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.
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?
On the social media networks, i.e. blogs, Twitter and Facebook, I recently followed a hot discussion about how to find the right yoga teacher and issues such as qualifications, ability to do intricate and all asanas, ability to explain yoga philosophy and to understand yoga in the larger “Hindu” context, all came up as relevant “qualifications” for a competent yoga teacher. The discussion even went so far as to discuss reasons for having an affair with your yoga teacher and then morphed into a discussion when and why you should dump your yoga teacher. The issue of one teacher versus a variety of teachers, styles and classes also came up for discussion.
However, the entire discussion failed to mention the role of the “student” in this whole process. Basic issues like the duties, responsibilities and commitments of the student were never even mentioned. No one touched on the inherent nature of the teacher/student relationship and the way we learn any discipline like yoga. Yes, yoga is a discipline and in the word discipline you can even read the word disciple and while most yoga students are looking for a teacher, most teachers are looking for disciplined disciples. The “teacher” question is handled more like I am going to shop something these days rather than this is my teacher, this is my student, what do we mutually bring to the mat – discipline and commitment.
- Interaction: You have shopped around, phoned a round and looked around and have been to a few classes and suddenly most students think they are now able to make a judgment based on a single interaction of not even two hours. Allow yourself plenty of interaction with your new or chosen yoga teacher before you decide he/she is not for me. Take at least a month and then make the decision.
- Senior in training and experience: Many students walk into a class and simply forget this simple fact; most teachers are still very much senior in training and experience. Period. And even though they might not be able to do all asanas, they do have an intimate knowledge about yoga and how it can help you.
- Odd and weird behaviour: So you have your eye on a teacher, but he/she has a few odd behaviours or he/she talks about topics such as karma and reincarnation and you don’t agree with it? This is the most dangerous trap you can fall into! To simply judge a teacher based on odd behaviour, they way they look or talking about stuff I don’t like or agree with, that is subjective and extremely short sighted and will rob you of the opportunity to actually learn something. To say that there is not a single thing to learn from any senior person is highly pretentious and makes such a person a ‘bad’ student.
- Your commitment: Regularity, urge to learn, passion for practice, humility, desire to transform, perseverance and much more is needed by a student to learn even from the ‘best’ teacher. Do you have these qualities? There are many yoga aspirants, but few yoga students and teachers are looking for those students who have the commitment to stay even in the face of the humiliation when the teacher starts to expose your ego.
- It is a spiritual path: Yoga is a spiritual path. You may wish to ignore it, you may think that you teach just asana, but eventually yoga leads to the spiritual even though you may just teach asana. One can see it as anything else only if there is an overriding personal agenda or a conditioned, anaemic view of spirituality. Unlike other religions, yoga upholds a 3-tier model of spirituality of which the physical is an integral part and gross asanas go hand in hand with subtle meditation. That’s why yoga can be viewed as absolutely material or absolutely esoteric or anything in between. Being essentially spiritual, a yoga teacher has to have a different kind of relationship with the students. A yoga teacher has to show a much deeper understanding of the psyche and the spirituality than physical wellness.
- Sharing insight: A yoga teacher has to go far beyond the qualifying few hundred hours of training and be open to the opportunity to learn and gain insight from your own practice every day and your students. If you think you are above learning then you are wrong and shouldn’t be teaching.
- You are the mirror: If you see your student only as a source of income, you have to think twice about why you are teaching. Yes, the exchange of energy, physical for monetary, is important, but you are the mirror for your students and as such a ‘source of redemption’. Can you reflect back to them and ensure that what they see is what they need to learn? And vice versa, can you look at them and see those aspects of yourself which they reflect back?
- End it now: A yoga teacher should know instinctively how far he/she can guide a student and at what point to hand over to the next teacher. If a student has any amount of discomfort it is the teacher who would know that first and care for it. A student is his/her ‘total’ responsibility. Such a teacher is called ‘guru’ and by that yardstick many certified teachers may be just ‘demonstrators’ of athletic skills. Like a true leadership is not residing in a leader but embedded in the followers’ mindsets, a yoga student’s allegiance to a teacher has to be born in the student’s self-view and not on a signed form. Know when to end the teacher/student relationship with a student, no matter how painful it may be.
All our learning is incremental. We learn a new thing only as an addition to the already known, and also use the known as a filter in the learning process. It is difficult to learn to learn; especially with the pedagogic constraints of school education. Mind plays a catalytic role as well as an indulgent one. So, in learning how we learn we have to use the mind to discover its mischief and finally keep the mind away. In the process we have to change our natural outbound orientation to inbound. An external teacher can help us tremendously in the external practice, but progressively less & less once the student is firmly rooted in the inner domain. In yoga too we get launched like a satellite; need a booster rocket of an external teacher for the initial lift off but the same rocket becomes a drag after reaching a desire altitude. Then, the teacher can only guide, protect and sync leaving the bulk to Ishvara, the inner guru. After all, yoga is considered largely a ‘process of unlearning’ and how will we ever begin to unlearn by not knowing how we learned in the first place.
Looking at it this way makes it easier to understand why the Vedic literature often assures us that ‘your guru will find you ’. It pays to take whosoever happens to be your teacher. Even an ‘apparently not-so-good teacher’ may fall in certain scheme of things, odd for common sense logic, but will enhance your yoga. Trying situations are meant to be teaching situations.
Wishing all aspirants well in their search for a teacher and all teachers well in their search for those committed yoga students.
With gratitude to Suhas Tambe, author of The Making of a Yoga Master: A Seeker’s Transformation.
If you read this post you most probably had one of two experiences while doing yoga:
1. You were extremely down before a yoga class and by the time you finished the class you are amazed by the fact that you feel emotionally refreshed, positive and uplifted.
2. You went to class in such a good mood, but during class you started to experience a swell of emotions which totally engulfed you to the point where you just started to breakdown and cry in class.
My own teacher Sri Durga told us that yoga has the uncanny ability to purify us on all levels and more so on the emotional level. We think that we have our emotions under control or that we have dealt with certain emotional issues in our lives, just to discover through yoga that in fact we haven’t. And if you haven’t, your yoga practice will bring forth those emotional issues until you have positively dealt with them. I am a great proponent of Louise L. Hay and her work on how our emotions affects our muscles, our internal organs and ultimately leads to dis-ease and illness. But, as a yoga teacher and practitioner I have learned how yoga can help us to face these emotional challenges and assist us to overcome them.
In Chinese medicine there are twelve main meridians. Along the path of the meridians, there are certain places where the energy pools, making the qi of the meridian more accessible there than at other places. These pools of energy are called acupuncture points. When we do asana in yoga, we either stretch or contract, putting pressure on or taking pressure of these points, affecting the flow of energy in our bodies. It is taught in yoga as in Chinese medicine that there are several emotions identified as having a specific attraction to particular organs. An excess of fear damages the kidneys. Too much anger damages the liver. Excess hate damages the heart, while grief in overabundance damages the lungs. Too much sympathy damages the spleen and sadness destroys the brain. Conversely, equilibrium in the emotions causes the body and its organ systems to work more efficiently.
It is therefore the natural teaching of yoga that every asana have an effect not only on the muscles but also on the emotions. When we awaken to the emotional side of yoga asana and accept the impact of asana on our emotional body, we become more sensitive, perceptive, and responsive to the emotional challenges we have to face both on and off the mat. According to Patanjali yoga asana is a position that is both steady and comfortable, a place where one can feel completely present. From this silent backdrop, we watch the agitated mind. Practice then becomes a purifying method of listening to the inner workings of the mind and emotions. It is important to be patient and compassionate with yourself even in the face of negative emotions leading the way. Don’t judge, but use discernment to enhance your awareness, in other words pay attention to your emotions and how they affect you. And remember above all you are not those emotions, you are merely going through that experience like going through a traffic crossing.
When we come to yoga we all approach yoga from where we are – some might be already flexible and find yoga a breeze, for the next person every asana may be extremely difficult to perform due to stiff and inflexible muscles, some already have severe back, neck, shoulder or hip issues and the next person might be diabetic or have heart issues. It is the intention of yoga to meet you where you are and working with you on all levels, including the emotional level. You may find that practicing downward facing dog pose deeply stretches the shoulders, the spine, hamstrings, feet, and the Achilles tendons, but we can also use this asana to decrease depression and anxiety. A simple asana such as cat-cow breathing can reduce fear. Supine twists are excellent asanas for relieving back pain, but they help us to accept our stresses in life and prevent us from feeling overwhelmed by all our challenges. So gradually you learn to relax, you learn to release the emotions through your sustained yoga practice in a positive and sympathetic environment and you learn that it is save to release those built up emotional tensions in your body, guiding you to greater equanimity, peace, harmony and tranquillity. The ripple effect of this release of even very deep and old emotions, will eventually lead to understanding our bodies and ourselves much better.
Your yoga experience is unique and highly individual according to your body, it follows that the affect on the emotional body or Manomaya Kosha will also be unique and individual, depending on where we store stress in our bodies. In yoga philosophy, we are taught that the emotional body has its own sheath or layer. The Manomaya kosha (sometimes called the astral body) houses all our emotions. When the emotions in this layer get stuck – fear, anger, sadness, joy, any emotion – they can cause energy to become trapped in the physical body, including the internal organs. While some people may manifest anxiety in the throat (i.e., have a difficult time expressing or voicing their emotions) others will experience that same stress in the digestive organs, or the liver (i.e, they have a hard time digesting their feelings as in “I can’t stomach this.”)
Our poses can strongly influence our emotional states. For instance, because of the expansive inhalation and opening of the chest, backbending, traditionally a stimulating practice, can elevate a low mood. Exhale-intensive poses such as forward bends tend to calm an agitated mind. In any balance practice, both inhale-oriented and exhale-oriented postures are executed in order to create equilibrium in the body and breath and to gain emotional harmony.
Examples of a few asanas and how they can deepen our understanding and awareness of our emotions:
- Sarvangasana (shoulderstand) or halasana (plow) help reverse energy blocks— inflexible thinking, stuck emotions, and feelings of sadness.
- Balasana (child’s pose) sends relaxing signals to both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
- Garudasana offers relief to the scattered mind and works on the balance of the external and internal worlds.
- Marichyasana (sage pose) is one of yoga’s greatest harmonizers because it both calms the mind and releases sluggishness in the body.
- Janu shirshasana (head to knee) relieves feelings of anxiety, fearfulness, and stress. On each exhalation, let the torso sink further toward the legs.
- Dhanurasana (bow) helps stimulate the inhale and arouses the adrenal glands.
- Woodchopper assists in the emotional release of frustration and anger. While standing, lift your imaginary ax on your inhale, and with a forceful “Ha!” on the exhale, chop the imaginary wood between your legs.
Though every person’s experience of yoga is different, the following are some common emotions that arise in varying poses:
Forward bends – these asana can trigger a release of egocentric attitudes. They force us to face our fears as we turn inward. Those of us always looking behind to see what the world is up to will have difficulty in forward folds, and may have to confront emotions which have to do with surrendering to our own strength. Forward bends calms the mind and body and emotions and tends to bring greater understanding into our consciousness.
Backward bends – these asana are important when dealing with attitudes of embracing life – of being wide open to receive the good, bad and the ugly, to rise to life’s challenges. When practicing backbends, we may have to deal with emotions of being a doormat to others – literally bending over backward to please them, letting go of co-dependent patterns and building our own self-esteem without relying on others excessively to give us a positive self-image. Just as in forward folds, backbends can bring up fears associated to these emotional patterns. Those who are extremely shy or have had their heart broken repeatedly may feel feelings of sadness as psychic wounds of the heart are healed. Because we are exposing our whole self to the world in backbends, they can also bring up feelings of confrontation experienced in the past with the self or others. But on the plus side backbends tend to calm the mind and bring harmony and peace into the body.
Balancing asana – Have you ever noticed that your one side is sometimes more balanced than the other? In yoga philosophy the left side is the female side, it is the ida or moon side and deals with our more feeling and artistic expressions. The left side also deals with issues of the past. The right side is our male side, it is pingala or the sun side and the right side is more logic and calculated and deals with the present. Balancing asanas are extremely indicative of a person’s emotional state. Someone with an un-easy emotional state, or a mind busied with too many emotions, will find balancing poses very difficult. As they find equilibrium in these poses, whatever emotions that are causing the mind to become agitated may increase before subsiding to a more peaceful place. Balance poses help to build a calm, resilient, steady mind.
Twisting asana – as you may have imagined, these asana have to do with untangling the knots of life. All twisting asana initiate feelings of dealing with obstacles we face, and developing strength to face whatever comes our way. Twists, along with backbends give us more confidence through sustained practice, and develop overly introversive personalities.
Finally, inverted asana – when we practice these asana, we are literally turning the world on its head – changing our perspective completely, turning our behavioral patterns upside down. Inversions help us to see ourselves, and our world from a different angle, so you can imagine all the emotions that can arise from turning your whole perspective around. Inversions help to purify the mind and bring greater peace and calm even when our worldview feels shaken.
Finally a few pointers in assisting you to cultivate greater awareness of your body-emotion connection and dealing with them:
Practice Off the Mat – Notice the situations that cause you to become tense. Are you an anxious driver, talker, or worker? When you cook or do the dishes, does your back feel strain? Whether the tension is in the shoulders, neck, back, or navel center, practice moment-to- moment body awareness. This will help you cleanse your negative emotions and trapped issues so that they don’t find a permanent home in your body.
Wise Words – Following the path of yoga cuts through the roots of suffering. Hatha yoga teaches us control of breath and control of body. Through awareness we learn concentration, control of our thought patterns, and emotional control. The serious yoga practitioner will cling less to life’s negative matters, permitting the practice to have a levelling effect on the emotional body.
Frustration in the Body – When we feel frustrated, it generally means that we’re not flowing with the experiences of our lives. Instead we’re pushing away or resisting something. Frustration then collects in the body. Many of us feel it in the shoulders, neck, low back, and hips. Problems in the shoulders represent irritability and resistance to change. Issues in the back can be related to a repression or restriction in your life, hurtful issues from the past, or the need to carry the weight of the world. Repressed anger creates tension in the neck as you force your feelings down your throat instead of saying what you want to say. You can literally experience a pain in the neck from something or someone who makes you angry. The hips are related to general frustration. Notice the person who often stands with her hands on her hips. This is a gesture of feeling frustrated and out of control.
Feel what you have done – Whenever your teacher stops during class and ask you to feel what you have done, take that time and cultivate awareness of your emotions and body and how the influence each other.
Intention is everything – The natural outflow of awareness is intention. Set your intention for each yoga class to work through those emotional challenges your body manifest at that particular point in your life.
Breathe regularly deeply – The breath is everything, my teacher used to say. Cultivate breath awareness and learn to breathe deeply into your belly, putting all of your awareness into the breath. Feel all the emotions of your respiratory system—the air in the nostrils, throat, and chest, the belly and chest rising. Feel the rib cage expanding to the front, to the sides beneath the armpits, and all the way into the lower back. Gently move your attention from your mental state to your breath so that you can more easily observe and step back from your emotions.
Embracing Change – Change is one of the most difficult aspects we have to face on a daily basis. Through the practice of yoga, we awaken to how life unfolds moment by moment. Things are constantly changing—the breath, your state of mind, the phases of the moon, the seasons. This can be both a profound revelation—life is like a flower that blooms continuously—and a harsh reminder that nothing lasts forever. Even your body will let you down in the end.
When we resist change, the ego will try to hold on to the body as it is. Consequently the body contracts and tenses, and the natural flow of energies slows down or may stop completely, creating blocks in the form of a tight hip or frozen shoulder. That’s why until we accept the changes that occur from day-to-day and from year to year, and until we surrender to the natural course of existence, little progress can be made along the path of yoga.
Asana practice shows us how our bodies, minds, and the world around us are constantly changing. Today, through breath, patience, and a watchful eye, we’ll honour our changes from movement to movement and embrace the reality of change.
- Embracing change creates ease and freedom in your world.
- The only constant is change.
- Give yourself room for expansion. Give yourself room to change.
- Allow change to happen to you. Don’t resist it.
- Sunrise and sunset are obvious reminders of change.
- May we learn to accept life’s constant changes.
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.”
One of the hot buzzwords flying around the yoga studios and yogis sipping hot cups of chai these days is ‘core strength.’ While gym bunnies, dancers and athletes have long known the advantages of having a strong core, the idea of core strength is only now trickling down to the yoga community, in South Africa at least.
You may be wondering what exactly is core strength and should you worry about it? One reason is this: all of our movements are powered by the torso – the abs and back work together to support the spine when we sit, stand, bend over, pick things up, exercise and more. The torso is the body’s center of power, so the stronger you are in that area, the easier your life will be.
What Is The Core?
First, let’s get one very confusing idea out of the way. We all have core strength, without it you would have collapsed and won’t be able to sit or stand upright or do many of the small things like bending forward to tie your shoes. The issue is that in some the core strength is more developed than in others, and this is the concern with core strength.
The core muscles are anatomically referred to as the muscles forming around the trunk of the body including the abdominal, oblique (sides), mid and lower back. It is the muscles deep within the abs and back, attaching to the spine or pelvis. Some of these muscles include the transversus abdominis (TVA), the muscles of the pelvic floor, the lats and the obliques, just to name a few. These muscles are where movement originates and it’s also the source of our stability. Whether you’re running, lifting weights or picking up your toddler, these ‘core’ muscles help keep your body stable and balanced.
What has Yoga to do with it?
The beauty of yoga is that it inherently challenge your balance, flexibility and core strength and as such gives the core muscles a balanced workout as well as strengthening them at the same time. Inherently yoga view the body as a whole, no part of it is separate and this focus on the whole body has the advantage that it incorporates a complete and balanced workout for the body during a yoga session. So long before other disciplines, which in the past saw the body as separate parts which must be exercised separately, saw the body as a whole, yoga did exactly that and exercised the body as a whole as well, resulting in a much stronger or improved core for most yogis.
For me, every asana is potentially a core-strengthening exercise. I always devote a large section of any yoga class to abdominal-intensive poses and many times I will say something like while doing this make sure you arch the back, which is important as that action moves the focus to the deeper core muscles and activates those muscle groups.
However core muscle strength has also to do with our attitude to life. It is what supports us spiritually in our lives, and physically in our yoga practice. If our core is weak, the ups and downs of life are much harder to take and many times we become the doormat for others. A strong core makes us more resilient and ready to face our challenges and fears. It translates into standing up for yourself in life and asserting yourself in a positive way!
In terms of asana practice, core abdominal strength improves nearly every pose, offering a sense of balance and ease. When you step off of the mat, there are lots of other good reasons to be strong in the core, perhaps most obviously to support the lower back. Weakness in the core can result in over-rotations in the vertebrae of the lower back, which leads to degenerative disk disease and back ache.
Weak abs often contribute to trouble in the sacroiliac joint -where the sacrum meets the illium, the large pelvic bone – and can subject this area to undue strain which translates sometimes as sciatica if the core isn’t sufficiently toned.
Core work connects us to our feelings. Working with the core during a class turns on your innate muscles intelligence and allows you to feel more aspects than usual. Such intelligence is essential, especially if you need to decide how deeply you want to or need to move into a specific asana, that intelligence can make the difference in avoiding injury or adding injury.
Some of the benefits of yoga on the core muscles include:
- Improved posture
- Reduction in the risk of injury
- Better ability to function each day
- Can result in relief of back ache and sciatica
- Greater flexibility and better balance
- Focus on the whole, instead of individual parts