Thinking out loud

The topic of my blog post today is one which has eluded me for some time. Spirituality. We’ve heard many times during the YTTC that each of us have our own unique spiritual journey. There is not one journey that is the same as another, everyone’s experience is only truly felt by that individual, it cannot be replicated, nor truly explained, nor truly understood by another individual. It’s an intimate quest, delving deep into one’s relationship with the cosmic universe. I would say I started my spiritual journey, or however you would call it, at the lowest point of my life. It felt like the lowest point for me because I felt emptiness at a profound level. Not from a loss of a relationship, though that had been the catalyst, but a realization that I knew nothing of the world, I had no control of the world, and I didn’t know who I was. I kept asking myself over and over again, who am I? Why did I feel so empty? I faced my existence, my fleeting existence. I pondered on thoughts which I had previously never thought of. When meeting with friends, they were concerned and thought I was losing my mind. I felt disconnected from the physical world, because I was turning inward to search for answers. I still don’t have answers today – but something within me tells me that the journey of questioning, the journey of realizing, isn’t about reaching an end goal. Perhaps having no answer IS the answer. Perhaps the search and the journey towards the unknown is all there is.

The practice of yoga is similar in this sense. Yoga isn’t about getting to the perfect and best looking postures within a week. Its the consistent journey we take day by day, in discipline, in patience, everyday working towards something bigger than ourselves. As Master Sree mentioned in class, when we really get the philosophy of yoga, poses are really no biggie. Asana is the manifestation of philosophy of life/yoga in the human body through postures.

I am so privileged to experience that emptiness then – some books deem it as a period of spiritual awakening. I wouldn’t call myself awakened, though. Far from it. Looking back, during those moments that when I enhanced a deeper mental awareness, an awakening of the higher consciousness. In those moments, I started experiencing a shift in mental framework of life and the world we live in. Spirituality is mysterious because it’s hidden beyond what we are familiar with in our lives. I am still uncovering it day by day.

Real effort is required in every area of yoga practice – not just asana. Meditation takes real mental effort too. Yoga is only a holistic practice when we understand the basic principles and not close up our minds. Spirituality to me is also part of the practice. We can all climb to the heights of the great spiritual masters that have gone before us by following closely in their footsteps. Every person who practices yoga can achieve the same inner experiences of the sages or prophets. We can experience bliss, unconditional love, wisdom, and unity. We can experience liberation or enlightenment if that is what you want. All that is required is dedication to the ancient wisdom and perseverance in personal practice.

Yoga led me to find my own spirituality. Since practicing yoga and cultivating a spiritual life, I am still uncovering unresolved, unmanageable old hurts that sometimes amplify. Memories of childhood pain, whether in my school, friendships or in relationships as I got older, were excavated through the physical release of my practice, and the most hidden hurt determined how I destructively handled conflict of any kind! One day I remembered sharing about this with my fellow coursemate, Sandra. I shared how after a certain heart opening Asana, I felt as if a deep resentment and unhappiness released from me and I teared so much after my practice. I was surprised she had a similar experience herself too.

The mysterious thing is, I also uncover new growth which I never knew existed. As I uncover and clean up past messes, I found more space to be clear, connected, trusting and aware of everything I’m doing – especially when I’m engaging in behaviors that stop the flow of acceptance and ease in my daily life. This empowers and propels me to be more patient and present. Right now particularly on this spiritual journey, I am learning to love without attachment. We first unconditionally, fiercely, ardently love ourselves – before we can love others without attachment. Like a lotus leaf, it doesn’t absorb, but it can hold so much space.

“He who, having abandoned attachment, acts reposing his works on the Brahman, is not stained by sin even as waters cling not to the lotus leaf.” Bhagvad Gita

Brahman is the all-encompassing, all-accommodating, all-harmonising, higher universal self which finds and fulfills itself in an all-loving and all-compassionate ambience of consciousness.

“But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love. Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.”

Loving without attachment is possible only when we give people a space to be and recognize them as whole and independent in themselves. That’s what real love amounts to, letting a person be what he/she really is. Without a genuine freedom to be, pretensions creep into relationships. That’s not love. As we make room for such a healthy space and freedom in relationships, we fall in love with the same people so often as we discover wonderful sides to their personality, the beauty and delight of pure being in them. It is then that relationships bloom like lotus flowers unstuck to any dirt of malice, hatred, prejudice and pretensions.

Just thinking out loud in this post. In conclusion… Spirituality… is work in progress.

 

 

 

To breathe, to live, to be

What have I learnt in yoga so far? The experience I’ve gained is profound and hard to explain in words but in this blog post today I will attempt to share my version.

Will start in 2017, 4 years ago when I was 25. I was the typical university grad born in the 90s who’d found a decent job and thought the world was my oyster, and all I needed to do was to claim it with my guts. I had the fair share of disappointments from how I thought the world “should be”, but consoled myself that I was ok as long as I had a good-paying job and born into a decent family. I was filled with ego, from my so called achievements, my so called guts, and my so called “potential to achieve so much more”. In case you’re wondering…. no, no tragedy happened which turned me to yoga. During the period of my 25-27 years of age, my little bubble of make-believe comfort and make-believe chasing after money just seemed duller and duller as days passed. I was chasing sales targets like my self-worth depended on it. I had made money my identity, and would never exit the home without at least 1 labelled item. I didn’t know who I was without things. I had become the “product” of our world of advertising, that we are nothing without possessions. The partner I had then was also similar to me, and we only ran in circles chasing possession after possession.

My family are ‘spiritual’ people. Due to my stubborn personality growing up, I had cut out all spiritually driven “practices” they had tried to influence me with. Nevertheless, I always feel the love they have for me- their love is expressed through their acceptance of me. As what I had learnt through this YTTC, their love for me is really like a lotus leaf, as depicted with our Heart Chakra, Anahata. The lotus leaf does not absorb the substance, but has the capacity to hold space. Growing up, they had taught me (without words) the way of yoga. They live humbly, with enough to care for themselves, and contribute in ways of enriching their lives everyday with selfless service back to community. They counsel for free for families with traumatic experiences. I can say that I was unknowingly blessed by their spiritual journey growing up, even though I was then chasing another path.

As I chased higher sales targets and achievements, my stress levels were getting to an unbearable point. I relied on alcohol for an emotional crutch, I was chasing meaningless relationships, searching for a way to quench an insatiable thirst which I didn’t even know about. I signed up for gym membership in 2018, and started a few yoga classes. Little did I know, I starting growing onto yoga week after week. It was the start of something unexplainable, the only thing I looked forward to every week was my teacher guiding us on the mat. On the mat, I slowly connected back to my self, my core, and to be aware of my mind and thoughts. It was the only way I knew how to.

During the circuit breaker period last year, yoga was the only thing I looked forward to. Shortly after circuit breaker, my then long term partner and I broke up. I felt like I had completely lost it. Not only did I experience a drop in sales during that period of time, I had also lost a significant relationship. I went into what I would say it, a depressive stage of my life. I questioned who I was. I questioned the meaning of my life. I questioned why life turned out this way for me? I was lost and alone. I sought after comfort, but nothing seemed to be out there. I sought after more possessions, but I knew they wouldn’t satisfy me either.

The universe is so mysterious in its ways. That stage of life turned out to be the best thing that happened to me. Because of the constant incessant thoughts and questions, which led to a complete emotional meltdown, I found myself staring at the ceiling wishing that everything would just stop. I turned to meditation, breathing deeply and complete silence to calm my mind. I did that for survival. I just wanted all the pain to go away so I can feel “normal” again.

As the meditation continued, I went back to more regular practice of yoga, where I know I would find solace within myself. The more yoga I practiced, the more peace came into my life. I slowly learnt how to accept things for what they are. I slowly learnt that our outside world can never satisfy our inside world.

Three months after, I decided to let myself uncover more about this deal with yoga. As a person who just decides to do something and then do it, I actually just chanced upon Tirisula Yoga and decided to go with it without much research. I saw lots of blog posts which share each practitioners’ experience and thought the information to be intriguing, so my thoughts was like “generally I feel good about this so I’m gonna ride with it”. Now 3 weeks into the course, I can only say its an adventure of a lifetime. Every day I am learning – not just textbook knowledge, but invaluable experiences from my fellow course mates and especially from Master Sree. I feel physical fatigue during the course, but I don’t know why every morning I look forward to seeing them in class. Every day is a new experience. Master Sree doesn’t read from the manual when he teaches – he only uses 1 chalk, or 1 marker, and is able to explain deep concepts with his words and experiences! I am mind blown about that. With my coursemates, the camaraderie we share through the love of yoga is truly precious and invaluable. YTTC has opened up my eyes to how wide and broad our universe is, and what I am is really just a speck of this vast universe. Our universe is so so magnificent and beautiful. It has showed me that the insatiable thirst I had, its really just a longing to connect back to myself.

To breathe, to live, to be, in this moment is my gift. I thank the universe for its mysterious ways. There’s only more to come.

Human Anatomy and Yoga –

The practice of Yoga on the human body system is expansive and eternal. The muscles, bones, nervous system, respiratory, circulatory and digestive systems of the human body are greatly benefited from regular practice of yoga asanas. All our body systems are coordinated with each other. It’s a beautiful practice that teaches us to work from the inside out, as it draws our attention inward and teaches you to focus on the breath. I have also learnt that yoga has tremendous healing capabilities. We discover not just how our body systems are intrinsically coordinated, but also how our physical, mental and spiritual selves are connected too. Once we are able to see the connectedness, we understand the Self more, hence healing takes place.

Today we will dive deeper into the relationship between Yoga and the muscular and skeletal systems, together with a few examples of muscle groups engaged for yoga poses. Yoga practice allows the lengthening and loosening of muscle and the connective tissue (such as fascia) of the body. Regular practice develops strong muscles which help the body to align the skeletal system. Unlike with weight-lifting, yoga allows us to build strength within the muscles, while simultaneously creating flexibility. One vital effect of yoga on muscular systems is that it allows us to be more pliable and keeps joint pains and disorders at bay.

Muscular

There are 3 types of muscles in our bodies: namely,

  1. Smooth
    Also known as the involuntary muscles, these are not attached to the bones. Urinary, genital and respiratory track are made of smooth muscles. The best examples of involuntary muscles are those of the stomach, the intestines and the heart. The walls of arteries are also made up of involuntary muscles.
  2. Cardiac
    Being an involuntary muscle, they are the muscles which are present in the heart to frame up the cardiac tissue.
  3. Skeletal
    Also known as voluntary muscles, these are attached to the bones. They are related to the central nervous system. The bulky fleshy part in the middle of the muscle is the belly of the muscle. They are the largest part of the muscular tissue, consciously controlled. They may be directly attached to the bone or the cartilage to increase the efficiency of the system.

Yoga asanas relieve muscular tension by means of the slow contraction and lengthening of certain muscle groups. The muscles are stretched for a length of time and then are allowed to relax and regenerate. This allows the muscles to absorb and be enriched by nutrients, oxygen, and prana. As the muscles become more flexible, toned, and supple.

Types of actions taken by muscles:

  1. Concentric Contraction
    The muscle fibers contract and generate more force than the resistance that is present so that the ends of the muscle slide toward each other and the muscle shortens.
  2. Eccentric Contraction
    The muscle fibers contract and generate less force than the resistance that is present so that the ends of the muscle slide apart and the muscle actually lengthens. The muscle is active as it lengthens, so this is not the same as relaxing the muscle.
  3. Isometric Contraction
    The muscle fibers contract and generate the same amount of force as the resistance that is present so that the ends of the muscle neither move apart nor move together and the length of the muscle does not change. (Eg. Holding a yoga pose, or holding a glass of water in mid air)

 

Above in the image you can see the examples of concentric, eccentric and isometric contractions.

The elasticity of a muscle can be extended within its normal limits. One of the goals of yoga is to work the muscles and increase the resting length. If done consistently, the static stretching of Hatha Yoga, where a pose is held for a period of time, can help to increase the resting length of the muscles. This makes them more flexible and resilient. Yoga asanas induces greater flexibility faster than other methods because each stretch extends the normal elasticity limit of the muscles gently, thoroughly, and in a relaxed manner. They are designed to work with opposing muscle groups. When we work with these agonist and antagonist muscles, one contracts or shortens while the other is lengthened. For example, when one performs paschimottanasana, the hamstrings are lengthened or extended while the quadriceps are shortened. When one performs salabhasana, the quadriceps are lengthened or extended while the hamstrings are shortened. These two asanas work well together to stretch and tone a set of agonist and antagonist muscles — the hamstrings and quadriceps. 

Yoga asanas also strengthen the tendons and ligaments, keeping them healthier and more flexible. Tendons are connective tissue that bind muscle to bone, and ligaments are fibrous bands or sheets of connective tissue that bind bone to other bones. They are not as easily stretched as actual muscle tissue. If a person’s posture and balance are good, the tendons and ligaments will remain strong and elastic, supporting the skeleton more efficiently. 

Skeletal

Linking to the skeletal system, now you see how the two systems, muscular and skeletal are linked in yoga practice.

I will start by talking about the spine, as the spine is a central focus in yoga practice. Not only is it a conduit for the flow of prana into the body and nervous system, but it is one of the most important sections of the anatomy because it allows us to move, turn, rotate, and live in an incredibly mobile way. The more flexible the spine remains throughout our life, the more mobile and flexible our entire body will be. 

A healthy spine contains four natural curves, sometimes called an s-curve — two are concave (lumbar and cervical) and two are convex (coccyx and thoracic). Ideally all four should be preserved with no excess compression on the vertebrae or curving in other areas of the spine. Asana helps in maintaining elongation of the spine and thus the proper curvature.

Yoga asanas aligns and lengthens the spinal column, allowing greater flexibility and range of motion. Keeping the spine flexible increases the circulation to it and also massages the inner articulations of the spine. This stimulates the muscles and nerves and increases the blood flow to the entire spinal area. The spine must be continually loosened and exercised. Otherwise the vertebrae tend to become compressed and squeezed together into smaller and smaller areas of the spine. Yoga asanas help to alleviate stiffness in the spine, loosen the vertebrae, and create a healthier “space” between them. This decompresses the spine, helping to alleviate tension in the muscles, tendons, and joints.

Proper joint articulation is important for flexibility and overall health. Asana practice helps to keep the articulation of the joints soft rather than hard and brittle. Joints allow for the independent movement of specific parts of the body. As our muscles become tense, the spaces between the joints become compressed. In extreme cases, the synovial membrane can become damaged and cartilage can wear down (arthritis). Prolonged muscular tension can also cause joint pain of various types and degrees. Proper alignment and muscle tone, which are achieved through asana practice, help to alleviate this and yield greater flexibility. The gentle stretching of the asanas relaxes the body and mind, releases tension, and creates a sense of space for movement around every joint in the body. This in turn allows for a freer flow of prana. 

 

 

Journeying back to self

Yoga is leading me on the journey back to self. In this personal blog post, I will share about my journey through meditation.

“Meditation is a natural distillation of spirituality into something applicable yet powerful. There is nothing more spiritual thing you can do, than to just tether to the present moment, and just be. Be present in the moment and know that you’re right where you need to be right now, be you, be there, just be. Let go. Being you is to realize the limited self, beyond the inflated concept of identity. Harness the awareness through meditation. “- Claudia

Dhyana, the 7th limb of yoga, what we call meditation – is building upon asana (physical posture), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (control of the senses, moving the focus to the inside), and dharana (concentration). Dhyana involves concentration and meditation on a point of focus with the intention of knowing the truth about it. This deeper concentration of the mind is the instrument of self-knowledge where one can separate illusion from reality, and eventually, reach the ultimate goal of yoga: samadhi (bliss, or union with the source).

My meditative journey had shown me that we can create space within ourselves, just in quietness. We do not even need to sit to meditate – It is not about postures, not even a set of mental exercises. We create space within ourselves by stopping and blocking incessant and (mostly unnecessary) thoughts. Most thoughts in our head isn’t ours anyways, but what our world want us to think. With meditation, the space allows us to empty our mind, like hitting a reset button. Thoughts are just thoughts. We are not our thoughts. We need not identify with our thoughts.

Through meditation and an enhanced awareness of self and existence, I am learning that I am not my thoughts, neither am I the body. I enjoy meditation very much, it grounds me back to the awareness of The Moment I am in. When I’m at that state of awareness, I remember how we are all traveling through space on the same planet, we all are part of the same life. I am so much more at peace with the individual that I am now through regular meditation practice. I observed that my mind, body and spirit takes a shift towards seeking internal happiness, instead of consistently looking for external stimuli to “awaken my sense”. While there is nothing negative about garnering positive feelings from external avenues, I realized they no longer hold as much weight and significance as they once did. I feel happiness, a profound sense of gratitude, from within through meditation.

We no longer need something external to make us happy; we can just be, just be who we are.

I don’t have the knowledge nor experience to teach anybody meditation and I believe each individual’s meditation practice/experience is unique. However I find it useful to share with my fellow readers and practitioners on my meditation routine, should there be anyone who wants to give it a try and havent done so:
Upon awakening from sleep, before checking phone for notifications, sit on floor with crossed legs (as long as you’re comfortable), place both palms facing up in Gyan Mudra, breathe deeply. Dilute your mind for 10-15mins before starting the day!

Some infomation on Gyan Mudra –

It is a sacred hand gesture or ‘seal’ used to direct energy and maintain focus. Gyan mudra is one of the most important and well known mudras, found across Buddhist, Hindu and Yoga traditions alike. Gyan is Sanskrit for ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom,’ and so this gesture is sometimes referred to as the Mudra of Knowledge.

Gyan mudra is traditionally practiced whilst in seated meditation, although some modern day practitioners are known to use it whilst holding standing asana (postures), such as utthita parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose). To perform this mudra, bring the tip of the thumb and index finger together on both hands, forming a circle. Keep the remaining three fingers outstretched with the palm facing upward.

Gyan mudra is also referred to as chin mudra, cin mudra, and gyana mudra. It is primarily used to promote and maintain stability during meditation practices. As a practitioner holds seated meditation postures, such as padmasana (Lotus Pose) or sukhasana (Easy Pose), their hands form gyan mudra whilst resting on their knees. This creates an energetic seal, encouraging a healthy flow of prana (vital life force) and a balanced internal energy throughout the practice. Gyan mudra can be combined with pranayama breathing techniques. Practicing this Mudra helps us to focus on attaining true knowledge and wisdom. Particularly when held during meditation, this mudra can help to increase mental strength, sharpen concentration and improve focus.

Specific benefits of Gyan Mudra include:
Stimulates the Root Chakra (Svadhisthana) and is therefore very grounding
• Beneficial for those suffering with insomnia and mental disorders like depression, anxiety and excessive anger
• Helps energize the neurons in the brain for instant action
• Stimulates the centers of the pituitary and endocrine glands

Other than these information, I also want to add on that my personal fave is this Mudra as it immediately focuses my mind into the meditative state.

A little science behind Meditation…..

Needless to say, meditation does have scientifically backed up benefits to the physical body: Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar gives an introduction to how meditation affects the brain. She explains how four regions of meditators’ brains associated with healthy brain function become more substantial, while one of the areas associated with undesirable behavior actually shrinks. They are:

  1. Left Hippocampus – This is the area in the brain that helps us learn. The tools that we use for cognitive ability and memory are found here, as are emotional regulators associated with self-awareness and empathy. Research confirms that as the cortical thickness of the hippocampus grows in volume through meditation, gray-matter density increases and all of these important functions are nurtured.
  2. Posterior Cingulate – The posterior cingulate is connected with wandering thoughts and self-relevance – that is, the degree of subjectivity and referral to oneself when processing information. It seems that the larger and stronger the posterior cingulate, the less the mind wanders and the more realistic the sense of self can be. Two of the vitally important effects that meditation has on the mind are the ability to remain attuned to the present moment without judgment, regret or anticipation; and the ability to observe sensations and emotions that arise in the mindstream without necessarily identifying with them. Meditation seems to increase the density of the posterior cingulate.

  3. Pons – This is a very busy and important part of the brain where many of the neurotransmitters that help regulate brain activity are produced. Located in the middle of the brain stem, its name, pons, comes from the Latin for “bridge.” The pons is involved in a great number of essential functions, including sleep, facial expressions, processing sensory input, and basic physical functioning. Meditation strengthens the pons.

  4. The Temporo Parietal Junction (TPJ) – We like to think that we’re good people – empathetic, humane and just. Empathy and compassion are associated with the temporoparietal junction of the brain, or TPJ, as is our sense of perspective. The TPJ becomes more active when we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, for example. A stronger TPJ—combined with other benefits of meditation like lower stress and present moment awareness—can help us be the good people we aspire to become.

  5. Amygdala – There is another area of the brain that is changed through meditation: the amygdala. But it doesn’t get larger; it shrinks. The amygdala—that pesky corner of the brain that produces feelings of anxiety, fear and general stress—is physically smaller in the brains of expert meditators. The smaller it is, the less apt it is to dictate our emotional responses, especially those of the “fight-or-flight” genre.

No wonder we feel so great when a daily meditation regimen is incorporated into our lives!