Starting a home practice

Having started going for classes 2-3 years ago, my practice usually revolved around going for a 60 min class maybe once or twice on a good week. I just didn’t quite know what to do without a teacher instructing through poses and keeping count. Doing yoga at home didn’t even cross my mind. It’s quite possible that I didn’t want to have to think what next and liked that I just have to follow along especially after a long tiring day at work.

Last year, things changed a little and I decided to buy myself a good mat so that it would entice me to practice yoga on my own rather than depend on classes. I tried sometimes for a couple of minutes whatever I could briefly remember from classes or watched online videos that could guide me along. However, I would easily get distracted and could never stay on the mat for longer than 20 minutes.

Jump forward to this week, I realised how I actually look forward to time on the mat where I can have my personal practice, be it trying to master a pose or simple stretching out in cat-cow. The time we’ve spent on lesson planning comes in handy here and what better way to make use of these skills learnt than to apply on yourself. I find myself thinking of how I want to start my practice, what warm up poses should I start with, and if I had a pose I wanted to master, how I should complement it with some preparatory poses and then counter poses.

It is quite interesting looking back seeing how my practice has evolved and will continue to evolve. As for now I’m excited for what’s next and where this new home practice will take me.

Studying for the theory exam

As we’re reaching close to the end of the course, the stress of an exam is beginning to set in. I’ve not had to study since I last left Uni. What if I can’t remember all the tough Sanskrit names, all the details on the muscular or skeletal system!? While it all seems a lot more daunting now with a set deadline being exam day, I also recognise that push when under pressure and time constraint circumstances can sometimes be the push we all need. The hard part is juggling time at work and time I have to study. I started my week with a plan and a checklist of stuff to tick off as the week progressed but as always things get pushed back especially if I had a long day at work and didn’t come home in time for my allocated study session, things would naturally have to be carried over to the next day. Suddenly I realised I have 5 days to the exam but not that much information in my head. This is where I found some study tips really handy and I thought I’d share it here.

1. Printed out a poster I found online of the Ashtanga Primary series poses. While the printed version didn’t have great resolution, you can still work with it. After learning the names of poses from the text, I tested myself by writing out the names in Sanskrit.

2. Learning some key Sanskrit words and their meaning. Master Sree had taught us some cheat codes to help in remembering Sanskrit. It’s easier knowing the meaning of “Pada”, “Ardha”, and other repeated words.
3. Creating cue cards that you can ask your family or friend to test you on. I even looked up an app for this but didn’t have the time to test it out. Apparently, also very helpful for learning a new language.
Lastly, amidst all the studying and stress of an exam, remember to practice Pranayama and some asanas. You could take it as killing 2 birds with one stone, getting some learning in as well as your daily practice.

Why I decided to do a YTT

It has been something that I have considered since 2017, but always seemed quite far reaching for me given I felt I was not good enough in my practice for something so intense.

Come 2019, I’m still at the same level I would deem myself as 2 years ago and I thought to myself maybe the only way to get better in my practice is to just go for it. While searching for studios and which YTT I wanted to join, I also discovered my close friend and yoga buddy, Stacy was considering a YTT too. After some convincing we both decided starting our course in Jan 2020 would be a good way to start the year and went ahead to put in a down payment making it OFFICIAL.

Now looking back at the 9 weeks of Yoga, I can say one thing you’ll never be 100% ready but if it’s some thing you truly want, the only way to get better is to just go for it.

Being present

Inhale, exhale. One breath, one move.

Behind this cue of action, it is actually reminding us to be aware. This sense of awareness can be translated to different parts of our life.

Being aware of our surroundings, our train of thoughts, reaction to different situation as well as our own emotive states. Oftentimes, we are so ingrained with our daily habits – brushing teeth with our master hand, picking up the phone to check the time when we wake, wearing watch on the left wrist and etc. It has become second nature to us that we do not even realize or be aware of it until either we lose the privilege to do the same things or if someone pointed it out to us.

Practicing yoga has made me more aware, specifically, more aware of my breathing, the limits of my physical body as well as the noise inside my head. By not listening to my body and breath during asana practice, there is a high probability of me injuring myself.

Being aware also helps me to stay grounded and stay present. People always say, be in the moment. But do they practice it? The pace of life in Singapore is so fast and ever changing. It is so easy to get swept up with the paper chase, material security and what not. Are we truly appreciating being in the moment – e.g. savouring the taste and texture of the food in our mouth, appreciating the time people took out to spend us with or just shovelling food in as we reply our text messages and make plans for later?

With the current flurry of fluctuation and uncertainty that the world is facing right now, yoga reminds me that one breath, one move. Be present with yourself, appreciate this current moment and sometimes, that is all we need, for that moment.

Breath

Breathing – an essential thing that our body does automatically. It is the first and last thing that we do. But so often overlooked and taken for granted.

Growing up with sinusitis, I always struggled with proper breathing / clear nasal airway. But I did not think much about it. It is only when I started practicing Yoga that I realize the importance of breath. During lessons, we went through the practice of breath control – Prāṇāyāma. It consists of synchronizing the breath with movements.

On a physical level, by using Prāṇāyāma techiques, we are able to strengthen our respiratory organs, regulate the inhalation, retention and exhalation of breath. On an emotional level, our breathing patterns are also very closely linked to our emotive states. We breathe differently when we are experiencing anger, sadness. Being more aware and conscious of our breath, we are able to use Prāṇāyāma techiques to regulate our emotive state.

Below are some examples of the different types of Prāṇāyāma that we can practice daily:

Heating
Heating pranayama techniques are highly vitalising and energizing.
Kapalabhati – The emphasis is on the exhalation through strong, fast abdominal contractions.
Bhastrika – It is similar to Kapalabhati, except that for Bhastrika, both the inhale and exhale are forceful. It is physically and energetically more intense and demanding than Kapalabhati.
One physical benefit of the above 2 pranayama techniques is that it strengthens the abdominal muscles and digestive organs while one mental benefit is that it is beneficial for preparing the mind for work that requires focus.

Note: The above two are strong pranayama and not suited for everyone (e.g. pregnant, period, high blood pressure).

Balancing
The flow of breath in each nostril is intimately connected with the left and right side of our body. The right nostril represents Pingala Nadi (Solar energy) and the left nostril represents Ida Nadi (Moon energy). Balancing pranayama techniques are used for purification of the energy channels in our body. 
Nadi Shodhana – This is also known as alternate nostril breathing. Firstly, start inhaling from the left nostril with slow, deep and rhythmic breath while keeping the right nostril closed with the thumb. At the end of inhalation close the left nostril and open the right and breathe slowly and deeply. After exhalation through the right nostril, inhale through the right and exhale through the left. This completes one round of the practice.
One physical benefit is that it enhances the vital capacity of our lungs and helps to relax the rhythms of the heart and nervous system and one mental benefit is that it calms our mind.

Cooling
Cooling pranayama techniques leaves a cooling effect on the body. It cools down the body, especially the brain.
Sheetali Roll the tongue into a tube-like structure, through which one inhales deeply and then at the end of inhalation one closes the mouth and exhales through the nose. 
Sheetkari – Roll the tongue up behind the teeth. Lips are opened and teeth are exposed. A long, slow and deep breath is taken through the mouth and at the end of inhalation, lips are closed and exhalation happens through the nose. When one inhales though the teeth, the breath creates a hissing sound and results in a cooling effect in the mouth region.

One physical benefit is that it enables us to cool our body down when excessive heat is generated and one mental benefit is that it helps us to relax and helps with insomnia.

The environment that I have placed myself in is always in a rush, rushing to get work done, rushing for class etc, leaving me barely any time to catch my breath. Let this be a reminder that amidst all the happenings in our life, we should set aside time to be more aware of our breath, and in turn our physical and emotive states.

More than a physical practice

“I can’t do Yoga because I can’t touch my toes”, “Can you do /teach me how to do headstand, handstand, pincha, scorpion, crow” etc. These are some common statements that pops up whenever someone ask me about Yoga, which somehow revolves around the physical (asana) practice.

Contrary to modern yoga practice, it is more than just a physical practice. After weeks of delving deeper into Yoga as a subject, I learnt that Yoga is a group of physical, mental and spiritual practices / disciplines. In the yoga philosophy, I learnt about the 3 Gunas – Sattva, Rajas and Tamas – which are essentially the 3 fundamental aspects of Nature. The gunas cannot be separated or removed but can be consciously acted on to encourage their increase or decrease. A guna can be increased or decreased through the interaction and influence of external objects, lifestyle practices and thoughts. Being aware of these 3 Gunas, it acts as a signpost – guide that indicate where one is and where one wants to be.

Sattva – a state of harmony, balance and contentment

Rajas – a state of energy, action and change

Tamas – a state of darkness, dullness, inertia and illusion

The Tamasic practice is interesting because the traits associated with it is the opposite of Sattva. However, the difference does not mean that it is not able to achieve the same end goal of a Sattvic practice. A tamasic practice can go so deeply into the darkness, into all things unthinkable to mortals that one comes into the light. 

Light and darkness. This and that. There is no wrong / right / perfect practice but find one that works for you and keep seeking the light.

The Yoga Journey

I used to run during my university days and to push myself further, I continued pushing myself to run longer, faster. After some time, I realize that I am not improving and that my training is stagnant. Thus, I decide to change direction and look for something less cardio intensive that targets different muscle groups. I chanced upon a really good trial offer for one month of unlimited practice at a Bikram Yoga studio. Maybe it also helped that I started my practice in winter. I looked forward to rushing to a heated room and sweating it out.  Half way between the standing and seated practice, there is one Savasana (corpse pose) where we are instructed to empty our mind and just focus on our breathing. I remember the teacher saying that ironically, this is the hardest pose because often time, during this pose, most people will either be thinking about their checklists or doze off. We struggle with letting go, our thoughts, our ego and our body. Something clicked inside me.

Day in, day out. That was how I started having a consistent yoga practice until I came back to Singapore and got caught up with everything else. Still, my mind constantly returned back to the time I was practicing consistently. I remember feeling different and more grounded. I remember telling myself, I need to find that feeling back and I want to share the positive energy that it has given me.

Fast forward to now, as what the teacher mentioned, “Yoga finds you. Even if you are not looking for it.” I am nearing the end of YTT, a course which I did not know what to expect and also a course, which I told myself, I will only enrol in after 5 years of consistent practice – when I have mastered my fundamental poses and when I have found stability in my work.

I am no where near 5 years of consistent practice nor can I do a proper chaturanga, crow pose, headstand. Are these the pre-requisites for this course? No.

Instead of focusing so much on the outcomes (e.g. ability to do fancy poses, to teach yoga), all that is needed is just taking the first step out. Breathe into the spaces that are tensed. Be ready to explore and understand your body, mind and soul. When your body is ready for more, it will be yours. Our practice is always with us, wherever we go.

For now, find joy in the learnings and teachings.

Yoga and stress

Most of us who practice yoga regularly knows that yoga helps to reduce or manage our stress. But how does yoga really help?

When we are stressed, tension is stored in the body, making us feel tight and sometimes even causing pain. Most of the stress that we feel would show itself as tension in our shoulders or tightness in our hips. Yoga helps manage stress using 3 methods: 1) Breath control 2) Clearing the mind 3) Relaxation

Breath Control

We also know this as pranayama – breathing is an involuntary act but yoga increases the awareness we have of our breath. When we are stressed, our breath becomes short and we tend to breathe through the chest and throat. By actively breathing using our belly, we slow down the breathing, which in turns, relaxes the body.

Clearing the mind 

Our minds are constant racing from one thought to another, often juggling multiple thoughts within a single minute, dwelling on the past and wondering about the future. Yoga helps to clear the mind, or bring it to focus on a single thought through 2 well known techniques. The first has been outlined above – breath control. By focusing on your breathing, you focus on the here and now, as each breathe is intricately tied to the present moment. Focusing on the breath is also a meditation technique as it excludes other thoughts that may otherwise come into your mind. Another way to clear the mind is to do the asanas, or yoga poses. The poses are physical and requires mental concentration, so much as so that other thoughts would have to be cast aside to focus on the pose itself.

Relaxation

After every yoga session, we lie in savasana, which is most of our favourite pose. But do you know that it is also the hardest pose to achieve? In this pose, we are supposed to be completely relaxed and free from thoughts. The other form of relaxation in yoga is known as yoga nidra, or yoga sleep. It is meant for a longer and deeper form of relaxation where the participant would experience alpha brain waves. It is the state where the body sleeps but the mind remains lucid. Some school of thoughts also believe that yoga nidra helps one get better quality sleep.

So, the next time you are feeling stressed, or have trouble sleeping, why not come for a yoga class?

 

 

Take advantage of Breathing

Before doing YTT, i never encountered so many breathing techniques even though i have practiced yoga for years. And often we hear instructors repeating “keep breathing” “breath deeply”. Breathing, or what is called Pranayama in Yoga is a vital element in asana practice.

Some basic rules are: exhale when fold forward, twisting or when the body goes out of the center. Inhale when the body is in the center. Exception is back ward bend where you inhale while going down. I personally find this very usually doing twisting asanas, ie. Marichiyasana C or D in Ashtanga. Every inhale i try to come back a bit for lengthening spine and exhale i can twist deeper.

Here are 2 of my favorite breathing techniques that i practice regularly:

  1. Kapalbhati- passive inhale and forceful exhale. Exhales are generated by powerful contractions of the lower belly (between the pubis and navel), which push air out of the lungs. Inhales are responses to the release of this contraction, which sucks air back into the lungs (Yoga Journal, 2017). The important thing here is to isolate the lower belly contraction which many of us can’t control at the beginning. Place a palm on the lower belly and gently press it during exhalation helps to find the feeling. 20-30 cycles per time and as we improve, the pace of the breathing cycle can be increased. Kapalbhati is good for morning practice or before yoga practice to warm up the body and activate the circulation of the energy.

 

  1. Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing and Breath hold)- we can either do left-left or right-right breathing. Using right thumb to close right nostril and right ring finger to close left nostril through the whole practice. Keep the right nostril open, inhale, then close it , breath retention, and open and exhale slowly through the left. This is one cycle. Repeat 3 to 5 times, then release the hand mudra and go back to normal breathing (Yoga Journal, 2007). This is a great breathing practice to reduce stress and anxiety. Practice left-left before bed time and cooling down the body. Practice right-right during day time or before/after exercise to gently warm up the body.

During this difficult time, let’s take advantage of breathing and breath it right to benefit our physical and mental healthiness.

Yoga and Awareness

One thing that yoga has taught me is awareness.

Physical awareness: Being aware of my surroundings, being aware of my posture, being aware of the way I am presenting myself.

Mental awareness: Being aware of what I am thinking, being aware of how I am reacting to situation, being aware of the inner conversations that I have.

Emotional awareness: Being aware of my emotional state at work, with friends, when I am alone.

Sometimes we get so caught up in our daily lives that we forget to be in the moment. Have you ever had a moment where you stopped and wondered what happened to all your time? All those days? All those months? All the years? Those moments come to me most during the night, just before I slip into slumber… I suppose this is when there is an increase of alpha brain waves. Alpha waves (8 to 12 Hz) are present when your brain is in an idling default-state typically created when you’re daydreaming or consciously practicing mindfulness or meditation.

With regular practice of yoga, these moments come to me more often, as I turn inwards to reflect on my actions and my thoughts more consciously. How are my actions affecting my surrounding, my environment? What would I do differently if I were given a second chance? What if I just lived in the moment instead of chasing something far away in the distant future?

Sometimes, as cliche as it sounds, yoga brings you back to your mat, to smell the roses, to appreciate this life. And sometimes, that is all we really need at that moment.