Finding balance

It is strange and frankly somewhat embarrassing at times that I am in a yoga teacher training course and I am not able to find my balance in a Tree pose or a warrior III. I see all my friends around me calmly standing on their strong legs and myself struggling to focus on that single point on the wall without swaying or falling over and my foot trembling like a guitar string to keep my body in place. It is overly bizarre that I feel much more balanced and confident of standing on my head in a headstand than I do on my leg. Shouldn’t it be a natural thing to be able to do? It baffles me and rattles my resolve and practice at times. I question will I ever be able to achieve that “sukha” or that “sthirta” (sthira sukham asanam, meaning that position of comfort and steadiness) that one requires in a yoga pose. I feel failed at every topple. What was even more frustrating was if you google yoga for balance, you have to encounter the same poses that you have been struggling with in the first place.

I had just accepted that this is how I am, and I am not made to stand on one leg. It is probably my flat foot or my weak thigh muscles, my thin and feeble foot or there is something wrong with my ear perhaps (there is a balance centre in the ear) or just that my brain is not able to focus at one point at all. But now that I have dived into my yoga practice more deeply, I looked for ways to take my body to where I wanted to be and I figured that along with limitations of the body that everyone has in one form or the other there are a lot of external factors that I can manage.

So, here are some of those things that you can do along with me if you are struggling to find your balance:

  • Muscular stability: This is not just about strong legs or core. By muscular stability I mean finding and engaging the right muscles for the right pose. It is important to have muscular awareness as you start lifting one leg away from the floor. You need awareness in the leg muscles (outer hip) on the floor, try not to collapse on it as well as awareness of the muscles (gluteus Medius and TFL) that are going to stabilize your airborne leg. This engagement might not be an instinct, but we need muscle intelligence to practice yoga and it is no different for the balancing poses.
  • Drishti: Drishti or eye focus is one of the fundamentals to gain balance in yoga poses. According to ancient yogis drishti will lead to the steadiness in a pose and helps one avoid external distractions. Hence, it is a fundamental practice point. Do you know there are eight kinds of Drishti in Yoga? This reminds me of the quote that our teacher, Master Shree once stated in one of our classes, it is from a classical book about theory of dance but it fits so well here:

Yato Hasta Stato Drushti
Yato Drushti Stato Manaha
Yato Manaha Stato Bhavom
Yato Bhavom Stato Rasaha

Translated to, Where the hand goes, there the eyes should follow. Where the eyes are, the mind should follow. Where the mind is, there the expression should be brought out. Where the expression is, there the flavor will be experienced.

Also, a good rule of thumb to remember, the higher you look the more difficult it is to find your balance. So, look ahead or down if you have to and slowly bring your gaze up when you feel ready.

  • Do not lock those joints: It might sound counterintuitive, but this is one of the most important things to remember if you want to protect that knee or that ankle joint. Yes, it will give you more stability but if you lock your joints then you are not using your muscles and that leads to all the pressure equivalent to 4 to 8 times your body weight on that one joint and it is definitely not good for you in the long run. So, it is better to microbend at your knees when in a one-legged position and engage that Quadriceps.

 

  • Take it slow: Never rush in a pose. Especially that requires balancing on one leg. Be aware of all the micro movements, the shifting of the body weight and centre of gravity. Also, from my balance in my headstand I have come to experience that balance is not about absolute statuesque stability, but it is about fine tuning those micro movements which happen as you stay in that pose longer. So, as you slowly enter the pose and experience the right muscles engaging and feeling that one leg getting grounded, focus on them and appreciate the amazing job they are doing at every step you take towards the final pose.

 

  • Breathe: While struggling we often hold our breath. Never do that. Another basic rule of Yoga- keep that breath flowing. Your breath is your “pranic energy”. Also, a steady breath means that you are calm.

 

Having said all this, I know it is not hard and it is a longish journey to that calm balanced state of asana and mind, but we will reach there. I am still struggling and learning. Hope you can learn from my experience and research and find sisterhood/brotherhood in the fact that there are those of us that are still finding our centre in this process. But, my mantra is if the one legged pose is rocking you, then

STAY CALM

AND

ROCK THAT POSE

*A beautiful step by step guide to learn to find your balance that I found helpful: https://www.sensational-yoga-poses.com/balancing-on-one-foot.html#quicklinks

 

Open that Hip

Believe it or not we are spending more than 40 to 60% of our life sitting, sitting, sitting!! While working, while driving, travelling, watching TV, eating…
Was human body designed to sit for this long? The answer is no. It was supposed to walk and run and maybe squat down for that meal. When this body was created or evolved (whichever theory you believe in) it was not intended for us to sit in our chairs and sofas for hours on end. Case in point, the amazing musculature in our hip joints. We have more than 20 muscles and strong connective tissue bands that cross the hip. The collection of inner thigh muscles known as the adductors, the collection of outer thigh muscles known as the abductors, the hip flexors in the front, deep lateral rotators in the back and connective tissue bands supporting these like the IT band.

Fig: A look at the hip and thigh musculature

Alright, we have so many muscles in the hip region and we are not doing them any favour by sitting all day. The musculature overall is getting weak and stiff, the hip flexors are getting shortened by sitting in chairs all day and hence, they are strained and prone to injury. Basically, overall hip mobility is reduced and stressed. This also cause stress on other parts of the skeletal system like the knees and the lower back. Whether the hip flexors are strained or just stiff, they have the tendency to hold your entire pelvis in a forward position. This causes the back to arch and the entire pelvis to “tip” forward leading to back pains and/ or knee pains.
So, what do we do? We need to do some hip opening exercises. Any movement that stretches any of these muscles could be considered a “hip-opener.”
Hip is supposed to be the most mobile ball and socket joint in our body and is the major weight bearing joint. No wonder it is such an important part of yoga science.
Here are some of the benefits of open hips:
• Range of motion: When the hips are open there is more range of motion, this allows for better circulation and more support for the muscles of the back and the spine.
• Alleviate back pain: Take for example psoas muscle. The psoas muscles are the primary connectors between your torso and legs. They are also the deepest muscles in the body’s core, attaching from the vertebrae, through the pelvis crossing over–without attaching to–the ball and socket hip joint, and then wrapping around the body to the front and attaching at the femurs. They are the only muscles that connect the upper body to the lower body. If they are tight, it only makes sense that the lower back would be pulled forward, and out of alignment. That is why tight hips increase the load on the spine and crank it into overdrive. Hence, open hips mean more support for the lower back.
• Releasing stress: The same psoas muscle is triggered when in stress, and flexes for us to go into a flight or fight response. But when we keep our hips flexed and psoas contracted in our sitting chair positions all day, it causes the body to feel we are in danger all the time and hence exhausts our adrenal glands.
• Release stuck emotions: Hips are where our reproductive organs are stored and supported. Hence, they are related to our emotion inducing hormones. Open hips will lead to release of pent up emotions and will be great for a persons’ psychological wellbeing.
• Balance your kidneys: Kidneys are another organ supported by the hips. A kidney dysfunction after a hip fracture is a major risk factor. A healthy and open hip will be able to support and protect them better. A tight hip on the other hand would put the health of the kidneys.
• Stimulate your creativity: It’s the second chakra, svadisthana chakra, that holds the key to unlocking and harnessing the energy you need to be innovative and to make change. A restricted and weak hip inhibits the energies to flow in this chakra, hence, the importance of hip opening asanas.

What are these hip opening asanas in yoga you ask? Where do we begin?
 Easy pose
 3 legged-Downward dog
 Lizard pose
 Pigeon pose
 Butterfly pose
 Tree pose
 Triangle
 Low lunge
 Cow-face pose
 Fire log pose
 Half lord of the fishes
 Marichi pose
And so many more. Yoga is full of hip opening and strengthening poses. So open that sacral chakra and let your creative and sexual energy flow!






Ward off your depression with Yoga

“Yogas citta vrtti nirodha”

“Yoga is the calming of the fluctuations of the mind”

Depression is classified as a mood disorder.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, Fifth Edition, has defined depression as 5 or more of the following symptoms that are present for 2 or more weeks and cause significant emotional distress and/or impairment in functioning.

Symptoms are

  1. depressed or sad mood,
  2. short-tempered or easily annoyed,
  3. loss of interest or enjoyment in hobbies or activities that was previously enjoyed,
  4. feeling of worthlessness or guilt,
  5. thoughts of death or suicide,
  6. difficulty with concentrating or making decisions,
  7. feeling tired or fatigue,
  8. feeling restless or slow,
  9. changes in appetite such as overeating or loss of appetite,
  10. changes in weight such as weight loss or weight gain, and
  11. changes in sleep pattern.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression occurs due to a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors.

But the good news is that it can be treated if tackled early.

Some of the activities advised by Health hub Singapore to manage depression can be categorized in these few categories:

  • Socialize: spending time with friends and having fun, pursuing activities that you enjoy and are interested in, practicing acts of kindness which also helps to boost positive emotions.
  • Exercise: Taking care of your physical health, such as engaging in a physical activity you enjoy, eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep.
  • Contemplate: making time to relax and enjoy yourself, organizing your time so you feel in control, Finding things to laugh about, learning ways to manage stress effectively, focusing on the things to be grateful for in life.
  • Communicate: Sharing your feelings with others, or writing them down in a journal to help clear your thoughts

I am sure you can already see how Yoga can bring about positive change in all these aspects of your life.

  • Yoga will not only help you get a good physical workout while doing various poses, increase flexibility, strength, and vitality. It will also get those endorphins flowing through your body.
  • It will also encourage you to respect your body by eating healthy and teaching you techniques to relax (restorative yoga, yoga nidra) and get a good sleep. There are specific breathing techniques as well as yoga asanas that can help one sleep better (child’s pose, forward bend, savasana, paschimottanasna, prasarita padottanasana, bridge pose and Viparita karni etc.).
  • If you got to a studio and practice with a bunch of people. It might give you the opportunity to make like minded friends who knows you might find people who you can share your troubles with.
  • Yoga preaches kindness as the single most important thing. Ahimsa is, being mindful to not think, speak or act in a harmful way to yourself or others. Hence, be kind.
  • Contemplation or deep reflective thought is almost a synonym to the yogic practice of meditation. Meditation involves concentration on a single thought, object or point. It opens the mind and develops the conditions that are ideal for contemplation and to the eventual goal of pure knowing.
  • Maybe communication is not a part of yoga in the literal sense but if you go deeper, yoga does teach you to talk and listen to your own body and mind better. It helps to be one with yourself. It teaches you to focus on your thoughts and calming them down through pratyahara, dharana and dhyana. It also teaches you to be present in the moment. If that’s not the most important skill in communication, then what is?

 

If you are still not fully convinced. I would urge you to take a look at dozens of scientific studies that have conclusively proven the beneficial effects of Yoga for depression.

Although most of the yoga asanas will help you with depression but some that the Yoga experts swear by are:

  • Tadasana/ Mountain pose
  • Adho mukha vrikshasana/ Hand stand
  • Adho mukha svanasana/ Downward facing dog
  • Viparita dandasana/ Backbends
  • Sarvangasana/ Shoulder stand
  • Setubandhasana/ Bridge pose
  • Shavasana

Just remember to do these with the full knowledge of the contraindications or in the presence of an expert yoga teacher.

So, what are you waiting for!? Grab that mat and stand tall in a mountain pose.

Exploring the origin and history of Yoga

A people without the knowledge of their history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots- Marcus Garvey.
So, as a part of the community of Yoga, let us explore the history and origin of Yoga. Although Yoga did not develop into parts or different eras, it is loosely divided into following timelines:

1. Pre-Vedic (5000-3000 BC)
The origin of Yoga is not clear even after a century of research work but it believed to be more than 5000 years old. The earliest proof of Yoga is found in the archaeological diggings of Mohenjo-Daro or what is popularly know as the Indus Valley civilization. Indus valley civilization or Indus- Sarasvati civilization as it is now called is the bronze age civilization that flourished in the regions of what is now the North India and Pakistan on the banks of two rivers, Indus and Saraswati. It was a highly developed and advanced civilization with multi storey buildings, sewage systems, art, culture, trade, baked bricks, and roads. They are believed to be destroyed because of the tectonic events or climate changes that caused the drying up of the Sarasvati river. It was here during the study of this civilization that we found the earliest seal depicting a “Yogi” siting in Padmasana (Image 1). This civilization flourished from 3500 – 1500 BC.

Image 1: A stone seal from the Indus Valley civilization depicting a yogi in padmasana.

2. Vedic (3000-800 BC)
Vedas are the oldest surviving books in the history of mankind. These were initially transmitted orally from a teacher to his disciple and the first written account was only during 3200 BC by a sage named Vyasa. It is here, in this ancient textbook that the word yoga is first mentioned. Even some of the famous chants in yoga today, like the gayatri mantra or the maha mrityunjya mantra are direct verses from the Vedas.
We meditate on the glory of the Creator; who has created the universe; who is worthy of worship; who is embodiment of knowledge and light; who is the remover of all sin and ignorance; May he enlighten our intellect- Rig Veda”

3. Pre-classical (800-250 BC)
Yoga was then slowly refined and developed by Brahmins and seers who documented their practices in Upanishads, a huge work containing over 200 scriptures. One of the most renowned scriptures is the Bhagvad Gita (meaning the song of the absolute) composed around 500 BC. The Bhagavad Gita mentions may forms of yoga: Jnana yoga (path of knowledge), Bhakti yoga (path of devotion), Karma yoga (path of action). During this period yoga was more of a lifestyle than about the postures and breathing that it is today. The original purpose of this Yoga was to connect one’s consciousness to the Supreme consciousness by controlling one’s body, mind and senses

Yoga is a journey of the self, through the self, to the self- Bhagvad Gita”

4. Classical (200 BC- 200 AD)
This label applies to the ashtanga or eight limbed yoga also known as the Raja Yoga and is defined by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. It is the first systematic presentation of Yoga where Patanjali organized the practice of yoga into eight limbed paths to reach the goal of samadhi or enlightenment. Hence, Patanjali is considered as the father of Yoga and his yoga sutras influence most modern styles of Yoga.
It is only when the correct practice is followed for a long time, without interruptions and with a quality of positive attitude and eagerness, that it can succeed – Patanjali, Yoga-Sutras”

5. Post Classical (200 AD – 1700 AD)
This is again a very comprehensive category, which refers to all those many types and schools of Yoga that have sprung up in the period after Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra and that are independent of this seminal work. Because of the Yoga Sutras’ focus on the mind, yogis in the past had not paid as much attention to the physical practice and they were more focused on meditation and contemplation. A few centuries after Patanjali, Yoga took a turn. The new generation of yoga masters began to probe the hidden powers of the human body and developed a system where different exercises, in conjunction with deep breathing and meditation, would help to rejuvenate the physical body, prolong life and achieve transcendence. The human body was regarded as the temple of the immortal soul. The Post-Classical Yoga period brought with it big changes to the Yoga scene. It was during this period that Tantra Yoga and Hatha Yoga were developed. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is a Sanskrit manual considered to be the most influential surviving text on Hatha Yoga. It was written in the 15th century.

6. Modern (1800 AD -)
The modern phase of Yoga is described as the phase during the 1800s and 1900s when Yoga was introduced to the west and it started to become popular. The first “Yoga influencer” in the west was Swami Vivekananda who earned adoration from Americans because of his electrical speech in Chicago in the Parliament of religions on Hinduism and its tolerance and Universal acceptance in 1983. He later introduced Yoga in a way that separated it from religion to make it attractive to the Christianity practicing Americans.
In his own words “Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or mental discipline, or philosophy—by one, or more, or all of these—and be free.
Many Indian Yogis travelled to America in 1920s and wrote various books like “An Autobiography of a Yogi” (By Yogananda). During the same period in India the likes of T. Krishnamacharya and Swami Sivananda strongly promoted Hatha Yoga. T. Krishnamacharya opened the first Hatha Yoga school in Mysore in 1924. The practice of Hatha was later popularised by his students B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar and Pattabhi Jois and Indira Devi. Indira Devi opened a Yoga school in Hollywood in 1947, which made it more popular.

It is upto us now, the new Yogis and Yoginis to explore and learn from the old texts and scriptures and find our own truth of Yoga through the guidance of old sages and gurus.