YOGA and LUPUS, taming the wolf …

3rd week into this YTT journey … Master PAALU says “You need to trust your body!”. Hum … How could I trust my body when, as a woman, I cannot conceive and carry a baby without medical assistance? How could I trust my body when my immune system is not able to fight a simple virus? How could I trust my body when it gives me joints pain when I get a little bit stressed at work?.. I started to get emotional that week thinking I might never be able to “trust my body” and do most of the postures.

I was diagnosed with Lupus about 10 years ago but it took 4 years from the first flare to the proper diagnosis in 2010. Lupus is a chronic immune system disease that “attacks” normal and healthy tissues damaging the joints, the skin, the blood and vital organs such as the heart and the kidneys. Lupus means “wolf” in Latin because in some ways of the disease, the patient may develop a “wolf mask” on the face.

There is no permanent cure for Lupus, treatments can only help the patients to relieve symptoms (fever, hair loss, rash, extreme fatigue, etc…) and protect organs by decreasing the inflammation.
Those treatments (anticoagulant, hormones, anti-inflammatory, etc…) can affect your body and your mood. Patients may even need to go through surgeries to “repair” their damaged bodies.

A lot of medical studies connect Lupus and Stress. Stress doesn’t cause Lupus but triggers the activation of the symptoms meaning you have no choice but managing your stress level and emotion cycles.
Your first step as a Lupus patient is to “tame the wolf”. So I decided in 2018 to start yoga thinking it could help me to manage my stress level. The teacher was very inspirational and I enjoyed the physical workout.
I also adapted my diet to a more healthy and homemade food. I came to know during this YYT that there is a name in yoga for that kind of diet: Sattva! Food definitely plays a role in your immune system especially if it is dysfunctional.

But the Covid-19 turned our lives upside-down this year and yoga was my only “routine” in the chaos at home. I signed up for this YYT, not really knowing what I was getting myself into!

First thing to do before signing up for these high physical 2 months was getting approval from the hematologist and physio. They actually highly recommended the practice of yoga:
• Hatha and Ashtanga yoga are recommended but not hot yoga.
• Asanas can help to slow down arthritis. Joints are usually very stiff with Lupus patients.
• Fatigue is a constant symptom in Lupus patients, pranayama relaxes your mind and helps with improving your energy level.
• Yoga nidra is also recommended as a restorative practice during all lupus stages.

Halfway through the training, I realised what was the next step for me: Learn to accept and appreciate my body with its scars and limits, reconnect with it. This journey is a healing and accepting process. I had the chance to join a very fun and supportive group, the experience would have been totally different without them 🙂

Being able to do those fancy poses may come along the way, getting the certification would be a great reward, teaching might be an option later on, but as Master Sree says “Do Kriya, don’t do Karma”! 

Understanding the 5 Popular Types of Yoga

There are many different types of yoga today and it may be confusing for some, especially beginners. However, no matter what style of yoga you practise, you are likely to enjoy benefits from regular practice such as improvement in flexibility, strength, muscle toning and posture. In this blog post I will be briefly sharing about 5 popular types of yoga and their characteristics.

1. Ashtanga Yoga
The Sanskrit word “Ashtanga” means eight limbs. It was first used by an ancient Indian sage, Patanjali to describe eight practices (“limbs”) which should be mastered in order to experience the true goal of yoga. In short, these eight limbs of yoga are: Yama (abstinences), Niyama (observances), Asana (physical yoga postures), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (transcendence).
There are 6 series of Ashtanga Yoga, and they increase in difficulty as they advance from the primary series. Each series is a set sequence of asanas in the same order and they are usually fast-paced and physically challenging. However, there are Mysore-style classes where students can carry out the series at their own pace while yoga instructors assess them.

2. Hatha Yoga
The word “Hatha” can be translated to two meanings, “wilful” or “forceful”. Hatha Yoga practices are meant to align and calm our body, mind and spirit to prepare for meditation. A Hatha Yoga class generally involves a set of physical yoga poses (asanas) and breathing techniques (pranayama). These are practised at a slower pace with more static posture holds than other types of yoga.

3. Vinyasa Yoga
Vinyasa refers to a series, or sequence of steps. The Sanskrit word “Vinyasa” comes from a prefix vi-, meaning ‘variation’ and a suffix -nyasa, meaning “within prescribed parameters”. It is a style of yoga characterised by stringing postures together so that one moves from a posture to another seamlessly, using breath. A posture is connected to another in Vinyasa via “transitions”. They are basically what you do in between postures, but what is not always appreciated is that transitions are considered postures themselves. The variable nature of Vinyasa Yoga allows one to develop a more balanced body while preventing repetitive motion injuries that could possibly happen if one repeats the same thing every day.

4. Bikram Yoga
Bikram Yoga was initially introduced by Bikram Choudhury. The practice involves repeating the same 26 poses in set cycles over a span of 90 minutes. These poses were chosen by Choudhury from classic hatha poses and they should be done in a specific and unchanging order so as to achieve the desired benefits of Bikram Yoga. In addition, Bikram Yoga is typically done in a room heated to 40.6 degree Celsius or 105 degree Fahrenheit with a humidity of 40%. This form of hot yoga is meant to detox and eliminate toxins and aid weight loss while allowing one to become deeper into the posture.

5. Yin Yoga
Yin Yoga was founded and first taught by martial arts expert and Taoist Yoga teacher, Paulie Zink. Yin Yoga is a style of yoga that targets the deep connective tissues of our body such as the ligaments, joints, bones and fascia. It is slow-paced and poses can be held for 3 to 5 minutes. The reason for holding such poses is to apply moderate stress to the connective tissues so as to increase circulation in our joints and improve flexibility. Yin Yoga also improves energy flow and enhances the flow of chi (which means breath or air) in the organs.

Smoothies for Yoga

It could be before an inversion class, or a morning Ashtanga class, or even before learning Uddiyana Bandha.
There will be a time when we may not want to have a full proper meal because it will weigh us down but we still need that sustenance which will last us through the whole session.
Smoothies could be the perfect solution for that.
Below are few easy steps to start preparing your smoothies:
  • Pick your base
For fruits dominant smoothies – milk and yogurt are great bases. They are tasty and creamy.
But those who prefer non dairy, other alternatives such as oat / almond / soy / coconut milks are just as good.
For green dominant smoothies – coconut water and lemon juice
Coconut water is a natural electrolyte while lemon juice adds that fresh and sour kick to counter the vegetal flavours. This is good especially for those trying green smoothies for the first time.
Coconut water based smoothies  are perfect for hot yoga class as our bodies will need more hydration.
  • Pick your fruits and vegetable
This is easily the best, most fun part of making the smoothies.
Berries and tropical fruits such as papayas, pineapples and mangoes are great. Alternatively, a visit to the local market will tell us what is in season and when in season, these fruits tend to be sweeter.
Put those fruits in the freezer before going into the blender for added textures.
For green smoothies, besides the common green such as spinach, kale and bakchoy, we can also add green apples, pears and kiwi for balance without changing that amazing green theme from the final product.
  • Pick your carbs / protein / seasonal add ons
Apart from the fruits and vegetables, always prepare bananas, avocados, or coconut meat ready – adding them in will make the smoothies even creamier.
If you want a more filling smoothie to prepare you for that never ending sun salutations, you can add more carbs from pumpkins, carrots, beets, dragonfruits and oats.
But if you’re going for a more intense class like power yoga or core yoga, you may want to add protein sources in such as peanut butter, cacao or even protein powder.
If you’re feeling hot, add more cooling ingredients such as cucumber, watermelon and fresh mint.
On the other hand, if you’re feeling cold, add more warming ingredients such as ginger, cayenne pepper, cinnamon and turmeric.
You can also add your usual morning pick me ups such as coffee and mocha into the smoothies for either that sense of familiarity or additional caffeine kick.
  • Pick your superfood and toppings
As the last step, you may want to add those superfood in to boost your nutrients intake.
Black sesame, goji berry, maca powder, green tea powder, chia seed, flaxseed, spirulina and medjool dates are great add ons for any smoothies.
Once blended, you may also add toppings like almond shavings, cacao nibs, honey, vanilla beans or even something similar to bubble teas such as grass jelly and coffee jelly.
Happy experimenting!

Why “warrior” pose?

I always thought of yoga as something for “zen and peaceful” people so I didn’t really get the concept of “warrior pose” when I started practising. The Sanskrit name is VIRABADHRASANA : Vira means hero and badhra friend. “Warrior Poses” were not linked to yoga until the 20th century. There were not practiced in traditional yoga.

So what’s the story behind Virabhadrasana?
Shiva was married to Sati but Sati’s father, King Daksha, was not a big fan of Shiva and is strongly opposed to their union.
According to the legend, King Daksha organized a big party where all the members of the heavenly universe were invited except for Shiva and Sati. That was a way to show the couple how much he disliked the lovers’ union.
Sati tried to make her father understand how they loved each other but he insisted on demonstrating how Shiva wasn’t right for her. Sati was so upset by her father’s refusal to see the good in Shiva that she went into medidation to detached herself from the physical body her father created. She ended up burning her physical body to protest her father.
When Shiva learned about Sita’s immolation, he was so sad and angry that he cut off a dreadlock of his hair and threw it to the ground. From that dreadlock, Virabhadra came to life.
Virabhadra was actually Shiva’s revenge warrior. He went to the party and destroyed everything around him and beheaded King Daksha in rage.
Shiva realized later what his warrior had done. His anger slowly turned into sadness and regret. He managed to find King Daksha’s body but the head was so damaged that he replaced it with a goat’s head. King Daksha came back alive and recognized Shiva’s strength and remorse and bowed to him.

You can interpret the sequence of this story in the yoga poses :
Virabhadra 1 : rise, hands in the air > with your weapons in your hands you are ready to strike.
Virabhadra 2 : draw your weapons and strike to destroy everything
Virabhadra 3 : You reach out to behead king Daksha with remorse and compassion

A lot of muscles are engaged there and controlling your breath is key to maintain the posture. All three warrior poses are strong and challenging but are also quite satisfying. As they are standing poses, even as a beginner, you get the feeling that you can improve the posture. At least with Virabadhrasana 1 and 2, both your feet are grounded so you do not need to worry too much about your balance and you can focus on adjusting your alignment and feeling your muscles lengthening.

The warrior poses challenge your body but also your mind. You need to be focus on your breath and stay calm in the posture. The poses bring you strength, focus and confidence. The warrior poses symbolize our inner ability to overcome your ego. They can be a good way to your sadhana practice.

“It is not easy being a warrior, especially one who is constantly fighting against a reactive mind…Warrior poses are a reminder that ferocity exists not only to destroy but also to allow us sufficient strength to achieve integrity, compassions, and a loving state of mind.”

Take heart. Breathe deep.

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:

  1. Cool down the body heat –
    1. Sitkari-h and Sitali-h: only exhale using your left nostril
      1. Sitkari-h: roll tongue behind teeth, hissing
      2. Sitali-h: roll tongue outside of mouth
    2. Energise and relax –
      1. Anuloma viloma

This controls the levels of serotonin and melatonin in the body.

  1. 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.
  2. To relax and get more melatonin: Start inhalation and end exhalation on left side
    1. 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.

  1. Cleansing of thoughts –
    1. Kapalabathi (skull shining breath) – this mainly uses belly breathing.
      1. Sit comfortably in cross legged position.
      2. 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. 😊


Debunking 3 Common Myths of Yoga

Myths about yoga are common, and they can deter or prevent one from ever trying yoga. However, you never know unless you try! Besides, what’s the worst that can happen? In this blog post I will be sharing about the top 3 myths of yoga that have personally impacted me and how I came to realise why they are actually myths.

1. Yoga is for flexible people
From personal experience, whenever I mention yoga to people in my life, their (almost) immediate response is “I’m not flexible so I can’t do yoga…” I recount on when I first started yoga as well and, to be honest, I too had that thought. If I could narrow it down to one reason why I had that pre-conceived thought, it’s probably because I associated yoga with the pictures of yoga practitioners doing intense splits, forward folds, back bends etc. It could be the way yoga is marketed today, in real life through posters or banners as well as on the internet via social media platforms. After practising yoga for a while, I realised how doing yoga actually made me more flexible. Yoga is a practice and a work in progress; one can improve his/her flexibility only through consistent yoga practice. It was then when I finally understood that “Yoga is for flexible people” is only a myth.

2. Yoga is just stretching
This is another common myth of yoga. I personally hear this from people who have never tried yoga or have tried yoga but only went for classes that focus on stretching. It is very likely for someone to have this yoga misconception if he/she focuses on other more flexible students in the class and keeps thinking that he/she will never be as flexible as them. It is normal to compare and feel inferior. At my first ever yoga class, I too had this experience of seeing how others were so flexible and yet I was not. However, I did not feel that way throughout the whole class as we also did sun salutations and balancing postures. It opened my mind and made me realise that there was more to yoga than just stretching. Although yoga is not like weight training or intense cardio workouts, yoga incorporates coordination, strength and balance. You may even be using muscles you have not trained before when practising yoga, and that is what makes yoga more than just stretching. Apart from these physical aspects of yoga, practising yoga exercises your mind and spirit as well!

3. Yoga is difficult
It may seem intimidating when we see yoga practitioners doing advanced postures like crane pose (bakasana), side crow pose (parivrita kakasana) or firefly pose (titibhasana). This can cause us to think that the more advanced the pose, the better the person doing the pose is at yoga. I am definitely guilty of thinking this way in the past as well, since it’s easy to associate tough looking poses with high difficulty and hence identify someone as “good at yoga”. However, in yoga, there is no “I’m a good or bad person at yoga.” Yoga is not meant to be competitive and people who practise yoga should be focusing on their own progress. While this may sound a little selfish, finding like-minded people to accompany you on your yoga journey can make it less lonely and more cohesive. Yoga doesn’t have to be difficult as long as you don’t get discouraged by your own insecurities (easier said than done, I know). So what if you can’t do the pose today? Try again tomorrow! But remember, it’s all in the mind; mind over matter! Be happy doing what you do! 😊

Balancing my love for Christ and yoga

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.”)

Yoga –

  • 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!

Yoga and Climbing Part 3

Pushing vs Pulling
Having explored the physical and mental similarities between Yoga and Climbing, and briefly discussed on how they complement each other, we will discuss more on the complementing aspect of the two disciplines specifically in terms of pushing and pulling movements.
As a form of practice and exercise, many believe that yoga is a completely balanced one because it provides growth opportunity for strength, flexibility and even spirituality.
While there’s a truth in that, on a closer look however, we may realise that yoga focuses a great deal on pushing movements. Majority of the asanas such as Chaturanga, handstand and crow involve pushing our own body weight away from the floor.
With consistent and long term practice, practitioners will definitely develop more strength especially on the shoulder pushing muscles (scapular protraction) but if yoga is the only form of exercise they are doing, functional muscular imbalances in the shoulder will start to develop simply because of the lack in pulling movement (scapular retraction).
As with any other form of exercises, muscular imbalances will translate to higher risk of injuries.
Certain asanas do involve pulling – Utthita Hasta Padanghusthasana pulls the big toe towards the body or Dancer and Mermaid pose pull the foot close to our bodies. However, the force required to do this pulling movement is comparatively small to the pushing movements involved in the other asanas.
Here, we are comparing pushing our own body weight to pulling a toe or feet.
There are other asanas which include scapular retractions such as Purvottanasana, Cobra, Upward Facing Dog, Wheel and other backbending poses but again, the intensity of the force involved is different to the ones involved in pushing our own body weight.
This is the main reason climbing is a great balancing exercise for yoga. Climbing mainly involves pulling our own body weight up the wall / rock. Although some may point out that climbers work their way up by pushing their foot / legs against the foothold, there is still significant shoulder pulling movements involved.
Alternatively, yoga practitioners may also include other exercises such pull up and seated / barbell rows or even make use of resistance bands to perform simple shoulder pulling movements.
With more balanced healthy shoulder strength, we may be able to access poses or climbing problems which seemed impossible previously.

Yoga blocks in our practice

“Do grab a block or two if you need it.”, I often hear this phrase at the start of class from the yoga teachers at the studio I practice at. Not many people – especially regulars – will grab the blocks. Well, me neither. In retrospect, I attached myself to my ego, thinking that I “don’t need it” or “wouldn’t need it” since I have been practicing for quite long and can comfortably do most poses.

However, this is not at all true. I only recently discovered this in a recent vinyasa flow class I attended. Our teacher made it mandatory for us to start with yoga blocks. When floating to half-moon (Ardha Chandrasana), she made all of us rest our bottom hand lightly on the block and further instructed us to open our hips and chest more and lift our non-standing leg higher. I thought this was going to be a lot easier than a half-moon pose without blocks, but it really proved me wrong. It helped me in the later part of the pose when transitioning to half-moon without blocks, to be conscious of my hand placement, where I placed my body weight, and my alignment.

From this, I learned an important lesson. In both yoga and in our lives, we must be willing and ready to let go of any ego and instead be open to finding foundation and engage in continuous learning with humility. I struggle in many standing or balancing poses and having a block could actually assist me better or help me correct my alignment. It could even expedite my progress in the poses. Overall, blocks are amazing for all levels of yoga, and be used for various functions – balance, alignment, strengthening core, working adductors etc.

Generating space for step throughs: some of us may struggle with stepping through from Downwards Facing Dog to Warrior 1 (Virabhadrasana A) or High Lunge (Ashta Chandrasana) because we are unable to create space from the lift of our hips or rounding of the back and engage the iliopsoas and core muscles. Usage of a block can help us train this.

  1. Place the block at a comfortable height parallel to the front of the mat
  2. Lift one leg and bend knee towards the chest
  3. Shift body weight forward
  4. Stack shoulders over wrist
  5. Lift the foot of the floating leg up and over the leg
  6. Squeeze into your chest
  7. Wrap shoulder blades by pressing down into hands
  8. Lightly land the foot between your hands
  9. Stand to warrior 1 or high lunge.
  10. Advance to the next block height

Balancing and alignment in Half-moon pose: Beginners usually have difficulty touching the floor and even if they manage to, they throw their weight to the bottom hand and fail to focus on opening the hips. This can be gradually improved by first starting with a block. Take note that weight should not be on supporting hand but on the standing leg (microbend). You should eventually aim to touch only the fingertip of the middle finger down towards the floor.

  1. Support the bottom hand on the block when coming from Trikonasana to Half Moon
  2. Rotate the upper torso upwards
  3. When stable, straighten the hands on hips to the ceiling
  4. Press lower hand lightly to the floor and lift the inner ankle of the standing foot upwards so that the standing hip doesn’t bear deadweight
  5. Dorsi flexion of the foot of the non-standing leg and lift the leg higher up
  6. Once comfortable, advance to a lower block height

Yoga as Strength Training

“What sport do you do?”, “What’s your gym routine”, – these are questions I am often asked, to which I always reply with a smile, “I only do yoga!”. In return, I always get the same shocked faces. I would describe my build as one that is more towards the ‘buffer’ side. Though I do not entirely love my body fit, I have come to accept it! I have done various high intensity sports in the past like touch rugby, but I would credit my muscle gain to yoga. It was quite unexpected even for me. I expected yoga to make me just really flexible, but in addition to that, my muscles toned a lot too. It felt somewhat satisfying to see my body transform in ways I never thought it could. However, everyone’s body is built differently, and everyone’s diet differs. Not everyone will achieve the same body type by doing yoga – some become leaner, some become more flexible.

Many experts advice doing strength training at least twice a week. Strength training has many benefits including increased strength, better bone health, increasing metabolism and decreasing risk of injury. The idea of strength training seems to immediately relate to going to the gym and having to use weight machines, dumbbells and resistance bands. While yoga should not be focused on how it sculpts one physique, it is indeed one benefit of yoga. Certain styles of yoga help to define muscle and tone our body: Ashtanga yoga, Modern Vinyasa Flow, Sivananda yoga, Hatha yoga, among many others.

Rather than lifting progressive weights, in yoga, you are ‘lifting’ your own body weight, which in a way takes a lot more skill, time and determination. Another difference is that weight training exercises often isolate and work on one muscle group at any one time. On the other hand, yoga uses muscles all over the body in most poses (when done properly).

  1. Bridge pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana): strengthens glutes (gluteus maximus) and legs (hamstrings). It also helps to stretch the back and neck. Advanced variation: root down through one foot, lift the other knee into chest and extend the heel to sky.
  2. Plank pose (Phalakasana): tones core (transversus abdominis, obliques), and strengthens shoulders (rotator cuff and deltoids), glutes etc. It also improves posture. Advanced variation: side plank / alternate leg lifting up.
  3. Chair pose (Utkatasana): tones quadriceps, glutes (gluteus medius and minimus) and adductors among many others. It also stretches the Achilles tendons and shins, which is therapeutic for people with flat feet.

These are just a few yoga poses that can build muscle and tone the body when done repetitively, safely and properly. While yoga may not be the fastest route to a stronger physique, it will definitely be effective for building muscles in a dynamic manner. Yoga asanas (typically the more intense ones) provide an all rounded option to burn fat, build strength, and increase flexibility.