Practicing Satya

When I was a kid, I was always told by my parents and teachers to not tell lies and to be truthful, otherwise there would be some consequences (whether it is standing in the naughty corner, scolding, or perhaps additional chores). We were taught that truthfulness is to not lie.  However, as I grow up we realized that truthfulness means more than just ‘no lies’ and this is probably the start of my understanding of Satya. Being truthful seemed to consist of preserving the truth but also careful handling of how it manifests in our speech and actions, such as to give a constructive feedback than a blunt criticism. There is also the part about being truthful in my thoughts and to myself, which I was not used to. I have always set high expectations for and been harsh on myself whether it is to be a role model to my younger sibling, to excel in my work and studies, to be strong and take care of my family, to watch out for my friends. It is still a work-in-progress for me, however as I start to understand and apply satya, life has been a lot more meaningful, peaceful and fulfilling.

 

What is Satya?

The eight limbs of yoga are yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. The first limb, Yama, means abstinences, which can also be understood as self-regulation. There are a total of five Yamas – Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (self-control) and Aparigraha (non-possession).

2.36 Satya prastisthayam kriya phala ashrayatvam

Today, we will focus on what is Satya and how to actively practice it in our lives. As mentioned, Satya is the second yama and means truthfulness, in our words, actions and thoughts.  ‘Sat’ in Sanskrit means “the true essence” and “which is unchangeable”. Our thoughts, words and actions are easily changeable and form the experiences we have in our lives. If we start to understand this, perhaps we may realise that the stresses and challenges we face are due to our attention being focused on the constant changes, rather than the constant unchanging truth itself.

 

How to practice Satya in life?

  • Being true in your words – the practice of satya is not about blindly speaking the truth without considering how it may impact someone else, or lead to other consequences. We should be truthful with our words, but also consider what is the intent? If there is no intended purpose, or worse still has a negative purpose, perhaps it may be better to not say speak at all. At the same time, we need to find that balance to dare to share the truth with others, and not to hold it back for the fear of hurting their feelings.
  • Finding purpose – it is important to be true to yourself. We can practice satya, but asking ourselves what is our purpose in life? What are we searching for? There are two things you should avoid:
    1. Doing things you are not ready for. For example, pushing yourself to run 10km when you haven’t even ran in months or doing something due to peer pressure.
    2. Not pursuing something you want to pursue for fear of failing. For example, not pursuing teaching yoga because there are too many admin procedures to settle, or getting stuck in a job that you are unhappy with. This will result in you doing things you do not want to do, and that is not being truthful to yourself.

How to practice Satya on the mat?

  • Set an intention – I like to always begin with setting an intention every time I step on the mat. You could ask yourself why you practice? Why are you on the mat today? Is there something you would like to focus on? At the same time, it a good chance to reflect and understand what kept you from arriving here, and how can you overcome that? It is important to be mindful and truthful to yourself before and after the asanas.
  • Know your limits – when you feel discomfort or pain, it is okay to do a simpler version of the asana or skip it entirely. You are practicing satya by taking into account the signals your body is sending you and giving attention to how you can position your body to feel better.
  • Use props – using props, such as a yoga block or a towel, is not something to be embarrassed about, neither does it make you a less adequate yogi. In fact, it shows that you are practicing with integrity and demonstrating satya, focusing on the asana and your current ability. So leave aside that competitive nature at the door, and use props the next time you are practicing yoga to help with the alignment of asanas.

 

Personal reflection

Sometimes, these goals may seem too big and difficult to keep track of. Something I try to do is to take baby steps, focus on 3 things I want to achieve that week – in my daily life, I try to learn to say ‘no’ because I know it is my weakness, I try to not avoid something I want to achieve just because I am scared, and I try to be mindful of my words. Hopefully, in time to come, I can understand and practice satya at a deeper level. Keep practicing Satya, and it will soon be a cornerstone of your life.

Hyperextended Elbows and Yoga

When I first started yoga, a common correction or verbal cue given to me was “do not lock your arms” and to “micro-bend”. At that time, I was confused and did not understand what that meant. Looking around the room, I thought I was doing the same pose as everyone else – I had my arms in the right place, shoulder-width apart, straightened to my maximum, why did I have to bend them when others don’t? Then one day, as I was pressing my weight onto a table, one of my friends was surprised at the angle of my elbow – that was when I realised I had hyperextended elbows. I also came to realise that it ran in the family, as my mom also had elbows that looked like mine.

Reading up a little, I learnt that hyperextended elbows is a form of hypermobility which is common and occurs in about 10% to 25% of the population, most of which live life as per normal with only a small minority who suffer from the pain and discomfort of hypermobility spectrum disorder or joint hypermobility syndrome. Luckily for me, my hyperextension in my elbow joints has not affected any part of my day-to-day routine. It did help me to finally realise why I had to micro-bend my elbows, and I would like that with you.

 

What is a hyperextended elbow?

First, let me give you a quick introduction of the elbow joint – it is a hinge synovial joint which connects the humerus in the upper arm to the ulna and radius in the forearm, and strengthened by ligaments and tendons. A usual extension of the elbow joint, or in other words when you straighten your arm, it should form a 180 degrees angle. A hyperextended elbow is one that forms an angle of more than 180 degrees.

 

What are the risks of hyperextension of the elbow joint?

Although there may not be effects felt day-to-day, the repeated overextension of the elbow joints (for example during yoga asanas) may lead to increased pressure on the joint, which may cause damage to the ligaments. In more serious cases, it could also lead to the dislocation of the elbow. Symptoms include pain, numbness in the arm, loss of arm strength or spasm of muscles.

 

How to avoid hyperextending the elbow in yoga practice?

  • Avoid locking the arms – locking the arms, especially in a weight bearing pose, puts weight into the joints and bones without engaging the muscles.
  • Micro-bend the elbows – this means to keep a slight bent in the elbows, which would naturally correct the extension angle to be at or within 180 degrees.
  • Think about alignment – for example poses that require your palm to be stacked under the shoulder (such as plank, tabletop), think about keeping your elbows stacked in that same line.
  • Stop when you feel any discomfort – if you feel any pain in any of the poses, please stop immediately as you may be putting your elbow in a compromising position which puts it at risk of being injured.
  • Strengthen muscles around the joints – always remember to come into any yoga pose with intention, and engage all the surrounding muscles to complete the pose.

 

Examples of hyperextended elbows in yoga practice

Here are two examples of how a hyperextended elbow may look like in yoga poses, together with the correct alignment. As a yogi, it is important to be able to identify the mistakes in your yoga asanas to be able to correct yourself and improve. Similarly, for yoga teachers it is important to know not just the theory, but how it looks like so that you can look out for students who attend your class and make the necessary corrections.

 

Tabletop Pose (Bharmanasana)

Hyperextended elbow in Tabletop Pose

In the left image, the arms are locked, and elbows hyperextended – this will potentially injure the elbows as the bodyweight presses down into the palms at a weird angle. Instead, you should try to micro-bend the arms and keep them stacked in a straight line 180 degrees, from the shoulders to the elbows to the palms, like the right image.

 

Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)

Hyperextended elbow in Cobra Pose

In the left image, the elbows are extended beyond 180 degrees and locked in place, potentially wearing out as it appears to be bearing the body weight. Instead, you should keep the elbows bent, pull the shoulders away from the ears, and shine the chest forward.

 

With all that is shared, if you are like me with hyperextended elbows, we do have to be very conscious and intentional when practicing yoga asanas. Over time, your body will remember the correct poses and it would be more effortless. In the meantime, please take care and be kind to your joints!

Can I practise Yoga with a Herniated Disc (Slipped Disc)?

Herniated disc (or slipped disc) is a common injury and happens to people of varying ages. I personally know a couple of friends suffering from herniated disc, who experience physical discomfort at varying levels, and get very demoralized when it restricts them from participating in physical activities. This issue has always been close to my heart. As I embarked on my YTT journey, I was very interested when this topic floated up in anatomy class. I would like to take this chance to share a little more on how you can practise yoga with herniated disc, and hopefully address some of your concerns.

 

Questions, questions and more questions…

Many people with herniated disc, would love to return to their active lifestyle, whether it is to practise some type of sport, dance routines, or just leisure jog in the park. The first option that doctors or therapists usually recommend them to begin with is always – yoga. However, I am sure there are still many questions in your head: Is yoga really safe for people with herniated disc, or will it lead to further injury? What should I look out for? What are the poses I should avoid? What are the poses that would be good for me? We will address these questions as we go along.

 

What is a herniated disc?

A spinal disc consists of two parts – the nucleus (a gel-like center) and the annulus (a rubbery exterior). A herniated disc occurs when the nucleus is pushed out through a tear or rupture in the annulus, and can irritate the spinal nerves causing discomfort or pain.b

For the symptoms, it depends on which disc is affected. For example, if the lumbar disc is affected, one may experience pain to the lower back or down the legs, tingling sensation or numbness in the leg, and possibly difficulty standing up or walking. If the cervical disc is affected, the pain and discomfort may be felt in the neck or arms instead.

 

General guidelines to practise yoga with herniated disc

Here are some rules that you should follow, but do note that the list is not exhaustive:

  • Get your doctor’s concurrence before starting any yoga practice
  • Always warm up the body, and practise slowly
  • Inform your yoga instructor on your injury before the start of the class
  • Avoid forward bending poses (flexion of the spine)
  • Keep the back neutral for such poses, and do not round the spine.
  • Stop immediately if you experience any discomfort, pain or numbness

Yoga poses: Yay or Nay?

The “Nays”: You should avoid yoga poses that flex the spine, such as forward bending poses. In a forward bend, the vertebrae are compressed forward, which would cause the gel-like nucleus to get pushed towards the posterior of the body. This could cause the disc to herniate further, and put more pressure on the nerve leading to more severe pain and discomfort. Poses you should avoid include Uttanasana (Forward fold), Paschimottanasana (Seated forward fold), Marichyasana A/B and Sasangasana (Rabbit pose).

Modification: Some adjustments you could make if you would still like to practise a forward fold would be to: 1) bend your knees generously, 2) keep your spine straight. This would minimize the compression and protect your back. However do remember to stop whenever you feel any sharp pain, as you would know your body best.

 

The “Yays”: Poses that keep the spine neutral would be suitable for practice, as it would not put additional strain on the disc. Poses with a gentle back bend would be helpful to relieve the discomfort, as the vertebrae are slightly compressed causing the nucleus to move towards the anterior of the body, relieving the pressure away from the nerves. Bhujangasana (Cobra pose) would be a good pose to practise, or for a less intense version you could practise sphinx pose. Setu Bandhasana (Bridge pose) also allows for a gentle back bend and also it brings an additional benefit of producing a sense of relaxation and calmness as it is considered a gentle inversion.

Caution: A gentle backbend is good, however do note that an intense back bend could further aggravate the herniated disc and it may put too much direct pressure on the nerves. Hence, do ensure that you practise the yoga poses slowly and be aware of your limits.

 

Yoga is a great recovery practice for many different types of injury if practised properly. Always remember to treat your body with love and practise at your own comfortable pace.

Pranayama for Singapore’s Hot Climate

What is Pranayama?

If you are new to pranayama, you may have the misconception that I once had, that pranayama is only about breathing slowly, deeply and calmly. There is so much more to it. I learnt that there are many variations of pranayama with different techniques, counts, breathing ratio, and duration, and each with their own benefits. ‘Prana’ in Sanskrit means the life force energy, and ‘Ayama’ means expansion, together ‘Pranayama’ refers to the moving of energy to the unused or needed areas of the body to unclog, release or replenish, and is practiced through the controlling of the breath. There are some pranayama that keeps you balanced and focused, some to energise the body and mind, and some to calm you down. In particular, I wanted to share on cooling pranayama, which was new to me. I feel that these practices would be beneficial with the constant crazy Singapore heat (also applicable to anywhere else with hot summers or hot climate).

 

Cooling pranayama and its benefits

There are two types of cooling pranayama that I will introduce – Sitali and Sitkari. These pranayama calm the body through an evaporative cooling mechanism on the inhalation, and delivers a cooling energy to the deep tissues of the body. Cooling pranayama has many benefits:

  • Removes excess heat accumulated in the body
  • Calms the nervous system and reduces stress
  • Helps if you have trouble sleeping at night i.e. insomnia
  • Controls high blood pressure
  • Helps with digestion

 

Step-by-step guide to practice:

Sitali Pranayama

  1. Get into a comfortable seated position, with the spine upright and neutral.
  2. Form an ‘O’ shape with your lips. Roll your tongue and extend it out slightly.
  3. Inhale through the tunnel formed by the rolled tongue.
  4. Focus your attention on the cooling sensation of the breath. Let your ribs expand with the inhale.
  5. Withdraw the tongue and close your mouth. Exhale through the nostrils.
  6. Repeat the process for 2-3 minutes, allowing the cool breath to cool your body and mind.

Sitkari Pranayama

  1. Get into a comfortable seated position, with the spine upright and neutral.
  2. Clench the upper and lower teeth together, while separating the lips to form a rectangular shape. Rest the tongue behind the upper teeth.
  3. Inhale through the mouth and teeth, making a hissing sound, “tssss…”.
  4. Close your mouth. Exhale through the nostrils.
  5. Repeat the process for 2-3 minutes, allowing the cool breath to cool your body and mind.

 

Areas of caution for cooling pranayama

Sitali and Sitkari pranayama will reduce body temperature, hence they are best practiced during hot weather. Do try to avoid practicing these pranayama during cold weather, especially if you belong to the vata and kapha dosha. Try to keep the practice in a place where the temperature of the air is stable and calm. This pranayama is also not recommended for people who are suffering from low blood pressure, asthma, cold and cough.

 

The world of pranayama is vast and I hope you would continue to explore it.  The benefits of pranayama would only be felt with proper and consistent practice. Keep practicing!

Pei Qi, YTT 2021