On Using a 6-year Old as a Meditation Aid

Danny and me

Danny and me

Since returning from India, I have vowed to become more disciplined in my meditation practice.

Hmmm.

The idea is to sit every morning for 20 minutes before I start with my official day. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. Not just am I experiencing the most fascinating level of resistance to getting out of bed – despite having had ample sleep (another post on this very topic of resisting meditation is under way and soon to be posted) – but my children have inexplicably started waking up half an hour earlier than usual. I set my alarm for 6am and the theory is that by 6.30pm I will have finished my pranayama, meditation and be feeling that wonderful sense of quiet calm that comes as a result, and that it will carry me through the chaos of breakfast and getting the kids to school, and into my working day.

In the 3 weeks since returning from my trip, I have probably achieved that five times maximum.

I set up my spot the night before I go to bed – lay my mat out in front of the beautiful old sash window and wide windowsill that I use as my make-shift altar in my bedroom, and put out my beautiful scented candle and the very special bronze Buddha statue that is inlaid with turquoise and agate. My meditation shawl is folded on the mat and all I need to do is roll out of bed when my alarm goes off.

This morning, I was feeling sparkly and alert after three rounds of Kapalabhati and was settling into my meditation with something bordering on anticipation and exhilaration – “Here I am! Finally! I am going to get this right, even just this morning”. Brought my attention to the breath after mindfully scanning through my body. So, this is me, sitting, on my mat, breathing. Breathing in. Breathing out. And then I heard the slight creaking of the wooden floorboards in the passage leading to my bedroom and I knew that one of the kids was up. Back to the breath. Just breathe. A gentle tap on the shoulder and a whispered “Good morning Mummy”. Ah, Daniel. Maybe if I ignore him he will crawl into bed besides my sleeping husband – he knows not to disturb me when I’m meditating. Just breathe. In. Breathe. Out. “Mummy? Mum? (pause) Mummy, you look very beautiful when you meditate”.

And right there any attempt at ignoring this perfect little human being became futile. So I looked at him and smiled, and he gave me the most beautific grin and crawled onto my lap. He is only-just small enough still to be able to fit comfortably into my cross-legged position, with his legs dangling off the one side and his head lolling off the other, but he did it, and I tucked the shawl around him and we both took a deep breath and then I settled back into my meditation, but this time instead of focusing on the sensations of my own body I became aware of his: this perfectly formed human being lying on my lap. The curve of his spine pressing against my belly, the smooth warm skin of his face against my leg, the tousled curls of his head pressing against my arm. The slow and steady breath, about double the rhythm of my own, and the almost imperceptible beating of his heart, as we just breathed together and were peaceful. Soon enough my thoughts started flying as they so often do when it comes to my children: Is he happy? Does he seem to be balanced? Will he remain healthy? Am I a good enough mother? Is he doing enough extra-mural activities? Did I pack his swimming clothes into his backpack? Do I read enough to him? Are his tantrums normal? Am I setting a good enough example for him and his sister?

And then, as if reading my thoughts, he looked up at me and said “You’re the best mummy, you know”.

And then, “This is nice, isn’t it, Mummy?”

And I said, “Yes, my beautiful boy, this is very nice indeed”. And watched as all the thoughts drifted away and came back to the sensation of his small, warm body on my lap, the sound of our breaths, the sensation of our heartbeats, the weight of his head resting on my arm, the curvature of his delicate spine pressing against my belly, the flickering of the candle and the slow and easy peace of my home in the early morning.

 

My beautiful Buddha from Rishikesh, India

My beautiful Buddha from Rishikesh, India

**Photo of me and Danny taken by Shantelle Visser of Shantelle Visser Photography – highly recommended **

Call it social empowerment, call it ‘spreading the love’, call it what you will – there is no doubt that what we are doing is changing lives

An article that appeared in Homecoming Revolution a while back.

Nicci Annette Yoga With Nicci (1)

Name: Nicci Cloete Annette

Age: 39

Home Country: South Africa

Country returned from: UK and USA

Years lived abroad: 10

Occupation: Marketing & Operations Manager for TRADE-MARK (www.trade-mark.co.za), a non-profit organisation that supports township tradesmen build up their own businesses and break through the barriers to financial independence; Owner and Yoga Instructor at Yoga With Nicci, a private yoga studio in Stellenbosch.

What made you decide to return home and start a business?

I only ever intended to leave South Africa for 2 years and so didn’t even bother applying for the ancestral visa that I qualified for, instead going straight for the working holiday visa. At the end of the two years however I wasn’t quite ready to go home yet as I realised there was so much more I wanted to see and do – plus the small matter of having met my now-husband from Northern Ireland. We got married a few years later and after 8 years in London, moved to the west coast of America where he had the opportunity to open an office for the UK-based software company he worked for.

By this time I was already yearning to return home but it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss out on and we spent two wonderful years out there, however when we were told by two independent medical specialists that we would never be able to have children on our own, we decided to try the IVF route and that South Africa was the right place to do it – from a financial perspective but more specifically because of the support back here from my family and our mutual friends. My husband had fallen in love with SA during our many trips back home and so it was with great excitement and a fair amount of trepidation that we returned early in 2008. As it turned out (and it seems like it often does work out this way), the moment we stopped focusing on me falling pregnant, it just happened naturally and so when we touched down at Cape Town International, I was almost 3 months pregnant, and we had not a job between us, no place to live, but a firm belief that we were in the right place, and that as uncertain as the future seemed, we trusted the process to unfold just as it should.

Another thing that appealed to both of us hugely and made us choose to settle in SA rather than return to the UK – aside from the obvious like the weather, lifestyle, social networks that we’d both built up here – is the way in which we’d seen our friends carve out real niches for themselves in the business world and seeing how they seemed to be managing to find a balance between work and play.  Unlike London where it seemed like almost everyone was ‘working for the man’, in South Africa we had friends who were doing their own thing – one running a successful flower export business, another his own design agency, another a play group for small kids and new mums, another her own architectural landscape company, and so on. There were others in more conventional jobs too of course, but these people also seemed to be finding a way to make a comfortable living whilst taking advantage of all that our incredible country has to offer.

Having spent hours commuting to and from work each day and knowing how ludicrously expensive childcare is the UK was also a major factor in our decision – we hoped that South Africa would offer us an opportunity to spend as much time as possible with our little ones, rather than having to work every hour of the day in order to finance a crèche for them to grow up in.

What company do you work for and what do you do there? If you are an entrepreneur, tell us about your business.

I have two part-time jobs: first and foremost, I work for a brilliant non-profit organisation called TRADE-MARK (www.trade-mark.co.za) which supports township tradesmen by helping them to market their businesses and ultimately to break through the barriers to financial independence.  As I currently only work part-time, this allows me to keep teaching yoga on the side at my yoga studio in Stellenbosch (my second job), but we are confident that we will shortly be receiving some more funding that will enable me and the founding director, Josh Cox, to both work fulltime for TRADE-MARK. The concept is Josh’s brainchild – his friend Simon, from the township of Diepsloot, was struggling to secure regular work despite being an expert tiler. By providing Simon with business cards and a written reference, he was suddenly able to secure contracts of up to R30 000. It became clear that with added credibility and a few marketing resources, high-quality tradesmen from the townships were able to secure significantly more business.  I met Josh when I worked at WWF South Africa when I first arrived back in SA, and from the first day he told me about what he envisaged for TRADE-MARK, I was hooked. He went about making it a reality and after having my two (miracle) children and qualifying as a yoga teacher, when Josh approached me to come on board I leapt at the opportunity.

My job entails helping to hand-pick the best township tradesmen: individuals with initiative and drive, who communicate well and already have experience in dealing with customers, and then helping them to market themselves sufficiently to secure on-going work and to keep growing their businesses.

In terms of setting up my own yoga business, I was extremely fortunate in that my parents allowed me to use a space at their home which lent itself perfectly to being transformed into a yoga studio, which meant that I didn’t have the burden of paying rent when first starting out as a teacher. Initial outlays financially included transforming the space into a studio and paying for a website, and it was slow going at the beginning to get people through the studio doors, but what with regular blogging and use of social media to get my website picked up by the search engines, I now have a regular stream of students and as of a year ago, have a second teacher offering classes at the studio. You’ll never get rich as a yoga teacher, but it’s hugely rewarding, I love what I do, and it’s something that I hope to continue doing on the side line for as many years as I’m able, as we continue to grow TRADE-MARK.

What’s the hardest bit about doing business in SA?

I found it quite an adjustment initially upon returning in terms of the speed at which things happen. I used to work in the murky world of recruitment in London where it was 1000km an hour, with very little pause for breath. I used to find it frustrating (and still do sometimes) at how much slower things can seem to happen here, not just in terms of the pace at which things get turned around but also technically and logistically: the comparatively slow speed of the Internet and even the erratic electricity supply when we first arrived back could really make it challenging to get a full day’s work done at times.

Another thing that I find very hard is to be confronted on a daily basis with the shocking prejudices that still exist in South Africa, and the stark disparity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have not’s’.

What’s the easiest bit?

Switching off the computer, stepping outside into the magnificent Africa sunshine, taking a deep breath and giving thanks for being able to call such a stunning part of the world ‘home’. I also love the fact that it’s a lot less formal than the UK dress-wise – what a pleasure to be able to work in an office where people are wearing plakkies and jeans rather than the obligatory black suit! 

What advice would you give someone who is thinking of returning home and starting a business / finding work?

Do your homework – research what business opportunities exist in your area of expertise, chat to people here who are doing something similar about what they have learnt, what they’ve done right and wrong, and what they’d do differently.  Also, really check out the cost of living here – we did our homework in this regard and even so have found that it’s significantly more expensive than we anticipated. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the turn-around in securing a job is possibly going to be slower than you may envisage, and if your partner isn’t from here, make sure you’ve got all their paperwork in order before you come back – and pay for professional help with anything bureaucratic if you can afford it – tax, immigration etc.

How are you making a difference back in your home country?

At the risk of sounding clichéd and twee, it’s an absolute privilege to be back in South Africa, using the skills I’ve gained along the way to help to uplift people from my community who’ve not had the same opportunities granted to me. It’s not rocket science and I am so aware that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean, but basic things like using my experience of sales and marketing to help to pull jobs for our tradesmen, or like simply having access to the Internet, a printer and a car to help the guys put together and deliver professional quotes – these things are making a massive and tangible difference to the small group of tradesmen that we work with, as well as their extended families.  Call it social empowerment, call it ‘spreading the love’, call it what you will – there is no doubt that what we are doing is not only improving the individual tradesmen’s financial situations, but giving them hope for the future. We are so excited about what lies ahead for the organisation and about our imminent funding coming through – and this all feeds into the communities that the guys come from, creating ripples of hope, positivity and garnering a can-do attitude.

What is your opinion on what the Homecoming Revolution is doing?

Helping to reverse the brain drain by encouraging South Africans to tell their stories about coming home in an honest and non-biased way – although if you are truly and proudly South African, you will always be a little bit biased about all that this beautiful country has to offer.

The 10 Things You’ll Do Once You Start Yoga (that have nothing to do with yoga)

I so enjoyed this article by Lee Anne Finfinger (see http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/10/the-10-things-youll-do-once-you-start-yoga-that-have-nothing-to-do-with-yoga-lee-anne-finfinger/) that I simply have to re-post it on my blog. It made me laugh out loud at myself and I am sure that all of you that are in any way involved in yoga may also find it amusing. It is such a breath of fresh air to find someone who is clearly passionate about yoga (and especially how it has transformed her life), yet able to do without the worthiness and seriousness that can so often accompany any musings about the subject.

In the same vein, I am currently reading a book by Claire Dederer called ‘Poser’, which I am thoroughly enjoying, even though I am only a few chapters in. I confess: the sole reason I bought the book is because of the photo on the cover: a woman in lotus with a glass of wine in her one hand and a baby’s juice bottle in the other. Finding myself constantly challenged in the daily balancing act of my many ‘jobs’ (frequently grumpy and stressed-out mother of two children under the age of four, not-very-good wife, yoga instructor, to name but a few), this resonated with me enormously. Dederer,  a highly self-aware, smart book critic who has contributed to The New York Times Book Review,  makes some extremely powerful social commentary about the challenges of being a mother, a wife, a woman in our current society whilst being very honest (and incredibly witty) about how yoga helped her to fight her own demons. I have just put my own two children down for a nap and so I am keeping this blog post short so that I can dash off and get back to reading!

So, to finish off this post, enjoy Lee Anne’s ten points about what you’ll do once you start yoga…

1. At least once, you will force yourself to try to be vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, gluten-free (insert any over-zealous diet here)/ drink Kombucha/ buy bottled water before class and pour it into your sustainable water bottle before the teacher/students/Whole Foods cashier next to you sees.  (If you’re craving meat, just eat it!  On your deathbed, will you really be glad that you didn’t have that steak on your 30th Birthday?)

2. Your iPod will now include a heavy serving of Kirtan music that you will listen to on your very long commute to your yoga studio (It’s cool; if you want to listen to Kirtan occasionally, go for it!  When you start listening to it while driving and falling asleep — time to go back to your old playlists. Do NOT switch over to NPR!)

3. You will pretend not to notice that your ass now fits in a size 6 instead of an 8, but you’re secretly thrilled.  (When you get down to a 4 though, watch it.  People will talk.)

4. You will go back to your natural hair color/ remove your hair extensions/ cut your hair short in an attempt to stop paying so much attention to your vanity.  (Try not to cut it too short — the growing out process is a bitch and then you’ll just need more hair extensions. I did.)

5. You’ll attempt to read the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Upanishads while your stack of fashion magazines calls to you from the next room.  (Really, why can’t I like Rachel Zoe and yoga?  Now that I’m thin enough to actually wear her clothes, why should I pretend I don’t want to?) (See #3.)

6. You will take a retreat.  Hello, Kripalu!  (It’s ok — those other people probably are weirdos.  So are you.  Eat your breakfast and shut up.  No really, shut the fuck up – it’s a silent breakfast.)

7. You’ll start taking photos of yourself in yoga poses. Often.  And you’ll think that other people care.  It’s like the modern-day version of the vacation slideshow.  No one gives a shit, but they’ll pretend like they do so that you do the same when they whip out their own photos.

8. You will at some point wear mala beads, which will break all over the floor of your 6:15am class.  (Basically, it’ll end about as well as when I wore my Grandmother’s rosary beads to dinner at age 6. Silver Lining: The company was kind enough to re-string them for free, and now I just wear them like a really cool wrap bracelet.  It’s very hippie chic. Thank you September Vogue.) (See #5)

9. You will become a cheap date.  Remember, you just dropped two sizes and you continue to spend at least an hour a day sweating and twisting and breathing.  You’ll be buzzed from one drink!

10. You’ll get over yourself.  If you teach yoga, you’ll hope that people show up because they like taking class from who you really are.  If you practice yoga, you’ll keep showing up and you’ll realize that the other shit doesn’t matter.

Turning Upside Down: The Benefits of Headstand and Shoulder Stand

Ever since I can remember, I have loved getting upside down. Whether on the jungle gym in the park or in my first gymnastics class, seeing the world a different way around filled me with a sense of fun and of excitement at doing something just a little out of the ordinary.  I see the same enjoyment in my 17-month old too – barely walking but taking huge pleasure in doing a very respectable downward dog and cooing in amazement at how different the world looks from between her chubby little knees. Even yesterday, when I took my two little ones to a local playground, I was tempted to get onto the monkey bars and hang on by the back of my knees, but decorum (fortunately) prevailed and I left it to the four-year-olds to do the tricks while my husband sighed with relief.

Any wonder I still love inversions in my yoga practice, and that I so enjoyed teaching shoulderstand in tonight’s class.

I always encourage my students to work slowly and to listen to their bodies, especially when they are doing anything new. Even so, there was a definite hint of hesitation tonight when I said we were working towards Sarvangasana, so it was lovely to see how everyone found their own space to do as much (or as little) as they felt comfortable doing, either physically or emotionally, this particular evening.

Besides all the phenomenal physical benefits, the one that I love the most (and the one that keeps me coming back for more) is the idea of turning everything upside down, throwing a new light on old patterns of behaviour and being, and seeing things from a new perspective.

It’s easy to get all passionate about my own reasons for loving it so much, but another thing entirely when attempting to faithfully relay the myriad benefits to my students, so below I quote freely from a lovely article by Pam Werner (Sun and Moon Yoga www.sunandmoonstudio.com).

A General Look at Inversions

Inverted poses are an extremely important group of asanas. Inverted asanas reverse the action of gravity on the body; instead of everything being pulled towards the feet, the orientation shifts towards the head. Similarly, on the emotional and psychic levels, inverted asanas turn everything upside down, throwing a new light on old patterns of behaviour and being. Generally, these practices improve health, reduce anxiety and stress and increase self-confidence. They also increase mental power, concentration and stimulate the chakras.

There are four major systems in the body that the practice of inversions positively influences: cardiovascular, lymphatic, nervous, and endocrine.

The circulatory system is comprised of the heart, lungs and the entire system of vessels that feed oxygen and collect carbon dioxide and other waste products from the cells. Arteries fan out in an intricate tributary system from the heart, which pumps freshly oxygenated blood from the lungs outward. Veins return blood to the heart and, unlike arteries, make up a low-pressure system that depends on muscular movement or gravity to move blood along. One-way valves at regular intervals prevent backwash and keep fluids moving towards the heart in a system known as venous return. Turning yourself upside down encourages venous return.

Inversions also ensure healthier and more effective lung tissue. When standing or sitting upright, gravity pulls our fluids earthward, and blood “perfuses” or saturates the lower lungs more thoroughly. The lower lung tissue is thus more compressed than the upper lungs. As a result, the air we inhale moves naturally into the open alveoli of the upper lungs. Unless we take a good, deep breath, we do not raise the ration of air to blood in the lower lungs. When we invert, blood perfuses the well-ventilated upper lobes of the lungs, thus ensuring more efficient oxygen-to-blood exchange and healthier lung tissue.

Inverting also gives the heart a break. The heart works persistently to ensure that freshly oxygenated blood makes its way up to the brain and its sensory organs. When inverting, the pressure differential across the body is reversed, and blood floods to the brain with little work from the heart.

The lymphatic system is responsible for waste removal, fluid balance, and immune system response. Lymph vessels arise among the capillary beds of the circulatory system, but comprise a separate system that transports stray proteins, waste materials, and extra fluids, filtering the fluid back through the lymph nodes and dumping what remains into the circulatory system at the subclavian veins, under the collarbones. The lymphatic system is analogous to a sewage system, an intricate, underground network tied to every house in town which keeps the citizens healthy.

Lymph, like the blood returning to your heart via the veins, is dependent upon muscular movement and gravity to facilitate its return. Because the lymphatic system is a closed pressure system and has one-way valves that keep lymph moving towards the heart, when one turns upside down, the entire lymphatic system is stimulated, thus strengthening your immune system. Viparita karani is a good example of this, as it is a mild inversion that one can enjoy with no stress on the body.

Inversions while Menstruating

During menstruation women are advised to avoid inversions. When the body is inverted, gravity causes the vessels supplying blood to the uterus to be partially blocked, and this can temporarily stop the flow. The energy of the body at this time in a woman’s cycle is moving down into the earth. Going upside down during the menses disturbs this natural rhythm and can result in a feeling of shakiness, disorientation, or nausea. During your moon cycle, it is important to honour your body by going with, rather than against, this natural flow.

Headstand and Shoulder Stand

Headstand and shoulder stand are referred to as the king and queen of all yoga asanas. Headstand is referred to as the king of all poses, while shoulder stand is referred to as queen of all poses. Headstand develops the masculine qualities of will power, sharpness of the brain and clarity of thought, while shoulder stand develops the feminine qualities of patience and emotional stability. These two poses are opposites energetically. Headstand tends to heat the body and stimulate the nervous system and tones the neck muscles. Shoulder stand tends to cool or neutralize the body and sedate the nervous system while releasing the muscles of the neck and shoulders. In practice together, the logical sequence is to do headstand first, followed by shoulder stand either immediately after, or later in your practice session. Headstand can leave you feeling very stimulated, so once it’s done you really are committed to doing the other. Shoulder stand can be safely practiced on its own as it has the amazing ability to neutralize the nervous system.

Shoulder Stand

The importance of sarvangasana cannot be over-emphasized. “It is one of the greatest boons conferred on humanity by our ancient sages,” Mr.  Iyengar states. It is the “mother of asana,” as a mother strives for harmony and happiness in the home, so this asana strives for the harmony and happiness of the human system. It is a cure-all for most common ailments.

There are several endocrine organs or ductless glands in the human system, which bathe in blood, absorb the nutrients from the blood and secrete hormones for the proper functioning of a balanced and well-developed body and brain. If the glands fail to function properly, the hormones are not produced as they should be and the body starts to deteriorate. Many asanas have a direct effect on the glands and help them function properly. Sarvangasana does this for the thyroid and parathyroid glands, which are located in the neck region, since due to the firm chin lock their blood supply is increased. This ample supply of blood increases their efficiency in maintaining the body and the brain in good balance. Further, since the body is inverted the venous blood flows to the heart by force of gravity, without any strain. Healthy blood is allowed to circulate around the neck and chest. As a result, people suffering from breathlessness, palpitation, asthma, bronchitis and throat ailments get relief. As the head remains firm in this inverted position, and the supply of the blood to it is regulated by the firm chin lock, the nerves are soothed and headaches disappear.

Continued practice of this asana eradicates common colds and other nasal disturbances. Due to the soothing effect of the pose on the nerves, those suffering from irritation, shortness of temper, nervous breakdown and insomnia are relieved. The change in gravitational pull on the body also affects the abdominal organs so that the bowels move freely and constipation is relieved. The asana is recommended for urinary disorders and uterine displacement, menstrual trouble, and hernia. It also helps to relieve epilepsy, low vitality and anaemia. It activates the abdominal organs and relieves people suffering from stomach and intestinal ulcers and severe pain in the abdomen.

Shoulder stand strengthens the upper body, legs and abdomen, opens the chest, and stretches the neck, shoulders and upper back muscles. Helps to relieve varicose veins and drains used blood from the legs, pelvis and abdominal area. It is very soothing to the nervous system and therefore good to practice when one is tense, upset, nervous, irritated, fatigued, or when suffering from insomnia.

It is no over-statement to say that if a person regularly practices sarvangasana they will feel new vigour and strength, and will be happy, confident and at peace. New life will flow into them; their mind will be at peace and will feel the joy of life.

People suffering from high blood pressure, detached retina, glaucoma, hernias, cardiovascular disease, cervical spondylitis, slipped discs should not practice shoulder stand. Those suffering from neck injuries should seek advice from an experienced yoga teacher before beginning to practice shoulder stand. It is advisable for women during menstruation to avoid inversions.

Headstand

Sirsasana is one of the most important asanas in yoga. It revitalizes the entire body and stimulates the mind.

Headstand ensures a proper blood supply and stimulates the pituitary and pineal glands in the brain, glands that are responsible for growth and sex hormones. Our growth, health and vitality depend on the proper functioning of these two glands that control the chemical balance of the body.

Regular practice of sirsasana makes healthy pure blood flow through the brain cells. This rejuvenates them so that thinking power increases and thoughts become clearer. Headstand stimulates the nervous system, increasing mental alertness and clarity. It is a centring, calming and soothing pose. People suffering from loss of sleep, memory and vitality have recovered by the regular practice of this asana.

Headstand strengthens the spine, neck, shoulders and arms. The muscular system of the abdomen and legs are toned. Blood and lymph fluid is relieved from the legs and ankles and with regular practice prevents the build-up of fluid in the legs and feet. Coupled with shoulder stand it is a benefit to people suffering from constipation. The lung tissue is stimulated, which relieves colds, coughs, tonsillitis, bad breath and palpitations.

By reversing the pull of gravity on the organs, especially the intestines, it helps to cleanse them and overcome problems of the liver, kidneys, stomach, intestines and reproductive system. Headstand increases gastric fire and produces heat in the body. When done properly, headstand helps the spine become properly aligned, improving posture, facilitating good breathing and reducing muscular stress. The weight of the abdominal organs on the diaphragm encourages deep breathing, which gently massages the internal organs. Sirsasana is used to treat asthma, hay fever, diabetes, headaches, anxiety and menopausal imbalance.

Headstand provides an opportunity for experimenting safely with the unfamiliar and the fear it creates. Headstand can be scary; it literally turns your world upside down.

People suffering from high blood pressure, detached retina, glaucoma, hernias, cardiovascular disease, cervical spondylitis, thrombosis, arteriosclerosis, and kidney problems should not practice headstand. Those suffering from neck injuries should seek advice from an experienced yoga teacher before beginning to practice headstand. It is advisable for women during menstruation to avoid inversions.

Time spent upside down everyday, especially in sarvangasana and sirsasana, is one of the best things you could possibly do for yourself. These poses bring health and vitality to the body while calming and soothing the mind and spirit.

Resources

Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha Swami Satyananda Saraswati.

Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit: A Return to Wholeness. Donna Farhi

Light on Yoga. BKS Iyengar

Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness. Erich Schiffmann

Yoga: A Gem for Women. Geeta S. Iyengar

10 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself in your Yoga Class

I recently saw this wonderful article by Ann Pizer (About.com Guide) and thought it too good not to share.

Some of yoga’s best lessons are not about how to get all pretzeled up, but more about how to establish beneficial behaviours that will carry over into your life off the mat. Take a look at this list of 10 things to stop doing to yourself in yoga class and see if any of them sound a little too familiar.

1. Stop Comparing Yourself to Others

It can be hard to stay focused on your own practice without comparing yourself to the people around you, but that’s exactly what you should try to do. It really does not matter what anyone else can do, so stop feeling bad about the people who seem to be more advanced than you. Likewise, don’t let yourself get too excited if your poses seem “better” than a fellow student’s. We are all on our own paths here. Staying true to yours will keep your ego from getting involved and also reduce the likelihood that you’ll get hurt trying to keep up with the person next to you.

2. Stop Comparing Yourself to Yourself

Tricky, right? Thinking about what you can do right now compared to your expectations or your past performance can be just as troublesome, and possibly injurious, as competing with the person next to you. Each day offers us a different body, so don’t worry about that awesome pose you were able to do last week but seems elusive now. It’s all just experience, so labelling it as good or bad is a habit worth breaking.

3. Stop Being a Creature of Habit

Speaking of breaking habits, do you always put your mat in the exact same spot? Challenge yourself to try different places around the room, or even try a new class or studio if you’re feeling like you’re in a rut. Changing your physical perspective can help you change your mental perspective too. If you are in the habit of inwardly groaning when your teachers calls for ab work or parivrtta ardha chandrasana (speaking from experience here), see if you can change your ways there too.

4. Stop Listening to the Teacher

OK, you should listen to the teacher most of the time, but don’t forget who’s really in charge here: you. If your teacher instructs a pose with which you don’t feel comfortable, if it causes you pain or aggravates an injury, don’t do it. No one is inside your body but you, so you’re the one calling the shots. And if a teacher gives you a hard time about it, find a new teacher.

5. Stop Being Nervous About Speaking Up

If it’s your first yoga class, you have an injury, you are pregnant (congrats!), you are scared of handstands, speak up! Some teachers will go around the room asking everyone how they are at the beginning of class, others may not, but part of taking charge of your yoga experience is making sure your teachers have all the information they need to safely lead you. If it’s a private matter, tell them one-on-one before class. Likewise, many teachers invite students to stay and ask questions after class. Take advantage of this! Most teachers are thrilled to help you delve into your alignment or brush up your Sanskrit.

6. Stop Leaving Early

There may occasionally be times when you have to leave class early, but let’s not make a habit out of it. Yes, we are all busy people with places to go and people to see, but most of the time all that can wait an extra 10 minutes while you take savasana. Leaving early on a regular basis is not only rude, but robs you of your reward for all that hard work: a few minutes in your day to just do nothing. Also, you don’t want to end up on the pet peeves list, do you?

7. Stop Getting Ahead of Yourself

Speaking of pet peeves, here’s one of mine. The teacher is instructing a pose in which each successive variation builds upon the one before it. Though the teacher clearly states you should not continue to move forward through the variations until you can comfortably hold the previous step, half the class continues to move in forward in some kind of approximation of the pose, bringing them into greater risk for injury. I know I said not to listen to the teacher, but this is not one of those times! Listen to the teacher!

8. Stop Giving in to the Monkey Mind

What are you thinking about during yoga? Hopefully, you answered, “nothing.” One of the most positive things about doing yoga asana or meditation practice is that it gives us the change to take a little vacation from the constant nagging that is our thoughts, something that has nothing to do with your ability to do complicated physical manoeuvres. If you find yourself thinking a lot about the poses you can or can’t do, give yourself a break from that too.

9. Stop Pushing Through the Pain

“No pain, no gain” has no place in a yoga class. Pain comes in different flavours, and part of really getting to know your body is being able to differentiate between a muscular soreness kind of pain and something more serious. That ache in the belly during (and for several days after) the aforementioned ab work is the former, and the latter is to be avoided.

10. Stop Forgetting to Have Fun

There are so many things to take seriously in life, but your yoga practice doesn’t have to be one of them. I’m not suggesting that you goof off or take unnecessary risks, but that we do this thing with a light-hearted approach and a sense of fun. If you fall out of a pose, laugh it off. Take on that parivrtta ardha chandrasana with a smile on your face. It’s only yoga, after all.

Yoga and Depression: Bringing The Black Dog to Heel

Whenever a new student contacts me about starting a yoga practice, I ask what it is that draws them to yoga: firstly, to manage their expectations – if someone’s primary reason is that they want to look like Madonna or Jennifer Aniston, it’s probably better that they find another teacher (or workout altogether), and secondly, to find out whether there is anything underlying that I may need to know about.

Increasingly, I find that more and more people are looking for a way to work with their mind, rather than just the body (although of course there is also always that): high achievers who want to learn how to push themselves less rather than more, stressed out business people who need to learn how to relax, frazzled mums who need some down-time away from the rainbow of chaos that inevitably surrounds having small kids, those who are recovering from either emotional or physical trauma, those working through depression or even students getting wound up about exams and assignments and keen to find a way to become more single-pointed and focused.

Since the ‘Black Dog’ (as Winston Churchill referred to his own depression) has spent some time taking up residence with some of my nearest and dearest in recent times, this is an area of particular interest for me, and after doing some research, I want to share some extremely interesting case studies.

In an article in the April 2009 Harvard Mental Health Letter (from Harvard Medical School), yoga is looked at specifically as a practice said to modulate the stress response and as such, how it can be used in treating or managing anxiety and depression.

‘Since the 1970s, meditation and other stress-reduction techniques have been studied as possible treatments for depression and anxiety. One such practice, yoga, has received less attention in the medical literature, though it has become increasingly popular in recent decades.

Many of the studies evaluating yoga’s therapeutic benefits have been small and poorly designed. However, a 2004 analysis found that, in recent decades, an increasing number have been randomized controlled trials — the most rigorous standard for proving efficacy.

Available reviews of a wide range of yoga practices suggest they can reduce the impact of exaggerated stress responses and may be helpful for both anxiety and depression. In this respect, yoga functions like other self-soothing techniques, such as meditation, relaxation, exercise, or even socializing with friends.

By reducing perceived stress and anxiety, yoga appears to modulate stress response systems. This, in turn, decreases physiological arousal — for example, reducing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and easing respiration. There is also evidence that yoga practices help increase heart rate variability, an indicator of the body’s ability to respond to stress more flexibly’.

A small but intriguing study further characterizes the effect of yoga on the stress response. In 2008, researchers at the University of Utah presented preliminary results from a study of varied participants’ responses to pain. They note that people who have a poorly regulated response to stress are also more sensitive to pain. Their subjects were 12 experienced yoga practitioners, 14 people with fibromyalgia (a condition many researchers consider a stress-related illness that is characterized by hypersensitivity to pain), and 16 healthy volunteers.

When the three groups were subjected to more or less painful thumbnail pressure, the participants with fibromyalgia — as expected — perceived pain at lower pressure levels compared with the other subjects. Functional MRIs showed they also had the greatest activity in areas of the brain associated with the pain response. In contrast, the yoga practitioners had the highest pain tolerance and lowest pain-related brain activity during the MRI. The study underscores the value of techniques, such as yoga, that can help a person regulate their stress and, therefore, pain responses.

Questions remain about exactly how yoga works to improve mood, but preliminary evidence suggests its benefit is similar to that of exercise and relaxation techniques.

In a German study published in 2005, 24 women who described themselves as “emotionally distressed” took two 90-minute yoga classes a week for three months. Women in a control group maintained their normal activities and were asked not to begin an exercise or stress-reduction program during the study period.

Though not formally diagnosed with depression, all participants had experienced emotional distress for at least half of the previous 90 days. They were also one standard deviation above the population norm in scores for perceived stress (measured by the Cohen Perceived Stress Scale), anxiety (measured using the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory), and depression (scored with the Profile of Mood States and the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale, or CES-D).

At the end of three months, women in the yoga group reported improvements in perceived stress, depression, anxiety, energy, fatigue, and well-being. Depression scores improved by 50%, anxiety scores by 30%, and overall well-being scores by 65%. Initial complaints of headaches, back pain, and poor sleep quality also resolved much more often in the yoga group than in the control group.

One uncontrolled, descriptive 2005 study examined the effects of a single yoga class for inpatients at a New Hampshire psychiatric hospital. The 113 participants included patients with bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizophrenia. After the class, average levels of tension, anxiety, depression, anger, hostility, and fatigue dropped significantly, as measured by the Profile of Mood States, a standard 65-item questionnaire that participants answered on their own before and after the class. Patients who chose to participate in additional classes experienced similar short-term positive effects.

Further controlled trials of yoga practice have demonstrated improvements in mood and quality of life for the elderly, people caring for patients with dementia, breast cancer survivors, and patients with epilepsy.

There is also increasing evidence that types of controlled breathing, such as the pranayama that we do in my classes at my yoga studio in Stellenbosch, can provide relief for depression. The program referred to in the Harvard newsletter is called Sudarshan Kriya yoga (SKY), involves several types of cyclical breathing patterns, ranging from slow and calming to rapid and stimulating, and is taught by the nonprofit Art of Living Foundation.

One study compared 30 minutes of SKY breathing, done six days a week, to bilateral electroconvulsive therapy and the tricyclic antidepressant imipramine in 45 people hospitalized for depression. After four weeks of treatment, 93% of those receiving electroconvulsive therapy, 73% of those taking imipramine, and 67% of those using the breathing technique had achieved remission.

Another study examined the effects of SKY on depressive symptoms in 60 alcohol-dependent men. After a week of a standard detoxification program at a mental health center in Bangalore, India, participants were randomly assigned to two weeks of SKY or a standard alcoholism treatment control. After the full three weeks, scores on a standard depression inventory dropped 75% in the SKY group, as compared with 60% in the standard treatment group. Levels of two stress hormones, cortisol and corticotropin, also dropped in the SKY group, but not in the control group.

Since evidence suggests that yoga can tone down maladaptive nervous system arousal, researchers are exploring whether or not yoga can be a helpful practice for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

One randomized controlled study examined the effects of yoga and a breathing program in disabled Australian Vietnam veterans diagnosed with severe PTSD. The veterans were heavy daily drinkers, and all were taking at least one antidepressant. The five-day course included breathing techniques (see above), yoga asanas, education about stress reduction, and guided meditation. Participants were evaluated at the beginning of the study using the Clinician Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS), which ranks symptom severity on an 80-point scale.

Six weeks after the study began, the yoga and breathing group had dropped their CAPS scores from averages of 57 (moderate to severe symptoms) to 42 (mild to moderate). These improvements persisted at a six-month follow-up. The control group, consisting of veterans on a waiting list, showed no improvement.

Researchers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., are offering a yogic method of deep relaxation to veterans returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dr. Kristie Gore, a psychologist at Walter Reed, says the military hopes that yoga-based treatments will be more acceptable to the soldiers and less stigmatizing than traditional psychotherapy. The center now uses yoga and yogic relaxation in post-deployment PTSD awareness courses, and plans to conduct a controlled trial of their effectiveness in the future.

The article ends by cautioning that although many forms of yoga practice are safe, some are strenuous and may not be appropriate for everyone (in particular, elderly patients or those with mobility problems may want to check first with a clinician before choosing yoga as a treatment option), but reiterating that for many patients dealing with depression, anxiety, or stress, yoga may be a very appealing way to better manage symptoms. Indeed, the scientific study of yoga demonstrates that mental and physical health are not just closely allied, but are essentially equivalent. The evidence is growing that yoga practice is a relatively low-risk, high-yield approach to improving overall health.

References:

Brown RP, et al. “Sudarshan Kriya Yogic Breathing in the Treatment of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression: Part I — Neurophysiologic Model,” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (Feb. 2005): Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 189–201.

Brown RP, et al. “Sudarshan Kriya Yogic Breathing in the Treatment of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression: Part II — Clinical Applications and Guidelines,” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (Aug. 2005): Vol. 11, No. 4, pp. 711–17.

Janakiramaiah N, et al. “Antidepressant Efficacy of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) in Melancholia: A Randomized Comparison with Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) and Imipramine,” Journal of Affective Disorders (Jan.–March 2000): Vol. 57, No. 1–3, pp. 255–59.

Khalsa SB. “Yoga as a Therapeutic Intervention: A Bibliometric Analysis of Published Research Studies,” Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology (July 2004): Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 269–85.

Kirkwood G, et al. “Yoga for Anxiety: A Systematic Review of the Research,” British Journal of Sports Medicine (Dec. 2005): Vol. 39, No. 12, pp. 884–91.

Pilkington K, et al. “Yoga for Depression: The Research Evidence,” Journal of Affective Disorders (Dec. 2005): Vol. 89, No. 1–3, pp. 13–24.

Saper RB, et al. “Prevalence and Patterns of Adult Yoga Use in the United States: Results of a National Survey,” Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine (March–April 2004): Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 44–49.

For the full article, please see http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mental_Health_Letter/2009/April/Yoga-for-anxiety-and-depression