My 200hour YTT Reflection

We’ve got just one more day to the end of the 200 hr Yoga Teacher Training and I thought to reflect a little bit about the experience. For starters, I signed up – mostly because I wanted to take a more holistic approach to learn about yoga. I always enjoyed the practice and wanted to find something deeper, anatomically and philosophically. Then…on a very superficial level, I thought – why not! 10 weeks of yoga boot camp sounds AWESOME. But jokes aside, two things will really stick with me.

One: Everyday, I am A Beginner

Over the weeks, small shifts occurred, physically and more importantly, mentally. While I would never say I feel “easy” or “comfortable” in a pose, I feel like I’m slowly learning to work more consciously with my breath and mentally quieten an internal struggle. Part of this has been about listening to my body, using a prop when I need it (yes, putting aside that ego) and realising very profoundly, as Master Sree says, that everyday, I am a beginner. Yes, do I feel like I should be stronger or more stable (jeez, I signed up for a teacher training course)? Yes, but also – it’s been 10 weeks of coming to a better understanding of where I am in my practice, in mindfulness and asana. Every week, every practise I learn something more about me, about a pose, how to awaken a muscle or about my course-mates’ approach to yoga. 

If anything, the course has given me so much information and understanding about where I can grow and how I can take that step. Though, in the first couple of weeks I was quite confused about how the philosophy, physical practice and anatomy classes would “work” together, but they slowly did!

Two: Yoga is On and Off the Mat

 

Yoga is for everyday and always – it is a way of living and approaching life. In one of our first lessons on yoga, I learnt that the word yoga derives from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means to yoke or bind, and is often interpreted as “union” or a method of discipline. It is a practice of mind and body, though we often engage in practising the asana – the third limb of yoga. While it is tempting to be envious of jaw-dropping, mind-blowing postures that are achieved by size-zero persons on Instagram, it’s important to remember that the practice of asana is for purification of the body and mind. It prepares one for a lengthy meditation practice too. A commitment to practising the Eight Limbs of Yoga (as set by the Sage Patanjali) can put someone on the path to living an ethical, meaningful and purposeful life. 


There’s a lot that we can read about the 8 Limbs, but focusing (right now) on 2 of the five yamas, (abstinences) has been a good guide for me, particularly in ahimsa and aparigraha.

Ahimsa: Can translate as “absence of injury” or “non-harmfulness” – a practice that seems common-sense, but can be hard to achieve in body and mind. This includes, not harbouring unkind or injurious thoughts against others. To do this, we can cultivate empathy, choosing to practise kindness in deed and thought.

Aparigraha: Often translates as ‘non-greed’, ‘non-possessiveness’, and ‘non-attachment’. This yama encourages us to take only what we need, keep only what serves us in the moment, and to let go when the time is right. This includes, not being jealous of other’s physical practice – and can be applied to so many situations off the mat, too!

So – regardless of what happens tomorrow in that exam (I am scared, to be honest), it’s been a super journey. Many thanks also to the amazing, encouraging classmates who have been a great source of support. You know who you are 😀 XOXO Everyday, I am a Beginner.

Running with Mindfulness

A short reflection on running and mindfulness today.

 

My first love is and always has been running – I’ve run consistently since I was a teenager and it’s been a kind of up-and-down relationship. Running when I’m angry, running on good days and holidays. I found my way to the yoga mat in a period when I “broke up” with running for a bit, frustrated with a hairline foot fracture. I feel like this is the beginning of a story we’ve heard many times: person has an injury, yoga saves their life. That is difference from my experience; I keep looking for ways to create balance between yoga and running. These nine-plus weeks in yoga teacher training (YTT) has given me a lot of time to reflect on my relationship with running and how my practice can complement it. In the last weeks, we’ve moved through many asana and the phrase that I keep coming back to, is “sthira sukham asanam” – that asana should be steady, stable and motionless, bringing comfort to the mind without swings or pain, pleasure or suffering. Is it possible to apply this to the act of running? To simply, naturally, be in the motion with no discomfort?

 

On the last few runs, I tried to bring my focusing to my breath and being present (and also not crashing into cyclists or lamposts!). It’s quite different from switching off from being numb or bored after long distances. It’s almost liberating, to find seconds and minutes of centred-ness in motion. Like mindfulness practice, I count the inhalations and exhalations while running, working to get my strides aligned with my breath. Cycles of 20. I’m currently working my way through a book “Still Running” by Vanessa Zuisei Goddard, a mindfulness practitioner and ultra-runner. Her book is helpful and enriching in many ways, but this section was particularly memorable. In “Abdominal Breathing” she writes: 

 

“Begin by establishing a running pace that you can maintain for the duration of your run… Using the hara as ground or ‘seat’ of your awareness, focus all your attention on your breath as you run. Notice how your abdomen naturally expands as your inhale, then contracts as you exhale. Breathe easily and evenly, placing slightly more attention on the exhale as you let your body inhale by itself…. Anchor your mind in it. Let every cell in your body, every thought in your mind, be nothing but breath.When you become distracted, see the thought, set it aside and come back. Keep running until you feel you are well grounded in the breath.”

 

Here I’m thinking – that’s it! Mindfulness as applied to running. Metre to kilometre, seeing the thought and setting it aside. Focus on the breath. I’m going to do this with my runs and see where this takes me, internally.

Uddiyana Bandha or “Stomach Lock”

Uddiyana Bandha or "Stomach Lock"

So we assembled, definitely in need of coffee and feeling rather thirsty. We were going to learn to perform uddiyana bandha, also known as the “abdominal lock”. It’s best done on an empty stomach, preferably first thing in the morning (but after you’ve gone to the bathroom!!). So, here are some things I learnt about it, after our morning practice.

The word bandha literally means “to bind” and it seals, constricts or isolates a particular segment of the body. Engaging or using bandha gives important support to the body and organs in the abdomen, pelvis and spine.

“Uddiyana” pretty much means “flying up” and when practised, the abdominal wall is firmed and lifted, through the creation of a vacuum in the chest. Apart from being a form of breath retention, the Uddiyana Bandha is also a form of kriya which can help to strengthen the visceral organs and stretch the diaphragm. Nauli Kriya, which is an advanced variation of Uddiyana Bandha, massages the abdominal region through some eye-popping, circular massaging of the abdominal muscles. It’s important to note because of the pressure placed on the abdominal and pelvic muscles, persons with the following should not perform Uddiyana Bandha or its variations: stomach ulcers or ulcers. Pregnant women or those on their moon cycle also are included.

We were also shown a video (which frankly made my eyeballs pop) and I found another video from Yoga International in which the practitioner demonstrates these: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGS2kKO6uns

But anyway! Here are some steps (but not perfectly) to perform the Uddiyana Bandha:

  1. Stand with your feet about hip width apart, legs slightly bent, with your hands on your thighs. While the Uddiyana Bandha can be performed upright or in the Padangusthasana position (with index and middle finger grabbing the big toe), this position can help the practitioner identify mistakes and correct the technique.
  2. Completely exhale – empty your body of air.
  3. Do a “fake” inhalation through locking the glottis: the opening between the vocal folds in the larynx. It’s a kind of valve between the lungs and the mouth.
  4. Draw the abdominal wall in and up as if you would try to make your waist smaller. Expand the rib cage. Your upper abdomen will form a deep concavity that extends up underneath your rib cage. 
  5. Hold this for about 10 – 15 seconds, whilst keeping the abdomen muscles relaxed.
  6. To “unlock”, relax your mock inhalation, letting your chest and abdominal organs drop. Release the abdomen forward and inhale gently. Allow the air pressure to equalize.
  7. Repeat 3-4 times.

I also read:

“…Uddiyana Bandha fans the agni, or element of fire that is most highly concentrated at the navel. Strengthening this fire aids in purifying the body’s subtle channels, or nadis. This purification process is intensified if uddiyana bandha is practiced during a bahir/bahya kumbhaka, or external breath retention. This is sometimes called uddiyana kriya.”

Source: https://www.sonima.com/yoga/uddiyana-bandha/

Fascinating! In all honesty the Uddiyana Bandha reminded me a of a game we used to play when we were children – but now it has much more dimension!

But first, breakfast.

Pranayama and the Parasympathetic Nervous System

Each time I get on my mat, I most enjoy the opening and closing of each practice. It’s the invitation to be present. To begin with focusing on the inhalation and exhalation, feeling the cool air in your nostrils, passing through the body. To focus the mind on the present. As a totally side point, I particularly liked how Master Paalu used the metaphor of fish, swimming and jumping to the surface, as a figure of speech to describe our thoughts, randomly ebbing, rising and moving past. (Though I swear, some of these fish really want my attention). It’s fascinating how this act of breathing happens mindlessly and automatically – we do it all day and night long and almost never pay attention to it. Yet, it has powerful potential. In becoming more conscious of the breath, we can bring awareness to the self and present moment.

Internet searches for Pranayama and podcasts led me down the rabbit hole to new information, which I’d like to share a bit about. First, that many cultures, from ancient and modern times have recognized the power of harnessing breathing. Most people are probably aware of the “qi” energy that Chinese understand as the “vital principle” that flows through the body, and respiration is one of its primary manifestations. I didn’t realise that the Greek term “pneuma” and the Latin “spiritus” similarly refer to (loosely) the breath and divine. As late as 1902, a German psychiatrist, Johannes Heinrich Schultz coined a form of breathing-led relaxation, which he called “autogenic breathing”. This pretty much lays the foundation for a lot of Euro and Anglo-centric mindfulness meditation that is rooted in breathing exercise. 

Second, that these techniques of breathing influence both physiological and psychological factors; breathing does the former by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. For example, the “Sitali” and “Sitkari” Pranayama have the effect of cooling the body. Some of the benefits include reducing agitation and reducing stress. I was intrigued and read more about this nervous system.

The parasympathetic nervous system is opposite in function to the sympathetic nervous system. It controls the internal functions that occur when the body is resting and relaxing – stimulating it can slow the heart rate, simulate bronchial secretions and enhance digestion. A popular form of relaxation technique called “Cardiac Coherent Breathing” aims to coordinate breathing with heart rate, so as to stimulate the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, it helps to slow the heart rate and in turn communicates this to the brain, which can bring about peaceful or positive feelings. When coupled with a a mind-based effort to move attention away from thoughts (or those fish!), we can improve physiology and psychology, or in short, body and mind.

There are a number of scholarly articles written about this, but a theoretical piece about heart-focused breathing really caught my attention. In journal article published in “Frontiers in Psychology: Psychology for Clinical Settings” (September 2019), McCraty and Zayas write about a “different subjective inner state that is achieved through techniques as paced breathing…” and that “a physiological shift resulting from heart-focused breathing can help facilitate the experience of a positive emotion”. They go on to write about heart-focused breathing techniques and cardiac coherence, highlighting how the technique uses communication between heart and brain to bring about well-being for practitioners. Their article had some very thought-provoking suggestions on using heart-focused breathing as a trauma-support tool. (if you want to read it, link is at the bottom).

Breath has immense power – panic attacks can be triggered by hyperventilation and (as we’ve talked about in the last few classes) rapid breathing can aggravate the body. While there’s always the danger of over-complicating things, it’s good to remember that, coming back to breathing, “following your breath” can be the beginning of a powerful mindfulness practice. 

Inhale and exhale.  

 

McCraty, R. & Zayas, M., (2019)”Cardiac coherence, self-regulation, autonomic stability and psychosocial well-being”  https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01090 we learn