The power of fault

Yesterday, I was watching an old documentary about Bob Fosse. He was an outstandingly amazing choreographer and dancer in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s and his style was so unique and wonderful that it inspired many great performers. (I’ll provide some links for you to watch below). 

What does this have to do with yoga?

Well, in my eyes, he was a genius not just because of the skills he had but because of the way he dealt with the skills he didn’t have. 

In the documentary he mentions it – he wasn’t a good enough ballet dancer and didn’t have the turn out needed for ballet – so he just turned his feet in and developed his own style. One, that later inspired the whole world. 

If he had conformed to the mainstream set of skills expected from him he would have either kept struggling to succeed in a world he didn’t feel like he could be good enough, or he would have given up altogether.

If it wasn’t for his weakness, his greatness wouldn’t have emerged. 

It is a great example of how often it is our weaknesses and faults that make us acquainted with ourselves and our uniqueness. 

It made me think of BKS Iyengar. He was born with ill health and struggled all of his life to do basic asana (which he was told to do by his brother in law Krishnamacharya, to strengthen his health). He was determined to practice them in the right way and to achieve success, he invented new methods that hadn’t been done before – using blocks, straps, ropes and other props. This method, which was born out of a weakness, is now famous as “Iyengar Yoga” all over the world and Iyengar himself will forever be known as the master of asana, a genius when it comes to working with physical weakness and turning it into strength. 

In our yoga practice we get this opportunity over and over again. No matter how practiced we are, we will always find an obstacle. Maybe, even after years of practice, we still can’t sit in lotus, fold forward with a straight back or lift up into a backbend. So what to do? Give up? Say “Yoga isn’t working for me?”, or “This style of yoga isn’t working for me?”, and just do the postures we feel that we are good at? Or should we persist and keep pushing and pulling until we finally sit in lotus, just take the pain?

Whenever we reach a limit, a boundary, in order to extend it, something has to break. Either we can break up with the practice and stop doing yoga, or stop doing this style of yoga, or we can break our body and ruin our knees, for the momentary feeling of success to achieve lotus (or back ending or whatever else it is). Or we can break our ego and admit to ourselves that this is where our boundaries are. We can look at ourselves and see that, for whatever reason (old injuries, genetics…), this or that posture is, for now, not achievable for us. Then we have to think – what is it that my body needs in order to open safely? If lotus is not good for me, maybe Baddha Konasana is? Oh, but it’s not in the sequence I’ve learned… Well. Put it in. Make it part of your sequence. You feel that Purvotanasana helps open your shoulders? Do it more. Do it for longer. You feel that too many chaturangas hurt your shoulder? Stop doing them. 

Each posture should be “Sthira Sukham Asanam” – steady and comfortable. So that you can be steady and comfortable in life, accepting who you are at any given moment. So that the balance in your body and mind is reinstated and there is less conflict in your physical and mental activities. So that your vision of life becomes clearer and the connection to your own soul (and also with others), stronger. 

Slowly we will come to realise that all obstacles are just there to show us a different way and if we look at them like that,  they are not really obstacles anymore. They dissolve, and we learn that often the problem is not that we don’t get what we want but that we don’t want what we can get.

Yoga isn’t just about postures, it’s about all of life. 

Life is, in my opinion, all about experience – all experience, not just select, happy moments. 

To experience – and appreciate – life fully, we need to shine a light on to all of our shadows and dark spots and unpleasant feelings, accept them and integrate them into our life in full awareness. Only then can we truly achieve balance within ourselves. 

And after all this is the aim of yoga – to unite us with ourselves, with all the layers of our consciousness (and ultimately with our divine source), befriend our inner demons and turn them into divine messengers instead, so we can achieve this balance, breath by breath, posture by posture, day by day. To become aware. And with awareness comes happiness. 

The goal for most writers of any genre is to “find their voice”. But where should they find it? I don’t believe it can be found anywhere, because it is already there all along. 

The goal really should be to trust their voice instead. To speak clearly with their own voice of truth, not to mimic another’s, no matter how “different” it is or how much “better” it seems to sound. 

Being different doesn’t mean that we don’t belong. It means simply that we are unique in the way we express and experience ourselves. In fact I think that we would feel a lot more “belonging” if we learned to trust ourselves and our own, unique voice. It is the voice of the divine after all, the voice that comes from our hearts and souls and ultimately from the source of all live. 

Our perceived faults, our perceived weaknesses or shortcomings, the shadow sides of our personalities and lives are probably hiding the key to our soul, to our greatness, our way to shine light into the world. They are opportunities to be celebrated. 

Of course this doesn’t always come easy. 

We all know it from our own life experiences. 

In 1992 I had a motorbike accident. I broke several bones in my body, had an impalement through my perineum and abdomen, lost more then half of my blood, several teeth and my friend, who was driving the bike. When I woke up on the road I knew I had to make a decision – let go and die, or keep myself awake and live. I chose to live and this choice remained throughout the rest of my life. Today I see this as a gift, an initiation into a deeper layer of life I wouldn’t have insight to without this experience. 

And if I hadn’t damaged my body I wouldn’t have gained the level of understanding of how to work with the body that I have now.  Old injuries remain our teachers for a long time. 

The world is full of examples like this. All of them are showing us that the best treasures are in the darkness, in the shadows, the weak spots, the faults, the feelings of inadequacy. 

If you, like me, grew up with traditional fairy tales, (just read any of the original Grimm’s stories) you’ll know all about it. If we can be brave enough to look at ourselves clearly and objectively and shine the light of truth on to our shadows, no matter what they are, we can turn them into our unique gifts and treasures and a true feeling of belonging in this world. 

(For those of you interested in dance, here are some Bob Fosse links):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t14vhjUwe_o (Bob Fosse documentary)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcrZIK3gqbU (Bob Fosse Choreography)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxmz3RcNNBE (Liza Minnelli in Cabaret – directed by Bob Fosse) 

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Immunity – the ayurvedic perspective

There has never been a better opportunity than now to revise our old, unsustainable habits and begin to embrace the changes we all need to make to live in a more sustainable and health supporting world.

We are learning that in fact it is possible to fly less, to consume less and to take more responsibility for our own health and the health of our world.

The earth’s immunity comes from a balanced eco system and diverse wildlife – and we have a lot to do with that.

Our own immunity also depends on us.

A virus like the corona virus – or any other virus for that matter – can only cause damage if your immune system is compromised.

But even if you do have an underlying condition, there is so much that you can do to lower the risk of getting seriously ill.

And if you don’t have any conditions, count yourself lucky and make sure you keep it that way.

Ayurveda and Immunity

As most things, a well functioning immune system rests on a well functioning digestive system.

Any food or drink we ingest, is broken down first in the stomach and duodenum, then in the liver and gall bladder and finally is metabolised in each individual tissue cell.

Nutritive substances nourish all of our seven tissue cells in a specific order and follow along specific pathways:

Blood plasma

Red blood cells

Muscle

Fat

Bone

Bone Marrow

Reproductive tissue

The end product of this metabolic chain is a subtle substance called Ojas. Ojas relates to the kind of physiological substances that give us vitality, fertility and immunity, and stimulates the production of hormones, T-cells, etc.

Ojas is stored in the heart, the brain and the reproductive organs. The more we have, the better our immunity.

What can we do to increase Ojas?

For Ojas to be produced without disruption, three things have to happen:

1. The metabolic pathways (in ayurveda called Srotas, or channels) must be clear and free from blockage

2. All seven tissues must be adequately nourished.

3. The mind is also a srota (channel) and therefor must also be kept free from blockages and toxins.

So, how can we do that?

It really is quite simple.

To keep the channels from being clogged (think of blood vessels clogged with cholesterol or too much glucose, blocked cell membranes, inflammation, etc), don’t put more into your body than it can cope with. If you overtax your digestive system by eating too much, too often, eating without being hungry (the body tells you when it is ready to digest through hunger – listen to it), or if you eat too many things that are hard to digest (processed foods, heavy, rich meals, foods that are incomparable with your constitution, too many different and incompatible types of food at once), leftover, undigested particles will remain in the system and become toxic..To sum it up:

– If you are not hungry, don’t eat (unless you have an eating disorder or are underweight and have to retrain your appetite). It’s fine to skip a meal. Learn to listen to your body.

– Listen to your body. It will give you clear signs if it is struggling with something. How are you feeling after a meal? Are you feeling heavy, tired? Bloated? Do you have acid reflux? Nausea? Pain? Gas? All of these are signs that your digestion is struggling. Listen to it and find out what it is struggling with.

– When you do eat, make it count. Try to cook your own meals, as we’ve done for thousands of years, rather than going out or eating quick, ready meals. Make sure every single ingredient in your meal is of good quality, mostly plants, whole and preferably organic. Vegetables, lentils and basmati rice (a very digestible kind of rice) are a good choice for staple meals.

– Enjoy your food. As important as it is to choose healthful ingredients, if you force it down without enjoyment, your body will not fully digest it.

Choose foods that make you feel truly satisfied and feeling good, even hours after you’ve eaten it. To achieve satisfaction, try to avoid extreme tastes, like very sweet or very salty or very spicy. Try to include all 6 tastes, including bitter and astringent.

– Use digestive spices to support your metabolism. Some great ones are Cumin, Coriander, Fennel, Ginger, Cinnamon, black pepper and Ajwan. Use good quality rock salt and good quality fats like Ghee, which is particularly good at feeding Ojas.

– Keep foods like dairy, red meat, gluten grains, bread, pasta and sugar to a minimum or avoid them completely. Always avoid highly processed foods. If you eat meat, get good quality, organic, free range, even if they are more expensive (remember that those are the actual priced of food, cheaper ones are usually made cheaper by mistreating the animals).

– Keep your mind free from fear and worry. Don’t panic. Instead, meditate. Loving kindness meditation (like this one https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-d_AA9H4z9U.) will hugely improve your own mood and your immunity and this will have a knock on effect on many others. The thymus gland (where T-cells mature) is very close to our heart.

Use your time at home to be creative. Did you always want to learn an instrument or write a book? Or get the box with acrylic paint out or play a board game with your family?

Do it!

Go for long walks. Read fiction. Enjoy a comedy. Facebook your mother.

It’s more important than you might think, especially in time of these.

Stay away from social media and if you do feel panicked by the events, try to refrain from posting all your fears on facebook – you might spread fear quicker than you think. Better to talk to a close friend or family about it.

– Be helpful, kind and loving. This will not only help others, but you as well. A feeling of bliss and love will hugely boost our immune system and effectively reduce stress. What can you do to help? Check on your single mother friend, who is stuck at home with her kids and might feel lonely. Or whatever else you can do. Do it.

– Get enough sleep. If you suffer from insomnia, take all of the above advice, go to bed early without gadgets (read a book if you like), take a warm milk (of any kind) with nutmeg, don’t drink coffee or alcohol, practice Yoga Nidra and/or meditation daily. Herbs like Valerian, Jatamansi or Passionflower can be helpful too.

– Do Yoga.
All of the above is supported greatly by a regular, daily Yoga practice, even if it is only for a few minutes each day.

– Daily oil massage can work miracles. It nourishes the skin (first barrier against infection), and the nervous system, and it lubricates the whole body. It supplies good fats without it having to go through the digestive system.

Use sesame oil for a tridoshic effect. A few drops in the nostrils are great to keep mucus membranes healthy and effective agains invaders. Oil pulling helps keep the mouth clear from bacteria.

– the regular use of a Neti pot helps to keep airways and sinuses clean. Use warm saltwater and a drop of oil afterward to massage the membranes of the nostrils.

And if all this isn’t enough, or if you are worried about any conditions you might have, there are plenty of good quality ayurvedic herbs available that can help even more, by increasing or balancing the digestive system, reducing inflammation, supporting the liver, supporting the nervous system, etc.

(Consultations are available even over the phone or FaceTime if you like – contact www.sunshineyogawexford.com)

So, let’s take a deep breath and look forward to changing our habits for the better. This could be the kick in the behind we all needed.

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Interview with David Collins

Today I’ve had a chat with my teacher, David Collins, of Ashtanga Yoga Dublin (www.ashtanga.ie). Although I haven’t attended many classes with them (David and his wife, Paula) since I’ve been busy studying Ayurveda, I still see them as my teachers, as they are the ones I would go to if I needed help or advice in my Yoga practice. 

So I’ve asked David a few questions that I thought would be interesting to you, particularly those of you looking for a course or teacher training. I’ve done the Heart of Yoga course a few years ago as a part of my Ashtanga Teacher Training and I still think it is one of the best courses Ireland has to offer. So make yourself a cup of tea and have a read.

Interview with David Collins:

Sandra: 

You are teaching since a long time now. Tell us about what brought you to Yoga in the first place and what made you want to teach?

David: 

Ok, it’s quite a long story. You have to go back to the early 80s really, at that time I was studying science, doing a PHD in molecular science at Galway University. But I knew it wasn’t really what I wanted to do with my life. Although I found it fascinating, my real desire was to be an actor. At that time this was a difficult thing to pursue and as a result, I became quite unhealthy. I was suffering from stress related eczema and asthma. I got treatment from an acupuncturist in Galway, who recommended Yoga. That was my first contact with the idea of Yoga. The same day I bought Iyengar’s book “Light on Yoga.” 

I just looked at the pictures and I read it but it took another year for me to actually take a class. 

I finally decided to leave science and take up acting as a full time job in 19985 and moved to Dublin. There, I found a meditation and Yoga class and began to practice, on and off, while pursuing my acting career. After a few years, one of the students there told me about a residential Yoga weekend in Navan and I went. The teacher suggested I take up a place in her teacher training and so I did, thinking that it may be a useful way to supplement my income as an actor in between work, without having to work in restaurants, and being able to do something good and healthy at the same time, something I really loved to do. 

So after completing the training with the Irish Yoga Association in the early 90s I began to teach part time. Thinking this would always be the case, little by little, as I slowly matured in myself, my focus on Yoga slowly increased. 

I was working in Germany and England a lot at the time, moving around a lot and found the Yoga provided a good anchor. It helped me feel stable and healthy. When I began to feel the necessity to settle down a bit more, I took six months off to get myself refreshed and clear, moved to Dublin and practiced more Yoga and as a result I found myself teaching more. 

In the summer of 2000 I decided to take a break from Theatre to focus on practicing Ashtanga Yoga.

I had been working by myself, from a David Swenson DVD and book, and had joined an informal practice group consisting of a number of people – but I was a bit daunted by them. They were all very serious practitioners, I was way off the mark with my flexibility and strength at that time and my comparative Ego was telling me I had to get better at this. 

When I introduced this Vinyasa system into my teaching, classes really took off. 

I decided to go to America for 6 weeks to attend a workshop with Lino Miele. It was the first time someone had explained what the nature of the Vinyasa system was. That changed everything for me. 

I started to understand that it was a systematised thing and that there was a science behind it, which spoke to that aspect of my personality. 

It was the first time I understood what I was actually doing. 

The first thing Lino said to me was to do less. He encouraged me to understand that it wasn’t about just willy nilly pushing through lots of postures, but to practice appropriate to your age and conditions and what was real in the moment. That it was about being in the moment, being in the presence and accepting what was possible and not trying to push into something for the sake of it. 

So I practiced with him, went to India with him a couple of times. I went to various places, Finland, Italy, I did a good many workshops. At this stage I had started to slip out of acting, as the Yoga classes were going well and I just kept turning down work from the Theater that was offered to me and after about a year or so of this, I realised that, without having intended this, I had a Yoga School going that needed my attention. 

So I let it happen organically, as I felt I was being led to this, I told my agent I wasn’t going to look for work anymore and, apart from some voice over jobs every now and then, haven’t done any  acting work since. 

Then I met Paula and she joined me in teaching in 2004. In 2005, while we were in Mysore, in India, we created the Heart of Yoga course. We looked at what way we really wanted to teach Yoga, what Yoga really was and how we wanted to present it to people. 

Sandra:

What was your experience in Mysore? 

 

David:

After we god married we went to Mysore again in 2005. We’d been in India a good few times but only twice in Mysore. We found it interesting to be in the Shala and to see Pathabhi Jois but he wasn’t really teaching at that time anymore, it was largely Sharath and Saraswati who were teaching. 

The following year Paula was pregnant and in 2007 I went back by myself for 4 weeks, but I cut it short and returned home after 3 weeks as I didn’t like being away from my family. At that stage we had long since realised that we didn’t need to be in Mysore to do Yoga. And while there was certainly an energy there that was encouraging people to practice, there was also a kind of a craziness there that we realised we didn’t want any part of either. 

There was a largely acquisitive nature to how a lot of people were practicing, it was all about the next posture. Not everyone was like that of course, but there was a lot of that about. We just didn’t feel a great pull to that. 

But one of the greatest things of that trip in 2007 is that I met Dr. Jayashree and Narasimhan and through them I really started to appreciate the importance of traditional teachings of the Yoga Sutras, and the other texts. I had to open myself up to the deeper aspects of Yoga, understood that the Asana was an important and necessary aspect of the practice, but very much only the tip of the iceberg in what Yoga had to offer. Narasimhan and Jayashree opened that door wide for me. I had some exposure to it previously in trainings and had studied but never really had a guide into it and so this first meeting with them was really significant. 

Sandra:

You were talking about the experience of reaching the next posture and the next… I’ve come across teachers who would be very strict in adhering to those particular sequences, not allowing people to move on without having mastered the previous one in the sequence What’s your approach?

David:

I think the sequence is an intelligently put together practice regiment that covers basically all of the categories of postures. And that’s all very well, if you are particularly fit and healthy and have no particular issues.  It’s like a prophylaxis. You do a little bit of standing postures, a little bit of balancing, a little bit of supine postures, some seated postures, a little bit of back bending, some inversions… in it’s original form it’s kind of a classical Hatha Yoga practice that involves moving the spine in all directions and doing something that’s going to maintain flexibility, strength and balance. 

Now, when it becomes an obsessively strict thing that prevents people from being moderate in their approach, being able to say for example, actually, my back hurts today, I need to do things that will help strengthening and healing my back. Or I have bad knees and tight hips and I don’t want to be forced into Marichyasana D, it causes me pain. 

That also was never the way Pathabi Jois taught. Everyone of his students had a different experience. He worked with people with paraplegia and all sorts of diseases. It was meant to heal. 

Manju, his son, who was more our teacher than P.Jois ever was, always said that this rigidity of adherence to the sequence is nonsense. The practice has to be appropriate to everybody and has to be modified according to peoples capacity.

I would have a very different approach now than when I first started. Just because you can’t do those postures it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do something that involves inversions or back bending.. especially with so many lower back issues, you may need to do more back bending. So, it makes no sense that an inability to achieve a certain proficiency in certain postures prevents you to practice others. We do whatever is appropriate to make your body – and your whole being – as healthy as possible. I have no time now at all for that kind of militant approach. There is no one way for everyone, it doesn’t make any sense, everyone needs something different. 

Sandra:

It’s what makes it Yoga Therapy after all. 

David:

Yes, exactly. 

Sandra:

What do you observe in your teachings, are the needs of the average student changing? We are living in different times now, we spend more time seated and immobile than ever, does it show in people’s physical issues? What do you notice?

David:

On a physical level, in the last 20 years I wouldn’t necessarily see a huge change. But what I would see that over that whole period, younger people are much stiffer then they used to be. If we had two people starting, one in their 50’s and one in their late 20’s or 30’s, certainly now we would find that usually the 50 year old would be more flexible than the younger one. Because of the largely sedentary working experience that people have, an awful lot of young people spend much of their day sitting in front of a computer. 

But actually what was much more interesting to me are the psychological differences. 

I think now, people are much more anxious, and have a lot more difficulties remembering things. There are also all sorts of other issues that impact their bodies, you have chronic stiffness and extreme levels of upper back and shoulder tension, tightness in the hips and hamstrings. 

And many people are runners as well and that impacts on the body. 

But in general, the sort of hypertonicity that we experience now has definitely increased and that’s becoming apparent at younger and younger ages. Their baseline is a much higher tension than it used to be. 

Sandra:

When you are talking about the mental aspect, the higher levels of anxiety, etc, do you think that we need to bring back some of the other aspects of Yoga more strongly, like pranayama, yoga philosophy, etc?

 David:

Absolutely, when we are teaching, particularly beginners, they often have no idea what Ashtanga Yoga is, and have no idea what the word Ashtanga Yoga means and if you only do the Vinyasa Krama, the physical sequences that were developed by Pathabi Jois and Krishnamacharya, you may still don’t know what Ashtanga Yoga is. 

But to answer your question, it’s absolutely vital. 

There has to be a balance between the physical postures, to work on the body, breathing exercises, to work on the nervous system and the mind, and meditation practices of some sort to help the intellectual stability to be reestablished. And more importantly than ever are the first two aspects of Ashtanga Yoga that are often completely ignored, the Yama and Niyama. Basically the behaviour, that is conducive to bringing a greater level of peacefulness and stability and cultivating lifestyle habits that are beneficial, like diet, sleep patterns, how much exercise to do and how to approach it – all of these things become vital. You can have someone practicing full primary series every day, thinking this is Ashtanga Yoga, but they never sit and meditate or breath properly, or reflect on themselves, look after their sleep, their nourishment, inquire into how does the rest of the day go? Then the superficial stuff can’t ever get deep, it stays superficial, remains a self delusion. 

That’s why the canon of practices exist – because we have to approach it from all these different angles: body, emotional mind and intellect. 

Sandra:

When I did the Heart of Yoga course with you, one of the things I thought really stood out about it was that you and Paula were bringing us right back to the source, the original resources of yoga – you were guiding us through reading the texts, the Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, and held discussions about them. It felt very relevant to me, I felt I was brought right into the Heart of Yoga and could understand it from there, not just from another teachers interpretation of it. 

How relevant do you think these old texts still are in our lives today? 

David: 

I think they are extremely relevant and extremely important. If we really are going to actually say that we are practicing yoga, we need to really understand what Yoga is, what does it mean, what is the purpose and what results should you expect. And all of that is very explicitly described in these texts. The key element is that the difficulties people face today are ultimately no different to the difficulties people have always faced. At it’s simplest, we have developed an addiction to pursuing what we think, what we believe in and what we think reality is, at all cost. 

We have a situation in life and we either like it and try to repeat it again and again, or we don’t like it and try to avoid it in future. And we live completely in this world of likes and dislikes, of running toward likes and from dislikes. We try to be happy by fulfilling our likes and avoiding our dislikes. But that means we spend all our time caught up in the cycle of thinking, of pursuing, of aversions and attachments, constant striving toward something. Always thinking that if things were different, I’d be happy. 

But Yoga teaches us that actually this thinking mind and emotional way of living is always doomed to failure. We experience something through our bodily senses and develop an emotional response to it and we think about how to either avoid it or achieve it. This is a life of activity, agitation, conflict and internal dialogue without peace, a constant stress. 

Yoga says if you look carefully, you’ll find that there is a place underneath all of that where the actual you sits and watches it all.  

The image I sometimes use is a swimming pool full of people. And everyone is splashing around. You’d love to sit on the bank and just be quiet but people are dragging you in and you get agitated, splashing about and you forget that you could just sit peacefully on the bank. Yoga reminds us that there is this other you, a quiet you that watches all of this, experiences all of the agitation, the feelings and thoughts and it watches all of it from this quiet place. 

From there you’ll find that you can act in a more peaceful way, your emotions don’t overwhelm you anymore and you’re not prisoner to your thoughts all the time. 

If we don’t have those teachings to remind us and explain it to us we might forget that this is even exists. 

The first thing the Yoga Sutra tells us that if you quieten the activity of the body, mind and intellect, you discover your self as you truly are. Your Svarupa, your own form. The Drashtu, the seer, or the soul, the self, the inner pure consciousness, or whatever terminology you want to use – you’ll find that it was always just in there, if we just quieten the activities of the mind. 

And when we do that, when we experience ourselves, we are never the same. We are always connected to that place of peacefulness and even when life gets difficult, we can always maintain a level of being anchored and secure and peaceful, even though the surface experience is turbulent.

The Yoga Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita talk exclusively about this – what the nature of the mind is, what the emotional tendencies are, why are we attached to things or averted to things. And if we start to look at ourself in this more objective way we discover that actually there would be different choices in life that would allow me to live more peacefully than I have been doing. 

At the end of last years course one student’s feedback was “I’ve been introduced to a new me, one that is separate from my thoughts and emotions, a real me.”

Sandra:

I agree with the experience of your student. I think it’s pretty life changing to involve yourself with these kind of teachings. 

David:

The Yoga Sutra talks about three aspects of the practice, three things we need to do: we need to purify our system as best as possible, through the way we live and our physical practices. 

And we need to study ourselves, to understand what is is to be human. That means self observation but also studying what has been talked about by people who experienced it at the deepest level, going to the richest sources available to us and those are the texts. 

And we need to learn to let go of anything that isn’t useful and to surrender the normal level of functioning, the ego centred mind, the ego centred emotions and perceptions and to realise that there is actually a better way to achieve happiness and that’s to not desire to get somewhere but learn to be happy wherever I am. 

These ideas are almost contrary to the way society tells us to live – buy this or that and you’ll be happy. Always striving for external things. But Yoga tells us that our deepest happiness lies within and has always been there and always will be there and all we have to do is find our way back to it and that’s where the texts point us to. And in terms of the physical practices, they are extremely beneficial, if we really follow the advise on how we should go about it. How can we avoid the pitfalls. If we don’t expose ourselves to that we never get the opportunity to appreciate and to learn it. 

Sandra:

Has the Heart of Yoga course changed much since you’ve started?

David:

Yes, it’s evolved in the last 15 years quite a lot. 

Sandra:

Since Paula completed her Ayurvedic practitioner diploma, have you introduced this aspect to the course more?

David:

Absolutely. Even from a simple level of nutrition and looking at how to live that is more conducive to balancing your dosha, Paula having this understanding now on a deeper level is fantastic, but also for us, because it changes us and we are able to work better on ourselves and hopefully be able to make our teachings that much clearer. So yes, absolutely, you can see how inextricably linked Yoga and Ayurveda are together. 

Sandra:

Absolutely. The deeper I got into Ayurveda over the last years the more I feel I actually understand Yoga much more now. 

David:

Absolutely

Sandra:

It all goes back to the original intentions of Yoga which I think have gotten lost quite a bit. Even though it’s great we have a lot of new scientific findings, modern teacher trainings seem to focus almost exclusively on modern anatomy,  which is a different intention then through the perception of the old Rishis. Through Ayurveda this original intention can be much better understood. 

David:

Even if you take the Vinyasa Krama Asana practice and think of someone with extreme Vata imbalance, a cold, dry body type, is pushing through a lot of quick movement, would be the wrong approach for that Dosha. Instead we need to understand how to balance it out and moderate it, making this particular body more oily and warm and then we can do so much more for that person rather than saying this is great, keep doing what you’re doing because just because you can. 

All you’re doing is aggravating Vata more, causing more problems. 

The maturing of our own understanding happens on all levels, not just asana but also through the practice of pranayama and ayurveda. 

Those things have really changed the emphasis on how to create a supportive practice. 

When you put all of these aspects – diet, herbs, asana, pranayama, etc. Together, you can treat the whole person. 

Our whole reason for being is to help people find a way to live that brings about the original conditions – that they be healthy, happy, clear of understanding of their own mind and nature and can live life with less suffering. These are the precepts on which Yoga is based. If we forget those we can get lost in a self referential, superficial practice. We miss out on the real benefits we could be getting. 

Sandra:

What expectations do you have of students coming to the course? Is there a particular level of practice they should have?

David:

The only requirement really is that they have an open heart and mind. 

There is no real prerequisite proficiency in asana. There is no prerequisite number of years of practice. 

I’ve just had a conversation with a student recently. He has only been practicing for a few months and, although he felt drawn to it, wasn’t sure if it was too soon to do the HoY course. I asked him, what is your desire? If your desire is in terms of understanding yourself or how to use yoga to the best of your ability to bring about health, happiness and well being, if that’s your interest then that’s as ready as you’ll ever be. Most people come into it without even understanding this, even with a longer physical practice. 

Even if you haven’t got that awareness but you have a feeling inside of a calling of Yoga, then I think that’s also a key element.

When we feel that call of Yoga, it’s really our own self calling to us. If we let ourselves be called then the world of inner awareness can open up to us. 

To do that you don’t need to put your legs behind your head or any other physical capacity. But it does require the courage and openness to look closely at what you are and accept what you are and drop into it fully and be exactly where you are now and say, it’s ok to be exactly as I am. 

Sandra:

Is there anything else you would like to say to people who are thinking about doing the course?

David:

I suppose really what we need is a childlike openness to explore ourselves. There is no right or wrong or stupid questions. 

The group you were in was a particularly strong one but usually it takes 2 or 3 weekends before people open up and I would really like people to feel that it’s a completely non judgemental, safe space, hopefully a fun one too, where we get to spend time looking into how to make life better for everyone. 

I’d like to imagine that people see ourselves (Paula and me) as passionate and as compassionate, but not as too serious and earnest. The teachings are profound, but also joyful and I’d like that to be remembered. 

Try to be easy and innocent in your exploration. We look openly and honestly and don’t judge ourselves. We let go of all that self criticism. 

Our true happiness lies in being conscious of ourselves (as opposed to the english, slightly negative connotation of self consciousness), being aware of ourselves, and ultimately our deepest self is the same for everyone and it is perfect. 

Sandra:

Can you tell us some practicalities about the course, when does it start, how much does it cost, etc?

David:

It takes place over 8 weekends over the year, four from February to May and four from September to December, usually the first weekend of the month. 

Costs are 1895 Euro. Right now we have about 5 spaces left. 

Each month we send out an email about what to read and prepare for the next one so that we can work from there. 

We usually start with some asana and anatomy to help to refine the physical practice. We have an asana practice, then we have a Satsang, where we sit and talk about the texts, a philosophy session, sometimes a bit of Yoga history through a movie we show, we do Pranayama, meditation and chanting, which is probably the most difficult for people but also one of the most beneficial practices. 

Sunday starts with Pranayama and Asana practice, some chanting, deep relaxation and meditation. 

It’s trying to expose us to the whys and hows of all of the limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, not just the physical, and so we bring in the lifestyle and diet and behaviour and attitudes, that come up in the discussions about the Yoga Sutra that make us some more fully rounded human beings. 

For more information about the Heart of Yoga course, go to http://www.ashtanga.ie and contact David or Paula.

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Chai and Cinnamon Stars

Every friday, after the 10am class, and after every Yin Yoga class, we sit for a precious little while and share some Chai. And each and every time someone asks me for the recipe. So – finally, as promised – here it is!

Slice about 1 inch of fresh Ginger thinly

Crush about 10 cardamon pods

Add them to a pot of water (about the amount of a large teapot)

Add 4 – 5 cloves

Add 1 teaspoon cinnamon.

If you like, experiment a little – fennel seeds, black pepper corns, aniseed will also work well.

Bring it to boil, then turn the heat off.

Add the content of 3 teabags, or – if you want to avoid black tea – try some lemon balm or roibush instead.

Let it steep for a while, then strain and add milk (about 3 parts water, 1 part milk) – any milk is good (I love Oatmilk, but you can use Almond, Coconut, Cowsmilk, Goats milk….)

If you like it sweet, add some coconut sugar or jaggery or whole cane sugar.

This makes a really nice after lunch drink – with the warming, digestive spices helping to stir up you digestive fire – or a relaxing afternoon to share with friends or family, maybe accompanied by a freshly made christmas cookie – or three, perfect to celebrate the dark time of the year, when the nights are long, the days are cold and wet and the christmas preparations are in full swing.

During this time it is all too easy sometimes to let ourselves get swept away with the tide of consumerism and stress in the weeks and days leading up to the biggest celebration of the year

but let‘s remember for just a moment that we are each of us free to choose. We have the power to decide what part of the tradition we like and which part are in need of revision.

There are so many ways christmas can be celebrated without it becoming a crazy, earth polluting, debt creating, health devastating rush into utter madness.

Personally – I love christmas. I have many fond childhood memories of spending the whole month of December making christmas cookies, decorations, gifts and music. I have not been brought up in a religious house hold and have never been to church during my childhood but christmas was always one of the best times of the year, celebrating love, family, winter, darkness and all the magic that comes with it.

Every weekend we would make hundreds of christmas cookies which, in German tradition, are kept on hand for any visitor who comes to the door, from our best friends and neighbours to the post man and bin collectors.

I remember aunts and grandmothers competing with each other for the sheer amount and variety of cookies, which they displayed on a plate in the middle of the table, free for anyone to take.

There were jam filled cookies, chocolate covered ones, elaborately stacked wafer constructions, macaroons, aniseed bisquits, gingerbread and of course the very traditional Zimtsterne (Cinnamon Stars), which are probably my favorites of them all to this day.

They also happen to be very easy to prepare, are gluten free, dairy free, and can very easily be made vegan without any change to taste or consistency.

Kids are always happy to help too!

So, if you‘re mouth is watering by now, here is the recipe, have fun making them!

Cinnamon Stars

400 g Hazelnuts or Almonds or a mix of both (walnuts can be added too), ground

250 g Coconut Sugar or Whole Cane Sugar (or any other sugar you like)

3 Egg White (or the juice from 1 can of chickpeas)

2 tsp cinnamon

Some powdered sugar for the glaze

Preheat the oven to 140 degrees

Beat the eggwhite or Aquafaba (Chickpea juice) until it forms a peak

Mix nuts, cinnamon and sugar

Add the egg white or Aquafaba but leave some for the glaze (add enough to make a dough that is not too sticky to be rolled out)

Roll out the dough and cut out stars (or any other shapes) and place them on a greased baking sheet (or line with baking paper)

Mix the remaining eggwhite with powdered sugar until it is quite thick but still a bit runny

Cover the stars with the glaze

Bake for 25 min.

The amount will fill a large cookie tin.

They make great gifts (put in decorated jars) but you might just want to keep them for yourself – they go really well with some delicious hot chai 🙂

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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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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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