Delicious vegetable muffins

Starting on a vegetarian diet can be a daunting task for some of us. For me, I decided I could revamp my diet by starting vegetarian on my favourite—desserts! I am a great fan of desserts (maybe all ladies will make the same confession) and I love muffins! Soft, crumply, yummy. Mmmmm…
And having worked as an au-pair, I know how difficult it is to get children started on vegetables. So, below are two recipes with vegetables incorporated for the beginning vegetarian and the little ones.
1. Broccoli Muffins

Ingredients  (makes 10 muffins):
375 g broccoli
1 egg
250 ml milk
250 g self raising flour
1/2 tsp mixed spice
125 g mature cheddar cheese, grated

Method :
1.      Break the broccoli into small florets and wash thoroughly.
2.      Whisk the egg and milk together in a mixing bowl, then sift in the flour and mixed spice.
3.      Stir until the mixture is just combined.
4.      Finally, fold in the broccoli and grated cheese.
5.      Spoon the mixture into lightly greased muffin tins.
6.      Bake in a preheated moderately hot oven 190C/375F for 30 minutes.
 
2. Carrot Muffins
Ingredients (makes 20-24 muffins):
250 g butter
220 g caster sugar
4 eggs
750 g self raising flour
375 ml soured cream
500 ml cooked carrot puree
60 g chopped nuts (optional)
Method :
1.      Cream the butter, sugar, orange rind and vanilla until light and fluffy.
2.      Beat in the eggs, then add the flour, soured cream and carrot puree.
3.      Continue beating until all the ingredients are thoroughly combined.
4.      Spoon the mixture into greased muffin tins (deep round tins available from kitchenware shops).
5.      Sprinkle with nuts, if desired and bake at 180C/350F for 25 – 30 minutes or until the muffins turn a golden color.

The effort in effortless

Can there be effort in being effortless?
 
No, we are keen to say, since literally and logically, the two are contradictory. If anything is effortless, then it is clearly, without any effort, as we would understand from the suffix ‘-less’.
 
But is that really the case?
 
I started thinking about this concept of effort and effortless following the discussion about the eight limbs of Yoga, among which there is Dharana and Dhyana.
 
Dharana is when the mind is concentrated upon an external object or an internal idea, to the exclusion of all other thoughts. To put things simple, it can be likened to intense concentration. Dhyana, on the other hand, while also requiring deep intense concentration, is more concerned about directing an unbroken flow of thought towards God to the exclusion of other sensual perception.  It is meditation.
 
Directing. An unbroken flow of thought. Towards God. Exclusion of perception. Were these the differentiating elements, I asked.
 
Not really, I was told. In fact, what distinguishes the two seemingly similar concepts is the notion of effort. Dharana requires effort: there is a need to consolidate one’s energy into the mere act of concentration. Dhyana, in contrast, is effortless. Meaning to say, all that about maintaining that unbroken flow of thought, making sure it is directed to God, ensuring that all senses of perception are blocked out, become effortless.
 
Interestingly, I was also told that the state of being effortless is also what we aim to work towards in the asana practice. Eventually, the Ashtanga practice, instead of being sympathetic, will become parasympathetic.
 
That, I must confess, is contradictory and a bit difficult to accept.
 
Contradictory because, for the past few days, my towels have been soaking wet after the asana practice, and they have only been getting wetter (and I switching to bigger towels). Clearly, my body was getting a good cardiovascular workout. Not only does my heart beat faster, my muscles too work harder, constantly pushing towards the next level. How can this intensity ever become parasympathetic?
 
Never, I would be keen to tell you.
 
But as the number of days passed, slowly, I think I am beginning to understand the technique behind the effortless.
 
 
There is an effort to focus the mind so intently while going into the asana that the alignment just snaps into place. There is no unnecessary effort expended in tucking elevated buttocks or protruding tailbones.
 
There is an effort to lengthen the Ujjayi breath to a rate as long as one needs to get into the pose, thus making sure that the necessary prana is supplied to the relevant muscles. There is thus no unnecessary effort expended contracting and relaxing the intercostals and diaphragm to grasp for air.
 
There is an effort to fix the dristi to one spot the moment one gets into the pose. There is therefore no unnecessary effort is trying to still the body because the mind is already still.
 
There is an effort to make sure the mind, body and soul stays as one the moment the practice begins. With that in place, there is hence no necessity to put in any more effort.
 
And that is why eventually the practice will become para-sympathetic. Because with an extended practice, the mind, body and soul now is in such an agile and mobile state that all just flows nicely into place.
 
It has become effortless because the effort was always there. It can become effortless only when the effort is always there.
 

Vegetarian Recipe–Stuffed Capsicum

This is a filling recipe that is automatically portion controlled according to the size of the capsicum
4-6 capsicum–any color you prefer
4 cups cooked brown rice, barley or quinoa
1 to 2 cups (total) diced onion, carrot, celery….use what you have on hand
1/2 cup grated cheese–your favorite, but I prefer parmesan or cheddar
Seasoning of your choice–for Italian style, 1/2 to 1 cup of pasta sauce.  For a Mexican style, use salsa
Preheat oven to 350 F, 180 C
Prepare the barley or brown rice according to package directions.  Dice and lightly saute the onions, carrots, celery, or any other veggies you are using.  They can also go in raw. 
Combine pasta sauce with the vegetables and rice.  If you like cheese, you can add extra here!
Wash and trim the capsicum–cut around the stem and remove seeds and any white pith.  Place capsicum in a large rectangular baking dish.  If they do not stand up nicely, you can trim the bottoms flat–but not too much or the filling will leak out the bottom.  Pour about 1/2 cup of water in the bottom of the dish.
Fill the capsicum almost to the top with the rice mixture.  Leftover rice mixture can be used in a wrap or on salad.  Top the stuffed capsicum with shredded cheese.  Bake approximately 30-40 minutes until cheese is bubbly and capsicum are softened.  Serve hot

Pratyahara: Sense Withdrawal

Pratyahara:  Withdrawl of the Senses
Pratyahara is described as withdrawl from the 5 senses (taste, touch, sight, sound, smell).  It is derived from the Sanskrit words “prata”, which means away from/against, and “ahara”, which means food, or anything taken into ourselves.  Pratyahara links the external aspects of yoga (yamas/niyamas, asana, pranayama) with the internal (meditation, enlightenment).  It is the 5th step in the 8 limbs of Raja Yoga.  The 8 limbs/steps are performed sequentially, as the mastery of each one is required to move to the next level.  To achieve pratyahara, the mind must first be turned inward—only then can the senses (indriyas) follow.  Pratyahara is a mental function and involves both cognition and expression (physical and astral planes)—so one must suspend both external stimulation of senses and those within the mind.  This means that one must go beyond reducing external stimuli (closing eyes, sitting in a quiet place, touching as little as possible) but must extend into what is going on in the mind (“seeing” with the mind’s eye, for example).  Pratayahara is described in yoga sutras 2.54, 2.55.

2.54 When the mental organs of senses and actions (indriyas) cease to be engaged with the corresponding objects in their mental realm, and assimilate or turn back into the mind-field from which they arose, this is called pratyahara, and is the fifth step.
(sva vishaya asamprayoge chittasya svarupe anukarah iva indriyanam pratyaharah)
2.55 Through that turning inward of the organs of senses and actions (indriyas) also comes a supreme ability, controllability, or mastery over those senses inclining to go outward towards their objects.
(tatah parama vashyata indriyanam)

 “Clinging” to the action of sensing will hinder the mind from withdrawl and does not lead to meditation.  Continuing sensory function (internal or external) is merely relaxation.  Pratyahara is the suspension of both.  One must train the mind to turn inward and suspend sense gratification on the astral plane—where the mind goes, the physical senses will follow.  For example:  Breaking a bad habit.  Habits arise from gratification of the physical senses.  To completely stop the action can lead to suppression and frustration.  Using the principles of pratyahara, if the mental “habit” can broken first, physical will follow.  By withdrawing from the sensory stimulus, the mind is taking control of the sensory function and desire on a physical level is lost.
Pratyahara practices include:
Pranayama—the focus is solely on the breath, turning attention inward
Concentration or Visualization of the 3rd eye (Ajna Chakra)
Focus on one sense only.  The mind will naturally roam between the senses.  By pinpointing one and focusing on that sense only, the mind will eventually tire of it and withdraw.
Advanced practitioners can stop nerve impulses from reaching their centers in the brain through pranayama and thus “turn off” nerves.
The final form of Pratyahara is to withdraw attention from anything that is unwholesome and distracting for the mind.  The practitioner will thus lose the desire for things he/she formerly used to gratify the senses and will have less attachments. 
References: 

  1. Swamij.com  “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2.54, 2.55.  Pratyahara or sense withdrawl…”
  2. Wikipedia.com  “Pratyahara”

Deepening Dhanurasana

Dhaurasana is also known as the Bow Pose for its resemblance to the drawn bow. The torso and thighs are the bow while the upper extremities and the legs are the string. This asana provides a good massage to the abdominal organs (stomach, intestines, pancreas, reproductive organs). As such, it can increase the digestive power of the individual, cure constipation, and help alleviate menstrual disorders among women.
To begin, lie on the belly with hands alongside the torso. Facing downwards, the spine is in a neutral position. The shoulders are rotated inwards with palms facing upwards. The knees are hip width apart. During exhalation, the knees are flexed, with the heels brought as close to the buttocks as possible. As the hands reach back to grasp the ankles, the elbows supinate slightly such that the eyes of the elbows are facing each other. The tailbone is tucked in as the lumbar region is flexed.
To lift up, inhale and lift the thighs away from the floor. The upper torso and the head will be pulled off the floor. At the same time, the heels are lifted away from the buttocks as the knee joints extend from a flexed position. This action is made possible by the quadriceps femoris muscles  which are in concentric contraction. As these muscles contract concentrically against the resistance of the arms and forearms, tension is created which then pull the body into an arc. The lumbar region and the hip joints will be extended in this action.
To deepen the pose by pulling up further, a few actions are necessary. 1) The shoulders are retracted and the trapezius muscles in concentric contraction. As such, the antagonistic deltoids are in eccentric contraction. This opens up the chest further and energizes the heart chakra. 2) The erector spinae is in concentric contraction while the abdominal muscles are in eccentric contraction. This action stretches the whole spine, thus giving rise to its sympathetic effects. 3) The gluteal muscles are in concentric contraction, thus assisting in lifting the heels away from the buttocks. Collectively, these actions provide more lift, thus lifting the pelvis away from the floor. This also gives the knee joint a further extension.
The stomach pressing against the floor will make breathing difficult. However, breathing will give the abdominal organs a good massage hence giving rise to its many benefits, as the upper half of the body rock upwards with each inhalation and drop forwards with each exhalation.
 

Bean Burger

Here’s another recipe that I frequently use. My friends in the yoga teacher training class would find this familiar because I often bring a bean burger/sandwich for lunch after our morning practice. I find it nutritious, full of protein and therefore ideal for a post-workout meal, and it’s also easy to make. This recipe makes 6 burgers so as with the lentil soup, I freeze them and take it out to thaw in the fridge if I’m going to have it the next day.
Ingredients:- 1 can (200g) of kidney beans (Mustafa sells several brands of kidney beans but I still find S&W the best tasting), 1 can (200g) of black beans, 100g breadcrumbs, 2tsp of ground cumin, 1 egg, 6 wholemeal buns (1 bun at a time of course!), 150ml low-fat natural yogurt, juice from 1/2 a lime, small bunch of coriander, stalks and leaves roughly chopped, salad leaves.
1. Tip the drained beans into a large  bowl. Roughly crush the beans with a potato masher.
2. Add the breadcrumbs, ground cumin, coriander stalks and leaves and egg. Season to taste. Mix the ingredients together until well combined.
3. Divide the mixture into 6 portions. Wet your hands and shape the mixture into burger patties. Pan fry or grill for 4-5 minutes on each side until golden and crisp.
4. Mix yogurt and lime juice with a healthy dash of ground pepper. Spread the yogurt mix on the wholemeal bun (in place of mayonnaise). Top each bun with a bean patty and salad leaves and serve. Sometimes I also add some cheese and if I run out of yogurt I use Branston, a pickled spread that I discovered in England but is available at Cold Storage.

Dissecting Purvottanasana

Purvottanasana is also known as the Upward Plank. This asana stretches the front of the body and strengthens the back of the body. To get into the pose, sit in Dandasana. Hands are hyper-extended as they are placed 1 foot length behind the hips, fingers pointing forward. The elbows are slightly pronated. There is a slight inward rotation of the hip joints as the big toes are placed inwards and heels outward. The adductor magnus and gracilis are in concentric contraction. The uddiyana bandha is engaged.
The hands and inner feet press down firmly on the mat to push up. In this action, the posterior deltoid muscles are in concentric contraction while the anterior deltoid muscles are in eccentric contraction. In addition, the triceps brachii are in concentric contraction while the biceps brachii are are in eccentric contraction. Also, the erector spinae is in concentric contraction while the abdominal muscles are in eccentric contraction. This gives the spine a slight backbend while lifting the sternum up toward the ceiling. At the same time, the rhomboid muscles are in concentric contraction as they draw the shoulders towards the spine. This causes the shoulders to be retracted to open up the chest. This action results in the eccentric contraction of the pectoral muscles. The head drops back as the cervical spine is hyper-extended. This helps to further open the chest.
The gluteus muscles and the hamstrings (bicep femoris and semitendinosus) are in concentric contraction to extend the hips upwards. A strong engagement in these two muscle groups will provide an extra lift to the abdominal organs towards the ceiling, thus stretching them. On the other hand, the iliopsoas and rectus femoris are in eccentric contraction. At the hip joints, the body hinges upwards. Collectively, these actions give rise to an energy rising from the Mula Bandha. The anterior tibialis and gastrocnemius are in concentric contraction as the toes are in plantar flexion.
As such, this asana is good for strengthening the back muscles, the shoulder muscles, as well as the arms, wrists and legs. It also massages the abdominal organs while toning the kidneys.

Parallels between Yoga Philosophy and the Christian Bible

The decision to pursue Yoga Teachers’ Training was not an easy one. After all, I have been told about how Yoga contradicts my religious beliefs and that my faith didn’t support it. To be sure I consulted the right people on the issue, I had even written to priests regarding the acceptability of Yoga in my faith. It was a subject I treaded carefully, because I love Yoga, and I love my faith, both very much. I have had thoughts about fusing them! Apparently, some like-minded individuals have done so. Currently, a style known as ‘Christian Yoga’ is becoming very popular in the United States. A typical session is just like any other Yoga class, the only difference being that the meditation is based either on scriptural readings or on the teachings from the Bible.
 
The reasons for its popularity are clear. Firstly, many devout Christians are uncomfortable with the seemingly association of Yoga and Hinduism, due to the use of Sanskrit terminology and the devotional chants. Secondly, many look upon yoga as a meditation-in-action, so as to better prepare the mind to seek a deeper relationship with their Christian faith during meditation. Religious purists, on the other hand, are protesting against such a combination. Fundamentalists argue for Yoga to be kept separate from religion.
 
What about you? What is your stand on this matter?
 
The book Exodus in the Old Testament records the Ten Commandments, which is a central pillar in the Christian faith. The Ten Commandments speak of the ideal Christian behaviour. God speaks to his followers (Exodus 20: 1-17):
 

  1. I am the Lord your God. You shall not have any other gods except me. You shall not make for yourself an idol.
  2. You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.
  3. You shall remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.
  4. You shall honour your father and mother.
  5. You shall not kill.
  6. You shall not commit adultery.
  7. You shall not steal.
  8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
  9. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.
  10. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour.

 
It should be emphasized hereby that the Christian definition of “neighbour” extends beyond the current English language definition of “somebody living next door/ nearby”. In the Bible, the neighbour takes on a more generic definition of being ‘everybody’. Hence, you and I are neighbours, in that sense.
 
Reflecting on the Yama, which is one of the eight limbs of Yoga, I found a close parallel between Yoga Philosophy and these commandments. Specifically, Yama talks about the restraints of the Yogi, which in my opinion, is somewhat like a code of conduct. It includes Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Brahmacharya (sublimation of sexual energy), Asteya (non-covetedness) and Aparigraha (non-accepting of bribes).
 
Comparing the two:
 

Yama Corresponding to Commandment:
Ahimsa – Non-violence (5) You shall not kill.
Satya – Truthfulness (8) You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
Brahmacharya – sublimation of sexual energy (6) You shall not commit adultery.
 
(9) You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.
 
Asteya – Non-stealing (7) You shall not steal.
 
Aparigraha – non-accepting of bribes (10) You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour.

 
There is hence no basis for the argument that Yoga contradicts the Christian faith.
 
Personally, I dedicate the practice to God before I begin. That way, I consciously practise Ishwara-pranidha by letting God lead me through my practice. There is no ego at work, only contentment (Santosha) in where I can be. The way I see it, the asanas are but a means of stilling the mind, so that I will have an increased capacity for concentration and hence God-centred meditation.
 
The truth is, I really don’t see why Yoga can’t be incorporated into my faith, especially when there is a conscious effort to involve God in the practice, as what the apostle Paul says in the Bible: “Your body, you know, is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you since you received him from God. You are not your own property; you have been bought and paid for. That is why you should use your body for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20).
 

The best time is now

Patanjali wrote in Yoga Sutra 1.1 atha yoga anushasanam, which can be translated into
“Now, begins the study and practice of Yoga”.
 
Atha, referring to ‘now’, also implies a transition to this practice and pursuit. The fact is, the English language does not have sufficient eloquence to capture the essence of this beautiful sentence. In a raw sense, the sentence implies that after our many actions in life, and whatever preparatory practices we might have done, now, we have arrived at this auspicious stage of desire and commitment towards Self-realization, the highest goal of Yoga.
 
To me, the focus of that statement is about living in the ‘now’, which is simply staying in the present moment.
 

It is a concept that I learnt in class today, in my fourth consecutive day of the Teachers’ Training Course. The day has been especially tiring as I struggled with the asanas in my fatigued muscles and lethargic body, particularly my painful hamstrings and shoulders. But as I am consolidating my thoughts for the day, one incident—or more appropriately put, one moment—is especially striking. It is that moment when I found my mind drifting away upon Paalu’s instructions to go into Kapotsana.
 
Then, Paalu had demonstrated the asana with the student sitting directly opposite me. As she executed the pose with relative ease, I remember feeling envious and thinking ‘I used to be able to do that. I probably can’t now. What a pity.’ It is amazing at what speed the mind can drift away. I found myself thinking about the days when I had no trouble executing Kapotsana. That was possibly four years back, before I fell down the flight of stairs, and intense backbends hurt so much after that that I grew fearful of them. And yes, the fear is still present today.
 
Very quickly, we were all instructed to try the pose. That kind of captured my mind back into the class. I decided that I shall just disregard all those past experiences and just proceed with the flow of the asana.
 
With some help, I was able to go into the pose. Was I fearful of hurting my back? Yes. Was I nostalgic about my past? Probably yes. But on top of all that fear and anxiety, I was focused on these thoughts: I will try to do the asana; it didn’t matter whether I can execute the final pose; I will not let my past experiences bother me. I shall just try it now and see how it goes.
 
As I reflect now, clearly, the ‘now’ then was the turning point.
 
Had I continued to dwell on my past ability, had I decided to stay in awe of the demo, had I remained captured in my fear, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do the asana.  Henceforth, translating today’s experience into my teaching: it is pertinent I share with my students this idea of ‘now’.
 
I must share with them how living in the present beats brooding over the past and dreaming about the future, because without this consciousness, there is not only no future, there is also always only constant regret. I must also share with them that Yoga is not about the final pose, but more about the process of trying to get there. I must share with them the importance of not compromising one’s alignment to attain the final pose. I must share with them about how breathing can help to still the mind and stay in the present moment.
 
As much as I teach Yoga asanas to the students, I hope to share with them the process of the asana. The process which envelopes the contentment of who one is (acknowledging one’s limitations and celebrating one’s strengths). The process which requires enthusiasm and aspiration. The process which one surrenders to the flow.
 
Most importantly, the process of realizing that the best time is ‘now’.

Ushtrasana Part II

Ushtrasana Part II–Coming out of the pose
Coming out of ushtrasana should be done slowly and with care.  One should imagine “rolling up” one vertebra at a time to a kneeling position.  Start by returning the palms of the hands to the sacral area.  This is achieved by flexing the elbows (concentric contraction—biceps, eccentric—triceps), supinating the elbows and hyperextending the wrists.  Place the hands so that the fingers are facing toward the floor.
Come up slowly, performing the following actions together—extending the neck, extending the spine (concentric–pectoralis, levator scapulae, rectus abdominus, rectus femoris, iliopsoas; eccentric–rhomboids, trapesius, erector spinae), internally rotate the shoulders to return them to neutral.  The glutes are already contracted here but will also work eccentrically to help extend the hips.  The arms are released by extending the elbows (eccentric—triceps, concentric—biceps), extending the wrists, and pronating the elbows back into neutral.    
Flexing the hips (concentric–rectus femoris, iliopsoas, rectus abdominus; eccentric–glutes, erector spinae, trapezius) will bring the body forward while flexing the shoulder joint (concentric-anterior deltoid; eccentric–posterior deltoid) into the counter pose, balasana.
Ushtrasana should be avoided by individuals with serious spine injury such as lumbago or herniated discs.  The pose can be modified as needed by keeping the hands on the hips (not fully dropping and grasping the ankles).