Potent Change in Mere Weeks

Before arriving to study at the Atmavikasa Center of Yogic Sciences, I tried not to limit the potential of my future experience and did my best to cultivate no particular expectations surrounding what might happen once I began to study here under the guidance of expert teachers, Acharya Venkatesha and Acharye Hema. I am happy to say that every possible imagination or expectation I might have had despite my intention to remain free of expectations has been completely surpassed. I have only experienced two and a half weeks of practice under the guidance of the teachers at Atmavikasa and yet I am struggling to find the correct words to express the depth of experience I have been privileged enough to find here in Mysore.

I have loved my asana practice, my yoga practice as a whole for years and yet did not realize the vast potential that the practice could hold once I began to truly quiet my mind – during posture practice in particular. I am in awe of where I might end up following years of practice with this degree of vigor, strength and quietude in the mind. For many years I have struggled during various postures, particularly those asanas requiring significant strength rather than flexibility. Here  at Atmavikasa, I am slowly, surely learning how to bring my wandering mind back to my breath, back to stillness, despite its repetitive tendency to wander to a multitude of various thoughts.

The patterns of my mind are becoming more and more apparent to me with each passing day. The emotions that repeatedly rise, the thoughts that come with consistency are surely becoming my greatest teachers. I sincerely desire the ability to find control over my mind during asana practice and have only begun the process of cultivating the skills necessary to find the quiet I seek. It is incredible how far and wide the mind will digress in an attempt to avoid sensation occurring in the body. I am amazed by how the long holds in asana practice have the potential to show us all of our behavioural tendencies, our mental habits, one by one – our psychological patterns become more and more apparent. Some of my habits serve me, but many do not. So many of my mental tendencies simply and repeatedly create more suffering, more pain over time. I am beyond grateful for my teachers at Atmavikasa and their ability to see my potential – even when I struggle to see it for myself.

Often, during asana practice, I find my mind focusing on how challenging the work appears to be in that moment, rather than on my breath. Every time I return my focus from the fluctuations of my mind to my inhalations and exhalations, the posture in question immediately becomes more easeful. Effort always remains, but more and more I am beginning to realize that I can move my focus from the fluctuations (whether they manifest in thoughts or emotional state) to the breathing. When my mind stays on the breath, my sense of effort and ease within that particular asana becomes more balanced. It is fascinating how quickly my mind can digress and struggle – squirming like the proverbial worm when asked to hold a posture longer than I think I can – longer than I have previously asked myself to hold such a posture. I am finding that my mind has many tendencies, tricks if you will that lead me to limiting my potential, limiting my mental (and physical) strength and concentration. When I limit myself in asana practice, those limitations spill over into the rest of life; however, when I control the fluctuations, the unnecessary movements of my body, suddenly my ability to control my mind in all aspects of life becomes much more feasible.

Considerations and alterations in my lifestyle whilst studying here in Mysore at Atmavikasa have also led to more change than I ever would have thought possible in such a limited period of time. Eating much more fruit than I am accustomed to consuming has yielded an immeasurable impact on my energy and irradicated my old habit of craving processed sugars. Bananas, coconuts and papayas a plenty have changed my perspective on food more than I would have thought possible. Simply imbibing more significant quantities of water, particularly directly following asana practices has also had an incredible influence on my body, not to mention my mental capacity. For example, my mind has a tendency to often become frenetic, even frantic or panicked during some asanas or kriyas – and I am rather shocked by what a difference significant water consumption has already had on my ability to calm my mind even in the face of various stressful stimuli. Whether or not I will react to a given stimulus is becoming more of a choice, rather than an automatic response – for which I could not be more grateful.

Another lifestyle prescription that has provided immeasurable benefit thus far is the suggestion to take daily barefoot walks in nature. Following afternoon back bending practice, my routine now includes walking in local parks and sometimes time allowing, around local bodies of water. Walking without shoes has always been something I relegated to the warm days of spring and summer back home, and despite the weather being decidedly warm here in Mysore –  I am finding myself ready to heed my teacher’s advice to walk barefoot in all temperatures, for as long as is possible. Making such walks a priority has been very pacifiying for my mind and has made a significant impact in the strength of my lower back as well. I have always had an exceedingly flexible spine; this has been especially the case in my lumbar spine, which in part has led to a fair amount of fear in standing back bending postures for example. With the addition of daily barefoot walks, my lumbar spine feels stronger and more stable than ever before – gifting me more confidence to explore increasing depths in my asana practice. Walking silently and with a mindful attitude, taking in my surroundings, the plants, the creatures (insects, birds, cows, dogs, humans and all others) continues to help me cultivate a sense of focus, furthering the skills necessary to control my mind and its movements.

Another surprising change has occurred as well. My largest organ, my skin, could not look or feel more different than it did upon arrival in India. I have learned that many of us, myself included, are chronically dehydrated, which causes a great deal of unnecessary stress on the entire body, including all of the internal organs. I am now keenly aware of my water intake and immediately notice upon waking in the morning whether my consumption was sufficient the previous day or not. I have been told by family that I look very different and my skin appears clearer and brighter than it ever has before. I have been amazed to observe that several eczema patches on my body have completely disappeared, which I suspect is a direct result of the lifestyle changes I have made, particularly due to the increase in water consumption. The thing that most shocks me is that those patches of eczema had been multiplying and getting increasily larger over time since I was a teenager – now they no longer exist at all. The power of a daily yogic practice and coupled with adoption of a yogic lifestyle is clearly apparent to me now. Back home, I practiced asanas and pranayama almost everyday, however the vigor was nothing like it is here and my lifestyle lacked the discipline necessary to truly and consistently heal my body from the inside out.

The way that I eat has also changed significantly due to the lifestyle recommendations provided by my teachers. At first, I was following guidelines and honestly did not have a lot of faith that a vegan/vegetarian diet could sustain my body during a period of particularly vigorous practice. However, I have found the opposite to be true. I do not miss consuming animal products in the least and have developed an aversion that I did not expect initially. The physical practice that I have been undertaking here in Mysore is more challenging than any asana practice I have previously undertaken, and yet my body appears to need less and less to work harder than ever. I am fascinated by the rapid changes in my body and how I relate to my body during practice and the rest of my daily life. Although, yoga practice has been a love of mine for many years – I feel that this experience continues to deepen that love with a fuller sense of dedication, commitment and respect for the work necessary to cultivate strength of character and a strong daily practice that will bring more and more change each day, each week, each month, each year of my life.

I highly recommend the Atmavikasa Center of Yogic Sciences – should you want to know more please visit:

Atmavikasa Center of Yogic Sciences

 

Yoga, Bananas & Nicaragua!

Spending a month in Nicaragua with my Yoga Teacher and 6 of my closest friends was a deeply intense learning experience, inspiring and life-changing to say the least. When the time came to get onto the first plane necessary for travelling to Nicaragua for the month long intensive required to complete my most recent Yoga Teacher training program, I was terrified. I was very afraid of flying, being away from home (my husband, my puppy…), and honestly I was afraid I could not do it, that I might run away from something that is incredibly important to me! I chose not to listen to my thoughts when they told me to run as fast as I could away from that first plane ride from Victoria to Vancouver. I swallowed my fear and boarded the first plane, then the second, then the third, arriving after a long day of travelling in a new, amazing, incredibly hot and unfamiliar place, about to embark on a life-changing experience on many levels.

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Our days in Nicaragua included numerous hours of yoga practice per day, including asana (physical poses), pranayama (breath control), meditation (concentration), philosophical discussion, chanting – plus lots of water drinking and banana eating 😉 Between 10 and 15 bananas a day to be exact – haha, I know that may sound bizarre, but all that banana consumption had an amazing effect – my body didn’t become sore the way I expected – hardly felt my muscles at all, making the month of rigorous practice a time during which I could examine my mental habits.

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When preparing for the intensive with my teacher Michelle, I figured that the physical aspects of the trip wouldn’t be even a remote challenge in comparison to the mental and emotional aspects of the experience. Evolution of consciousness is not a walk in the park, to be cliche about it – transforming fear, anger and sadness into useful energy, putting your emotion into your practice, whatever that is for you, is the secret. Using your emotional energy to put the work in, to find who you are and what you want – going after it without holding back – that is the secret I discovered when practicing 8 hours a day with my teacher for a month. Believing in yourself, begins with watching your thoughts, your words, your actions, your habits – knowing that these are the patterns that lead to the formation and maintenance of your character. We can choose who we want to be; we can choose how we want to change the world.

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Through my experiences in Nica, I learned that discipline is more important to me now than it has ever been in my life before – and those who know me well would tell you that I have always been a tenacious, dedicated person, regardless of the passion I was focused on, getting perfect grades through university as a prime example, and now most importantly my daily yoga practice. Cultivating self-discipline is an enormous challenge but well worth the effort! image_1

I also learned that non-attachment or aparigraha, one of the philosophical precepts in yoga is an incredibly difficult practice, but again, well worth the effort. For example, being away from Steve, my husband for a month was so awful at first, I didn’t think I could survive a month away from him. I was wrong, although it was very hard, I noticed that I became stronger day by day. I chose not to talk to Steve over the phone while I was away which was terrible at first, and by the end of the month I couldn’t even remember what his voice sounded like at all! Email was a good way to stay in touch, but there is something very different about hearing someone’s voice. By the time I was preparing to leave for Canada, I was SO excited to see Steve again, and at the same time, SO grateful I had put in the effort in terms of practicing non-attachment 🙂 It’s going to be tough to let go of my new attachment to fresh coconut water though!! Crazy delicious stuff 😉image_7

It has been a surprising challenge to get my thoughts gathered and clear enough for writing this first blog about the Nicaragua experience! Ironically, I have this attachment, this habit of only putting myself out there, or in this case publishing a blog, when I feel the way I come across is perfectly articulate. Perhaps the best way to label this habit I currently possess, is perfectionism….I’d love to transform this habit into a new one, adopting the thoughts, words and behaviours of a recovering perfectionist!

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I certainly learned that I lack attachment to achieving specific challenging physical poses in terms of my yoga practice – something that was far out of my reach a few years ago and now has become a habit. I now practice physical poses because they heal my body, knowing that chronic knee and elbow pain, are no longer an issue at all due to my practice of asana! No matter how long my teacher wanted us to sit in meditation or pranayama during the intensive, I was good to go, completely comfortable in a physical sense. Of course, mentally and emotionally it was quite the challenge to sit for an hour a day, being as still as I could be!

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It was particularly hard to focus when several bugs were crawling on me…haha…it still amazes me how much easier it became to sit for these practices once I had returned home, no more crazy bugs biting, stinging or crawling up my nose! It was really great to learn so much about being still in the face of external distractions, that’s for sure. The first step to stilling the mind may be learning to sit, but it certainly isn’t the last – haha….it is only the beginning. Stilling the mind, reducing the effect its fluctuations have on my day to day thoughts, words, actions and habits is a constant challenge, requiring as much focus as I can muster.

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Yoga is my medicine, for anxious tendencies, depressive tendencies, for cultivating mental focus, strength both in a physical and mental/emotional sense. I know that I will practice yoga every day until I die. Just like Swami Vivekananda suggests, I want to “live as if I will die tomorrow and learn as if I will live forever” ~ practicing as best I know how to from day to day, week to week, throughout my lifetime, continuously learning more, acting like a sponge of knowledge 😉 I know this passion for learning more about yoga will allow me to continuously grow with my students, always cultivating more knowledge & experience to share with them.image_3

 I love yoga and I love teaching – thank you to my Yoga Teacher, Michelle Rubin, you help me find my limits and expand them, never allowing myself to say “I can’t”, remembering that whether I say I can or say I can’t, I will end up being right. Thank you for teaching me that although challenging your students is key to the process of growth, compassion for your students and yourself is necessary for balancing the intensity that comes with a dedicated practice. You must genuinely examine yourself, your habits, your fears and resist the urge to run from your darkest, most challenging moments – face it all, knowing that if we continue to practice, all is coming – whatever we seek is available to us.

 

 

Change is far from easy…

Yoga has the ability to act as a powerful vehicle for change. Both the mind and body can experience immense alterations due to consistent practice of yoga. Although many moments of life are lovely, bright and full of hope, other moments can be dark, frightening and full of pain. I would suggest that pain is often an impetus for great change in a human being.
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Sometimes a significant amount of discomfort and or pain must be experienced before we choose to shift our habits. No matter how much emotional stuff is brought to the surface through my practice, I know it is medicine that I need to take in order to move forward in my growth process. Examining the dark aspects of our humanity can open us up or shut us down – either way observation of the less desirable qualities we possess provides us with an opportunity to choose.
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The practice allows us to gain self-awareness (for example, during asana we build awareness and control over subtle areas of the body) which provides the opportunity to notice our habits, and choose whether to maintain or change them. As we gain more subtle awareness of the body, it becomes more accessible to cultivate more subtle awareness of the mind. Past experiences that leave a significant impact on us, in both our bodies and minds, can be a significant factor in laying down habitual behaviours. Such habits practiced without awareness can become so deeply ingrained that we begin automatically identifying with our habitual tendencies, perhaps labeling these habits aspects of our personalities. What is a ‘personality’ but a collection of more likely than not outcomes, in terms of one’s behavioural tendencies and habitual responses. One of my favourite yoga practices these days is what my teacher calls ‘replacement therapy’, using the wisdom of a particular yoga sutra from chapter three:
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The practice involves consciously saying a word to yourself with the inhalation and its antonym on the exhalation. For example, thinking “fear” as you exhale and “strength” as you inhale. It seems the more I focus on cultivating the new, the more easily what no longer serves me falls away, evaporating into the past.
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~ by the way I would LOVE to be a fly on the wall if Socrates and Patanjali were able to sit down for a cup of tea ~ what a fascinating conversation about philosophy of mind that would be!! 🙂

Back Bending Bender :)

I am a serious yoga junkie. I kid you not; yoga is my drug of choice. Whether it is asana (physical postures), nidra (literal definition is sleep, a.k.a. guided meditation), pranayama (breathing exercises), chanting, or the yamas and niyamas (ethical observances) – I need my daily fix. Last night was no different. A wave of craving for practice came over me and all of a sudden I was breaking out my deep back bending sequence notes from a workshop at Victoria Yoga School, taught by one of the most authentic people I have yet to encounter: Michelle Rubin. Nothing gives me a better physiological high than a sweet back bending practice – deeply energizing and well worth the effort (or should I say effortless effort, lol). Definitely highly aware these days of how much attachment I have to my asana practice in particular – one day I’ll put more of my energy into cultivating non-attachment, but right now it’s way too much fun to let go of completely. Loving every minute of my practice wasn’t always my norm. For the first several years of exploring yoga, I oscillated between love and hate, on one hand enjoying many aspects of this centuries old practice and on the other hand, taking yoga asana and nidra as necessary medicine, even when it was the last thing I wanted to do with my time. I have known since my introduction to yoga in 2006, that it was good for me. Little did I know what an immense impact it would end up having on my life! It is surreal how much this practice has to offer. Over the years, I have become aware of muscles I previously did not know existed, both in a physiological and mental sense of the word. Letting go of my previous tendencies has been simultaneously deeply challenging and unbelievably satisfying. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know and the more my passion for learning ignites!

“The more I see, the less I know, the more I like to let it go.”
–the Red Hot Chili Peppers

Photography by Steve Leclerc

Photography by Steve Leclerc

Passion for what I love, believe in and value is key to my sense of discipline, or in yoga terms, tapas: the fire that drives my practice. I love how yoga makes me feel, like any drug of choice, it allows for immersion in the present moment, complete surrender to your phenomenological experience. What could be more fascinating than using the body as your own personal laboratory, an ideal ground for launching one experiment after another? The breath becomes a barometer for your mind state, an accurate measure of the degree of mental fluctuation you are experiencing in any given moment. Fluctuations of the mind (also known as vrittis in yogic terms) whether they are emotions, thoughts or ingrained habitual responses, can be observed and examined. Bringing conscious awareness to thoughts as they are experienced, allows you to gain awareness of how your thoughts become your words, eventually yielding your actions and habits. And what forms our character more than our habitual behaviours? Disciplining the mind, focusing on the nature of the mind and its constant fluctuations, creates the space for great change. Self-transformation is nothing more than commitment to changing one’s habits, which start as seeds of thought in the mind. Water the seeds, habits take root and establish themselves, slowly forming your character. Working from the gross to the subtle, you can literally alter the neural pathways in your brain, by extension altering your habitual behaviours.

Lao Tzu said it best:
“The greatest gift I have to give is that of my own self-transformation.”