A Happy New Year to all our Yoga Synergy friends, family and website visitors. As we start a new year of practice a review of some of the fundamental principles for your yoga practice is always a good idea. A review also of what we are holding in our minds, our beliefs and attitudes can bring about a fresh perspective. What is it you are choosing for yourself in 2017?
The following fundamental principles will enhance blood flow in the body and will help develop strength and flexibility without feeling over-tense or over-stretched.
1. Begin each exercise with active movements
Active movements, when done slowly (at least at first), are the most important feature of a yoga practice that makes your practice closer to traditional yoga. By initiating all your practice (both in exercise and yoga) with active movements you elicit the reciprocal relaxation spinal reflex that allows you to develop strength without becoming tense, develop flexibility without feeling like you’re stretching, increase blood flow without needing to make your heart beat faster and staying relaxed and stress free while still doing something.
2. Before learning any complex breathing learn to breathe naturally into your abdomen:
Abdominal breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (the ‘relaxation response’), which is responsible for the unconscious regulation of organs and glands of the digestive system, the immune system and the reproductive system. Breathing into the chest, however, tends to activate the sympathetic nervous system (the ‘flight-or-fight response’), which tends to increase stress levels while decreasing immunity, digestion and the functional activity of the reproductive system.
3. Focus on spinal movements
As a result of modern sedentary life our spines tend to be very stiff. The less the spine is able to move, the less blood and energy can flow through the body as the spine is the main energy channel in the body. Thus, it is of utmost importance to move your spine in all its pure planes of movement (spinal traction and compression, flexion and extension, left and right axial rotation and left and right lateral flexion) and keep it as agile and flexible with regular exercise as possible.
4. Graded use of breath
It is always good to begin each version of an exercise or posture with simple natural breathing. Then, once that version of the exercise or posture has been mastered (in a relaxed stress-free manner), progress from simple natural breathing to enhanced abdominal breathing, enhanced chest breathing, complete breathing, breath retention and finally breathing into different parts of the body including the limbs.
For the modern western body – in which energy is blocked and is usually over-tensed and over-stretched – the most important task is to learn natural abdominal breathing.
Natural abdominal breathing – moving the diaphragm actively down on inhalation and passively up on exhalation – will send out a message to all the internal organs that they are safe and protected. Thus, natural abdominal breathing will sooth the nerves and calm the mind.
The progressive development of breathing can also help to massage the internal organs, give relief from prolapsed organs, traction the spine, improve circulation, relax muscular tension (especially with the trunk) and boost the immune system. In addition, if your breathing progresses to the point that you can actually breathe less than normal (mild hypoventilation) you can trigger a slight increase in the acidity levels of the blood that can calm the nervous system, bring relief from asthma, reduce appetite and significantly increase energy levels.
5. Gradation of postures
Always remember that you have a choice when it comes to performing a moving exercise (vinyasa) or static posture (asana) ranging from simple (easy) versions to complex (difficult) versions of each posture or sequence. Therefore, every person should find the level of difficulty that his or her body is comfortable with. To a make a posture easier simply apply the rules …’stretch less’, ‘tense less’, ‘breathe less’, ‘think less’ and ‘move slower’.
These principles can be applied to any physical practice. If you follow these principles with any style of yoga you can be fine. Be careful not to push or be pushed into doing anything that does not feel good or that you do not wish to do. Good teachers try to encourage but not impose. They should know that, but if they have forgotten, maybe you can remind them that you are trying to be ‘firm and steady, but also calm, relaxed and peaceful’ (‘sthira sukham asanam’). Remind yourself you are trying to exercise in a stress-free way for your body and mind.
THINGS TO BE DONE BEFORE DURING AND AFTER YOUR YOGA PRACTICE
There are certain things we should all be doing before, during and after our yoga practice on a physical (anatomical), energetic (physiological) and emotional level.
These three main levels are interconnected, and by appreciating and enhancing these connections, the way you live your life can help you improve your personal yoga practice, and also, your practice will feed into and help improve the quality of your life, and the lives of those around you.
On a physical level, it is important that you always stay as relaxed as possible. You should lengthen your body and the channels within it, and you generally should try to stay as relaxed and open in body and mind as possible. Being relaxed is only of real benefit, however, if you are actually doing something. There is little challenge in being relaxed in a relaxing situation like lying on your back, but more challenging while doing your physical yoga practice and, and far more challenging during stressful activities in real life.
On an energetic level, it is essential that you maintain adequate blood flow to all parts of your body by enhancing energy and circulation. Energetically, it is also important not to be in a constant state of ‘flight or fight’ (overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system), but rather try to spend most of our lives in a state of relaxation and rejuvenation (stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system). This is when the body can absorb food, heal, and nourish itself, and have good hormonal function.
Maintaining a stress-free and relaxed emotional state with the correct physical and energetic conditions can facilitate a mental state that can serve you, the people around you and the planet in general. These emotions usually revolve around love, happiness, caring for the people around you, and a general sense of wanting to do your best, in order to give service to the world, and those living in it.
It is also crucial not to compress your joints, over-tense your muscles, or over-stretch muscles, tendons and ligaments. The physical consequences can lead to long-term damage to the joints, and often disability in later life.
Energetically, the results of over-tensing, over-stretching, or compression of joints often result in pain from impinging nerves and/or restriction of blood flow through the body. Restriction of blood flow also means limiting the amount of energy and information that can be accessed by your body at will. Restriction of blood flow will then trigger an increased heart rate that will put you into a state of ‘flight or fight’, where the dominant emotions are fear, anger and aggression. This to me is the opposite of the essence of yoga.
It is also generally good to not over-breathe. The results of over-breathing (hyperventilation) include restriction of blood flow to the brain, overstimulation of the nervous system, restriction of the entry of oxygen into your body cells, excessive hunger, and often very sensitive emotional states.
3. SHIFT YOUR ATTITUDE
The attitude you adopt in your yoga practice and in your life affects your practice as well. For this, I take guidance from the ethical principles of the Ashtanga yoga sutras of Patanjali, namely the Yamas and Niyamas.
I believe that the Yamas are often incorrectly translated in the modern western world when they are stated as negatives, or things ‘not to do’, such as ‘don’t be violent’ (Ahimsa), ‘don’t tell lies’ (Satya), ‘don’t steal’ (Asteya), ‘don’t have sex’ (Brahmacharya), and ‘don’t be attached to things’ (Aparigraha). But when our mind is told not to do something, then it tends to focus on the ‘something’ rather than the ‘not to do’. For example, if you are told ‘don’t think of pink elephants’, then the first thing that often comes into your mind is a pink elephant. Therefore, I prefer to approach these ethical disciplines in a more positive way when applying them to my personal practice and life.
Instead of saying ‘don’t be violent’ for Ahimsa, I think it’s better to give the more positively stated message ‘be gentle’. It is vital to be gentle with the people around you, and also with yourself not only in your practice, but in everyday life too.
Instead of saying ‘don’t tell lies’ for Satya, it seems better to interpret it as ‘be balanced in what you say’. We know that simply telling the truth all the time is not the answer either. For example, to tell someone ‘I have to be honest and tell you that you look terrible’ just because it’s true may not really help them and those around them. So maybe it’s more balanced to focus on something positive about them. So I translate Satya as ‘balance’, like having a balanced exchange that happens when you run an honest business.
Also, rather than saying ‘don’t steal’ for Asteya, I prefer to think of the opposite of ‘taking’, which is ‘giving’. So for me, the concept Asteya is ‘giving’ or doing service, helping other people, and giving time and energy to them. I try to give to myself in my practice and then I have the resources to give service in my life to the people around me.
Brahmacharya is often thought of as celibacy, or not having sex. Certainly, there is nothing honourable about using another person to simply satisfy your sexual desires. However, sex is necessary for the continuation of our race, and is the first step in nourishing the next generation. Also, loving sex nourishes relationships, and can be thought of as the ultimate union or yoga between two people. Therefore, I think of Brahmacharya as ‘nourishment’.
In your own personal practice, the main aim is not to wear yourself out and exhaust yourself exercising but rather gather energy, nourish each cell in your body and nourish your mind. At the end of my practice, I usually have more energy than at the beginning, I am less hungry and less tired, but I know that my practice was active and made me stronger and more flexible without feeling tension or painful stretching. Once you have given nourishment in this way to yourself in your personal practice, then you can nourish the relationships with the people around you, and help nourish the Earth itself.
Similarly, I don’t think of Aparigraha as ‘non-attachment’, but rather as its opposite. The opposite of being attached to something is to be free of it. Therefore, I think of Aparigraha as the concept of ‘freedom’. In your practice this means not locking your joints and muscles, and not blocking the free movement of energy and information in your body. In everyday life it means not getting stuck in a particular mindset, or becoming rigid in your thinking patterns. Perhaps the most important application of this principle to everyday life is to encourage freedom for all the souls in this world.
Therefore, when I then think about what yoga means to me before, during and after my physical yoga practice in terms of Yama I think of it as the Gentle (Ahimsa) Balanced (Satya) Giving (Asteya) of Nourishment (Bramacharya) and Freedom (Aparigraha).
Also, rather than thinking of Niyama (the second stage of the Ashtanga yoga 8-branched tree) as an austere list of what you HAVE TO DO, it is more appealing to think of these as a joyful set of things you COULD HAVE IF YOU CHOOSE TO.
Instead of referring to:
Saucha as ‘Being Clean’, instead think of it as removing the things (‘Removing the obstacles) that block the movement of energy (and blood) inside the body (over-tensing, over-stretching, over-breathing, over-thinking and over-eating) – stretch less, tense less, breathe less, think less and eat less
Santosha as ‘Being Content’, instead think of it as choosing you mood and although you can choose any mood the one that is most useful most of the time for most people is ‘Happiness’
Tapas as ‘Being Austere (in hardship), instead think of it as a Passionate desire or simply ‘Passion’
Svadhyaya as ‘Self-study’, instead think of it as an inner ‘Quest’ for self knowledge
Ishvara Pranidhana as ‘Devotion to God’, instead think of it simply as ‘Love’ or the recognition that we are always in ‘loving connection’ with the universal consciousness which is is the essence of love
Therefore, when you interpret Yoga in terms of Niyama you can say that “Yoga (Niyama) is the passionate (Tapas) quest (Svadhyaya) to remove the obstacles (Saucha) of happiness (Santosha) and loving connection (Ishvara Pranidhana)”
Therefore, when I define yoga in terms of Niyama, the second limb of Ashtanga yoga, in similar fashion, then yoga becomes the Passionate (Tapas) Inner Quest (Svadyaya) to Remove the Obstacles (Saucha) of Happiness (Santosha) and Loving Connection (Ishvara Pranidhana). This is the essence of what I am looking for in my physical practice and it is what I try to emanate in my daily life.
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