Okay, not quite. But ‘rape, wine and guitar lessons’ doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as glibly.
Anyone who takes their interest in yoga beyond the mat and into the texts written on the subject will come across Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra which refers to the ‘eightfold path’, also known as ‘ashtanga‘ which literally means ‘eight limbs’ (ashta = eight, anga = limb in Sanskrit). These eight steps basically act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life: ‘they serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline; they direct attention toward one’s health and help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature’ (I quote shamelessly from Yoga Journal’s http://www.yogajournal.com/basics/158).
The limbs make sense to me in a way that a lot of other ‘moral truths’ or ‘rules’ don’t. Not every limb or even every part of every limb resonates entirely with me but as a whole I find them a very helpful guide to living a ‘good’ life. They work for me on many levels. The first limb, yama, deals with one’s ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behaviour and how we conduct ourselves in life. Yamas are universal practices that relate best to what we know as the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Stick with me if your eyes are starting to glaze over – I’m getting to the point).
Niyama, the second limb, has to do with self-discipline and spiritual observances. Regularly attending temple or church services, saying grace before meals, developing your own personal meditation practices or making a habit of taking contemplative walks alone are all examples of niyamas in practice. Incidentally, I don’t say grace but I do give thanks to all sentient beings who were involved in preparing the food that I am about to consume. It blows my mind every time I do it.
Breaking it down further: the five yamas are ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (continence) and aparigraha (non-covetousness) and the five niyamas are saucha (cleanliness), samtosa (contentment), tapas (heat/spiritual austerities), svadhyaya (study of the sacred scriptures and of the self) and isvara pranidhana (surrender to God or a higher being as you know it).
Now svadyaya is where the rape, wine and guitar lessons fit in. Svadhyaya or self-inquiry ‘encompasses all learning, reflection and experience which is said to result in a greater understanding of our own fundamental nature. Self-study is perhaps the most crucial of the niyamas because at some point we must all reconcile to the fact that although higher consciousness is within everyone’s grasp, no guru, priest or other person can do the work for us’. Or, in my case, no psychologist, marriage therapist, trauma counsellor, friend, parent, sibling or social worker.
I’ve never kept it a secret that I was raped when I was 14. Ten days after my 14th birthday, to be precise, in my own bed, in my own house with my parents and sister sleeping soundly in their own rooms. It goes without saying that it was a terrifying and traumatic event in my life and affected each and every one of us in all sorts of ways. We all went through our own processes of dealing with it and the fall-0ut that ensued, and as I found myself heading towards my mid-thirties, I remember feeling quite good about how well I’d handled it and assimilated the experience into the rich tapestry of my life. Ha! How I smile fondly at my younger self when I think back on that now. As it turns out, it took me having my own two children and deepening my 20-odd years of precious yoga practice before I really started seeing things the way they actually were, and that what I thought was me finally coming out of the wilderness was actually me just starting to enter a dark and very convoluted path through a very dense forest with lots of scary beasts lurking around every ominous corner.
They say that the teacher appears when the student is ready. I give thanks on a daily basis – (literally, every night when I write in my gratitude journal) – that a kick-butt band of phenomenal teachers appeared at the very moment that my walls truly started crumbling and my eyes started opening to what a catastrophe my emotional life had actually become.
The last number of years have been a massive, massive growth curve for me. With the help of these incredible people and the svadhyaya that I speak of above, I came to see how what had been a coping mechanism for years (drinking wine to make the bad times bearable and the good times better) had gone completely haywire and was starting to badly affect not just me but some of the people closest to me. I came to admit for the first time how utterly horrific, sad, heartbreakingly awful the rape was. How it had affected our whole family. How a mask that I had learnt to put on as a confused and hormonal teenager became a permanent feature that eventually I didn’t even realise that I could take it off if I wanted to. I had no idea how to.
The Yoga Sutra says that as we progress on our path of self-study ‘we develop a connection to the universal Divine laws and the spiritual masters who revealed them. It is not only meant for those dedicated to matters of the spirit however but has great practical meaning for anyone who recognize there is room for improvement in our lives’ – and frankly, who doesn’t! ‘Svadhyaya represents an ongoing process through which we can assess where we are at a given moment. It is like attuning our inner navigator and finding meaningful answers to questions: Where am I now, and where am I going? What is my direction, and what are my aspirations? What are my responsibilities? What are my priorities?’
We often find ourselves on cruise control, acting habitually and being so swept up in the momentum of our daily lives that we don’t take the time to check where we are or where we are headed. It’s not been painless to stop and take stock of all that I was doing that was entirely automatic and unintentional and downright destructive at times, but it’s been worth it and it can surely only continue to be worth any discomfort or work. I’m told that that uncomfortable space is exactly where transformation happens. The mantras and textual studies offered by the classical tradition function as references from which we can measure where we are. To take the forest analogy a bit further (bear with me, I know it’s tenuous): I am not out of it yet but it’s no longer a tunnel at the end of the light that I see, rather the light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s hard to look away from that gorgeous light because it’s finally straight ahead rather than winking at me from around yet another corner. I feel like I’m walking into the light. It’s warm, it’s safe, it’s beautiful and it’s so welcome in my life.
Oh, the guitar lessons (aka rock ‘n roll): in the process of embracing the bruised 14 year old who is and always will be very much a part of me, I’ve dusted off my old guitar and started to take lessons again – after almost 30 years, at the ripe old age of 40. My teacher is an uber-cool musical whizz-kid who is young enough to be my child, but we seem to get on well and share a love for all things jazz and blues so it’s surely a matter of time before I’m carving out a career as a rock chick.
On second thoughts, I’ll stick to teaching yoga.
For more about the eightfold path and to see where a lot of this post stems from, visit http://www.yogajournal.com/basics/158.
For those of you who have followed the work that I do outside of the yoga studio, have a quick look at this video of me and some colleagues donning silly Christmas hats and getting into some serious sledding action. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQlZF1spmvY TRADE-MARK works with a small group of amazing township tradesmen who are building their businesses of carpentry, paving, painting and tiling, against all odds and with limited resources. Thanks for your support!
I wouldn’t say I’m a Grinch but I’m certainly not one of those people who whole-heartedly embraces Christmas and the whole festive season and feels sad and deflated when it’s over. On the contrary, I have to work hard with myself to stop getting stressed at how much waste the whole season involves – waste of money, waste of energy, waste of paper and food… and I admit to breathing a long sigh of relief once the 25th is over and everyone and everything seems to start settling down.
I appreciate that the holiday season can be joyful, a time to share what we have with family and friends. However, there’s no doubt that it can also be a stressful time if we allow hectic schedules and commercial pressures to drive us. Which is why this year I persuaded my husband that our family needed to spend 2 weeks at the beach. I found a beautiful house in Arniston and after just a few days we have already settled into a gloriously easy rhythm of breakfast, beach, snooze, pool, more beach, braaing, reading, playing, and of course my precious yoga practice. The main bedroom happens to be huge with a deck overlooking Kassiesbaai and I have practiced under the rising full moon as well as the rising sun. And I have found that my practice has never felt sweeter. I’m sure it’s a combination of the sea air, the turquoise water, the easy routine and especially the fact that there is no shopping mall in sight and certainly no queues, no piped carols being played over a sound system in a mall, no gaudy decorations and no pressure to buy or acquire anything other than the odd piece of snoek or new set of beach bats once the old ones gave up the ghost after a particularly competitive volley between the husband and I (yes, I’m still working on losing my competitive streak).
It’s not all peachy. My in-laws are out visiting from Northern Ireland for 6 weeks. 6 WEEKS. Which is one of the main reasons I begged my husband for us to go away – I love them dearly and am very lucky to have them, but I am a fiercely private person who needs her own space and I figured that if we were in a neutral environment where I wasn’t having to be hostess the entire time, I would also be able to have a bit of a break and have a better chance of remaining marginally pleasant for a longer period of time. Well, that remains to be seen, but at least I’m getting a tan while I’m losing my ability to make small talk.
I’ve been pondering a lot what this time of year means to me. Whilst I consider myself a deeply spiritual person, I am not religious and don’t believe in Jesus Christ which is why I suppose I don’t feel a deep resonance with the whole ‘birth of Christ’ side of things. Sometimes I actually feel like a bit of a fraud that I’m piggy-backing on the Christmas theme even though I haven’t been to church in pretty-much all my life, other than funerals, christenings and weddings. I do, however, feel a huge amount of empathy for my fellow man at this time of year, especially because a number of my nearest and dearest have lost very special loved ones recently and it seems that a lot of folk are battling their own demons at the moment. It’s well documented that depression is one of the most commonly reported and treated illnesses at this time of the year, with people acutely aware of the sense of loneliness and alienation that can be felt when you think that everyone else is having a big family fun time.
I find that at this time of year I really do need to protect my yoga practice. The commercial pressure, holiday shopping, family visits, the logistics of planning and traveling, managing food and alcohol consumption, getting enough exercise and down-time whilst remaining a good mum, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, friend, employee at the same time… it can all get a bit much. And then I get onto my mat and start to breathe and then start moving through (typically) a slow, sweet and gentle practice, and everything falls into perspective again. As corny as it sounds, it’s true!
So I find that the holiday season is a golden opportunity to practice yoga outside of the classroom, actually applying all the skills we have been honing over the year. As Dr. Swami Shankardev says, managing the holiday season is like the exam, the real test of how much we have learned and embodied over the year.
How do we maintain a calm centre in the storm of the holidays? The first thing to do is to dedicate some quiet time for contemplation and meditation. Just sit still wherever you are, breathing quietly to practice any calming, grounding process. Once you have settled in, why not contemplate what a particular holiday means to you, maybe asking yourself what you really want to get out of this period, and what will best support you and others.As you develop a sense of that meaning, perhaps focus on disentangling commercial pressures from the essence of the holidays. This may be able to help you plan strategies that will make this period meaningful and fulfilling.
It sounds paradoxical but stress can be the biggest issue for a lot of people during the holidays. Stresses come in many forms and it can be helpful to contemplate what yours is likely to be. For me, it’s the fact that there is always someone is my house, in my kitchen, in my garden, just in my space. The fact that there is a lot of chit-chat and I am not very good at that. I need to dig deep to remain calm, adult and hospitable when the revolting teenager in me is jumping up and down and shouting ‘JUST GIVE ME SOME &***%% SPACE!!!!’
During my early morning meditation, I find it helpful to playfully visualize what may lie ahead on any given day. I have also looked back at past holidays and considered what I’d like to do differently – which is why we are having Christmas at the beach this year. To give myself the best possible chance of remaining calm, focused, grounded and friendly, I actually have to contemplate strategies that I can actually apply outside of the practice space. This meditation, then, is mental rehearsal for the actual event. So far, so good.
I have to continuously remind myself that yoga is more than technique; it is a way of being. Breath is the best tool we have to remain conscious and calm; any time is a good time to practice moving and breathing more slowly and consciously. It’s my way of keeping that sulky teenager that lurks within me under control, especially when my children are bickering about who’s got the biggest glass of milk or whose turn it is to pull the plug out of the bath. I’ve taught them to breathe deeply too when they get overwhelmed, so if ever there’s a stressful moment in our house, you’re likely to find me (40), Isla (3) and Daniel (5) all lying on the ground and taking deep, slow breaths as we calm each other and ourselves down. It works, even though it looks funny and my in-laws think I’m a hippy-freak.
If you do plan to keep your practice up whilst you’re away from your usual studio, it’s probably worthwhile being realistic about what’s actually going to be achievable in terms of getting on your mat. When we first got to the coast, I had planned to be up at 6am every morning for 45 minutes asana practice and at least 15 minutes meditation. As it turned out, the first day my kids woke up at 5.30am (at home I have to drag them out of bed at 7.30am or even 8am – but here the excitement was too much) so there went my practice. The second day I just felt too pooped to get out of bed and instead had a glorious lie-in as the sun rose gently over the sea. The third day I got on my mat at 7am and all I did was balasana and halasana, and breathed and let go and allowed myself to just relax. Yes, I did fit in my practice later in the day but it was so lovely to just let go of any plan or goal and to rather do what I always encourage my students to do: listen to your body and your mind, and tune into what you really need from your practice. This morning my practice took place in the comfort of my bed, and it consisted of legs up in the air, the full yogic breath, and then supta baddha konasana as I drifted off to sleep again. Perfect.
I find that my real and ongoing challenge is keeping yoga in my life and mind when I’m off the mat: practicing empathy, non-judgement, equanimity, forgiveness, losing my ego, letting go of any semblance of control and surrendering to what is, without losing the essence of who I am. I also find it helpful to remember that asana, pranayama and meditation practices are not ends in themselves, but means to an end. That end is to develop a greater inner resilience and a more stable mind that can handle the difficulties of life with greater calm and poise.
Even if you don’t practice at all over the next few weeks before our Stellenbosch yoga studio re-opens, don’t feel guilty! Take some time out, do something totally different, have a break! And then when you come back to your yoga practice I’m sure you’ll get back into formal practice with renewed enthusiasm and a clearer direction of what you need to work toward in the New Year.
Higher Yoga (with thanks to Dr. Swami Shankardev)
If you wish to practice some form of higher yoga to nourish your spirit during the holiday season, you may wish to focus on how you can support others less fortunate than yourself. It is an excellent time to practice selfless service and giving. It is a time when we can learn from and support others, especially those going through difficult times.
Here are a few tips for practicing higher yoga so that you can fill your life with peace and joy:
1. Honour yourself, your relations, and the planet by choosing a noble and virtuous intention for the New Year. Practice ahimsa, a yama of Patanjali’s Raja Yoga, which means nonviolence toward yourself and others.
2. Follow your own heart. Learn to listen to yourself, your own higher intuitive inner voice, through meditation practice.
3. Practice contentment (samtosha), which is one of the niyamas of Patanjali. Contemplate just how much you already have and what you really need. Is there some
thing that you think you need in your life to make you happy, and/or do you already have plenty? Cultivate gratitude for all the things you have.
4. Before you indulge, bring consciousness into the moment. For example, before eating, be aware of what you are going to eat and perhaps say a simple prayer or thanks. Prepare to really enjoy what you are about to eat, to take it deep into your tissues so as to fully nourish yourself.
5. Be flexible in body, mind, and spirit. Learn not be constrained by plans but to go more with the flow. There is an old Indian saying: “Man proposes; God disposes.”
With great thanks to Dr. Swami Shankardev for the backbone of this post. Dr. Swami is a yogacharya, medical doctor, psychotherapist, author, and lecturer. He lived and studied with his guru, Swami Satyananda, for ten years in India (1974-1985). He lectures all over the world. Contact him at www.bigshakti.com.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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