Sunday, February 19, 2012

The science of Yoga

Why do we get blissed out in Savasana (corpse pose)?

As I mentioned in the previous post, we use the poses in Asana practice to shift the energy of the body. When we do lots of back bends, they have an uplifting effect. When we stand in Mountain pose or any of the Warrior poses, as the name suggests, we cultivate a sense of strength and stability. I remember being asked in the early days of my practice to move into the pose I like the most, and I immediately went to Warrior 2. It was a time in my life with lots of change and movement, a very ragasic time, and this pose helped me to feel stable and grounded, purposeful. Yet, in a room of a dozen people, I was the only one who choose that pose.

As an exercise physiologist, I will take all the fluff out of this and tell you that when you breathe in a rhythmic pattern, you balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, resulting in less stress. Both mountain pose and warrior pose do not involve movement, and thus enable steady smooth breathing. The more we stabilize the breath by focusing on it, the quieter the mind becomes and this results in less interpreting and more receiving or awareness of this moment, directing us toward more sattvic energy expression, a balanced state.

Now you can imagine when a Yoga teacher walks into a room and sees some folks ready for Savasana before you even start and others already forward folding and still others doing twists that s/he has quite a challenge. How does one offer a class to meet each of this participants where they are, and eventually get them all on the same energetic wave length? On one level it is easy... just smooth out their breathing because that will have the greatest impact. Thus beginning with rhythmic movement, whether that is a Sun Salutaion or simply moving the arms up and down on the breath, will begin to bring the inhale and exhale into alignment. Offering poses that provide a solid foundation is the next best step. A sense of balance also has a sense of stability. Thus most teachers will move into standing and grounding poses to cultivate that sense of being grounded, stable. From there, the class will probably be designed to meet the description; if it is a core class, there will be core work. The entire class however, should focus on the flow of the breath. And if breath is not being smoothed out during a Yoga class, then you are not practicing Yoga, you are exercising. Still a healthy choice, just not Yoga.

To sum up, these sanskrit words, tamasic, rajasic and sattwa give name to and simply describe what an exercise physiologist would call the degree of balance or imbalance of the parasympathetic nervous system. The attention on the breath and where it flows in our body, which is different with different poses, draws the Yogis attention to tension and openness in their body. This attention or awareness brings the focus more inward that reactive to the external influences on the senses. This new awareness can result in a new perspective or curiosity about ones body and that is a step on the road to self-realization.

We are all experiencing life differently and there is no one magic Yoga class that suits everyone in the same moment. A power class is great for folks who need to burn up energy before they can get clam. A back bending class is fantastic for someone who has a hard time getting going. A nourish class, longer holds and more opening can be fantastic for someone who is already fatigued and stressed. What class is right for you? Get curious. Start journalling how you feel right before and right after your noon hour class, or your Saturday morning group class. Then pull out your journal and notice how you felt a few hours later. Then ask, did this class have an overall positive effect or a tiring effect. Remember your goal is to learn to cultivate and direct energy! Did you meet that goal of feeling more empowered not just after class but hours later?

Good luck. Shopping around for the right class can be fun!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Step one

There is this funny image roaming it's way around facebook.

I loved this because there is truth in it. Talk to a Yogi and they will eventually drop some very new age lines, like "I must be operating out of my second chakra." Or "It's all love." This gives others the impression of some weird cult practices and yet, they also can see the general calming effect of all that Asana practice, (the poses most folks misunderstand as the breadth of Yoga). But this final image boldly displaying ENERGY really stuck and inspired this description of how I understand what I am learning through Yoga under the guidance of my teacher, Rod Stryker.

We humans are reactive beings. Much like a plant will grow toward sunlight, and like a pet will jump up when they hear you get their food, humans react to our sensory experiences and our interpretation of them. The reaction is how we use our energy. Yoga is about learning how to manage the direction of our energy. By definition, Yoga literally means to join or unite. As we get further along in the practices, we understand this to mean to unite our actions with our inner self; or in other words, to achieve self-realization. By adopting certain tools and practices, and there are many of them, many that do not involve a Yoga mat, we can learn to direct our energy, contain our energy or build our energy. To illustrate this, I will share this experience. Recently I read something that provoked me negatively. I resisted the ideas presented. Sensory input (the words) and my interpretation (the mind) resulted in a reaction - resistance. To resist something means to give our energy to it and, since there was no way to receive energy from this situation, the result would be a net loss of energy. Now I will throw in a little additional note here that interpretation is influenced by my past experience, my attitude in the moment, my energy level.

First step in practicing Yoga then is to become aware in any given moment to what our current energetic state is. Yogi's classify the states as Tamasic, Rajasic and Sattvic. Tamasic is very dull and lethargic, akin to a seed that has not sprouted and yet has potential life. Rajasic energy is the full blooming and growth of the plant. There is movement. Sattvic is quiet stillness; the state where we see the bloom and it is not changing and yet is expressing it's beauty fully. This is the desired state. If you think back a little, I am quite certain you could remember a time when you were fully alive and yet there was a sense of calm and non-doing in the moment. So humans fluctuate between these states and what a Yogi is learning in the initial stages, is to identify their current state and then what tools help them adjust their current state to a state they want.

These states - tamasic, rajasic and sattvic are affected by the foods we eat, the interactions we have with others, the degree of sleep we get, the number of responsibilities we take on and how we perceive all of this. On the Yoga mat practicing these poses, the teacher is often drawing our awareness to the experience in this pose and to our breath. Standing tall in mountain pose, well balanced and the body aligned, chin drawn in, we begin to experience a sense of inner strength and calm, purpose. This inner awareness is the point. It is our interpretation of the pose and our experience that begins to shift our energy, not just the pose itself. The dedicated attention to what our experience is at that moment begins to show us how to see our energetic self. As we continue to practice, we eventually begin to see how a particular pose can influence our mood, or emotions. We begin to understand things happen and we have choice with how we respond.

But that is only the beginning.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

You simply cannot fail.

"Giving your power away is what hurts you."
"There is nothing more powerful than a woman with an open heart."

Power is our sense of self-worth, it is shakti and shraddha for us Yogis. Not self-esteem, that contrived idea of ourself, rather our self-worth. Self-worth is the faith (shraddha) we have that we are really something special and the spark of living that draws the next breath in and expels the last one, (shakti). For as many years as I can remember, I have believed there is 'a little God in all of us.' This self-worth is this God. It is the innate sense that I must be magical and good; that I must have some divine reason for existing that adds to this amazing world.

I have suffered loss in my life and I cried a good many tears, held on tight with a load of fear. My power seeping away to what I believed the loss meant, not to what my heart knew to be true. I was buying into a story I had told myself about why people leave us. A story about how perhaps I was not good enough. A story handed down to me by classmates who made fun of my skinny body and under developed breasts. A story about who I am with this person, after all, aren't I that person's daughter, sister, student, teacher, mother, partner... who am I if I am not that?

So why would I ignore that God within me and buy into someone else's God, a God that believes you are not worth loving unless you have big breasts? Or a God that doesn't believe I exist without that other person, job, success? Because it is me who believes that others must know more than I do. I am taught that as a toddler learning to stay on solid ground, in sight that the world is scary and I cannot make it without others. I am taught that in a school classroom when a teacher tells me she is right and I am wrong and I must follow her rules. I begin looking for the teacher and protector everywhere. I begin to believe I cannot make it on my own.

It has been through Yoga, a process of learning to listen to my own body in asana, my own mind in meditation, my own breath in pranayama that I have learned I do have an inner teacher, a God within. It has required courage to listen to my inner light, spirit, intuition, you pick the name... and to test my inner power. Following my heart and letting my son speak with love of his new step siblings, to congratulate my ex on his new wife, to watch my family as we confront our own loss and shifting roles. But having faith that I will still breathe no matter what. Sometimes you have to fall down (really hard) to discover just how all powerful you can be. And from this place, your heart can courageously open to the stories we hide behind to feel safe. The rules we create to have some sense of ground and truth. From this place you cannot fail, "you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think."- Christopher Robin.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Very first thing...

"The very first thing, you must learn to love yourself." Swami Rama

This is a love that is unconditional.
This is a love that comes from ones heart, not from adoration or acceptance from others.
This is a love that means you are never lonely.
This is a love that comes when we surrender to who we are.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

What if...

Today I played with my little friend. We used her scarf and made a hat, then we made a blindfold. It was funny to use a scarf as a hat. It was funny to put our coat on backwards. It was funny because even a two year old understands a coat goes on a right way, not a wrong way. Do we really get that locked into our ideas at that young an age? What thing could I remain really curious about? I wonder what things I have taken for granted today as 'knowing' rather than questioning whether it is true?