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Inflexible Body vs. Inflexible Mind

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body-pain1-400x232It 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.

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How Yoga unlocks your Potential for Transformation

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yoga-enlightenmentIn 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:

  1. The nervous system sounds the alarm and moves us into a fight or flight lockdown.
  2. 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.

YOUR STORY

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!

THE CHALLENGE

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.

THE SOLUTION

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.

You, Yoga & Hypertension

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Heart-DiseaseGoogle “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:

BP Post

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.

BP Chart

ASANAS

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).

PRANAYAMA

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

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.

STRESS

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.

The Yoga of Changing Your Mind

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“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” ~Buddha

Buddha

Many of us has programmed our lives with certain statements, ideas and thoughts, which we belief to be true and we repeat this process of affirming these statements, ideas and thoughts on a daily basis. Sometimes we repeat the same statement over and over to such an extend that we become that statement. The sad part of most these statements, ideas and thoughts are that they are repeated out of fear, ignorance and because we firmly belief that is who I AM.

My career life started out in 1994 as a 2nd language teacher and during my first year (I started teaching in the middle of the year) I inherited a class who was neglected by their previous teachers and who had a 0% pass rate in Afrikaans 2nd language. They all belief that they couldn’t spell and they didn’t want to learn Afrikaans (at that point SA changed from Apartheid government to the democratic elected ANC-led government) and would usually use statements such as “I don’t want to learn Afrikaans” or “I have never been able to spell” or “I don’t need languages, I am going to be a scientist” to convince me to give up on them.

Initially my work was less about teaching them Afrikaans than it was about teaching them that a change in their beliefs about themselves and changing their minds about their future will benefit them.

“I never want to hear you say you’re not good at Afrikaans in my class again,” I’d say. I’d ask them to switch to “I’m learning Afrikaans” or “I’m getting better at Afrikaans” or “I’m working on my spelling.”

So whenever they would employ negative self-talk I would draw their attention to that, stop the class and then transform it into positive statements. “I know it sounds freaky, but give it a chance,” I’d have to say. “Yes, I know it you don’t feel like changing your mind yet!” They’d roll their eyes and just laughed at me. Slowly but surely some of them started to change their minds, started to realise the impact of positive self-talk in their lives and some of them actually started to enjoy Afrikaans. Some of them employ it in their other subjects and they were less overwhelmed at the enormity of passing matric that year. By the end of that year and in the final exam nearly 60% of that class passed Afrikaans.

Keep Calm and Change Your Mind

Most of us repeat negative thinking patterns and self-defeating ideas, we sometimes nurture it, because that is all we know and we feel safe in them, even though we wish at the same time we could change it all. Well, there is a way out, it can change and that change starts with you changing your mind!

Let’s draw the class with language issue closer to our own lives. For a moment think of a statement that you hold to be true for you. Now, think carefully, where does that statement come from, who told you that it is true for you? And why do you keep nurturing that statement, even though you know it is not true for you, even though you know it makes you unhappy and want to change it.

If you read this blog, I am sure you know what is an affirmation. And this is the golden key to changing you mind and ultimately your life. Affirmations – I’m sure you’ve heard about them. An affirmation is, simply, positive self-talk, its a way of changing your mind. It’s a statement about ourselves or our situation, phrased in the present tense as if the statement is already true.

Affirmations are agents of change in our lives. I’d like to share with you 4 steps which I use to create mind changing affirmations: 

  1. Identify your negative self-talk, thoughts, ideas and beliefs about yourself.
  2. Take those thoughts, ideas etc and create an affirmation for each one out of what you have written down.
  3. The next step is to carry those affirmations with you and use them, daily!
  4. And in time you’ll see the change you want to see in your life.
1. Step One: Identify those negative ideas and thoughts

I know you would want to type it on your PC or Tablet, but be old fashioned, sit down, think about them and write them down in a diary or journal. It is important that we physically connect our neurons with these ideas and thoughts on paper and at the same time we intuitively connect to them as well. What our bodies do, our subconscious learns from.

Fold a the page in your journal in half lengthwise, and then unfold it. On the lift side, write a list of those self-limiting statements you’ve been thinking and saying. “I can’t afford a new car.” Or “It’s hard to lose weight.” Or “I’ll never be successful in my career.”

Now, for a few days listen to yourself, write down the negative self-talk, thoughts and ideas as they arise, make note of the situation in which they have arise and why. Once you are sure you have exhausted that topic it is time for the next step.

2. Step Two: Create some affirmations out of those old beliefs.

This is the difficult step in this process. You need to create new statements for yourself, positive ones that can replace the old ones. Remember your fear of the unknown, your comfort zone will make it initially difficult to come up with new statements, but persist, it will come to you.

Down the right side of your paper, across from each left-side statement, write a new one that transforms that negative statement into a positive.

Examples:

  • “I can’t afford a new car” becomes “A new car is a real possibility for me.”
  • “It’s hard to lose weight” becomes “Losing weight is easy for me.”
  • “I’ll never be successful in my career” becomes “I’m good at my job and deserves success.”

The new statements must be in the present tense. Write “I am…” rather than “I will be…” or “I’m going to be…” Avoid using the word “try” because “I’m trying” is a self-perpetuating statement.

To get around your disbelief about writing something that feels untrue and seems impossible, you can write things like “I’m learning to….” and “I’m getting better at….” It’s still present tense, still a positive affirmation. Something like “I’m getting better at saving money” might feel better than “I’m good at saving money.”

3. Step 3: Begin using the new affirmation statements.

The next step is to make those affirmations part of your life and to start to belief them. As you repeat them over and over they will become the new tune according to which your life will unfold.

However, I have to warn you, changing years and years of programming isn’t easy, it take will, effort and determination to change your mind. And if you slip, don’t stay and wallow in the mud, pick yourself up and start by repeating those new affirmations again. If you catch yourself thinking or saying any of your old (negative) beliefs, stop yourself. Transform it into the positive, right then and there.

Ask your family and friends to help by simply pointing out any negative self-descriptions when you say them. When they do, transform the negative to the positive immediately, and say the new statement aloud to them.

You’re literally changing your mind.

4. Step 4:  See the Change unfolding

Goethe said: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” 

Changing your mind doesn’t happen over night. But starting to manifest a positive life with greater possibilities must be better than what we have. The power of this process is, as you change, those around you will see the change, and they will be influenced by that change. You become a powerful agent for change not only in your own life, but also in the lives of those around you. And that is an empowering thought I think.

Want to do yoga in Pretoria?

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Yoga is a wonderful system of both physical (asanas) as well as spiritual (different yogas such as bhakti etc.) practices that can assist any person, young or old, over weight or just right, long or short to add flexibility, strength and a general feeling of well-being, peace and clam to your body.

Yoga is also suitable for people who suffer from sciatica, lower back pain, various stress related problems such as depression and anxiety, high blood pressure (if under control) and diabetes to help them to better control these afflictions.

So if you want to help yourself with the greatest gift ever, live in Pretoria, South Africa and want to challenge yourself a little bit, here is my details. It is never too late to start yoga.

For costs, venue, times and days, please see the side bar on your right for more details.