benefits

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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The Yamas – A Western Interpretation

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Ymas

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.

Yoga at Home – Developing a Home Practice

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Most of us want to do yoga 3-4 times a week, however there are time, money and other constraints such as family life and work. And on top of that it is for most of us a challenge to know where to start. By the time you get home, you have most probably forgot the intricate yoga class your teacher sequenced and tomorrow morning you are stuck because for the life of you, you just can’t remember what your teacher did or even said. So where do you start? I would like to share a few tips with and hope it will put you on the right path as it helped me years ago to develop my own home practice.

Space & Time

First set a special spot aside where you will only practice yoga, where your cats and dogs can’t distract you or bother you for attention and where you can build your yoga energy. If you would like to do your yoga in your garden, choose a spot and make sure you feel comfortable there. What time to practice? I personally like to practice at the end of my day, late afternoon, but this is me, you can choose a time that would be more conducive to you and your practice, but make sure you can stick to that time on the days you have selected to do a home practice.

Have a goal in mind

The next tip is to decide initially why do you want to develop a home practice. It is to relief some physical pain? Do you just want to do it to relax? Or do you want to develop your core? Choosing a specific reason why you want to develop a home practice assist you in sticking to that programme and time. If the objective is just to add more yoga to your life, there is little motivation behind it for you, which will cause you most probably to abandon the practice.

But, having a specific goal in mind – for example I want to do yoga to help with my back pain – helps you to stick to programme and it also narrows down the asanas you have to remember. If your yoga teacher has knowledge of you back problem, he/she has already indicated in class which asanas are beneficial for your problem. So listen in the class and remember the asanas that are specific to your problem.

Or, do you want to develop a yoga home practice to help you to relax after a hard day, again listen to your teacher, he/she will indicate which asanas are calmative and relaxing. Also remember the ones that made you feel relaxed and more in tune with yourself and add them to your home practice.

Practice a shorter flow

It will be a long time before you will be able to remember a full 45 minute sequenced class. So, what is the solution? Practice a shorter version of a class and do the asanas you can remember. My yoga teacher, Sri Durga, use to say that the benefit of yoga is not in the doing of the asana, but in the holding. Why not try to do a few asanas, but really try to hold them and repeat them, there is no rule that says you can’t repeat an asana for, five or even six times! And limit your time initially to 15 or 20 minutes, stop, relax then and get off your mat and continue your day.

Add Pranayama & Meditation

A home practice isn’t just asanas. How about adding pranayama as part of your home practice? In class there is most probably very little time for a long session of pranayama, but at home you have the perfect opportunity to get into Anuloma Viloma Pranayama for example and work on those in breaths and activate those stomach muscles to help with the out breath. And, after that pranayama you have the perfection moment for a good meditation. Remember the Eight Limbs of yoga doesn’t consist of asana and pranayama only, there are the yamas and niyamas, pratyahara, dharana (do candle gazing to add to your concentration), dhyana and then samadhi – these can all be added to your home practice.

Last tips

The most important aspect of your home practice is that you do what is good and fun for you. Sometimes you can challenge yourself with an asana you struggle with, but please always remember – Safety First! If you want to, add props like straps, blocks and bolsters to help you with your home practice. And lastly, always end your practice with a relaxation in Savasana (corpse pose), you can use your favourite music or some guided relaxation on a CD or DVD to end your session.

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.

Yoga for Back Pain

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Many people when calling me for yoga classes want to know if yoga will help their back pain. And usually my answer to them is yes. However before you consider yoga as an alternative therapeutic form for your back pain, there are a few considerations. Whether you have acute or chronic back pain or just sciatica, you should first visit your doctor and ensure that you have the endorsement of your doctor to start yoga. Reducing back pain in your life will be a team effort between you, me and your doctor and in that regard I will need all the information you have about your pain.

 In the case of Yoga for back pain or sciatica, most people usually first feel a worsening of the back pain as your muscles start to adjust to the asanas and the new postures your body is required to perform. People suffering from sciatica usually find immediate relief and long term healing. Depending on the severity of your back pain and the years of neglect through diet and lack of exercise and proper care yoga will make it either worse initially or it will bring immediate relief. However, I find that most people with back pain have neglected their muscles and bodies to such an extent that building them up through yoga takes considerable time and effort coupled with a severity in back pain before they start to reap the benefits of a regular yoga practice.

 After trying a variety of solutions, most people tend to continue with anything that helps them manage, or eliminate pain. With that said, Yoga asana classes are often part of a larger solution for pain management and in some cases, the complete elimination of back pain.

 Also remember that going to a general yoga class where there is a mix of people with different needs, that the asanas will not be specific for your problem. Therefore, it would be wise to schedule  private Yoga sessions with me in order to compile a programme that will benefit your problem most.

 A short description of back pain

 Back pain is a common musculoskeletal symptom that may be either acute or chronic. It may be caused by a variety of diseases and disorders that affect the lumbar spine.

 Low back pain may be experienced in several different ways:

  • Localized. In localized pain the patient will feel soreness or discomfort when the doctor palpates, or presses on, a specific surface area of the lower back.
  • Diffuse. Diffuse pain is spread over a larger area and comes from deep tissue layers.
  • Radicular. The pain is caused by irritation of a nerve root. Sciatica is an example of radicular pain.
  • Referred. The pain is perceived in the lower back but is caused by inflammation elsewhere—often in the kidneys or lower abdomen.

A short description of sciatica

 The sciatic nerve is irritated just as it leaves the spinal cord. It is unusual to feel sciatica symptoms in the back. Usually the pain is felt along the ‘distribution’ of the nerve or in other words in the area that the nerve supplies. This means that sciatica is often felt as a spreading leg pain.

 Pain resulting from irritation of the sciatic nerve, typically felt from the low back to behind the thigh and radiating down below the knee. Diagnosis is by observation of symptoms, physical and nerve testing, and sometimes by X-ray or MRI if a herniated disk is suspected.

 In conclusion, yoga can definitely help to alleviate your back or sciatic pain, but this is not an instant cure, it will take time, effort and discipline in the beginning. However, you should be able to experience relief within the first 6-12 months of a regular and dedicated asana practice. During private sessions we will also consider the emotional, mental and spiritual causes and issues for sciatica and back pain, as most pain isn’t just a purely physical condition.