Freediving and Pranayama

Earlier this year I had two exciting things in my mind for 2020. First one is this YTT, and I’m so grateful it is happening now. The other thing I was planning was to take AIDA Level 2, a freediving certificate. For those who never heard about freediving; in a nutshell it’s an extended version of snorkelling, but you hold breath underwater much longer (>1min) and also you often go deeper. Advanced freedivers can easily dive as long as 5 minutes and go deep as 50 meters or more, without an oxygen tank of course.  

Last year I took AIDA 1 (an entry level freediving course), and for the love of snorkelling in the ocean, continuing to AIDA 2 sounded a good holiday agenda to me. Because this course requires to be in open water with good visibility, I would travel to one of nearby countries with beautiful beaches and all of you know Covid had me drop this idea. What a bummer. I stopped thinking of the course once I learned that going out of Singapore is impossible this year. It was when I started YTT and started pranayama practice daily that it naturally came back to my mind because freediving and yoga actually have an inseparable relationship, especially with pranayama. I realised that some pranayama I learned during YTT can be used for freediving breath holding practice too.

Before linking them, I would like to explain freediving breathing practices individually. The freediving breathing method right before going under water or before holding breath is called “breath-up”, and has mainly two parts; 1) Relaxation breathing and 2) Final (full capacity) breath.

 

1) Relaxation Breathing

For a beginner diver like me, how long you can hold breaths highly depends on how much you can relax right before going under water. The Logic is simple. The more you relaxed, the lower your heartbeat gets. The lower the heartbeat gest, the slower the O2 consumption & CO2 generation get. So you can delay your urge to breathe. Here are tips to have safe “breathe up”, a relaxation breathing before diving.

– Sit in comfortable position, or lie down
– Have deep nostril breathing with Inhale:Exhale ratio of  1:2
Because our heart rate decreases by exhaling, keeping exhalation longer can calm our body and mind.
Never hyperventilate. Keep your breathing deep and slow. I usually start from Inhale:Exhale = 4 sec : 8 sec.
– Focus on breathing and relax all muscle tensions in your body.
– Repeat it around 15 times, or up to 2 minutes

 

2) Final Breath

After your body is completely relaxed, move on to “final breath”; one deep, full inhalation.

– Imagine that your torso is a balloon, and slowly expanding from bottom to top
– Start with belly breathing. Breathe into stomach, fill it up to maximum
– Continue inhaling, start storing air above the navel, expand ribcage and stretch diaphragm, and lower part of the lungs
– Finally, breathe into upper lungs, to collarbone, to the throat (do not tense shoulders!)
– Do not forget to stay relaxed; do not rush to fill up, or tense your muscles, or anything to turn off your relaxation.
– When you pack the air to the maximum, hold your breath.

 

If you’re not familiar with freediving might be wondering by now, “how can someone hold breaths for minutes!?”, but after following this simple practice, most people can hold breaths easily for up to 2 minutes! To make these practice more efficient, I decided to combine above two with pranayama I’ve learned during YTT. These pranayama are Anuloma Viloma, Bastrika, and Kapalabhati.

 

[1] Anuloma Viloma

This alternate nostril breathing is perfect to stabilise your energy and calming your mind. The ratio of the breathing is Inhale:Exhale = 1:2, so it is a very good practice to familiarise with the freediving relaxation breathing.

– Sit in comfortable position, spine upright.
– Make Vishnu Mudra with the right hand (index and middle finger folded), bring the hand to the nose. Make chin mudra with the left hand (make a ring with thumb and index finger) and place it on your left knee.
– Block the right nostril with the right thumb, inhale deeply through the left nostril for 3 seconds.
– Block the left nostril with the ring finger and release the thumb from the right nostril, exhale through the right nostril for 6 seconds.
– Keep right nostril open, and inhale through the right nostril for 3 seconds.
– Block the right nostril and release the left nostril, exhale for 6 seconds from the left nostril.

 

[2] Bastrika

The is a strong diaphragmic breathing to energise and warm up your body. This practice can strengthen diaphragm and upper abdomen muscles, which is used for the final breathing for freediving. Starting breathing practice with Bastrika is recommended by a lot of freedivers as it can warm up the body quickly so the muscles and respiratory system can be more flexible and expandable.

– Sit in comfortable position, spine upright.
– Take a few deep breaths, and exhale by strongly contracting upper abdominal muscles and diaphragm (you can put your hands around the lower ribcage to consciously move the area)
– Take an immediate short inhalation using diaphragm (try not to move abdominal muscles)
– Continue for 10-20 breathes, then slow down and rest.
– Repeat a few times

 

[3] Kapalabhati:

As well as Bastrika, Kapalabhati(or skull shining breath) is a great pranayama to improve the final breathing of freediving. Using and strengthening muscles around lower belly, you can learn to consciously activate muscles around the stomach. Practicing Kapalabhati can increase the inhalation capacity for the final breath.

– Sit in comfortable position, spine upright.
– Take a few deep breaths, and exhale from nostrils by strongly contracting lower belly and pelvic floor muscles, imagine to expel all the air from lower abdomen.
– Inhalation should be passive (do not activate your belly muscles at all, just naturally let the air comes in)
– Continue for 10-20 breathes, then slow down and rest.
– Repeat a few times

 

To sum up, my regular practice looks like this.

  1. Bastrika 5 minutes
  2. Kapalabhati 5-10 minutes
  3. Anuloma Viloma 5 minutes
  4. Freediving breathing. Relaxation breathing -> final breath -> Breath holding
    *Repeat 4 a few times.

Even though there are no little Nemos and sea turtles, doing this in the morning regularly makes me feel great. Body relaxed, mind clear, and I feel I can wait a bit longer till I get to jump into the crystal clear water (but really, I cannot wait!).

Ward off your depression with Yoga

“Yogas citta vrtti nirodha”

“Yoga is the calming of the fluctuations of the mind”

Depression is classified as a mood disorder.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, Fifth Edition, has defined depression as 5 or more of the following symptoms that are present for 2 or more weeks and cause significant emotional distress and/or impairment in functioning.

Symptoms are

  1. depressed or sad mood,
  2. short-tempered or easily annoyed,
  3. loss of interest or enjoyment in hobbies or activities that was previously enjoyed,
  4. feeling of worthlessness or guilt,
  5. thoughts of death or suicide,
  6. difficulty with concentrating or making decisions,
  7. feeling tired or fatigue,
  8. feeling restless or slow,
  9. changes in appetite such as overeating or loss of appetite,
  10. changes in weight such as weight loss or weight gain, and
  11. changes in sleep pattern.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression occurs due to a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors.

But the good news is that it can be treated if tackled early.

Some of the activities advised by Health hub Singapore to manage depression can be categorized in these few categories:

  • Socialize: spending time with friends and having fun, pursuing activities that you enjoy and are interested in, practicing acts of kindness which also helps to boost positive emotions.
  • Exercise: Taking care of your physical health, such as engaging in a physical activity you enjoy, eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep.
  • Contemplate: making time to relax and enjoy yourself, organizing your time so you feel in control, Finding things to laugh about, learning ways to manage stress effectively, focusing on the things to be grateful for in life.
  • Communicate: Sharing your feelings with others, or writing them down in a journal to help clear your thoughts

I am sure you can already see how Yoga can bring about positive change in all these aspects of your life.

  • Yoga will not only help you get a good physical workout while doing various poses, increase flexibility, strength, and vitality. It will also get those endorphins flowing through your body.
  • It will also encourage you to respect your body by eating healthy and teaching you techniques to relax (restorative yoga, yoga nidra) and get a good sleep. There are specific breathing techniques as well as yoga asanas that can help one sleep better (child’s pose, forward bend, savasana, paschimottanasna, prasarita padottanasana, bridge pose and Viparita karni etc.).
  • If you got to a studio and practice with a bunch of people. It might give you the opportunity to make like minded friends who knows you might find people who you can share your troubles with.
  • Yoga preaches kindness as the single most important thing. Ahimsa is, being mindful to not think, speak or act in a harmful way to yourself or others. Hence, be kind.
  • Contemplation or deep reflective thought is almost a synonym to the yogic practice of meditation. Meditation involves concentration on a single thought, object or point. It opens the mind and develops the conditions that are ideal for contemplation and to the eventual goal of pure knowing.
  • Maybe communication is not a part of yoga in the literal sense but if you go deeper, yoga does teach you to talk and listen to your own body and mind better. It helps to be one with yourself. It teaches you to focus on your thoughts and calming them down through pratyahara, dharana and dhyana. It also teaches you to be present in the moment. If that’s not the most important skill in communication, then what is?

 

If you are still not fully convinced. I would urge you to take a look at dozens of scientific studies that have conclusively proven the beneficial effects of Yoga for depression.

Although most of the yoga asanas will help you with depression but some that the Yoga experts swear by are:

  • Tadasana/ Mountain pose
  • Adho mukha vrikshasana/ Hand stand
  • Adho mukha svanasana/ Downward facing dog
  • Viparita dandasana/ Backbends
  • Sarvangasana/ Shoulder stand
  • Setubandhasana/ Bridge pose
  • Shavasana

Just remember to do these with the full knowledge of the contraindications or in the presence of an expert yoga teacher.

So, what are you waiting for!? Grab that mat and stand tall in a mountain pose.

Aparigraha and Sustainability

I just watched the TEDxTiESG #JOINTHECOUNTDOWN livestream talk and thought that it is very apt to share in this current climate situation. A brief background on the Countdown collaboration below. You may find out more on https://countdown.ted.com/

“Countdown is a global initiative to champion and accelerate solutions to the climate crisis, turning ideas into action. The goal: To build a better future by cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 in the race to a zero-carbon world – a world that is safer, cleaner and fairer for everyone.”

 

How is sustainability relevant to Aparigraha (non-possessiveness)? Without going into the history of consumerism and industrial revolution, I believe that most of us will agree that we are entrenched in a consumerism society. “If only you had________, you would be happier/more successful/respected/etc.” Additionally, the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) does not help either.

 

Because of this assumption and fear, humankinds are destroying the habitats of many other living things, including our own. I believe that practising Aparigraha can and will contribute positively in our sustainability actions as we learn to discern between our needs and wants.

 

What can we do in our daily lives to practise Aparigraha?

  1. Practise Marie Kondo’s famous phrase – “Does it spark joy?”

One practice that I have been doing since my secondary school days is to clear out clothes, shoes, bags, books, etc. that I no longer need and donate them to the Salvation Army or people around me, at least once a year. Those items have served me well and are still in good condition to fulfil its purpose for someone else. Since they no longer spark joy in me, it is time to give them away.

  1. Shop consciously.

I don’t deny the need to shop. However, we can practise more awareness whenever we go on our shopping trips. It helps to reduce unnecessary purchases and if we do buy something, be mindful of the source, especially clothing.

Fast fashion is a problem. Their clothing is cheap but, the quality is typically compromised. This results in faster wear and tear, and in turn the need to buy again. The entire cycle encourages more production and more pollution and waste.

Personally, I like to shop at 2nd hand vintage clothing shops as I find their material quality way better (I can wear long sleeve silk dress in Singapore’s hot daytime weather, feel cool i.e. not warm and not perspire) and have more design elements as compared to today’s clothing styles. They are pricier but I know I am paying for quality and design. Let’s be honest, the price also helps to control my spending.

  1. Order and eat only what you can.

Food wastage is a major issue contributing to sustainability. More food is required to meet its demands when we waste food. More food means more production, processing, transportation and in turn, more greenhouse gas emissions.

You may read more about the problem and innovative initiatives employed in Singapore, and actions we can take at: https://www.towardszerowaste.gov.sg/foodwaste/

 

 Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. The pursuit for more is endless and superfluous.

Energised with Pranayama!

By incorporating Pranayama a term for yogic breathing into your daily life, you can derive even more benefits from it. This type of breathing relaxes the muscles and helps stress melt away. People who practice pranayama regularly are happier and more relaxed. The beautiful thing is that you can do it absolutely anywhere.

The term Pranayama is derived from the Sanskrit words prana, meaning “life force”, and ayama, meaning “expansion or extension”. Together they translate to breath extension or breath control.

Pranayama, or breath control, is the fourth limb of 8 limbs of yoga. It is defined by BKS Iyengar in Light on Pranayama as the conscious prolongation of inhalation, retention and exhalation to help yogis develop a steady mind, sound judgement and willpower.

This means that the quality of breath determines the quality of our prana and overall vitality.

Be that as it may, don’t mistake prana for the breath itself – a significant number of us experience life breathing naturally however are as yet lacking in prana. This is on the grounds that a large portion of us don’t breathe into our full body consistently.

The natural breathing process sometimes only stops at the upper chest, especially when we are met with anxiety or stress. Even during the times we do breathe into the lower belly, our upper abdomen and mid-body fail to expand with the breath.

Pranayama breathing demands we “breathe into” the full body – not just the front torso, but also the sides and the back; not just the chest but the full belly, abdomen, rib cage and chest.

 

The Benefits of Pranayama

Pranayama requires us to be conscious about how we breathe. We actively extend the inhales, exhales and retention instead of letting the automatic breathing process take place. The sole purpose of this activity is to increase our prana and supercharge our health.

There are many different types of pranayama breathing techniques, some are meant to energize the nervous system while others calm our minds and bodies.

When done right, breathing can be have an energizing, relaxing and healing effect on the body and that is why practicing pranayama regularly is essential in our daily lives.

Research has shown that regular pranayama practice can (not limiting to the following):

  • Reduces stress and anxiety levels
  • Strengthen respiratory system
  • Lower heart rate to relieve tension
  • Lower/stabilize blood pressure
  • Increase energy level
  • Promote muscle relaxation
  • Stimulate lymph flow and hence immunity
  • Improve digestive system functions and many more

 

3 Pranayama Yoga Breathing Exercise To Kickstart Your Morning

Try spending just 5 minutes every morning for these breathing exercises. You’ll be amazed how these can transform your energy levels, making you more awake to start your day.

These morning breathing exercises are best practiced first thing when you’ve just woken up. You can choose to sit in your bed or on the floor. Just make sure that you are comfortable and able to sit up straight.

 

 

1. Dirga Swasam Pranayama

Dirga Swasam Pranayama or Dirga Pranayama involves breathing through “three parts” of the mid-body, namely the belly, the ribcage or diaphragm, and the chest. This is also known as the Three-Part Breath or Complete Breath.

One: Inhale through the nose, focus on the breathing deeply into your belly expanding like a balloon as the breath moves into your lungs, expanding your ribcage and chest. Then breathing out through your nose, tightening your abdominal muscles and drawing your belly button to the spine, allowing as much air as possible to escape from your lungs.

Two: Much the same, with an added step. Inhale through the nose, allowing your belly to expand, and then allow the breath to expand your rib cage as well. When you exhale through the nose, squeeze the air out of your rib cage and belly until they’re empty.

Three: Take it a step farther. Inhale through the nose, allowing your belly to expand as the breath moves into your lungs and rib cage, and then invite the breath into your upper chest, to your pectoral muscles and clavicle. Then exhale fully.

This is a great exercise to do if you are always breathing shallow, short spurts of breaths. It helps to calm down the mind and body almost immediately.

 

 

2. Ujjayi Pranayama

In Sanskrit, the word Ujjayi means to conquer or to be victorious and is therefore referred to as the Victorious Breath. It is also known as the Ocean Breath, because of the sound it makes when done correctly.

  1. With your mouth open exhale into your palm, imagining you are steaming up a mirror/ glass and feeling the warm breath on your palm.
  2. Creating a slight constriction at the back of your throat so you hear a HAAAAA sound as you breathe in and out.
  3. On your next inhale keep the hand where it is, breathe in making that same sound. Practise this for up to 10 cycles (4 count in, 4 count out, x10).

Unlike other pranayama practices which are mostly practised in a sitting or lying position, Ujjayi breathing can also be performed during an asana (yoga pose) practice.

 

 

3. Kapalabhati Pranayama

Kapalabhati Pranayama is known as the skull-polishing breath since kapala translates into “skull” and bhati means “shining”. It involves alternating passive inhales, and short but forceful exhales through the nose.

  1. Begin short sharp exhales out of your nose, drawing your belly in quickly as you breathe out to help expel the air from your lungs
  2. Your inhale is a passive reaction to the sharp exhale. As your belly relaxes the inhale will naturally follow.
  3. Repeat for 30 short, sharp exhales, and then take a few regular breath through your nose.

Kapalabhati oxygenates the blood quickly and rejuvenates the mind and body. It helps to release toxins, improves digestion, reduces stress, warms the body and increases energy.

 

Try them! I hope you will feel energised, uplifted and calm after doing these 3 pranayama breathing exercises.

 

Have a happy day ahead.

Reflecting and resetting my knowledge of Yoga

I was introduced to yoga at least a decade ago. To me, Yoga was then considered as a mild exercise regime with movements incorporated with breathing techniques.

Fast forward, it has somehow become a habit for me to go for yoga classes in hope to increase flexibility, stamina and strength. However, I have been asking myself why my flexibility has not been improving and why am I not able to get into more advance poses like crow pose or even headstand?

With the current COVID-19 situations, classes were limited and it is even not possible to get postures corrected through zoom classes or online app. The only way to self-improvement, I thought was to embark on this yoga teacher training to gain the foundation of yoga and deepen my practice and knowledge.

The experience has been amazing and mind-blowing with Tirisula Yoga, and I believe there will be more to come until the day we graduate. Every week, we discover something about ourselves and our ability to achieve something I do not believe I can do it.

Our trainer, Master Paalu emphasizes the capacity of one’s mind. The works of the human mind and how the power can be unleashed to achieve what seems impossible. Using this application, he applies to our yoga movements.

Fundamentally, it is about thinking of the muscles moving in the body as we practice, can help them to work more efficiently by connecting it with our movement.

By adding conscious movement and visualization to our practice, we will be able to make our movements more intentional and the signals you’re sending to your brain will be stronger. Finally, the conscious movement then can not only lead to more effective practice but also better form, reduced risk of injury, and potentially better results.

Using one of the most common poses – Adho Mukha Shavanasana (downward facing dog), the engagement of rectus femoris and using hip flexors are important. The rectus femoris acts as a synergist of hip flexion and has increased activity with abduction and external rotation of the hip joint while hip flexors create stability in order to stretch the hamstrings and calf muscles, while opening the shoulders to improve overall postural alignment.

Through the yoga practices with Master Paalu, we learnt how to activate the correct muscle groups during poses and utilizing proper muscle activation and technique which will help prevents pain and injury and most importantly the breathing techniques that go along with the movements and transitions of poses.

Besides learning the asanas (known as poses), there are more to Yoga. Yoga is a practice for internal and external wellbeing which gradually increase my energy levels and overall happiness. We were taught not to focus only on the asanas but to practice integrated breath (for the soul) and meditation (for the mind).

Right now, I’m motivated and committed to learn and embrace the art of yoga building the foundation of deep yoga practice through asanas, pranayama coupled with mudras and learning of the 7 Chakras to find fulfilment in achieving mind-body-soul balance.

Nada Yoga – The Yoga of Sound

During the recent theory class conducted by Master Paalu, he shared with us some of various yoga styles in Singapore and India. I have not heard of quite a number of them and was quite curious about it hence, I started to search online. All was well (read: quick reads) until I came to Nāda Yoga and it got me hooked right from the first search result.

As a musically-trained person and music lover, the idea of sound being a form of yoga is most interesting and captivating. Sharing the summary of what I have found below.

What is Nāda Yoga?

Nāda Yoga is a metaphysical system that is based on the belief that the entire cosmos and all that exists in the cosmos, including human beings, consists of sound vibrations, called nāda. Nāda means the flow of sound and Yoga means Union. Practitioners focus their mind in meditation and then use sound to access higher states of consciousness and healing.

Four types of Nāda

  1. Vaikari – the physical sound. This is the audible sound that can be heard by the human ear. It is the sound of speech, song and when two things strike each other (e.g. instruments).
  2. Madhyama – mental sound. An example provided by Sadhguru: “Suppose I say “chocolate” or if I show you something that looks like it, and your mind thinks, “Oh, chocolate.” It is a sound that comes from a dimension of your mind. It is not just an abstraction or a vibration of thought. “Hot chocolate” is a voice, a sound.”
  3. Pashyanti – subconscious sound or what is known as a visual sound. An example from Sadhguru: “Suppose I did not show you anything or shout “Chocolate,” but without any input from outside, from within, from some deep recess in your mind – “Chocolate.” It is not a reflection or rebound of what I said; somewhere from within, your mind can create it.”
  4. Para Nada – transcendent sound that is beyond the senses and the mind and can also be heard in different dimensions. It is a sound without movement or frequency – a still sound. A state of consciousness corresponds with this stillness. The Nada Yogi reaches this state by becoming one with Para Nada.

Benefits of Nāda Yoga

  1. Relaxes and releases stress
  2. Regulates the immune system
  3. Relieves tension, high blood pressure, insomnia and negative mind states
  4. Develops an atmosphere of joy, happiness and harmony

How Nāda Yoga is practiced

Choose a quiet place where you can sit for some time without being disturbed.

  • Bhramari Pranayama (i.e. Bumblebee breathing): It is used to strengthen and develop musicians’ ear for music.

    • Place the thumbs over the ears, closing them, and bring the little fingers to rest lightly on the third eye.
    • Close the eyes, take a few deep breaths and then on your next exhalation emit a humming sound (much like a bee), directing your full attention to the humming sound.
    • Continue the practice for five minutes, increasing to 10 minutes as you become more comfortable with it.
    • After the practice, remain sitting still with closed eyes in any comfortable seated position with relaxed hands or the Nada Yoga pose and listen to the inner sounds.

 

  • Listening to soothing instrumental music
    • Sit quietly and focus your full attention on the music. Gradually direct your attention inwards and towards your inner subtle sounds. Eventually, you will become aware of your inner sounds and can bring your full concentration to these sounds.
    • Relax your body and mind into deep meditation and then gently come back to a wakeful state when you are ready

 

 

References:

https://www.nadyoga.org/blog/nada-yoga/

https://upliftconnect.com/the-power-of-nada-yoga/

https://www.yogameditation.com/reading-room/nada-yoga/

https://www.yogameditation.com/reading-room/bhramari-the-bumble-bee/

https://isha.sadhguru.org/in/en/wisdom/article/sounds-of-the-creator

https://ayl.com.au/practices/nada-yoga/   

Every body is different

Through yoga practice, I have grown to understand that every body is different. And to accept that my own body is different from others. Some poses are more accessible to some, and some are less accessible to some. Some have longer limbs, some have bendier backs, whatever, you name it. Every body is different. Yes, I still do look in awe at people who can do the perfect wheel, or hold their pincha, and I still do hope that I can do that one day.

But for now, to achieve that besides consistent practice, and getting that fear out of my head during inversions, I do require some sort of support or aid. Especially right now with home practice being so common during this unprecedented pandemic where virtual classes are prevalent, and there’s no physical adjustments in classes, yoga props have become my best friends.

Yoga props are good supporting tools for beginners, and help provide modifications to your asanas. They make poses accessible, in alignment of your poses, or help to deepen certain poses. Using props allow you to find stability and space in your asanas, increase body awareness, and explore body alignment comfortably.

Some students may resist using props as they have the mindset that using a prop shouts out “I am not good enough, not flexible enough for yoga”. I too, was once shy to grab that block.

Instead of viewing it like trainee wheels on the bicycle when you are trying to learn how to cycle, how about viewing it as an aid to help you get the right amount of stretch at the right muscles, so that you can be in a correct posture without overextending or straining your muscles. Most importantly, with props, you can lower the chances of getting injured, and avoid worsening old injuries.

Sharing with you some of the props that I have tried in my own practice: Blocks, blankets, straps, wall

  • Blocks
    Most common prop seen during yoga practice, comes in different colours or materials (cork, foam).
    You can see them as “floor raisers” and can be used to support different parts of the body while in asanas, especially so that you do not compensate or overstretch muscles.Some examples of using blocks during my practice:
    (i) Sun salutations on blocks to assist jump throughs
    (ii) Blocks under hands to support if unable to reach floor when doing Parivrtta Parsvakonasana, Parivrtta Trikonasana, Prasarita Padottanasana
    (iii) Blocks to support lower back in bridge pose – It is really comfy 🙂
    (iv) Stepping on blocks to lift legs to a higher position for crow pose, or supporting the head in crow pose, especially if you have fear of face-planting, like myself
    (v) Raise pelvis and hips to help the spine lengthen in seated poses and seated forward folds
    (vi) Sitting on blocks during meditation, or resting head on block in child’s pose
  • Strap
    These can be thought as arm lengtheners – especially when shoulders have not enough flexibility to allow hands to meet at the back or reach as far as the feet. Example of poses are like Gomukhasana.My favourite is to use the strap to open my tight shoulders i.e. flossing of shoulders
    (a) Sit on heels, grip strap wider than shoulders
    (b) Inhale bring the strap overhead from back
    (c) Exhale lower strap in front of you

Straps can also be used to ensure that legs are kept together in reclined hero pose, or arms are correct shoulder width apart in forearm stand.

  • Yoga Bolster/ Blankets
    These are usually used in restorative yoga classes to provide additional comfort and ease in the pose, or in yin yoga, for you to stay in the pose for a longer period of time (usually 4 minutes per pose). These props help your stiff muscles to relax and reduce tension in them.

Examples of using bolsters or blankets are in supported bridge pose, supported reclined hero pose, or even Savasana.

  •  Wall
    In my opinion, the wall is the most under-rated yoga prop. It is free (you can find it in almost anywhere), and really useful in attaining alignment, deepening some poses and ensuring safety during inversions e.g. headstand, handstands, forearm stands.

Examples of how I have tried including wall in my practice
(i) Half split – Deepen hamstring stretch (It hurts so bad for me ><)
(ii) Alignment for Trikonasana, Parivrtta Parsvakonasana, Parivrtta Trikonasana by ensuring right chest opening and the right stretch
(iii) Uttanasana – Deepening stretch by folding with back against the wall
(iv) Build strength in order to achieve handstands e.g. do inverted L against wall
(v) Safety by ensuring you don’t fall over in inversions if you don’t have someone to spot you
(vi) King Pigeon pose – Deepen quad stretch

Other useful ways to utilize the wall as a prop are like using the wall to aid dropback, wheel pose, doing shoulder openers like puppy dog on the wall, deepen back bends through placing chest on the wall while doing sphinx pose.

And when you are finally able to attain the pose or when you are more aware of your body limits, try to reduce reliance on the props. With right use of yoga props, you may find your poses improving and get to deepen your yoga practice. For example, reducing reliance on the wall when doing headstands so that you can be aware which of the muscles have to be engaged while in inversion, i.e. move away from the wall occasionally to learn to engage core muscles to lift legs in the air.

Hope that this post will give you the courage to pick up that block, or strap, during your practice whenever you feel your body needs it, because every body is different!

Let us love our bodies and admire all the great things we can do with it  🙂

<3,
Veronica

The Power of Om

Have you ever been to a yoga class and the teacher begins and ends the class with a loud “Om” together? When I first started yoga, I have always wondered the meaning of this sound, the purpose of chanting Om, and the benefits for our body.

What is Om?

Om is a single-syllable mantra, also known as bijia (seed) mantra. It is the root mantra, from which all other mantras emerge. It is powerful, yet easy to recite.

It is a sacred sound, a soothing humming sound or a vibration, and is also known as the sound of the universe. It is said to be all-encompassing and unifying everything in the universe. It is also the first sound from the beginning of time, and is the root of any sound heard or produced. Interestingly, this sound is actually present in all languages.

Now, sit in silence and observe the sounds around you. Listen. You may hear the humming, vibrating Om in the air.

What does Om mean?

Om is the sum of all four states of consciousness.

The sound of Om consists of four parts: (1) A (ah)(2) U (ooh)(3) M (mm)(4) Silence; which also represents all four states of consciousness.

“A”, the physical state, or subjective consciousness of the outer world, “U” – the mental state, or consciousness of our inner world (thoughts, memories, dreams), and “M”, the state of deep sleep, or the state of nirvana, allowing one toconnect with the higher self and becoming one with the universe. The fourth part of the mantra (anusvara), which is silence, is the crown of the mantra.

Even the writing of the Om symbol, embodies each part of the mind. Bottom-most curve on left signifies the waking mind, the curve to the far right symbolizes dreams, the top curve illustrates the mind in deep sleep and the dot represents the unknown state of consciousness.

Why chant Om at the beginning and end of a yoga class?

It helps to promote a quieter mental state through assisting yourself in focusing on your breath. It is also a type of sound meditation (kirtan) to start our practice.

Is chanting Om religious?

In some religions, they discourage chanting, or sometimes even yoga (That’s another topic in itself). In my opinion, chanting Om is actually not religious (and yoga is not a religious practice as well), even though you see it being practiced in some religions like Hinduism and Buddhism.

Fun fact: Some say that Aum is the same word “Hum” of the Tibetans, “Amen” of the Christians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Jews, and “Amin” in Arabic of the Muslims.

It’s so amazing how this sound is actually present in so many languages and religions!

Another reason to chant Om, is that there are actually great health benefits to doing it. Here are some that I found to be beneficial to your bodies:

  1. Opens up sinuses
  2. Cardiovascular benefits – Lowers blood pressure, regulates heart rate
  3. Improves sound sleep
  4. Relieves stress and anxiety, reduces depression
  5. Detoxifies body
  6. Boosts immunity

There are so many beautiful facets of Om, and so many benefits of chanting this simple, yet powerful sound.

I hope that in your next class, you will join in with a loud, resounding Om whenever you feel your body needs it!

Ommmmmmm……. ^O^

<3,
Veronica

Sthira Sukham Asanam

Sthira Sukham Asanam

We have learnt that one of the 8 limbs of Yoga is Asanas. Most importantly, asanas should be steady, effortless, and at ease. In our first few lessons, Master Sree was always reminding us to do practise with a smile, and not a scrunched up face in pain. (I think I still do at times make a pained face unknowingly :p)

Well, one of the sutras that we are learnt too is Sthira Sukham Asanam.

Sthira means Steady, Firm, Strength and Sukham means At Ease, Joyful, Comfortable, Flexibility.

Applying Sthira and Sukha on our mats during yoga practice also means relaxation physically and mentally. When practicing asanas, it should be free of tension and strain, and engaging muscles evenly.  One should also ensure calm, rhythmic and conscious prana to maintain effortless-ness while breathing. These helps to balance flexibility and strength, achieving “Sthiram Sukham Asanam”.

One may wonder how to achieve both strength and ease at the same time. It is definitely not easy, but it is achievable with conscious intention and self-awareness of your body. Recognising the reactions of the body while in the asana, the areas where your muscles are feeling the tension, and observing your breath.

The breath is an indication for sthira and sukha. If you are panting, or holding your breath, it may be a sign that you are struggling in the pose or trying to push over your limits. Inhale, and Exhale to find stability in your poses and ease. Allow your breath to guide your practice.

Besides breathing and intended pauses to enjoy the stretch, to achieve a balanced asana practice, it is also important to include counterposes in your yoga sequence.

Have you ever wondered why counterposes are incorporated in your practice? I did.

Counterposes allow one to “catch your breath”, and feel the stretch in the other direction. Counterposes help in resetting of your spine, pelvis or muscles, making sure that no remaining tensions or strains are felt in your body after your practice, preventing injuries. It also allows the mind to reset, back to a state of equilibrium, before moving on.

What is a Counterpose?

Counterpose or Pratikriya is a posture that helps to neutralize the body after performing a particular asana. Its purpose is to restore balance in the body, ensuring safe and effective practice. It helps to integrate the action of the preceding posture, through neutralizing or sometimes opposing actions.

This means whenever one stretches in one direction, one should also balance the posture out with a stretch in the opposite direction.

Noting that your muscles are also aligned differently in different directions, you can also include twisting poses in your sequence as counterposes e.g. Seated Half spinal twist post(Vakrasana), Revolved side angle (Parvritta Parsvokonasana)

What kind of counterposes for which asanas?

Well, there are no set rules for types of counterposes for which asanas. It is more important to be aware of your own body, and feel where the tension is when performing the asana. Whenever you perform a strong asana, do a simple, gentle pose/asana to relieve the tension. Choose a pose that you a breathe in. If you move back and forth too quickly between two extremes, it may even cause injuries.

Here are some suggested counterposes for certain asanas:

  • Chest-openers (Wheel (Urdhva Dhanurasana), Camel (Ustrasana), Bow Pose(Dhanurasana))
    If the chest-opener is too deep, you may do a Knees-to-chest (Pawan Muktasana), which helps to stretch and neutralize spine, or a supine one leg to chest pose.You may also want to do a Supine twist to stretch out your lower and mid-back muscles. Gentle forward bends like Baddha Konasanaalso works.
  • Forward fold (Paschimottanasana)

In forward fold, you are stretching your back of the body e.g. spine, hamstrings, and your quadriceps and hip flexors will shorten.

A gentle backbend counterpose would be Upward plank (Purvottanasana), or gentle bridge pose (Setu Bandhasana) to help lengthen your quads and hip flexors, as well as open front side of body and stretch shoulders and chest.

  • Headstand (Srirasana)
    After completing headstand, or handstand, do a gentle child’s pose (Balansana) for a few moments after inversion to relieve pressure on head and arms.
  • Shoulder stand/Plough (Sarvangasana/Halansana)
    A common counterpose for shoulder stand or plough pose would be to do a gentle bridge pose or Fish pose (Matsyasana) as it helps to counter stretch the neck. You may also want to do Reclined hero pose (Supta Vajrasana), or Camel pose (Ushtrasana).
  • Universal Counter pose– Child’s pose (Balansana)
    Balansana is the universal counterpose as it allows for rest between poses, and allows breath to regain a steady rhythm.

With the right awareness of our breath and what our bodies need, let us work towards the same goal of achieving Sthira Sukham Asanam in our yoga practice, and practice with a smile 🙂

<3,
Veronica

Pranayama and the Parasympathetic Nervous System

Each time I get on my mat, I most enjoy the opening and closing of each practice. It’s the invitation to be present. To begin with focusing on the inhalation and exhalation, feeling the cool air in your nostrils, passing through the body. To focus the mind on the present. As a totally side point, I particularly liked how Master Paalu used the metaphor of fish, swimming and jumping to the surface, as a figure of speech to describe our thoughts, randomly ebbing, rising and moving past. (Though I swear, some of these fish really want my attention). It’s fascinating how this act of breathing happens mindlessly and automatically – we do it all day and night long and almost never pay attention to it. Yet, it has powerful potential. In becoming more conscious of the breath, we can bring awareness to the self and present moment.

Internet searches for Pranayama and podcasts led me down the rabbit hole to new information, which I’d like to share a bit about. First, that many cultures, from ancient and modern times have recognized the power of harnessing breathing. Most people are probably aware of the “qi” energy that Chinese understand as the “vital principle” that flows through the body, and respiration is one of its primary manifestations. I didn’t realise that the Greek term “pneuma” and the Latin “spiritus” similarly refer to (loosely) the breath and divine. As late as 1902, a German psychiatrist, Johannes Heinrich Schultz coined a form of breathing-led relaxation, which he called “autogenic breathing”. This pretty much lays the foundation for a lot of Euro and Anglo-centric mindfulness meditation that is rooted in breathing exercise. 

Second, that these techniques of breathing influence both physiological and psychological factors; breathing does the former by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. For example, the “Sitali” and “Sitkari” Pranayama have the effect of cooling the body. Some of the benefits include reducing agitation and reducing stress. I was intrigued and read more about this nervous system.

The parasympathetic nervous system is opposite in function to the sympathetic nervous system. It controls the internal functions that occur when the body is resting and relaxing – stimulating it can slow the heart rate, simulate bronchial secretions and enhance digestion. A popular form of relaxation technique called “Cardiac Coherent Breathing” aims to coordinate breathing with heart rate, so as to stimulate the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, it helps to slow the heart rate and in turn communicates this to the brain, which can bring about peaceful or positive feelings. When coupled with a a mind-based effort to move attention away from thoughts (or those fish!), we can improve physiology and psychology, or in short, body and mind.

There are a number of scholarly articles written about this, but a theoretical piece about heart-focused breathing really caught my attention. In journal article published in “Frontiers in Psychology: Psychology for Clinical Settings” (September 2019), McCraty and Zayas write about a “different subjective inner state that is achieved through techniques as paced breathing…” and that “a physiological shift resulting from heart-focused breathing can help facilitate the experience of a positive emotion”. They go on to write about heart-focused breathing techniques and cardiac coherence, highlighting how the technique uses communication between heart and brain to bring about well-being for practitioners. Their article had some very thought-provoking suggestions on using heart-focused breathing as a trauma-support tool. (if you want to read it, link is at the bottom).

Breath has immense power – panic attacks can be triggered by hyperventilation and (as we’ve talked about in the last few classes) rapid breathing can aggravate the body. While there’s always the danger of over-complicating things, it’s good to remember that, coming back to breathing, “following your breath” can be the beginning of a powerful mindfulness practice. 

Inhale and exhale.  

 

McCraty, R. & Zayas, M., (2019)”Cardiac coherence, self-regulation, autonomic stability and psychosocial well-being”  https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01090 we learn