Decolonise Your Yoga Practice – Why and How?

When the British colonised India in the 18th century, Yogis were discriminated and tortured due to their spiritual aspect. The British intention of was to dehumanise low class Indians to oppress and control them. They denied and took out of Indian ethics, values, philosophy, and spirituality to make Indians feel inferior to the Western values. In the 19th century when the British started to work on policies of conciliation for the Indian cultures, Indian officials and intellectuals agreed with the British to create a “new tradition” of India to show it to the world; something traditional and Indian yet something relatable to the Western world. Traditional Hatha Yoga was selected to be re-created (i.e re-appropriated) with more physical aspects because physical exercise such as gymnastics was extremely popular and weighed in the West at that time, so it naturally was in India (it was imported and implemented in India by Western colonists). That eventually became a similar form of the current Yoga that most of us know. The modern Yoga is a creation of India, and respectable Yogis and philosophers in India refined and reconstructed by linking this physical activity with traditional Yoga Sutras as national tradition. However, the initial project was controlled by the British and highly influenced by Western cultures. Sadly this mindset has built Western Yoga (Asana-focused, highly commercialised), which has been dominating the world and it still stirs the yoga community with cultural appropriation today. If someone thinks Yoga is just a physical practice, or knowing other aspects of Yoga and thinks they can cut the physical training out, they are still bound by the past violent colonial project, consciously or not.

Some Yoga fundamentalists say “Don’t learn from white people, look for an Indian teacher”, but things are not that simple. South Asian communities already received a strong wave of Re-imported Yoga from America and this kind of racial typecasting doesn’t work anymore (and it could be simply racism, obviously). Not to forget to mention that there are genuinely amazing Western Yoga teachers who have been learning, teaching, and promoting Yoga with deep understanding of philosophies and histories. Despite your skin colour or where you live, the fact now is that it is so difficult to avoid Western Yoga trend completely unless you consciously make decisions. So what do you need to do to get yourself out of it?

 

Learn Yoga, Not Only Asana

First basic yet essential step is to learn that physical aspect of Yoga is only one out of 8 limbs of Yoga. Stop treating Yoga as a physical activity. Accept that it is a spiritual, philosophical path for your life. During the British colonisation, the ethics of Yoga was completely demolished with violence. If we ignore the non-physical side of Yoga, it means we are subconsciously justifying the past colonists’ mindset. Read Yoga Sutra or on Yoga Sutra, and history of Yoga. Connect yourself with the authentic Yoga.

 

Liberate Yourself From Superficial/Materialistic Yoga Trend

Do not be so obsessed with Yoga fashion, which was created by Western Yoga and its capitalism. You do not need to wear Yoga pants or look slim to practice Yoga, unlike a lot of yoga clothes brand advertise. If you are happy wearing yoga pants, and if you know that the brand is ethical, go ahead. But if you feel you NEED to wear them to attend a class, ditch that mindset. If you feel ashamed about your body, or your teacher/classmates make you feel your body shape is not beautiful enough to do Yoga, do remember that Yoga is for every body, not only for young, slim, pretty female who are heavily advertised in commercialised yoga studios and fashion brands frequently.

If your Yoga teachers (or public figures you follow online) are highly materialistic, such as always wearing high-end Yoga fashion, promoting a lot of non-Yoga related products online such as perfume, watches, staycation giveaway etc, they may be great Asana teachers but may not be Yoga teachers, you may want to take note of that.  Another example; if a studio promote their “luxe/exclusivity” with extremely high rate, we may get tempted to check it out, but we shouldn’t; they are materialising Yoga and over-profiting, just like how Western Yoga has been stepping on traditional Yoga for their own benefits.

 

Respect Its Birthplace, but Avoid Exotification

It is still not uncommon to find people who have Indophobia yet love Yoga practice. This has been a deep issue in Western Yoga. For example, people would swear by Yoga practice when famous (non-Indian) Hollywood celebrities mentioned Yoga, but once they are home, they avoid their South-Asian neighbours. This habit is spotted in Asia too. Maybe you can ask yourself; are you in love with Yoga but not willing to appreciate the Indian communities and cultures as a whole? Is your affection and admiration for Yoga filtered by Western or Pop cultures? If you like to learn and practice Yoga, make sure to pay respect to the origin and people who are related there.

Second thing to self-check is the usage of Sanskrit words, Om, and Mantra etc. Completely excluding it is bringing you back to Asana-centric Yoga. However, overusing them without fully studying them “just because it’s cool” is exotification, that can lead you to cultural appropriation. Exotification is not equal to a real love and respect towards the culture. It is simply fetishising Yoga, and your Yoga practice will be derailed by doing it.

As a bottom line, I would like to stress the first topic again; keep studying Yoga. Once you start practising 8 limbs of Yoga, and learn the history of Yoga, your urge to decolonise your Yoga practice will naturally find you.

Reference: Decolonizing Yoga by Susana Barkataki

Application of Niyama for Stage Fright

In the middle of my 3rd class, I won’t lie, I was seriously questioning myself why I signed up for YTT instead of other simple workshops. Yes I wanted to deepen my knowledge for my home practice, but I was not planning to be a teacher anytime soon. My simple mind told me “YTT would be great. Learning how to teach, I can be my own teacher” but one very important thing I conveniently forgot back then was that I actually have extremely bad stage fright and public speaking issues.

As much as I’ve still enjoyed a lot of the course, it’s been a mental challenge for me. Even with a simple cue practice, I was already extremely nervous from the beginning of the course. While waiting for my turn to come, I would have sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat and nausea, and I would be so busy trying to make myself relax with pranayama. Once I step in front of my classmates, my brain would shut down, my tongue locked and a single word couldn’t come out. So many times I found myself standing in front of everyone and saying nothing for a while. Oops. This is really bad. How would I survive this course if I cannot teach? And more importantly, if I can’t find peace and fulfilment with yoga, I’m doing something wrong.

I came back to read on 8 limbs of yoga again with an intention to apply it in teaching and public speaking. It is quite known that pranayama and meditation/dharana can help to ease your stage fright, but on top of that, applying Niyama has been helping me with my root cause. This 2nd limb of Ashtanga Yoga is composed of 5 positive duties/observances (“dos”, as opposed to Yama’s “don’ts”) for your personal growth. I tried to link each of them with my stage fright issues and thought how Niyama practice could help. This is based on my own case but below are the applications I made to remind myself during the YTT course.

 

1. Shaucha : Purification/Clearness

This cleanliness principle is applied not only to body but mind. It is crucial to keep your mind clean; that means, we should stay away from negative, destructive thoughts and emotions. For my case, they were fears and lack of self-belief. I imagine myself failing at a challenge, rather than nailing it. “I might forget the sequence, my sequence might be too boring for students, my explanation may not be clear”, etc. I applied Shaucha to clean up my mind.

Application: Image training and Self-affirmation such as “I perform with joy” “I enjoy teaching” “I will be calm” etc.

 

2. Santosha : Contentment, Acceptance

In a modern world, practicing contentment is not easy, be it materialistically or mentally. We may know that achieving contentment can give us a peace of mind, but constantly getting full of information of people who are/have better than you, we tend to bring out our uneasiness/competitiveness (especially in a “kiasu” place like Singapore). One of my stage fright triggers happens when I feel pressured to be perfect AND I know I can’t be. When I need to instruct something I’m not confident with, the stage fright kicks in. Once I accept where I am now and be honest with what I remember and what I don’t, I became less afraid to make mistakes or to be judged. I could feel a lot lighter.

Application: Know what you know and teach only what you already know. Accept and keep reminding that mistakes happen to everybody. It will take time to be a good teacher and IT IS OK.

 

3. Tapas : Self-discipline

Santosha to me is to know and accept your current status, so we can see a clear vision of what to do next or what to do to maintain the current status in a good shape. Following Santosha, Tapas may be the easiest to apply. We all need to build a basic habit of practice, without being forced by external factors for self-improvement. Know what you need to do, and after that is the execution.

Application: Practice, Practice, Practice. Be it Asana practice or teaching practice or taking time to create meaningful sequences.

 

4. Svadhyaya : Self-study, Introspection

When I started reading some articles about Yoga and Public Speaking, most of them were talking how effective Pranayama is. It does, on the spot, relieve my mind but I was feeling that it is just a temporary solution. At the next teaching or presentation, I will have the same nervousness again. When I came to the 4th Niyama, I felt this is what I needed to do. Know the enemy and know yourself; this time the enemy is inside of me but I started throwing questions at myself to dig my issues. Why are you afraid to talk? Any bad memories that stop you from performing? When do you feel less nervous, and when more? What kind of crowds make you feel more nervous? etc. 

Application: Analyse and observe yourself.  Find the root causes from your past experience. Be Objective to review each teaching practice you did. Find your weakness to improve. Find your strength to stay motivated.

 

5. Ishvara Praṇidhana : Surrender to Higher Being

With a concept of Higher Beings, this last Niyama has been the most difficult for me to grasp and apply to my case. After reading several resources of Yoga Sutra interpretations, I understood this as “concentration and stable mind can be achieved when you have an attitude to let your ego go despite all the effort you have made”. When we apply the earlier 4 Niyamas (Shaucha to Svhadhaya) and practice them, we will likely see an improvement in life. But that might lead you to develop some feeling such as ego, pride, too many expectations of good results, and reputations. The last Niyama is to learn to cancel all those “tensed” feelings, completely. Do not expect anything based on who you are or what you did, but leave the outcome to the nature or somewhere out of your control instead.

Application : Constantly practice to be prepared and ready. But do not let your ego come up. Focus on improvement and do not let expectations bug your mind. Give your best self to the given circumstance without thinking of outcome.

 

I admit there were stressful moments during YTT as an extreme introvert, but it has been a great opportunity to face my long-term stage fright issue. With Niyama, I feel I can keep training myself to lessen my stage fright little by little. Even if the change is subtle, seeing myself breaking out of the shell is quite amazing 🙂

Yoga for Skaters

It’s a little strange hobby to pick up in one’s mid-30s, but recently I fell in love with longboarding  after a friend of mine made me try. Skating from East Coast Park to Marina Bay Sands on a weekend has been such a refreshing activity since. As I signed up for weekend YTT, I can’t cruise on weekends for 10 weeks (I do not want to skate until YTT ends, just in case. I’m such a newbie skater and fall and injury can happen anytime). While I’m having an itch to skate, I researched about benefits of yoga for skaters/cruisers. There are quite a few, but these 3 are what I think the most important.

Benefits of Yoga for Skaters

1. Yoga improves balancing

This may sound quite obvious, but both yoga and skating are something in common. They both have a lot of movements that requires a sense of balance. By practicing balance-centric sequences and one-legged asanas, skaters can sharpen their sense of balance and stability.

2. Yoga neutralises postures and muscles

Yoga is a balanced exercise, that asana practice is always performed both left/right, and paired with counter poses. Skateboarding on the other hand tends to use one dominant side of the body heavily, as most people use one same leg to keep kicking. They also tend to stay in a fixed posture for a long time while cruising that could contribute to the unbalanced postures. Regular yoga practice can tone skaters’ body and balance their muscle buildings.

3. Yoga can be a great relaxation tool for daredevils

Skaters are often thrill-seekers. They would love push themselves to do something fast, furious or edgy if not crazy. I’ve heard some of them saying yoga is “too static / too slow / boring” for them. They may be right, and that’s exactly what they need. Skaters tend to have restless mind with or without noticing. Savasana can definitely help them learning how to retreat from the hyper state, and slow-paced yoga like Yin can allow them to give space to reset their body and mind.

 

So What Asanas Are Great for Skaters?

1. For Push & Single-Leg Balance
It is a must to have strong & flexible thighs and single leg balance to push the ground stronger. You can practice Warrior 1 and 2 for thighs, then move on to Eagle Pose, Half Moon Pose, Warrior 3 for balancing practice. If you’re a total yoga beginner and found above poses are too difficult, you can start from single-leg standing poses like Tree Pose.


2. For Stability, To Curve/Turn

Core muscles (including side core) and two-leg balance poses will help you.
Plank, Side Plank, Boat Pose are perfect core muscle training that will enable you to turn quickly on a skateboard. Practicing poses like Heel-up Chair Pose, Triangle PoseReverse Triangle Pose regularly, you can improve stability even when you’re on difficult paths.

 

Skater and yoga teacher Shane Carrick said “Yoga is my Yin and skateboarding is my Yang. Together I find balance”. I agree with him. They look completely different as activities, but when you put them together in your life, they work great just like Yin and Yang. Both are something that makes my life fulfilling now, and hope they keep having me me with a good balance in my life.

Freediving and Pranayama

Earlier this year I had two exciting things in my mind for 2020. First one is this YTT, and I’m so grateful it is happening now. The other thing I was planning was to take AIDA Level 2, a freediving certificate. For those who never heard about freediving; in a nutshell it’s an extended version of snorkelling, but you hold breath underwater much longer (>1min) and also you often go deeper. Advanced freedivers can easily dive as long as 5 minutes and go deep as 50 meters or more, without an oxygen tank of course.  

Last year I took AIDA 1 (an entry level freediving course), and for the love of snorkelling in the ocean, continuing to AIDA 2 sounded a good holiday agenda to me. Because this course requires to be in open water with good visibility, I would travel to one of nearby countries with beautiful beaches and all of you know Covid had me drop this idea. What a bummer. I stopped thinking of the course once I learned that going out of Singapore is impossible this year. It was when I started YTT and started pranayama practice daily that it naturally came back to my mind because freediving and yoga actually have an inseparable relationship, especially with pranayama. I realised that some pranayama I learned during YTT can be used for freediving breath holding practice too.

Before linking them, I would like to explain freediving breathing practices individually. The freediving breathing method right before going under water or before holding breath is called “breath-up”, and has mainly two parts; 1) Relaxation breathing and 2) Final (full capacity) breath.

 

1) Relaxation Breathing

For a beginner diver like me, how long you can hold breaths highly depends on how much you can relax right before going under water. The Logic is simple. The more you relaxed, the lower your heartbeat gets. The lower the heartbeat gest, the slower the O2 consumption & CO2 generation get. So you can delay your urge to breathe. Here are tips to have safe “breathe up”, a relaxation breathing before diving.

– Sit in comfortable position, or lie down
– Have deep nostril breathing with Inhale:Exhale ratio of  1:2
Because our heart rate decreases by exhaling, keeping exhalation longer can calm our body and mind.
Never hyperventilate. Keep your breathing deep and slow. I usually start from Inhale:Exhale = 4 sec : 8 sec.
– Focus on breathing and relax all muscle tensions in your body.
– Repeat it around 15 times, or up to 2 minutes

 

2) Final Breath

After your body is completely relaxed, move on to “final breath”; one deep, full inhalation.

– Imagine that your torso is a balloon, and slowly expanding from bottom to top
– Start with belly breathing. Breathe into stomach, fill it up to maximum
– Continue inhaling, start storing air above the navel, expand ribcage and stretch diaphragm, and lower part of the lungs
– Finally, breathe into upper lungs, to collarbone, to the throat (do not tense shoulders!)
– Do not forget to stay relaxed; do not rush to fill up, or tense your muscles, or anything to turn off your relaxation.
– When you pack the air to the maximum, hold your breath.

 

If you’re not familiar with freediving might be wondering by now, “how can someone hold breaths for minutes!?”, but after following this simple practice, most people can hold breaths easily for up to 2 minutes! To make these practice more efficient, I decided to combine above two with pranayama I’ve learned during YTT. These pranayama are Anuloma Viloma, Bastrika, and Kapalabhati.

 

[1] Anuloma Viloma

This alternate nostril breathing is perfect to stabilise your energy and calming your mind. The ratio of the breathing is Inhale:Exhale = 1:2, so it is a very good practice to familiarise with the freediving relaxation breathing.

– Sit in comfortable position, spine upright.
– Make Vishnu Mudra with the right hand (index and middle finger folded), bring the hand to the nose. Make chin mudra with the left hand (make a ring with thumb and index finger) and place it on your left knee.
– Block the right nostril with the right thumb, inhale deeply through the left nostril for 3 seconds.
– Block the left nostril with the ring finger and release the thumb from the right nostril, exhale through the right nostril for 6 seconds.
– Keep right nostril open, and inhale through the right nostril for 3 seconds.
– Block the right nostril and release the left nostril, exhale for 6 seconds from the left nostril.

 

[2] Bastrika

The is a strong diaphragmic breathing to energise and warm up your body. This practice can strengthen diaphragm and upper abdomen muscles, which is used for the final breathing for freediving. Starting breathing practice with Bastrika is recommended by a lot of freedivers as it can warm up the body quickly so the muscles and respiratory system can be more flexible and expandable.

– Sit in comfortable position, spine upright.
– Take a few deep breaths, and exhale by strongly contracting upper abdominal muscles and diaphragm (you can put your hands around the lower ribcage to consciously move the area)
– Take an immediate short inhalation using diaphragm (try not to move abdominal muscles)
– Continue for 10-20 breathes, then slow down and rest.
– Repeat a few times

 

[3] Kapalabhati:

As well as Bastrika, Kapalabhati(or skull shining breath) is a great pranayama to improve the final breathing of freediving. Using and strengthening muscles around lower belly, you can learn to consciously activate muscles around the stomach. Practicing Kapalabhati can increase the inhalation capacity for the final breath.

– Sit in comfortable position, spine upright.
– Take a few deep breaths, and exhale from nostrils by strongly contracting lower belly and pelvic floor muscles, imagine to expel all the air from lower abdomen.
– Inhalation should be passive (do not activate your belly muscles at all, just naturally let the air comes in)
– Continue for 10-20 breathes, then slow down and rest.
– Repeat a few times

 

To sum up, my regular practice looks like this.

  1. Bastrika 5 minutes
  2. Kapalabhati 5-10 minutes
  3. Anuloma Viloma 5 minutes
  4. Freediving breathing. Relaxation breathing -> final breath -> Breath holding
    *Repeat 4 a few times.

Even though there are no little Nemos and sea turtles, doing this in the morning regularly makes me feel great. Body relaxed, mind clear, and I feel I can wait a bit longer till I get to jump into the crystal clear water (but really, I cannot wait!).