Enjoying food the ayurvedic way

According to Ayurveda, there is no disease without Ama. 

Ama is the sanskrit term for leftover, undigested, or undigestable material that accumulates in the body when food is not fully metabolised. 

It is of course normal that a certain amount of Ama is produced each time we eat a meal, but in a healthy body, this kind of Ama is eliminated daily through urine, feces and sweat. 

Sometimes however the body is not able to eliminate it fully. 

The reason for this can be that we eat too much food, or too often, without giving our digestive system enough time to complete a cycle of digestion. 

Or we may eat too much food that is not compatible with our constitution. For example a person who is high in Pitta (for more information on Ayurveda principles see click here), with a lot of stomach acid and possibly inflammation in the body, who eats a lot of acidic foods (like tomatoes, citrus fruit, pickles, etc), will only increase the inflammation.

Or a person high in Vata, who may have a tendency toward constipation, dry skin and cold hands and feet, or maybe suffering from arthritis, who eats too much cold, raw food, will only increase the symptoms.

According to Ayurveda, our digestion can also be weakened by eating too many different types of foods together, like fresh fruit with dairy products, both of which need very different kinds of enzymes for digestion.

Ama is also formed when we eat while our body is not ready to digest food. Often we eat at a certain time out of habit but we don‘t really feel hungry. Without hunger, the body will not be ready to digest food properly. 

And while it is important that the food we eat is whole and nutritious, it is just as important that we enjoy the taste of the food. As soon as the first taste hits our tongue, our digestive system receives important information about the food it is about to digest. If we eat food we dislike, even if it is regarded as healthy, our body will not be willing to fully digest it. We need the sensation of being satisfied in order to get the most out of our food. In Ayurveda, this concept is called Preenana. 

It reminds us of the importance of enjoying our food and appreciating it‘s taste. 

In Sanskrit, the word for Taste (Rasa) is the same word as for Chyle (the nutrient juice our food is turned into after it‘s first part of digestion is complete), Plasma (the first of our bodily tissue that is nourished by our foods) and Satisfaction. Without satisfaction, the chain of digestive processes cannot happen smoothly. 

So for healthy digestion we need both – to be hungry, and to eat food that we enjoy. 

No amount of „superfoods“ can give us the desired health, if we don‘t enjoy it‘s taste. 

The best advice Ayurveda can give us when it comes to healthy eating is

  • Eat when you are hungry. Don‘t eat when you don‘t feel hungry. Skipping meals every now and then is ok. Not everyone is a 3 meal a day type of person. We can do well with less or more meals, depending on our constitution. If you feel that lack of appetite – or too much appetite – is a problem, there are many ways Ayurveda employs herbal medicine and spices to increase or regulate appetite. 
  • Enjoy what you eat. Sometimes just eating the foods you know from childhood, the meals your mother cooked for you when you were younger, are more nourishing and healing than any expensive „superfoods“.
  • Eat what you like, as long as you cook it yourself from fresh ingredients (or, if you are lucky, have it cooked for you by a loved one). Try to avoid processed foods, ready made meals, frozen/canned foods or foods that have been prepared in a factory type setting rather than in a home kitchen. Use unprocessed sweeteners (like raw cane sugar, coconut sugar, jaggery, honey.. ) instead of white, processed sugar. And if you think you don‘t have time to cook – make time. Cooking food can be a better and more important spiritual practice than any seated meditation or Yoga practice done in isolation to the rest of your life..
  • Leave enough time in between meals to digest, don‘t „graze“ or snack too much (unless you have a health condition that requires you too). 
  • Rediscover the value of satisfying, comforting, cooked food. Warm, moist, simple meals (like mashed potatoes, mushy peas, dhal, basmati rice, cooked vegetables, soups, stews, etc) are better for your digestion than cold, raw salads that are hard to digest, particularly if you live in a cold, wet country like Ireland or have a weak digestive fire. 
  • Eat with awareness. If you are sharing meals, enjoy the company. Be aware of the taste of the food. Try not to eat while you are distracted by phones, gadgets, movies, etc, as this will influence your feeling of satisfaction (your plate will be finished before you know it and you’ll want more because you hardly noticed the taste…. ) and your digestion will be better for it.
  • Use spices wisely, not only to enhance the flavour of foods, but also to stimulate your digestive fire (Agni) and make foods more compatible with your metabolism. Use spices like cumin, coriander, fennel seeds, Ajwan/Celery seeds, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, rock salt, etc, to your taste
  • Drink water slowly and at room temperature or warmed, not cold from the fridge. 
  • Think of your digestive fire as a literal fire. You don‘t want to extinguish it by adding too much cold, wet food or drinks and you don‘t want it to get out of control by adding too much spicy, fried, oily foods. Try to keep it at a good level by adding the right kind of fuel.

Stick to these rules for some time and you can literally see your Ama disappearing and your system clearing out. Some symptoms of disorders may even disappear fully just by improving your digestion. Try it out for yourself. 

Check your tongue in the mirror. Do you see a thick, white coating? This is a sign of Ama. 

Do you feel bloated or heavy after a meal? Do you burp a lot or get acid reflux? Any form of indigestion is a form of Ama. 

And according to Ayurveda the development of disorders like arthritis, skin disorders, cancer, autoimmune diseases and many more, begin with indigestion, bloating and the formation of Ama in the body. Therefore, by keeping our digestion in check, we can prevent many more serious illnesses by cutting them at their root. 

Try to follow the Ayurvedic way of eating for a few weeks and see how you feel different. 

Enjoy your meals today! 

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About Ayurveda..

Introduction to the principles of Ayurveda

Ayurveda (“Knowledge/Science of Life”) is an ancient practice of holistic medicine already mentioned in the oldest of the vedas. While it is rooted in India, where it is well established as a recognised health care system, it has in recent years spread throughout the world. With growing popularity in the west, more and more medical doctors and nurses turn their attention to the Ayurvedic point of view to offer an alternative to their patients.

But isn’t this system well out of date, you may ask. After all it has developed in a completely different time and culture, lacking of modern science with all it’s sophisticated equipment, where humanity faced very different kinds of health challenges then today.

And why, when we have achieved so much in medical sciences, would we even need a different point of view?

While I greatly believe in the value of modern allopathic medicine – my life has been saved by it on more than one occasion and I am more than grateful for the power of a painkiller in case of a bad toothache – it also has a great flaw: It is, in essence, a reductionistic view, mostly concerned with isolating substances and treating symptoms, rather than being concerned with the cause of a disease.

In western medicine, the first stage of disease is the stage where one experiences a symptom, for example a cracking or pain in the joints (arthritis). According to the Ayurvedic system, this would be seen as the fifth stage of the disease, with it’s beginnings long before the pain could be felt.

The earlier an imbalance can be detected, the easier it is to treat. Therefore, any disease can be prevented.

The same principle applies even after symptoms have developed. We just have to trace the disease back to its origins so that the cause can be treated, not just the symptom.

So how is it possible to detect such subtle changes in the body without the help of any medical device? And how can we treat them without causing any negative side effects?

Ayurveda, like any other eastern system of holistic medicine, is based on the idea of everything in nature consisting of five basic elements.

These elements – Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space (or Ether) – are the basis for diagnosing and treating all disease.

To most westerners this may seem outdated, archaic and even nonsensical, until we actually take a closer look at these essential substances.

Pancha Maha Bhuta (“five great elements) are a way of describing five basic qualities of any object in nature (ie our bodies).

Bhuta, also translated as “ghost”, or “spirit” or “essence” is that which can’t necessarily be seen but has a certain quality. This means the elements should be regarded as a description of a quality rather than an object in itself:

The essence of Earth (Prithvi) is that which supports and gives stability, which is solid, dense, slow to move, heavy. The parts of our bodies containing a lot of earth element, are those that have these qualities.

The essence of Water (Jala/Ap) is by nature liquid, mobile but also heavy, slightly less dense than earth, depending on it’s form. It is nourishing, conducting and it clings to things. It is clear, cold, smooth and soft.

The element of Fire (Teja/Agni) is hot, bright, light, clear, transforming, devouring. It is concentrated energy, heat, rising upward, drying.

Air (Vayu) is much lighter even than fire. It is clear, cold, dry, mobile, fast, moving, irregular, rough, unattached and volatile.

Space (Akasha) is that which contains all other elements. It is vast, expansive, not containable, dry, light. It gives expression to Air, Fire, Water and Earth.

All of nature, including our own bodies and minds, can be described by these five elements in different combinations.

Each of us is a unique individual with a unique combination of elements.

To make this more easily understandable, Ayurveda distinguishes between three main constitutional types (Dosha):

VATA DOSHA

A combination of the elements of Air and Space.

People with a lot of Vata Dosha typically tend to have a light body frame, are naturally flexible (space in the joints), not very strong build, have irregular features, often are tall and thin, or very small and thin.

They can think, talk and move fast, have very active minds. Always on the move, they like to change aspects of their lifestyle and habits, going with the flow and with new ideas. They are highly imaginative and sensitive and don’t like to be tied down by too many rules or expectations.

However if too much Vata is accumulated due to lifestyle, diet or climate, it becomes aggravated and imbalanced. Sensitivity can turn into anxiety and fear, Imagination into paranoia and their independence into a feeling of being “spaced out”, “disembodied” or loneliness.

Aggravation of Vata can also show as irregularity in digestion, gas and bloating, nervous disorders, joint pain, memory loss, insomnia, etc.

To reintroduce balance, the cold, dry and irregular qualities of Air and Space will need to be counteracted with warming qualities of fire and nourishing, grounding qualities of earth and water – eating more warm, moist, nourishing and comforting food and taking more rest and respite, as well as some regularity in daily routine.

Warm oil treatments, warm, digestive spices and Vata balancing herbs as well as methods to clear accumulated Vata toxins from the body (ie enemas) are often prescribed to help cure diseases with a cause in Vata aggravation.

PITTA DOSHA

A combination of Fire (mostly) and Water (some).

This particular combination of elements refers to iquid, hot substances like stomach acid, digestive juices, blood, bile, etc.

A person with a lot of Pitta has a strong digestion (both physically and mentally!) and a strong appetite. They can usually digest a lot of food without much issue and have a high metabolism.

Their personalities are warm, generous, giving, bright and confident, they are natural born leaders or teachers. Their minds are clear and focused and they can process information very well. They are passionate and creative people and great intellectual thinkers, ambitious and often successful in life.

When there is too little water present to keep the fire in check, or if the qualities of fire are increased by a Pitta aggravating lifestyle, diet or climate, ambition and focus can turn to obsession, passion to anger, confidence to arrogance and their healthy appetite for food and life, into greed. Their discerning mind can become highly critical, both of themselves and others and they can become isolated. On a physical level, there is a tendency toward developing stomach ulcers, acid reflux, diarrhoea, early balding/greying or hair loss, eye issues and inflammation in the body. To calm an unbalanced Pitta, we need to cool it by avoiding spicy foods and hot temperatures, and taking up cooling relaxation practices and eating a diet high in anti inflammatory foods.

Treatment is often given by prescribing Pitta pacifying herbs, Ghee, Massage therapy, as well as clearing Pitta toxins from the body by purgative practices, clearing excess acid from the body.

KAPHA DOSHA

A combination of Earth (mostly) and Water element.

People with a high amount of Kapha are typically quite attractive, with shiny eyes, thick hair and smooth skin. They have strong thick bones and often a larger frame.

They tend to be nourishing, supportive and caring people with a lot of compassion and a big heart. They process things rather slowly but also don’t forget easily. They are sturdy, with good stamina and immunity and – when in balance – rarely get sick. They also rarely get angry. But when they do, you will know about it! For these qualities, they are often compared to an elephant.

They are very reliable, loyal and get on with most people.

When Kapha becomes aggravated, the sturdiness turns to heaviness. They can become sad, depressed and lethargic. They can be difficult to motivate and can’t cope well with change. Comfort can become an addiction and this can turn into a tendency to overeat. Their already slow metabolism cannot cope well with large amounts of foods and they can become obese or develop diabetes or food allergies. An accumulation of Mucus can cause chest/lung and sinus issues and compromises general immunity.

To restore balance, they need to introduce more heat and more movement and mobility as well as more lightness. Keeping warm, eating light, spiced food that is easy to digest, in smaller amounts, exercising and moving regularly and introducing changes to their life’s regularly can help keep Kapha in check. Avoiding exposure to cold, damp weather will help to counteract these imbalances.

Kapha reducing herbs, detoxification and fasting methods, a Kapha pacifying diet and lifestyle as well as herbal massage therapy are usually prescribed to help issues caused by Kapha aggravation.

We all have some amount of Vata, Pitta and Kapha and sometimes it is not necessarily just one Dosha that clearly stands out. Some people are a mix of two dominant Doshas and sometimes (although rarely) all three can be relatively equal to each other.

Also there is a distinction between ones genetically inherited constitution (Prakruti) and the constitution that evolved due to our lifestyle and environmental influences (Vikruti). It is our Vikruti that we need to look at most closely and work on achieving a balance and it is our Prakruti that we should look to express in it’s most natural, positive way by respecting our own particular talents and preferences and employing them as much as we can in life, so that we can experience the joy of authentic expression in life.

To find out more about your own constitution it is best to visit a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner who can examine you properly and ask the most relevant questions to you, but you can get a general idea by taking one of the many online quizzes that are available these days, for example this one here.

Knowing your own constitution can help you make better choices in daily life, regarding your diet, daily habits and of course also the way you practice Yoga. So next time you are on your mat, if you are a Vata type with some imbalances, you might consider less moving around and more holding of postures, deep breathing, cultivating strength and a feeling of being stable in the postures. If you think your Pitta is a little out of balance, try a less heating practice, don’t get too attached to “achieving” something, but instead work on mindfulness within your practice, don’t give more than 70% of your energy and take an extra long Savasana.

And if you are more of an imbalanced Kapha type, introduce more movement, take that extra Vinyasa, and don’t skip practice or cut it short – Savasana will feel even better!

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Sanskrit – a language of the gods?

There are about 170 000 words in the English language. 

A finite number to express an infinite number of things – objects, thoughts, concepts, gross and subtle, real and imaginary. A tiny number to have available to us to describe and understand a tiny fraction of the whole universe. 

No wonder we are frustrated and confused. 

No wonder we have such a limited understanding of the world, our own minds, the workings of the cosmos. No wonder our connection to each other is so shallow and restricted. No wonder we can’t access the full potential of our beautiful, perfect minds. 

According to the Vedas, the lifespan of the universe is cyclical, just like the lifespan of a tree, a flower, a star, a human being. The vibrational force that is the matrix of the cosmos, contracts and expands, first creating higher and higher, subtle and fine vibrations and then, when it has reached a peak, turn into  lower, corser ones. Each beat of Shivas drum marks the beginning of an era and the sound that emanates from it lasts for many millions of years until it‘s vibrations have slowed to silence and the next drum beat occurs. 

All that is part of the universe is part of these vibrational forces, both creating them and being created by them. Our bodies and minds work in harmony with the universe. They have no other choice. They ARE the universe.

The vedas tell us about a time on earth, when energies vibrated on a high and subtle level, creating lightness, clearness, awareness in our minds. Love and compassion, pure bliss and perfect health would have filled our beings. We were perfectly aware of our connection to all that exists, living as gods and goddesses on and with the earth, not divided by gender, race or belief. There was no need to eat solid food as pure sunlight provided enough energy and sustenance. Our bodies reflected the lightness and clarity of our minds and we had a lifespan of 4000 years. Our true self, our purest soul, was aligned with the whole universe and so this era was called the age of truth – Satya Yuga. 

As is the cyclical nature of everything, change occurred, vibrations began to slow, the universe contracted and we began to resonate with it. We are all an expression of the same ultimate reality, so naturally we began to change to embody this new era. Our individual intelligence awoke. Our curiosity brought us to explore the world with our senses, we became aware of our individual differences, we divided our genders, our ego minds grew and our bodies materialised and became dense. Slowly, greed and jealousy arose in us. We developed a taste for foods and beautiful things so we began to plunder the earth. These agitations created cloudiness in our minds and lost sight of reality. The awareness of our true nature was diminished by one third – which is why this era was named Treta Yuga.

After further slowing and contracting of energies, humans lifespans became shorter and shorter, their bodies denser and heavier and their lives revolved more and more around material things. Satisfaction of the senses became more and more important and soon, what the earth gave us for food wasn‘t enough anymore, so animals were killed for meat. Once animals were slaughtered, it did not take long for humans to kill each other and when emotions, greed and desperation became unbearable the first wars emerged.

 Blindness and ignorance toward our true source became stronger, the mind more and more agitated and fearful and the knowledge of our true reality became diminished by half so this era was named Dwapara Yuga. 

And as the lowest point of vibration approaches, humanity is at it‘s blindest point, most unaware and ignorant of their own divine origin, led by fear and separation. With a lifespan of a mere 100 years we are killing not only animals for food but for sport, for the satisfaction of the senses. People are killing each other for reasons born of utter ignorance and fear. Awareness and compassion are reduced to just one quarter remaining.

Blind being led by the blind, humans are destroying themselves and everything around them, including the earth itself. The age of destruction – Kali Yuga – is the age we currently live in.

But even in the darkest of times there is always some amount of light. The light of consciousness can come in many forms, as humans are as diverse as the stars in the sky. 

And to survive Kali Yuga, we need a form of light. 

What if we had some of the knowledge from Satya Yuga recorded for us so we have a tool to remind us of our divine origins? What if the inhabitants of the previous ages had a way of communicating with us, to shine a light for us that allows us to survive Kali Yuga with awareness and love in our hearts?

What if the Vedas themselves are this message?

Full of knowledge (Vedas = knowledge) about the workings of the universe, our own origins, the secrets of the mind and soul together with practical instructions on how to become aware of and fulfill our own potentiality as humans, living lives in perfect health, love, and happiness, written in a variety of forms so every kind of person – from the scientifically minded, the practical, the emotional to the religious – can understand their messages, These scriptures can not be underestimated in their importance to humanity. 

Written by Rishis (Seers – those who see things others can‘t) who claimed this knowledge comes from the gods themselves – orally transmitted over thousands of years or received in deep meditations from the inhabitants of Satya Yuga, they speak to the most ancient, timeless parts of our being, stirring in us memories of our forgotten heritage and slowly awakening us to the realisation of who we truly are and where we come from.

The earliest of the Vedas, the Rig Veda was found in todays Syria. It’s age and origins are debatable and there are many differences between western and eastern findings but they likely date back to more than 4000 B.C., possibly 12000 B.C or more.

The start of Kali Yuga is estimated to about 3000 B.C (after the great battle of the Mahabharata epic). 

The Vedas are written in Sanskrit, a language which is commonly referred to as the mother of all languages, as most of our Indo European languages developed from it, or from it‘s assumed prototype (simply called Proto Indo European language).

What makes Sanskrit so special though is that, unlike any other language, it‘s structure and alphabet is completely built on the vibration of sound. Each letter of the alphabet – 52 in total – represents a certain sound that emanates from, and affects a certain place within our body and also resonates with a certain aspect of the universe. Each thing is therefor named after it‘s true vibration, reflected in the sound of it‘s name, which is also why it is believed that chanting Sanskrit, even if one doesn‘t understand the meaning, has a profound healing effect on the body and mind, aligning our own vibration to that of the chanted word.

Sanskrit grammar is so complex and perfect that out of these sounds, any number of words can be arranged, to describe correctly any aspect, be it real or imagined, of the universe. The number of words in Sanskrit are estimated to be between a few million and infinity.

The perfection of the language is even reflected in it‘s name – Samskrita – perfect creation. It refers not only to the perfect creation of the language but the perfection in all creation.

 In fact the perfection of the grammar is so profound that there was never any need to change the language to adapt to cultural evolution as is the case of (to my knowledge) all other languages. Old forms of German or English from just a few hundred years ago for example can nowadays only be properly understood by language experts while even the oldest Sanskrit scriptures, authored thousands of years ago, can still be read with the same ease as any newly composed text, once the rules of grammar are understood. These rules never needed to be changed and the same rule book (the Ashtadhyay, written by Panini ca 500 BC) is used by everyone learning Sanskrit today.

As an example to the meaningfulness of each word – the syllable AUM is a combination of vowel sounds from all five locations of origin in the mouth – guttural, palatial, cerebral, dental and labial. Vowels in Sanskrit are called Svarah (that which shines by itself) or Matrika (mother/matrix of all creation) so these five basic sounds contain the potential for all other sounds and connect us with „that which shines by itself“ within us and within the whole universe.

Chanted as a continuous sound (OM) it resonates deep within our own potentiality and connects us with all that exists in its true, pure potential. 

John Cramer, a physics Professor of Washington university, has converted data from cosmic microwave background into sound waves and published his recordings online. The sound of the Big Bang – one of Shivas drum beats, one Maha Yuga, compressed in to a 20 or 50 second sound file, illustrates this slowing down of vibration and frequency clearly. In human sound, it would sound very much like the Sanskrit syllable AUM.

It is no wonder that it is called the language of the gods. And maybe this is closer to the truth than we think?

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Add Self-Care to Your Fitness Routine

Blog post by Sheila Olson (www.fitsheila.com)

 

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Photo via Pexels

Sticking to a daily fitness routine takes a lot of motivation and perseverance. Regular exercise benefits your mind and body in numerous ways, but there are other important actions you can take to further improve your overall wellbeing. For example, self-care involves taking steps toward reaching your full wellness potential. Take the time to practice key aspects of self-care, so you can continue down your path to good health.

Make Time to Relax

Try setting aside a specific amount of time each day when you can self-indulge and relax. The Huffington Post recommends scheduling a 20-minute morning routine so you can start each day calm and mindful. Or, if you prefer, take breaks throughout your day to reduce stress and return to a sense of calm when you need it. Include your favorite hobbies, such as knitting or doodling, in your relaxing regime. Yoga and meditation are great activities to center yourself and keep your mind focused on what’s important to you. You may even want to create a special meditation room in your home. Finally, set aside adequate time in your schedule to get quality sleep. Make sure you get to bed early at night, especially if you have to wake up early for morning workouts. If you have trouble falling asleep at night, try using noise machines, investing in a good pillow and keeping your bedroom dark and cool.

Go Easy on Your Body

High-impact physical activity is great for your body, but it can also place stress your muscles and joints. Try to give your body a break every once in a while with some low-impact workouts. Some great options include walking, elliptical machines, cycling and yoga. You may even want to switch up your regular sidewalk run with a hike in nature or some laps at the local pool. Most strength training workouts are considered low-impact and can protect your joints and promote stability.

Establish a Routine

Following a healthy daily routine is key to providing structure to our lives. A routine helps us develop good habits and makes us more efficient. Without a routine, you may fail to reach your full potential. Plus, you’ll likely feel stressed and overwhelmed by daily decisions.

Establish a daily routine and schedule your workouts at the same time every day. Include time in your routine for cooking healthy meals at home so you’re not left grabbing a quick bite on the go from a fast-food restaurant. Make sure your schedule includes enough time to get your required sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. Any less than this and you won’t have the energy to make it through your workouts or give your body time to repair itself.

Practice Self-Compassion

Your well-being is highly dependent on how you treat yourself. If you find the voice in your head delivers more criticism than support, maybe it’s time to practice some self-compassion. First, learn to forgive yourself for your mistakes or shortcomings. You shouldn’t base your self-worth on perfection. It can also be useful to develop a mindset focused on growth and look at challenges as events to be overcome rather than avoided. Find gratitude by appreciating everything you have instead of focusing on what you don’t. Finally, practice mindfulness to learn how to deal with self-judgment and negative thoughts with acceptance.

Self-care is all about prioritizing yourself and improving your well-being. In a fitness routine, many people overdo it and push their bodies too hard. It’s easy to get lost in watching your physique improve and forget about your overall health. Try to approach fitness with a well-rounded routine focused on a happy, successful lifestyle of self-care.

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How to Include Yoga in Your Bedtime Routine

A new Guest Blog by Ellie Porter:

You may think that a bedtime routine is only helpful for kids, but it’s beneficial for people of all ages. Creating a routine helps train your brain into knowing that when you do those particular things in that order, it should start sending signals to the rest of your body that it’s time for bed.

One thing you should think about adding to your bedtime routine is yoga. When practiced twice a week, yoga has been found to improve sleep quality in nurses and reduce the effects of work stress on your psyche. It’s also a light exercise that will help to wear down your muscles at the end of the day while also allowing you to stretch almost every muscle in your body. Practicing daily has been found to reduce insomnia symptoms

Yoga has also been found to have significant effects on both mental health and sleep quality in long-term practitioners. It’s definitely something you should try adding to your bedtime routine to help yourself in the long term.

There are a plethora of ways that you can do yoga, most of which do not require anything expensive. Whether you want to try going to a studio to learn or rely on Youtube or apps on your phone to help guide your practice, yoga is a great way to bring your body and mind together before you try to sleep.

Those nurses in the study practiced yoga for 50 to 60 minutes twice a week, but you don’t have to. It doesn’t take long. Fitness Magazine even created an 8-minute workout specifically for before bed. Make sure that you aren’t doing too strenuous a routine. You want to trigger the relaxation response in your brain, but you don’t want to cause your adrenaline to start pumping.

Turn on the air in your room, light a candle with a soothing smell, and start with some deep breaths in child’s pose. If you want to do yoga without a guide, you might want to put on a podcast or audiobook, or just some soothing instrumentals, to help you focus.

You can even do yoga from your bed if you have the right kind of mattress. You can do anything from wide child’s pose to a seated spinal twist to happy baby pose, all without leaving your bed. Some mattresses will make it harder than others because they have soft foam support cores or bouncy inner springs. If you want to do yoga in bed, it’ll be easiest with a hybrid mattress that isn’t too bouncy or too soft. You can even do it with your partner if they’re willing to join you.

While you’re doing yoga, you might also want to try meditating, which has been found to decrease stress, anxiety, and depression. A few minutes of meditation can help avoid racing thoughts once you lay down to sleep, and can also help with helping you to stay asleep longer. Like yoga, it’s a straightforward process that anyone can learn. Harvard Medical School created a guide to basic mindfulness meditation for any who wish to learn it.


Ellie Porter
Managing Editor | SleepHelp.org
ellie@sleephelp.org
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Yoga and Weight loss

Does Yoga help me loose weight?

This is a question that sometimes comes up and the answer is clear, but not straightforward. So I thought I would address it today.

When we think about any type of physical exercise for weight loss, we usually think about how many calories we burn, how much we sweat, raise our heart rate, etc.

In Yoga, it is not about burning calories. We don’t even aim to raise our heart rate. It isn’t even just a physical exercise  – although of course if you are practicing Ashtanga full primary series with all it’s Vinyasa jump backs and throughs – you will certainly sweat and burn calories! But it’s not the main reason why it’s great for loosing weight…. In fact I believe that any traditional style of Yoga could be the best way for anyone to loose weight – if done the way it was intended to be practiced.

Yoga is a science of the Mind. As Patanjali states in the Yoga Sutra: “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodha” – Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.

We practice our physical Asanas (Postures), with the purpose of balancing our whole system, including the endocrine system and lymphatic system. We become stronger and more flexible, which leads to more physical comfort. We cleanse and detoxify and recreate balance within our energy system, which leads to overall better health.

We practice the breath, so we can calm and also strengthen the nervous system and lead us into a state of inner calm and awareness.

We practice concentration, so that (over time and with practice), we begin to experience a meditative bliss within the fluidity of our practice.

And we practice awareness.

The more we practice on the mat, the more apparent it will become that our practice spreads out into our everyday life. We become more aware of our own actions and the world around us. We become more comfortable in our own skin and come to terms with who we truly are. We walk through life with more peace and easiness.

Which leads us to make better choices.

How? Have you ever been drunk, on your way home from a party, stopping at a fast food place and gorging yourself with chips or burgers?

Have you ever been run down and tired and not been able to stop yourself from eating a whole packet of cookies? You get the idea.

When we are in a good place, aware and feeling confident, we don’t have to force ourselves to eat better – we just do.

If we feel like we deserve to be treated well, we will treat our own bodies well too.

And we will be motivated to do so without having to force a discipline on us that is hard to keep. What changes is what we WANT.

So – does Yoga help for weight loss? Yes. It certainly isn’t a quick fix but it is a lasting one that has the potential to change your lifestyle permanently.

 

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Understanding the practice of Ashtanga Yoga

 

As it is September and a new beginners class is starting up, I thought it was a good time to write about the meaning of Ashtanga yoga.
Ashtanga Yoga has never been intended as a purely physical Asana practice and I believe it is important to understand, at least in the very basics, the philosophy of Ashtanga Yoga.
The name itself – Ashtau (eight) + Anga (branches, or limbs) = Ashtanga Yoga (the Yoga of the eight limbs) tells us that there is much more to the practice than only a physical exercise.
Only if all eight limbs are practiced, it is truly Ashtanga Yoga.
What are these eight limbs? Scripted in the famous “Yoga Sutra” written about 200AD by the Indian sage Patanjali, they give us a concise description of the theory and practice of Yoga, including the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga:

Yama – (controlling our behaviour toward the external world)
Niyama – (controlling our behaviour toward ourselves)
Asana – (posture practice)
Pranayama – (breath control)
Pratyahara – (withdrawal of the senses from external to internal awareness)
Dharana – (concentration)
Dhyana – (meditation)
Samadhi – (deep contemplation or the blissful state that arises from merging with the object of meditation)

All Yoga should really be drawing instruction from these 8 limbs but the difference in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is that we attempt to practice all these 8 parts together in a daily practice.
Asana (Posture) Practice is only one eighth of the full practice that makes up a true Ashtanga Yoga practice.
It does however play a particularly important part, as it becomes the entrance point through which we begin to connect to our inner self, working our way from the physical body (which is immediately available to us through our senses and nervous system) through the breath, calming our mind and in this stillness, finding a better connection to ourselves. This connection is vital for all of us, whether we strive to find spiritual enlightenment or merely look to achieve better health and more happiness in life.

I will explain the eight limbs in a little more detail:

YAMA:
A set of 5 guidelines that, if we follow them, can help us to achieve a better and more peaceful relationship with the world around us. We can practice them in our daily Asana practice so that we become familiar with them and plant seeds that can grow into better habits and attitudes for the rest of our lives, on and more importantly off the mat.
These guidelines are
Ahimsa (non-violence), the first and most important principal of the practice of Yoga. On the mat we should practice to treat our own bodies kindly and with love, never push or pull in an attempt to stretch further than we can or work harder than what is good for our bodies. Once we become familiar with an attitude of non-harming ourselves, it will make us more aware in our daily life and it will be more natural for us to take peaceful actions rather than those that cause harm to any other person or living being.
Satya (truthfulness) – when practicing on our mats, at home or in a class, we need to be very honest with ourselves and assess where we are at in this moment in time. Even though the Ashtanga sequence is always the same, your practice will never be the same. It serves like a mirror. A constant measure against which you can measure the state of your body and mind and breath each day anew. We need to look at it and accept it with love and honesty, even if we may wish ourselves to be different. To truly see and accept ourselves as we are is the basis for any kind of happiness. Over time, we become more in touch with ourselves, more happy with ourselves and ultimately with the world around us.
Asteya (non-stealing) is something very important that we need to practice on our mats in order to become aware of it in our everyday lives. It doesn’t only mean to not take our friends pens and lighters or shoplift, etc. It means to not want or take what is not ours and follows on from the practice of truthfulness. On the mat we often look around, if we are in a class situation and see someone stronger, more flexible, younger, thinner, etc and we become envious and competitive. We want to look like them, practice “advanced” postures like them, etc. This is when we have to remember the practice of Asteya.
Brahmacharya (continence) has often been interpreted as “sexual abstinence” however this would have been in a cultural context. Literally it means to “walk with the divine”, meaning to acknowledge the divine in everything we do and not waste our actions (and our energy) on unimportant things. It means to save our energy for things that truly serve us and others. On the mat it means to use your energy wisely, look for good concentration and good alignment, don’t lose you’re breath, modifying or slowing down when needed, etc, rather than racing through the sequence. To become wise with how to use our energy will obviously be an advantage in all our actions in life.
Aparigraha (non-grasping) – meaning that we should practice with dedication but without grasping on to any outcome we may desire. We should just be in the moment when we do our practice, not focusing too much on any goal we might have, as this would just keep us from being truly present. A goal, whether it is to achieve a certain posture, calm our mind, heal our body or even to be enlightened, should never be the focus of our practice. Any goal will either be achieved, or not but practice should be done anyway. It’s about the process, not the achievement.

NIYAMA:

Sauca (Purity/Cleanliness) – refers not only to the necessity of showering regularly and keeping a good hygiene practice but also, maybe even more importantly, of internal cleanliness. Yoga Asana practice in itself is in part designed to detoxify, purify and activate the self regulating systems of our bodies but how helpful would it be if we went straight from the mat to the table to eat a big bacon and sausage breakfast? Any regular practitioner will have experienced the difference in practice after a heavy evening meal or drinking wine, or during a phase of eating a lot of junk food. It is not pleasant and in our regular practice of the same sequence we begin to realise those differences in the state of our body and mind that is influenced by our diet and lifestyle. The desire to eat more healthy foods often naturally follows a regular yoga practice.
Santosa (Contentment) – not to be confused with the western notion of complacency. Contentment in the yogic sense is one of the highest forms of happiness, as it does not depend on outer circumstances. It does not mean to be passive in our life choices and just put up with anything we experience, but it means to be able to truly be happy with what we have been given in life. On the mat, we may experience restrictions in our body, feeling that we “should” be stronger, more flexible, better able to concentrate, etc. But wherever we are at in this moment in time, can be a source of happiness, if we don’t take things for granted and wish our life away. We are all perfect.
Tapas (discipline) – meaning “heat”, it refers to the fire of motivation that we need in order to even get up and go on to our mat to practice. Without it, there is no practice. We need to find what motivates us, learning that discipline is not a rigid thing, forced upon us by some external force or even by our logical mind, but a motivation from deep inside us. What this motivation is, is different for everyone, but we need to find it in order to become disciplined, in our practice as well as in daily life.
Svadyaya (self-study) – an important part of our practice is the continuous learning process. We need to learn about ourselves, on the mat, when we pay close attention to our physical sensations, strength and weaknesses, the state of our breath, our energy levels, the state of our mind, our emotions, our insights. In our daily practice we have a great opportunity to study ourselves. In addition, reading the underlying philosophies and texts of Yoga will help to deepen this understanding.
Isvara Pranidhana (dedication) – to dedicate our practice to a higher purpose, to acknowledge that there are greater forces than ourselves and that in the end, we are all part of the same, beautiful, omnipotent forces of the universe, means to transcend our own Ego nature. Transcending the Ego is a necessary step in order to see the “bigger picture”, to see things not through the lens of our limited, emotional reactive egoic selves but from a higher perspective, really is one of the highest goals of the practice of Yoga.

ASANA

This is the practice of postures. Although Yoga in itself is an ancient practice, originating more than 5000 years ago, Asana practices have been evolving, always changing with the needs of the people of the times. Postures as we practice them today are merely about 200 years old and are influenced by western exercises as well as eastern philosophy. The primary series of Ashtanga Yoga (also called Yoga Cikitsa, or Yoga therapy), has been designed to strengthen, cleanse and relieve tensions and tightness in every part of the body, not only superficially but also deep inside our core, even having a healing effect on our organs and particularly on our nervous system. They work not only on the physical body but also on the system of Nadis (Energy channels, in Chinese medicine known as meridians). It is a set sequence that should be used continuously as a guideline but modified in whatever way needed individually. It is likely that during practice, imbalances and weaknesses will show up. If this is the case, they will need to be addressed by further modifying, adding appropriate postures and where needed seeking other more specialised therapies before returning to the full sequence again. Whatever shape our posture practice takes, each Asana should be practiced with a balance between being grounded and strong, being dynamic and active and also expanding in all directions, creating lightness in our body.

PRANAYAMA

Breath control – The breath has a direct influence on the nervous system and is the link between body and mind. Our breath is influenced by the state of our emotions and can in turn influence them, calming our mind almost instantly. By learning yogic breathing techniques we can learn to control the breath and therefore our nervous system and our mind. In Ashtanga Yoga there are many pranayama practices but, to begin with, we just use mainly one technique called Ujjayy breath (“victorious breath”) which helps us in many ways. By learning this technique (which at first can take a little practice) we can keep our breath long and even, therefore sending messages to the nervous system to relax the body and mind, even though we are moving a lot, even sweating through our physical practice. This will help to stay centered and focused and we learn to keep our concentration for longer. Ujjayy breath also keeps our core activated during the practice, which is of great importance for proper function in postures. It can also help to create heat and fire in the body (if practiced strongly), which is what helps with purification.

PRATYAHARA
All the attention we give to our physical body, our breath, our sensations and emotions during our practice session helps us to stay present in the moment. We need to learn to disconnect our senses from the outside world. In a class situation, we may be tempted to check the time, see how strong the person next to us is, get distracted by noises etc…but the practice of Pratyahara allows us to access a deeper place within ourselves, away from the everyday noise of the world and getting a little closer to the core of our being.

 

DHARANA
Once we stop getting distracted by the outside world, concentration can begin to happen. During our practice we concentrate on our breath and on our focus points (drishti). Drishti helps us not only to direct energy to a certain point or direction, but also it helps our vision and inner focus to stay steady and concentrated on one particular point in space. This trains our ability to concentrate our mind and stay focused on one particular object of attention.

DHYANA
As we get more and more practiced in concentrating on one object of attention, our state of concentration begins to remain for longer periods without interruption. This state is a state of meditation (dhyana). Here is where the real practice of the mind begins.

SAMADHI
With even more practice (a lot of practice!) this meditative state of the mind begins to deepen and our awareness seems to completely merge with the object of meditation (ie we feel as if we ARE the breath, there is nothing but the breath, or the body). This is accompanied with a feeling of complete bliss, were we are one with ourselves and the object of our meditation. It is also accompanied by the ability to completely let go of everything we hold on to, to experience only oneness, even just for a moment.

In conclusion, we can see clearly that there is a lot more to Ashtanga Yoga than just ploughing through a series of postures and achieving more and more difficult shapes with our bodies.
We can also see that an advanced Yoga practice really does not mean that we can wrap our legs behind our head or stand on our head for a long time. It does however mean that we have achieved a regular and consistent practice of all of the above limbs (at least up to Dharana – the rest will come by itself) and we are able to maintain concentration and an even breath throughout the practice. It also means we have studied ourselves enough to know where our weak spots are and where we need more or where we need less of something. We need to know when it is wise to modify and take it easy and when it is wise to overcome fears or feelings of laziness. All this is part of our practice and if we keep that in mind, Ashtanga yoga will be a truly healing method for anyone, old or young.
Or, as my teacher David Collins put it by quoting Dr. Jigar Gor and Judith Hanson:
“Yoga is not about touching your toes but about what you learn on the way down”.

(For more historical information on the development of Ashtanga Yoga please refer to my blog post “a brief history of Yoga”)

 

 

 

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What makes a true Yoga practice?

Yoga Sutra of the month

Samadhi Pada

1.12

ABHYASA VAIRAGYABHYAM TANNIRODHAH

(the restriction (of the fluctuations of the mind) is achieved through practice and dispassion.

This Sutra is, in my opinion, one of the most important ones to remember for any serious Yogi – and one that is easily forgotten.

Abhyasa (practice) – is the more obvious part. If we want to achieve a steady and clear mind (which after all is the main goal of Yoga) and harvest the fruit of our efforts, we must first put in the work. We cannot be lazy and think “tomorrow I will practice” or only practice what comes easy to us. If we do so, even though all practice will bring results, the results will be very limited.

What shape or form the practice takes can be personal. For some it can be based around a seated meditation, for some it can be chanting, a strong posture practice in the Ashtanga tradition or any other devotional practice, as long as it is practiced with dispassion.

The second part of this sutra, Vairagya (dispassion) is what makes the practice a truly yogic practice. It is also the part that is easily forgotten, especially in our posture practice, when we strive to achieve. We want, so badly, to reach our toes in Paschimottanasana, to bind in Marichyasana, to stand on our head without wall support, that we fall into the trap of delusion all over again – the delusion that achieving a certain shape with our body is Yoga. In class, we may think in our mind of the postures that are still to come, of the time still left in class, of the person next to us who we somehow think of as a “better Yogi” than us because their head touches the ground in Prasarita Padotanasana.

But this is a dangerous trap that can keep us from practicing Yoga.

To practice dispassion means to practice letting go of any attachment to the outcome of our practice. It means practicing with complete faith in the practice. It means being completely in the moment. Letting go of the wishes and demands of our egoic mind and actually transcending the Ego little by little until we feel just one with our bodies and minds and our practice.

Even the ultimate goal of Yoga – complete self realisation – is a goal and while it is a commendable goal, it is better to let go even of this. The only true yogic practice is done as a mindful and meditative practice of being in the moment, giving our effort to the practice without wanting anything in return.

Abhyasa and Vairagya are two sides of the same coin of yogic practice. Only when the two come together can a state of yoga be experienced. One side only does not work – Practice alone, without dispassion, is no more than exercise, or gymnastics. Dispassion without practice is nothing but  lethargy. 

But both together is what makes a true Yoga practice.

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The only practice we really need..

Yoga Sutra of the Month

One of my favorite Sutras, because there is so much to get out of. Because if we only practice by this one rule, the world would be a wonderful, kind and peaceful place.

At least if we all tried to keep it in the forefront of our thoughts throughout our everday life, we would all be much happier.

Samadhi Pada

1.33

MAITRI KARUNA MUDITA UPEKSHANAM SUKHA DUKHA PUNYA APUNYA VISANAYAM BHAVANATAS CITTA PRASADANAM

“The projection of friendliness, compassion, gladness and equanimity towards objects (be they) joyful, sorrowful, meritorious or demeritorious (bring about the pacification of consciousness.”

(translation by Georg Feuerstein)

Yoga is all about the “pacification of consciousness” or in other words, the calming of all the agitations of the mind, so that we can become peaceful and able to see clearly into the depths of who we truly are.

Patanjali gives us here a very direct and simple (yet not easy) practice, through which we can achieve this state of peacefulness of mind.

The meaning of “objects” (visaya) in sanskrit is much broader than in our western understanding and includes all thought forms, beings and things that can be encountered with our mind.

In this case, the most obvious “objects” we can encounter carrying those attributes are our fellow human beings.

The people we meet in our lives usually fall into one of those four categories – they can either be joyful and happy, sorrowful and suffering, meritious in doing and achieving good things in life, or demeritorious in behaving unethically.

Usually we encounter a mix of people who, just like ourselves, all have a little of each category within them. It would be easy to fall into the trap of being merely reactive and letting these attitudes spark of our own agitations of our minds.

It’s easy to react to someone’s unethical behaviour with anger or to someone’s success with jealousy.

But if we put the advice given by Patanjali into practice in our daily life, we can become accomplished in being friendly toward the happy and joyful people, compassionate toward those who are suffering, glad for those who are doing good and things and achieve successes in life and cultivate a feeling of equanimity or indifference toward those who are acting unethically.

In Buddhism this practice is known as the Brahma Viharas or the four immeasurables

(Love, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity) and are beautifully expressed as a prayer or meditation practice:

May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes,

May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes,

May all sentient beings never be separated from bliss without suffering,

May all sentient beings be in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger.

Love means to want others to be happy.

Compassion means to want others to be free of suffering.

True Joy means to be happy for and with someone else’s fortune and happiness.

Equanimity means to have a clear minded and tranquil state of mind.

(From www.viewonbuddhism.org)

It is truly a beautiful practice we can all do on a daily basis, in everyday life, in our daily meditation and even during our daily Yoga practice.

If we just bring it into our minds regularly, it will soon become easier and eventually will become the “default” setting in our minds. Just imagine how much happier we will be!

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Greed and the Heroin Addict

Yoga Sutra of the month
2.39
APARIGRAHA STAIRYE JANMA KATHAMTA SAMBODHA
“When steadied in greedlessness (he secures) knowledge of the wherefore of (his) birth(s).”
(Translation by Georg Feuerstein)

 

This Sutra is probably a little confusing at first glance, but I’ve been pondering about the subject of greed quite a lot lately and after re-thinking this Sutra, i want to share my thoughts with you.
I feel very strongly that greed, is one of our most prominent and destructive affliction that has accumulated in our collective mind and is in this moment in history coming to a peak that may well be responsible for the destruction of the world.
Most of us would probably say that they are aware of this dilemma. And yet we proceed to destroy the planet, knowing that what we do has an impact. We proceed from one acquisition to the next, letting material possessions overrule all common sense or compassion, even love for our closest friends and family.  Our desires for things have become so strong that we often cannot control them anymore, while our minds developed ingenious strategies to make us believe that what we do is justified.
Why are we so caught up in this web of greed?
According to Patanjali, greed is born of ignorance. In our ignorance, we cannot see who we truly are, so we cannot know what makes us happy, we are confused. In our confusion, like a blind person reaching for something to hold on to, we grasp at the next best explanation provided by our own Ego, the function of our mind that helps us to distinguish Me from You. And our Ego tells us the only thing it can tell us, the only thing it is programmed to look for – that we are separate from each other and to look out for what distinguishes us from others, how to compare and judge what makes us seem superior. This feeling of separation is, whether we are aware of it or not, naturally a scary one. Deep inside we all must feel lonely, an emptiness maybe that we can’t explain. And we look to fill this emptiness with things.
In our desperation we try to fill our void with an image of who we think we are.
We believe that we are what we can see on the outside – a man, woman, beautiful, ugly, tall, short, a teacher, a student. We identify with only external and fleeting attributes. Of course this leads to even more fear. If we think that we ARE something that is very short lived (like youth, beauty, strengths or our place in society), that by it’s very nature must change sooner or later into it’s opposite, we must, deep inside, be constantly worried about losing our identity. So we hold on to anything we can that may affirm this false identity in an attempt to make it last forever. We collect things, like pretty clothes, houses, cars, items that symbolise something we want. And because we think that we are separated from everyone else, we only (or firstly) look out for ourselves. And yes, for  a short moment, after we acquired something we were longing for, we experience happiness. But what most of us are not aware of, at least not in these moments, is that the reason for this happiness has nothing to do with whatever it is we had acquired, but only with the temporary relief of wanting. For a short while, we experience no desire, and we equate the cause of this feeling of contentment and happiness with the thing we acquired, so we want more things. And so it continues. We confuse our wants with our needs a hundred times every day. We buy plastic even though we are aware of it’s detrimental consequence for nature, we eat meat even though we know how the animal industry works, all because we say to ourselves that we “need” this or that.
We have entered a cycle of addiction, following the same patterns as any alcohol or drug addict. We are under the spell of consumerism just like a heroin addict is under the spell of his or her daily high that fills the same void – that of lost connections to ourselves, we can only glimpse in the feeling of unconditional love.
Our greed overtakes our common sense and our mind helps to feed the addiction. The question is, how can we break out of it?
If we treat our everyday greed like any addiction, we may at first need a substitute for our drug of choice, something to wean us off and make the transition easier, like the Methadone for the heroin junkie. Instead of being addicted to buying pretty things or overeating, we may begin the sweet addiction to our daily yoga practice.

A daily dose of Asana practice, mixed with deep breathing and the stilling of the mind that comes with concentration, ending in the blissful cloud of Savasana, will make us feel so wonderful, like a natural “high”, that it can become an addiction in itself. But instead of lulling us with delusion, this kind of “drug” will be more like the famous “red pill” Morpheus offered Neo in the the movie “The Matrix”, in order to wake up from his state of dreaming and begin to see reality as it is. More and more, like this pill, our yoga practice will make us aware of the different aspects of life and of ourselves. And as we continue the practice,  with growing awareness, our greed will diminish bit by bit. And just like the heroin addict who has been so consumed by the addiction that he or she was not able to maintain responsibility for everyday tasks and has been so distracted as to become blind toward his/her own senseless actions – once the addiction subsides, clarity and insight can set in again.
I don’t believe that most of us are very much different to any drug addict, only our problems are a little less immediate, sometimes more subtle and more widely accepted.
The more we can manage to rid ourselves of much of our greed and lose our desire to grasp at things that do not serve us on our journey, the clearer will our sight become towards the truth, enabling us to understand ourselves and the world around us far better and with much more compassion, so we can treat it with respect and responsibility.
Even after a relatively short time of sincere and regular Yoga practice, one can feel the fruit of this kind of development.
I imagine that after lifetimes of the practice of Aparigraha (Greedlessness), we may reach a state of completion, in that we are fully free of desire and have developed such a clear understanding of even the subtlest aspects of ourselves. We then may, as Patanjali hints at in this Sutra, become so subtly aware that we can remember our past lives and the karmic imprints (Samskaras) that have lead us to our current birth and lifetime. With this kind of understanding we may truly be able to free ourselves of the karmic bonds that keep us returning here again and again.
However at any stage of this journey, we gain more understanding, deeper insight and a increased happiness and feeling of compassion.

Maybe Greedlessness (Aparigraha) provides the key for us to live in peace and harmony with each other on this planet, so we can feel the connection that binds us all again and realise that we are not alone but that we are all part of the same divine consciousness, depending on each other and on nature, sharing the same worldly experience in all it’s glory.

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