Making Vata-friendly lifestyle changes

I accidentally stumbled upon the concept of doshas about 3 years back. I had just quit my job and embarked on a sabbatical without knowing for sure what type of work I wanted to do next. My stressful job had left me suffering from mild adrenal fatigue, so I was looking for unconventional ways to “repair” and find myself. During my literature research, I came across doshas and the Ayurvedic approach to regulating imbalances. The quiz I took revealed that my dominant dosha, Vata, was out of balance. I gathered as much information as possible about ways to pacify this dosha and began making small and gradual adjustments to my diet and lifestyle. Over the next year or so, most of the extreme aspects of the imbalance were remedied with the help of diet, acupuncture (I saw a TCM practitioner for a few months), Chinese herbs, exercise and, probably most importantly, lower stress levels. Vata, however, remains my dominant dosha, so I’ve been focusing on developing a sustainable Vata-friendly lifestyle in order to prevent imbalances.

 

Food was the easiest aspect to tackle. A Vata pacifying diet should comprise 55% grains, 20% of vegetables, 15% fats, dairy, and nuts, and 10% pulses. Among those, foods that have an inherently sweet, sour or salty taste and a warm, liquid, oily or heavy quality should be favoured, while pungent, bitter or astringent foods should be avoided, as they to increase Vata. So, for instance, I’ve increased my consumption of carrots, beetroot, sweet potatoes and okra, and reduced intake of broccoli, kale, and cauliflower. All food should be consumed warm and preferably in soupy format, while drinks should be consumed hot. For years my breakfast had consisted of uncooked oats with yoghurt and nuts, consumed at room temperature. To create a Vata-friendly version, I switched to oats cooked in dairy milk or almond milk with berries, soaked and peeled nuts and a pinch of cinnamon, eaten warm. I’ve reduced my sushi and sashimi intake and swapped raw green salads for warm, cooked salads. Now, some of these changes were easier to cope with than others. I’d never been into ice cream, cold beverages and green salads, so avoiding them was no big deal. I do love my spicy food, however (the spicier the better), so turning down the heat was not a particularly enjoyable process. I also do not function as a proper human without my morning coffee, so that is one habit I’m sticking to, Vata or no Vata.

 

In addition to selecting Vata-pacifying foods, I also started making a conscious effort to eat my meals slowly and in a quiet environment, rather than on the go or while working. Vata individuals are prone to indigestion and bloating due to a vishani agni type of digestion. In order to stimulate agni, I try to eat fresh ginger with salt and lemon juice before my main meals, and I refrain from drinking water or other liquids for one hour following the meal.

 

As far as physical exercise is concerned, as a Vata individual, I naturally gravitate towards workouts that involve moving quickly, like barre and HIIT routines. However, in order to balance Vata, I need to include exercise routines that are calming and grounding, such as restorative yoga, tai chi, swimming or weightlifting. This is the reason why I started going to yoga classes and, even though I found the slow tempo of yoga quite painful to sit through. That is, until I found Vinyasa yoga and my craving for fast movement was satisfied. Still, while I love Vinyasa, I make a conscious effort to balance it out with slower forms of yoga and/or longer relaxation sessions in Savasana at the end of the practice. When practicing on my own, I make sure to include rooting asanas like Vriksasana and Virabhadrasana I and II, as well as forward bends (e.g. Paschimottanasana) and twists (e.g. Vakrasana). I am currently working on incorporating calming breathing exercises that balance excess Vata, like nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) and bhramari (humming bird), and massaging sesame oil into my skin daily before bathing.

 

I believe that the relaxation and stomach cleansing techniques I learnt during my YTT course will help me to make further progress on my journey to a Vata-friendly lifestyle.

Musings of a Muslim yogi

Prior to commencing my YTT I had only experienced yoga practice in a gym environment, where it was treated like another workout program. A typical class comprised asanas, a brief relaxation session and occasionally some breathing exercises. Mantras and chants are never in the picture. During the YTT I was exposed to the philosophical and spiritual aspect of yoga and, for the first time, I felt some inner conflict while chanting mantras, as I wasn’t sure whether that brought a religious dimension to my practice which would contradict my Muslim beliefs. And so I started researching the topic to better understand the role of mantras and chanting in yoga practice.

 

My first finding is that a desktop search on Muslims practicing yoga renders a pretty wide range of views. At one end of the spectrum are those who argue that Muslims should refrain from any contact with a practice that originated in a different religion. At the other end lies the Sufi approach, which proposes that man’s effort to give himself to God naturally manifests itself through actions that resemble yoga practice, i.e. striving to detach oneself from worldly desires through meditation and even asceticism. The middle ground seems to boil down to the view that yoga as physical exercise is perfectly suitable for Muslims, while the spiritual element is best avoided. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, for instance, states on its official website that “[…] Muslims are not allowed to practice yoga in a form that clearly contains elements of the rituals (such as recitations) and beliefs of other faiths, as such practices are indeed non-Islamic rituals and are no longer a physical exercise per se.”(https://www.muis.gov.sg/officeofthemufti/Irsyad/Advisory-on-Yoga-Practice).

 

So we’ve established that yoga as physical exercise is no cause for concern. But as I’ve learnt during my YTT, asana practice is only one of the many aspects of yoga. If I reduce it to pure physical exercise, can I still claim to practice yoga and if my only aim is to stretch and build strength using body weight, why not practice Pilates, calisthenics or barre instead? Well, the ethical values upheld in yoga (i.e. yama and niyama) are aligned with the Islamic tenets, so I do not see a contradiction there. Pranayama (breathing techniques) are extremely practical exercises aimed to either energise or calm the body, and they carry no religious connotation. Dhyana (meditative state) is a very useful practice, very especially in this day and age where stress reigns supreme.

 

So what about asana sequences like Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation)? Some argue that this sequence was designed specifically to express gratitude to the sun, which amounts to worship and is therefore undesirable for Muslims. In my view, that’s where the notion of niyyah (intention) comes into play. Niyyah is defined as the intention behind an action and it plays a crucial role in a Muslim’s life, as it is believed that Allah SWT will weigh one’s deeds according to one’s intention when performing the respective deeds. In this spirit, when performing the Surya Namaskar, the practitioner’s intention alone is what determines whether the action carries any shirk (deification of worship of anyone or anything other than Allah SWT) elements, since the sequence itself is just a series of movements and does not carry any inherent element of worship, nor is it accompanied by any religious recitations.

 

What about chanting OM at the start and end of a yoga practice session? Katha Upanishad I, ii, 15-17 explains: “The goal which all the Vedas declare, which all austerities aim at, and which men desire when they lead the life of continence, I will tell you briefly: it is OM. This syllable OM is indeed Brahman. This syllable is the Highest. Whosoever knows this syllable obtains all that he desires. This is the best support; this is the highest support. Whosoever knows this support is adored in the world of Brahma.” (http://singaporehindutemples.com/om.html). Brahman is understood as the Cosmic Principle in Hinduism, or “the primordial reality that creates, maintains and withdraws within it the universe”, according to German Indologist Paul Jakob Deussen. The Aitareya Upanishad defines Brahman as Consciousness and Consciousness as the First Cause of creation (https://www.esamskriti.com/e/Spirituality/Upanishads-Commentary/Aitareya-Upanishad~-Origin-of-the-Universe-ad-Man-(Part~1)-1.aspx). While Brahman is not equated with God in the Islamic sense, the act of primordial creation and the quality of supreme consciousness are attributed to Allah SWT. If, as stated in the Katha Upanishad, “OM is indeed Brahman”, there is a clear correlation between OM and the notion of divine consciousness in the Hindu tradition. Since my understanding of the Hindu sacred texts is sketchy at best and I lack the expertise required to assess the exact extent to which OM may conflict with the Islamic precept of worshipping no god other than Allah SWT, I would rather err on the side of caution and omit it from my practice.

 

Having said that, if you remove the fish from the biryani, you’re just left with boiled rice that no longer qualifies as biryani. Similarly, simply removing aspects of the practice you’re uncomfortable with without filling the void is not the ideal approach. So what would I replace the OM chant with? What religious scholars typically do when interpreting scriptures is engage in the science of hermeneutics, i.e. understand the intended message of the text and establish how that message can be carried forward into the present era without either corrupting the original intent or falling into a literal application which doesn’t necessarily make sense in the present circumstances. I am no religious scholar, nor am I trained in hermeneutics, but for the purpose of this personal decision making process, I will try to apply a similar concept, i.e. establish the intended purpose of the OM chant at the start and end of of the practice and replace that with a more desirable equivalent in a Muslim context.

 

Based on my research, OM chanting serves a number of objectives, of which I will only list one due to space constraints: it is intended to separate the yoga practice from the rest of our day and create a meditative space in which we are able to create a deeper connection with ourselves beyond simple physical exercise. I believe we all have our individual ways of getting into a contemplative mood and practicing mindfulness. As a yoga teacher, which I aspire to become someday, I would create the space for this contemplative mood at the start of the practice. Each one of my students can fill the space with whatever mental and spiritual visualisations they’re comfortable with. I would then end the practice by encouraging my students to carry with them the inner peace and balance achieved during the practice into the rest of their day and week.

 

Will this approach please everyone? Highly unlikely. There will be those coming to class in search of cultural immersion and mystical Hindu experiences. Those will find my class lacking in authenticity and will not return. Those interested only in getting a good will sit impatiently through any meditation or relaxation exercise. However, I am confident that there will also be some who will enjoy my approach to yoga and those will return. After all, as Master Paalu says, even Dracula has followers.

 

To end this piece, I would like to say that I realise how sensitive a topic religion is. I am perfectly aware that some of readers out there might see the views described in this article as deviant, while for others the very fact that I agonise over this topic might seem strange at best. In response, I will quote Aristotle: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Each one of us is on his/her individual spiritual journey and we each manage every step of that journey as best we can. And, since this article is about the musings of a Muslim yogi, I will end with a quote from the Qur’an: “And every soul earns not [blame] except against itself, and no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another.” (Holy Qur’an Surah Al-An’am 6:164).

Mudras – from dance to yoga

A few days ago, as part of my YTT course, I learnt about the significance of mudras (“seal” or “closure” in Sanskrit) in yoga practice. Mudras are grouped into 5 categories based on the body part involved, i.e.: hasta (hand mudras), mana (head mudras), kaya (postural mudras), bandha (lock mudras), and adhara (perineal mudras). Hastas are formed by specific positioning of the fingers and thumb, which creates neuronal connections designed to impact energy flow and create balance through the activation of nerve receptors in the fingertips. Hastas should be practiced for 5-20 minutes at a time and are often accompanied by pranayama (breathing) exercises for maximum results. While this information was new to me, the mudra concept wasn’t.

 

My first encounter with mudras occurred back in my university days, when I had the privilege to attend a superb Bharatanatyam performance by a respected Indian classical dancer in my home-country. I was absolutely enthralled by the artistic performance and set out to actively seek opportunities to learn this exquisite dance form. Unfortunately, it was only when I moved to Kuala Lumpur 10 years later that my dream finally came true and I managed to take classes for a total of 3 years with breaks in between to manage my knee pain (I have tilted patellas and Bharatanatyam is notoriously demanding on the knees, particularly the rhythmic foot stamping in the classical position known as aramandi, a half sitting posture where the knees are bent outwards). Eventually I stopped completely at my doctor’s advice, however, my fascination with Indian classical dance is still very much alive and I attend public performances whenever I have the opportunity. This interest in dance has prompted me to research similarities and differences between mudras in a yoga vs a dance context.

 

First, for those who are not familiar with Bharatanatyam, it is a form of devotional dance originally performed in temples by devadasis (temple dancers) on special religious occasions, which later evolved into a classical art form, although the themes continue to be primarily devotional. The dancer moves to the beat of Carnatic music, one of the two subgenres of the Indian classical music (the other being Hindustani music, popular in the north and often paired with Kathak dance). The oldest written records about Bharatanatyam are found in the Natya Shastra, a Sanskrit text attributed to Sage Bharata Muni and dated roughly 200 BCE- 200 CE. This dance form comprises complex techniques divided into three main categories: nritta (pure rhythmic dance), natya (dance with a dramatic aspect) and nritya (interpretive dance).

 

Which brings us back to mudras. Hand mudras (hastas) are an essential component of a Bharatanatyam dancer’s “vocabulary” and are used to visually convey inner feelings as well as external events. They act as a codified language which requires knowledge by both the performer and the audience. In other words, they are used to communicate externally, unlike in yoga, where they serve to communicate internally. The repertoire comprises 28 asamyuta (single hand) and 24 samyuta (double hand) mudras. Based on the position of the fingers, they are divided into 12 categories:

  1. Prakarana Hastha – fingers stretched
  2. Kunchita Hastha – fingers folded
  3. Rechita Hastha – fingers are given movement
  4. Punchita Hastha – fingers folded or moved or stretched
  5. Apaveshtita Hastha – fingers bent down
  6. Prerita Hastha – fingers bent back or moved or stretched
  7. Udveshtita Hastha – hands are held up
  8. Vyavrutta Hastha – hands held up laterally
  9. Parivrutta Hastha – hands are brought together from sides
  10. Sanketa Hastha – hands are used to convey implied meanings
  11. Chinha Hastha – hands are used to convey a physical appearance, weapons, parts of the body, mannerisms etc.
  12. Padarthateeke – hands are used to confirm the meanings of certain words

 

Some of the dance and yoga mudras are fairly similar in appearance. Examples include the hamsasya hasta (swan) in dance vs the gyan mudra in yoga (increases memory power); the trishula hasta (trident) in dance vs the Varun mudra in yoga (balances water content in the body); the mayura hasta (peacock) in dance vs the prithvi mudra in yoga (improves skin complexion and stimulates weight gain); the simhamukha hasta (lion head) in dance vs the apana mudra in yoga (regulates diabetes); and the kartarimukha hasta (scissors) in dance vs the prana mudra in yoga (balances vitamin deficiency and increases immunity).

 

This process of learning and connecting yoga concepts with prior knowledge has been a very enriching experience and I’m definitely glad I signed up for the YTT.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Body proportions in asana practice

If you struggle with a particular asana, your yoga teacher will typically encourage you to keep practicing the pose itself as well as a number of complementary exercises that build strength, flexibility, and stamina. In my experience, the general belief seems to be that, with enough effort, anybody can perform any asana. Consequently, depending on your level of self-discipline, you either practice with a vengeance or avoid the respective pose until you’re put in a situation where you absolutely have to get it right, like the 200 Hr yoga teacher training (smile). In my case, one pose I’ve always struggled with is Salamba Sirsasana I (headstand supported on the forearms).

 

Sirsasana is a pose where the serratus anterior, rotator cuffs and deltoids contract concentrically to rotate the scapula upwardly and stabilize the shoulder joint, while the triceps brachii contract eccentrically to resists elbow flexion. To relieve pressure in the neck and elongate the spine, one should also activate the spinal erector and multifidus muscles close to the spine. In layman terms, you should push your forearms into the ground until you feel your head slightly lifting off the mat.

 

I am able to get into Salamba Sirsasana II (Tripod Headstand) with relative ease and feel fairly comfortable in the pose (despite its complexity, Sirsasana is considered a resting pose, so it’s important that your body is able to relax in this position), but Sirsasana I has always been a losing battle for me. No matter how forcefully I press my shoulders away from the ears and the forearms into the mat, my neck is still compressed and the pose feels extremely uncomfortable. I’ve been putting that down to lack of shoulder and triceps strength and while yes, those areas could definitely benefit from strengthening, they serve me quite well when it comes to Sirsasana II, so something just doesn’t quite add up. At the same time, during the YTT I noticed that, while many of my peers could comfortably place the heel of their palms on the ground in Dandasana, my palms couldn’t touch the floor without my compromising the length in my spine. And so, one day I suddenly thought of examining my body proportions and I noticed two things. Firstly, my shoulders are very narrow, so even with the best effort to broaden the shoulders in Sirsanana, there’s just not a lot to work with. Secondly, I have relatively short arms, a long neck and an oblong head, so if I bend my arm and bring my triceps next to my ear, my elbow is below the crown of my head. By a simple logical deduction, it’d be pretty hard for me to avoid compressing the neck in Sirsasana.

 

Then I wondered whether I’m a freak of nature or there might be other yogis out there facing the same issue, so started browsing the net for related posts. Alas, I came across quite a few interesting articles on the impact of body proportions on proper (and comfortable) asana execution (after all, according to the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali verse 2.46, comfort is an important aspect of asana practice).

 

In a nutshell, my research rendered two main points:

 

  1. If your arms are relatively short in relation to your waist, you will benefit from the use of blocks, straps, or boosters to help “extend” the arms in asanas that require reaching for the floor. So, in the case of Sirsasana, for example, you could place your head on the mat but your forearms on folded blankets to artificially “create” length in the arms or you could place a block behind your head to the same effect. When it comes to Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose), your short arms may not only present a challenge in achieving the desired spinal arch but may also cause considerable pressure in the lower back, since your spine and arms are farther from the floor. To resolve this, you could rest your palms on yoga blocks instead of the floor.
  2. If, on the contrary, your arms are relatively long compared to your waist, you may need to bend your elbows slightly in asanas that originally require straight arms in order to maintain proper alignment.

 

Back to my Sirsasana nightmare: I tried using a folded mat under my forearms and, while I am still struggling with the pose, at least it doesn’t feel like my head is being pushed into my trunk and my neck is about to snap, so the solution is effective in my case.

 

This incident has prompted me to reflect on how props are generally perceived in yoga classes.  In my observation, they’re often equated with a temporary crutch to be used while working on improving strength and flexibility and there’s a certain stigma attached to them, which causes some students to force themselves into misaligned asanas and risk injury rather than use a prop. Perhaps our thinking should shift to viewing props as a permanent fixture for those of us who need to compensate for less than ideal anatomical proportions. Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that one should stop striving for improvement. I believe that hard work and discipline are essential to mastering asana practice, but your skeletal structure is something you can’t really change. As a yoga student, I hope to see more teachers guide struggling students through working with props to make up for less than ideal skeletal structure in addition to encouraging them to keep practicing in order to build strength, flexibility, and stamina. As an aspiring yoga teacher, I intend to undertake further research on how proportions impact certain asanas so that I’m able to advise my future students accordingly.

 

 

Sources:

Chrissy Carter, Headstand: A Practice, https://chrissycarter.com/headstand-a-practice/

Illonka Michelle O’Neil,For All My Yogis With Short Arms, https://www.yogiapproved.com/yoga/why-i-use-yoga-props/

Nicole DeAvilla,Helping Students Master the AsanasPart 2 of 3: Proportion (or, How to Teach Your Students Not to Look Like the Picture in the Book),  https://www.expandinglight.org/free/yoga-teacher/articles/general/helping-students-master-the-asanas2.php

Peg Mulqueen, Size Matters, https://loveyogaanatomy.com/size-matters/

Stephanie E-R.Y.T. 500,Dirgha Kala: A Study of Light on Yoga, Proportion Matters,http://dirghakala.blogspot.com/2014/08/proportion-matters.html