breathing

The importance of breath

Inhale…

I still remember the gorgeous, sensual, sun-kissed Californian girl teaching a Vinyasa class during my trip to Indonesia back in 2013. She went completely overboard by almost moaning the words ‘inhale’ and ‘exhale’ for every in- and exhalation we took during that class. For me, it seemed really overdone to put that much emphasis on something we are used to do automatically already.

Little did I know…

As a kid, I always felt short of breath. I felt like a part of my trachea was blocked, which restrained me from breathing in fully. While exercising, my body somehow decided to not breathe at al, so whenever I was running, playing field hockey or when I was dancing, I had to stop often because I was close to hyperventilating. After multiple examinations in the hospital, doctors prescribed me with several types of asthma medication, even though my lungs seemed healthy and my lung capacity was perfectly fine. As you can figure, the medication did not make any difference at all.

Only a couple of years later, another doctor looked more closely into the way I was breathing. She noticed that my breath was way too high and that my belly was moving inwards while inhaling and outwards while exhaling. She helped me to become aware of my breath with the use of several exercises. She managed to deepen my breath and got my natural breathing to a healthy level. It is interesting, to say at the least: something that we are supposed to do so intuitively – one of the first things we do when we are born into this world – was actually really hard for me to do in a relaxed and natural way.

While my way of breathing had improved by this, I still always felt short of breath when dealing with stressful situations. I felt like my breath was stuck in my chest and tried everything to elongate the breath to a deeper level, forcefully using my neck and chest muscles. Clearly, no improvements were made by these attempts; it only invited more stress into my body.

In the fall of 2015, after a couple of years of practicing different styles of yoga, I discovered the Astanga Vinyasa practice. Every inhalation and exhalation was not only counted, which was new for me, but also manipulated with the help of a breathing technique called Ujjayi breathing. By slightly contracting your glottis, you make a hissing sound, which allows you to breath more evenly. It also calms down your nervous system, heats up your body and helps you to stay focused on your breathing properly. There was no escape, no space to distract myself and think of anything other than my inhalation and exhalation and the following movements. It was a big liberation for me.

And when you come to think about it… Our breathing has such a great impact on our lives. Just look at the metaphorical influence of breathing on our language: we heave a sigh of relieve when we hear we passed an important exam, we hold our breath when we are at the edge of our seat watching a scary movie and our breath gets taken away when we suddenly bump into the person we secretly have crush on. Our reactions to situations in life influence our breathing unconsciously, that is for sure.

But what if vice versa, we were able to use the breath to influence the quality of our lives? What if the breath could help us to remain calm and neutral in stressful situations and to tame our wild monkey mind that always seduces and distracts us? It is possible…

By getting more in touch with our way of breathing, we can become more aware of the influence of it and even start using our breath to improve the quality and longevity of our lives. The breath then becomes a vehicle to turn our awareness inwards, where we can notice and give space to the ripples on the surface of our being. For me, both Astanga yoga and Pranayama have made a big difference in becoming attentive to this fact. I finally can breathe freely now.

…and exhale…

Baddha Konasana: Moments of Surrender

My whole life people has called me a butterfly:  Impossible to hold onto; whatever happens she will always fly her own way.

I got introduced to Baddha Konasana as Butterfly posture and never had a moment of not enjoying it. I started with stiffness, a back that would not lengthen forward,not even a tiny bit. The feeling of opening my hips in this posture gave me such a sensation, a feeling to just surrender and be. When my back was stiff i would round my spine and stay in this posture at least five minutes. Just breathing and enjoying it.

After two years of practice i discovered ashtanga, lucky for me baddha konasana was still in the sequence but could only hold it five breaths and had to practice it with a straight spine. I felt  a different dimension in the asana. Reaching forward i couldn’t surrender like before, but i felt more connected to my whole body.

Kamal’s adjustments in my butterfly made me feel the asana very strong. Every time in Mysore class i stayed longer in baddha konasana just so i would get adjusted. The last time Kamal adjusted me i asked him to let me go deeper. Until the moment he said: There is no more!

So Baddha Konasana is my first complete asana in primary series of ashtanga 🙂 From different perspectives a very special asana for me ❤

Ashtanga…
My practice. My dedication.
Everytime i get on my mat
A new journey is waiting on my path.
I could never imagine that body movement could go so intensely deep
Like a surreal reality with lifelessons to keep.
The mind is strong and some days
 it makes me doubt.
When im alone in my room.
My lazyness shouts
But i just observe and practice anyway,
I know the positivity that follows
Throughout the whole day.
The practice is on its best when mind dissapears.
Only dristi and breath remain,
Everything gets blurry and fades away.
Some strong energy overtakes.
Sometimes i dont feel like the practitioner is me…
The body gets so light
Like its on his own flight.
Yes ashtanga.
Something magical that came recently into my life, i feel so grateful.
Happy and alive!

Keep Calm and Carry Om

I have been practising yoga for a number of years now. Yoga has been a comfort for me in difficult times and has allowed me to find softness within my mind and body. From a very early age, I learn to be strong, to keep calm and carry on and find peaceful  resolutions to conflict. Yoga seemed so natural to me. Yoga allowed me to find balance.

I first travelled to Rishikesh in 2011. I had quit my job as a producer for an advertising agency and decided to retain as a yoga teacher, however, i felt ill-equipped to teach. I decided to take some time out and travel to India, the spiritual home of yoga. I had been planning my first trip for a while. I was to start in Rishikesh and travel around India. My friend Alpesh had helped me plan my journey and was excited for me to be taking my new lifestyle so seriously.

I arrived in India in Autumn 2011 and was picked up by taxi and driven the 7 hours to Rishikesh. When I arrived and plugged my phone in I was given the devastating news that my friend Alpesh had passed away due to complications with Sickle Cell Anemia. I had only seen him 48 hours before. I was floored, I was helpless and I was alone. My visa didn’t allow me to exit India and re-enter for 28 days. I had to make the difficult decision to stay in India and miss his funeral. I spoke to his wife and she assured me that it is what he would have wanted.

The first 3 days I didn’t leave my hotel room, I sat on the balcony and took in the sights and sounds of Rishikesh from a safe distance. I eventually left my room and searched for a yoga class. As I said yoga has always helped me in difficult times. I wandered the streets of Rishikesh and came across a small yoga shala on top of a hotel run by a teacher called Yogi Kamal Singh.

Kamal was the teacher I needed in this difficult time. He was energetic, commanding, graceful and most of all he had a glimmer in his eye that reminded me of my playful friend Pesh. I continued to do classes with Kamal night and day for five days. On the fifth day, I was walking down to the Ganga and slipped into a pot hole and broke my foot. I could no longer continue practising with him. I had always vowed to return to learn more for this enigmatic teacher.

I am 42 now and call it a mid-life crisis, a breakdown or a spiritual calling I find myself returning to Rishikesh once more. The last seven years have been the toughest of my life. I have been lost since returning back to the UK. I had started a new career as a yoga teacher. I was working incredibly hard to pay for my a house. I was working sometimes 26 classes a week. My classes were full and I was a respected yoga teacher in my hometown. Something was missing, though, I had lost yoga. I had become a victim of my own success and had stopped practicing apart from a quick warm up to keep my body supple.

Last year whilst trying to short cut a practice I injured myself which meant that practicing had become painful when chest opening. I hated myself for it and true to form I continued to keep going and work harder. I finally crashed at the end of 2016 and decided that I needed to make some changes in my life. I was thinking about going to Thailand for some time out to sit on a beach and get some perspective.

In February of this year, a student asked me where to go in Rishikesh. Straight the way I said he should seek out Kamal at the Tattva Yoga Shala. Then it hit me, I needed to go back to finish what I started. Ashtanga yoga had always appealed to me because it wasn’t just Asana it was a system, a system that made sense to me.

I immediately booked the 500 hours teacher training at Tattvaa Yoga Shala. My friends and family thought that I was mad as I already had a 500 hour TTC but to me it made sense. Hopefully, I could put the past seven years behind me and use the ashtanga system to help heal the years of self-abuse and trauma.

I arrived back in Rishikesh in Spring 2017. Rishikesh had changed, it felt more commercial. Kamal’s picture was on posters and banners all over Ram Jhula. The following day I attended the orientation meeting at the Gita ashram. From a class of around 15 in 2011, there was now over 50 in this class.

This time round I knew not to take anything for granted. India always has a way of throwing a curve ball at you. I had learned not to expect anything and to go with the flow. I have to be honest and say that I was disappointed.

I had signed up thinking that I was going to spend 8 weeks practicing and learning from Kamal. This is still the case but this time I had to share him with 53 other people most of whom were new to ashtanga. That meant starting again at the very bottom of the ladder.

I am now in my second week of an 8-week course and I am struggling both physically and mentally. My injury in my chest isn’t allowing me to backbend and I am finding twisting really difficult. In yoga backbends are heart openers allowing you to release stored emotional wounds and allowing you to connect deeply to the source of all life, the breath. I can’t breathe.

I am suffocating with the amount of people in the class. We sit down, legs crossed, for at least half the day. I find it difficult to sit up straight. I am broken. I find it difficult to have absolute beginners doing traditional Indian yoga adjustments on me. I find it too painful. I find it physically painful but I also find it emotionally painful. I have done this already and feel that I am going backwards. I keep thinking of the very first limb of Yoga; Ahimsa. Ahimsa means non-harm. Am I harming myself by being here? Am I harming myself by continually doubting my myself?

Rishikesh is also opening my emotional wounds, I am finding it difficult to open up. My heart is heavy, there is no room for compassion and no room for the pranic winds of change. Everyday I wake up wanting to run. I revert to source. Keep Calm and carry on. I am tired of everything being so hard. I can not sit and meditate because I have to sit with anger and frustration and I feel like I am going to explode.

 

I keep remembering the mantra I was given my a Vedic Astrologer the last time I was here;

Om Namah Shivaya

This means I bow to Shiva or I bow to my inner self. Shiva is the god of destruction, he makes ways for the new.

To be continued……

yoga teacher training rishikesh

What the hell am I doing here?

This was the first question I was asked on the first day at Tattvaa Yoga Teacher Training Certification (YTTC) course. It resonated very much with me and raised other questions within me: Who am I? Am I the corporate executive who just quit the job, a mother, a daughter or partner? These were the questions dwelling on my mind at the beginning of the course which we were encouraged to explore during the program.

I chose the YTTC because I wanted to do it sometime ago and never found the time. Now, that I have the time this was the first thing I scheduled in my calendar. I chose Tattvaa Yogashala Rishikesh India through extensive research and intuition and it turned out it was one of the best decisions in my life.

When I came to Rishikesh I wanted most of all to put some distance on my life events and time to reflect. I wanted clarity of mind and help with the major transformation in my life. What I found is 6 wonderful teachers and yogis whose lives were dedicated to us – the students.

The rigorous, disciplined boot camp type of schedule with asana classes starting at 6:30am and ending with meditation at 9pm didn’t allow much time for thinking. We were reminded all the time to be in the moment – ‘if you eat– you eat, if you sleep – you sleep that’s what a yogi does’ Kamalji, the founder of the school used to say. He also mentioned that Nike’s slogan ‘just do it’ doesn’t apply to yoga. We need to be mindful and aware of the mind, body and breath in all what we do.

So between struggling at asana practice, getting dizzy at pranayama, I found my favourite subjects – yoga philosophy and yoga nidra. Yoga philosophy taught by Swamiji and Sunilji was close to home. It dealt with questions humanity and I have been trying to understand: What is happiness? What is mind? How to still the monkey mind? Thru lively stories, references to Kung Fu Panda movies and Yoga Sutras texts I was captivated in the world of yoga. There I came to understand that Ashtanga stands for ‘Eight limbs of Yoga’ which correspond to eight steps to achieve enlightenment. Asanas, what most of the Western world know of are only one of the eight steps in achieving the final goal.

I was relieved when I understood that I am not totally doomed if I cannot wrap my legs around my head or do other posture. It is all about practice and awareness of NOW. Actually, all the asanas, meditation and pranayama have the end goal to still the mind and eventually transcend the mind. After day 4 when I actually wanted to quit and made a pact with my mind that I would go with the flow and give my best, I started to enjoy the morning practice and celebrated every small achievement and extra inch I was able to stretch.

One other thing that was emphasized during the month long program was to ‘mind our own business’ as Sunilji used to say. In other words, yoga is about self-awareness and internal discovery. It is a very good reminder as in reality most of the time we are externally oriented focused on what the others are saying or doing.

How about my thinking? I went there to think what is next in my life…Well, I’ve learned that the real thinking comes when the mind is quiet. Also, I was reminded that all things come according to their own time and order. No need to worry – the right things will come at the right time. So for now, I am enjoying my break, exploring new ways to enrich my life and those around me. I am passionate about inspiring and motivating people and helping them to reach their highest potential.

With the Tattvaa TTC I received the toolkit for rediscovering myself, my awesomeness and appreciation for the Universe life and force. I look forward going back spending more time in this oasis of spirituality where chants, ashrams and bells transcend time and space.

Here is mine :) May be a bit Random, but 100 % Authentic. Love and Light: Aila

What the hell am I doing here..?

That is the question I hear Sunil repeat time to time while giving us the philosophy lecture, and quite frankly, I have been asking that several times during the three weeks I have been in India. It started when I was at the New Delhi airport, waiting three hours for the guy who was supposed to pick me up, not really wanting to leave the safety of the airport which seemed like my final link to my comfort zone. But eight hours later I was in the room that was supposed to be my home for the next three weeks, feeling cold and alone. I didn´t know the wifi password so I didn´t have any connection to the world as I had known before.

But I had made a commitment, which I later realized was my sankalpa: I would have an open heart and an open mind and take whatever I was given with open arms. I would attend everything 100 % even when I didn´t feel like and my legs would be tired of sitting on the floor in a meditative posture and see where it would lead. I would let someone else decide when I wake up, what I eat, when I do my intestinal cleansing and even when I breath in and out. And now, sitting in the same room three weeks later I can reassure it has been all worth it.

The reason I came to India might be kind of a western cliché: I got burnt out at my job, rehabilitated myself with yoga and realized I want to do something more with my life than work for the Swedish state. I attended a TTC in Sweden which only raised more questions about the union which is supposed to happen in yoga. A union with what, and how do I reach that? Is it even possible? Can I really teach yoga if I don´t understand the meaning of yoga? So I decided to make an effort to go closer to the source and found myself chanting mantras, doing pranayama and practicing yoga nidra which I knew was ”yogic sleep”, but what the hell is that really?

A week later I found myself being content in a somewhat new way: I didn´t really miss anything. Chanting made me calm and I enjoyed walking to the shala 6 am to do the morning ashtanga and pranayama practice. I was constantly busy but I didn´t feel I needed more time, a washing machine, the internet or even coffee.

Today I have done the final exam and realized I was in a somewhat new situation: I don´t really have to spend every free moment studying the Baghvad Gita or the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (or memorizing asana names or practicing how to teach) and there is no evening meditation to attend.

So the next question is, what the hell am I going to do in Sweden? Will everything be the same? Am I going to stress to my job every morning, forget to breath, drink too much coffee and lose the feeling of contentment? Get caught up in all the so called demands of having a title, an apartment or as we say in Sweden: a Volvo, a dog and an house?

That is the real question. Sunil also says that during these three weeks we invest, our bodies are aching, we are confused of everything, we cleanse our body and our mind. We do pranayama and meditation, but we only get the effects of it all later. And there is no use of cleansing unless we keep our body and mind clean even afterwards. You don´t clean your home just in order to throw some dirt in it directly afterwards. So the real sadhana begins after India and it is not going to be easy. It is diffucult to combine our jobs with yoga, pranayama, meditation. It is hard to apply all of the yamas and niyamas in real life. But it would be stupid to do all of these things for a few weeks just so that I can go back to my old routines: after all I was I snowball that needed to be shaken so some of the snowflakes would fall of and I would reach closer to the core and see things for what they are.

I would advise anyone who needs to be shaken a bit to come here. But I would also say that you need two things: to know what the hell you are doing here and make it your sankalpa to be open to whatever you´re thrown at and take it with open arms. Give cleansing a chance and then you will know.

Golden advice from the Tattvaa Yogashala founder & friends

We have collected some feedback just for you! Hear the experiences and advice first hand from the staff at Tattvaa Yogashala both past and present volunteers and Kamal ji himself. What you must know is once you have been welcomed into the Tattvaa home; you will always be a part of the ever growing worldwide family. The doors are always open; all you have to do is ask to come inside. If you’ve ever completed a TTC or just spent time at the drop in classes you would definitely have felt the infectious energy Kamal Singh transcends to all his students. Here are a few of those people’s perspectives after volunteering, assisting or participating in a teacher training program at Tattvaa Yogashala.

 

Yogi Kamal Singh – Founder of Tattvaa Yogashala, Rishikesh.  – “Enjoy every Breath you take and every movement you make.  Be Here Now and prepared, Rest will come to you.”

 

Sunil Sharma – Rishikesh. “Sit quietly and breathe. All is well when you stop doing and allow yourself to experience.”

 

Poleg Baum, Israel. “If you can, stay in Rishikesh. Explore and evolve your practice”.

 

Neha Rawat, Rishikesh.  “Get confident first. Keep practicing every day before you begin to teach.”

 

Alena Charow, London. “Always do your practice. To remember we are always all students. To practice the yamas and niyamas. And to always have compassion. Practice, practice all is coming.”

 

Priya Negi, Rishikesh. “Practice, practice, practice. Don’t stop the flow. Again come back to Rishikesh whenever you can, seeya!”

 

Nicole Lamb, Australia. “Take your time. Don’t rush your practice or your teachings. All will come naturally and organically. Trust the process and follow your intuition”.

 

Nacho Kaleta, Spain. “They have to be honest within themselves to be able to teach. Teach what you know is right and safe but teach anyway. You’ve learnt a tool which may help others lives. It is your must to share it even if it is only Surya Namaskar”.

 

Oliver Klein,Germany.  “Those who really want to teach, I would tell them that they first have to understand why we are doing each posture and only then it makes sense to teach. If they understand the posture, only then they can show and teach it and then, find your own style of teaching. Also interesting would be to practice with some authorized teacher by PJ.”

 

Deepak Nautiyal, Rishikesh. “Teach from your heart. Whatever you are doing be present and confident”.

 

Gau Monko, Astana, Kazakhstan. “Practice your teaching right after the completion of your course. When all the knowledge is fresh in your head, your hands remember the adjustments and you still feel the supporting energy of your teacher along with their guiding voice in your mind. Make mistakes, it will allow you to learn from them and grow.”

So you want to complete your Yoga Teacher Training Course (TTC) in India?

It’s 2017 and the world is definitely not short of Yoga instructors or teacher training courses, that’s for sure. So where does one begin to look when exploring the wide world of Yoga. Firstly ask yourself this; if you were interested in learning Traditional Chinese dance, would you visit Australia to take a course? Seems a little disconnected right? Perhaps it makes more sense to journey to the heart of Yoga, the spiritual magnet, the Motherland herself – Rishikesh, INDIA.

Ok, so Rishikesh sounds wonderful. You’ve done some research and you’re mesmerized at the sight of the city at the foothills of the Himalayas and right beside the holy Gange River. The next question is how do you find the right school for you? Now days it’s easy to jump straight onto Google and search “Best yoga schools for TTC in India” that’s definitely going to give you several options. Or perhaps you can take the gamble like the good old days. Book your one-way ticket, pack your bags and embrace the process of the Yogic journey to truly begin before you even leave your home country. Show up open minded, take a few different classes, ask around and see what best fits for you and your needs on your personal journey, keeping in mind everyone’s different.

If you’re sneaking away from work for a short period of time and only planning a small stay in Rishikesh without the luxury to explore before your course, don’t fear! In Rishikesh you will find many schools offering short courses. Those who have flashy websites and appealing prices may not be the best choice for you, be smart and read people’s feedback, their experiences and follow your intuition (that’s the key). Now, you’ve visited a few schools but the question still stands what school to commit to? Although Yoga is Yoga and you will gain experience and knowledge wherever you decide, there are so many “types” of Yoga nowadays so be sure to research what you’re getting yourself into. Ask yourself, why am I embarking on this teaching journey? There are many reasons why people decide to dive into a TTC. Some people in your course will have never practiced Yoga in their lifetime yet some will be experienced practitioners. If you are considering a career change and think that a 200hour course will guarantee you the qualifications and ticket to teach, I hate to burst your bubble, it’s not that easy. Teaching requires time and experience. Understanding what you are teaching is the first step so be sure to really connect with your practice and understand the way in which your body, soul and mind work before choosing a course.

There are many courses available to choose from in Rishikesh alone. Each week there is a new influx of foreigners coming to take a teacher training course. For those interested in a very internal practice maybe Yin Yoga is for you? Interested in more of a powerful practice, perhaps Ashtanga is the way to go? Are you intrigued by a traditional format, Hatha could work best for you. Ultimately the choice is yours and all will be beneficial in the long run but take time to research before you find yourself knee deep in back bends. It’s like going to a new hairdresser… you kind of want to see a haircut before you let the scissors get close to your head. Research and experience the teachers offering the courses, feel a connection with your teacher, after all you will become a protégé of their works… Goodluck!

10 Tips for Yoga Instructors

It’s important that the worldwide Yoga community stick together right? It doesn’t matter where you come from in the world, when you branch out after a yoga teacher training course we generally all experience similar speed bumps on our long winding Yoga road. So, I’ve laid out 10 tips from personal experience in hopes that it may inspire/benefit your practice and/or your teachings.

  1. Before you even begin, know what road you are embarking on. In order to be a teacher one must have experience and knowledge. Nothing worse than getting out smarted by your students! Be sure you are ready before diving in.
  1. Always without fail take 10 -20 minutes prior to your class to centre yourself. Breathe and prepare your mind. Your students will feel your energy as you enter the space and be thankful you are clear and calm.
  1. Remember, your students will always be teaching you even when you least expect it, keep your eyes and mind open at all times.
  1. Teaching is an important responsibility. Lead by example and practice what you preach at all times. Be impeccable to your word.
  1. Never forget why you started in the first place and how it felt in your first few weeks. Especially when you have new students in your classes. There is so much to take in, be gentle.
  1. Focus on your own practice, all of it. Your breath, the food you consume, your actions, your words, and the people you associate with. Your students will unintentionally follow your every move, play your cards right and you’ll create a winning hand.
  1. Remember to feed your own practice/skill set. Go out and grow! Take peoples classes, experience all that you can. Both you and your students will truly benefit from it.
  1. Upon finishing teacher training courses try not to focus on quantity over quality of your students/classes. Take it one step at a time, persistence and patience will allow your classes to grow organically, don’t force it!
  1. Life isn’t so serious. Neither is Yoga. Take each class with a grain of salt, learn and experience and if you make mistakes? Own them and grow from them.
  1. Last but certainly not least give thanks wherever you are in the world, EVERY CLASS. The land you practice upon, yourself and you Guru’s who have guided you.

YOGA, TAO & MENSTRUATIONS

 

Hmmm, yes. Yoga and Tao and periods. Sounds quite ambitious to treat, isn’t it? Menstrual blood in itself already seems to create immediate oceans of confusion, silence, veneration and sometimes disgust, which all vary according to cultures, countries, time period, age, personal perceptions – and an extra dose of very complex and subjective parameters that would probably be endless to list.

Therefore, here comes a warning. This article won’t work as an instruction of things that you should or shouldn’t do when you are on your periods. Every woman experiences menstruation differently and in fact, even each cycle is different according to the months. To acknowledge and respect this special time doesn’t mean going through the same routine every month or following the same advices scrupulously. It’s rather a good occasion – and maybe the best! – to listen to your body more closely and give it what it needs more whole heartedly. It is my hope this article can help you what works best for you.

The traditionalists

In traditional Hindu philosophy including yoga, many references are made to Prāna – this cosmic force that permeates through all living and non living things – and its 5 subdivisions, the 5 ‘vāyus’ or winds. One of these 5 winds is said to be a downward flow or force called ‘apāna vāyu’, responsible for the elimination of waste inside the body through the lungs and bowel movements.

For yoga traditionalists, menstruations are a part of this natural ‘apāna vāyu’ flow and one should not be restrict it while doing yoga not to create unbalances in the body. According to some Ashtangi practitioners strictly following K. Pattabi Jois words, women should not even practice at all as long as they are bleeding.

However, that’s for the purity of the tradition. And Yogic tradition, let’s not forget it, often goes with male perspective. Even Pattabi Jois’s daughter, Saraswathi Rangaswami who still teaches at his father’s shala in Mysore, is less rigid. In an interview given in 2007, she advises female Ashtangis not to practice during the first 3 days of the menstruation process, especially if they have pain or bleed a lot. The body is in need for rest and asking to slow down, whether on the mat, working at our job or at home.  She also notes that the practice of Primary series should be enough for busy women on their periods – only yoginis that already have a long regular practice would be best suited for the Intermediate and more advanced series. Regarding asanas that should or shouldn’t be practiced, Saraswathi explains there are not many postures need to be avoided while menstruating. But – and here starts the main yoga debate – she advises to stay away from Salamba Sarvangasana or Sirsasana.

Inversions and a bit of polemic

Many women have been told practicing inversions while menstruating is to be absolutely avoided. On the con side, inversions are said to be potentially dangerous for the female body, increasing the risk of retrograde menstruation and thus, endometriosis. Endome – what, may you ask? Endometriosis, my friend. Endometriosis is a condition as painful as its name is mysterious: the heart of the matter lies in the fact that what makes the inner tissue lining found in the uterus goes outside the uterus – mostly in zones it should not be found such as the pelvic area and lower abdomen. This can result in painful periods and sexual intercourse.

However, if it’s the first time you hear about endometriosis and inversions, you can wipe away the sweat that started to appear on your forehead when you remembered all the time you had your pelvis suspended in the air while bleeding. In fact, relax. There have not been any studies until now that have been able to make a direct link between endometriosis, inversions and menstrual blood. But of course wise one, if your family history makes you sensitive to this condition, turning your body upside down during these days may not be the safest option.

On another disagreement note, some doctors also claim inverting might not cause any serious condition but in fact, cause vascular congestion which is nothing more than heavy bleeding. Sounds like something we’d all like to avoid, right?

But, here is a twist to the story. Most of the teachings we received regarding menstruations are based on the principle that menstrual blood is a natural purification process and that we should not disturb it. With or without yoga, with or without inversions, pranayama, cup of tea on a sofa, we should always let it flow. And this is what traditional Indian yogic philosophy supports with the ‘apāna vāyu’ downward flow that should not be disturbed.

However, some other traditional philosophies give a totally different perspective that might make you reconsider the perspective you have on your periods, your practice and…your inversions. According to Chinese Tao mystic teachings, menstruating is not a time to let go of negativity, releasing dirt or ‘detoxifying the body’. Quite the opposite, they consider female menstrual blood as something to be preserved and kept inside the body as much as possible. In fact, periods are not seen as a natural purification process but as an immense reservoir of life force to be tapped into – for spiritual and healing purposes.

Contemporary Taoists such as Mantak Chia explain periods are responsible for a woman’s major loss of energy – while on the male side, ejaculation during intercourse would be the main responsible. Women and men are said to be born with an abundance of creative or sexual energy. This sexual energy, which menstrual blood is part of, is then converted into ‘Chi’, the life force energy in many ways similar to the Indian conception of ‘Prāna’. Point is, unlike previously mentioned, headstands, shoulder stands and even pranayama techniques such as uddiyana bandha are seen as a very positive way to keep this energy inside and reduce menstrual flow.  It would help move the blood flow upward and to limit the loss of energy contained in the blood; more than that, it would enable us to tap into an energy that is only present during our special time of the month.

 

If you are frowning at that point, it has to be said that scientifically, the blood we lose is a huge source of minerals and nutrients, containing 7 times more iron and 30 times more calcium than regular blood.. Until now, a few original doctors have supported the idea a small or inexistent blood flow would be to extremely beneficial to the female health, reducing feelings of fatigue, depletion, weakness or even conditions such as anemia. Some observed women living very close to nature, eating fresh and holistic foods and living simple lives menstruate very little, unlike women living sedentary and stimulating lives in urbanized cities like most of us do. This perspective is based on the idea that menstruating is not as natural as we have been conditioned to think. But don’t be surprised if you realize how little menstruation has been investigated in medicine. This is another long debate to have – that I really believe is worth mentioning – and you can now deepen your search on the Great Internet Library if you feel like it. Why not start with that?

Listen to your body

Best advice? Try everything out for yourself and see how you feel. Inversions and strong breathing techniques may not be very comfortable but why not try a few headstands on the 3rd day, just as an experience? Or maybe a few yin yoga postures? But who am I to judge if you only feel like laying your attractive body in a starfish position, ice cream on your belly, locked up in a dark room for 4 days in a row?

Whatever you chose, be sure that yoga is way more than practicing or not practicing asana. Don’t limit your experience to a physical level only – no need for guilt or perfectionism here. A non physical yoga, or a more meditative one, might be helpful on your periods. You might be surprised to learn in 2011, the Indian Industrial psychiatric journal published a research led on 150 women for 6 months practicing regular meditative yoga nidra. The results showed they had less painful periods and decreased cardiovascular and gastrointestinal disorders.

If you are feeling confused after reading this article: good. Periods are still a very mysterious and taboo topic and it is my pleasure to throw a few alternative thoughts on the matter. If you are not, good too! You probably know your body enough to give it what it needs. But whatever you are now feeling or thinking, it is my hope that next time you’ll have your periods, you will consider them as a new unveiled territory to explore and not a curse that needs to pass. Happy bleeding!

pratyahara

Lessons in Pratyahara: a Yogi Memoir

Last week I wrote a researched and technical essay about Patanjali’s fifth limb of ashtanga yoga, pratyahara. As I wrote in the essay, simply called Pratyahara Sense Withdrawal, pratyahara is the somewhat elusive and overlooked limb of Patanjali’s yoga system, which many of us stumble across and experience without even realising it. Two years ago if I had read the essay I wrote last week I would have been appreciative of the theory and technique, but still not quite understanding the experience of withdrawing my senses. Yoga is an experiential practice, after all. As Sri Pattabhi Jois always famously said, 99% and 1% theory.

The following essay is the less academic and more experiential version of how I stumbled across my own baby understandings of pratyahara. The yogis who helped me in this realisation also made me realise how much of a baby (if not a fetus) I am and many of us are on the yogic path, scratching just the tip of the iceberg and having yet to dive into the water and explore the true depths of this system. (Hint: pratyahara is one sure way into the water!) The yogis I speak of are those that are typically considered to be myths or legend. Or, at least, a calibre of yogi that in this modern age are all but extinct. But, they exist, hidden away in the caves of the high Himalayas where they can focus on their yoga practices and spiritual pursuits. When I say yoga practices I do not necessarily mean ten surya namaskara A and B followed by standing postures, seated, and finishing postures. These yogis have basically graduated, shall we say, from asana practice and spend most of their time (at least eight hours a day) sitting in samadhi, preparing for sitting in samadhi, or entertaining the occasional inquisitive baby yogi like me. In reading this essay  perhaps those who appreciate the technicality of my last essay but still can’t quite grasp the tangible and experiential aspects of pratyahara can discover a little something extra in the shared experience of another baby yogi.

I had been faithfully and consistently practicing and studying Patanjali’s eight limbed system of yoga and the subsequent Ashtanga Vinyasa system of yoga for five years. In my own study and practice of the Yoga Sutras and the eight limbs I found I was able to make the first four limbs (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama) comprehensive and practical enough to at least work on, but was always stumped by what Patanjali meant by learning to withdraw my senses. Most teachers I had asked over the previous years usually regurgitated some commentary on the Yoga Sutras, but I never really got what withdrawing my senses was all about. Some told me that it would come, as all the limbs grow and blossom with practice. But, how would I know when it arrived? All this baby/fetus yogi confusion until one day the beginning of understanding pratyahara found me in the Indian Himalayas.

I had made my way to Rishikesh, India to study Ashtanga yoga with Yogi Kamal Singh. One month into practice we had a week off to rest. But, I didn’t feel like resting and something else seemed to be calling me. I was in Rishikesh, the yoga capital of the world and the gateway to the great Himalayas. It was the whisperings of these mountains that beckoned me to venture into their depths. Early one morning instead of sleeping in I was riding in a bumpy collective jeep, squished between several Indians, winding up into the mountains on our way to the sacred village of Gangotri, where the great river Ganges begins. Eighteen hours in jeeps and one cold sleep in Uttarkashi later, I arrived in the little hamlet of Gangotri, a quiet and simple village lulled by the rushing jade waters of the baby mother Ganga and cradled by the snowy peaks of the high Himalayas.

My first evening I dined on noodle soup with my neighbour, Tomas, who happened to be the only other foreigner in town. While filling me in about the four hours of electricity a day, buckets of hot water for bathing available to purchase for 100 rupees, shockingly freezing nighttime temperatures, the one place to eat in town, and what I would need to trek the 18 kilometres to Gomukh (the glacier where at every moment the Ganges is born), he also mentioned to me something about hidden cave yogis. Hidden cave yogis!? It was true. Spiritual practitioners who had renounced the world and receded to the caves of the Himalayas in this holy place to dedicate their lives to the study and practice of yoga. Who were they and where could I find them? As it turned out, Tomas had been in Gangotri for several months for the purpose of learning from and meditating with these yogis, and was thus the perfect man to direct me to them. (Or, at least, to the ones that would talk to us baby yogis, as there are apparently many adult yogis who won’t even come out of samadhi to talk to teenager yogis!)

The next day I set out on my mission to find and talk to these mythical cave yogis. Though I could write an entire book relaying my experiences and learnings from these brilliant human beings, for now I will focus on the subject of this essay, which is pratyahara. Though I asked each of these sadhakas to summarise for me each of Patanjali’s eight limbs, I emphasised pratyahara, as I felt I was on the precipice of stumbling upon pratyahara in a more tangible way than regurgitated yoga sutras.

Later one night, a wiry and thickly bearded yogi with oversized shoes and orange robes led Tomas and me through the darkness, along the humming river to meet one of his well spoken teachers. There was no moon, and the frigid night was pierced with stars like diamonds poured across the sky.

We entered into a cave like stone hut and sat down on folded wool in the dimly lit space. Our host, the well respected yogi, prepared hot chai for all of us as we sat silently in the near freezing darkness. “So,” he began while pouring steaming chai into small cups, “how may I help you?” Tomas asked his usual questions about meditation and I asked my usual interrogation about the eight limbs. The little wiry yogi sat and listened as his teacher and friend share his wisdom with us.

We spoke about many aspects of yoga; and I even thought I saw him smile when I sheepishly told this being who had been meditating in these caves for decades that I had been doing asana practice for five years. After lightly scolding me for not being able to recite the one yoga sutra about asana in Sanskrit off the top of my head (scold-able, even for baby yogis), he continued: “ah, asana,” he laughed and then sighed, “the limb that distracts so many from the complete experience of ashtanga yoga. Such an obsession you have in the west with the body and asana.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “and that is why I have come to talk to you. To learn about the other seven limbs of Patanjali’s yoga.”

“Each limb arises out of the others,” he said simply.

“Yes, so far that has been my understanding. Most of the limbs I can at least grasp the theory of, but I just can’t make any sense of what pratyahara is and how to practice it.”

“Can you feel your prana?” he asked.

“Sorry?” I was surprised by the seemingly unrelated interest in life force energy.

“Are you aware of your energy body?” he rephrased the question.

I thought for a moment before replying, and then answered that I was.

“Good. So you already practice pratyahara.” He smiled and offered more hot chai, which was the only elixir for our frozen limbs. I pondered his words and sipped the chai through its comforting steam. “You are not understanding,” he said.

“No, I’m afraid not.” I admitted, “I still don’t understand how one withdraws the senses.”

“Pratyahara Sense withdrawal. It means to maintain the solidity of the connection with God within you, so that your attachment or aversion to that which you understand and cognate with your senses in the outer world does not disturb you. When you experience awareness of your pranic body, you already have the function of turning inwards. You see, the experience of the limbs all arise spontaneously with the practice of the preceding limbs. And sometimes without our intellectual knowing, we experience them.”

Suddenly, in a flash, I understood the beginnings of pratyahara. And this cave yogi was right, I had been practicing it without even realising. Even in simple ways in every day life. Every time I had stubbed my toe and not reacted to the pain shooting up from my foot, every time I had smelled something delicious cooking and had not let it distract me from whatever I was doing, or every time I remained undisturbed in the face of commotion on a busy street or in the metro. These are all very simple but real life manifestations of pratyahara. He must have seen the look of epiphany on my face because he started laughing and said “very good.”

He told me I could practice at any moment in time, beginning by closing my eyes, regulating my breath, and tapping into my pranic body. Prana is, after all, the life force or god force that moves inside and through us. This can be done through visualisation and by using visualisation as a tool for exploring the inner and subtle body. Also, via the tool of visualisation, we can visualise a membrane around us where any external distractions slide off of us and our internal world, and the solidity of our connection to god and ourselves, remain undisturbed. These are simple real life baby step practices for baby yogis to learn more about their capacity for pratyahara.

We continued to talk with the cave yogi until even my brain had gone numb with the mountain cold. I walked back to my guesthouse in the darkness, still buzzing with  revelation.

Over the next days I trekked 40 kilometres into the high Himalayas to and from Gomukh, sleeping in a frozen goat cave like ashram where one evening I listened amusedly to a swami try to convince a geologist of the existence of God. The entire excursion, through all the discomforts of exhaustion, hunger, back pain, backpack straps rubbing the skin off my shoulders, sleeping on a stone floor, feeling the coldest I had ever felt in my life, losing toe nails, and destroying my feet, I maintained a connection to that solidity which is inside all of us. And in doing so none of these  discomforts bothered me, allowing for my little adventure to be a rudimentary baby yogi practice of pratyahara, to be an unexpected experience of going inwards, and to be a humbling act of devotion. In a funny way, my trek to the origin of the Ganges was basically a really great extended yoga practice, and one of the happiest experiences of my life.