External to Internal, Internal to External

“ACTIVATE YOUR PSOAS” is probably one of the most commonly heard phrase for any student taking YTT. 

The Psoas muscle is probably one of the most important muscle in your body. It is a combination of two large muscles: the psoas major and the iliacus. They attach from the 12th thoracic vertebrae to the 5th lumbar vertebrae, through the pelvis , and to the inside of the proximal femur bone. This muscle is responsible for plenty of day-to-day activities, including stabilising the trunk and spine during movement and sitting. It is also connected to the breath due to its connection to the diaphragm. When startled or stressed, the psoas contracts as well.

In yoga, the psoas plays an important role in all the asanas. For instance, contracting the psoas bends the trunk forward in Paschimotanasana, or draws the knee up in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana. Contracting the psoas on one side flexes the trunk, allowing for Utthita Trikonasana. Stretching the psoas allows for backbends such as Ustrasana. A toned psoas is also required for all inversions and arm balances. 

Outside of yoga however, we do not hear much of this muscle. What is focused on in most workouts or physical exercises target superficial muscles such as sculpting the ideal 6pac abdominals, training for bulging biceps and achieving firm glutes. 

In society, plenty of emphasis is placed on outward appearances. The clothes you wear and how well groomed you are affects the way other people perceive you. Looking the part can help you get ahead in job interviews. A physically attractive person can easily impress others. The endless bombardment of advertisements promoting unattainable beauty standards also has a large part to play. Look good, feel good — Looking good can help build your self esteem. Or so they say. This “self-esteem” or self image, however, is built on what other people think of you. External means are used to fulfil internal satisfaction. 

Back to the psoas muscles — An imbalance in the muscle can cause various problems such as pain in the lower back and hips when lifting the legs. Back pain is common, and posture can be affected. Internal muscles are equally important, if not more important, than superficial muscles. 

Likewise, the inner self needs equal, if not more, nourishment. Clinical depression has surged by huge percentages in recent decades. Self help related sales have been on an increase year-on-year, with books on topics such as happiness and self-esteem topping the charts. People increasingly find that the mind and body are at odds with each other.

Yoga is an internal journey and is beyond anything I have mentioned above. Not only does it strive to achieve the union of mind and body, it also includes the soul. 

The 8 limbs of yoga (Ashtanga) include:

  1. Yamas – guidelines for social behaviour
  2. Niyamas – guidelines for inner discipline and responsibility 
  3. Asanas – physical practice of holding steady, continuous, comfortable poses
  4. Pranayama – practising the extension of breath
  5. Pratyahara – removal of mind from sense organs
  6. Dharana – concentration
  7. Dhyana – meditation
  8. Samadhi – transcendence

It is unknown whether or not samadhi is ever achievable in this lifetime. Having that as a goal and through the practice of yoga however, allows for an internal transformation starting from physical, to mental, to spiritual. What is shown on the outside / the external as a by-product then ceases to matter.

Internal to external. Selfishness to selflessness. Inward focus to outward focus. 

Emotional Release Through Yoga

“Go deeper, go deeper, go deeper.”

I laid down on my back in Savasana after what felt like a very intense and fulfilling yoga session. It was only the third day of YTT, and my body was not yet used to the physical demands of all the conditioning we did. Nonetheless, the workout felt good. Finally, relaxation. Melting the body into the mat, feeling the perspiration slowly dry under the cool air from the air conditioning, the meditative voice of our teacher – it all felt calming. But the moment my body started to fully settle and cool down, I felt a sudden tightness in the body and tears started rolling out the corner of my eyes. Before I could make sense of what was happening, I was bawling.

As it turns out, it is fairly common for emotional releases to happen on the mat. So, what exactly was happening?

Focusing on the breath during meditation or savasana helps to calm the mind, taking away superficial stress and worry. But the silence and “going deeper” also forces us to access the feelings we bury and push aside on a daily basis. Emotional pain can feel overwhelming and crippling. The body hence comes to defense and does things to stop the pain from being fully experienced as a form of coping mechanism. There is thus a break between body and mind. However in yoga, the mind, body and spirit exists as one — or at least that’s the goal. The 3 are interconnected. The body keeps the score even if you’re not consciously thinking about it from day to day. It holds on to emotional tension, pain, trauma and intense joy. Through asanas, it wakes up the parts of the body that holds these emotions, helping to break through unresolved issues and energy.

Some say that hip-opening poses are good for helping to find release. It is not scientifically proven, but perhaps it can be  understood when relating to Chakras. The muladhara chakra is situated in the tailbone. The traits stored in this chakra includes security, self confidence, body image, and connection with nature. The swadishtana chakra, located in the sacrum, includes gender identity, anger, and sexual relations. The manipura chakra, located at the naval, includes belonging, trust, intimacy, friendship, status of your current position in life and whether it deviates from your true nature, and fear. It seems like  plenty of emotions are stored in these 3 chakras, all of which are situated near the hips. Perhaps they are stirred whenever sitting in a hip-opening pose. 

There are also sources that speak of the benefits of chest openers in relation to emotional release. This could be due to the increased flow of Prana (life force) which is situated in the anahada chakra (heart). Prana rides on the breath, which correlates to our respiratory system. According to the chinese, grief is stored in the lungs. Crying also involves gasping for air. 

However, I wonder how accurate these deductions are. If they are, could this be a potential way of identifying internal issues through physical tensions observed during asana postures? Or, could postures targeted at certain emotions be used in psychotherapy for healing?

PTSD and Yoga

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that develops after a person has experienced very stressful or distressing events. Symptoms can include intense feelings of distress and extreme physical reactions when reminded of the trauma, nightmares, detachment, feeling emotionally numb etc. 

In a normal person, stress levels usually return to normal after the stimulus is taken away. In people suffering from PTSD, however, the regulatory system that manages the stress hormones are malfunctioned. The smoke detector, the amygdala, is rewired by the trauma to interpret certain situations as life-threatening dangers. It sends signals to the survival brain to fight flee or freeze. Having all three happen the same time causes the person to mentally shut down, or trigger a panic attack.

There is a study recorded in the book “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bassel Van Der Kolk, where people who have experienced trauma had their Heart Rate Variability measured while in Savasana. Instead of picking up a clear signal, they ended up with too much muscle activity. Rather than going into relaxation, their muscles continue to “be on standby mode to fight unseen enemies”. It is shown how difficult it is for traumatised people to feel completely relaxed and physically safe in their bodies. Memory of helplessness is stored as muscle tension in the affected body areas. Many survivors cope by trying to “neutralise unwanted sensory experiences through self-numbing”. 

Yoga, however, can help. 

Learning to stay calm
People who have gone through trauma often find it difficult to stay calm. The body is constantly at a heightened state of anxiety and stress, especially for War Veterens. Through Pranayama, it teaches them to focus on the breath. More oxygen is brought to the head and the rest of the body which is known to help in relaxation. Kapalabathi (also a Kriya) for instance, helps with unlocking mental and emotional blockages. It encourages a tranquil state of mind, and can help relieve stress and depression. The chanting of AUM, which is the vibration of life, can also create a calming effect and help smoothen the mind. With regular practice, the focus on the breath and the internal chanting of AUM becomes habitual and can be a method to turn to whenever they sense a flashback or panic attack coming. 

Rebuilding body awareness
We need to be aware of what our body needs in order to take care of it. In yoga, there is focus on the breath and builds an understanding of how our body moves with it. We notice the connection between body and mind, emotions and physical asanas —  How anxiety about doing a pose ends up tensing the muscles and throwing you off balance. Or the calmness of hearing your own inhalations and exhalations during Ujjayi breathing. Physical practice of asanas can also help rebuild self-confidence and establish a friendly relationship with the body. This is especially so for survivors of sexual assault, many of whom hate their bodies. 

Learning to be in control
Trauma survivors often do not feel in control of their mind and body.  They may be able to logicize and think rationally on a normal basis. But when fear or strong emotions are triggered by association, all logic fails to work as the brain goes into survivor mode or shut down. These triggers are often random and can happen anytime. The fear of panic in itself can also increase the anxiety multifold. Yoga, however, teaches control. Through the lengthening of the breath in Pranayama, or learning to focus while in balancing poses, or holding in a pose for long periods of time, it all trains mental discipline and is reassuring that you still are in control. 

Channeling of energy
In yoga, there is practice of channeling energy towards energy centres such as the heart, throat, forehead etc during Asanas. Similarly, trauma survivors can also learn to channel their fear (negative) towards something more beneficial (positive). For example, determination to hold asanas, or the fight to keep trying and never give up when unable to do a pose. 

It is important for friends and family members to be supportive and help create a safe environment. Trauma survivors need to learn that the stressful situation is now over. They need to know that they are now safe and have no need for fear. This takes time to slowly rewire the brain, to relearn to trust. Patience and encouragement is key. Yoga can be helpful when introduced the practice slowly, but it is also important to understand that it can be very difficult for them to stay in Savasana or in any meditative state due to the sudden quietening of the mind which may bring up traumatic memories that they do not wish to relive. Symptoms for PTSD can last for months or years, or they may come and go in waves. However, with enough time, patience, willpower, and consistent yoga practice, the symptoms can be minimised, or even be eliminated.

What’s in it for me?

Yoga means different things to different people and all these meanings are substantial. If someone considers it a just physical activity – a great way to get into shape – so be it. If it means something deeper to someone else, then that is a welcome definition as well. 

The one thing yoga shouldn’t be, is judgemental.

I started doing yoga in 2009 when I was just out of college and after a few years of working in a corporate environment realised that I wasn’t getting any exercise in my routine. Yoga was an easy choice because it had just begun to get popular and there was easy access to yoga studios at every corner. I got what I was looking for as a good workout alternative. I sat through the boring meditation and instructions to “sit still” and “be one with my mat” – whatever that meant, in order to get to the sweat eventually, that’s all I really cared about. How many calories did I burn and what meal did I earn. This thought process continued to follow me as I meandered through HIIT and pilates and home workouts and the gym as well. It was only when I reached the dreaded ’30yrs old’, that questions about myself and my purpose started to come up in my consciousness and I realised I wasn’t equipped to answer them. 

I, once again, automatically turned to yoga. This time, however, I wasn’t that interested in the physical aspect of it as much as I was seeking answers. Even if I wasn’t seeking answers, I was looking for tools to help me get my answers. It turns out, not many people offer these tools when they teach yoga in studios. There is not a shred of theory in any of these classes, there is hardly even a trace of meditation! So I decided to do this myself – I spoke to a few friends who were yoga teachers and they pointed me towards libraries and book stores with a list of books that were going to enlighten me, hold my hand and guide me as I trudge through the darkness. 

Once again, I faced a sea of information that didn’t make much sense to me. Skepticism took over and I turned my back on yoga and immersed myself into my life, work and hobbies. It was only when I quit my corporate job in a fit of frustration, that I realised that I was ready to roll up my sleeves and get into the meaning of it all, what yoga is all about. 

I signed up for the RYT – 200 hrs course. I can’t say if I’m going to be a yoga teacher in the future or not, but I sure as hell have become a student. I understand the abstract concepts that have been simplified for a beginner’s mind in an attempt to ready them for the vast universe of yoga. Thank god for awesome teachers! I haven’t received the certificate of success yet, but I do consider my decision the right one. I feel ready to absorb and understand what the guru’s of yore were talking about. I can’t wait for my journey to continue as my own unique one – unlike anyone else’s. Allowing me to fail and fall and then rise up in my own time.

Like I said, if yoga is anything – it isn’t judgemental.

YOGA AND POSTPARTUM

After I gave birth my 2 boys , I started to feel very sad about my body. I thought that my belly would be back to normal after the baby came out. But then it was not like what I expected . All the fat is still staying there started from 9 months I been eating non heathy food . it had been build up everyday . I used to be obsessed with my body. I wanted to have the body of a ballet dancer — not an inch of fat, ethereal, and skinny, with lots of bones showing. I starved myself and did everything I could to lose weight. 

Then I started to go back to yoga everyday to help me get back to my body and also helped to bring me out of my worries ,stressful mind and enjoy life with my family.

Yoga taught me to rethink how I approach what healthiness means, by helping me understand what true strength really means. Indeed, there is an intricate and sublime connection between strength and vulnerability .

After practicing yoga for a while , my body did not let me down after all, it had loved me back and supported me in my recovery .But this experience has been beyond physical, because yoga is also such a spiritual practice. I continue to learn to forgive the failure of plans, people, and processes. I learn to loved myself more ,enjoying my life with people around me . And the most important one is accepting myself as who I am .

MY FIRST EXPERIENCE ABOUT YOGA

When I first started yoga at 18 year’s old , I didn’t know anything about yoga, and also my physical body never been doing any work out regularly .

I stepped into a yoga class for intermediate yogis level , and I don’t even knew it was for people been practicing very often or many years. I just chose the class that fitted my time.

Dudes , yoga is totally a work- out . I didn’t really consider the expectations I had for yoga, but falling over because I couldn’t hold a pose as long as everyone else was definitely not one of them. I can certainly see how yoga can tone your body. If you happened to be like me and exercise about one a year, then it might be difficult for you too. 

But please don’t let it stop you ! One of the things I loved most about the class was that it was very focused on the fact that “ you’re exactly where you need to be’’. So , if you can’t hit the pose the teacher teaching you can also do an easier version ,it’s all good.

You’ll make it happen when you’re ready. 

It’s took me a few years later to bring yoga to my daily life. And from that I understand yoga is more than the poses, it’s the state of mind, learning to breathe , learning to be still, learning to be flexibility and strength .i

Yoga has never been just about loving your body. It’s learning to acceptance of body ,mind and soul .We all have issues that we struggle with self- acceptance . when we learn to see others as equal , we learn to love ourselves .

HOW YOGA HELP ME WENT THROUGH PREGNANCY

Hello everyone ,my name is Van . I am a mother of 3 beautiful kids , I had all my kids very cloes to each other , so almost every year I’m was carried a baby inside my belly .

And from being pregnant I get to know yoga and started to love yoga from there. During the first few months of my pregnancy ,I was plagued with morning sickness. I would stay in bed for few hours on end only to get up for a few moment to eat or walk outside . Yoga have been a lifesaver in my life in many ways . I started to took a few yoga classes per week, just to practice my physical body to keep my body strong and heathy . Yoga gives me quiet time to heal my body.in healing my body, I heal my soul, which heal my mind , which helps how I mother, which helps my marriage .

I still remember being in my 3rdhours of contraction , the breathing was helping me so much to went through the pain . And yoga breathing was  key in focusing my pushing as he was being turned . I took a cleaning breath , and then a deep breath , as my baby came right out and was put on my chest .

He was so beautiful ,and those tears were streaming down on my face, I knew I would never forget those deep breath coming from so deep in my body and soul as I pushed with all my strength to bring a new life to my family , to the world .

Tips for practicing yoga on travels

Since I started yoga, I’ve been local studios the place I traveled. I think it is a unique way of enjoying the local yoga scene, place and people as well as releasing tensions from the flights.

Here are my tips to enjoy yoga on a journey.

  1. Travel yoga mat is useful; travel yoga mat is much thinner than the normal yoga mat. It is light and easy to carry around. I prefer travel yoga mat than yoga towel for travel because it could be troublesome washing the yoga towel while travelling.
  2. Research before you are on the road; you can find a local studio once you get to your destination, but enough research helps you to plan your travel and find the yoga place suits you or interesting to you. For example, when I was staying in London, I was able to find a popular meditation studio by researching in advance.
  3. Self-practice in the hotel room with yoga lesson platform; when I go to business trip, it is hard to have a time to go to a studio. In such case I use a yoga lesson platform for self-practice. These days there are great yoga lesson platforms as well as Youtube. One of great self-practice I did was in Paris – my hotel room has a spacious balcony with the view of Paris city.
  4. Have a open mind and be curious; every studio, teachers have their own yoga and teaching style and it could be very new to you. That’s the charm of practicing yoga in different places so be open – you will learn something new from your usual practices.

Fascia and yoga

My interest in fascia started from a myofascial release workshop I happened to join a year ago. Since I’ve enjoyed several physical exercises (weight training, yoga, cycling and climbing), sometimes I had a pain in different parts of body and I wanted to know what ways to ease those pains.

So what is fascia? Fascia is the body’s connective tissue. It’s a head-to-toe, inside-to-out, all-encompassing, and interwoven system of fibrous connective tissue found throughout the body. It provides a framework that helps support and protect individual muscle groups, organs, and the entire body.

Myo refers to muscle; myofascia is the network of fascia involved in musculoskeletal functions and health and it influences how signals of sensation (like pain) travel from your body to your brain. Fascia becomes sticky, clumpy, tight, and flaky and forms restrictions, adhesions, and distortions by bad postures, overusing or injury of muscle or unhealthy diets and it creates pain in the body.

Yoga asanas can help releasing and strengthening fascia and we can design a fascia release yoga class with tennis balls or massage balls. Some of effective asanas releasing fasica are Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose), Ardha Bhekasana (Half Frog Pose), Ardha Matsyendrasana variation.

Aromatherapy and Yoga

I saw some teachers use aroma oils for students and I found that aromatherapy is complementary to yoga; it helped relaxation in Yin yoga and at the end of asana practice as well as boosting energy. From my research, historically and scientifically aromatherapy makes synergy with asana practices and brings mental & physical benefits.

In Ayurveda, the ancient Indian healing system, one way to balance and the body’s chakras is using essential oils and asana. Also, modern science says
using essential oils for asana practice balances the autonomic nervous system and help reach hormonal homeostasis.

For yoga teachers, there are several ways to apply aromatherapy and it’s recommended to be aware of characteristic and benefits of each aroma oil.

  • Ask students if anyone is allergic to the oils. Pass oils around at the beginning of class and have students rub them on their feet, temples, or the backs of their necks.
  • Spritz an essential oil blend throughout the space at the beginning and end of class
  • Diffuse oils in the space throughout class
  • Rub oils on students’ feet or temples during savasana
  • Create a purifying oil blend for students to spray on their mats after classs

<5 types of aroma oils>
1. Stabilizing, meditative, and centering: Sandalwood, frankincense, myrrh, and cedarwood
2. Detoxing and breathing: Peppermint, eucalyptus, and rosemary
3. Calming and relaxing: Lavender, geranium, and chamomile
4. Positivity and joy: Bergamot, lemon, and orange
5. Promoting transcendence, connection to others: Neroli, jasmine, ylang-ylang, and rose