Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Why Balance

When you think of “balance” do you think of the ever present questions of how to balance work and life, and self and family or do you think of a physical state of being – balancing perhaps on one leg, on a tight rope, or even on your hands?  Or is it that given the daily acrobatics you may go through each day to try to balance your life you think of them as one in the same.

If you think of them as one in the same you are in good company.  In yoga we often practice balance poses precisely for this reason – as an expression of the equilibrium we seek in our lives.  The most famous balance pose in yoga is, of course, the tree, a pose in which one leg is drawn up on the thigh and we balance on the other.  For some students and even for some long time practitioners this is enormously difficult.  And for good reason.  The attributes of successful physical balance include strength and flexibility, concentration and mindfulness, alignment and a sense of center and an ability to adjust moment by moment to the environment.  More then any other set of yoga poses balance demands our total attention but in return it begins to settle the mind and open us to the idea of equilibrium.  Eventually the alignment, strength and attention we bring to the simple act of balancing on one leg expands and we realize it is exactly these qualities we need if we are to balance the other challenges in our life.

Just as there are lessons to be learnt from the act of balancing so there are lessons about falling off balance that we can practice through our yoga.  The instant we loose focus in tree position is the instant we fall out of balance but often instead of acknowledging this as a lapse of attention we see it as a personal failure and humiliation.  In a yoga class, when we fall in public the sense of lose of control is heightened but we need to remember that falling out of tree pose involves no pain and no risk and that it is again a metaphor for how we can react to lose of control in life.  In tree position we need simply to place the foot down then try again, without judgment or emotional attachment.  The same applies to life.  If we keep coming back to our center and accepting our falls as inevitable we will eventually find the acceptance required to just keep on trying.

So why balance on a yoga mat?  Because we must balance in life and the skills we practice on the mat will help us reorganize and regroup and to eventually find the relaxation deep inside our bodies to balance in the present set of circumstances.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Are you breathing

OK, yes, of course you are, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this blog, but how is your breathing?  Try this: place a hand on your chest and inhale through the nose.  Feel the chest rising?  Now move the hand down to the stomach.  If you are breathing in the best way for your body, that should rise too as you inhale.  For many of us, however, we have become shallow chest breathers. We all start life as deep abdominal breathers (watch the stomach of a baby rising and falling as he slumbers).  But as we get older we encounter stress and our posture weakens.  As a consequence we breathe more into our chests, without fully filling up our lungs.

The teaching of good breathing is pivotal in yoga.  In a yoga class, once slow, deep, steady breathing is established, students are taught to combine breath with movement, with the breath initiating the movement. For example, on the start of an inhale, we open the arms to the side and raise them towards the sky, and on the start of the next exhale, we fold the upper body at the hips to come into a forward bend.  Once in a posture, students are encouraged to focus on breathing deeply and smoothly, usually for five breaths, and to visualise the inbreath filling the upper body.  Several effects ensue:  most importantly, a strong internal focus develops, which results in a profound sense of calm, a feeling of being grounded, and a one-mindedness when holding stamina-demanding poses; a deep sense of body-awareness is developed, which over time accompanies you throughout your day; the muscles are enticed to relax, enabling stretches to deepen subtly.

There are a multitude of health benefits to gain from better breathing.  Lung function improves because oxygen is brought right down to the lower part of the lungs which is a particularly blood-rich area.  There is a greater exchange of fresh oxygen for gaseous waste, so oxygenation of the cells in the entire body is increased.  Physical endurance is improved.  And, of course, deep, slow, breaths have a profoundly calming effect.  They can move our nervous system from the state of ‘fight-or-flight’ to the calming and restorative state of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).  The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) – the state of ‘fight-or-flight’ - increases blood pressure and moves circulation away from the internal organs to the major muscles in our limbs in order to prepare our body to flee from danger, and at the same time releases potentially harmful stress hormones. The PNS, on the other hand, causes blood pressure to lower and the cardiovascular circulatory system to work more efficiently.  In the modern world, where we are bombarded constantly with perceived threats, our nervous system is over-burdened as the SNS is triggered repeatedly through the day. Learning to kick in the PNS is a valuable tool for our cardiovascular health and general well-being.

Yoga does not just teach better breathing directly, but indirectly also by teaching good posture.   Our posture profoundly affects our breathing ability.  By rolling back and broadening the shoulders, and by strengthening our core muscles so we can stand and sit more erect, we free up space in our torso. We give our lungs more room to expand, and the diaphragm more space to move down on the inhale.

Better breathing and attention to posture do not just stop at the class door!  Regular yoga practice will teach you to take this awareness with you throughout your day, developing over time a stronger and healthier body.

By Megan Hare.  

 Megan is a yoga teacher at Yama Yoga Studios in Doha.  See www.yamayogastudios.com for information about her classes.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Forehead to the Floor

Across our many cultures there are some gestures that need no translation. The open arms of welcome, the embrace of fellowship and love, a woman’s swinging hips – these gestures and movements evoke a meaning that is immediately felt and understood by all.  Another of these cross-cultural gestures is the act of bringing our forehead to the floor.  Bringing our forehead to the floor is an age old gesture of respect and devotion.   We bring our forehead to the floor in prayer and in humility.  We use it to salute our god, our king, our guru or master.  When the emotion is real, when we do revere and trust our god or master, there is a peace that can come from this submission and it is this feeling of peace that is the essential aspect of my favorite yoga pose, the child. 

The child is, for most, a very easy pose.  To take the pose we simply kneel on the floor
then forward bend to bring our forehead to the floor.  Our arms relax along side our bodies, our buttocks rest on our heels and we sink into the ease, comfort and peace that this pose can offer.  For some there will be difficulties but these can be easily mediated by props.  If the knees are painful we keep them open or place a rolled towel between the thighs and calves.  If the ankles hurt we pad below them.  If the forehead does not easily reach the floor we simply build up pillows in front of us until we can relax the neck and release the head.  It is important to be able to rest the neck because for the pose to be successful you should stay in it for a while.  I also believe that it is this touching of the forehead to the floor (or some approximation of it) that taps us into the archetypal power of this position.   

And yes there are physical benefits too.  As a forward bend it stretches and releases the spine without involving our sometimes tight hamstrings.  It is also the ideal pose to take if you have a tension headache.  Yoga is best as a preventative program for headaches but there are a few restorative poses, including child, which will help when you already have one.  If you have a headache I would recommend that you take the child pose and then put one fist on top of the other and place your forehead on your fists and gentle gently rock your head from side to side. As you breathe give yourself over and trust that headache will pass.  Do not strive to make anything change. Just let go and watch the breathe and try to relax.

With or without a headache Child is a pose for rest and rejuvenation and acceptance.  .  Physically, emotionally and spiritually it is a physical enactment of humility and acceptance.  Try it – bring your forehead to the floor and wait.  The pose will bring on the prayer if the prayer doesn’t bring on the pose. 

Previously published in Women Today

Monday, January 3, 2011

Why warrior

To many people it seems strange that yoga with its emphasis on peace , non violence and stress reduction would have as one of its central poses a pose called warrior.  And yet it is true.  Warrior is one of the most fundamental of all the yoga poses and if you practice forms such as power yoga or flow yoga you will find yourself coming back to this very challenging pose again and again and again. 
Warrior actually refers to three different poses, warrior A, B and C, which can be practiced separately or together.  They are all dynamic and heat producing and when practiced correctly they open the hips, strengthen the legs and warm the body up for a deeper practice.  In addition Warrior A can introduce suppleness into the lower back, Warrior B can develop long lean muscles in the arms and warrior C can give you the classic yoga butt.  But more then these physical benefits the warrior poses give you strength and confidence on an emotional level.  Just as the physical act of smiling can make you happy the physical act of taking this pose can make you feel like a warrior who simply can not and will not be defeated. As mothers, daughters, sisters and wives we all know that there are battles that we must fight and must win for the sake of our loved ones so the opportunity to experience our inner strength through yoga is important.  But the real warrior that the name evokes is not the one that defends her family.  It is actually the classical spiritual warrior at war with the demons and urges within.  Seen like this the yoga mat is our battlefield, the practice our battle and the enemy to be conquered ourselves.  In most cases the fiercest enemy is the chattering mind and the powerful breath demanded by warrior will help to still it – but each of us have our own inner enemy and the battle is different for us all. The spoils of our war though are the same.  A practice built on warrior poses results in a deep and peaceful relaxation and a strong sense of self worth, self confidence and inner well being.  So choose a fight and take the warrior stance – hold it for as long as you can.

Previously Published in Women Today