Monday, May 14, 2018

Listening to the Heart

When you feel compassion, where do you feel it in your body?

When you feel loving, where do you feel it in your body?

When you feel kindness, where do you feel it in the body?

When you feel joy, where do you feel it?

For me these are all right in the centre of my chest when I feel them, the energetic, spiritual heart.

Have you ever noticed the tussle between heart and head? Head might be presenting many logical arguments, but heart is calling somewhere else? It is my experience that the heart does not lead you astray, when truly listened to.

Now I love to explore the connections between languages and did you know that the word courage is a cognate with the Latin word for heart, cor, which pops up also in French as coeur. (English takes the word cordial from the same source. To be cordial is to be heart-felt.)

Where do you feel courage in your body?

How much courage does it take to truly listen to and to follow your heart?

Often the call of the heart goes unheeded as it seems crazy. In fact it is difficult to even uncover the heart's true calling as it is so suppressed beneath the weight of thought and logic. So the heart's calling may also be scary. It does take courage to follow it.

How will you know your heart's true calling?

It's call is sweet. It is harmonious. It may be a whisper. How to hear a whisper? Become quiet and listen. Listen with the heart.

In yoga the spiritual, energetic heart is sometimes called Anahata, sometimes Hridaya. Let me explain these terms.

Anahata means "unstruck". It refers to the sound that has no cause, the seed sound of the universe also known as Pra-nava which is the syllable Om. Pra means before, the antecedent and nava sound, shout, exalt, so Pranava means "the first exultant sound"at the creation of the universe, unstruck because there was nothing before it.

Hrdaya is from hrd which is cognate with English "heart", you can see the similarity, and "heart" is exactly what it means.

So listen. You might hear the unstruck.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The sacro-iliac joint and why it is vulnerable in yoga

Recently I taught a workshop on the sacro-iliac joint but a number of folk have told me that they were disappointed to miss it, so this month I am putting down a few thoughts about it. I must begin with a disclaimer, I am not a physiologist nor an anatomist, just a humble yoga teacher. I am presenting my understanding as simply as I can. So where is this sacro-iliac joint?
Photo credit: Wikipedia
Location: the Sacro-iliac joint is the junction between the spine and the pelvis.
Photo credit: One Health Osteopathy 
It is not meant to move much - the above picture shows the ligaments that bind the joint front and back. They form a dense webbing, intended to keep this joint very stable.

So why is it a joint? Why are the bones simply not fused together like the vertebral bodies of the scrum itself?
Please take a moment to look at this video. It is very short but it illustrates why.

Some movement is required in the joint for the normal functioning of walking and other movements of the body. This little animation is an exaggeration however. The degree of movement is actually very small, around 2 degrees. If you have as little as 4 to 6 degrees you will be experiencing pain.

So the next logical question is, how on earth do you get into the situation where you have instability in one of the sacroiliac joints.

How does a sacroiliac joint become unstable?

As with any joint it can be injured due to the immense pressure brought on it by an accident such as a severe fall or car accident. Falling onto the buttocks, perhaps when falling off a horse or motorcycle, is a common cause.

Repetitive strain is another way. When an action that is asymmetric is repetitively applied it can gradually loosen the bonds of the ligaments. The repetitive rotation of a golfer, batsman or bowler would be the kind of action that could gradually lessen the integrity of the ligaments.

Force through one leg can place a tremendous asymetric strain on the joint. This could be one major trauma as in a motor accident. But when an athlete repetitively lands on the same leg, perhaps a figure skater, ballet dancer, or hurdler, this again will lessen the integrity of the ligaments.

Women are more prone to sacro-iliac joint injury than men

Notably during pregnancy, but also during the menstrual cycle, and during lactation, a women's body has elevated levels of hormones that cause the ligaments to become prone to overstretching.

Can yoga practice contribute to sacro-iliac joint instability?

I believe so, especially if we attempt to force the body into positions its structure will not allow. Here are some examples.

Seated twists while trying to keep the pelvis anchored

House photo - Yoga Spirit Studios
Many people are taught to anchor the pelvis in a seated twist. Unfortunately this sets up precisely the conditions which can lead to over-stretching of the ligaments which bind the joint, and down the track might lead to the debilitating pain of sacro-iliac instability.

When twisting in a seated position, allow the pelvis to turn slightly in the direction of the twist and then direct the movement into the thoracic spine, not the lumbar, in order to keep both the lumbar spine and the sacro-iliac joint safe.

Forcing external rotation of the hip

This can happen in attempts to do open kneed seated postures, from simple cross legged, to lotus pose. But even being over zealous in padagusthasana could create a problem.

It has to do with the shape of your hip socket in relation to the shape of the top of your thigh bone. There is a tremendous variation in the way we are built and no two hip joints are really the same. This picture illustrates that.

If your head of your femur (thigh bone) runs into the rim of your acetabulum (hips socket) in external rotation (turning the leg so the toes point outwards) and abduction (leg going out to side) and you try and force this, it is like using your thigh bone as a tyre lever to prise open the sacroiliac joint.

So how do you know if you run into such a bony constraint? You will feel a jamming sensation on the leading edge, that is, in the hip in the direction of the movement.

It is not a case of needing to become more flexible. No amount of flexibility is going to change the shape of your hip socket. In such a situation the yoga lesson is contentment, Santosha, with what you have, Satya, honouring the truth of your body, and Ahimsa, doing no harm to your body. Take the sitting posture that is right and comfortable for you.

What to do if you have sacroiliac pain?

Cease all the postures that aggravate it. This will include:
  • Forward bends
  • Asymetric poses, such as warrior poses
  • Anything that twists, including triangle pose, reverse triangle and so on, which are also asymetric, so double reason there.
The job now is to begin to train the surrounding muscles to take up the work of the overstretched ligaments in order to provide stability in the pelvic region. Now that is your core muscles, and I include in the core group the following, some of which are often not counted as core:
  • transverse abdominus
  • miltifidus
  • spinae erectus
  • iliopsoas
  • pelvic floor
  • quadratus lumborum
  • internal and external obliques
Here are some pictures to help you identify those.

There are many ways for you to proceed with this core training, and many lovely yoga practices to help as well. Just do 70% of what you think you can do in any one session, and only begin to reintroduce the full range of postures when you are pain free. And when you do, practice with a new awareness of pelvic stability.

Your well trained yoga teacher can help you to identify practices that will help you and which ones to avoid.

Finally, listen to your body. It is immensely wise.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Ishtar story

Ishtar is a Mesopotamian goddess with an interesting story. She was Inanna to the Sumerians, Ishtar to the later Akkadians, Babylonian and Assyrians. In this week before Easter, it is timely to talk about her as some claim that her name was later appropriated as Easter., though this is debated. Ishtar was the Queen of Heaven and presided over sexuality and fertility, and is identified with the morning and evening star.
Photo credit: Wikipedia - Cylinder seal from ancient Akkadia
depicting Inanna/Ishta in a style we later see as Durga in India.

One of Ishtar's most famous stories is of her Descent into the Underworld. I will try to do it justice in summary.

The Underworld is ruled by her sister Ereshkigal, and it is not a place that folk usually return from. So before departing she arranges for the deities to rescue her if she does not return in three days. She dresses up in elaborate clothing and jewellery to denote her power and status.

To descend she must pass through seven gates. At each gate, in order to pass, she must surrender part of her clothing or jewellery and power objects, and so her power is progressively removed from her. When she arrives before Ereshkigal she is naked and powerless. Thus it is that her sister is able to overcome Ishtar and inflict such torments upon her that she dies and is cast upon a tree. On earth the consequence is the complete cessation of sexual activity, and thus of fertility.

However, Ishtar has her insurance policy and when she does not return, her faithful servant turns to the gods to rescue her and one of them responds, creating two sexless figures and instructing them on demanding Ishtar's corpse and how they must sprinkle it with the food and water of life.

This they do, gaining Ishtar's corpse from Ereshkigal with some drama, revive her and enable her to ascend, back through the seven gates, and as she passes them she regains the items she lost on the descent, regaining her powers.

When the Assyrians converted to Christianity, the cult of Ishtar was appropriated into Christian practice, many aspects of her worship entering into the cult of MaryAnd so too there is the claim that her name being taken on for the festival of Easter, along with practices of the fertility cult (eggs and rabbits). Even aspects of the Passion of Christ bear remarkable resemblance to Ishtar's descent into the underworld, the three days of death cast upon a tree (the cross), the resurrection and ascent to Heaven again.

There are other parallels with Ishtar in the cosmology of India. The Goddess Durga bears resemblance to Ishtar. And if we look west, the Germanic Goddess Eostre, whose name might also give rise to Easter, is a fertility goddess and associated with dawn (morning star).

The seven gates can be interpreted as the chakras. From base chakra to crown the seven chakras move from the gross to the subtle, from earth element, through water, fire and air, and in the higher chakras, increasingly rarified space. Ishtar's descent is a descent into embodiment, and in embodiment is life's opposite, death. But just as she could descend into embodiment, and die, so too could she ascend, becoming whole (restoration of powers) as she does. But the wholeness is always there. ascent through the chakras connects us with that essential spaciousness of Awareness which is always here. So the ascent is the salvation, and it is available to us all.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The 30 day Love Challenge

It is February, therefore it is the month of St Valentine and the month of love.

Love is not just for February of course. It is all the time.

As we steep ourselves in meditation we come to feel love, more and more, as an all pervasiveness. The persistent belief that we are separate from all others is challenged by meditative experiences of Oneness. Love for ourselves becomes love for others, love for others becomes love for ourselves.

Love, like kindness, becomes a spiritual practice in itself.  Sometimes the practice of self-love becomes important.  Many of us find self-love difficult, so convinced are we of our unworthiness, our imperfection.  So we can start with outward love.

I have been trying this of late.

Conjure the feeling of love for a moment, remembering the feeling of love. If you have children, the love you have for them is ideal as it is so unconditional, no matter that there may be difficulties in our relationships with our children the love remains. Or you may choose memories of love for mother, father, sibling, lover. Feel the feeling of love.

Whenever you see anyone, try to conjure this feeling of love and direct it at that other person. The person on the pedestrian crossing in front of you. the person ahead of you in a queue. The person serving you at the store, in the restaurant, wherever. You can do this spiritual practice anywhere and nobody need even know.

Try it with the person who just cut you off in the car. The person who just stole your carpark. To the office jerk. And so on. Challenge yourself.

Notice always what the feeling is and when resistance arises love the resistance. Keep trying it out and noting the effect it has in your daily life.

I challenge you to try this practice all the time for 30 days. Let me know how you go. I am doing it too so you are not alone.

This practice comes with a warning: you are changing your brain. The ability to hate may become impaired.

Love you!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

What is spiritual?

For me, yoga has always been a spiritual practice. But what exactly do I mean by that? I have heard quite a few people say that they don't mind doing yoga but they cannot stand all that spiritual stuff. What do they mean by that? Can it be yoga without being spiritual?

I have also talked to a number of people who are reluctant to do yoga because they fear it will conflict with their religion. Is yoga religion? Is spiritual experience religious?

Like many, I actually began taking yoga classes, back at the tender age of eighteen, looking for physical exercise. I was seeking a movement discipline I could enjoy. I had never been great at sports, my racket skills truly suck and I find it hard to catch a ball. Yoga appealed, no rackets or balls involved, or so I thought back then. I am now actually quite fond of balls as part of my yoga explorations.

I did enjoy it. Turned out that my 18 year old body was quite flexible and strong, and yoga, the physical side of it, came naturally.  It wasn't long however before yoga revealed something more to me. It was something my feeble attempts on the netball court had never come close to. I began to recognize the spiritual in it, in me. All in all, doing yoga felt harmonious, I felt harmonious and whole, doing yoga.

This was natural and unremarkable. There was no sense of the hand of a god. Just a sense of deep connection I could not explain, but which was both extraordinary and ordinary, a paradox, undeniable and exquisite.

Spirituality is natural and unremarkable. It is as normal and as natural as remembering, a remembering of ourselves as we really are, which is immense, connected and easeful, forgotten in our taking on form and becoming caught up in sensation and thought.

Religion is troublesome because there are so many of them each claiming to be true. Since antiquity people have attempted to explain the unexplained by ascribing it, the ineffable, to God, a God, or different gods for different purposes. Religion has a hallmark of being organised and rule based, lest you offend the God. Religions are almost always organised around assigning power to human beings, usually men, over other human beings. Religion develops theology, a set of quasi-logical arguments based upon initial assumptions that spring from that particular religions revelations from the god to some founding father figure of that religion. Religion spawns its own mythology and demands obedience. Religion backs us into a corner that must be defended.

There has been a tendency to confuse spirituality with religion, as a process by which humans come to know God. But what if we remove the whole idea of God.
Remarkably, spirituality still exists. Stripped of lofty and divine otherness, it becomes the very ordinary recognition of a part of ourselves which is not the body, not the senses, not the emotions, nor the 'thoughts that come and go, but greater and more sustaining than all of these. It is not discovered by listening at pulpits but in the simplest and most ordinary of actions, mindfully practised. Like eating a peach, mowing the lawn, or going through a series of postures and movements mindfully.

Any mindful activity, it doesn't have to be yoga. Perhaps it is surfing, or painting, or playing music, or washing dishes or racing a motor cycle.

But yoga was developed for this purpose. The whole system of yoga consists of practices that are designed to still the mind and allow the truth of who we really are to move to the foreground. I am not sure, but perhaps it is not even possible to do anything taken from the yoga practices and not discover a spiritual pathway in it. Even when doing a practice that has for all intents and purposes been stripped of its origins, and presented as a physical workout, these movements may simply awaken pathways of energy in the body that create the very conditions for remembering who we really are. This would explain a number of revelations that have been made to me by people who started in such a practice and came to the more traditional, in some ways, school of Yoga Spirit Studios, wondering what the heck just happened over there. For, as Suzuki Roshi said:
"Gaining enlightenment is an accident; Spiritual practices make us accident prone."
Even when you didn't know you were doing a spiritual practice.

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.

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.

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?