The benefits of regularly practicing Pranayama

The word ‘Prana’ means breath life force and the word ‘yama’, means control or discipline. The word ayam means ‘expansion’. The goal of Pranayama is to increase the quantum of this life force (prana) so that it can reach out to ‘hidden’ recesses of the brain. This helps in expanding the human faculties and slowing degeneration. General practice refers to a set of breathing techniques used for relaxation, concentration and meditation.
I was dubious about the effects of holding the breath, particularly after exercise, with the body needing oxygen more then ever and was interested to see what the benefits of such a practice are. The evidence suggests benefits of regularly practicing the various breathing techniques include:
Reduced breathing rate: with certain Pranayama you can train yourself to breathe more slowly and more deeply. It is possible to reduce the breathing rate from around 15 breathes per minute to 5-6 breaths per minute. This contributes to:

  • Slowing down the heart rate as more oxygen can be pumped even with less breaths
  • Reduced wear and tear of internal organs
  • Lowering of blood pressure, relaxation of body tensions and quieter nerves

Regularly practicing Pranayama increases life, as longevity is directly linked to breathing rate.
Blood circulation improves as a result of deep breathing via the oxygen absorbed during inhalation and holding. Therefore more oxygen and prana reaches all parts of your body
Gives us a healthy heart, more oxygen in the blood means more oxygen to the muscles of the heart
Enables organs to function more effectively:

  • Better functioning of the autonomic system, improves the working of lungs, heart, diaphram, abdomen, intestines, kidneys and pancreas
  • Digestive system improves
  • Lifts the mood
  • All of the bodies organs get more oxygen during Pranayama, toxins are removed from the body and the immune system is strengthened

Better mental health: Pranayama helps to focus the mind and clear negative emotions such as anger, depression, greed, arrogance etc.
Pranayama also helps to control the fluctuations of the mind , regular practice will create a feeling of lightness and inner peace, better sleep as well as improved memory and concentration. It also helps to improve our connection with spirituality
Pranayama also helps to improve the quality of life in old age by clearing uric acid from the body, which can contribute to joint pains and discomfort. Regular practice can help to improve conditions such as backaches, headaches, rheumatism, stiffening muscles and joints.
After practicing breathing techniques regularly over the past couple of months I can feel the benefits for myself and my lung capacity has clearly increased. In addition the various techniques are very useful when I can sleep at night or I am particularly anxious. I felt prior to my practice my breathing was very fast and shallow and since I have started to become more conscious of each breath which will only serve to benefit me in the future.

The 4 paths of Yoga

Over the centuries 4 different paths within Yoga have developed. As we all have different personalities we also prefer different ways to practisise. But to get most out of yoga it should be a mix of the four different paths, a synthesis of the four main paths. Keep one preferred path but a combination of the four paths helps us to develop in harmony.
Karma Yoga – the active path. This is the path of selfless actions performed without thinking of success or rewards. This path suits people who has an active and outgoing temperament. It purifies the mind and this yogi works hard and often serves humanity and seeks to eliminate the ego.
Jnana Yoga – The Philosophical path. The path of wisdom and knowledge through studying the philosophy of Vedanta. This path requires a sharp mind and an unclouded intellect. It is considered to be the most difficult path of the four paths and the ego can be a danger to yogis focusing on this path.
Bhakti Yoga – the devotional path. Through chanting, prayer and repetition of mantras these yogis search the sublimation, turning anger and hatred into a positive direction. Anything done with a pure heart will be right for the Bhakti practitioner. The path appeals on people with an emotional nature and they can sometimes become extreme in their devotion.
Raja and Hatha Yoga – the Scientific path. The yogic path where body and mind is in control through asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathing exercise) through a step-by-step practice. The ancient sage Patanjali has coded this path in stages in the search for enlightenment. These stages are called Ashtanga, (in Sanskrit Ash=eight and Anga=division or limb), the eight limbs. This path teaches the stages to control the body and mind, and there are two sub-paths, the Hatha yoga and the Kundalini yoga. The mind comes under control automatically after the prana has been mastered and after the dormant kundalini energy is awakened. The most common path in the west world is this path and it is now developed in to many different sub-branches.
A mix of all the four paths is the best way to grow. The whole person – heart, intellect and hand should be developed simultaneously -the synthesis of yoga.

Awareness of the 3 Yogi diets

As Yoga means union it also includes a union with what you eat and digest, we are unified with the environment and with each other. Your whole body system and mind should strive to reach a balanced and harmonic state. Yoga develops our pure inner nature and the diet plays an important roll. The food produces the energy that drives our body, but it also shapes our emotions and affects our minds. The Yogic scripture divides food into three types: the Sattvic – the pure, the Rajasic – stimulating and the Tamasic – the impure and rotten food.
The Rajas group of food contains for example onions, garlic, coffee, tea, fast food, snacks and spicy and salted foods and it also includes sugar and soft drinks and chocolate. The Bhagavad Gita, 17-9 states “The foods that are bitter, sour, saline, excessively hot, pungent dry, and burning are liked by the rajasic and are productive of pain, grief and disease.” The behaviour is affected by a Rajasic diet and persons become overstimulated and hyperactive in both body and mind and the adrenalin gets high. Characteristics for people eating Rajas diet are aggressive, passionate and anger.
The Tamasic diet contains meat, fish, eggs, drugs, alcohol and overcooked, fried barbecued and reheated food and food containing conservatives. Tamasic means dark or evil. The food in this diet is mainly tasteless, putrid, frired or rotten like mushrooms (they grow in darkness), aubergine, dried sauages, fast food etc. Persons keeping to this diet are often dull, boring, evil or lazy. The Tamasic diet may be a less expensive alternative and may be more represented in areas less fortunate.
The Yogic number one diet is the Sattvic group.Purity, truth, light and love – the higher qualities that allows inner growth.  In this group you find the pure food that brings most energy out of us and that calms our mind and sharpens our intellect. Pure fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables, cereals and whole grain products, pure diary products etc. The Sattvic diet is easily digested and supplies maximum energy and gives endurance. “The foods which increase life, purity, strength, health, joy and cheerfulness, which are savory and oleaginous, substantial and agreeable, are dear to the sattvic people.” Bhagavad Gita, 17-8. This diet brings purity and calmness to the mind and promotes happiness, serenity and a mental equilibrium.

Scuba Meditation?

I remember being in Pondicherry many many years ago, way before I started yoga or diving.  As a tourist, I walked into an ashram and the first thing I saw was a massive aquarium with a chair in front of it and a sign that said “meditation.” One of the people who worked there explained that they sometimes use the aquarium in their meditation exercises, getting people to sit on the chair and just look at the fish for 45 minutes.  She said it was a very effective way of getting people to relax, breathe and disconnect from the outside world.
The thing about meditation is that I find it boring. And I have no attention span.  And my legs hurt when I sit in one crossed legged position for 45 minutes so I start to fidget.  But I should meditate to calm my head and keep my mind focused.  And I only very recently realized that I already do.  When I scuba dive, it’s the only time I’m completely relaxed and able to not let my mind wander.  That, for me is meditative. I don’t need to sit cross legged in a dimly lit room for 45 minutes to get the same result.
How does this scuba meditation work?
1)    Breath: In yoga and meditation, we’re taught to be aware of our breathing so we can inhale and exhale in a calm and controlled way.  Going deeper into our practice, breathing becomes a natural and effortless part of  doing yoga.  It’s the same method of breath control for scuba.  Long, slow inhalations and exhalations. And never ever hold your breath. After several dives, breathing underwater becomes second nature and I don’t even think about it.
2)    Awareness: Its really important while diving to be aware of yourself, your body movements and the aquatic environment to avoid injury to both, yourself as well as the marine life.  These are principals very similar to the ones we learn as yoga practitioners (ok, minus the aquatic environment bit)
3)    Alignment and technique: Proper weighting, buoyancy and swimming technique are again really important while diving to get the most comfortable, effortless and enjoyable experience.
4)    Drishti: Where to look?  Some people close their eyes while meditating, others stare at a fixed object or sometimes a candle. I Just look at  fish, coral or  the endless expanse of blue ahead of me.  Some days, its my buoyancy that I think about.  I close my eyes for a few minutes and go deep into the feeling of being weightless and gliding through the water with the current
Once I’m completely immersed in my dive with everything in order – my breath, my buoyancy, my scuba gear, my fin strokes – there’s no way my thoughts will linger.  Personal stuff, work stuff, all other stuff is an ocean away and I’m completely relaxed, immersed and meditative. Yes, my meditation is being in sea.  It works.

Yoga for kids with developmental disorders

“Special Needs” is a wide spectrum of symptoms, diagnoses and illness ranging from mild learning disabilities to profound mental retardation, developmental delays that catch up quickly to one’s that remain ingrained well into early adolescence, occasional panic attacks to serious psychiatric problems.  While there is no cure for many childhood disorders such as Autism, Down’s Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and so on, health care professionals are working around the clock to come up with ways to make the lives of children affected by these disorders just a bit more orderly.
Yoga, being a practice that transcends age, health or cultural barriers has been seen to have tremendous effects on the mental and physical well being of children with special needs and is being widely accepted as a means of therapy for these kids.
The following information is extracted from special needs yoga therapist Sonia Sumar’s website and explains how yoga works for various disorders.
“Attention Deficit Disorder: A significant deficiency in age-appropriate attention, impulse control and rule-governed behavior which manifests in early childhood.
Symptoms: Difficulty in following instructions, restlessness and impatience, forgetfulness and sometimes, hyperactivity.  Children with this disorder generally do not perform well in school, though most test at average or above average intelligence.  They also tend to have a very low self-esteem.
How yoga can help: With regular practice, children with ADD develop greater body awareness, emotional balance and concentration – increasing their capacity for schoolwork and creative play. As overall performance improves, so does their self-esteem.  As breath is deeply connected to the emotions, teaching pranayama to children who have attention deficit disorder is very helpful.  Pranayama stimulates vital areas of the brain and central nervous system. By combining pranayama with asanas and deep relaxation, the benefits are greatly enhanced.
Autism: A developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of life. This disorder makes it difficult for children to communicate, interact with others and relate to the outside world. Many children with autism exhibit prowess in art, music and math
Symptoms: Repetitive behaviors such as rocking, opening and closing doors etc. Language skills develop slowly or not at all, aggressive or self-injurious behavior, resistance to change in routine, throwing tantrums for no reason, obsessing over an object or person, sensitivity to sights, sounds, touch, odors and flavors
How yoga can help: The first step in teaching yoga to a student with autism is to establish a strong bond with the child and ensure that the child trusts him/her.  Massage, music, dance, rhymes and stories are some of the different techniques that the teacher can use to connect with the child.
Once the connection is made, the yoga teacher can introduce some asana and pranayama that will help to bring the child with autism out of his or her shell. After the student becomes familiar with these introductory poses, the  teacher may progressively add more asanas to the routine, as well as deep relaxation. The combination of asanas, pranayama and deep relaxation will strengthen the child’s nervous system, increase overall health and facilitate the development of body awareness and concentration. By establishing optimal physiological and psychological integrity, Yoga therapy helps children with autism gain new motor, communication and social skills. The end result is an overall improvement in their quality of life
Down Syndrome: Persons with Down Syndrome are shorter than average, with truncated limbs. They may have an epicanthic fold of skin extending from the eyelid over the inner canthus of the eye, be crossed eyes and have low muscle tone. Motor development is slow and instead of walking by 12 to 14 months they usually learn to walk between 15 to 36 months. Language and cognitive development are also delayed. The majority of children with Down Syndrome function in the mild to moderate range of mental retardation. In addition to these delays, they are also susceptible to medical problems such as congenital heart defects, increased susceptibility to infection, respiratory problems, obstructed digestive tracts and childhood leukemia.
Asanas help to stretch, tone and strengthen the body. Asanas also stimulate the internal organs and endocrine glands.  Yoga can help children with Down syndrome stay slim and flexible as they tend to put on a lot of weight as they age. Together, pranayama benefits the central nervous system and Asanas facilitate the development of body awareness, concentration and memory — vital skills for any child with a developmental disability.
Cerebral Palsy:  A disorder caused by injury to the motor areas in the brain, affects muscle tone and the ability to control movement and posture. In most cases, CB occurs during pregnancy or at childbirth. In other cases, infections such as meningitis or traumatic brain injury may result in cerebral palsy. There are three types of movement disturbances associated with cerebral palsy:
Spastic cerebral palsy: Muscles are tense, contracted, and resistant to movement. This is the most common form, especially in low birth weight or premature babies.
Athetoid cerebral palsy: The affected parts of the body perform involuntary movements, such as turning, twisting, facial grimacing, and drooling. This form of cerebral palsy generally involves damage only to the motor centers, not to other parts of the brain.
Ataxic cerebral palsy: Lack of balance and coordination and altered depth perception, due to damage to the cerebellum. Ataxia involves difficulty maintaining balance and swaying when standing.
The practice of asanas followed by deep relaxation, can reduce high muscle tone, which is characteristic of most children with cerebral palsy. Holding an asana gives the muscles and tendons a relaxing stretch, releasing overall stress and tightness. At the same time that asanas are relaxing the body, they also provide just enough resistance to exercise low muscle tone areas of the body. In this way asanas actually improve both high and low muscle tone problems in children with cerebral palsy.
The most important aspect of asana practice for children with cerebral palsy is its ability to stretch and re-align the spine. Asanas flex and twist the spine in all directions. A series of stretches and counter-stretches helps to create more space between the vertebrae and reduce pressure on the disks and nerves that radiate out of the spine. Reducing the pressure on these radial nerves facilitates the release of muscular tension throughout the body and enhances overall nerve function. As a result, the child is able to develop a greater range of movement and coordination, as well as greater independence.”
Reference:  Yoga for the Special Child by Sonia Sumar
 

Brief History of Ashtanga Yoga

The Ashtanga Vinyasa series is said to have its origin in an ancient text called the Yoga Korunta, compiled by Vamana Rishi, which Krishnamachariya, the father of modern yoga received from his Guru Rama Mohan Brahmachari at Mount Kailash in the early 20th century.
The origins of yoga itself are obscure and estimated as being somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000 years ago and at that time, yoga was practiced mainly by a small group of  yogis who lived in caves and forests, far from society. Krishnamacharya is be considered by many as the yogi who brought yoga into the mainstream . Among his students were present day teachers such as K. Pattabhi Jois (founder of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga) B.K.S. Iyengar (founder of Iyengar Yoga) Indra Devi, and Krishnamacharya’s son T.K.V. Desikachar.
The popular system of Ashtanga Yoga that is widely practiced today, traces its more recent origins back to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois became a student of Sri T. Krishnamacharya in 1927 at the age of 12. Over the next twenty-five years, he learned and mastered the practices passed on to him by his Guru and in turn, passed them onto his students.
Daily or regular practice is highly emphasized in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. Ashtanga Yoga is traditionally taught in Mysore style (supervised self practice, named after the city in India where Ashtanga originates), where each student moves through the practice at his or her own pace and level. An individual with an established Ashtanga practice might take between an hour and two hours, depending on his or her own personal speed, but a beginner will likely have a shorter practice
 
 
 

My Journey with Yoga

Yoga, like life, is a never ending journey. There is always more to explore and more to learn. Below is how my journey began and where it has led me so far.
My journey started about 6 years ago. I wanted to engage in some sort of exercise to keep myself active and hopefully, to improve the condition of chronic constipation that I have been suffering for years.
My first yoga instructor was my mum’s friend. She led the class through various yoga contortions and strange breathing patterns that would occasionally cause me to giggle self consciously. I wasn’t sure exactly what yoga style she was teaching. Back then I didn’t even think to ask, yoga was yoga right? My yoga journey with her ended just after 10 classes. I was actually looking for a more physically intensive exercise workout, At that point, I felt that yoga was too slow and it was about stretching, balancing and twisting, Since then, I had stopped going for any yoga classes and started running instead.
After about 3 years later, a friend of mine asked me to join her for yoga classes at a nearby community centre. Since I was really bored with my only exercise workout which was running, I decided to go for yoga classes again. It was a Hatha yoga class, a slow-paced stretching class with some breathing exercises and basic poses. I love the relaxing feeling that I had after the class. Strangely, it was a totally different feeling that I have experienced from my very first yoga class. After completing 8 classes at the centre, I decided to include yoga as part of my exercise routine. Soon after, I got myself a gym membership to continue with my yoga practice. From there, I discovered other yoga styles like astanga yoga, hot yoga etc. I could still remember that one yoga instructor kept telling this to the class, “Pain is your friend, do enjoy the pain.”
With regular practice, I can see the rewards of seeing my body stretch and reach new ranges of motion which is a great achievement for me. Gradually, I developed a passion for yoga. I would seriously recommend giving this a shot if you’re stressed out or if you just want a new challenge in life.

Namaste

Namaste, commonly said at the end of the yoga class by the teacher and students. The teacher would say something like, “Thank you for coming to the class today, Namaste.” He/She would put both palms together, placing them at the heart centre and bow his/her head to the direction of the class. The students would also do the same.
Namaste is the Indian way of greeting each other. Wherever they are on the street, in the house, in public transport, on vacation or on the phone and when Hindus meet people they know or strangers with whom they want to initiate a conversation, namaste is the customary courtesy greeting to begin with and often to end with. When people greet one another with namaste, it means, ‘may our minds meet’, indicated by the folded palms placed before the chest. The bowing down of the head is a gracious form of extending friendship in love, respect and humility.
In relation to Yoga, the teacher initiates Namaste as a symbol of gratitude and respect toward his/her students and his/her own teachers and in return invites the students to connect with their lineage, thereby allowing the truth to flow—the truth that we are all one when we live from the heart. Usually, it is done at the end of class because the mind is less active and the energy in the room is more peaceful.
It consists of placing the hands together at the heart chakra (or the chest) with the fingers pointed upwards, closing the eyes, and then bowing the head. There are other ways to perform this as well which is by placing both hands together in front of the third eye, then bowing the head, bringing both hands down to the heart.
Namaste….