Keep Calm and Savasana

Often, we hear teachers say that “Savasana is the most important part of yoga practice”. For many of us, savasana is just a chance for us to finally relax (and sleep) at the end of our yoga class. Sometimes, we might even skip it as we rush off to our next appointment. So why is it the most important pose? 

Physical benefit: It creates balance in our body

After an energetic practice, savasana helps to bring our body back to our balanced state, as our temperature and heart rate return to normal. Exercise creates stress on our body and this may put us in a fight-or-flight state. By taking the time to relax after practice, it allows our body to release the tension and stress that we have held in, be it during the class or during the day. This also helps us to reap in the benefits of our practice, as our body takes the time to feel and absorb the physical, mental and spiritual effects of the different poses. 

Mental benefit: It calms our mind

As we lay in stillness, it gives us the chance to clear our mind and focus on our breathing. In today’s busy world, how often do we really take the time to switch off and have some quiet time to ourselves? Sometimes, even as I flow through the yoga sequence, I find my mind wandering to random things like what shall I eat after class. Savasana allows us to quiet these thoughts, which in turn helps our central nervous system to calm down. This leads to better memory and less overall stress.    

Spiritual benefit: It promotes spiritual awakening and awareness of higher consciousness 

Also known as the “corpse pose”, some say that savasana brings the practitioner to a contemplation of death. “Although it might seem grim at first, meditating on death is actually one of the most uplifting and motivating spiritual practices, because it reminds us of what’s important in life – and of just how precious this human life is.”

In my opinion, savasana teaches us how to surrender and let go (perhaps, just like in death). We surrender our thoughts, our bodies, and our ego. For those few moments, we surrender fully and completely to the moment. To me, that is the first step to spiritual awakening. 

To end off, here’s a quote by B.K.S. Iyengar from the Light on Yoga — “The stresses of modern day civilisation are a strain on the nerves for which Śavāsana is the best antidote”. With so much going on around us right now, maybe we should all take some time to keep calm and savasana~

Kakasana: Principles on the mat and beyond.

While Kakasana (Crow Pose) comes easily to some people, it has always felt like an impossible pose for me.  I have lost count of the number of times I came crashing down onto the mat trying to get into this pose over the past few years. 

To my surprise, I finally managed to do it (for the first time!) during the first week of YTT, albeit for just a few seconds.  Here are some tips which helped me get into it – equally applicable on the mat and in life.  Hopefully, this will be helpful to those still struggling with this asana.

First, build a firm foundation.   Starting in Malasana, bend forward and press your hands flat onto the ground.  When I started out, I used to place too much weight on my wrists, overstraining them as a result.  To avoid this problem, we will need to spread our fingers wide and press our fingertips and the palms firmly into the mat.   This will spread the weight evenly through the hand, and remove pressure from the wrists.  Next, we will need to engage our core and squeeze our elbows closer together.  I used to think this arm balance pose was all about arm strength, but it is in fact mostly our core muscles that will be holding us up.  Without this firm foundation, we will never be able to rise.

Second, stop finding excuses.   To justify my constant failures to myself, I used to think to myself: I will never get this pose because my butt is just too fat.  Besides, my wrist is too weak to support the massive weight of my hips.  To be fair, I injured my left wrist when I fell from a pole and landed on my left hand 3 years ago – but I had long since recovered from this injury so this wasn’t exactly a good excuse.  According to Patanjali, one of the nine obstacles to sadhana (disciplined and dedicated practice) is Samshaya or doubt.  This can happen when our minds start clouding over with doubt about our own capabilities. Unless we push this doubt out of minds, we will never be able to progress.  But of course, if we have existing injuries or ailments, particularly hip or wrist injuries, it would be better to leave this pose out of our practice.

Third, focus your eyes straight ahead, and never look down (or that’s where you’ll end up).  This last tip was the most pivotal in helping me take flight into Crow.  As I was struggling to get into the pose, Master Sree placed a block in front of me, and told me to look straight ahead and focus on the block.  I looked up from the ground and focused ahead – and for the first time in my life, I lifted into Kakasana.   

Hand Stand Tips

Sitting in an advanced class, while the energy raises to its peak, everyone can flip themselves up to hand stand but you can’t. I am sure many of us share the similar experience along our yoga journey. The frustration of kicking and falling back was still fresh few weeks ago for me.

I was never able to do hand stand before YTT training. After few weeks intensive training, i occasionally can flip myself up. Since the first time I kicked up, I started to be more aware of my body and the feeling of being inverted. I tried different ways of coming to hand stand and I realize there are techniques that we can apply.

The most important thing for me is to round the shoulders and fully engage it during the whole practice. By doing this, it gives me much stronger base on my palms and fingers when I flip up. Whenever I loose the shoulder engagement, I tend to bend the elbow or arch the lower back and the whole body will lose balance.

Second thing is to suck in the belly, squeeze the butt and thighs tight. By doing this, I found myself can flip up more gracefully instead of throwing myself against the wall. I usually squeeze the legs and point the toes once I am inverted as self adjustment. Tuck the tailbone and suck in the belly can help keeping the balance and avoid arching back and losing balance.

Third trick that I found it myself is to gaze at a fix point and start counting numbers when I am inverted. I am not sure if it is the gazing makes me more concentrated or the counting makes me calmer. I found myself stay a little longer if I do so.

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. Being aware of your own body and keep trying!

 

The Balancing Act

Going back to the “Why do I want to do YTT”, one of the main reasons was because I wanted to learn the technique of how to do all the various inversions that could possibly be done and, effortlessly.

Just like how an elephant balances on the circus ball? I wanna be just like that.

 

But saying is one thing and doing is another. When we first started YTT, we were told that different poses will be tested during the examination, i.e Crow pose – 1min, Headstand – 3mins etc etc. And I thought, Oh my goodness, I can’t even hold the crow pose for 10s, how to do it for 1min? Surely a miracle must happen on the examination day for me to pass.

Week by week, as we attended YTT, teacher took effort to train us, and painful as it was, we definitely needed it. The 1001 chaturangas we kept doing, transitioning from one pose from one to another, there was no mercy. But overtime, bit by bit, we became stronger; chaturanga holds extended from 30s to 45s, headstand practice went up to ‘let’s-do-for-3-full-minutes’ and if we can’t, it’s fine, we have the wall behind us and thus could cheat a little. Slowly but surely, doing inversion became easier. My crow practice started from 5-10s, to 15-25s, in which I saw improvements but it was simply not good enough. Headstands, on the other hand, had me playing this balancing act as I tried to beat gravity, keeping my feet up high and trying not to tilt. All of these however, was just not the ‘right technique’. I’m not saying that there is the one method we must all conform to, but surely I always felt that there is a better & easier way to take, for a longer and more convincing stay in each desired pose.

The technique is none other than ’rounding your back, squeezing your core super hard and creating a firm base’ before each balancing pose. Example – when you do crow, you place your palms down on the floor, round your back, squeeze the core before proceeding to bring your knees outside your arms and eventually getting your feet off the ground.

As you stay in your posture (sounds easy but hard to master), just continue to contract and contract those core muscles, keep that rounded back, and sometimes I see it as staying super compacted with a bigger area of base to lower your center of gravity, hence making you more stable. Moving on to headstand, it is slightly different because the body is fully extended and lengthened, but using the same concept, create that firm base and that is fundamental. Place your forearms and head down the mat in a triangular shape, keep your elbows tucked for a narrow and firmer base, slowly start to walk your feet closer to your elbows and eventually contract/engage your core as you lift both feet off the mat and come to a perfect invert.

I won’t say that I am an expert in balancing poses and all now, I’m pretty sure I’m still unable to do the lotus feet headstand (i.e a cross-legged sitting where each foot is placed on the opposite thigh): in lotus position, place forearms and head down in triangular just as how you would do a normal headstand, but only relying on your core, lift your lotus feet up [probably my ultimate challenge to myself] – this pose is really a “pure-core” work of art. But having said that, practicing this newfound technique has really enabled me to hold in those poses for an unexpected extended period of time. And I am excited, because word is that once you’ve got that strong base formed like a house built upon a rock, the rain can pour, the flood can come, but your house won’t shake.

 

 

 

 

Returning to a natural state

My 2-year old toddler is a natural yogi. Seriously. She stretches in supta padagustasana when she drinks milk, flips her tiny body into ardha kapotasana when she’s done drinking & gets up, drops into malasana when she plays with her toys, rests in supta baddha konasana, sees the world upside down in adho mukha swanasana when she’s horse-playing with me and my husband. Effortless and natural movements.

Watching my toddler move, to me, embodies the spirit of yoga asana practice. To return the body to a natural state, the way we moved before our bodies manifested bad postures, habits and our samskaras.

Beyond the mat, my toddler has also taught me other yoga lessons. At dinner last night, she used a Chinese soup spoon, western spoon AND fork to eat her dinner. Switching between the different utensils every few mouthfuls, grinning from ear and ear when she succeeded in eating rice with her fork.

Food for thought. How much of what we do is conscious or unconscious? Do we accept what we are told, or do we take action ourselves? When was the last time we learnt something new? In our natural state, we are a blank piece of paper, no ego, openness to everything around us, fearless in our actions. As I continue in my yoga journey, I take inspiration from my toddler to return to basics and keep things simple.

When was the last time you used different utensils to eat your dinner? Or walked backwards simply because it’s fun? Perhaps it’s time to give it a try.

Benefits (and overcoming the fear) of Inversions

A few weeks ago, I finally had to face the moment I feared, head on (literally) –  having to do a head stand. Maybe it was a good thing that I was the first one in the class to try it, because that gave me no time to feel scared and chicken out. But another major factor was that I know that with Master Sree, we were in good hands.

There is definitely still alot of practice and room for improvement before I can nail my first supported head stand (against the wall). I realise that fear has alot to play in the pace of improvement. When I am upside down, the fear of losing balance tends to flood my consciousness, such that my brain is unable to effectively tell my elbows to push inwards, my neck to stay strong and my belly muscles to suck it in.

Perhaps for now, to encourage myself (and anyone else out there who is overcoming the fear of inversions) to do more inversions, I would like to share some of the benefits of yoga inversions.

An inversion is when the heart is placed higher than the head. Adho Mukha Svanasana and Prasarita Padottanasana can be considered as semi-inverted poses, where the feets are not off the ground. The main inverted poses consist of – just to name a few – Sarvangasana (shoulder stand), halasana (plough pose), sirsasana (headstand) and handstand.  

Physical benefits

Inversions stimulate the immunity system. In an inverted position, lymph moves to the key areas of the body eg. lungs more efficiently, thereby improving the elimination of toxins from the body.

Further, inversions can strengthen the abdominal and core muscles, which are key to maintaining a good posture. As Master Paalu said, in a headstand, you are also working the muscles in the upper body such as the deltoids, neck muscles and trapezius.

Inversions can also help to relieve spinal pain, as it counteracts the pressure on the spine in an upright position.

As being in an inversion defies gravity, it supposedly helps to slow down ageing (eg. less sagging of facial features).

Psychological benefits

Inversions allow an increased flow of oxygenated blood to the brain, which invigorates the brain and improves mental clarity and focus. Inversions also help to calm your mind and nervous system, and is a good way of relieving anxiety.

In addition, inversions can help us to look at things from a different angle –  literally and figuratively! Perhaps the next time you get stuck with a difficult problem at work, try doing a headstand in an empty meeting room!

Another benefit of inversion, which I really hope to achieve, is the increase in confidence and patience, which can be applied to our daily life. To accomplish a challenging pose such as an inversion, loads of practice (and failing) are involved. By not giving in, we are training our minds to be more resilient. When we finally get into a pose, we feel confident of trusting our hard work and the process.

Spiritual benefits

Inversions guide the energy of the pelvis towards the heart, enabling inner growth and self-exploration.

To close out this post, here are some important points to note in practising inversions:

  • Besides being physically ready (in terms of strength), it is key to learn the correct alignment for each pose, to avoid injuries especially to the neck.
  • It may be beneficial to practise how to “fall out” of an inversion, in order to be less fearful and also reduce the chances of injuries.
  • As Master Sree advised, an inversion should always be succeeded by balasana (child pose), to allow the blood flow and therefore, heart rate and breath, to return to normal.
  • To all ladies, it is recommended to avoid inversions during a menstrual period, as the reversed blood flow opposes the body’s urge to release stale blood and endometrial lining.
  • Last but not least, always listen to your body. Be kind and be patient with your body!

With that, lets work hard towards nailing our headstands! Feel the fear, and do it anyway!

 

References:

https://www.juruyoga.com/popular-yoga-inversions-and-their-benefits/

https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/strike-a-royal-pose

https://www.yogapedia.com/10-benefits-of-inversions/2/9632

The Love of Arm Balances

Yoga intrigues me because of its all encompassing nature. In order to successfully practice it, harmony is required between body and mind.

Embracing it means the desire to embrace increased flexibility, balance and strength, in not just the physical, but also mental state.

 

To me, the term arm balances is a misnomer. It’s not only a test of balance, but also strength and often flexibility as well.

 

Across all arm balances, some useful tips include:

  1. Warm up your wrists
  2. Keep working on building strength – arm and core.
    Aim to be able to do several decent Chaturanga push ups.
    Feel the squeeze in your core as you hold the pose.
  3. Try to break down each pose into smaller steps.
  4. Always focus you gaze upwards and forwards, not down onto your mat.

 

The variations in arm balances are endless! Here’s to a never ending journey of discovery.

Chandra Namaskara (Moon Salutation)

Most people who have a regular yoga practice know about and have done Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutation). It is a gracefully linked sequence that energises the body and provides a great cardiovascular workout. On a more symbolic level, Surya Namaskara also allows us to express gratitude to the sun and appreciate it as a source of life.

While I was looking for ways to improve my postures in Surya Namaskar, I chanced upon a similar sequence, “Chandra Namaskara”, the Moon Salutation in Hatha Yoga. For those who have never heard it before, you can take a look here: https://www.yogajournal.com/videos/moon-shine

Even though Chandra Namaskara is a rather recent development (according to my research, late 20th century) and does not have as much of a history as Surya Namaskara, it serves as an opposite to Surya Namaskara, just like how yin is to yang. According to Yoga International, we can pay homage to the lunar energy in nature and within by practising Chandra Namaskara. The 15 steps in the sequence below represent 15 tithis, or lunar days; a 16th step honours the tantric goddess Shodashi, who presides over all the phases of the moon, as well as all that is perfect, complete, and beautiful. When practised with devotion and gratitude for the divine feminine, this version of Chandra Namaskara can become a full body prayer.

This could possibly be part of a daily routine – start off the day with Surya Namaskara to warm up and energise your mind and prepare your body for the day. Then end off the day with Chandra Namaskara for inner meditation to teach us to slow down and to be more receptive to our needs. To create equilibrium in our yoga practice and in our lives, it is helpful to observe the power of opposites. Although Surya Namaskara and Chandra Namaskara embrace different qualities, I feel that they complement each other perfectly.

Tips for Inversions

Soon after I started Yoga one year ago, I became intrigued of all the inversions, like Sirsasana (Headstand) and its variations, Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Stand), Vrishchikasana (Scorpion) and Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), and always wanted to master of all of them. Although it was quite fearful in the beginning to swing yourself in an upside-down position, I soon became used to it and now I’m able to do most of them without any support. Now I wanted to share some tips for everyone who also wants to learn these Inversions:

 

  • Before practicing Inversions go for Core Yoga classes or just work on your Core muscles. With weak core muscles there’s no way to do Inversions the right way. Of course you can always jump into any Inversion, but the chances of falling and as a result of that getting injured are quite high. Lifting your legs slowly up into headstand looks first of all much more elegant and is also much safer. But this of course requires strong core muscles, which is why you want to practice on them before advancing to the Inversions.
  • Make sure your foundation and alignment is correct. Since Inversions can quickly result in injuries, it is important to have a safe foundation and the correct alignment. For example, in Sirsasana (Headstand) you should always rest the crown of your head on the floor and in the final position have 30% percent of the body weight on the head (the rest on the elbows and shoulders). Any other alignment can result in neck injuries, because the neck is trained too much. So check for the correct alignment in a book or ask your teacher before practicing.
  • Conquer your fear. Many people who are doing Inversions the first time are afraid of falling down and as a result of that stop practicing. That’s why you should first practice with wall support. When your back in the final position faces the wall there is no way to fall down to the back. Of course you can fall to the front, but this is comparatively much less fearsome than falling to the back and quite risk free. After you feel ready to do it without wall support you can advance to a position in the middle of the room to continue practicing.
  • Don’t rush. If you want to learn the Inversions don’t start with the hard ones. It is madness as a beginner to start with Pincha Majurasana (Forearm Stand) or even Handstand. The chances of failing are near 100%. Start with simple Inversions like Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) and its variations (Sarvangasana cycle). Then progress to Sirsasana (Headstand) and again its variations (Sirsasana cycle). Afterwards you can proceed to Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Stand), then Vrishchikasana (Scorpion pose) and finally to Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand). Make sure that you’re strong and steady in one pose before you proceed to the next.

 

Regular practice of Inversions result in a lot of positive results, because blood is flowing to the head. You will feel physically and mentally revitalized and more relaxed as a result of the reversed blood flow. Also blood circulation is improved and overall well being. It improves your core strength and balance.

Not without reason is headstand known as the king of all asanas!

 

Amon

The king of asanas

The Headstand often called the ‘king of asanas’. What has earned it that title is because to master it requires focus to your balance and alignment that heightens your sensitivity and stability and the strength and the willingness to literally turn yourself upside down. It’s a pose that requires courage and it’s only once you muster that courage, can you reap in the numerous benefits.

Here are some of them:

It’s the elixir of youth
Going Into a headstand and letting your skin hang in the opposite direction can provide an instant ‘facelift’. The inversion also flushes fresh nutrients and oxygen to the face, creating a glowing effect on the skin.

It resets and improve blood flow
When you’re doing an inversion, oxygenated blood flows the other way. It can flow straight to the brain improving focus and mental clarity or to the eyes, improving eyesight. It also increases blood flow to the scalp, which in turn improves nutrient delivery to your hair.

It relieves stress
Combined with slow, long breaths, it’s great for when you’re having anxiety, stress or fear. It also works on your adrenal glands which are responsible for the release cortisol or adrenaline- stress hormones.

It’s great for hormone balance
Aside from relieving stress, the headstand stimulates and provides oxygenated blood to the pituitary and hypothalamus glands which are considered the master glands that regulate all other glands in the body (thyroid, pineal, and adrenals).

It’s great for strengthening shoulders, arms and abs
The headstand uses a lot of muscles to firstly get you up then keep you up. Strengthening these muscles are also great for improving upper body strength and muscular endurance.

It improves digestion
When the effects of gravity are reversed, it helps relieve trapped gases, improve bloodflow and remove waste from the digestive system.

 

“The best way to overcome fear is to face with equanimity the situation of which one is afraid,”

B.K.S. Iyengar says in his section on Sirsasana in Light on Yoga