The Visceral Value of Mindfulness in Asana Practice

When I first started practicing yogasanas or yoga postures, I found savasana or corpse pose to be the most difficult by far. I do not mean to say that this closing posture has become easy, however I believe that I am beginning to truly reap its benefits practice by practice. Initially, holding my body still without tension was incredibly challenging. My mind fluctuated and hence my body was tense and had a tendency to wriggle and jerk rather randomly when I was trying my best to stop the movements. I still find savasana to be decidedly challenging, however, the longer I hold it, the more I do not have the urge to move my body. I wonder, if slowly, but ever so surely my practice of savasana is improving over the years. I can only hope that with persistence, the stillness I am finding in savasana will translate to the rest of my practice. I can already see that my experience of a variety of asanas is changing significantly as a result of my experience studying in Mysore at the Atmavikasa Centre of Yogic Sciences. I wanted long holds and oh my did I get what I asked for – most days anyway (every once in a while Yogacharya Venkatesha takes it easy on us). He has an incredible talent for seeing our potential with adept awareness before we are able to see it for ourselves.

I find myself wondering if I can truly find a sense of ease in all asanas or if stillness will always elude me in the most demanding of postures. However, when I look at headstand (srisasana) posture as an example of the change potentially available to me, I have faith that more is always possible, always plausible if I do not stop until the goal is reached. When I first started attempting to balance on my head, the posture brought up an immense amount of fear, so much so that my feet would not leave the ground no matter how much I cajoled them. I felt frustration, fear and disappointment on a regular basis when it came to my headstand practice. I remember telling myself that I would not even bother going to study with my teacher’s teachers at Atmavikasa until I was able to develop the courage necessary to stand on my head. Ironically, once I had developed the ability to stand on my head, I thought that it was not nearly enough – I must be able to fold into padmasana or lotus on my head, otherwise why would the teachers at Atmavikasa want to waste time with me. Once I could fold into lotus while balancing on my head – I still witnessed those thoughts of inadequacy. It was only then that the pattern became truly apparent to me. I realized that conquering any posture, no matter how challenging, had little relevancy when it came to my progression as a yoga practitioner. It became painfully apparent to me that the only thing holding me back from furthering my study of yoga was my mind itself – the power of mindfulness in action. Thankfully it did not take much longer for me to work up the courage to take the leap to travel to India and fulfill my dream of studying with Yogacharya Venkatesha and Acharye Hema.

It is hard to articulate what it feels like to find stillness without tension in a yoga asana. I must admit that most postures requiring flexibility tend to provide an easier route to such stillness at this point in my asana practice. However, if asked to hold some strength based asanas for a prolonged period of time, it does not take long before my body shakes and my mind desperately wants to escape. Rest cannot seem to come soon enough when I am holding a difficult asana. While I can stay many minutes easily in some asanas, in others I notice my mind telling me it is impossible to stay even 30 seconds, let alone a full minute (intense pose or utkatasana – colloquially known as chair pose is a great example). While I have the flexibility necessary for the aforementioned pose, I have not yet developed the strength of mind and body necessary to stay the 3 minutes recommended by my teacher. I will figure out how to convince my mind that it is possible to stay and my body will gain more strength over time. For now, I have the opportunity to learn a very useful lesson every single time I practice this particular asana; it is incredible how much my mind fluctuates! A mere 30 seconds can seem like a lifetime – a seemingly unmanageable amount of stress with arise within my body and mind. I notice my mind proposing many a reason as to why I do not need to stay, including many pleas to avoid the sensations that are currently being experienced.

The longer I remain in a posture when all my mind wants to do is run away, the more opportunities I have to observe its habitual tendencies. I notice all of the methods my mind comes up with to avoid sensation and discomfort. This is even more apparent when I stay longer in a posture that I have sufficient strength and flexibility to hold and yet my mind still remains an obstacle. Standing back bending postures are a fantastic example of my mind becoming the primary obstacle necessary to conquer one breath at a time. I literally must bring my wandering focus back to every inhale and exhale in order to stay longer. When I remain longer in a standing backbend, all of my tendencies toward fear in the face of discomfort arise very quickly. Although I do not feel any physical pain in back bending, and very little physical stretch if any – I certainly feel a great deal of resistance in my mind. When tension is present in my mind, I find it incredibly difficult to remain still, let alone breath calmly and easily. On the contrary, when I return my mind to my breathing repeatedly, even in the face of visceral fear, I am able to do things that I never thought I could do. The most fascinating observation I have made is that if you stay beyond the fear and the desire to squirm, the mind becomes infinitely stronger than it was before you chose to stay. Not only, does facing my fear on the mat help me immensely in terms of deepening my asana practice, it also allows me to face fears that are present away from the mat as well.

Cultivating mindfulness in asana practice requires long, static posture holds, allowing for the mind to focus entirely on the breathing, despite possible discomfort in the physical body. The process of fixing the constantly fluctuating mind on an asana has unending potential. The practice of a posture or exercise does not truly become asana practice until we fix our attention and stay longer to observe our breathing and the fluctuations of the body and mind. We can learn a great deal about a posture as it transitions into an asana by attempting to stay focused on our breath rather than allowing the inherent fluctuations of the mind to force us to come out before we can go deeper. The more I focus my mind, while on my head for example, the easier it is to identify my tendency to hide when challenges arise. Although I certainly have more ability to recognize my inherent bravery now more than ever before, I still notice the urge to run from discomfort toward comfort. The human mind certainly likes the familiar and the comfortable. My mind is no different. However, I am finding more and more tools through mindfulness in asana practice to control the sly tendencies of my mind, no matter how much it squirms when asked to face the uncomfortable.

I have found that the Atmavikasa approach to practice consistently encourages me to cultivate single pointed focus when practicing every given posture – creating the potential to fully experience that asana. Classical yoga practice is not about moving quickly from one shape to another, rather it is about remaining still and noticing what comes up. Once you stay longer, you have the ability to observe what changes and what stays the same, allowing you to slowly but surely begin to understand the shape you are creating from the inside out. When staying longer in a posture, you become able to observe even the smallest of changes, the tiniest of movements in the body and the subtlest of precise alignments. It also becomes viable to notice your mind and all of its thought patterns. Within the context of asana practice, I am able to observe the thoughts that repeat in my mind, rather than becoming absorbed in them. Like most humans, I have a tendency to have one thought and then allow my mind to run away with further related thoughts, until my mind is no longer in the difficult asana in question – rather it is begging me to exit the posture. Even short holds of strong asanas frequently have this impact on many of us.

I find, even after years of practice, that my body and mind both are more than willing to quit, to drop all dedication in favour of rest. Obstacles are simply a part of this ancient science of studying the mind and its traps. In order to remain in the postures that challenge me most, I must ignore the pleas of the mind and muster my inner determination to remain long enough to build strength. I am not only referring to strength of the musculature but also the mind itself. Strength or flexibility might be available to many of us in short durations, however, if asked to stay longer, the body quivers and the mind revolts. So much can be learned through the action of remaining still even when both the body and mind want to move more than anything else. The most comical and desperate thoughts run through my mind when my body is struggling to hold an asana. Luckily my character includes lots of tenancity that helps me continue even in the face of failure. Unless my muscles are truly and fully exhausted – I always want to try again. Chances are this is part of why it is not uncommon for 4 or 5 hours to pass in mere moments during my home practice.

Exploring the resistance within my own mind is always the most challenging component of my asana practice – once I ignore that craving to escape discomfort, the sky is the limit to use a common cliche. The path of least resistance on the other hand, generally leads to confusion, fluctuation and lack of ability to focus. The longer you remain in a posture, the more likely it is that you will begin to approach asana practice, rather than a simple exercise. So often as directed by many lineages and approaches to yoga, students choose not to stay longer in postures, causing them to miss the rich potential available to them. We cannot really understand an asana if we do not remain long enough to be challenged or to become truly still. Stillness is hard to come by in many fast paced cultures and societies. The value of cultivating the ability to become still (both mentally and physically) does not appear viable to many people. I am baffled as to why so many choose to water down this traditional and scientific approach to practice – the value of yoga becomes less and less with each component of mindfulness that is removed.

Many styles of yoga posture practice can contain some value in terms of physical health, strength, and flexibility. However, I have experimented with a wide range of styles and lineages over the last decade and it is clear to me that staying longer is most certainly the key to reaping the most benefit from this classical practice of controlling the mind. Not only can moving too quickly through a sequence of postures cause injury or result in lack of focus, furthermore, you are likely to be left with less than half the potential benefit the asana has to offer. The longer we stay, the more we can begin to notice the nuances of a pose and really settle into the precise alignments. From my personal experience and that of my teachers, it is holding with precision and time that yields by far the most benefits. We are robbing ourselves of what could be when we rush from one posture to the next without truly understanding each and every asana. Studying consistently with the same teacher for the last few years of my practice has been immensely beneficial for me and travelling to India to study with my teacher’s teachers has been an incredibly inspiring progression of that experience. I remember reading somewhere that when the student is ready, the correct teacher will appear – I feel that that adage could not be more true in my case.

Some asanas are easier to hold longer, at least in my body, such as seated forward folds. It is not until I hold such postures for longer periods that I start to really become still. With practice, I have been learning how to find stillness to the best of my ability and remain with that stillness for as long as possible. As time passes here in Mysore, I find myself surprised by how fast some of the “long” holds go by for my mind. I have found myself wishing for longer holds in some postures where stillness is more quickly available to me. Such thoughts and interesting responses regarding moving to the next asana in the sequence at Atmavikasa have already inspired me to stay even longer in these postures during my home practice on the weekends. The weekend no longer feels like a time when I am obligated to practice, rather it feels like an exciting exploratory expedition, where I am unendingly curious as to what I might discover next! I challenge myself to remain until my mind struggles and then I do not come out until I am able to quiet my mind sufficiently such that the transition out of the asana is as peaceful as possible – or when my physical musculature fatigues completely (often whichever comes first).

Other postures challenge me so much on a physical level that I am far from true asana practice – I anticipate years of diligent work will be required before ease occurs in such postures. One of the asanas that brings up struggle and challenge for me is called shalambhasana (locust pose). Despite plenty of flexibility, I do not yet have sufficient strength to hold this posture for long. I imagine it is likely due to a lack of mental and physical strength, rather than just the latter. As I try to lift my legs from the floor, my breath begins to go faster, my heart pounds and my mind screams “impossible”. I find triangle pose (Utthita Trikonasana) to be a walk in the park by comparison. Until I can control my mind when moving into locust – I will be far from truly expressing the potential of this asana. Every time I am losing confidence in my ability to grow in an asana such as locust – I remind myself of how much my srisasana (headstand pose) practice has changed over the last few years. Over years of attempting repeatedly, even when I fell, even when I wobbled immensely, I finally came to a point where I could breathe and stay longer. At first, I almost entirely held my breath when trying to stand on my head. I learned more about holding my breath at first than headstand itself. I recall having a habit of spontaneously and unconsciously yelling out profanity when trying to find my balance. It likely would have appeared to have been quite a comedic production for the proverbial fly on the wall. Remembering how much my relationship with headstand has changed gives me hope for my ability to develop mindfulness in asanas such as locust as well.

Life is full of challenges, fear and potential suffering, however, when I face my obstacles on the mat, I am able to grow stronger with courage, not allowing tension to rise. Even more importantly, if tension or fear takes hold, I am able to notice those sensations and thoughts, stopping them in their tracks. The power and skill that is observation can be cultivated in the context of asana practice. If I am mindful when practicing a yoga posture, I am gifted the opportunity to notice all of my habits in the face of discomfort. Once I am aware of my mind’s habits, it is that much easier to throw out those old habits in favour of new habits with greater utility that will serve me now and in the future. I am consistently amazed by how growing courage on the mat allows me to become stronger in all aspects of life. Even when I am faced with the full gamut of human emotions in the space of a day or a week, I am able to tackle the source of each emotion with bravery and consistency. When I face a challenging asana and succeed – or better yet when I fail, and don’t let it stop me, I grow stronger and develop more mental resiliency that can be applied to all manner of circumstance.

One of the secrets I have learned for cultivating mindfulness in asanas is finding a sense of ease within necessary effort. Although it may seem like an inherent contradiction to be able to find both effort and ease at the same time, I assure you it is possible. Working hard is essential in some asanas, however it is just as important to find simultaneous peace and ease. I have been blessed with flexibility which allows me to find ease quickly in some asanas, however it also makes ease very difficult to cultivate in others. I imagine that eventually with consistent practice, and significant effort, that sense of ease will become available to me in every asana. Sutra 1:21 (one of my favourites) tells us that the amount of determination we apply to our practice is directly correlated to our success. I now find myself with more energy than ever before and intend to apply it vigorously to my practice in every sense of the word. I have not only learned how to be more mindful in each day of my asana practice, but also how to continuously apply such mindfulness to all aspects of my life. Whether I am spending time cooking for my family, looking after my mum, husband and dog, or enjoying time in nature. I know that I have the ability to be completely absorbed no matter what I have chosen as my current activity. I look forward to continually integrating all of this additional mindfulness into each and every moment of my life.

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

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

Yoga Philosophy & Healing

All of us experience pain or trauma at various points in life; it simply depends on when, how much and for how long. I am no different. Suffering is a choice but pain is an unavoidable part of being human. I am grateful to have found Yoga practice and the tenancity necessary to follow through on the work necessary to create change. Examining yogic philosophy to better understand the obstacles I face in my practice has provided me with invaluable learning. How we choose to think about the challenges we face can be just as important if not even more important than an asana or pranayama practice. I was unaware when I started practicing yoga regularly that trauma could be stored in the bodily tissues and subsequently accessed and released through the process of practice. I assumed at the time that I would be stuck forever and little could be done to change the patterns that did not serve me. Let’s just say that my assumption could not have been more wrong.

I have studied primarily one translation of the Yoga Sutras since 2012 (Raja Yoga, translated by Swami Vivekananda) – it comes highly regarded by the expert teachers I am currently studying with in Mysore at the Atmavikasa Center of Yogic Sciences (Yogacharya Venkatesha and Acharye Hema) as well as highly recommended by my teacher back in Canada (Michelle Rubin). I have read these sutras or philosophical aphorisms repeatedly, seeking to understand the tendencies of the mind in order to better control its fluctuations. It is easy to identify with the fluctuations of our minds, rather than to see that we are the observer of the fluctuation. Yoga philosophy has taught me that nothing lasts forever, whether it be pain or pleasure – all of these phenomenological experiences are fleeting. I think of pleasure and pain as two extreme ends of a spectrum of human mental fluctuation – either due to the patterns of one’s mind alone or driven by an external stimulus, experience or even memory thereof.

It has taken about 11 years to really come to terms with the past and its impact on me. I frequently avoid speaking about my childhood on a regular basis in order to not verbally dredge up the past. I faced an unpredictable, abusive environment when growing up – unfortunately my father did not have sufficient control over his mind or Chitta. The impressions left on my mind from such events earlier in life used to cause me much struggle, but the more I practice, the easier it is to let the past go and focus on the present. Cultivating indifference to the man who caused so much pain has been no easy task. It took me time to understand that love is a skill; respect and commitment must be practiced in order for love to be present. Cultivating a deep love for yoga and dedication to my practice has been invaluable in my life. I have been dealt a significant lesson in non-attachment (aparigraha) as I work to let go of the collection of memories that do not serve my practice or my present day life.

I choose now to be grateful because his choice to harm me in fact led me to yoga. If he had not demonstrated a significant lack of control over his mind – I might never have chosen to delve into studying my own mind to the extent that I have in this life. The impetus for change is often pain, suffering and whatever occupies the space between the two. The habit of being in a state of suffering, submission, fear and anger is still very familiar and often feels like the path of least resistance. Noticing my tendencies to trigger myself with stimuli that bring up memories of the past is a powerful observation that has had a great deal of utility in my life – and I attribute these observations to my consistent study of my mind. Once I became able to recognize my patterns, it became that much easier to change those habits to better serve both my loved ones and myself. In his explanation of Sutra 1:12, Swami Vivekananda tells us that no human is hopeless, our character or personality is formed through repeated habits, “a bundle of habits, which can be checked by new and better [habits].” In addition, he offers the consolation that we have the power to “make and unmake” our habits at any point in time.

Pain is a powerful catalyst, if you allow it to be a guide, a teacher, rather than a rock that pulls you down into the depths of suffering. I find it necessary to remain vigilant and continuously observe my mind, ready to walk towards the fear with courage, rather than allowing the fear to drown me in memories of the past. Here in Mysore I have deepened my understanding of the mind’s tendencies and its obstacles – along with strategies to avoid those pitfalls when they arise. Although I have consistently developed more courage and will power each year that I have studied yoga – in the last few weeks I have added to that proverbial toolbox more than I thought possible. In particular, I have become keenly aware of my habit of doubting myself without good reason, coupled with a tendency to rush in a careless manner when I feel overstimulated by my environment or my thoughts. There are so many obstacles that arise in the process of cultivating a consistent practice of observing the mind, including all the emotions and thoughts that tie me to that period of my life.

A crucial piece of learning that I have absorbed from philosophy classes with Acharye Hema has given me a method for approaching memories of the past and anyone who may try to harm me in the future: in order to prevent disturbance from outside causing us harm, we must not allow ourselves to be hurt when others try to hurt us. We must not express anger in the face of others choosing to harm us – this does not mean that we stand and take the abuse, rather it means we must not be easily crushed – we must be resilient when we face our dragons. If we can respond to all forms of violence with gentle strength and a calm mind, we can beat anything that we encounter in life, no matter how insurmountable the odds appear in that given moment.

Through study of the Yoga Sutras and Yogic philosophy in other contexts, I have grown more each year in terms of my ability to use the pain and emotion from the past as fuel to get stronger, rather than allowing it to weaken my mind. It has become clear that the more I avoid the unpleasantness of the painful aspects of life (past, present or future), I only do myself a disservice, dulling my mind and creating more obstacles that interfere with my practice. Not only does avoidance always exacerbate the whirlpools of my mind, often it leads to my identification with the mental disturbance I am currently experiencing (Sutra 1:4 tells us that this identification with our mental fluctuations occurs when we lack concentration or focus). For example thinking “I am sad” rather than “I am currently experiencing sadness”.

I have repeatedly come back to one sutra in particular: Chapter 1, Sutra 33. A few years ago, I took the time to memorize it and began to chant the words when I was in a state of struggle – when I was suffering with pain rather than observing the pain. My perception of traumatic experiences is that they leave impressions (residue, samskaras) on our mind that must be titrated over time, until the issues in our tissues have eventually been eliminated. Yoga Sutra 1:33 is the aphorism that has allowed me to find control over the negative fluctuations of my mind and corresponding emotional state in those times of struggle. The sutra encourages us to cultivate friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion towards those who are unhappy, delight in those who are virtuous, and indifference towards those who lack virtue (i.e. The wicked, those who cause pain to others). When I struggle and find myself distracted from my purpose, I read sutra 1:33 or I chant the words to myself. More often than not, I am now able to face my pain with courage, rather than running away in fearful avoidance. The residue that is left on the mind only has as much power as we allow – I am learning that it is possible to exert control over the movements of the mind, including those times that our thoughts travel into the past and the pain it once held. The practice continues to show me that it is possible to drain the poison of past trauma such that it no longer causes distraction.

Under the guidance of the teachers at Atmavikasa, I have begun to see even further potential to this expansive practice. Now I know that I have the ability to continue beyond where I previously thought plausible. As I apply myself to practice with dedication and respect, I am awed by the power of yoga. I now feel less anger and grief than ever before – which leaves me more cognitive space to concentrate on whatever I choose. I find more freedom each day I practice and control the habits of my mind. Although, I may not be able to change the past, I am now able to practice how to leave it behind, and not allow it to follow me into the future. I am confident that I am on the correct path necessary in order to no longer be haunted by my history.

If you are seeking to learn how to continuously evolve, you will surely find what you need most here in Mysore:

Atmavikasa Center of Yogic Sciences

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

 

Navasana & Malasana :)

Navasana & Malasana, otherwise known as boat pose & squat pose – two of my all time favourites!! Both are wonderful postures that can be adapted to be accessible to individuals in varying ways, I love the versatility of these postures, in addition to the many physiological benefits they offer: strengthening the core, legs, back, arms, as well as opening the ankles, feet, hips and lower back. I also find them both to be great opportunities to focus the mind during longer holds! An awesome combination if you ask me 😉

ENJOY!!!

Morning Practice & Inspiration

photo-1

A lovely morning pranayama practice ~ couldn’t think of a better way to start the day 🙂

marktwain

…one of my favourite quotes for when I need inspiration!!!

Yoga play day at Jordan River

My hubby and I took a fabulous trip out to Jordan River the other week and it was so much fun to explore the woods on the way to Sandcut Beach, the beach itself and a beautiful waterfall. Throw in a little yoga asana practice here and there, next thing you know it’s a yogatastic day 😉 Steve was kind enough to take a few photos of my practice out by the water, river and sand…including lots of sweet pics of the scenery itself!!!

IMG_0781

IMG_1130

IMG_0772

…what a lovely waterfall, the sound of the water crashing on the shore combined with the waterfall was perfect background for a practice 🙂

IMG_1067

…wow, balancing in the water is tricky! without a still point to focus my eyes on, crow was a serious challenge, nothing better to still the mind!!!

IMG_1081

…haha and I thought crow was a tricky pose when looking into the water, this variation of ardha chandrasana was harder, but felt good once I got it 🙂 yoga is always the best medicine when you aren’t feeling super balanced –  it certainly has a knack for helping me feel better..

IMG_1073

IMG_1196

…that same weekend we could not help but travel out to the same beach area for another day of fun in the sun, complete with yoga and playing in the water 😉

IMG_1135

IMG_1103

Steve told me it was worthwhile to stay still for a photo here, that water was chilly 😉 haha you tell me was the pigeon photo worth it 😀

IMG_1109

Loved playing with balance that day & it was super cool to be working my balance on top of that waterfall in the pictures from the day before ~ it was so neat!!!

IMG_1165

I’ve always loved those spots where rivers meet the ocean, Jordan River is no exception 🙂

IMG_1152

IMG_1175

IMG_1111

…and the perfect place for savasana of course!!! Love it 🙂

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.