My yoga journey and Patanjali’s teachings

One of my key recent learnings has been Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga.

The Eight Limbs are:

  1. Yama (Restraints)
  2. Niyama (Observances)
  3. Asana (Posture)
  4. Pranayama (Breath Control)
  5. Pratyahara (Withdrawal of the Senses)
  6. Dharana (Concentration)
  7. Dhyana (Meditation)
  8. Samadhi (Pure Contemplation)

Each limb provides useful guidance on its own, but collectively they provide a roadmap to living a meaningful and purposeful life.  The structure offered in these teachings has resonated strongly with me –as looking back on my own yoga journey, I’ve unknowingly sought out and struggled with them in my own ways. 

 

My journey with yoga started from injuries.

In high school I became an avid gym-goer and amped up the intensity when I joined my university’s crew team. However, being keen and excited about weightlifting didn’t mean not getting injured  –actually it happened probably too often. Chiro visits and massage therapy became a regular part of my life from the age of 20. I saw specialists but their assessments and treatments always felt superficial.

I first took up yoga to help with these injuries. I didn’t want to listen to the doctor who told me I shouldn’t necessarily have expectations to run or jump again at my young age. I wanted to focus on my spine to build up strength, stability and regain flexibility. Away from the weights, the low impact nature of yoga offered me an active approach to healing.

The universal appeal of yoga also allowed it to be one of the few activities that I could do anywhere as I’ve moved around with my career. DC, London, Hong Kong –and now here at Tirisula in Singapore, I’ve been fortunate to find active yoga communities and great teachers to learn from in each city.

Through these various life moves, a large part of why I’ve stayed with yoga is the confidence it has helped me develop as I grow capable of doing new asanas, coupled with the sense of calm and feeling refreshed that I always have at the end of each class.

A deepening desire to expand what I was finding within the classroom into my everyday life has promoted an evolution of my practice.  In particular, this has been with an increased focus on incorporating meditation in my personal life, and on asserting myself genuinely and confidently in my professional life. 

 

Learning the Eight Limbs…

When I look at the Eight Limbs, they prioritize many of the same values I have been trying to develop in myself to be a happy and productive adult.

Yamas and niyamas are restrictions and disciplines that I see as beneficial in shaping how I approach myself and others. Asanas and pranayama are key to keeping a healthy body. The higher limbs outline an approach to developing clarity of mind. 

As I forge ahead on my quest for self development, learning the Eight Limbs has been encouraging and welcomed, as they provide structure to an approach I was trying form for myself.

4 ways to get your family into yoga

Yoga has had a such a positive impact on my health and mental well-being that I’m an enthusiastic advocate of the practice.  Give me a willing listener, and I’ll gladly share my story of how yoga has helped me.  While I’ve converted by husband into a fellow yogi, it has been difficult to convince other adult family members to give it a try.

There are many pre-conceived notions of yoga.  Ask a non-practitioner what they think of when it comes to yoga and they may describe a yogi, deep in a meditative state floating across mountain tops.  Others may instead immediately associate the practice with the bendy photos of yogis striking poses on social media.  Both images can be equally intimidating and off-putting for someone who feels their life is worlds removed from what they see as the practice of yoga.  

While some yogis can be intensely focused on mediation and spirituality or flexibility and athleticism –the practice of yoga needn’t be, and can be very accommodating to individuals of varying abilities and at different stages in life.

As I’m keen to share a part of my life that has benefited me greatly with those I care about, I’ve been eager to understand new ways of opening their minds to the practice.

4 Ways to Get Your Family into Yoga

Here’s some suggested approaches that are worth a try –

  1. Show rather than tell

Going straight into all the benefits and evangelizing about yoga will often overwhelm people. Instead, you can start slow. When my family has asked how I am, I try to drop subtle hints about why I feel like I do – whether it’s feeling refreshed, more active, or more calm, it’s been easy to link this back to yoga.

The goal here is to incite curiosity. Showing them the benefits of yoga, rather than telling them to do it.

  1. Baby steps

It can be daunting to attend a yoga class as a newbie. All the cues in a yoga class can be overwhelming when you don’t know the movements.  I’ve had friends –not used to taking direct instruction –feel pressured in class and cry.  

You can help them gain comfort and confidence by practicing some initial poses together. When my husband first started yoga we kept this really simple – working through well-known poses such as downward dog. Having this basic knowledge in a safe space made him more comfortable when joining an actual class.

  1. Breathing exercises

Classes and postures may still be a bit too much at the start. Instead, you can start with breathing exercises – who can say no to breathing? 

Helping them to gain control of their breath is already a benefit. For these, they can start with a simple easy exercise –sitting in any comfortable position, closing their eyes, and breathing to counts of 5 breaths in, 5 breaths out.

  1. Address their concerns

If subtle hints aren’t drawing curiosity and your family won’t engage, there’s often a reason for this and some probing questions might be necessary. Some common concerns are around fitness – that they’re not flexible or fit enough. This often goes back to the preconceived notions of yogis from social media.

Once you get a sense of where the hesitancy may be, try to speak to their concerns and relate yoga benefits back to their situation and how it can specifically help them –whether it be physical like fixing a stiff back or mental like destressing the mind.

Although it can be a challenge to convince your family to first try yoga, the rewards that they’ll get are well worth it!

 

 

How pranayama is helping COVID-19 sufferers

Pranayama is the practice of breath regulation. The benefits of a regular pranayama practice have long been recognized within the yoga community, and with the on-set of the COVID-19 pandemic, pranayama is increasingly being discussed as a vital tool for treating ailments brought on by the novel coronavirus.   

The mysteries of ‘Long COVID’

While COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory illness, the virus has been found to potentially affect long-term nearly all organ systems and the nervous system.  A study published by the UK Office for National Statistics found that roughly one out of seven people who tested positive for COVID-19 experienced symptoms for a period lasting longer than 12 weeks.

Common symptoms in long COVID sufferers include fatigue and shortness of breath, but some also report heart palpitations –a sign that the body’s “autonomic nervous system” is out of balance. This is the body’s control system that critically regulates heart and breathing rate and triggers the “fight-or-flight response” when being confronted with a perceived threat. Carrying out seemingly mundane tasks –like loading the washing machine or sitting up in bed –have been reported as setting heart rates racing.

Prescribing Breath-work

An article published by The Atlantic earlier this year documents the observations and success of a team of researchers and doctors at Mount Sinai in the U.S. with prescribing breath-work for treating these symptoms. Notably, in formulating their course of treatment, the team remarked –

“long-COVID patients were breathing shallowly through their mouths and into their upper chest. By contrast, a proper breath happens in the nose and goes deep into the diaphragm; it stimulates the vagus nerve along the way, helping regulate heart rate and the nervous system.” 

This prompted the realization that in treating long-COVID patients –

the diaphragm and the nervous system had to be coached back to normal function before further reconditioning could start.”

Within just a week of starting patients on the breath-work course, all patients within the program were reporting positive improvement.

As discussed in the article, the Mount Sinai team’s theories about why the breath-work ultimately was so helpful touches upon many of the widely-discussed benefits of pranayama. In particular, they noted  –

  1. Breath-work allows patients to consciously control their heart rate;
  2. In helping to regulate stress, breath-work may benefit the immune system;
  3. Proper breathing is crucial to the lymphatic system, which plays a key role in eliminating toxins and waste.

Considering for example the pranayama practice of Anulom Vilom (alternate nostril breathing), it is documented as improving lung function, increasing oxygen saturation levels, reducing sympathetic activity and correspondingly stress and anxiety.

While we all hope not to be in the situation where we must use breath-work for rehabilitation from an illness, these findings are a positive reminder of the power of controlling our breath and its healing effects on the body.

Chaturanga dandasana: Simple but challenging

Chaturanga dandasana is an often practiced but frequently under-appreciated asana in yoga.

In my own experience, I had been practicing yoga for several years before I had a teacher spend time in class to break down the pose and explain all the parts that go into getting it right. Before that, I honestly hadn’t given this asana much thought –especially when I was rushing through ‘the vinyasa’ and on to urdva mukha svanasana (upward dog).

That said, once I realized all the actions that must come together to execute a chaturanga, and its many benefits, it became hard not to appreciate.

Chaturanga dandasana literally translates as the “four-limbed staff pose”, which is an apt description of the pose and its desired alignment.

chatur = four
anga = limb
danda = staff
asana = pose

Although simple in form, the asana is ideal for building functional strength. In addition to strengthening the abdominals, chaturanga strengthens the erector spinae – the set of muscles that run the length of the spine and are key to straightening and extending the spine. These muscles are often overlooked as they’re not seen as a major muscle group, like the biceps, chest and shoulders; however, they are just as important for strength and more so for stability –promoting improved body alignment.

Here’s a breakdown on chaturanga dandasana:

Coming into the pose from santolasana (high plank), you shift forward, bringing the shoulders slightly beyond the wrists and at the same time push up from the balls of the feet to the toes, the ankles dorsiflexed. The scapulae are depressed and protracted.

Bending at the elbows, you continue to shift forward, lowering the torso down while keeping the elbows generally aligned with the wrists and stopping before the shoulders fall below elbow height (i.e., not going past a 90-degree angle). The torso and legs stay a few inches above and parallel to the floor.

Stability of the scapulae is key to allowing for proper shoulder joint function in chaturanga. The serratus anterior muscles are the principle muscles that stabilize the scapulae and prevent them from “winging”. The rhomboids and middle trapezius further stabilize the scapulae by drawing them towards the midline of the spine.

Like the name of the pose implies, in chaturanga the body should be in one straight line –from head to feet. To prevent the shoulders from dipping too far down towards the floor, the triceps and pectoralis muscles eccentrically contract, resisting the pull of gravity. To avoid the midsection from swaying to the ground, the rectus abdominis and psoas must be engaged. The alignment of the pelvis is counter-balanced and kept neutral by engaging the gluteus maximus and hamstring muscles. The erector spinae muscles and quadratus lumborum work to lift the back. The quadriceps muscles and adductor magnus are also actively engaged to straighten the knees and slightly draw the legs towards each other.

In keeping the muscles throughout the body actively engaged, the weight of the body is more evenly distributed, avoiding excessive pressure on the arms and shoulders.

The end result is a simple but challenging asana that is generally accessible to most yogis to incorporate into their practice.