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).

Pose Breakdown: Ushtrasana, Part I

Ushtrasana:  Part I
Ushtrasana opens the chest (pectoralis major/minor) and fronts of the shoulders (anterior deltoids), stretches the hip flexors (iliopsoas), and front thighs (quadriceps) while increasing flexibility and strength of the spine and strengthening glutes.  Benefits also include stimulation of the spinal nerve and stretching of the digestive organs.  With long term practice, it can also relieve sciatica, asthma and kyphosis (hunching of thorasic spine).   Ushtrasana is also beneficial in stimulating the thyroid and parathyroid glands.
Getting into the pose:  Ushtrasana is approached from a kneeling position (vajrasana).  Extension of the hip joint will take the practitioner to a “standing position” on the knees (which are flexed, with feet plantar flexed).  From here, one must hyperextend and internally rotate the shoulder joint, flex and pronate the elbows and hyperextend the wrists to get the palms on the sacral area with fingertips pointing downward.  “Roll back” the shoulders (external rotation) through concentric contraction of the rhomboids (agonist) and eccentric contraction of the pectoralis (antagonist) to retract the scapula open the chest.   The glutes must engage isometrically to stabilize the lumbar spine and hips as the backbend is performed.  One must lean back, engaging trapezius, latissimus dorsi and erector spinae (concentric) coming back with the control provided by the (eccentric) contraction of rectus abdominus and rectus femoris, and hyperextending the cervical spine to gaze upward.
Once the back bend is achieved, the hands are placed one at a time on the ankles, by extending and supinating the elbow joints.  Now all of the above mentioned muscles must work in isometric contraction–without movement–to stabilize the pose (aside from those used in respiration).

Lentil soup with Lime and Garlic

While I am on the topic of vegetarianism, here’s a recipe for lentil soup that I’ve been using regularly because I like it so much! It reminds me of wholesome chicken soup even though it’s completely vegetarian. It’s not too difficult to make once you get used to the process and I sometimes freeze portions that I can’t finish and it still tastes pretty good. I bring it to work in a tumbler that keeps the soup hot so I can have it for lunch. So here goes:-
(serves 4)
Ingredients:- 3 tbsp olive oil, 1 onion (chopped), 4-5 cloves of garlic, 3 celery sticks (cubed), 1-2 carrots (cubed), 1 potato (peeled and cubed), 1 cup of red lentils (rinsed, you can find lentils cheaply available at Mustafa centre), 1 litre of vegetable stock, 1 large lime (Mustafa has very nice limes), 1/2 tsp ground cumin, salt and pepper to taste.
1. Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the onions and and cook for 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic until fragrant. Add celery, carrots and potato. Cook for a few minutes until the vegetables begin to soften.
2. Add the lentils and stock into the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
3. Add ground cumin, squeeze the juice from the lime into the pot and stir. Cook for a few more minutes until the vegetables and lentils are tender. Then season with salt and ground black pepper.
It tastes splendid just on its own or served with a side salad. 🙂

Vegetarianism Journey

My journey towards vegetarianism started some 10 years ago shortly after I moved to Indonesia for a year or so. I think in Singapore we’re used to things being rather sanitised. If we go to the supermarket we often find chickens duly cleaned out, deboned, fillet and packed in neat packages and the same goes for other types of meats like beef, lamb and pork. Growing up in Singapore I never had the opportunity to experience the ‘behind-the-scenes’ of the meat industry. In Indonesia, things are different. My neighbour across the street at that time happened to be a chicken farmer. It was a family business and he grew up rearing chickens and sold them to the local market. I striked up a conversation with him once and remembered him telling me that they would inject the chickens with ‘something’ (and by something I assume it’s growth hormones) and in 2 or 3 days the chickens would grow and almost double in size. “It’s like a miracle!’ as he puts it, his eyes glistening with excitement while I shuddered in fear. I’ve read about stuff like this in newspaper articles but to have it happen so close to home really takes it to another level.

On another occasion, I was invited to the local mosque to witness the process of the kurban where goats and cows would be slaughtered and skinned as a religious sacrifice. I closed my eyes most of the time but could hear most of what was going on and could also smell the blood in the air. Later I was invited to a feast where the meat was boiled simply and served with chilli sauce. I still distinctly remember what the meat looked like…grey and lifeless. At that point onwards, I decided I could no longer eat any more meat.

I started eating only green vegetables and the occasional tempeh and tofu. It was difficult to prepare my own vegetarian meals as I was staying with a local family and there weren’t alot of meat substitutes available. I didn’t feel healthy and was lethargic most of the time and was certainly not a sterling inspiration for vegetarianism to my friends! So a few years after coming back to Singapore, I fell off the bandwagon somewhat and started eating some fish and chicken again. Afterall, in Singapore it is easy to forget where the meat comes from isnt’ it? I started going 100% vegetarian again in the past year or so and this time I’m mindful about making sure that all my nutritional needs are adequately met and thus far I think I’m enjoying the process more (recipes to come!).

I titled this post a a vegetarianism journey because I truly believe that it’s a personal process. Ahimsa as one of the yamas in the 8 limbs of yoga is roughly translated as ‘non violence’  and this includes non violence to animals and also to our own bodies. As I think about my own experience in Indonesia, never is this more true for me. 🙂

Saucha–the pathway to peace

The niyama Saucha is defined as “not coveting more than you have” (Wikipedia).  It is being content and in the PRESENT–not daydreaming about what we will/not have in the future and letting go of what we have/not had in the past.  It is to be truly satisfied in what we have, where we are (in space and time) and what we are doing at present.
This is easier said than done in today’s society–where we are constantly reminded by the media of what we do not have, and led to believe the more we aquire, the more content we will be!  Competition is fierce–and only because we are looking at others and comparing everything about ourselves to them.  Why is this so?  Why is it that if I do not do something better than another person, then I feel I have failed?
I can only answer for myself.  Comparing myself to others in all forms is a trap I have fallen into many times, and it steals my peace!  Without wasting time on why this is, I will instead focus on becoming free from it.  Cultivating an attitude of gratefulness is my answer.  When I am thanking God for everything He has given me and acknowledge He has a plan for ONLY me, only then am I secure in who I am and what I am doing.  Recognizing He is in control makes me feel content–I do not need to worry about my future, He has washed away my past, and He is walking beside me in the present.
But it is a constant battle–I must remember it daily, and count my many blessings daily, or more!  This not only gives me a sense of peace, but of being loved and satisfied with my beautiful self. 🙂

Moving Students Onward!

As I am coming to a deeper level of yoga practice personally, I am left with the question of how I will inspire my students to do the same?   First, I will identify why I have decided to take this step and then explore practical ways to apply to my classes. 
I have found that I often need a “push” to go deeper in my physical practice.  This is usually preceded by increased knowledge.  This knowledge may come from reading or interaction with other people sharing their yoga practice with me.  As bits and pieces are “revealed” to me, my curiosity is sparked. 
Sometimes merely observing the behaviors of other yoga practitioners is enough to spur me forward.  I do not have much daily interaction with people like this, but when I do see them it is very apparent.  Perhaps this is just seeing the Yamas and Niyamas put into practice outside asana, but these are the people whom I want to be more like.
Lastly, I am left with my own sense of accomplishment.  As self centered as it sounds, there is a great feeling associated with going a bit further or deeper in physical practice.  This is an intrinsic motivator—the ability to push myself to new physical limits.  With this one comes greater health and a general feeling of well being. 
I think that most of my students are motivated by the last one only–Simply the physical benefits.  Sure, some notice a difference in stress relief but that comes with almost any form of exercise.  I will try to focus on being an example of Yamas/Niyamas in my daily interactions with them and in my daily routines.  I will increase their knowledge by sharing MORE about what practicing yoga really means.  I will also give them tools that they can use outside the class—more prana practice and breathing techniques.  Step by step, I hope to educate and enlighten them, with the goal of starting a personal daily yoga practice—letting the rest unfold from there and it is slowly unfolding for me.

Benefits of Ujaya Breathing on Respiration

Ujaya breathing, or “whisper breath” is a fundamental part of asana practice.  This type of breathing is achieved by partially closing the epiglottis upon both inhalation and exhalation, resulting in a whisper or snoring sound. 
Ujaya breathing accomplishes several things:  Slows the breath, evens the length of inhalation and exhalation, warms the air entering the body/creates heat, and the sound creates an auditory focal point during asana practice.  This makes it particularly helpful for beginners who often hold their breath in challenging poses and tend to lose focus easily.  By breathing in this way, we can also “measure” the length of time to hold an asana—counting the number of ujaya breaths. 
When the inhalation occurs slowly and deeply, the ribs will expand in all directions as the lower lobes of the lungs are filled.  This is accomplished through the action of the external intercostals (lifting and expanding ribcage), the diaphragm relaxing down into the abdominal cavity, and the internal intercostals relaxing and stretching.  The Ujaya breath is particularly helpful to increase lung expansion upon inhalation—by simply conditioning (strengthening/stretching) the muscles involved.  Upon exhalation, the diaphragm contracts, forcing the air out of the lungs from the bottom.  Internal intercostals engage and contract to “shrink” the ribcage and the externals must stretch/relax. 
Practicing controlled Ujaya breathing will create balance in the muscles used for respiration.  This is done through the lengthening and evening of the breathing process, so that all muscles involved are both engaged and stretched equally.  By training our bodies to take deeper breaths, more oxygen is forced into the lower lobes of the lungs, which is where more alveoli are present.  This makes the breath more efficient and more oxygen can be absorbed.

Better Health with Yoga Inversions

An inversion is an asana that brings the heart above the head and thus reverses the downward pulling effects of gravity on the body (such as Sirsasana, Sarvangasana).  These asanas fully invert the body by elevating the legs.  This contributes greatly to the overall effect.
The venous system relies mainly on peristaltic movement, muscle contraction and blood pressure to return blood to the heart.  By elevating the legs, gravity can now aid in returning venous blood to the lungs for gas exchange and an increased supply of oxygen, increasing mental function.   The veins will also benefit from the reduction in pressure, alleviating varicose veins in the legs. 
When the heart is inverted, it is conditioned by working opposite the usual pull of gravity.  The atria of the heart will now have to pump against the flow of gravity and will become stronger as a harder contraction will be required to push blood into the ventricles.  The ventricles will also be working a little harder to push blood into the lower extremities and will become stronger as well.  Over time, a stronger heart will be more efficient and stroke volume will increase. 
Lymphatic return is also improved with inversions.  The lymph system is responsible for the collection of excess fluids in the body and defends against infection by filtering the fluid before returning it to bloodstream.  The lymph is returned to the bloodstream in the neck.  Like the veins, the lymphatic system has very little pressure to move it along so must rely on muscle contraction or inversions to keep it flowing.  Inverting the body will aid in returning lymph to the bloodvessels in the neck and reduce fluid accumulation (edema) in the lower extremities.
Another great benefit to inverting the body is improved strength in the upper extremities.  Our legs become very strong holding our bodies up all day–this gives the arms a turn!
While inversions may not be for everyone, (contraindicated for high blood pressure, pregnancy, glaucoma, neck pain/injury) there are many benefits to practicing them.  Let’s flip!

Vegan Burger anyone?

Most of the vegetarian restaurants in Singapore are either Chinese or Indian. Less options for Western food. I meant a full vegetarian restaurant, not one whereby they serve meat but have veg options.
I recently went to a vegetarian restaurant in the Eastern part of Singapore, near Eunos area, and so coincidently, bumped into a Yoga student. Small world. I got to know of this place through another student who passed me a brochure.
It is called Vegan Burger, details at www.veganburg.com
The setting of this place is a fast food restaurant, very Western feel. The food selection is typically fast food, with burgers, fries and drinks. The way they serve the burger is very interesting as well…
I would recommend this place for these few reasons:
Free parking
Not crowded
Nice environment, spacious
burger is quite delicious
Fries, even though it is not healthy, is quite nice, once in a while it’s alright
If they can improve on these things, I would go there more often:
Juices are not real juice, it is too diluted and artificial, taste like syrup drink
soup is too watery
they can have more options of sides, instead of fries. E.g, salads.
More variety of burgers, or can include wraps
Being a vegetarian doesn’t mean one does not eat out or have very limited options. I am still quite a foodie and likes to seek out new places for vegetarian food. So, if you know of any good vegetarian restaurants, please let me know!

The power of visualization

Visualization is something that is within the capabiities of most people. It is simple to do and it is natural that we wish to visualize pleasant scenarios, loved ones and memorable experiences.
There maybe many techniques used in visualization but personally I have not consciously learnt any techniques but I find myself constantly employing this useful tool that I believe is innate in all of us.
Recently, at the 200 hrs teachers training course, we experimented with active meditation. This form of meditation is supposed to be useful for the urbanites who cannot clear their minds easily because besides passive mind work, the body is also working to actively distract the practitioner. One of the exercises was to run on the spot without stopping for 15 -20 mins. Furthermore we had to try and bring the knees as high as possible while running, so it wasn’t a jog. For one not used to running at all, I was puffed out after the first minute. My breath was becoming shallow and I was longing for a drink. Out of the blue, I started to visualize that I was running on the golden sand by the beach with the ozone-filled sea breezes caressing my body and my lungs were filed with fresh air and Prana to boot. As if by magic, I felt like a clockwork toy just being wound up and I started to run with renewed energy and vigor.
Another example of how visualization works for me every time is when I am writing poetry. For instance when I am writing about someone, I visualize the image of the person, the facial features, gait, clothes and most importantly the scene when we last met; exchange of words, topics discussed, laughter shared. Without fail, ideas pop into my head and release strings of sentences that I can use for my poem. It is truly amazing for me but skeptics may say that it is only recollection. Whatever it is it is my handy tool and I am not hurting anyone.
Yoga Nidra with visualization and autosuggestion is a powerful tool like hypnotism. In my experience, I feel that my whole body is ‘glued’ to the floor and my limbs are like lead weights. ‘Coming out’ of yoga nidra is a wonderful experience for me every time when I have to peel my arms and legs from the floor and they feel so relaxed and energized even though they felt like weights a second before…… Strange sensation!
As a budding yoga teacher I find it useful to visualize the sequence of my lesson plan and all the actions within it to help me remember.
Try it for yourself and be amazed!