Hanging Bottom over Top

Why go upside down?  Well, its fun. The first time I went into an unaided headstand was one of the most thrilling experiences of my asana practice.  The excitement of being upside down, balancing on my head, the slight danger of falling and the lightness in my legs was what appealed at first.  I felt like I was in a stunt show, doing something really cool.  Going deeper into my yoga practice, I was delighted to find out that my favourite asana is actually doing many other wonderful things for my mind and body; things I was quite unaware of.   Here’s just some of the benefits of hanging with your bottom over your top
1) Balancing on my head, balances my hormones.  Balancing my hormones balances my emotions. All of us, at some point or the other feel completely out of control.  Often, there’s no tangible reason for our mood swings, anger, depression, fatigue, and so on.  It’s hormones.  When our hormones are out of whack, our life feels like its spiraling out of control.  So what do inversions have to do with the endocrine system? In Sirsasana (the headstand), the increased flow of blood to the head stimulates the pituitary gland.  The pituitary gland is the master gland that controls the rest of the endocrine system and an imbalance in the secretion of hormones produced by the pituitary gland can lead to an imbalance in the entire endocrine system The Pineal gland produces the serotonin derivative melatonin, a hormone that affects mood/sleep/wake patterns.  Sirsasana stimulates this gland, revitalizes the mind and central nervous system and is hence a natural cure for anxiety and other nervous disorders which can lead to other illnesses The Thyroid gland, located at the base of the neck, regulates the rate of metabolic activity, growth and development as well as the onset of sexual maturity.  Sarvangasana, another type of inversion, pushes healthy oxygen-rich blood directly into the neck, strengthening the thyroid glands.
2) Sexy Legs Inversions also help prevent and reduce vericose veins by reducing the pressure on the legs and directing blood clogged in the veins upwards to the heart.    
3) Gives my heart a break: Blood flow back to the heart from the rest of the body is easier in the inverted position, as is the pumping of blood from the heart to the head and neck.  Also, in an inversion the ventricals go about the atruim and although the atrium now has to work harder the AV valves finally have a chance to rest
4) The Lymphatic System consists of glands and conduits that comprise our internal communciations network. Lymph is rich in white blood cells and plays an important role in our immune system and toxin removal. The better the system is working, the better we feel. Although it is vital that lymph fluid moves around within our body, there is no mechanism to achieve this motion. There is no peristalsis or lymphatic heart .  It is our activity and movement that determines the movement of lymphatic fluids.  And no other exercise moves lymph around in as many directions as yoga does, especially when we are inverted.

Practicing Yoga Off the Mat

I think of my yoga mat as my sanctuary and try to visit it every day.  I even have a special yoga mat I take with me when I travel so I can remain faithful in my commitment to practice daily.  It is easy to feel gratitude, and reverence and connection to all life when I am on my mat, or after finishing asana, pranayama or meditation.  But once I leave this internal sanctuary behind and re-enter my life the struggle begins.
Early in my practice I naively thought that as I gained strength, flexibility and stamina in the asanas I would be able to master the complexities of a complete yoga practice.  I added pranayama and pratyahara and would sit and repeat a mantra afterward, concentrating in hopes that my mind would relax and empty.  After some time I could sit without thought only feeling my breath enter and exit my body.
During times of stress I found tranquil moments and during times of grief I found solace in my practice.  I realized how different I interacted with people and in stressful interactions on days when I practiced compared to days I did not.  Great, I had become an observer of myself, the observed.  But observing does not alter the event or person observed.
The conclusion was that some days I only practiced yoga on my mat.  The real test of a yogi is how well we maintain our concentration and balance, not while in an asana but while interacting with the rude person on the other end of the phone.  Practicing yoga on our mats, in our “safe environments”, like my sanctuary, really is only practice, we are only in  training.  It is how we use our yoga when we are “out there” that matters, and we are tested daily.  I try to remember this as I smile at the person irritating me, trying not to look at them and find every imperfection within them, but to look through them, beyond them so that I can see their beauty, their humanity.  At the very least see they are not some entity different than me, that we are all the same underneath.

Breath of Life

For some reason modern life places the greatest importance on ‘doing something’. And if you are not doing something, you must necessarily be wasting time, or not getting ahead. Even more valuable is if you can be doing many things at one time, then indeed you must be very capable because you are able to multi task. And doing something must necessarily move as far from self awareness as possible. If at all we are doing nothing, then at least we should be entertained by someone, something. How could we set aside time to listen to the sound of breath and the rhythm of our breathing.
Breathing is something we do 14,000 times a day, yet breath is something we are hardly aware of. Our breathing reflects what is going on in our mind. Have you ever thought about how you breathe when you’re upset, when you’ve just fallen in love, when you jump out of bed, when the shower is not hot enough, when you’ve just run up a flight of stairs, when you are about to make a presentation and the server goes down. It’s so interesting, how your body – the one being that you will most certainly spend your life with is communicating with you constantly in the best way it can – through your breath. Yet we think that being alone, or doing nothing, must necessarily be a sign of boredom, or inadequacy. If we can take a moment to relate to this gift of life, we will get to enjoy being, to not look at the present as a means to the end, but an end in itself. The quickest way to change your life is to listen to your breath, and work with it, through it, to create the best you there is.
One third of us don’t breathe well enough to sustain optimum health. Oxygen intake and elimination of carbon dioxide is too inadequate to allow optimal functioning of the heart, liver, intestines and other vital organs. Let’s review the effect of breathing on various physiological systems. : Please note the information provided below is my understanding of Dr Khalsa’s expression of relationship between breath and health.
Cellular level: Longevity and health of every single cell in body and brain depend on oxygen intake through breathing. Nervous system: Deep and slow conscious breathing tones the entire central and peripheral nervous system. Circulatory System: The quality and efficiency of blood circulation depends on breathing. When tiny air sacs in the lungs receive more oxygen, the heart pumps more blood into the body. The body then absorbs nutrients more effectively. Toxins and wastes are more thoroughly eliminated. Because breathing is so directly and closely linked with circulation, the diaphragm is sometimes referred to as the “second heart.” Muscles: Muscles are developed or wasted depending on the efficiency of breathing and blood circulation. When muscles don’t get enough oxygen, they hurt. Liver function: When breathing is shallow or irregular, the liver cannot adequately transmit the blood to the heart. Accumulated blood in the liver can cause inflammation. However, deep, slow and conscious breathing can suck up excess blood accumulated in the liver. Digestive function: observes that poor digestion, including heartburn, is one of the most common reactions to shallow breathing. Deep and slow breathing by providing more blood to the alimentary canal improves digestion and reduces acidity and gas. “Rotto-Rooter” function: Conscious breathing even helps the lungs by cleansing the lungs of the toxins and noxious waste. Inefficient lungs may retain all kinds of toxins, pollutants, allergens, viruses and bacteria. Deep and full breaths recruit the entire lung into the act and can clean it of noxious substances. Mood Management: When the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen, we feel anxious, dizzy or lightheaded. With an abundant supply of oxygen, we tend to feel energetic and cheerful. One of the best ways to calm yourself is to breathe deeply. Immune Function: As the controlled breathing reduces stress and negative emotions, your immune function, too, may improve. Pain Management: Deep, relaxing breaths and the practice of consciously holding and releasing of breath increase the production of endorphins, which in turn reduce the feeling of pain.
If one stops to recognize that everything is in the moment and the moment is everything then breathing is probably the moment important activity you would ever be involved in, giving you the best benefits.

My Toe, My Hand and the Extended Dilema

My favourite activity is people watching. I love to watch people on the MRT, in long lines, watching shows, in any situation, where I can watch the watcher. I like to look at someone and imagine their life. Imagine what they must be capable of, what kind of a family they have, how they must talk, would they be the impatient kind, do they have sense of humour………Then suddenly, sometimes they do talk, on the phone or to someone next to them, and then I jerk out of my wonderland to see how close to the mark I was or wasn’t. These days I look at people and think “can they stand on one leg, and lift the other leg by the big toe” Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana. Extended Hand to big Toe pose. Ever since I’ve started yoga, I seem to be surrounded by people who can stand on one leg, like they simply didn’t have a second one. I wonder what it is about my second leg that makes it so necessary for me to use both to balance, especially as I have NO trouble standing on my head. I’m still working on it. Currently I hold the wall, carefully lift one leg, hold the big toe, then fearfully (I’m almost afraid that it might say no) try to extend it. And then something happens. My leg freezes, like it was never meant to be extended off the floor; my standing leg quivers. I falter, flouder, then stand on two legs, puzzled by how my legs would be willing to be extended over my inverted head, balance on my bakasana arms, but not be willing to simply extend straight, parallel to the ground. Sometimes the simplest of poses can baffle us. Our bodies can take us to great heights, cooperate with us in the most crazy situations, and suddenly, a part of your body is not your body at all. I’m still working on how to befriend my hamstrings, so they work with me, and don’t make me freeze everytime I hear this pose being called out in a class. I want to look at the next person in the MRT and go back to thinking…….I wonder what his sense of humour is like.

Take What You Need

There must be something to it. Waste Not. Want Not. To parents saying, don’t waste your vegetables, there are children in this world who don’t get any food at all. Two years ago, I watched a documentary on BBC on the food crisis around the world and I thought the biggest crime of modern life, is lifestyle. The fallacious belief that you should live according to what you can afford, and not according to what you need. Cut your coat according to your cloth and not actually check if you need the coat in the first place. Asteya and Aparigraha. Non stealing, and absence of greed. These Yamas (Precepts of social discipline set out in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras) have a different edge to them in a capitalist, fast paced world. Stealing isn’t only about taking something without paying for it, or taking it from someone else. Greed isn’t only about amassing stuff. Its about understanding your needs, and working within them.
Clearly, one’s needs can be argued out, as one man’s need is another ones luxury. But the greatest understanding the concept of wastage has given me is that everything first belongs to the earth, then to those for whom the satisfaction of that need is basic to their survival, then to me. If the crop of rice has failed in India, I resist the temptation of running out to buy many kilos of rice from the Indian groceries just to stock up, which would make the shortage worse, and the price higher. I make sure I’ll be on time and if I tell you I’ll do something I’ll do it, so I’m not wasting your time. I use as little electricity as I can, take short showers, turn the tap off whilst brushing, so that whoever you are, for whom these things are luxuries……..I’m trying to make space for you. I know you exist and even though I don’t actively become a part of your life often, I’m trying not to take your stuff, just because I got there first. I have to say though, I have found this much easier than ‘sharing my time’ or giving up my time for someone else, simply because they need it more. My husband does much more charitable activities than I do. And although I find it easy to give up money or material things, I find it really hard to give up my time, simply because someone else needs it more, and I have it. ……..Still, I am many steps away from making living more important than lifestyle.

My Yoga Room

My husband and I had decided to move closer to my workplace around a year ago. Its so hard in Singapore to find a home you like, with enough space to swing a cat, and be able to afford it. I had a little dream, although I didn’t voice it……..I wanted a little (well not quite so little) Yoga room, that would I would never had to share, or convert into a makeshift guest room/ store room/ anything room. It was to be my room, and reflect my journey.
They say once you make a wish, if you want it badly enough, the universe conspires to make it happen. I must have wanted it badly enough. And so we got a home we could afford, not without its inconveniences, but able to give me the gift of a yoga room. I have book shelves, candles, a small water fountain, an easy chair, two yoga mats, blocks, and a couple of plants…….all laid out in a light green room, with muslin curtains, a bay window with cushions and a small music player. And on the wall, as a reminder and an inspiration – I have the whole primary series put up.
I think I did not know the meaning of creating my space, till I created this room. I took stuff that we had, little knicks and knacks from all over the house and put them together. I was sure I didn’t want it to look ‘created’ it should look like it came from nothing. Like it was there before I was. I just love the feeling of having mats laid out, and I can walk in and do whatever practice I’m in the mood to do.
I heard Oprah say a few times with reference to homes “ When you come home, your house should rise up to meet you”. When I come home, I bow down to meet my room.

Hip Hop

Closed hips, tight hips, stiff hips, broad hips, heavy hips……….I think I’ve had all the hips there were to have, at some point of my life. I still have some of them, but I’ve worked through a lot. So I’ve always been drawn to hip openers. Somewhere in my heart I feel like my greatest obstacle to overcome are my big hips. And in finding Yoga, began my search for my happiest hip sequence. On and off the mat. I don’t know if this would work for everyone, and the journey is slow, but the results are undeniable. Open hips can be a big contribution to lots of other poses including those that require balance and strength.
To begin with, you need patience. And the keenness to see that hip opening can be a part of entire day, not just your yoga routine.
Wash dishes in Vrikshasana (tree pose). Watch tv in Agnistambasana ( fire log pose ). Read a book in Bhekasana (frog pose). You may need to use a blanket or towel under your knees. Leave your tired day behind in Pigeon pose. If you work in an office, swap your office chair for an exercise ball and sit with one leg tucked to the side. This will strengthen your core as well. Sit on the floor when you have the opportunity, in a comfortable, yet stretched cross legged pose. Chat with your partner sitting in Badda Konasana. I treat this like my Yin time, so I don’t need a warm up. Anytime I feel uncomfortable, or have had enough, I just gently come out of it. I don’t count the minutes, just focus on the feeling. And still it doesn’t take away from other parts of my day. Just like meditation for your soul, this is hip hop for your hips.

Eggplant Fusion

They say the last person you should take a vegetarian recipe from is one who isn’t a hard core vegetarian themselves. But I feel the best person to take a vegetarian recipe from is precisely the person who is still on the journey to discovering vegetarianism. While doing the Yoga Teacher Training course, I had hardly any time to cook, so I bestowed that grand task on my husband’s still untested cooking talents. The Brinjal Chaat Salad (Chaat is a hindi word for tangy street food).
2 medium sized brinjals
Half kilo Yogurt
Two tablespoons mixed sprouts (Optional)
1 onion coarsely chopped
I teaspoon Cumin seeds
Few curry leaves
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon chilly powder
1.5 teaspoon lemon juice
Salt to taste
A little olive oil
Mix turmeric, chilly powder, salt, olive oil and lemon juice with chopped brinjal pieces. Then lay out in a casserole and roast in the oven for twenty minutes. Then dry it up a little in a non stick pan. Put this in the dish you will serve in. Put the chopped onions over this with the lemon juice. Beat the yogurt with a spoon (not in a blender), add a pinch of salt and sugar. Pour the yogurt over the onions. Heat a tablespoon of oil and let the cumin, mustard seeds and curry leaves (and sprouts if you wish) splatter in it. Put this on top of the curd. Chill the salad and enjoy it with any accompaniments.

Using Yoga to Ease Digestive Ailments

Eating a healthy diet and keeping the body hydrated are very important to digestive health but do not guarantee a life without digestive disturbance.  Sometimes we eat foods that our bodies are not able to breakdown and absorb, even though they are “healthy”, because our bodies lack the necessary digestive enzymes.  Lifestyle and stress can also cause the digestive system to create more acid in the stomach than is needed.  Stomach acid can also leak into other areas of the body if the cardiac sphincter, located between the esophagus and the stomach, or the pyloric sphincter, located between the stomach and the small intestine, do not close properly.  Then there are digestive disturbances caused by bacteria and other organisms that invade the body.
Luckily yoga can help maintain a healthy immune system and keep the abdominal muscles strong to help with the movement of food through out the digestive system.
Specific yoga asanas are useful for many of the ailments.
Constipation occurs when there is an obstruction in the intestines or the colonic transit is slow. Helpful yoga asanas are headstands, sirsasana and sarvangasana, which help engage the parasympathetic nervous system, aiding in digestion and blood flow to the area.  Jathara parivartanasana helps to strengthen and tone the transverse abdominals.  Pashimottasana and uttanasana  are standing forward bends helpful in toning and engaging the area.
Diarrhea occurs when there are multiple loose and liquid bowel movements within a day. Colitis is inflammation of the colon, large intestine, that causes extreme diarrhea, cramps, bloating and anemia.  These ailments respond to gentle back bending asanas that open the stomach and increase blood flow, such as shalabhasana and dhanurasana.  Restorative asanas that increase blood flow to the abdominal area are virasana and supta virasana.  Inversion asanas help to calm the nervous system and aid in digestion.
Acidity that travels to other parts of the digestive system occurs when the sphincters at the beginning and end of the stomach are not functioning properly.  Twisting and revolving asanas are helpful such as parivritta trikonasana, parivritta  parsvakonasana, ardha chandrasana and marichyasana.  Like for the other digestive ailments forward bending, back bending and inversions should be practiced.
Nadi shodana and ujjayi are useful pranayamas for all of the listed aliments.  Meditation and relaxation techniques are always beneficial but especially so when we are experiencing digestive discomfort.

Using Yoga to Strengthen the Immune System

The Immune system is comprised of the thymus gland, spleen, lymphatic system, bone marrow, white blood cells, antibodies and compliment systems.  The function of the immune system is to protect the body from foreign invaders, diseases and keep us healthy.
The thymus gland is located under the neck at the thoracic region and chest.  Functions include production and secretion of the hormone thymosins, which control t-cells and other immune functions and development of the t-cells.
The spleen is located between the 9th and 12th thoracic ribs in the upper left quadrant of the abdomen.  The spleen removes old red blood cells.  It synthesizes antibodies and removes bacteria through the lymphatic system.
The lymphatic system includes the tonsils and lymph nodes, which are located in the chest, neck, pelvis, armpit and groin. Leukocytes which are white blood cells are created in the bone marrow. Lymph, and lymphatic vessels carry the lymph fluid throughout the body.  The digestive system also has lymphatic vessels lining the intestines.
Practicing yoga asanas and pranayama lowers the stress hormones produced in the body, strengthens the lungs and respiratory tract, stimulates the lymphatic system to process and expel more toxins, and increases oxygenated blood and blood circulation.
Inverted asanas such as sirsasana and sarvangasana increase blood circulation to the head, sinus, chest and lungs which strengthens these systems during colds, allowing the lungs and sinuses to drain of fluid.  Inversions are also useful for the lymphatic system drainage.
Standing forward bends increase blood to sinuses and drains the lungs; a few examples are  adho muka svansana and uttanasana.  Another forward bend, ardha baddha padmottansana also stimulates the lymph nodes in the abdominal and pelvic area in addition to its other benefits.
Asanas that open the chest and stimulate the thymus gland and respiratory system are kurmasana, and supta kurmasana. Suitable backbends are ushtrasana, matsyasana, bhujangasana and sethu bandhasana.
The lymph nodes can be massaged and stimulated as well. Asanas targeting the lymph nodes in arm pit are bakasana and twisting poses using arms, vakrasana; hip openers like frog pose, bhekasana, target the groin and lion pose, simhasa, targets the neck.
Digestive problems can cause a buildup of phlegm, mucus and toxins which hinder the immune system.  Asanas that compress, extend and twist the stomach can help release these.  Examples are navasana, pawan muktasana and forward bends engaging uddiyanda.
Nodi shodna pranayama helps to open the chest, strengthen the respiratory system and stimulate the thymus.  If you have a fever practicing the cooling pranayamas sitali and sitkari help to reduce fever.
In addition to asanas and pranayama, cleansing techniques are helpful in strengthening the immune system.  Kapalabhati cleanses the lungs and bronchial tubes and neti cleanses the nasal passages.
Following a sattvic diet full of fruits, vegetables and fatty acids builds and maintains the immune system.  Meditation is always useful in calming the body and mind.  Meditating focusing on the 4th and 5th chakras, anahata and vishuddha, can also help to open chest and throat areas of the body.