Food for Thought

We rely on our 5 senses — sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch — to make observations. Through association, we make sense of this information in the brain to provide accurate impressions of the world. But are they really accurate?

Take optical illusions for example. 

The image above shows a grid of white lines against a black background with white dots at their points of intersection. Except, the dots are sometimes seen and perceived as black. Do the black dots exist? No. But do we see them? Yes. 

An illusion is a distortion of the senses; A failure to make an accurate perception.

Or what about synesthesia, the condition where people can see colours when they hear noises, or hear sounds when they see moving dots? If these colours or images are only seen inside the mind of one person, does it mean it exists? Or does it not exist because there are no other observers to these images?

But first, what does it mean to “Exist”?
According to the cambridge dictionary, to exist means to be, or to be real. 
What is considered “real” then?

Our senses are evidently not entirely reliable as illustrated in the above two examples. To add fuel to fire, the way our mind processes these sensorial information aren’t entirely accurate either. 

Firstly, the brain only processes information that it thinks will be useful at a later date. So not all information is taken in; only a semblance of a full picture. Secondly, the way we perceive or interpret as fact may often be clouded by preconceived notions, past experiences, and prejudices. Thirdly, imagination and association comes into play in the story telling mind. We often try to fill in the blanks in order to make sense of our reality. 

In the film “Room”, a boy (Jack) lived in a shed where he and his mother were held captive. They shared a bed, toilet, bathtub, television and kitchen. The only window was a skylight. He was born in the room and believed that only the Room and its contents were real. The rest of the world existed only on television. After 7 years of growing up in the room, they finally got a chance to escape and Jack stepped into the outside world for the first time. He struggled to adjust to life in the larger world, and expressed a desire to return to the room. The room was his only reality. 

Is this where we are currently in relation to our knowledge of higher consciousness or the existence of a supreme being? Are we also stuck in the room, thinking this is our reality when actually “reality” is something much bigger? 

Let’s look at a different example.

Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment involving a cat in a box and a radioactive source. If there is radioactivity, the flask holding the poison will be shattered, and hence kill the cat. Before opening the box, there is no way of finding out if the cat is dead or alive. It is thus proposed that the cat is simultaneously both dead and alive. 

Applying that logic to the existence of a supreme being — we are in the state of uncertainty and are unable to open the box to prove if it exists or not. Till we are able to open the box, we can only speculate. 

We have no physical evidence to prove the existence of a supreme being. Even if there is evidence through the lens of someone else (like the TV in Jack’s room), are we able to take that as our reality? How do you prove if the outside world is true? If one day we are lucky enough to “encounter” or “experience” this supreme being, are our senses and mind ready to perceive what really is?

But then again, after all these questions being asked, does it matter whether we know for sure or not?

External to Internal, Internal to External

“ACTIVATE YOUR PSOAS” is probably one of the most commonly heard phrase for any student taking YTT. 

The Psoas muscle is probably one of the most important muscle in your body. It is a combination of two large muscles: the psoas major and the iliacus. They attach from the 12th thoracic vertebrae to the 5th lumbar vertebrae, through the pelvis , and to the inside of the proximal femur bone. This muscle is responsible for plenty of day-to-day activities, including stabilising the trunk and spine during movement and sitting. It is also connected to the breath due to its connection to the diaphragm. When startled or stressed, the psoas contracts as well.

In yoga, the psoas plays an important role in all the asanas. For instance, contracting the psoas bends the trunk forward in Paschimotanasana, or draws the knee up in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana. Contracting the psoas on one side flexes the trunk, allowing for Utthita Trikonasana. Stretching the psoas allows for backbends such as Ustrasana. A toned psoas is also required for all inversions and arm balances. 

Outside of yoga however, we do not hear much of this muscle. What is focused on in most workouts or physical exercises target superficial muscles such as sculpting the ideal 6pac abdominals, training for bulging biceps and achieving firm glutes. 

In society, plenty of emphasis is placed on outward appearances. The clothes you wear and how well groomed you are affects the way other people perceive you. Looking the part can help you get ahead in job interviews. A physically attractive person can easily impress others. The endless bombardment of advertisements promoting unattainable beauty standards also has a large part to play. Look good, feel good — Looking good can help build your self esteem. Or so they say. This “self-esteem” or self image, however, is built on what other people think of you. External means are used to fulfil internal satisfaction. 

Back to the psoas muscles — An imbalance in the muscle can cause various problems such as pain in the lower back and hips when lifting the legs. Back pain is common, and posture can be affected. Internal muscles are equally important, if not more important, than superficial muscles. 

Likewise, the inner self needs equal, if not more, nourishment. Clinical depression has surged by huge percentages in recent decades. Self help related sales have been on an increase year-on-year, with books on topics such as happiness and self-esteem topping the charts. People increasingly find that the mind and body are at odds with each other.

Yoga is an internal journey and is beyond anything I have mentioned above. Not only does it strive to achieve the union of mind and body, it also includes the soul. 

The 8 limbs of yoga (Ashtanga) include:

  1. Yamas – guidelines for social behaviour
  2. Niyamas – guidelines for inner discipline and responsibility 
  3. Asanas – physical practice of holding steady, continuous, comfortable poses
  4. Pranayama – practising the extension of breath
  5. Pratyahara – removal of mind from sense organs
  6. Dharana – concentration
  7. Dhyana – meditation
  8. Samadhi – transcendence

It is unknown whether or not samadhi is ever achievable in this lifetime. Having that as a goal and through the practice of yoga however, allows for an internal transformation starting from physical, to mental, to spiritual. What is shown on the outside / the external as a by-product then ceases to matter.

Internal to external. Selfishness to selflessness. Inward focus to outward focus. 

Emotional Release Through Yoga

“Go deeper, go deeper, go deeper.”

I laid down on my back in Savasana after what felt like a very intense and fulfilling yoga session. It was only the third day of YTT, and my body was not yet used to the physical demands of all the conditioning we did. Nonetheless, the workout felt good. Finally, relaxation. Melting the body into the mat, feeling the perspiration slowly dry under the cool air from the air conditioning, the meditative voice of our teacher – it all felt calming. But the moment my body started to fully settle and cool down, I felt a sudden tightness in the body and tears started rolling out the corner of my eyes. Before I could make sense of what was happening, I was bawling.

As it turns out, it is fairly common for emotional releases to happen on the mat. So, what exactly was happening?

Focusing on the breath during meditation or savasana helps to calm the mind, taking away superficial stress and worry. But the silence and “going deeper” also forces us to access the feelings we bury and push aside on a daily basis. Emotional pain can feel overwhelming and crippling. The body hence comes to defense and does things to stop the pain from being fully experienced as a form of coping mechanism. There is thus a break between body and mind. However in yoga, the mind, body and spirit exists as one — or at least that’s the goal. The 3 are interconnected. The body keeps the score even if you’re not consciously thinking about it from day to day. It holds on to emotional tension, pain, trauma and intense joy. Through asanas, it wakes up the parts of the body that holds these emotions, helping to break through unresolved issues and energy.

Some say that hip-opening poses are good for helping to find release. It is not scientifically proven, but perhaps it can be  understood when relating to Chakras. The muladhara chakra is situated in the tailbone. The traits stored in this chakra includes security, self confidence, body image, and connection with nature. The swadishtana chakra, located in the sacrum, includes gender identity, anger, and sexual relations. The manipura chakra, located at the naval, includes belonging, trust, intimacy, friendship, status of your current position in life and whether it deviates from your true nature, and fear. It seems like  plenty of emotions are stored in these 3 chakras, all of which are situated near the hips. Perhaps they are stirred whenever sitting in a hip-opening pose. 

There are also sources that speak of the benefits of chest openers in relation to emotional release. This could be due to the increased flow of Prana (life force) which is situated in the anahada chakra (heart). Prana rides on the breath, which correlates to our respiratory system. According to the chinese, grief is stored in the lungs. Crying also involves gasping for air. 

However, I wonder how accurate these deductions are. If they are, could this be a potential way of identifying internal issues through physical tensions observed during asana postures? Or, could postures targeted at certain emotions be used in psychotherapy for healing?

PTSD and Yoga

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that develops after a person has experienced very stressful or distressing events. Symptoms can include intense feelings of distress and extreme physical reactions when reminded of the trauma, nightmares, detachment, feeling emotionally numb etc. 

In a normal person, stress levels usually return to normal after the stimulus is taken away. In people suffering from PTSD, however, the regulatory system that manages the stress hormones are malfunctioned. The smoke detector, the amygdala, is rewired by the trauma to interpret certain situations as life-threatening dangers. It sends signals to the survival brain to fight flee or freeze. Having all three happen the same time causes the person to mentally shut down, or trigger a panic attack.

There is a study recorded in the book “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bassel Van Der Kolk, where people who have experienced trauma had their Heart Rate Variability measured while in Savasana. Instead of picking up a clear signal, they ended up with too much muscle activity. Rather than going into relaxation, their muscles continue to “be on standby mode to fight unseen enemies”. It is shown how difficult it is for traumatised people to feel completely relaxed and physically safe in their bodies. Memory of helplessness is stored as muscle tension in the affected body areas. Many survivors cope by trying to “neutralise unwanted sensory experiences through self-numbing”. 

Yoga, however, can help. 

Learning to stay calm
People who have gone through trauma often find it difficult to stay calm. The body is constantly at a heightened state of anxiety and stress, especially for War Veterens. Through Pranayama, it teaches them to focus on the breath. More oxygen is brought to the head and the rest of the body which is known to help in relaxation. Kapalabathi (also a Kriya) for instance, helps with unlocking mental and emotional blockages. It encourages a tranquil state of mind, and can help relieve stress and depression. The chanting of AUM, which is the vibration of life, can also create a calming effect and help smoothen the mind. With regular practice, the focus on the breath and the internal chanting of AUM becomes habitual and can be a method to turn to whenever they sense a flashback or panic attack coming. 

Rebuilding body awareness
We need to be aware of what our body needs in order to take care of it. In yoga, there is focus on the breath and builds an understanding of how our body moves with it. We notice the connection between body and mind, emotions and physical asanas —  How anxiety about doing a pose ends up tensing the muscles and throwing you off balance. Or the calmness of hearing your own inhalations and exhalations during Ujjayi breathing. Physical practice of asanas can also help rebuild self-confidence and establish a friendly relationship with the body. This is especially so for survivors of sexual assault, many of whom hate their bodies. 

Learning to be in control
Trauma survivors often do not feel in control of their mind and body.  They may be able to logicize and think rationally on a normal basis. But when fear or strong emotions are triggered by association, all logic fails to work as the brain goes into survivor mode or shut down. These triggers are often random and can happen anytime. The fear of panic in itself can also increase the anxiety multifold. Yoga, however, teaches control. Through the lengthening of the breath in Pranayama, or learning to focus while in balancing poses, or holding in a pose for long periods of time, it all trains mental discipline and is reassuring that you still are in control. 

Channeling of energy
In yoga, there is practice of channeling energy towards energy centres such as the heart, throat, forehead etc during Asanas. Similarly, trauma survivors can also learn to channel their fear (negative) towards something more beneficial (positive). For example, determination to hold asanas, or the fight to keep trying and never give up when unable to do a pose. 

It is important for friends and family members to be supportive and help create a safe environment. Trauma survivors need to learn that the stressful situation is now over. They need to know that they are now safe and have no need for fear. This takes time to slowly rewire the brain, to relearn to trust. Patience and encouragement is key. Yoga can be helpful when introduced the practice slowly, but it is also important to understand that it can be very difficult for them to stay in Savasana or in any meditative state due to the sudden quietening of the mind which may bring up traumatic memories that they do not wish to relive. Symptoms for PTSD can last for months or years, or they may come and go in waves. However, with enough time, patience, willpower, and consistent yoga practice, the symptoms can be minimised, or even be eliminated.