about achieving a balance between body and mind, energizing your body in the process. According to The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali an “asana is a steady comfortable posture”. During most exercise practices the heart is put under stress as the requirement for blood and oxygen is increased. In asanas however, the requirement for blood and oxygen decreases as there are not strains and every muscle is relaxed. When done with conscious breathing asanas balance and stabilize autonomic nervous system resulting in the regulation of blood pressure.
The asanas that regulate the blood pressure belong to the forward bends, supine, sitting, and some of the inversions group. However forward bends are the fundamental asanas to be practiced by persons suffering from high blood pressure, as the sense organs: eyes, nose, throat and tongue are relaxed thereby resting the sympathetic nervous and creating a positive effect on the parasympathetic system. It the appendix of his book Light on Yoga, B. K. S. Iyengar recommends the following asanas for individuals suffering from high blood pressure: Plow Pose, Head to Knee Pose, Heroes Pose, Accomplished Pose, Lotus Position, Corpse Pose and the Pachimotonasana Series: Half Lotus Intense Stretch Pose, Three Limbs Facing Intense West Stretch and Seated Forward Fold.
Research also indicates that shoulder stand is particularly effective as the pose calms the body, “lowering blood pressure by clamping down on the carotids effectively making the local pressure very high. This sends a message to the parasympathetic system, which assumes that the brain tissues are suffering from too much blood, and orders the heart and circulatory system to compensate with pressure cuts.”[sic] (The Science of Yoga: the risks and the rewards – W.J Broad).
In addition to practicing asanas, Yogic breathing has been shown to have a positive effect on blood pressure. Even for those who’ve never been exposed to yoga before, deep breathing can help to reduce the effects of constant daily stress, including rise in blood pressure. Conscious breathing lowers blood pressure (as well as the amount of the stress hormone cortisol) that is present in the body. Extended pranayama can lead to a sustained lower heart rate. A recent study showed beneficial effects even from short-term practice of regular pranayama and meditation techniques, with significant reduction in resting pulse rate, systolic, diastolic and mean arterial blood pressure. Pranayama has been shown to influence the cardiovascular system with decrease in heart rate, and blood pressure:
- Uijayi Pranayama (or Victorious Breath): This is a balanced and calming breathing technique which builds heat in the body and increases oxygenation, it also this also affects the cartiod sinus which helps to normalize high blood pressure, and
- Naddi Shoddi (or alternate nostril breathing): This is very calming to the nervous system as a whole.
Meditation is another beneficial yogic practice for people with high blood pressure. The body’s physical reaction to stress is not always the same for everyone, but with negative stress there is no real relaxation between one stress situation and the next. Meditation is the study of concentration. The mind and body are very intimately connected; when the mind is completely at ease, the whole body gains complete rest. Practicing meditation techniques in times of physical or mental stress helps to manage the “fight or flight” response to negative stress and lower blood pressure.
There is no single meditation technique that is best for everyone. The right technique is the one which focuses the mind and to elicit the relaxation response. Some examples of meditation techniques are:
- Deep Breathing Meditation: This meditation can be practiced almost anywhere and is the cornerstone for many other relaxation practices.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation: A technique for reducing anxiety by alternately tensing and relaxing the muscles. As the body relaxes so too does the mind.
- Mindfulness: By focusing attention on a single repetitive action such as a word, mantra, breathing, picture or candle the mind becomes calm and focused, bringing the nervous system into balance.
- Yoga Nidra: A guided practice, which puts the body and mind into a deep state of relaxation.
According to many studies, high blood pressure is influenced by the stress and strain of the modern lifestyle. There is a wealth of clinically significant research that suggests adopting yogic practices and principles can help to improve health and mental well-being, increasing resiliency to stress, and, by extension, to high blood pressure. It may seem like stating the obvious, but if one reduces stresses on the mind and the body by eating healthy diet focused on pure, wholesome and nutritious foods, practicing yoga asanas, pranayama and meditation the blood pressure can be controlled within normal limits.
Important note: If you want to try any of the previous suggestions, do not stop any prescribed medications without consulting with your doctor first. Most of these studies have shown that alternative therapies have the ability to help people with pre or mild hypertension avoid medication, or help people who can’t tolerate medications, but are not effective enough for people with severe cases to get off medication altogether. People with hard-to-control blood pressure, however, can use these therapies in conjunction with medication to help bring their numbers down even more.
I recently did my annual Yoga Retreat (17-19 April 2015) with a group of my yogis at HaPhororo Retreat Centre in Hartbeespoortdam and would like to share some insights that came out of this retreat and again why a retreat is so important, the immeasurable value of a yoga retreat.
A retreat refreshes and revitalizes, gives the opportunity for more time spent in meditation, contemplation, yoga and rekindles and deepens one’s relationship with the Divine. A retreat is an opportunity to seek out Divine Grace, to surrender to the silence and hear the Inner Voice speaks and thereby attain a degree of spiritual renewal. The purpose of a spiritual retreat, as an addition to daily spiritual activities, is to temporarily leave behind the usual distractions we all face for a time long enough to allow relaxation and for an inner change to occur: the ongoing conversion of heart that is critical to deepening our resolve to stick to our chosen Spiritual Path.
When I think of retreats I am always inspired by Christ who went away for long periods or who got up very early in the morning to pray in a solitary place (Mark 1:35-37). Sometimes Jesus would spend an entire night in retreat: “In those days he departed to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God. (Luke 6:12). And, this is also relayed: “The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.’ People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat. So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place.” (Mark 6: 30-32) No doubt, the apostles were energized by the response of the crowds they encountered, but they still needed a chance to recharge before carrying on. A Yoga Retreat adheres to this calling and I want to encourage my yogis and every yogi to at least undertake one Yoga Retreat in your life with your teacher.
The Basic Elements of Retreat
Retreats differ from conferences, seminars, and meetings in that the primary work is interior spiritual development through a prolonged period of reflection rather than simply being exposed to information and techniques. The retreats I organised are based around a traditional offering of plenty own time for reflection balanced with activities (talks, yoga, walks, labyrinths, golden silence, meditation etc). For me a retreat must include:
- Minimum duration. A common format is a three day retreat that begins Friday evening and ends Sunday afternoon. However as everybody noted during our last retreat at HaPhororo, another day would have been beneficial. And we have decided to extend the end of the year Retreat with another day.
- Meals. Having meals at the retreat site avoids disruption of leaving to another location for meals or cooking it self; the meal becomes, instead, an effective component of the retreat and plays a role parallel to the fellowship meals that Jesus shared with his Apostles. HaPhororo offered us a delectable and fantastic vegetarian meal three times dialy. It is important to realise just as the soul is nourished during a retreat the body will need good sattvic nourishment to keep up with the spiritual nourishment.
- Adequate time specifically set aside for meditation, contemplation and silence. Each retreat should maintain a balance between meditation, contemplation, silence and the other activities. It is in the moments of silence that we internalize and grasp the spiritual lessons we learned during a retreat. It is during these moments of silence that our understanding of yoga and our own spiritual side deepens.
- A restful setting, with availability of nature walks. In order to accomplish the goal of “retreat,” the site should have some degree of insulation from the ordinary busy life; even if located in the heart of a city, the retreat site should have grounds for walking and a relatively quiet and peaceful atmosphere and Haphororo strike a wonderful balance in this case.
- Personal space. We all need personal space away from the other retreat goers at some point during the day to reflect on our own, to rest, a retreat is hard work on many levels, and HaPhororo offered excellent accommodation with ample opportunity for privacy.
- Spiritual direction. Though not everyone may take advantage of it, my retreats offer the opportunity for yogis to speak to me, to get guidance, spiritual direction and for many a retreat renew their commitment to their spiritual path.
Encouraging Retreat Participation
Usually personal retreats can be arranged with very little effort and the retreat centre leave it up to you what and how much you want to do. Personally I am not for this type of retreat, because very often you end up doing nothing and the purpose of visiting a retreat site is lost.
A group retreat inherently encourage individuals on the retreat to participate, to get involved and ultimately your participation lead to greater and deeper understanding, the development of your own inner wisdom and also grasping the path of yoga more fully.
If you are in another country or even city in South Africa and you are reading this, I want to encourage you to do a retreat and a retreat is best done with your own teacher. I know there are many retreats being advertised, but I do not encourage people to do a retreat with a stranger. Only your teacher will know you, if your teacher doesn’t do retreats, why not encourage them to present a retreat.
To Yoga Teachers (South Africa only)
Are you a yoga teacher and want to present a retreat but have no idea what to do on a retreat, how to go about it? I will present a Retreat Workshop for Yoga Teachers in 2016, if you are interested please send me a message and I will contact you with all the costs, dates and venue information. I have spend many hours and days with my own teacher on retreats, attend various retreats in India in 2005, 2007 and 2009. I have conducted 5 retreats with my own yogis up to date and would like to impart and share my knowledge with other teachers who would like to offer retreats to their yogis.
Yoga has always been practiced in both the East and West, so it would be an error to consider yoga as exclusively “Eastern”. In fact, yoga, with its powerful techniques for creating a sense of inner peace, harmony, and clarity of mind, is absolutely relevant to the modern world – both East and West. Given the increasing pace and conflict present in modern life, with all its resulting stress, one could say that yoga has become an essential tool for survival, as well as for expanding the creativity and joy of our lives.
Although yoga does not “belong” to the East, it is easiest to trace its roots there, because cultural change has not obscured the origins of the science, and an ongoing tradition of yoga has continued to the present day. No one person “invented” yoga – yoga is a living tradition, a set of practices that dates back for centuries. And as such I would like to introduce some thoughts on the 5 Yamas that might make it easier for the Western yogi to understand and assimilate into his/her life.
AHIMSA – THE ACT OF NON-VIOLENCE
For many Western yogis this Yama is problematic in the sense that many yoga teachers immediately associate it with their diets and going vegetarian, not harming animals by not eating them and some teachers will paint the horrors of abattoirs to the yogis to drive home their point. However, those same teacher’s fridges are packed with amazing veggies, fruits and nuts flown in from the Middle-East, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. All the linen, plates and glasses in their cupboards are imported from China – because it was so cheap!
My approach is to consider the violence that was perpetrated against the Earth to get those magnificent veggies, fruits and nuts to South Africa. How much Ahimsa is in your decision to buy imported stuff from China if you consider their poor human rights record (think Tibet here), disregard for the environment and life in general, lost jobs in your own country because you support them by buying their goods?
For me Ahimsa starts with the little things we do. Support local farmers and their produce, that way you keep people in a job and you minimise your violent carbon foot print on the Earth. Support local industry by buying what is produced in your country at much better quality usually that the stuff from China. Once you have done that, then consider more challenging issues such as vegetarianism, again nobody says you have to be a vegetarian to do yoga, but perhaps you can support Meat Free Mondays or cut back on your meat consumption to say three times a week initially?
I know many yogis who are vegetarians who commit so much violence against their bodies because they insist to follow a lifestyle that is strictly speaking not suitable for everybody. They are ill, have all sorts of muscular problems, so many is diabetic and most of them are severely depressed due to a lack of B-vitamins in their diets and resort to violent medication to help them “cope” with life – not much Ahimsa in such a life either.
SATYA – THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE
Most of us try not to lie, we earnestly strive to be honest in our daily life and for most Western yogis this Yama is actually the easy one. Thou shall not tell lies, is one of the 10 Commandments so we grew up with it, we are experienced in this Yama.
However, Satya is more than just not telling lies. It is about telling the truth about yourself as well. It is a known fact that people, who are honest about themselves to others, are in fact much happier than individuals who withhold info about themselves or who pretend to be straight if they are in fact gay for example. This extends to your truth on your spiritual life as well; do you live two spiritual lives – one for the yogis and one for the friends and family not to upset them too much? Sometimes it is difficult and scary to that honest as we all fear rejection, judgement and criticism. But, living in fear constitutes living a lie and it is not worth the sadness and anger that comes with such a life.
Satya has wonderful benefits and here are a few to ponder and consider:
- Truthfulness grounds you in yourself. We weather the emotional storms much better when we are truthful, we are less dependent on approval from others and the pressure to conform is reduced.
- Truthfulness makes you trustworthy—both to yourself and to others. Other people see your transparency and feel that they can trust you.
- Truthfulness deepens relationships. It opens the door for genuine intimacy. Your honesty promotes honesty in others. It empowers them and gives them permission to be honest themselves. When people share honestly with each other about their feelings and their needs, everyone is more likely to have their needs met.
ASTEYA – DO NOT STEAL MY ENERGY
Again Asteya is a Yama that we are familiar with in the Western and Christian view of the world. It is one of the 10 Commandments and a Yama that we practiced since a very young age. But I want to look beyond the physical act of not stealing to the subtle art of spiritual stealing that most of us commit.
When we speak about theft at its core, it is when a person believes that anything is his – his money, his belongings, his spiritual growth, his spiritual connection. When a person is of the consciousness that these things are mine, he is stealing. Why? Because the truth is that everything is from the Divine. Nothing is really ours.
Your daily life is made up by the concept that this is mine and that is yours and we get upset when people intrude and “steal” from us. When we start to implement and practice Asteya it is inevitable that our worldview will also start to change from mine to ours. As long as we belief this and that is mine, it obscures our truth (Satya) and almost every argument and every form of negativity that comes about in a person’s life is based upon this concept of mine. And that is the stealing, to which I would like to refer here.
BRAHMACHARYA – A LIFE WITHOUT SEX?
In the classical understanding of yoga Brahmacharya refers to exactly that, celibacy, life without sex and this is a ghastly thought for many Westerners as most yogis in the West today are not monk, sannyasas or ascetics living in mountain caves or ashrams somewhere in the Himalayas. No, most Western yogis are householders, they are already married or in relationships and this will be an unfair expectation to most. On another level we refer to it then as fidelity in your relationship, being faithful and trustful to your partner in life. However, I want to look at the spiritual aspect of Brahmacharya.
We live in an age where we are bombarded with new spiritual ideas and concepts on a daily basis. And the temptation to take from that path and from this one and from that one is great, because we see in each of them something that rings true for us. However, my yoga teacher, Sri Durga Devi, was adamant that once we have investigated and explored all the paths, we should choose a path and stick to that path. Be faithful to that path, defend it no matter what and this is the spiritual Brahmacharya we all must practice at some point. My path is the path of yoga, I’ll defend it always and first and foremost I will promote it as one of the best paths to follow, I’ll always answer a question with yoga philosophy in mind, I’ll always ask myself what would my own teacher have said. The value of practicing spiritual Brahmacharya to your path is legio, but the greatest is that your focus is concentrated and you can make much bigger spiritual jumps than when you are unfaithful to your path and take a little from this path and a little from that one.
APARIGRAHA – DO I WANT OR DO I NEED
The principle idea behind Aparigraha is that we should strive to live a life that is not ruled by greed. Problem is in the World today we have constructed a world economy and financial system that is inherently based on greed. It is also in the nature of humans to want to have more and big business knows this and they pounce on this human trait by means of advertising which is based on fear most of the time.
In South Africa there is an advertisement for a large banking group where a man stands in a shop looking at a pair of shoes and he really desire to have those shoes. Then there comes a voice that asks if he wants it of if he needs it? His answer is:”I want to need it!” Unfortunately this is where the good part of the ad stops, next moment they offer him a credit card with which his greed is then fulfilled.
Most of us are on a daily basis torn between what we want and what we need and the practice of Aparigraha becomes so much more important for us. When I am torn between what I want and need, I always take a moment and ask myself do I really need this or is it just my greed, my fears that let me belief I want it. It’s a simple practice, but it has helped me not only to save thousands of Rands over the last ten years of my life, but it has paved the way for a simpler and less complicated existence as well, and there in is the value of Aparigraha for the yogi.