Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Yoga is more than a gym routine

A 98 year old woman in India hit the headlines on International Day of Yoga this year as she still does a daily yoga routine. She famously said that if you break a sweat when doing yoga you are not doing it right.

Quite to the contrary, in the west yoga has become a part of the fitness industry. I have written before on why I think it doesn't belong in the fitness industry (see Yoga trends in the fitness industry and why it doesn't belong there). Yet people are so time poor that they want to get all aspects of their fitness regime, including their cardiovascular/aerobic workout, from the time they devote to yoga.

The problem with this this is that many of the other benefits of yoga might be missed due to the emphasis on cardiovascular workout.

Fitness is too small a space for yoga to occupy. It is so much more. Yoga belongs in a health and wellbeing space. Yoga, when practised as yoga should be practised, with care and mindfulness, gives so much more than your average fitness workout.

And here is the really wonderful news about your requirements for cardiovascular workout. You only need six minutes of high intensity workout per week to build and maintain cardiovascular fitness.

Fitness wisdom now recommends that we:
  • Do six minutes of high intensity exercise, done as interval training where you go at top intensity for a short period of time (e.g. 30 to 60 seconds) interspersed with a period of ongoing but low level movement, per week
  • Also do strength training such as weight training, which is most effective done at slow speeds
  • Include core work
  • Include flexibility work.
You can easily incorporate strength training (using one's own body weight), core training and flexibility work, in a well rounded yoga practice that includes so much more.

Your best health and wellbeing lifestyle will support the whole body and mind to be fully functional in everyday life. We are best served by bodies and minds that are both strong and flexible, able to relax and let go as well as being able to switch on and respond to demands, and to do so in full equanimity, safety and calm.

A yoga practice helps us towards this goal of holistic wellness when we practise mindfully, using the physical training aspects to school and habituate the body to move safely in everyday life, and simultaneously incorporating mental training. A true yogasana practice is moving meditation. Let's look at what yoga provides for your health and wellbeing when you practise it without raising a sweat and with contemplation.

Flexibility
Regular practice of a balanced yoga routine will increase the flexibility of the body. A well structured yoga program will not try to increase flexibility by taking a ballistic approach or trying to force the body in any way.  That is counterproductive and can lead to injury. Unfortunately the yoga world is littered with teachers who will push, shove and try to force their student's body into some ideal of a pose, and the world is also littered with injuries that have arisen from that approach. So yoga should also be teaching us acceptance and patience as we move towards better functioning bodies.

Strength
A well functioning body will combine strength and flexibility and a well structured yoga regime will include both. Yoga has as many elements of resistance training as you need, using the body's own weight. And it doesn't have to be handstands or peacock pose, holding your downward facing dog for a minute is resistance training. Yoga includes all forms of muscle contraction for building strength as you move into a pose, hold it and then move out of it and into another.

Yoga supports the health of your organs and glands
An asana (posture) practice, as you move through a good balance of postures, alternately squeezes and releases internal organs and glands. This is like squeezing and releasing a dirty sponge in a bucket of clean water. The sponge is cleansed, is it not?

"Fluid dynamics"
Similarly, this squeeze and release is healthy for all the fluids of the body. Lymphatic drainage is enhanced, peri-organ fluids refreshed (the fluids that surround the organs), blood flow stimulated, synovial fluid (the oil in the joints) is stimulated. Even cartilage in the joints is moistened as yoga takes joints through their full range of motion, thus maintaining joint health and reducing arthritic inflammation and pain.

Supports better breathing
Breathing is a core technique to yoga. It is more than breathe in here and out there. Yoga teaches us to breathe more efficiently and deeply, thus increasing the oxygen levels in our blood which then becomes available to tissues throughout our body. Breath is also intimately connected with mental states, so better breathing leads to a better mental state.

Improves posture
Better breathing and improved posture are closely linked; better posture enables better breathing. Improved posture brings the body into a better relationship to gravity and is actually more ergonomic and restful than poor posture. Posture is also interconnected with states of mind. Sit or stand erect and at ease and the mind will also be alert and at ease.

Stronger bones
The movements in a hatha yoga practice put resistance on the bones which stimulates them to grow more cells. So hatha yoga practice helps prevent osteoporosis?

Spinal disc health
The movements of a hatha yoga practice are ideal for squeezing fluid into the spinal discs, helping to plump them up. This is a significant anti-ageing effect.

Building support for the spine
Movements that range between back extension and flexion, lateral movements and sitting upright build the framework of support for the spine that protects it when we are off the mat doing our daily tasks like weeding the garden, reversing the car or putting on our socks.

Mental wellbeing
True yoga is a contemplative practice. Asana practice without meditative contemplation could not really be called yoga. If you are doing asana as a workout you are probably missing this important element and its benefits.
So practice a genuine contemplative yoga style, and find an extra twelve minutes a week to run, swim, cycle or whatever at full pelt for one minute, then slowly for another minute times by six. That is all you need. No gym fees required.



Sunday, November 12, 2017

Follow the senses

Often when we feel fractured or broken our systems shut down and we cease to relate to the body. Typically we begin to exist only in the head, in the thinking mind which goes on and on in a ceaseless litany that seems to reinforce how broken we are.

The senses and the body are the first steps on our pathway to becoming whole. Yoga (the very word denotes wholeness, coming together) delicately encourages us to tune into the senses and to the sensations of the body.



Start with the five senses
"Every perception is an invitation into revelation.Hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching –
Ways of knowing creation,Transmissions of electric realization,The deepest reality is always right here."  Radiance Sutra 9

So we begin the process of returning to wholeness by simply opening the senses and tuning into everything that is there: tastes, sounds, smells, light and image, tactile sensations. We often forget to notice that taste, smell and touch are always here with us. Hearing and sight dominate. So pause a moment and see what you taste, what you smell, what are the tactile sensations of air on your skin, or the feeling of your clothes on your skin?

The trick here is to just let everything be here without any judgement. This is especially so with those dominant senses, hearing and sight.

If we have all five of our senses intact we are fortunate. However there is always another side to the equation. When we have sight and hearing, they can override all else. So long as the eyes are open we can be so distracted by the images we see. Who can keep their eyes off the moving images on a television? At least we can close our eyes, but then there are the ears!

As I sat meditating this morning, work started up at the block across the road where new houses are being built. There was no un-hearing it. Men were shouting their communications across the block, trucks were arriving to deliver things and the sound of tools began. The challenge was to let it be without judgement. For when we judge something we become fused with it and then disturbances arise in the emotions and the mind rejects what is here. When it is welcomed into the soup of what is here arising, it just arises and passes through and is not experienced as disturbing.

Consider the following potential protracted sounds in our environment.
  • The neighbour's dog barking.
  • The sounds of heavy equipment being used in the neighbourhood by a road maintenance crew. 
  • Aircraft overhead. 
  • People talking in a room where you are trying to work.
  • The sound of your own tinnitus
Any of these could become totally distracting if you were to judge it as "negative". If however you can simply welcome it to be here does it not begin to recede into being a background to which you can habituate?

So I celebrate the sounds that were in my environment this morning, they truly gave me the opportunity to practice welcoming what is here along with other sensations, as part of the kaleidoscope of  things arising that come and go yet do not touch the inner me.

Be captivated by sensation
"The body is an oblation to Higher Consciousness" - Siva Sutra II:8
Beyond the senses lies sensation. As we practice asana, especially when we come into some semblance of mastery of technique and we achieve ease in the postures, and during savasana and in meditation, we can begin to attune to the subtler sensations of the body. It may take time to develop sensitivity to these subtler dimensions. That's OK. Give yourself permission to explore and take it at your own pace.

There are profound pay-offs.

Firstly, you will recognise what is harmonious and what is not harmonious in the body. Healthy choices become obvious and desirable. and if the body is facing injury or illness, you will know that early and be able to take early steps towards a remedy.

Then you will also discover how every movement of emotion and thought have their own sensation and location in the body. Recognising this you will have an early warning system and can allow yourself to welcome these as sensations as well and as you do find that when you open the door to them they no longer have to break it down and overwhelm you.

In this way we discover our wholeness.

Quieten the mind
"Yoga happens when there is stilling ... of the movement of thought ..." Yoga Sutra I.2
Because it is impossible to truly feel and think at the same time, tuning into sensation has another magical property - it quietens the mind.

Try it now.

Take a moment to settle, you might want to close over the eyes, then notice the state of your mind, the thoughts that are arising.

Now tune into sensation in the body and identify a part of the body you can truly sense and feel, not visualising it, just feeling. Perhaps your lips, perhaps a hand. stay with it and allow sensation to fully unfold.

Stay awhile really tuning into sensation.

What happens to thinking?





Sunday, October 15, 2017

Reset your defaults

There were some intensely emotional moments last week when I heard the news that loved ones were involved in a serious car accident. There were moments when I was caught up in "how did they survive"! There is horror and trauma in that thought,  it might so easily have been a different story. But it wasn't. I have been watching and welcoming  all the emotions that the events have unleashed, and the thoughts that accompany them. There truly is nothing that is not a messenger with a valuable message to deliver.

Immediately upon hearing the news I recognised feelings of anxiety and distress in my body and then the presence of immense gratitude.

Yes, along with tumultuous other feelings there is gratitude - has to be, my loved ones did survive, and that is a miracle. Concern for them remains, there are injuries to body and spirit to be navigated, but oh so much gratitude.

I am also experiencing deep gratitude for the guidance of my teachers who have shown me the way to welcome my feelings, emotions and thoughts, all as sensations in the body, and the lessons that become available through lived experience of the deep wisdom of the teachings.

This week I have been doing the practices and proving them to myself. I don't pretend to be a saint and it is not always so easy to live the teachings, my feathers are often ruffled. I am ordinary like that - we all are. But I am glad I have been doing my yoga practices daily and that they can step up and help me to navigate difficult times.

What yoga practices are they that have been so useful?

Well it has not had a lot to do with a well executed, nicely aligned trikonasana, although I still advocate asana practice to keep the body healthy, and a lovely asana practice can also be a moving meditation. However in my experience, love it though I do, yogasana practice alone is not what builds resilience in the face of what life throws at me.

I am most grateful (there's that word again) for the practices of iRest®.  Of all the yoga sadhana (practices) I have learnt in 40 odd years of exploration in yoga and meditation, iRest has provided me with the tools that work, for me, working in meditation daily and then taking the same practices into daily life where we really meet "stuff". And my tumultuous week has focused my understanding of how well it works.

The brain's default positions and how to change them 

The default position of the mind is to wander all over the place, to ruminate. This is the factory default if you like, and it serves a purpose. The mind in Default Mode Network is scanning the internal environment and in so doing may make new connections, make plans, analyse events and so on. That can be useful, until it takes over and gets us into an overthinking loop.

Another default position is our Negative bias. We are preset to see the worst, just like the A. A. Milne character Eeyore. Again this is protective. Better to get out of the way of a stick thinking it to be a snake than to get bitten by a snake you saw as a stick.

You can see where this leads us.  When the Default Network and Negative Bias get going together we have discursive negative thoughts, and everything is doom and gloom, just like poor Eeyore!

"The Default Network and Negative bias together lead to discursive negative thoughts ... but you can change the default settings."


Just as on your computer you can change default settings to something that will serve you better, it is possible to change your mental defaults as well.

Meditation techniques often get us out of this loop by focusing the mind, which moves us into another network called the Attention Network (sometimes called "Task Positive Network"). In the Attention Mode we can focus and learn. It is possible to stay in Attention Network for a sustained period of time, such as when performing a creative task that becomes all consuming and we completely lose track of time and whatever other responsibilities we may have. It is not possible to be in the Attention Network and the Default Mode simultaneously. "Best to stay busy" is often a response to difficult times, but all too often we can turn off the Discursive default mode during the day by staying busy, but the moment we stop being busy and try to sleep it rushes back online.

Meditation techniques that use points of focus, such as breath awareness, mandala visualistaion, chanting, or that set tasks like rotating awareness through points in the body, are switching on the Attention Network. And studies do show that the more we switch on the Attention Network, the less discursive is the Default Network and the more we are able to concentrate. 

In iRest we employ such techniques for example when we sense the body and attend to the breath. 

But it is not a complete reset of the defaults.

Resetting the defaults - the alternative

Research has shown that if we utilise meditations on the feelings of the heart, loving kindness, compassion, gratitude as examples, we begin to reset the Negative bias. I have long had a daily practice of gratitude which I often share in class - think of just three things today that you could be grateful for. There is always something to be grateful for. Build this practice into everyday life and we literally change our brain, taking a more positive outlook.

And yes, we can also change our default network away from the discursive Default Mode Network.

There is another network which we can call the Present Centered Network. We learn to step into this network in our iRest practice, for example when we work with opposites. We utilise the Attention Network first. Try this:

Sense the left hand. Feel it fully. Let go of visualising it and just feel the left hand.

Shift to the right hand. Feel it fully, without visualising, just feel the right hand.

Go backwards and forwards between hands, attending to sensing just that one hand while you are there, and then to just the other.

When the time is right sense both hands at the same time.

While sensing one hand or the other we are utilising the Attention Network, but the moment we sense both at the same time we open into Present Centeredness. With consistent practice in various situations as we encounter in a regular iRest Yoga Nidra practice (by regular I mean daily), Present Centered becomes our new default that we can carry into everyday living, it becomes our Default Present Centered Network.

I offer gratitude to those who gave me reminders this week as I drifted back into the old Default Mode and Negative bias - you may not have even known that you were reminding me but at various times the messages came and helped me to keep finding my way back to the Present centered. 

My deepest gratitude I offer to my teachers, especially to Richard Miller who took the ancient teachings and tweaked them for our modern lives, infusing them with his knowledge of psychology that joins in him with an amazing and deep knowledge of yoga traditions. And others who have also learnt from him and who have helped along the way to illuminate my path, including Anne Douglas, Fuyuko Toyota, Jennifer Carbanero, Kirsten Guest, Molly Birkholm, Ford Peck and Stephanie Lopez.

Learn iRest Yoga Nidra with me - find the next 6 week course.





Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The inner gaze: drishti, pratyahara and dharana

Do you ever catch yourself out during a yoga class having a wandering gaze? 

Those times when you realise you have been scrutinizing the great tights the girl in front is wearing, checking out the state of your pedicure and wondering how does that person on the next mat manage to always have such neat equipment when your own gets strewn all over the place!

It is great that you noticed, as that is the point at which you can return to the practice, bringing yourself back inside for the concentrated practice of yoga.



Drishta is a Sanskrit word meaning that which is seen, the visible, the manifested. Drishti is a verb - seeing, beholding. In yoga practice it comes to mean focused gaze, whether that is inward or outward. If we "take a drishti" we find a point of focus.

Thus when we are taking a balance pose such as tree pose, we might find a mark on the floor or wall in front of us and turn our gazing there, thus we have a drishti that helps us to balance. The moment we let our eyes wander, are distracted by the wobble of another person in the class, we might begin to lose our balance. The focused gaze keeps us steady.

In other asana practice we might keep our gaze on a part of the body. In Virabhadrasana 2 (Warrior 2) the drishti often suggested is the middle finger of the leading hand. In some traditions it might be the thumb. In Paschimottonasana (seated straight legged forward bend) the drishti might be the toes.

The drishti may be ostensibly outward but there is always an element of the inner gaze in the practice. For this reason it is not a hard gaze but is practised with a soft focus. Practising drishti is actually turning our focus inward. By preventing us from being distracted by the people and objects around us drishti practice allows us to attend more closely to the nuances of the sensations of the body and the movement of energetic flows in the body. Practice with drishti and you might find that a whole class goes by and you have been in a zone of meditative felt sensation in movement and in stillness.

In this way drishti becomes a tool in the practice of pratyahara.

The Sanskrit word pratyahara means withdrawal. In yoga it is offered as a practice of withdrawal of the senses from external objects. Sage Patanjali gives pratyahara as the fifth limb of yoga. It is poised between four external practices, the yamas and niyamas (ethics and behaviours), asana (posture) and pranayama (practices of breath and energy), and three inner, meditative states of dharana (concentration) dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (realisiation).

The drishti, or soft-focussed gaze, loosens our attachment to all of the other sensory stimuli and moves us toward the practice of pratyahara in which we come inward, to the inner gaze.

Drishti is also a step on the path to dharana or concentration. The very act of focus is an act of concentration. The practice of drishti in an asana (posture) practice shifts posture and movement to the realm of meditation and is training in dharana that will come in handy when doing a seated, or still meditation.

If practising drishti eyes open in an asana practice the focus can be anywhere and it will need to shift as you go from one posture to another. The practice here is to be mindful of how it shifts. Some traditions give specific drishti points for different postures (Ashtanga Yoga created by Pattabis Jois gives nine). But what will work for one person may not for another. In Trikonasana (Triangle pose) and Parsvakonasana (side angle pose) you might find your drishti up, out or down. Where do you find balance, where are you turning inward? Go there!

A short drishti practice

Seated or standing, start with the hands in anjali mudra (prayer position) before the heart centre. Gaze softly at the finger tips.

Keep the gaze at the fingertips as you slowly point the fingers out, and then roll the hands to palms up, fingertips still touching.

Draw the hands apart opening arms wide and then raising them overhead as you try to keep the fingertips of both hands in view, note how they move to the peripheral vision. What happens when they disappear from view? Let the head turn up, eyes seeking the finger tips as you draw the hands together in anjali mudra (prayer hands) above the head. Your drishti will need to be content with the heels of the hands, but then as the hands draw back down to the heart, there are the fingertips in sight again.

Repeat a few times to see how it goes. You might then incorporate this into your asana practice next time you are on the mat.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Opposites

Can you imagine hot without cold? Heavy without light? Night without day?


Opposites are everywhere, they are a natural part of the universe. But when we experience only one half of a pair of opposites we become stuck. As Rumi puts it:
Your hand opens and closes, and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed.
When we find that we are becoming stuck, remembering to use the Law of Opposites, which is a tool of iRest®, can be magic.

Are you stuck on one side of the pair?

Perhaps in deep grief, or in anxiety or fear, or in despair.

Remembering the Law of Opposites, that there are always opposites, could you find a memory or image that could evoke an opposite.

It doesn't need to be an exact opposite, as that might be a step too far, too hard to make. You can imagine a spectrum full of alternatives, the true opposites might be at either end, but wherever you are stuck on the spectrum, there is an alternative available to you. Perhaps just "I am OK".

We are not denying our grief, or our fear or our despair, we are simply posing the alternative. The next thing we do is to move between them, fully experiencing each in turn.  Watch what happens as you do this. You are focussing on one, and then the other.

But then, could their be a moment when you experience them both at the same time.  The defocussing diffusion that can occur moves us to a completely different space or open spaciousness.

 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Re-charging well-being

Within you is an unchanging deep well of well-being. We call it your Inner
Beat a well worn path to your inner feelings of well-being
Resource. It is innate and it is natures gift to us to help us be resilient no matter what happens in life.

Just as important to our survival is our negativity bias.

This seems contradictory doesn't it? It is a paradox.

The negativity bias keeps us safe. If we hear a bump in the night the negativity bias would have us immediately think that danger lurks so we can become alert and ready to flee, freeze or defend, whatever the best option is in the moment. It is a deep instinct. It comes on stream before the logical powers of our thinking mind can kick in, deducing that it is windy outside and that darned tree branch just banged against the gutter again and to make yet another mental note to prune it before the next windy night!

The inner resource may be there all the while. The inner resource can hold us calm to allow the thinking mind to do its deducing. The inner resource can keep us calm us while we get back to sleep.

Why is it then that we have so often lost touch with the inner resource of well-being?

The detritus of life has buried it. This can especially happen if it is not regularly recharged, if there has been a string of misfortunes or challenges, or a major traumatic event. But even the constant stresses of ordinary modern life, feeling time poor, job insecurity, the bills coming in, more and more until we are in a state of overwhelm, and the inner resource can become buried.

So it is an important practice for life that we regularly recharge our inner resource. You can do this in outer ways, by taking some action that helps you feel calm and at ease. Maybe one of these is similar to your outer practices of recharging your inner resource:

  • a walk on the beach
  • a long deep warm bath by candlelight with soft music playing
  • a holiday in cabin away from modern technology with a good book
  • immersing in a novel
  • losing track of time painting a picture
  • going on retreat
  • making music with friends.
Your favourite outer practices of recharge can also help you to find that inner place of well-being and calm. Think about that thing you do to recharge as if you are imagining it happening right now. As you do let all your senses come into play. Tastes, sounds, smells, the light, what you see, and tactile sensations. Are you alone or have you brought along a favourite person or people, or animal?

Now turn attention to the feelings of well-being that are evoked. More and more let your attention dwell in the feelings in your body of being at ease, secure, calm, the feelings of well-being. Notice as much about these feelings in the body as you can, as you allow the images to recede.

In this way you can make an inner practice of recharge. This can be done at any time and the more you do it the more clear the path to it will become. Wake up and practice it. Practice it while having lunch. On the bus. At the traffic lights. While waiting for sleep.

The more often you visit it the more clear the pathway to it becomes and the shorter the pathway to it becomes until it is simply turning attention towards it and it is there, always.


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Change

Sometimes we crave a change, to get away somewhere, to get a new job, to live somewhere different. Other times we wake up to a realisation that our current habits or situation are not serving us well and we seek change for that reason. Sometimes change we did not invite happens, sending us into a spin. And sometimes change just creeps up on us and one day we realise that change has happened. It might be that such a realisation invites further change.

Of course, one thing is certain. Change will always happen. Even when we are stuck in a rut, it became a rut only because things were changing and perhaps we did not adjust to take account of those changes.

Today I am pondering the restlessness and desire for change that comes upon us.

The season changes. Warm weather gives way to cool. When the winter season began, did you find yourself in the clothing shop buying a new outfit? Why was that? Nothing to wear, but what about all those clothes from previous seasons? What was really driving it? Perhaps you perceive that the clothes from last winter are old-fashioned, or shabby. So how did that make you feel? What belief is underlying it?

What is a desire for change but a desire to fix that which feels broken, or to fill that which feels empty? Like the change that is yearned in these statements.
  • I feel stiffness and pain and I want to be pain free.
  • I am stressed and anxious and I want to relax.
  • I need to lose weight and become fit.
  • I am lonely and need to meet new people.
Perhaps it was a desire for change like this that first brought you to yoga.

Take a moment and jot down the things that you want to change .... and then sit a while and ask the question, if this change had already come to pass, how would I feel? Find the feeling in your body. Is there still a yearning or is it completely fulfilled?

This is a process that might help you to flush out your Heartfelt Desire, which we also sometimes call the deepest driving desire, Life's Purpose, or Heartfelt Mission. the Heartfelt Desire is like a beacon to guide us home to our inherent wholeness, where nothing feels broken, nothing needs to be fixed, and which is always full and fulfilled.

To close, you might wish to reflect upon the following words of Jean Klein. Jean Klein was a spiritual teacher and mentor to Dr Richard Miller, founder of iRest® Yoga Nidra. He said:

"Any desire is a search for Perfect BlissThis perfect bliss is is part of the nature of the Self, therefore all desire is a desire for the Self."