The power of yoga is awareness

The power of yoga is awareness

Life has been good the last few months. Although I still have all of my usual challenges (plus a few sometimes), I continue to feel better and better about my life, about  myself, and about the way things are going. I have more energy. I feel stronger (emotionally and mentally). Opportunities keep appearing and things keep falling into place at just the right time.

As much as I am enjoying this shift, I keep noticing myself anxiously trying to pinpoint the reason behind this change. After all, if I know what is causing this improvement now, I’ll know how to hang onto it and/or repeat it in the future.

But it hasn’t been all that easy to locate the magical key to this shift I’m experiencing. For one thing, there are so many small changes I’ve made to my self-talk, my habits, my attitude, and my self care. Any or all of these things could be the cause of this shift. It’s been a positive cycle for me where each small shift makes room for another shift which makes room for yet another shift in an ever-increasing spiral of growth.

However, I did uncover one change I made that very well may be the foundation for all of the rest. I realized the other day that I started teaching yoga right after the start of the year, and that roughly coincides with the time when things started moving in a more positive direction. This may not sound like a big deal, but the discipline of teaching yoga has been the accountability I needed to re-engage in my own regular practice of yoga.

As I’ve pondered the possibility that a regular practice of yoga could the foundation for this positive spiral I’m experiencing, I have gone back to think about times in the past when I have had a regular yoga practice and times when I have not. To the best of my recollection, every time period where I have maintained a regular yoga practice has been a much more positive period of my life. Those times when I have neglected a regular practice have not been nearly as positive or as stable.

This is very interesting to me. You’d think that I would already have been aware of this connection since I am a yoga teacher. Clearly I see the benefits of yoga in my life or I wouldn’t have taken the time, money, and effort to become a certified teacher. And yet, the degree to which this is true in my life took me completely by surprise.

In this case, at least, it’s clear that there have many other choices and changes that I have made that have contributed to my current positive state, but I am also convinced that yoga provided the foundation that made all of those other choices and changes possible. The practice of yoga does so much to reconnect me to my body and to bring me back into the present moment. Although I’m sure the extra physical activity from the asanas helps, it’s truly the power of being present to my body and its wisdom and being present in the here and now that is such a transformative practice for me.

This awareness of the impact it’s had in my own life leaves me feeling ever more grateful that I have the opportunity and the honor to share this practice with others in my classes. I hear so many people say that yoga is not for them because they are not flexible enough (or strong enough or thin enough or whatever their excuse is), but it’s the awareness yoga brings that matters. Find a style of yoga or a teacher that resonates with you and give it try. You just might be as surprised as I am at what happens!

Yoga for preventing tension headaches

I carry my stress in my shoulders. I have knots in my upper back that drive massage therapists crazy. And they cause me a good deal of aches and pains, including headaches, from my poor posture, tight muscles, and held tension.

I’m not alone in this. Most people I know carry tension in their shoulders, upper back, and necks. It’s an epidemic in our stressed-out, computer-focused society. This tension we carry around with us causes all kinds of aches and pain, with tension headaches high on the list.

Yoga is great way to become more mindful of the state of our body, so we can begin to recognize this tension happening before the headaches start. It’s also a wonderful training ground for learning better posture and for reducing our tendency to carry the tension around in the first place as we learn to let go.

I recently came across a wonderful article on specific ways that yoga can help with the prevention of tension headaches called Crick Fixes by Barbara Benagh in the online Yoga Journal. She shares her own story of neck, shoulder, and back issues and the way that she learned to use yoga to help remedy those issues after working with a teacher who “focused less on actively changing your body than on establishing a compassionate dialogue with it, inviting health and ease into it and then watching, waiting, and allowing change to come.”

The last page of the article (there are five pages altogether) contains a link to her Crick Fixes Asana Sequence that contains pictures and instructions for working through the sequence she developed and mentions in her article.

If you suffer from neck and shoulder tension and/or from tension headaches, I would encourage you to take a look at this gentle sequence and give it a try. There are ten poses altogether (one per page), and each one is easy to perform and well described in her instructions and pictures.

If you decide to try it, let me know how it works for you. I’ll be trying this one out right alongside you, so I’d love to hear what you think!

Energizing a yoga class

I had the privilege to be the substitute teacher for an undergraduate level yoga class at IUPUI yesterday afternoon. This is a half-semester class, and yesterday was the second time the class had met. The surprise of having a substitute teacher seemed to disorient many of the students as we started the class time by moving all of the desks and chairs out of the way to make space on the floor for our yoga class.

The fact that we were starting at 3:00 pm when everyone seemed to be in their afternoon energy slump probably didn’t help their lack of enthusiasm any. As we went through the centering and warm-up portions of the class, that lack of enthusiasm was almost palpable. So before we headed into our sun salutations, I led through several rounds of the Breath of Joy.

The looks on people’s faces as I explained it were rather comical; they ranged from skeptical to downright disbelieving. Fortunately, everyone gave it try. After several of these breaths, I was no longer leading them through them, they were moving into each new breath on their own. When we stopped, I looked around the room, and every single person was smiling—some with big grins verging on laughter, some with small grins that seemed to be escaping their attempts to suppress them—but they were ALL smiling. I pointed that out to them, and they looked at one another with surprise and not a few laughs.

The energy shift this brought to the class lasted throughout the rest of our practice. As a group, the feeling shifted from lethargy to interest and enthusiasm. And I’ve never been so mobbed with people asking questions and sharing their excitement about a class as I was at the end of our session when we were putting the desks and chairs back in place. In fact, four people came up to tell me (with surprised but sheepish delight) that they’d fallen asleep in savasana!

Yesterday was the first time I’ve ever included that breath in a yoga class, but it definitely will not be my last. What a simple way to energize a group who is having a hard time getting focused!

And if you haven’t yet tried this breath for yourself when you need a bit of energy, I encourage you to give it shot. The instructions are simple, and the energy boost is wonderful. I bet you’ll find yourself smiling after a few rounds too.

Meditation’s unexpected gift

The ancient yogis used meditation as a route to samadhi, the state of oneness with all things which is the yogic version of enlightenment. In fact, of the eight limbs of yoga according to Patanjali, four of them are steps along this route: pratyahara (withdrawing the senses from distractions around us), dharana (concentration on one object), dhyana (steadfast meditation), and samadhi (a state of oneness).

As I embarked on my own journey with meditation, I naturally set my goal as achieving samadhi. I did realize that this was a long, slow process that would require much practice, but that was my goal—that blissful state of oneness beyond thought, a place where I could just BE free of the chatter of my mind.

It didn’t take long for me to discover that meditation had an entirely different gift in store for me.

As I sit on my mat and focus on my breath, my monkey mind goes chattering off in a hundred different directions at once. I breathe and just watch this noisy parade of thoughts march by—not trying to stop the flow or change the nature of the thoughts—just observing them from a neutral, curious place. I’m slowly learning to not follow any of the thoughts, not grab them, not fight them, not judge them. This process produced two amazing discoveries for me.

First, I am not my thoughts. There is something that is ME that is observing those thoughts. This something—yoga calls it parusa, others may call it the higher self or the soul or the witness consciousness, I call it my curious observer-self—is unswayed by my thoughts. It simply IS.

Second, my thoughts are a jumble of chattering nonsense stemming from a whole crowd of personas that I commonly confuse as being my “self.” This stuff isn’t even coming from something real! And it’s definitely not objective truth that I need to listen to or believe. Who knew? (So much for Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”!)

As someone who has spent so much of her life living in her head, this discovery that my thoughts are not only not ME, but they’re not even “real” is mindblowing. In fact, it’s been amazingly freeing…completely transformative even.

Someday I may reach samadhi if I keep coming back to my mat long enough. Then again, I may not. And, you know, that’s really ok with me. The joyful, amazing freedom I’ve found in discovering my curious observer-self and letting go of my slavery to my thoughts is worth every moment I ever have and ever will spend in meditation.

What a valuable gift!

Yoga for strength training too

I was talking to someone yesterday who is trying to find a good exercise program that fits her life so that she will practice it consistently. Knowing that I am a yoga teacher, she was asking me about yoga. As we talking, she asked me whether yoga could be used to build strength. The answer, of course, is yes. There are plenty of poses that require a lot of strength (headstands, arm balances, the warrior poses) and practicing these postures will build strength in practitioners over time.

The thing that really struck me in the conversation, however, is how often people come to yoga with a preconceived notion of what yoga can do for them. One of the most common ones I hear is that yoga is only for flexible people, and it only helps improve people’s flexibility. The truth is that while it does improve flexibility, it also builds strength, and improves posture, and stills the mind, and improves breathing, and deepens meditation, and can bring physical and emotional healing.

With as many different styles of yoga available today, it is possible for everyone to find one that emphasizes whatever particular benefit that they are looking for—from strength to endurance to flexibility to spirituality.

It’s the only “fitness” activity I’ve ever tried that continues to deepen my understanding of myself and of how it can benefit me the longer I try it. I won’t claim that it can do everything—there are still many reasons to incorporate other activities into our fitness and wellness routines—but it is definitely one of those practices that is more on the inside as one begins to practice it than it appears to be on the outside.