Discipline = Healing

Prior to arriving in India, I had intentions of increasing my sense of discipline and I am happy to say that those intentions are certainly coming to fruition. I also intended to increase my ability to objectively observe my mind, which is another intention that is becoming more viable with each passing day. In addition, I assumed that my physical body would change significantly both internally and in terms of what others could observe externally. I found myself in Mysore at the Atmavikasa Centre of Yogic Sciences ready to work hard and transform as much as humanly possible in the space of three months. I felt very privileged to be have 21% of a year to focus all of my energy on personal growth and healing. I desired inspiration and a reboot on every level of my being. I was facing pain, both present and past – cognitive, emotional and existential – some of which I had been choosing to avoid with food consumption. I simply could not imagine facing all of the pain – sometimes I felt that I only had sufficient power to face some of it. Such feelings were merely illusions; I discovered that I had the power and courage to conquer each and every obstacle all along.

Considering how much I had already been through up until that point, I now can see how my overwhelming fear of facing the pain was inherently irrational. I had already been through the worst of it – now my work was primarily purging and letting go of all the old residue. I had allowed myself to titrate some of the pain over the last decade – but was afraid of doing all the deep work necessary to cleanse myself of the remaining poison inside. I wondered prior to coming to Mysore: what if I break down completely and cannot put myself back together? Am I really strong enough? I have discovered that sometimes we must break the shackles of the past in order to find clarity in terms of self-perception. Childhood was a brutal time of my life and I often felt just the way that I have described above – afraid, always waiting, watching for more violence and uncertainty. As I continue to work through the fear that was etched into every cell of my body early in life – I am starting to know that I am stronger and more powerful than any of that fear, no matter how massive and insurmountable it may seem. Even a past containing memories of a violent, alcoholic father cannot harm me any longer. The more I practice with serious discipline, the easier it is to see the reality that I am strong beyond measure.

Although I practiced regularly at home, my consistency was imperfect. I have found this period of practicing non-attachment through consciously removing myself from my normal social environment and all my comforts has been very useful in terms of developing a deeper sense of discipline. I am still certainly far from perfect, despite my desire to be so, but now I am successfully releasing many years of pent up toxic emotion, along with physical residue from an imbalanced approach to food. Yoga Sutra 1:21 tells us with great logic that the more energy we put toward yoga practice, the faster our results will manifest. I have witnessed fascinating changes in my body, and mind over the last eight weeks. The biggest component of discipline I have appreciated (aside from learning about a different approach to food) is a consistently longer daily pranayama practice – before coming to Mysore I would do a seated practice for only 20-25 minutes, and only 5-6 days a week. I have found the benefits of a 30 minute daily pranayama practice for over two months to be epic and 100% worth my energy. Already, I am noticing much confidence and strength developing both physically, cognitively, and emotionally. I am grateful to have learned so much about cultivating additional discipline in my life and practice – the best part is that I can take all of my learning back home to integrate into my regular life.

When making drastic changes to one’s eating habits or daily physical and mental disciplines, it is amazing how dramatically the body can react. While I was planning my trip to Mysore to study with my teacher’s teachers, I did not anticipate how brutal the physical symptoms of an extreme change in eating habits might be when I started following the dietary restrictions suggested by the teachers at the Atmavikasa Centre of Yogic Sciences. Back at home, my omnivorous eating habits included healthy grains, vegetables and fruits of course, but it also included too many sugars and fats that I chose to eat in order to avoid emotional pain. I already enjoyed many bananas, which were highly recommended when I arrived in Mysore, however overall I simply consumed more food than needed. My eating habits had gotten progressively less healthy for my body over time and I suffered from the symptoms of severe anemia as well. The symptoms of anemia held me back in terms of asana practice in particular, causing extreme fatigue, frequent bruising and very slow muscle recovery. I assumed that once I arrived in India that my biggest struggle was going to be the emotions that I often avoided with food. However, my physical body decided to show me just how much it did not enjoy how I had been treating it instead.

I began following the strict food disciplines offered by the teachers at Atmavikasa almost nine weeks ago. They told us to consume no sugar, animal products, oils, bread, junk food in general, caffeine and so on. Luckily I do not enjoy consuming caffeine so I did not have any headaches. However, I experienced a variety of other symptoms as my body adjusted to the extreme change in eating habits, as I have been an omnivore or vegetarian for most of my life (never vegan). You can call what I have experienced a detox or more simply, my body’s reaction to such a huge change – either way my physical body, not to mention my mind fought tooth and nail through the process. I experienced fever, chills, nasal/chest congestion, diarrhea, and a very unpleasant day of vomiting. My teacher was concerned about the symptoms lasting for so long (ended up being over a 10 day process) and so asked me to go for blood tests. It is plausible that my system was vulnerable due to all the change and I contracted a stomach flu virus as well. Happily the test results all came back normal, despite the symptoms I had experienced, leaving me reassured that no serious tropical disease was present. Not to mention, the unbelievable amount of tears I shed served as an epic emotional catharsis – I felt as though I was releasing years of pent up rage, pain and grief in a matter of days.

Due to the full panel of blood tests, I became aware of an amazing result in terms of my blood iron levels – it turned out that I was no longer anemic! Last time I had been tested, the concentration of iron in my blood was very low (only 7.2) and now it is well within normal levels (66). The range for normal iron levels in a female is 28-150, so as you can imagine I was pleasantly surprised by such a dramatic change in my blood chemistry! I suspect that the spinach, banana and coconut water smoothies were the primary reason for this change. As suggested by my teachers, I also had been consuming a significant quantity of sprouted mung beans, dates and raw beets, which are all high in iron. I certainly made a huge alteration to my regular eating habits, including unusually large quantities of fresh fruits, primarily the fantastic banana. All of the natural sugars left me with absolutely no sugar cravings, which was another surprise for me. I was very happy with all the positive blood chemistry results and have much more energy than I did when I arrived here two months ago. I am pleased to have a great way to combate anemia with nutrition rather than iron supplements which are very rough on the digestive system. I feel inspired because anemia has been an issue for quite a while! It makes me happy that my levels are now high enough that I can be a blood donor again too.

Studying at Atmavikasa has had SO many layers that I struggle to know how to articulate all that has transpired. Now, even with almost nine weeks of study completed, I still feel as though I am at the beginning, only merely starting the work that has yet to come. We are never finished when it comes to studying our tendencies. After a given amount of time, it is necessary to see the past for what it is and we must choose to use our energy for transformation rather than rumination. Luckily, the more we choose to cultivate discipline in our lives, the easier it is to focus on our goals, follow through with our actions and attain the results we seek. A great example of how persistence has yielded incredible results is memorizing how to chant the Yoga Sutras. I have struggled to wrap my brain and tongue around these ancient Sanskrit words and yet I am endlessly grateful for the challenge. Not to mention that my memory in general has improved significantly as a result. Perhaps the most beautiful part of a consistent yoga practice is that we are always learning, whereas in many other fields of study, there is a finite amount of knowledge available to us. Within the context of yoga practice, we get to be the scientists, using our own bodies as laboratories where we can perform fascinating experiments until the end.

The doubts that arose during the process were powerful and at times nearly smothering. When we choose to cultivate additional disciplines in our lives, and push ourselves beyond perceived limits, the mind often throws a fit and freaks out – screaming for the safety and strength it does not yet know how to find. That part of my mind was rife with desperation, craving the safety it did experience as it was developing. Yet, I chose to stop myself when doubtful and negative thoughts replayed in my mind. I reminded myself that despite my habits lacking perfection, I had tried my best with where I was at any given time. I am working hard to recognize pitfalls and mistakes either as they are occurring or in the best case scenario, prior to falling into those old holes or habits. Over time, I am learning how to continue with what works and leave what doesn’t serve me. Accepting that sometimes I must do less in order to heal is a lesson that I have been confronted with many times and I believe that due to this epic experience, I will be much more able to discern when less is necessary and when it is not.

My teachers guided me through the challenging days and even insisted that I rest (meaning no asanas for 3 days, doing less in morning asana class for another week and no back bending for over a week) even when my mind was fighting to attend class despite the weak state of my physical body. At that time, it felt as though I had travelled half way across the world to do nothing – I was either lying in savasana, sleeping and or resting in stillness. In the process of being forced to physically rest, I became that much more aware of my mental patterns – my inherent desire to work hard and go to class even when I clearly needed to physically rest and practice in a different way. Being separated from the classes and my classmates for that time – especially when they enjoyed the privilege of spending a Saturday morning walking and talking about philosophy with our teachers was rattling for my mind. During that day, I had moments where I felt alone and despondent. However, I quickly came to realize just how crucial it is to maintain mental discipline when I am alone – those moments when we are isolated are often the most difficult and yet full of potential as well. I learned that sometimes practicing yoga means surrendering to rest.

Surrender is not something that comes easily to me. In fact, I would argue that surrendering to the practice and its transformative power has been a significant struggle for me in many phases of my life. No matter how far you go, no matter how much work you do in terms of yoga practice – there is always more to be done. I am learning that perfection is not a static state, rather it is a state of constant evolution. Perhaps what draws me most to the practice of yoga is that very fact: we never need to stop learning, we can choose to learn as if we will live forever. In the darkest moments of the period in question, I felt as though I was being swallowed by the depths of my old pain, fear, grief and rage. There are so many periods and experiences in life that leave us gasping for our proverbial breath – wondering if we can go on. I believe that the most powerful aspect of a consistent and disciplined yoga practice is knowing your own power, your own ability to be courageous even in the face of the worst possible memory or present circumstance. I am grateful to have been blessed with very experienced teachers who are able to share what they know as it applies to the other with great wisdom and clarity. They have been able to see that what I really needed most was to be reminded of my own inherent bravery and strength – my innate power and ability to handle absolutely whatever comes.

 

If you seek to cultivate serious discipline in your practice, you will find what you need in Mysore at the Atmavikasa Center of Yogic Sciences

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.
pain quote
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.
socrates quote
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:
sutra2-33
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.
chapter 2 verse 33
~ 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!! 🙂

Teacher Training Essay: Yoga as a Catalyst for Personal Evolution

…this is the title of an essay I wrote a while ago for my current 700 hour yoga teacher training program (following certification through a 250 hour program last year) – the title really says it all, this piece of writing describes a few of the many ways a regular yoga practice has allowed me to grow beyond my own perceived limits, simultaneously providing the necessary tools to weather any storm, in any sense of the word: emotional, physical, or intellectual (one could argue these are all one and the same, all fluctuations of the mind). Hope it’s an interesting read, or at the very least gives you a sense of what yoga practice has to offer us. Enjoy 🙂

Marichyasana I

Marichyasana I

Yoga as a Catalyst for Personal Evolution

Over six years ago, the first aspect of yoga that I practiced was asana or physical posture. My attraction to yoga grew, as did the various permutations of practice I was willing to experiment with over time. So many aspects of yoga have changed not only my life, but also my character and how I perceive the world itself. Before beginning a yoga practice I viewed the world in a cynical way, always keeping other people at a safe distance. I believed that the brain and body were separate – completely ignorant of any possible method of integrating the somatic with the cognitive. Suffice it to say, yoga changed EVERYTHING. Looking back, I could never have anticipated that practicing yoga could become such a powerful catalyst for personal evolution.

At first yoga was all about the physical – I enjoyed getting stronger and feeling more flexible. Within less than a year of practicing asana several times a week, I noticed a shift in the way I felt towards other people. Not only did I begin caring about the welfare of others, I even started volunteering for the peer counseling program at university. After four years of peer helping, finishing my psychology degree, and practicing yoga even longer, I found myself caring so much for others that considering a career as a counselor was not far from my mind. Yet again I felt pulled toward practicing even more yoga; little did I know the urge to teach would soon emerge.

As self-awareness grew, my body became my laboratory, a special context within which to stage valuable experiments. Issues I had long struggled with became more and more visible, as I developed greater self-awareness. Exclusively focusing on academics, I was highly cognitive, but sadly dissociated from my body. As self-inquiry became an important practice for me, integration of mind, body and breath followed, each step acting as a preparation for the next. Challenges with binge-eating, negative body image, depression, social anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder all became battles on my yoga mat; each step forward became a preparation for the next. Slowly my yoga mat became a safe place to head when I was feeling emotionally distressed – it is now a place for challenging the dark and embracing the light that yoga has to offer. I discovered that self-awareness and self-consciousness are mutually exclusive concepts – they cannot simultaneously exist. I found as I cultivated self-awareness, my anxious tendencies toward self-consciousness decreased. Fascinatingly, following experimentation with chanting, I noticed an even more significant drop in physiological anxiety symptoms. It became clear that lengthening my exhalations, while taking short inhalations tended to create a physiological state of calm in my body – quickly and effectively slowing down my heart rate.

Yoga, particularly asana, had become the medicine I took to alleviate the physiological symptoms of emotional fluctuations. According to western psychology, trauma experiences frequently leave residue on our nervous systems, manifested through habitual tendencies, such as dissociating from body sensations and avoiding unwanted external sensory experiences. Asana allowed me to consciously begin to release the issues in the tissues. According to yoga psychology, every experience leaves an impression on the nervous system, also known as a samskara. Peter Levine, a noted psychologist and medical biophysicist, argues that “trauma represents a profound compression of survival energy that has not been able to complete its meaningful course of action.” I would additionally argue that yoga is the ideal method for slow titration and release of the physiological energy that can be compressed and held within our systems due to highly stressful events, whether the event revolves around childhood abuse, surgery, car accidents, etc., until we are able to free it from our bodies. Yoga has taught me that the human nervous system can be injured just as any muscle, joint or bone can be damaged. Furthermore, yoga provides a web of interconnected principles and practices that can bring a balance between stability and flexibility in any aspect of the human system.

After a few years of practicing asana, and guided meditations such as yoga nidra, I became curious to study additional books concerning yoga rather than exclusively western psychology and trauma origin. Studying the yamas and niyamas or ethical observances related to yoga, ever so briefly, revealed some fascinating personal insights. It appeared as though yoga had been working on altering the structure of my mind, body and breath, all from the inside out – without conscious intention. I was intently curious how what appeared to be a purely physical system of postures could yield significant changes in a human being’s self-awareness and character on so many levels.

Two of the ethical observances associated with yoga are non-harming and self-inquiry or svadhyaya. Non-harming, or ahimsa, can be perceived and applied in many different ways. As I practiced more and more yoga, both ahimsa and svadhyaya started to manifest in my behaviours and habits. Yoga was literally shaping my thoughts, words and actions from the inside out. I found myself drawn to practice more challenging asanas or physical postures, and discovered novel interest in other practices of yoga such as chanting, and most recently pranayama or breathing exercises. I also felt compelled to seek out a consistent teacher for deeper study of the practice and to gain confidence as a teacher. Ironically, looking back, it is easy to observe the gradual integration of the principles of non-harming and self-inquiry into my life. Throughout my practical experience with yoga, these principles are present in varying degrees. Initially, the only way I could experience these concepts was being self-aware enough to know yoga was good for me, even when I felt like doing anything else. During periods of depression, I practiced little to no asana, embracing yoga nidra and other guided meditations as the only form of yoga that felt accessible at the time. Conversely, during periods of acute anxiety, I became aware enough to practice many standing poses as a way to ground the emotional fluctuations. With self-inquiry comes self-awareness; with self-awareness comes noticing of harming actions, which gives me the opportunity to shift previous patterns. Slowly, long-standing negative, self-harming patterns of thought and behaviour shifted, as yoga practice allowed my consciousness to be more equally distributed throughout the body – no longer exclusively tied to the mind and its neural pathways. As the inherent link between thoughts, words, behaviours, habits and human character itself became revealed to me – the desire to practice with further discipline grew. As a long-standing yogi, Mr. Iyengar shares my belief that “density in bones is a virtue, but in brains it is a vice.” In other words, focusing all of our energy on the mind is a mistake; we must do the work to integrate the mind and the body – equally distributing our conscious intelligence throughout the entire body, not merely the brain. Use the entire laboratory we have been given and run fascinating experiments until the end. For years I heard yoga teachers refer to how at some point they felt they could not help but start teaching – the urge to share the gifts that yoga had bestowed on them was too deep to ignore. I finally understand what that means and why I will practice, practice, practice, aware that all is coming – whenever I’m ready for it.

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.”