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!! 🙂

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.”