You are further along than you think. – Morgan Harper Nichols
I didn’t know about the importance of the breath till I started YTT. The deeper understanding I gained about the breath helped me improve my focus in asanas, and hence hold poses for a longer time or flow more easily in sequences. Paying attention to the breath helps to stop me from thinking of other things off the mat (distractions). Exhale when you move to bring it closer to your centre/core, and inhale when you bring it away from the centre/core. For example, from downward dog, inhale to lift 1 leg up and exhale to crunch in and bring it to your nose.
Another way the breath helps is in the expansion of prana – our life force energy (pranayama). There are different ways pranayama can help, listing a few here:
- Cool down the body heat –
- Sitkari-h and Sitali-h: only exhale using your left nostril
- Sitkari-h: roll tongue behind teeth, hissing
- Sitali-h: roll tongue outside of mouth
- Energise and relax –
- Anuloma viloma
This controls the levels of serotonin and melatonin in the body.
- To energise and get more serotonin: Start inhalation and end exhalation on right side
i.e. inhale through right nostril for 1 count, hold your breath for 3 counts, exhale through your left nostril for 2 counts.
Inhale through left nostril for 1 count, hold your breath for 3 counts, exhale through your right nostril for 2 counts.
- To relax and get more melatonin: Start inhalation and end exhalation on left side
- Nadi shodan
This is the same as anuloma viloma but without holding of breath i.e. inhale 1 count, exhale 2 breaths. You can practice this first before moving onto anuloma viloma if you find anuloma viloma difficult to start with.
For both the above, you can perform it with Vishnu mudra on your right hand and chin/gyanamudra on the left.
- Cleansing of thoughts –
- Kapalabathi (skull shining breath) – this mainly uses belly breathing.
- Sit comfortably in cross legged position.
- Inhale and start – these are quick, forceful exhalations which draw the belly in toward the spine. When you inhale, relax your belly.
Lastly, when I connect to the breath, I generally feel calmer and more relaxed. This lets me be at peace with the current situation and myself. Always give thanks to where you are at now and the progress you have achieved. Take heart, breathe deep. You are further along than you think. 😊
As a believer of Christ, there are some concerns with practicing yoga – even the asanas. During my preparation to baptism, there was a checklist on acts of worship you partake in which included yoga. Intrigued, I went to research more while considering whether to start YTT – to further deepen my understanding and ensure I wasn’t acting in a way that didn’t honour Christ. (1 Cor 8:9, NIV: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”)
- Rooted/started out in other religions e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism.
- Has poses, sequences, chants, mantras that worship deities e.g. sun salutations – to worship the Hindu god Surya. These are gods other than the God we believe in.
- Meditation requires you to clear your mind which may allow you to be more susceptible to spiritual attacks, when we could be focusing our mind on Christ.
Fellow believers did ask me about whether it’s alright to practice yoga, especially as I’m on the journey to be a yoga teacher – they said that learning and teaching the different yoga limbs, mantras etc. would mean practicing these which could possibly affect my own relationship with God and being a stumbling block to other believers.
Amidst these concerns, and after much prayer and deliberation, I still decided to continue on this yoga journey. Here’s why –
- It only has as much meaning as you accord to it. E.g. if I’m performing the sun salutations, it doesn’t mean I’m worshiping the Hindu god Surya if I don’t have such an intention. So long as I just treat this as an asana sequence, there is no further meaning to it.
- While we are to clear our mind in poses e.g. shavasana (corpse pose), Christian yoga practitioners can still use this time to focus their mind on God and use it as quiet time.
- In all that you do, seek the Holy Spirit to guide your actions. Then you don’t have to be afraid 😊 (Gal 5:16, ESV: “But I say, walk by the Spirit.”
Religion aside, there are so many health benefits to yoga and it has helped keep me calm even in uncertainty and negativity. One word advice for you who might be considering yoga: constantly evaluate what you’re doing – ingest the information and digest it yourself – and come up with what works for you. If yoga isn’t affecting your walk with God, then why not!
My yoga practice started mainly in the confines of my home, watching videos on Alomoves and Yoga International. With the daily practice, my strength definitely improved significantly over the 2.5 months – but I still found some postures hard to perform without a yoga instructor’s corrections on technique. When circuit breaker lifted and I could go back to yoga studios, my instructor gave some advice on a few bad habits I had (and am still trying to get rid of).
Here are some of the tips I’m incorporating, sharing these in hope that it benefits you too 😊
- Start with ashtanga namaskar (knees chest chin) to build strength -> chaturanga with knees down -> full chaturanga, especially if you have weak arms like I do.
- Don’t dump your neck down! Slide the side of your neck back – you can look forward instead of down to help with this.
- Keep the weight balanced on all your fingers and palms – turn your palms such that the index finger points to the front of the mat and are parallel. This will help keep your elbows closer to your body.
- Bakasana (crow pose):
- Sit in malasana (yogic squat) and reach your arms out in front of you. Bend your elbows like chaturanga arms, rest your knees on your triceps or if possible, higher up (at your armpits).
- Lift 1 leg up and then the other. Look forward to the front of your mat.
- Round your back and press the toes together.
- Urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose):
- Keep your feet parallel to each other and toes pointing to the back of the mat. If your toes point outward, you can experience back pain.
- Try to keep weight mainly on the legs (heels of feet pressing down into the mat) as your legs are much stronger than your arms.
- For a variation with heels lifted off: When you lift your heels up, look up at ceiling instead of looking behind you (through your arms). This will create more space. When you ground your heels, you can look back again.
- Sirsasana (headstand):
- Traditionally, you interlock your fingers and place the crown of your head there (this is the flattest part of your head). Another way for a stronger hold is to interlock your fingers and press the palms together, place the crown of your head right behind it.
Then lift your hips up and walk closer to your head.
- To lift, you can lift 1 knee up and a time and keep both knees close to your chest. When you can maintain balance here, you can slowly lift one knee at a time. Another way is to engage your hip flexors and lift 1 leg up (straightened). The other leg should follow and lift.
- To get alignment right, you can ask someone to help place their hand between your feet for you to squeeze tightly. This should help automatically align your hips over your shoulders.
Arm balances, backbends and inversions can’t be rushed, and we need time to learn the foundations so we don’t hurt ourselves in the process. So embrace the journey of getting there, all while getting to know ourselves a little bit better. Regardless of whether the pose was performed, be proud of how you have shown up on your mat today and for your progress, no matter how small it seems. Namaste!
BEFORE THE MAT
Some misconceptions I had (based on my limited knowledge of the practice) –
- It’s too slow for me! Being a highly active person, I never thought yoga to be suitable for myself. My first encounter with the asanas was 4 years back, when I attended a yogasana class (hatha-based) and nearly fell asleep as I could not focus on the practice.
- I don’t need to be zen… I was happy being hyper-zealous and extremely excitable. I believed this to be the mojo in my life.
- It’s steeped in a religion that’s not mine, so it’s safer not to practice. But to be honest, everything only has as much meaning as you give to it.
After reading this I only realise how much I have grown, haha!
ON THE MAT
I reconnected with yoga in Jan 2020, using it more for stretching post-HIIT/kickboxing. I truly began to enjoy the practice in Apr 2020 during circuit breaker, where I discovered vinyasa and my practice was as much physical as it was emotional. What it meant to me –
- Me-time: This is time I get to spend with myself, and better understand and appreciate me. As an extreme extrovert, I’ve much preferred to spend time with others than myself. With yoga, I found the time to practice gratitude, patience and love for me.
- To be in the present: With the intense focus on the drishti and the poses, I was able to focus on my practice at the here and now rather than having my mind wander to several places and be in my usual multi-tasking mode.
- Impermanence: With one breath per pose, it serves as a reminder that postures, like most other things around e.g. our feelings at the moment, our encounters with people, are fleeting – hence there is not much to be hung up about. (A good read related to this is also The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – Mark Manson)
BEYOND THE MAT
The past 3 weeks have given me a deeper understanding of yoga beyond the asanas – bringing it back to the breath, rooting it in the yamas and niyamas. These, in particular, stood out to me –
- Breath: The beauty of the practice was my connection with the breath even off the mat, where I could soothe the turbulence in my emotions by just coming back to the breath.
- Ahimsa: Coupled together with other books I was reading (Milk & Honey – Rupi Kaur and Code of the Extraordinary Mind – Vishen Lakhiani), these revolved around the importance of self-love – how you need to love yourself first before you can love others – and when love stems from yourself instead of being based on others’ love for you, you are not affected from external forces.
- Asteya: Moving through twists and heart openers, I brought this yama off the mat and it reinforced my belief that being jealous of others is me being upset with God’s generosity and love to them.
As the practice continues morphing (also while I transit from student to teacher), I’ll continue flowing and see where it takes me.