I am not going to use this post to sing the praises, the headstand or any inversion for that matter. There are enough articles on the net that do that. Just Google “headstand” and you will find the one site after the other that will tell you of the many benefits. There are also many contra-indications and one of them is that the headstand is not recommended for people with high blood pressure. I am suffering from high blood pressure and I am on medication, as my doctor once said to me, as long as the blood pressure is under control, you can pretty much do any yoga asana you like. I am following my doctor’s advice and I do at least once a week a headstand for a few minutes. I belief it does help to manage my high blood pressure.
However, this post is about an aspect, a benefit of the headstand or inversion of which very few article will refer to. I want to start at that amazing event in every human’s life, being conceived and born into this world with your unique set of karmas & samskaras and reincarnating into a life full of endless possibilities. However to be born into this life, we need to leave the comfort and safety of our mother’s womb and this is where an amazing evolutionary event happen, we need to do a headstand to basically get into this world! Jip, think about it, you were born into this world upside-down. An inversion was the very first thing you did to enter this life.
And this is where the miracle of life already starts, in order to enter this world, we had to turn our world around. In order for you as a new human to this planet you had to change not only your physical position to enter this world, but also your mental view to prepare your self for the challenges of this life.
Say hello to your dose of endorphins when you do an inversion. Yes, the brain releases feel-good chemicals like serotonin and endorphins when you invert your body and this in turn assist you to be calm and collected when you need to make those big important decisions.
Apart from changing your point of view, an inversion help us to concentrate and to really focus on what is at hand. It help us to sustain our concentration and to direct all our energy to the challenge or obstacle in front of us. An inversion align the mind in such a way that we can then think creatively about the issue in hand and find a solution flowing from a space of inner calmness.
Increased body awareness.
Ever get into an asana and think, I have no idea where my feet are right now? Inversions are notorious for this. However, inverting your body not only invert the body and your awareness of your body, but also your mind. Your mind has to literally think differently when you invert and this is a valuable asset you have in problem solving. Figuring out where the body is in space is a beautiful practice in cultivating spacial awareness. Figuring your problems out while there, that is just as special and amazing.
Enhanced focus on the present.
When we worry we usually either retreat to the past to find solace or we rush into the future to seek the solution or to escape. Inversions have the power to bring you into the moment, into the here and now and to confront everything right here and now. It’s hard to do anything else when upside down! Staying grounded, calm, focused, breathing slowly and remaining present are truly the only ways to stick an upside-down asana, but while there, things do change, so that when we come down, our world might look different, we might think different. Inversions release the mind and allow it the freedom to think differently.
Therefore, if you ask me how to approach your problems, how to find a solution, my advice will always be, do an inversion or two.
For most of us, we start yoga and we are so inspired by what we feel and experience during the first few months or even years that we need very little encouragement to motivate us to a dedicated and committed practice. Our bodies react in surprising ways to what we do with it in yoga. Our emotions start to calm down and we feel yoga is our weekly saving grace from a hectic schedule. And the mind, suddenly the monkey starts to just relax and the constant chatter of the mind dies down. We feel content, centred and even happier than before. Yoga works! And you need very little encouragement from anybody to be on your mat week in and out.
Then one morning you wake up and it happened. You feel stuck in your practice. You wish that your teacher would just do or say something today in class to motivate, inspire, and bring back the yoga mojo a little in you. In fact, you start to blame your teacher for not doing enough to move you to your happy and inspired place. You look in every class for validation; you want reassurance that you are still doing it right, that somebody notice your perfect downward dog or your gracefully executed headstand. As gregarious beings, we want to feel noticed and we want feel inspired.
As your teacher, I want to inspire you week in and week out, I want you to know I see you even if you think I don’t. It is a balancing act for teachers to be strict in terms of motivating their yogis to be in class no matter what, because how can we inspire you if you are not there? But, on the other hand we also need to tone down the discipline sometimes as many might interpret it as being too strict, to authoritarian and inflexible, when they need flexibility and tolerance.
A yoga class is not a one-size-fits-all type of practice. There isn’t a single recipe to encourage and inspire yogis. What worked yesterday will not work tomorrow, therefore for me over the years I focus less on the method and more on the ingredients, in other words, who are in my classes. The right ingredients will work together to make an inspiring and amazing dish – same with a class, the right people in each class will motivate and inspire people to come back week in and out. And if a particular class doesn’t work for you anymore, ask your teacher to move. Sometimes I ask somebody to move to another class. Each one of my classes has its own personality and each class is suited to some and sometimes it is not. Doesn’t mean the teacher and yoga doesn’t inspire you anymore, you just need to find the recipe where you will work with the other ingredients.
To get you started, here are a few ways to inspire you, to get to the right group where you will perform optimally again:
Let go of Expectations
Having a healthy expectation of yourself, yoga and your teacher is natural and a balanced outlook will inspire you. But expecting the impossible both from yourself, your teacher and the other yogis in your class is a sure way to kill the inspiration.
Remember your Original Intention
So many times we start doing yoga with one simple intention in mind, over time Ego starts to get hold of us again and we added too many intentions which become tiresome and we start to feel uninspired. Remind yourself again why you started yoga in the first place. Keep that intention alive as it will cultivate inspiration.
Know the Ingredients, Not Just the Recipe
Get to know the ingredients, in other words, reach out to the other yogis in your class. I cannot say this enough, you have a new family in your yoga group, but you need to reach out, be part of the group, and be that one ingredient that makes the recipe awesome. Be awesome when you walk into a class and realise you are part of a very special recipe with other awesome ingredients.
Sharing, Not Just Lecturing
As your teacher I am here to share. And I shall always share freely my advice, my knowledge, my compassion, my teachings, my asanas – I am not your mother, I am not here to tell you what to do and what not. I am here to share and to ensure that your practice evolves you and moves you. And in sharing I trust I motivate and inspire you. You need to find the inspiration and you can only find it, if you are in the class on your mat on a regular basis.
Own your Practice
Own your successes and small victories. When you eventually get something right, realise the magnitude of what it has moved inside you. Inspiration comes from noticing the small little changes after a while and realising that a regular practice makes the difference. You make the difference by being on your mat without excuse. As I always say, there are two reasons why you skip a class: your death and the flu. All the rest is just excuses. Come to class, even after an operation or giving birth, you don’t have to do anything, but being there WILL make the difference you need, because is it all about the energy.
Respect is not a FOUR Letter Word
Respect is a discipline and an attitude in life. Respect is not about appreciation and praise and admiration, but it is about being committed, disciplined and to be on your mat in class. It is beyond rules; it is an attitude that inspires you to be above the need for appreciation and praise. Respect is an inner knowing and attitude that inspire you to belief in yourself, your practice and I am the best I can be.
Yoga is about Growth
Lastly, if you think yoga is about being able to stand on your head or do the perfect cockerel, then your Ego has taken over and you will not feel inspired. Leave the competiveness at home, it kills inspiration instantly. Your Ego is your greatest obstacle to the growth yoga can bring. That constant growth inspires you to do a little more every time. But, if you have lost this motivation, you have also lost inspiration. Rekindle your own inspiration by focusing on the growth aspect of yoga and not the look-what-I-can-do aspect.
As your teacher I belief in the individual capabilities of each of my yogis. Each yogi in my class inspire me to be on my mat and to move and grow my own practice. I can only inspire you if you are in my class.
Google “yoga and hypertension” or “yoga and high blood pressure” and the number of articles are just staggering in support of yoga being beneficial in assisting to regulate blood pressure. One thing is also very clear from all these articles and research and that is that yoga is not a cure for hypertension, just an aid in helping to ensure a lowered blood pressure. The one thing that is missing from most of these articles is the data to support their findings, so when one of my yogis who is busy doing her Yoga Teacher’s Training Course with me reached the module on yoga and high blood pressure, we decide it would be a good exercise for her to collect some data on blood pressures pre and post a yoga class.
The class was a normal Hatha yoga class of 45 minutes followed by a 15 minute period of relaxation. We basically took everybody’s BP before class and then again after class directly after relaxation session. And the info from that is in support of what most studies find, yoga does lower the blood pressure. With the exception of three blood pressures that showed an increase, the rest all decreased. Here with a chart of the pre and post BP’s:
Yoga can be a very effective and non-invasive way of reducing high blood pressure. It is particularly effective in reducing the diastolic number – which is the most important. It is suggested that people with high blood pressure should only practice certain asanas (postures), whilst acknowledging that there are other asanas that are not suitable for them. The yogic practices of meditation and pranayama (breathing exercises) are also particularly beneficial for people who suffer from high blood pressure. We did not include any specific pranayama, but focussed throughout the class on proper deep breathing. As an inversion we did include Halasana (plow pose) followed by Viparita Karani (legs up the wall pose). I gave no special instructions or warning during this class about what they could and couldn’t do, we decided that all classes would be uniform and the same practice was repeated for three classes.
People with high blood pressure are usually cautioned to be careful in approaching exercise. This is generally because vigorous exercise puts stress on the cardiovascular system, including raising heart-rate and blood pressure. Before engaging in any sort of exercise program, including yoga of any type or variety, people with any sort of cardiovascular condition including high blood pressure should consult their physician. However, yoga asanas are not considered to be cardiovascular exercises as such. Rather than placing the focus on cardiovascular fitness yoga is more about achieving a balance between body and mind, energizing your body in the process. According to The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali an “asana is a steady comfortable posture”. During most exercise practices the heart is put under stress as the requirement for blood and oxygen is increased. In asanas however, the requirement for blood and oxygen decreases as there are not strains and every muscle is relaxed. When done with conscious breathing asanas balance and stabilize autonomic nervous system resulting in the regulation of blood pressure.
The asanas that regulate the blood pressure belong to the forward bends, supine, sitting, and some of the inversions group. However forward bends are the fundamental asanas to be practiced by persons suffering from high blood pressure, as the sense organs: eyes, nose, throat and tongue are relaxed thereby resting the sympathetic nervous and creating a positive effect on the parasympathetic system. It the appendix of his book Light on Yoga, B. K. S. Iyengar recommends the following asanas for individuals suffering from high blood pressure: Plow Pose, Head to Knee Pose, Heroes Pose, Accomplished Pose, Lotus Position, Corpse Pose and the Pachimotonasana Series: Half Lotus Intense Stretch Pose, Three Limbs Facing Intense West Stretch and Seated Forward Fold.
Research also indicates that shoulder stand is particularly effective as the pose calms the body, “lowering blood pressure by clamping down on the carotids effectively making the local pressure very high. This sends a message to the parasympathetic system, which assumes that the brain tissues are suffering from too much blood, and orders the heart and circulatory system to compensate with pressure cuts.”[sic] (The Science of Yoga: the risks and the rewards – W.J Broad).
In addition to practicing asanas, Yogic breathing has been shown to have a positive effect on blood pressure. Even for those who’ve never been exposed to yoga before, deep breathing can help to reduce the effects of constant daily stress, including rise in blood pressure. Conscious breathing lowers blood pressure (as well as the amount of the stress hormone cortisol) that is present in the body. Extended pranayama can lead to a sustained lower heart rate. A recent study showed beneficial effects even from short-term practice of regular pranayama and meditation techniques, with significant reduction in resting pulse rate, systolic, diastolic and mean arterial blood pressure. Pranayama has been shown to influence the cardiovascular system with decrease in heart rate, and blood pressure:
- Uijayi Pranayama (or Victorious Breath): This is a balanced and calming breathing technique which builds heat in the body and increases oxygenation, it also this also affects the cartiod sinus which helps to normalize high blood pressure, and
- Naddi Shoddi (or alternate nostril breathing): This is very calming to the nervous system as a whole.
Meditation is another beneficial yogic practice for people with high blood pressure. The body’s physical reaction to stress is not always the same for everyone, but with negative stress there is no real relaxation between one stress situation and the next. Meditation is the study of concentration. The mind and body are very intimately connected; when the mind is completely at ease, the whole body gains complete rest. Practicing meditation techniques in times of physical or mental stress helps to manage the “fight or flight” response to negative stress and lower blood pressure.
There is no single meditation technique that is best for everyone. The right technique is the one which focuses the mind and to elicit the relaxation response. Some examples of meditation techniques are:
- Deep Breathing Meditation: This meditation can be practiced almost anywhere and is the cornerstone for many other relaxation practices.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation: A technique for reducing anxiety by alternately tensing and relaxing the muscles. As the body relaxes so too does the mind.
- Mindfulness: By focusing attention on a single repetitive action such as a word, mantra, breathing, picture or candle the mind becomes calm and focused, bringing the nervous system into balance.
- Yoga Nidra: A guided practice, which puts the body and mind into a deep state of relaxation.
According to many studies, high blood pressure is influenced by the stress and strain of the modern lifestyle. There is a wealth of clinically significant research that suggests adopting yogic practices and principles can help to improve health and mental well-being, increasing resiliency to stress, and, by extension, to high blood pressure. It may seem like stating the obvious, but if one reduces stresses on the mind and the body by eating healthy diet focused on pure, wholesome and nutritious foods, practicing yoga asanas, pranayama and meditation the blood pressure can be controlled within normal limits.
Important note: If you want to try any of the previous suggestions, do not stop any prescribed medications without consulting with your doctor first. Most of these studies have shown that alternative therapies have the ability to help people with pre or mild hypertension avoid medication, or help people who can’t tolerate medications, but are not effective enough for people with severe cases to get off medication altogether. People with hard-to-control blood pressure, however, can use these therapies in conjunction with medication to help bring their numbers down even more.
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.