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.
Shortly after people started doing yoga with me, they want to know when will I teach them meditation. And great is their surprise when I usually tell them that they are already busy learning meditation since the very first class. Yoga in its very nature is a meditation of the body and once the body and nerves have sufficiently been calmed and prepared by a regular yoga asana practice, then only can I start to teach meditation. This process in the West takes anything from about 6-8 months.
As Westerners, we need to understand that our bodies and nervous system is condition to our very active and rajastic lifestyle, work and play environment. Another problem initially is our bodies itself, as we are not used to sit cross-leg for long periods of time, within five minutes of an untrained body the body will become restless, legs will start to itch and needles and pins will develop, this is all signs that your body needs more yoga asana and that your nervous system is still too excitable to sit for meditation. As I live in South Africa, many white people doing yoga with me have the typical large Germanic bone structure and many of the Africans have also a large structure, which makes sitting in meditation that more challenging. Back issues, poor core strength and very inflexible hips makes the sitting worse for many.
It is my experience that a person who starts with meditation in an unconditioned body don’t persist with the practice, while a person who has sufficiently being prepared through an asana practice is much more persistent and successful in the long-term with their meditation practice.
This meditation article addresses the techniques to lead you to meditation and how to choose your own daily meditation practices.
Meditation: Practice the Art of mindfulness
“Calmness is the ideal state in which we should receive all life’s experiences,” writes Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, in the book Inner Peace. Yogananda is regarded as one of the great spiritual teachers melding East and West. Through meditation, he writes, one can cultivate a wonderful inner quiet that will melt away stress and nervousness.
To meditate, you need to break away for a brief moment from your everyday schedule and life. Start by switching off your cellphone, unplug your landline, shutdown your computer, ask your family to allow you some time on your own and ask them not to interrupt you. In other words you need to ensure that you won’t be interrupted during this time.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Where Should I Meditate? You may wish to set aside a special corner of one room, your own private sanctuary, a calm, quiet and peaceful place. You might furnish the area with objects or icons that have spiritual meaning for you, developing a little altar or shrine. Use what will put you into a contemplative frame of mind. You may want to enlist the help of Mother Nature by bringing a lovely rose with a beautiful fragrance or spend time at the ocean listening to the surf crashing upon the rocks in you live near the sea, or for me a peaceful walk barefoot through my own garden puts me immediately in the right frame, or stand near a stream with water, a waterfall or even a water feature in your garden, anything that you know that will calm you down will be appropriate.
- How Should I Sit When I Meditate? The classic posture is to sit with legs folded and hands resting quietly on the lap or the knees. And I would suggest that you make yourself as comfortable as possible in this position. Use more cushions under the tailbone to give your pelvis a tilt and a more comfortable position, the key is to find a way of sitting that is comfortable for you. I do not recommend laying flat on your back as this position reminds the body of sleeping and this usually happens very quickly.
- Should My Eyes Be Open or Closed? I recommend closing the eyes, especially if you are new to meditation, this way you withdraw a key sense from the outside world and it already becomes so much easier to still the mind if there is one less sense that stimulates it. Also keep the face “soft” by relaxing all the facial muscles, drop the jaw slightly and these simple steps should already make it easier for you to become more relaxed and mindful.
- How Long Should I Meditate? There is no fixed time frame. Initially I recommend a sitting of just five minutes for about three months just to condition the body and then a gradual increase over time. The secret is to listen to your body, over time it will tell you how long it will and want to sit. Another big issue is how much time do you have? If you have only about ten minutes say in the morning, then you sit in meditation for only ten minutes. Flow with your own time is key for me. As Sogyal Rinpoche writes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: “your practice should bring you bring you to a certain state of mindfulness and presence, where you are a little open and able to connect with your heart essence.” To begin, try short sessions; then break for one minute. “It’s often during the break that meditation actually happens!” writes Rinpoche. It may also be useful to get into the habit of setting aside the same times every day, be they for prayer or meditation. David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and author, recommends rising 15 minutes earlier than usual to give your day a “contemplative dimension.” Without these precious moments, he says, “your whole day can slip away into a mad chase,” but with them your entire day can be imbued with meaning and joy.
- Other considerations: Add ritual to your meditation, ritual creates familiarity for the mind and it relaxes the mind. Do things such as lighting a candle, put a flower on your altar and burn some incense. Avoid modern mixtures such a vanilla, cinnamon and strong fragrances such as rose. Start with either sandalwood or frankincense, it is said that they aid meditation and relax the mind and body. Create some ritual for yourself. After I have lit my candle and incense, I immediately go to my seat, sit and then peacefully I offer myself and my day to the Divine, then I start with a few breathing exercises and usually after the breathing slipping into the mindful state is much more easier. To end your meditation say a peace prayer or the Universal Prayer or some prayer that you like. Then add some ritual again by putting out your candle and incense if it is still burning.
Four Basic Ways to Practice Meditation
- Follow your breath: This is the most universal of all mindfulness techniques. First, exhale strongly a few times to clear the base of the lungs of carbon dioxide. It is helpful to review the technique for following the deep breathing method of imagining a lotus blossom residing in your lower abdomen; as the breath fills the belly, the petals of the blossom expand; as you exhale, the petals close back up. Slowly and gradually as the mind relax, let go of the conscious breathing and allow it to just happen as the mind become still and contemplative. The moment the mind wanders off, worrying about problems, start to consciously breath again and repeat until the mind learn to let go and relax.
- Observe an icon or object: Allow your mind to rest lightly on an object. If you come from the Christian tradition, this might be an image of Christ, the Virgin Mary or the Holy Spirit. Images of the Eastern gods and goddesses may also help you or a statue of the Buddha may be the object of you focus or even a candle flame. Again, focus with the eyes open on the image, as the image become etched in your vision slowly close the eyes and keep that image in your mind’s eye as long as possible, the moment the image disappear and the mind starts to wander, open the eyes and concentrate again on the image, repeating this process until the mind can relax and keep the image.
- Recite a mantra: A mantra literally means “that which protects the mind.” So reciting a mantra protects you with spiritual power. It is also said that when you chant a mantra, you are charging your breath and energy with the energy of that particular mantra. Again, choose something with meaning for you within your spiritual tradition: recite the Rosary, for example. Tibetan Buddhists use a mantra for peace, healing, transformation and healing. “Recite the mantra quietly, with deep attention, and let your breath, the mantra and your awareness become slowly one,” writes Rinpoche.
- Do a Guided Meditation: Guided meditation is akin to guided imagery, a powerful technique that focuses and directs the imagination toward a conscious goal. However, for this meditation you either need somebody to instruct you on what next to imagine or you need a CD with guided meditations.
Is It Really Meditation?
The techniques described here are meditation practices rather than meditation itself, which is often described by experienced practitioners as “a state of being — a state of receptivity without expectation, a merging with the Divine.” All of the techniques are practice to get to this final merged state.
Therefore, meditation practice is not meditation. One might practice meditation for years to achieve a meditative state of being. An experienced meditator might meditate for an hour to achieve a few moments of meditative consciousness.
The Benefits of Meditation Are Subtle
While you may not feel flashes of insight when practicing meditation, its effects will become apparent to you later, when you may notice that you responded to a crisis with uncharacteristic calmness, or failed to get “triggered” in a situation that would normally disturb you. Trust in the process, let go of your expectations of achieving “results” (after all, meditation is not a contest), and you will reap the results.
The real miracle of meditation, says Rinpoche, is a subtle transformation that happens not only in your mind and your emotions but also in your body. And, this transformation is a healing one. “Even your cells are more joyful.”