I may struggle to be succinct in describing my experience here in Mysore, however, I will do my best to expound the significance of my study time in merely ten points of learning and ten corresponding paragraphs. I will certainly expand on each of these points of learning in further blogs at a later date.
1. Mindfulness in EVERYTHING:
The first and perhaps most important component of my learning from Yogacharya Venkatesha and Acharya Hema at the Atmavikasa Centre of Yogic Sciences is practicing mindfulness in absolutely every aspect of life. I am inspired to not only be conscious and focused during my study of pranayama, asana, kriyas and philosophy but also in every other area of life away from my yoga mat as well. I feel renewed in my purpose to be completely and fully present whether I am walking my dog, cooking for my family, gardening or when spending time with family. It is so easy to fall into the habit of trying to do several tasks simultaneously, thereby splitting your focus and not doing any of the tasks as well as you could have otherwise. I have learned the value in doing one thing at a time, even when I have the urge to “multi-task”, which really just necessitates attentional switching and does not result in mindful action. Single pointed focus is incrediblely valuable and can be applied to all you undertake in life. I certainly do not need to be on my yoga mat in order to approach my chosen tasks and activities with concentration. Giving full attention to everything I do allows me to do my best effort rather than just making due with good enough. Honestly I could easily write 10,000 words on the application of mindfulness alone – but not today 🙂
2. Evolving relationship with food
Food and I have had a love/hate relationship for the majority of my life. Eating too much or too little when I experience a great deal of stress is definitely a pattern for me. It is not something I like to admit but my body size has fluctuated many, many times over my 30 years on this Earth – I cannot begin to estimate how much weight I have gained and lost at this point. The fluctuation of my body weight has resulted in a challenging relationship to my physical body and lead to a variety of negative thinking patterns as well. I am happy to say that I feel more connected to my body than ever – and yet at the same time I also feel more able to detach from my body and focus on my breath and my practice than I ever have previously. I am grateful for all the useful information I have absorbed regarding a sattvic approach to food. Eating only when necessary rather than using food as a method for avoiding emotions has been an invaluable practice for me. Eating more fruit has certainly made it easy to avoid processed sugars, which was a pleasant surprise. Mindfulness whilst cooking and eating has been an important component of this learning too. Choosing food for the purpose of fuelling myself is a big part of my learning. Simple and yet crucial learning if you ask me.
3. Benefits of barefoot walking
Developing a practice of walking barefoot been very emotionally and mentally grounding. Taking time to walk very slowly, and very consciously has allowed me to slow my mind as well. I am able to notice more and more of my environment as I amble along. Although I have always possessed a deep love for nature, particularly areas of forest or ocean, I now feel that much more absorbed in my experience whenever I am outside. I look forward to walking barefoot back in Canada as well – temperature permitting – of course Mysore’s weather is more conducive to this practice than my home. Nonetheless I feel inspired to walk slowly and enjoy each and every flower, leaf, insect and rock along my path – no matter where that path may take me. I have also noticed that the practice of walking without shoes has been fantastic for my lower back. I am both blessed and cursed with a highly mobile lumbar spine, which is lovely for the practice of some asanas and deeply challenging for others. Walking without shoes seems to stabilize my lumbar spine in such a way that walking with shoes does not. It is fascinating what a difference I have noticed in my sacro-iliac joints as well! I have naturally quite unstable SI joints and have noticed that barefoot walking increases the stability of these mobile joints significantly. I suspect that walking without shoes regularly has contributed a great deal to the stabilization of my hyper-mobile pelvis and lumbar spine along with a strong asana practice of course.
4. Chanting as a memory device & self-soothing mechanism
I must admit that when I began practicing yoga consistently in 2005, I was not even remotely fond of chanting – you could even call my attitude towards it an aversion. I was one of those students who would refuse to chant at all – even when a teacher lead the group in an OM – I would remain silent. Within my mind, I would be having sarcastic thoughts – laughing at how silly I thought it was to chant at all. Ironically, I now find chanting to be one of the most important components of my daily yoga practice. I have enjoyed the challenge of learning how to chant some of the first chapter of the Yoga Sutras immensely – I certainly never thought I would see that day! My memory has also become so much sharper than I could have imagined – I am floored by the improvement in such a short period of time. Not only does chanting provide self-confidence, which is not something that is easy for me to cultivate, it also is very calming to the nervous system. When we chant, whether it be the simple OM or a more complex Yoga Sutra in Sanskrit, we are essentially practicing to consistently lengthen our exhalations. The practice of lengthening the exhalation has a fabulous side effect of slowing down the heart rate and relaxing the body in general. Even if the sympathetic nervous system is heightened when you being to chant, it is incredible how quickly you can get back into a parasympathetic state. I have a history of panic attacks and social/general anxiety and so am no stranger to fast heart rate and all the other symptoms of fight or flight. I now consider chanting to be the best sedative or anti-anxiety medication available to me. It is truly amazing how effective this simple practice can be in terms of quelling excessive fluctuation in the human body. I can now say that I have not had a panic attack in over nine years now – in no small part due to my choice to let go of my initial aversion to chanting!
5. Cultivating energy/prana & how not to lose it unnecessarily, pranayama (breath control) practice is key
While I was already aware that consistent yoga practice is a phenomenal method for bringing additional energy/prana to the body, I have learned that containing the energy we cultivate is an essential part of the yoga puzzle. I have had a pattern of getting energy from my practice, only to fritter it away quickly and needlessly, lacking consciousness in the process. Feeling extra energy present in the body often leads us to expel that energy via talking or acting in such a way that drains that additional energy, leaving us just where we started, or perhaps even more depleted than we were before. The ability to conserve energy and use it when needed and only when needed is an incredible skill that I am now developing. Noticing how easy it is to drain my energy by doing too much too fast has been a serious revelation for me. I now feel much more able to see when I need to give energy to other people and when I do not. The practice of pranayama has been crucial to understanding the balance of giving and growing energy within myself. Focusing to the best of my ability on stillness and subtlety controlling my breath has so much utility. When I leave my body and attend to my breath exclusively (consciously controlled dissociation is a good way to think of it), my body is able to rest and store energy. When I maintain a solid breath control practice, not skimping on the time I sit still, I am gifted a surprising amount of energy. Once the extra energy is available, the trick is to use what you need when you need it and nothing more. The best part of a practice such as pranayama is that when life gets rough, you have so much conserved energy available to you that it is less of a challenge to weather the proverbial storm.
6. Giving what is needed – understanding compassion
I have a strong habit of giving my energy to others to the point of completely draining myself. Sometimes I catch myself giving before I have even been asked to do so. Although I have learned this lesson in many permutations already, I feel as though my understanding of what compassion truly means has been solidified. I have a stronger sense of when to give and when to spend my time doing work on myself. Understanding when to contain my empathy and when to express it is an art that I feel more able to correctly apply to my social life than ever before. Holding back from smothering others with support can often give them the opportunity to learn and grow more than they would have if you had offered yourself as an emotional crutch. That being said, I also feel much more able to accurately determine when to offer support and help to whoever might need it. I have learned that offering help at the right time and in the right way is the key to having true compassion.
7. Benefits of drinking LOTS of water
Drinking sufficient water has been a concern of mine for quite some time and yet I struggled to consume enough on a daily basis. Coming to Atmavikasa and being required to drink a full litre of water twice a day before leaving the Yoga Shala and encouraged to drink a minimum of four litres per day has been invaluable. I feel so much better and my skin shows it! The drinking of more water has become a habit that I look forward to continuing once I arrive back home, particularly in terms of consuming water immediately after practice. Previously, I had been known to have the intention of drinking a lot of water following my practices but more often that I would like to admit I would forget to do so – becoming distracted by the next thing on my list of “to do’s”. My understanding is that we cannot absorb full benefits from a yogasana practice if we do not drink enough water – furthermore, all of the effects of work we have done is significantly reduced. Not to mention that since the body is generally made up of around 60% water, it is clearly a smart idea to keep oneself hydrated. I can attest to the benefits on so many levels and am certain that this positive habit will be with me for the rest of my life.
8. Philosophy as motivation for practice when obstacles come
Life is not always easy – in fact it contains so much dichotomy that it can be hard to convince yourself that practice is possible every single day. It is the path of least resistance to allow yourself to take days off when the storms of life hit. Ironically, those stormy days are when we need our practice more than ever. On the hardest days of life, my yoga practice always gives me more energy to cope with the challenges that come and is a powerful reminder of my inherent courage. When I do what I never thought I could on the mat – it becomes much easier to be strong in the face of life’s obstacles. I have noticed over the years that some days are much easier than others when it comes to motivating myself to hit the mat. There are days when I would much rather sleep a little longer and walk my dog a little longer rather than practice postures and then sit still to watch my breath with control. It is been invaluable to deepen my understanding of all the inherent obstacles to practice that arise for every human who undertakes a yoga practice. No matter who you are or how long you have been practicing, such obstacles will come – I like to perceive these obstacles as a test of our mental guile and dedication. It is human nature to crave novelty and to avoid consistency, and knowing this tendency of the human mind makes it far easier to be viglilent and remember the utility of one’s practice no matter the obstacles that come. In the near future I will write an additional blog outlining all nine obstacles to practice, along with a variety of philosophical tidbits that I have learned about in depth at Atmavikasa and found incredibly useful in my practice (I could go on ad infinitum on this topic alone, otherwise).
9. Power of speaking less and doing more: irradicating cognitive dissonance & meaning what you say
Cognitive dissonance has been a serious challenge for me in this life – feeling or thinking one thing and yet doing another in terms of action or speech. I have learned from my teachers at the Atmavikasa Centre that it is okay to remain quiet and choose my words carefully even when overstimulated by a social situation. I feel as though I will be able to continue being myself, even in the company of influential others, not losing myself no matter the circumstance. I really enjoy listening to people and truly trying to observe from their perspective, especially if our perceptions of a given situation may differ. When I put more of my energy into listening and observing rather than speaking, I have so much more to work with in terms of a thoughtful response and or a utilitarian action. Choosing to only say aloud what I honestly believe and not speaking in order to pacify another human being is a challenge. However, I am finding it to be a challenge with powerful utility. When I speak only what I believe to be true on every level, I do not need to speak as often because I consider my words very carefully, allowing them to carry more weight. Not to mention that speaking less is a fabulous way to conserve energy for more pressing matters that may unexpectedly arise in the future.
10. Writing in order to process and integrate learning
One thing I hoped to do while here in Mysore to study at Atmavikasa was to write more prolifically and with full heart and focus. When I came to realize that both the programs I had registered for would require numerous blog posts I was thrilled and at the same time slightly trepidatious. I am grateful to have been encouraged to write with gusto. Not only have I rediscovered my old love for writing, but I have also realized just how useful the process of writing can be in terms of processing information once you have initially learned it. In the three months that I have been studying with Yogacharya Venkatesha and Acharya Hema, I have been absorbing so much useful information. All of that information would not have been so fully and deeply integrated if not for the act of reflecting and writing about the experience. I can see that writing has so much utility it is hard for me to imagine going without it ever again. It is now obvious that the reason we were required to write about our study experiences is that during the process we are exposed to so much that it is decidedly difficult to integrate all of what serves us. The act of writing allows me to see where I was when I arrived, how I came to where I am and also the potential of where I have yet to go. Writing is a very concrete way for me to externalize my thoughts – making it that much easier to think with clarity about the learning that has commenced for me here in India. There is an unending ocean of knowledge available to us when it comes to studying Yoga and I am pleased to say that I have been swimming in that proverbial sea with great joy and perservance during the last few months. I can only imagine how much more I will be able to absorb from this experience as I continue to write and process all I have learned in the coming weeks when I return to Canada.
Studying is a passion of mine and I look forward to the next time I will be able to examine my mind at the Atmavikasa Center of Yogic Sciences