Deepen Your Yoga Practice: Yamas and Niyamas

Go Deeper

Go Deeper

We’ve all been there before… the yoga funk: we roll out our mats, breathe, cat, cow, updog, down dog, warrior one, warrior two, etc, and it starts to feel somehow robotic; like we’re just going through the motions and it’s all about physicality. It’s completely normal for this to happen, as we are often products of our environment, and Western society greatly emphasizes aesthetics. Yes, yoga can be great physical exercise, but aren’t we all searching for more?

According to the Yoga Sutras, a highly detailed outline of the how’s and why’s of yoga, written by, Sri Patanjali, the purpose of yoga is self-realization. This includes mastering the mind and parting the veils of ignorance to reveal our true selves. And your true self is an infinite, beautiful, unshakeable expression of the divine. Patanjali outlines an eightfold path that leads to self-realization and guess what? Asana, yoga postures, is only one of these limbs. Without the other seven informing our practice, it frankly isn’t yoga and we aren’t afforded the full experience it has to offer.

As a teacher and practitioner, I’m interested in facilitating a holistic practice for the student and myself; one that incorporates all of these limbs on the mat, so that they can integrate into all aspects of life. So for this series of articles, I’m going to delve into the 8 limbs of yoga, while explaining how they can be incorporated into your yoga practice on the mat. This will help you delve more deeply into your spirit, and hopefully get you out of that yoga funk.

The first two limbs of yoga are the yama and niyama. They are basically yoga’s “Ten Commandments” without all of those thall-shalt-nots. Yamas, or abstinences, are virtues that strengthen and purify the mind and are helpful as a general guide to being a decent human being. They include nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-greed. Niyamas, or observances, are a set of essential principals for those on the yogic path, which garner spiritual growth. These include purity, contentment, accepting but not causing pain, study, and self-surrender. The yamas and niyamas are great guidelines to living a decent and spiritual life, but how can we incorporate them on the mat?

Yama (Abstinence):

  1. Ahimsa (Non-violence): This is considered the most important among the yamas. This includes not only doing harm, but the desire to do harm, which sinks us further into ignorance and away from self-realization. When on the mat, you can incorporate ahimsa by being compassionate toward yourself. Modify poses when you need to and don’t beat yourself up when you are not yet able to attain what you wish to attain. Maybe you’re over-heated and take child’s pose instead of doing one more vinyasa. Perhaps it even includes taking a day off when you’re sick our injured. Taking these steps helps us disassociate with the ego and adds quality and longevity to our practice.
  1. Satya (Truthfulness): This yama is practiced in word, deed, and thought, and always with selfless motivation in order to adhere to the previous yama, ahimsa.  Try this mantra on the mat to cultivate satya: “I am exactly where I need to be right now.” By affirming yourself into the bigger picture, you are accepting the ultimate truth and your vital place within it. In other words, take a deep breath, stop fighting against the present, and you’ll be left in raw truth, which is the beauty of this moment.
  1. Asteya (Non-stealing): This, of course, can refer to physically taking something that isn’t yours, but often when we steal it is far more subtle. One subtle form of stealing that often occurs on the mat, is coveting.  Perhaps your neighbor is in a beautiful king dancer’s pose, while you’re struggling just to balance on one foot. You wish with all your heart that you could express something so impressive and you curse your body’s limits. Sound familiar? One quote I enjoy sharing with my students is “Don’t compare your beginning to somebody else’s middle.” Yoga studios are filled with a diverse clientele with all levels of experience and with unique bodies. By practicing asteya, you can appreciate others while knowing within your heart that you are exactly where you need to be on your journey.
  1. Brahmacharya (Continence): This yama tells us to avoid expenditures of energy that are not productive. This basically means over-doing it, and “it” can mean literally anything. This is often thought of in a sexual context, but on the mat, I like to think of it in a purely physical way. When in asana, oftentimes in pseudo-concentration, we tense the face, jaw, and shoulders. Taking the tension out of these areas and into whatever muscles the particular asana actively works, is a great way to conserve energy. Another way to do so is to efficiently make your way from one asana to the next. Try going from upward facing dog to downward dog without readjusting the hands and feet. Notice these habitual extraneous movements and retrain yourself to let them go.
  1. Aparigraha (Non-greed): Greed leaves us constantly unsatisfied. It’s a constant craving and an itch that just cannot be scratched. Perhaps, on the mat, this can mean dissatisfaction with your asana. It’s the gap between what you want to be able to do and what you are currently able to do. Instead, accept each practice, whether or not it meets your expectations, with loving gratitude. After all, gratitude is the polar opposite of greed.

Niyama (Observance):

  1. Saucha (Purity): This refers to mental and physical purity. We achieve this by cleansing our bodies and minds, and then filtering what is allowed to pass through them. Oftentimes, on the mat, memories and emotions can come to the surface of the mind. It is better to acknowledge them, feel them, and eventually let them go, than to suppress them, as they’ll certainly resurface. We then filter the mind by meditation, focusing on the infinite or divine, and by turning negative thoughts into positive ones. We can cleanse the body through taking deep breaths to oxygenate the blood, by sweating, and by detoxifying twists, followed by plenty of water. Off the mat, we can continue to keep the body pure with a healthy, balanced diet.
  1. Santosha (Contentment): When we are content, we live in the present moment, without focusing on fulfilling desires. Santosha leads to faith, which steadies the mind, and ultimately leads to self-realization. Through the power of the Universe or Divine, we at this moment have all the tools we need to see ourselves for who we are: an expression of divinity. On the mat, contentment does not equal complacence. It simply means that everything is exactly as it should be. Every breath, every thought, and every movement is an expression of the Universe, of the Divine. How’s that for an intention?
  1. Tapas (Accepting, but not causing pain): We’ve all had that moment in class: Maybe the teacher has put you into chair pose for way too long. You’ve got a sweat mustache going on and your thighs are on fire. It’s natural to react with anger, but with tapas comes spiritual maturity, and instead you accept this moment as a teacher of vital lessons. With this struggle comes beautiful growth, spiritually and physically. We develop tapas on the mat by combining regular, challenging practice with santosha, or contentment.
  1. Svadhyaya (Self-Study): This includes study of scripture, lives of great yogis, nature, life, and repetition of mantra. This informs our practice in a concrete way. When on the mat, notice what makes you happy, what frustrates you, whether or not you’re able to follow things through or if you’d rather just give up. Study yourself. It can truly bring to light aspects of your personality, some positive and some that require growth. Through regular practice, you can improve these traits not only on the mat, but off. Svadhyaya, on the mat can also be attained by repetition. You must repeat a mantra, breath, or asana many times to truly understand it.
  1. Ishwara Pranidhana (Worship of God or Self-surrender): This niyama basically says, “Hey, it’s not all about YOU!”  With self-surrender, we dedicate our time and abilities to a greater cause. This is the foundation of Karma Yoga where the ego gives up ignorance with every act of dedication. You can practice this on the mat by dedicating your practice to someone you love, someone in need, or to a higher power. You’ll find that when you pass your bliss onto others, it does yourself and the world a great amount of good.

 

Spread the love, dig in deep, and I’ll be back soon to add more limbs onto the yoga tree!

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30 Before 30 Challenge: Wrapping it Up

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“It used to leave me feeling like two different people, but now I see myself for who I truly am.”

I wrapped up my 30 Day Challenge last week, and although I’ve been planning on a blog post to share my experience, I needed a little distance from the situation first and allow it to marinate. So again, in an effort of satya, or truth, I’ll attempt to report everything with brutal honesty. I’ll break down the different aspects of the challenge as I did in the first post and then paint a picture as to how each aspect went.

1. Start a morning routine. This consisted of: “getting up at 5:30 am (gasp), writing 3 pages, doing my morning yoga practice, meditating for 20 minutes, and drinking some yummy and caffeinated tea.” I woke up between 5am and 6am all but 2 of the days of the challenge. It wasn’t as difficult as I had anticipated, but now that I’m not technically in the “challenge” anymore, it’s feeling more like a chore. However, early rising is something I would very much like to continue, but I need a new way to find myself accountable. There’s something very sacred about those dark, early, quiet hours. You can really feel the day’s potential while getting to know your true self better. I need to remember that when I want to hit “snooze.”

Morning yoga practice was definitely an experience of growth for me. The practices varied a lot in intensity and duration, but were helpful either way. I highly recommend at least a few stretches, especially anything that gets the spine moving and gentle backbends, to awaken and refresh for the day. Morning practice helped me set my ego aside, since I generally couldn’t balance as well or stretch as deeply as usual. It was both humbling and refreshing to work through the challenges that the variances of day-to-day life bring. This, I will definitely continue. Meditation was a challenge for me… I didn’t stick to the 20 minute rule as mentioned here, which ended up being very helpful, but I know there is so much depth I’ve yet to encounter via meditation. Instead of feeling frustrated, I choose to feel excited to chart new territory. On top of meditation, this challenge helped me feel more mindful in general. Focusing on the present moment during all activities helps clear the cobwebs of vritti, or whirling thoughts, and brings clarity, focus, and joy into everyday activity.

As far as the tea goes, I found myself switching to coffee. I used it to help fatigue, but do feel I relied on it too heavily during the challenge. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with coffee, but I wanted the clarity of total sobriety in this challenge and do I feel I cheated a bit with the coffee buzz. Toward the end of the challenge, I had to give it up as it was inducing anxiety, so I ended up feeling headachey and fatigued the last few days as I was detoxing from it. Something that came unexpectedly with this challenge was an increased sensitivity. I’m already a HSP and cleansing my body increased it quite a bit. I felt extra sensitive to food and caffeine and had one particularly bad panic attack after 2 cups of coffee. Now I’m just drinking caffeine sparingly and paying close attention to how the things I ingest effect my system.

2. Give up alcohol. This was way easier than expected. As my mind started feeling sharper, my desire to drink practically vanished. I had an extremely busy 30 days and I didn’t want to be slowed down. After this challenge, and on my birthday, I had a couple mimosas while out to brunch with friends and they hit me super hard. My increased sensitivity mixed with a lowered tolerance for alcohol didn’t mix well. I felt tipsy really fast and felt a bit disappointed that I didn’t feel as engaged as I could have been. My desire from now on is to stay sober except for in select celebrations or situations. It’s all about moderation.

3. Study the Yoga Sutras. This became one of my favorite parts of each day. The wisdom within Patanjali’s work is vast and I’ve enjoyed taking my time, drinking in each one. They provide such an interesting and monumentally life-changing way of living. I’m sure I’ll be studying, contemplating, and integrating this into my life for years to come. The  March Meet-up was very cool and I look forward to future meetings discussing yoga philosophy with fellow local yoga-enthusiasts. 

4. Take on 5 Day Challenges. This was a part of the challenge I greatly neglected. I did 5 days with no tv and 5 days of cleaning/organizing (which I didn’t finish), but other than that, this aspect fell by the wayside. However, I don’t feel guilty about it, since I was very busy during this time putting most of my energy into a major passion, my business! I launched my online clothing shop VeganYogiUnicorn.com on March 20th and have really put my heart and soul into it. It combines all my passions and talents (design, veganism, yoga, marketing, and community-building) and has been such a joy to oversee and give birth to. Check it out… it’s an accumulation of a ton of passion and many many hours that I think we’re made more focused and creative by adhering to (most of) the tenants of this challenge.

5. Truthfully report how it all goes. I’ve tried my best to do this, although it took me quite a while to gather the courage and energy to write this last post. I’ve been dealing with cycles of high energy/depression for a very long time. It’s called cyclothymia, and although I’ve evened out quite a bit since I’ve committed to yoga and through an amazing therapy called neurofeedback, it’s still something I deal with and have to be aware of. I went through a depressive cycle for the last 2 weeks. These used to come with deep despair, but now it’s more of a lack of energy/enthusiasm. I’m able to function (sometimes at bare-minimum) but it takes a lot of effort to not hide under the covers for days at a time. I’m feeling evened out right now, but I also go through phases where I feel invincibley positive with major rushes of energy. It used to leave me feeling like two different people, but now I see myself for who I truly am and know these are just aspects of this mind and body I’m blessed with right now. My true self is purusha., infinite and unaffected by the ups and downs of material life. Cycling moods/energy levels is part of my karma and I’m willing to work through it. I debated whether or not to discuss this publicly on the blog. What will my students and peers think? However, like all people, yoga teachers have their struggles and we all do our best to get through them while improving our situations. Besides, even when I’m “depressed” it is an honor and a pleasure to teach, and a big highlight in my day. At 30, I’m miles from where I was at 20, or 25 and hope to help others with similar plights make progress in their journeys.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Inside the Yoga Sutras, by Reverend Jaganath Carrera that’s been a huge inspiration during this time:

Change, even if it is beneficial, can be stressful. Yogis need to be prepared to let go of any conceptions of who they are and what life is about. They need to be primed for the transformation that results from the yogic life. They are like snakes constantly shedding their skins, being reborn as new and better beings.

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30 Day Challenge: Update #2

1896991_248214148684326_1962941997_nSo, today is day #16 of my 30 Day Challenge and I think I’m finally hitting my stride. The last two mornings I have woken up without any issues, fully ready to go and excited for my morning practice. It’s truly been a challenge. Again, in the name of satya (truth) I’ll give you an honest run-down of how it’s gone.

Days 6-10:

I’ve taught a 6am Sunrise Yoga class at Westport Yoga several times in the last couple of weeks and I’m really starting to apply my experience and newly-found wisdom into the class to provide a gentle, yet invigorating experience for my students. The biggest thing that has hit home for me is that most people’s bodies take a lot more warming up than they do later in the day, and something that feels moderate in other practices feels quite deep in the morning. That heightened awareness is also extremely helpful in getting to know our most sensitive selves better. This also allows us to practice ahimsa (non-harm) toward ourselves by modifying our practice for the present moment and showing gratitude for where we are right now. Lastly, this has helped me appreciate my morning student’s tapas (disciplined use of energy) in getting up and dedicating their early morning to practice instead of extra sleep.

Full disclosure, I skipped day 8 in this block of my challenge. My body was feeling quite exhausted and I consciously let that day go and chose to sleep an extra 2 hours. I felt a mixture of guilt and relief, but ultimately, I think I made the right choice. I know my practice starts to really suffer when I don’t listen to my body and give myself the occasional break, so I feel it was the right choice. I’ll chalk this one up in the name of svadhyaya (self-study) which means self-awareness in all of our efforts, even to the point of accepting our limitations.

The no tv challenge was fine… My husband and I both work at home during the day and many times we’ll leave the tv on as background noise, so cutting that out and replacing it with Bach has been a very welcome change. I actually really missed it at night, though. When I thought this would open up the door to more quality time with my husband, I was wrong. I didn’t take into account that when we do do watch tv at night, one or both of us is usually still working! At least working on the couch together with a little distraction makes it seem like we’re hanging out and winding down. We have both chosen the life of entrepreneurs and working super long, focused days on many occasions comes with the territory. This might sound a bit depressing to some, but we are both doing what we love and are very supportive of each other. Anyway, it was nice to take tv for awhile, but I think the lesson learned is to approach it with moderation and high-selectivity in what we watch. Truth time: we watched all of True Detective in the next five days and it was fabulous!

Days 11-15:

I’ll be honest, these days were a bit of a blur. We “sprung forward” on day 11 and it took a few days getting used to waking up an hour earlier. I also was fighting off a cold my lovely husband brought home. Lastly, I’m working on a super-secret project right now (I will announce soon!), so most of my time and energy has been devoted to that on top of yoga, so I didn’t take on a 5 day challenge for this period. Excuses, excuses, I know… but I did get up every morning, practice, meditate, write, and have a mindful day, despite some major fatigue.

My dosha (Ayurvedic body constitution) is Vata all the way. One of the vata qualities is periods of hyperactivity followed by periods of exhaustion… this sounds about right and has caused problems for me in different areas of my life. I’m basically a cat. But, the remedy for this is implementing a daily routine, so I’m feeling this challenge is helping to mellow that out a bit and help me push through when I’m wanting to just lay low. The weather has started to improve here immensely in the last few days, so I’ve gotten some great play-time outside and am feeling revitalized and so stoked for the rest of this challenge. My energy is back up and I’m ready to go!

I made a change in my meditation during this period that has seriously helped me quite a bit. I’m not sure if I recommend this for everyone, but I stopped following a time limit. I was becoming hyper-focused on getting that 20 minutes in, to the point of feeling preoccupied with the time. Now I just meditate with no regard to time and I have felt freed to go much, much deeper. I don’t care if I do 5 minutes, or an hour, as long as I feel that connection with myself and the world that comes with diving into internal stillness. Hopefully, I’ll naturally be able to stay in meditation longer and longer. This also comes from svadhyaya and being respectful and mindful of my limitations. So, goodbye alarms and hello intuition!

The next 5 days:

The next 5 days, I’m adding the challenge of deep cleaning/organizing one room of my house/day. Like I said, my husband and I work a lot and we have a tendency to let things go when we’re busy. It’s feeling like spring and its time to clean, purge, and organize. This will also give me the opportunity to practice mindfulness while taking care of our home and things. I’m not a naturally organized person, so I’m hoping this will be a good lesson in tapas off the mat. I’ll let you know how it goes!

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30 Day Challenge: Update #1

snowgaHello Everyone! I’m on day 6 of my 30 Day Challenge and good news, I’m still alive! In an effort of satya (commitment to truthfulness), I’ll give you an honest run-down of how things have gone so far by sharing excerpts from my personal journal. Each is followed by my thoughts on various sutras studied each day:

Day One:

It’s my first morning of my 30 days of getting up early and establishing a morning routine, among other goals I’ve set for the next 30 days. I got up at 5:30, did my morning practice, meditated for 20 minutes, put on the tea, and now I’m doing this… Observations thus far: It wasn’t too difficult waking up, probably because I hyped myself up about it. We’ll see how the other days go. I felt like the Tinman on my mat this morning. I don’t know if it’s because I’m sore from last night’s practice or if it’s just a morning thing, but I’m interested to see how/if that changes. Meditation was difficult since I was sleepy. Even though I repeated mantra, I still had some major background vritti (chatter) going on. I also checked the time… twice. On a positive note, I’m happy to be alive and awake and I’m excited to see how this experience goes. On a funny note, I just brewed my Sleepy Time tea instead of my chai.. I hate to waste it, but valerian is about the last thing I need right now.

Yoga Sutra 1.12- Vritti (the whirling of the mind, racing thoughts) can be controlled through practice and non-attachment. Lightbulb moment: We aren’t meant to destroy Vritti but to restrain/yoke it. Practice without non-attachment leads to an inflated ego. Non-attachment without practice can  lead to apathy. Apathy= faux non-attachment.

Day Two:

It’s the last day of February, my least favorite month of the year. I think I’ve handled it pretty well this year. Getting up early today wasn’t so easy, but I did it and taught a 6am yoga class, then did my own practice followed by meditation. It’s so much harder to move and stretch in the morning than it is in the afternoon/evening, but I know it’s good for me and hopefully I’ll get used to it. Meditation is also difficult, but hopefully that will get easier as well. 

Yoga Sutra 1.13- Practice is effort toward steadiness of the mind. This refers to constant mindfulness, not only in asana, meditation, etc, but in the rest of life. It all becomes yoga.

Day Three:

My heart and mind are ready for Spring… renewal, rebirth, I’m there! I actually had very little difficulty getting up this morning, probably because I got to sleep at a decent hour (10:30) last night. Look at me, feeling good on 7 hours sleep! 🙂 Morning practice is… humbling. My body feels so different early in the morning. Anything that’s stiff feels about 5x stiffer. My balance is way different and overall, I just can’t go as deep. It’s not quite as fun to me, but it’s more important to be practicing with devotion and frequency than it is to just have fun. I think I need to do a later practice when I can as well, even if it’s just workshopping a pose, just to keep the motivation burning bright. Morning meditation is only 20 minutes, but I’ve been feeling uncomfortable sitting, so I took half the time in Savasana. My mind has been totally wandering even though I’m chanting mantra at the same time. I”m trying not to become attached to the outcome and be thankful that I’m observing this new morning ritual. Taking the time in stillness and silence is very healthy and I’m glad to be doing it.

Yoga Sutra 1.16- The advanced yoga practitioner practices non-attachment in a way that they have no earthly cravings. They do not need to re-direct their thoughts or tell the mind “no.” It is free. Can you imagine having no earthly cravings or desires… I’m going to have to do a LOT more meditation to get there.

Day Four:

I’m definitely feeling tired in the body. I did a very gentle, mindful practice this morning. When my body is worn out, my asana practice suffers, so it’s important to honor that and not push too hard when I’m feeling this way. My ego wants a kick-butt practice with a million chaturangas everyday, but I think the most compassionate/smart thing I can do it go easy on myself and enjoy this opportunity for rest. I chose a yoga nidra practice for meditation today, which was very nice… the space between sleep and dreams. I must say, I feel very relaxed.

Yoga Sutra 1.26- Ishwara is the guru’s guru. The realized self, free from ego is Purusha, which resides in all beings. Ishwara, or God, is an externalized Purusha. 

Day Five:

My practice this morning is much richer than it has been lately, so I’m really glad I took it easy yesterday. I’m still finding meditation pretty tough. I think I’ll do guided ones for the next couple of days and see how that goes. 

Yoga Sutra 1.27- Om is the sound of Ishwara. It is the sound of creation, evolution, and dissolution. It is found in Meditation and in Nature.

Summarizing what I’ve learned thus far:

1. Getting up early is hard, but not as hard as I thought it would be.

2. My productivity and focus have already shown a tremendous increase. This is due to tapas, the yogic observance of using energy in a disciplined way. this also means to heat and cleanse the body.

3. To show myself kindness and compassion. To honor my body, mind, and spirit and to fulfill their needs appropriately. This reflects the yogic moral called ahimsa which means doing no harm. We extend loving compassion to all other beings including ourselves.

4. Abstaining from alcohol is awesome! This is my way of observing sauca, or purity. My body and mind are focused and unclouded by substance. It’s also my way of observing santosa or contentment. I don’t need a glass of wine to relax or fall asleep. Everything I need is inside me.

My extra challenges for the next 5 days:

1. No TV. My husband and habitually zone out in front of the tube at night. We love to watch all the great shows on Netflix and HBOgo, and that’s ok, but I want to try tuning out and finding other ways to connect and wind down . He’s committed to doing this with me. I’m excited for a TV fast!

2. Add in a nightly meditation. Obviously, I’m having some issues with meditation right now, so I’m upping my commitment to see if that helps.

That’s all for now. I’ll update in 5 days to let you know how it all goes!

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My 30 Day Challenge (Before Turning the Big 3-0)

Bye Bye, Beerasana!

Bye Bye, Beerasana!

I’m excited to say hello to the next decade of my life and goodbye to my messy, fun, and somewhat rootless 20’s. Many people seem to lament each passing year, but deep down inside, I am so stoked to be a real freakin’ lady. My 20’s were a great time to experiment, make mistakes, and figure out who I am. I feel like that picture has become clearer in the last couple of years and now that I see some direction and am laying down some roots, I feel I can start blossoming into my full potential. 30, here I come! 40, 50, and beyond… I’ll deal with you later!

I’ve seen a lot of people make “30 before 30” lists and I’ve been thinking about doing something similar to celebrate the milestone. I began listing things in my head that I haven’t yet done and must try while I still have my youth to blame. I haven’t ever surfed, or skydived, or been to India… but will any of those activities be any less worthy, thrilling, or joyous just because my age starts with a 3 instead of a 2? Highly doubtful.

So instead of endeavoring through a list of extreme activities, I’m taking this whole thing in the opposite direction. I want to start the next decade of my life more disciplined, happier, healthier, stronger, more grounded, more spiritual, and more compassionately open-hearted than ever. So I am challenging myself, starting tomorrow, to make the following commitments for the next 30 days leading up to my birthday, in order to step into my 30’s ready to kick some major asana.

For the next 30 days I will:

  1. Start a morning routine. This includes getting up at 5:30 am (gasp), writing 3 pages, doing my morning yoga practice, meditating for 20 minutes, and drinking some yummy and caffeinated tea. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I LOVE to sleep. I also LOVE to sleep in. But I know that early morning is such a great time to be in peace and to set a healthy foundation for the day. As the great Hedwig said, “To be free, one must give up a little part of themselves.” Well, I hope this makes me very, very free!
  2. Give up alcohol. I feel like I drink too often in the winter. I feel pent-up, and sometimes bored, and use it as a way to relax. I don’t feel like it’s a problem or abnormal, but I want to enter my 30’s sexy and sharp. Alcohol dulls the mind and ain’t nobody got time for that! According to yogic philosophy, one source of right knowledge is direct perception. When we dull our senses, we cease to directly experience the true nature of our reality, which leads to ignorance. The goal of yoga is to gain control over our minds, dissolving ignorance and identifying with our true, spiritual nature. This doesn’t mean I’m abstaining forever, but I’m hoping it makes me more mindful and selective when I do imbibe.
  3. Study the Yoga Sutras. I started the Bhakti Book Club with a fellow Kansas City yoga teacher and we’ll be discussing Pada One and Pada Two of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras at our March Meet-up. This is probably the most important text in yoga and I’m excited to really spend the time contemplating it and discussing it with other interested yogis. I’ll be spending a little time each day to delve in deeply.
  4. Take on a few 5 day challenges. This one is still a little loose in my mind, but I have a few ideas. The first 5 days will be devoted to getting used to the shiny new early mornings, but after that I’ll be devoting the following 5 day blocks to extra challenges. Some ideas are purging and donating many of my things, writing letters to loved ones, giving up television, and refraining from looking in the mirror and stepping on a scale.
  5. Truthfully report how this all goes. I’ll commit to posting every 5 days to keep you updated on how this is all going and I promise to follow the yama of satya, or truthfulness. It will be much more entertaining that way, anyway! I’ll also touch on the 8 limbs of yoga, especially the Yamas and Niyamas (ethical guidelines of yoga) and how this challenge reflects my desire to live within those parameters. I want to pass on these gifts to my own students, so its important for me to embody them myself.

That should cover it! I’ll wrap this up with a lovely and quite appropriate quote by Caroline Adams:

“Your life is a sacred journey. It is about change, growth, discovery, movement, transformation, continuously expanding your vision of what is possible, stretching your soul, learning to see clearly and deeply, listening to your intuition, taking courageous challenges at every step along the way. You are on the path… exactly where you are meant to be right now… And from here, you can only go forward, shaping your life story into a magnificent tale of triumph, of healing, of courage, of beauty, of wisdom, of power, of dignity, and of love.”

I wish you love and luck on your own sacred journey and hope you find some inspiration from mine.

Namaste

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Learning to Breathe- My First Yoga Class

BreatheGrowing up, I was a speed addict. No, I wasn’t addicted to amphetamines, but I was drawn to a very full life. I was constantly busy, with little chance to rest, and driven by a gnawing sense of perfectionism. My ego was a mule and the proverbial carrot was a merciless drive to succeed. During high school I had to have the best grades, be the best dancer, keep two jobs, a car, a boyfriend, and an active social life. This is the American way, of course, but we aren’t all built for such a lifestyle. I am and always have been a highly sensitive person and over time, this overwhelming existence did not resonate with my inner self. I started looking for outside sources to cope. Not understanding what was going on, I started to believe that I hated myself. I had no idea how to “fix” what felt so broken. My senior year, I crashed and burned, landing myself in the hospital for four weeks getting treatment for a nasty eating disorder. I hadn’t yet discovered the keys to my happiness, but this stay would give me a glimpse of what I needed to survive and find the inner peace I hadn’t slowed down enough to discover.

I remember being on floor eight, the “ED” ward of Baptist medical Center. My new private room was tiny, but after two weeks with a chatty roommate, I was able to have some time to myself in my own space. I remember having so many feelings, but they were overshadowed by an all pervasive sense of numbness. There was this thick cloud around my firing neurons and broken heart. It was partially formed by the previous months of starvation, but mostly formed from the heavy doses of medication I was administered daily. I already had a very shaky sense of autonomy, being a teenager, but in the hospital I was to give up every sense of control I had so clumsily put together in my life. It was at once freeing and suffocating. I was cold, lonely, and not allowed any exercise. In my heart, through the fog, I knew I was there to get better and find healing. I was to replace my ill-formed coping mechanisms of starvation and exercise with ones that didn’t threaten to ravage my mind and body as well as hurt those who loved me. I enjoyed those few moments of relative peace, after the morning weigh-in and before our daily routine of self-exploration and therapy.

That day, a Sunday, I was first exposed to yoga. Everyday was a strict routine, but Sundays were just a little more lighthearted. I clung to my withering faith and attended chapel on Sunday mornings. Then we would have arts and crafts, followed by a special class or treat. Sometimes it was dog therapy, where we got to play with therapy dogs dressed in silly costumes, but this Sunday it was yoga. I felt a small twinge of excitement. Prior to my hospitalization, I danced seven days a week. I had a focused yearning to be a professional dancer and I was so close, but I unfortunately wanted it too badly. The driving hammer of perfection banged on my mind and body until I believed I had to hurt myself to get better. My mind and body became twisted and weak, preventing me from doing the one thing I believed that I truly loved. Maybe yoga was a chance to test those waters again.

We met in the multi-purpose room. Drab and clinical, its grey walls were tacked with the occasional yellowing motivational poster. It had a few comfy old chairs and a pile of old board games in the corner. This place was constantly taking on new meaning. It housed activities ranging anywhere from tear-filled group therapy sessions to the occasional game night. Two things remained constant: the air was always filled with the stale scent that seems especially reserved for clinical settings and the walls absorbed all sounds, annihilating every hint of an echo, bringing forth the undeniable feeling that yes, you are stuck in this present moment. However, the energy room felt vastly different as I stepped in on this Sunday. Candles lit and lights dimmed, it seemed almost ethereal and inviting.

My favorite nurse, Joanna, also happened to be a certified yoga instructor. She sat at the front of the room in her grey scrubs with a serene smile on her face. She asked us to be seated in a cross-legged position, close our eyes, and just breathe. Following her simple request, I started taking long inhales and exhales. I was a classically trained singer, so breathing exercises were nothing new to me, but this was the first time I had ever just sat and focused solely on the beauty of my own breath. For so many months prior, I was intent on slowly killing myself, but at this moment, I felt the exhilaration of life within me. The breath was the essence and every inhale and exhale an urge to live. We went through some very basic asanas, or poses, with a heavy emphasis on mindfulness of the breath. There are many different types of yoga, but I would come to know this gentle, relaxing, and slow form as “restorative.” Breathing and stretching, I felt more free and alive than I had in months. I let my mind go and for that moment, gave up the nagging, repulsive feelings that had taken over for so long. I didn’t know it at the time, but every yoga class ends with savasana, or corpse pose, where you lay on your back and breathe. Nothing else is expected of you but to be in the moment. Suddenly, I wasn’t stuck in the present, but free to enjoy the delightful now-ness. Although subtle, I felt my perspective change and felt a sense of peace that was authentic. As we ended class and said “namaste”, I knew this was something healthy I’d seek in my life again.

Twelve years later, after a very long road to recovery, Yoga has become an anchor in my life. It’s more than a coping mechanism, but a compassionate way of life that bleeds into everything I think and do. Learning to take the time to stretch, breathe, and be mindful in the present has saved me from self-destruction. Although my life is still quite full, I no longer approach it with attachment to perfectionism. This has freed me to pursue my passion of teaching yoga and I am now beyond happy that I am now able to share this gift with others. I know that the experience of yoga is different for everyone and we all approach it for different reasons and under a myriad of circumstances, but knowing I can be a catalyst for change in others, as Joanna was in my life, makes my own suffering worth it. We can all change ourselves, and gradually change the world, one breath at a time.

 

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On Being a Good Yoga Teacher

Being a Good Yoga TeacherBeing a good yoga teacher requires a harnessing of a variety of important skills. First, one must be knowledgeable about the history and philosophy of yoga, as well as anatomy and the asanas themselves. The teacher must also have a sharp understanding of sequencing. Next, the teacher must have a firm grasp on communication and languaging. The teacher must also set a welcoming atmosphere and be gracious and socially attentive while setting important boundaries with students. A keen intuition is also important as well as a desire for safety. Lastly, a teacher should never stop learning, deepening their self-practice everyday.

A good teacher has taken the time to study yoga from as many angles as possible and should incorporate their wisdom into each class.  Having a deep respect for the history and philosophy of yoga will allow a teacher to provide context to their teachings. We are not practicing as merely a physical exercise, but are respectfully carrying on an ancient tradition that effects people’s lives on and off the mat. Having at least a basic knowledge of the physical and energetic bodies allows the teacher to come up with intelligent sequencing, transitions, and safety that will be more deeply satisfying to a student than most traditional exercises. This also allows the teacher to intelligently cue each pose, helping the students reach optimal alignment. In teaching, as in life, knowledge is power and it is our duty to pass this on to our students.

Understanding how to sequence a class is extremely important, especially in forms of yoga that require creativity, such as Vinyasa Flow. The teacher should first assess the level of the class before sequencing or be able to adjust the level according to the students. A teacher can either sequence a class in a general way, exercising all parts of the body, or in a thematic way, working towards a peak pose or flow. Both require attentiveness to a bell-curve: starting slowly/gently, becoming more vigorous toward the middle, and then lowering the heart-rate as you finish. In general, the class should start with centering/breathing exercises, followed by a warm-up that moves and rotates all major joints. This is followed by a series of flows that start low and become more vigorous as the practice proceeds, perhaps leading to a peak pose. This is followed by inversions and back-bends, counter-posing after the entire sequence is finished. This is then followed by a cool-down and eventually savasana and Om/Namaste. During the class, the teacher should offer modifications and variations to suit the various levels of students and also offer intelligent adjustments and assists, carefully giving attention to all students.

A good teacher has a firm grasp on communication and languaging. A clear, projected voice that is slow and clear with simple wording will help students keep pace with the class. Varying the language by not repeating phrases such as “coming into downward facing dog” or “breathe in, breathe out”, will help students stay interested in the class and will allow time for more intelligent cues. A good teacher should speak in commands, but never make it about themselves or referring to “we” or “I”. A good teacher should avoid the following words and phrases: slang, such as “gonna” or “wanna”, filler words, such as “now”, “just”, “so”, “really”, and “then” , “push”, “drop”, “don’t”, “you’re”, “please”, “thank you”, and “sorry”. A yoga teacher should also avoid sounding like an aerobics instructor, taking a more formal and elegant approach since it is a spiritual practice. A good teacher should also use both demonstration and language to cue the breath through each pose and flow. Lastly, the teacher’s tone of voice should set the mood for the class and should also follow the sequencing bell-curve, motivating the students to come along energetically in their practice.

A good teacher also presents themselves professionally and sets a welcoming mood while being gracious and socially attentive. Dressing professionally in such a way that covers the body, but covers it snugly is important. Excessive jewelry and hair in the face does not send the right message. The teacher should be totally present and with the class the entire time as well. The teacher should be warm, learning their students’ names and finding out each of their student’s specific needs, greeting and saying good-bye to each if possible. A teacher should present an open, positive mood and demonstrate equanimity to all students. The teacher should be welcoming and attentive to all newcomers, making sure they feel comfortable and positioned correctly in the room. The yoga space should be pleasant, clean, and calming with nice lighting, smells, and temperature. This should be a sacred space to both teacher and student.

A good teacher should stress safety. They must communicate effective alignment and transition cues to the students and make sure not to push anyone past their edge. If offering assists, the teacher should never go quickly and should stay totally focused on the student the entire time. The teacher should also make sure the student has the props they need and should make adjustments when spotting dangerous alignment. The teacher should also verbally cue specific safety instruction such as “Never move the head in Plow.”

Lastly, a good teacher must be devoted to their self-yoga and meditation practice, continue their personal studies, and stay current on the latest developments in safety and longevity in practice. The thirst to go deeper into yoga and to always learn will always be reflected to your students. It is an honor and privilege to pass this science to others and we must fully be present and engaged to do so. Harnessing this multitude of skills while continuing to grow, is the path to hopefully becoming a great teacher.

Written by: Lauren Leduc

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The Myofascial System

FasciaThe myofascial system, which looks like a tight mesh spider suit that covers the entire body, is a pervasive tissue system in the body composed of collagen and elastin fibers that support and provide elasticity for the entire musculoskeletal system. It is fibrous and strong, yet quite thin. It envelopes and isolates the muscles and organs of the body, and provides the foundation for bone, cartilage, and important components of the circulatory and lymphatic systems. It also remarkably records all physical, emotional, mental, and cognitive activity. Because sensory nerves are found throughout the fascial planes and are stimulated in yoga and massage, this can evoke emotional and energetic release.

The myofascial system is comprised of three layers: superficial, deep, and subserous. The top layer, or superficial layer, may be mixed with varying amounts of fat and connects the skin to the tissue and bone underneath. It is strong, yet flexible, allowing the skin to be deeply anchored, yet elastic. The next layer, the deep fascia layer, is much stronger and more densely packed. It covers the muscles in connective tissue aggregations which help to keep the muscles divided and protected. The last layer, or subserous layer, is the deepest and lies between the deep layer and the major organs of the body. It is more flexible than deep fascia, and the body leaves space around it so that the organs can move freely.

The myofascial system has many unique qualities that make it truly dynamic. The fascia is surrounded by a gel-like bath called ground substance. It has the unique ability to go from gel to liquid form in response to pressure, heat, or stretch. This can mean the difference of you feeling free and mobile or stiff and rigid like concrete. Ground substance can absorb forces when the body moves, or act as a shock absorber when it is in a gelatinous state when it is healthy. When it changes from a liquid to a gel then to a more solid form, the myofascia tightens and it won’t reverse without outside intervention such as massage or other bodywork. Fascia also contains fibroblasts, specialized cells that give it the ability to grow more fascia. These often work overtime along stress lines in the body as a form of reinforcement and protection.

In addition, the fascial tissue also contains smooth muscle cells and proprioceptors, sensory receptors that detect motion or position of the body, embedded within its cellular matrix. This means that fascia can sense stretch and positional change and then contract or relax in response to it, much like muscle. In fact, facial tissue contains nine times as many mechanoreceptors, sensory end organs that respond to mechanical stimuli, than muscle tissue.

There are two main types of fascial proprioceptors: Ruffini and Pacini endings. Ruffini endings decrease muscle tone and inhibit sympathetic nervous system activity in response to stretch or direct pressure.  Pacini endings tense the muscles in response to pressure or vibration, providing joint stability throughout the body.

Unfortunately, the features that make the myofascial system so dynamic, also can lead to deformity, causing bodily pain over time. Fascial tissue exposed to excessive stress and strain can become dense and knotted, due to the responses of its ground substance and fibroblasts. The areas of increased tension are called adhesions, which form around nerves and causing muscles to lose independent movement, fatiguing the synergist muscles.

Trigger points can also be formed in the myofascia and muscles. Trigger points, a common cause of musculoskeletal pain, are extremely sore and tender spots that feel like a taught band in the muscle. They form in areas that have been under heavy stress, and therefore constantly contract, limiting the flow of blood and nutrients and removal of waste, irritating the area even further. This sends pain signals to the brain, ordering the muscle to rest, which shortens and tightens the muscle, sending the body into a vicious cycle of pain.

To ensure a healthy myofascial system, drinking plenty of water, strength training, stress reduction and treatments such as massage, acupuncture, and yoga are highly recommended. Both massage and yoga stimulate the nerves and mobilize fluids within the myofascial and organ planes. This propels toxins to the one-way valve system, sending them to the lymph nodes and organs that facilitate their removal.

Massage can facilitate myofascial release, a technique where gentle, sustained pressure is used on the soft tissue while traction is applied to the fascia. This results in the softening and lengthening of the fascia and breaking down of scar tissue and adhesions between skin, muscle, and bones. Although the assistance of a professional massage therapist or body worker is recommended, one can work on myofascial release through self-massage. This can be done with the aid of a foam roller, pain ball, or “the stick”, a twenty-four inch flexible plastic baton outfitted with a series of rollers that can access hard-to-reach places.

Lastly, finding ways to relax will help ensure a healthy myofascial system. Yoga, meditation, and spending time in nature will help ease tension in the body, preventing adhesions and trigger points from forming.

Written By: Lauren Leduc

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