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…

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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.

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.”

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.

Sex, Drugs, and Yoga

In looking at the “yogi lifestyle” many of the questions that are raised surround the seemingly nebulous subjects of sex and drugs (referring to both alcohol and recreational drugs) and their relationships to yoga. Though lengthy pieces could easily be written on each subject independently and each individual yoga practitioner has their own personal view, what does yoga itself say about sex, drugs, and yoga?

Let us begin with sex. Many people assume that to be a yogi means to be celibate. And though some yogis do practice celibacy, many yogis also marry and have families, neither path being any less yogic than the other.

Generally there are two paths or directions that the modern yogi takes. One being the renunciate, meaning, the yogi chooses to renounce the comforts and  possessions of common life to pursue simplicity and austerity as a means of dedicating themselves fully to the spiritual path and connection to the Divine. The other path is referred to as that of the householder. The householder maintains yogic practices, but remains apart of society and cultivates a profession, a spousal relationship, a family, etc. while seeking to balance worldly pursuits with the pursuit of the Divine. Typically the renunciate is expected to renounce the act of sex as they are expected to renounce any distracting temptation or attachment to worldly pleasures. The householder, contrarily, is expected to be productive in the world, which includes procreation. To be a yogi, therefore, does not necessarily mean that celibacy is required.

People cite the yogic concept of brahmacharya as the necessary practice of celibacy for yogis. Brahmacharya is a Sanskrit word that is translated in a variety of ways, including: “celibacy” and “chastity”. Though brahmacharya can imply these things, this highly complex concept can be interpreted in many ways. The first part of the word, “Brahma” literally means Brahman, a Sanskrit word that represents the God phenomenon. The second part of the word, “charya”, means following or occupying one’s self with. Therefore brahmacharya can be directly read as “devoting oneself to Brahman”. This act functions as a means, not an end.

Though brahmacharya can imply different things in different Indian philosophies, in yoga is it described as an important fundamental to Patanjali’s ancient eight limbed Ashtanga yoga system. The first limb, or step, that Patanjali describes in the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras as the first fundamental to yoga is the yamas, which are general guidelines for cultivating personal growth and contributing positively to society. The fourth yama is brahmacharya, which Patanjali describes in sutra 2.38 as brahmacharya pratisthayam virya labhah, or, “when walking in the awareness of the highest reality (brahmacharya) is firmly established, then a great strength, capacity, or vitality (virya) is acquired.” The idea here does not necessarily imply abstaining from sex, though it can take that form, but rather it asks us to direct all our energy towards spiritual pursuit and thus transmute our sexual energy into devotion to God. When we recall dissipated energy and refocus it in the direction of spiritual growth and devotion, we then retain a state of vitality and strength. As Yogi Sunil Sharma of Tattvaa Yogashala in India describes in one of his lectures, brahmacharya is a conducive lifestyle for realising higher truth by restraining from multiplying our desires to waste energy elsewhere and instead retain energy for spiritual development.

Thus for the renunciate yogi brahmacharya can represent celibacy and complete redirection of sexual energy to pursuit of the divine. For the householder yogi, brahmacharya is practiced typically as remaining faithful and loving within a monogamous relationship and to not allow for sexual temptation to distract us from the studies and practices of yoga. For the householder yogi brahmacharya then becomes using the act of sex morally, responsibly and compassionately and allowing our sexuality to become a wider part of our yoga practice.

It is widely assumed that to be a yogi means to abstain from the use of stimulants (i.e. drugs, alcohol, marijuana). However, if we look around at most yogis we know today we might find that the majority of people who “do yoga” also enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, a joint before bed, or the occasional acid trip. But if the system of yoga at its core essence is to still the fluctuations of the mind and to bring us in union with our divine nature, how do mind altering substances affect this process?

There are many modern practitioners of yoga who use mind altering substances such as psychedelics and marijuana to calm the brain waves and to connect to the more subtle layers of reality. Many of these drugs and substances do have the capacity to calm our minds and to connect us to deeper layers of ourselves and reality, but, are they an end in themselves and ultimately can they function as a sustainable means?

Shamanistic traditions of South America use psychedelics such as ayahuasca and peyote to attain similar states that can be experienced in advanced practices of yoga pranayama and meditation. Many parallels have been drawn between Yoga and Shamanism by notable contemporary yoga teachers, such as Gregor Maehle and Danny Paradise; the conclusion being that Shamanism and Yoga both share the same goal of union with the divine reality though their traditions do have some systematic differences. But can psychedelics, a component of some Shamanistic spiritual paths, be beneficial to those on the Yogic path?

Patanjali vaguely mentions in the Yoga Sutras “herbs” that bring spiritual experiences. In sutra 4.1 he says janma osadhi mantra tapah samadhi jah siddhyayah, or “the subtler attainments come with birth or are attained through herbs, mantra, austerities or concentration.” This sutra is often cited by substance using yoga practitioners as validation that using mind altering substances is actually apart of the path to spiritual attainment. As spiritual paths throughout history have used herb based elixirs to transcend the barrier between the conscious and unconscious mind, it makes sense that here Patanjali does reference the spiritual use of magical herbs. However it is important to note that non-attachment is a key proponent of Patanjali’s yoga system and thus the use of herbal elixirs for spiritual experiences should be used only as a supplemental means in conjunction with the yoga practices, only to the capacity that it is helpful, without becoming  dependent, and certainly not as an end in itself. As with any part of the yoga practices, whenever we become attached to the practice it becomes detrimental in the long run rather than beneficial. And as with anything in our lives, when something no longer serves our higher interests we should allow it to fall away.

On the other hand, there are also substantial reasons as to why imbibing in mind altering substances can stack the odds against us and can ultimately retard our spiritual development. Something like mind altering herbs that are initially used for clarity can very quickly become sources of illusion and imbalance. Though these drugs have aspects that can be helpful, they also have proponents and effects that are detrimental.

The second and third limbs of Patanajali’s yoga, asana and pranayama, utilise movement and breathing practices to prepare the body and mind for higher yoga practices and spiritual experiences. When we practice consistent asana we effectively heal, strengthen, detoxify, purify and balance the body. With the consistent practice of pranayama we do the same to the energy body, opening and cleaning the subtle nadi channels and creating more space for prana to accumulate and flow. By using these practices we ultimately prepare ourselves to balance, strengthen and purify our minds through meditation practice, which leads to realisation and spiritual experiences.

The yogi works very hard with their asana and pranayama practices to literally “undo” and delete all of the physical, emotional, environment, karmic, and mental toxics that literally store and crystallise themselves in our physical and energetic bodies and are obstacles to stilling the mind and realising our true selves. Despite any positive intention or exalted experiences had, the reality is that by ingesting any substance that alters our mental state or leaves residue in our bodies, we are in fact creating more toxicity in our systems and are therefore limiting the space in our  bodies for prana. Thus much of our hard work with asana and pranayama becomes somewhat redundant, and in the long run makes sustained spiritual states less attainable.

The yogi is trying to attain and maintain a sattvic disposition in their being, and any rajastic or tasmic influences, such as drugs or alcohol, will create imbalance. Gregor Maehle describes the affects of drugs and alcohol on the yoga practice in many of his wonderful books on yoga. On page 124 in his book Pranayama the Breath of Yoga he writes: “Jayatarama, author of Jogapradipyaka, warns that consumption of alcohol, tobacco, hemp and opium will result in painful hell for unending periods. The warning appears grossly exaggerated, but the author means well. Of course people have managed to achieve great success even while consuming some of the above or even all of them. However it is again a question of stacking the odds against you. By using recreational drugs you will decrease the statistical probability of meaningfully and securely integrating spiritual exultation and bliss into your life… Alcohol simply mobilizes and expels prana. Pranayama tries to accumulate prana and increase the energy available for spiritual practice… Tobacco, hemp, and opium are neurotoxins that also make your mind tamasic [heavy, dull] and they block the nadis [subtle nervous system of energies], which you want to purify through pranayama.” Maehle does not judge that one way is right or wrong, but he very clearly states and continues to elaborate that attaining yogic bliss is difficult as it is, so why would we be interested in making more obstacles for ourselves that will make sustained spiritual states more elusive, if possible at all.

Drugs and alcohol, therefore, are not necessarily strictly forbidden and can be used for periods of time to help us along the way towards our goal, whether it be through induced relaxation or transcendent states. However, in the long run, they are impurities and function ultimately as an obstacle and a retardant to accessing higher states of consciousness and realisation.

It seems that sex and drugs do have their own moderate place within the yoga system, despite many polarised opinions. Yoga helps us to live a more harmonious and beneficial life, for ourselves and for the world. The building block to the yoga system is ahisma, non-violence. This implies to not cause harm to others and also to ourselves. We do not need to indulge in things like sex, drugs or even yoga, as indulgence implies violence. But we also do not need to judge ourselves or force ourselves, as that is inherently violent too. Do not force things out of your life, as this can create its own imbalances. But with awareness, compassion and the development of yoga practice, we can allow ourselves to let go of the habits and patterns in our lives that inhibit us rather than propel us towards our highest potential.

Rishikesh is a washing machine.

Laxman Jhula Rishikesh

Living in Rishikesh for a few months is a bit like experiencing the inside of a washing machine. Yes. Honestly, I have been twisted, soaped and wrung out many times. My bag of dirty laundry and the bags of so many of my companions have been partially revealed to the public eye. Sometimes, cute little shread panty days, sometimes mismatched stinky old socks days – the kind you would have preferred to forget in a dark corner of your closet forever.Of course, not everyday is a spring cleaning day in the middle of December; in fact, most of my time here has been a succession of wonderment and surprises. From the great improvements in my asana practice or the joyful tabla and singing lessons to my gateways among the magnificence of the Himalayan trees and caves.

However, despite the richness of the natural landscapes and the thousands of buzzing activities in the city, I have found the greatest beauty lies in the people wandering here. Looking in the eyes of some strangers is sometimes like looking in the eyes of old lost friends. The immediate knowing you have met them before they even opened their mouth. A reflection of yourself in a different shape, colour and taste. The sensation of finding another part of you who was living in another corner of the world – during all that time! I am now sure I have reconnected – even for a few hours – with some companions that I have known so many times in so many places.

But then again, the cleansing water is poured and the washing machine starts spinning again. What was there vanishes in an instant. All that is left is a new smell on my refreshed clothes and the distant sound of the machine drum.

I rest a while, close my eyes and wait for the next round. For winter cleaning is coming again.

Fitness Mantra for Your Mind, Body and Soul – Ashtanga Yoga!

How are you maintaining a balance with the fast paced world? Do you sometimes feel tired of life? Do you want to strengthen your body so that it can withstand the daily pressures of life? Are you sick of the daily exercises which are boring and which actually you want to avoid every morning? If your answer is a ‘yes’, then read on. And if it is a ‘no’, then I must say, there is something special for you too.

DSC_2707.jpgOne of the biggest drawbacks of your regular exercises is that it can provide fitness to your body only; what about your mind and soul? One simple answer – Try the age-old practice of Yoga. Yes, whatever you call it, yoga, dance yoga, kickboxing yoga, yoga workout or anything else, the point is that it can certainly give you a solution.

What you need is to join a yoga class. You can go for a yoga centre or a yoga studio, whatever it is and start practicing. One advantage of joining such classes is that you can have the proper training from the yoga teachers. Once you have learnt Ashtanga Yoga you can easily practice it at your home. You just need to buy some equipment like a yoga DVD, a yoga bag and a mat to perform the exercise.

DSC_2533No matter where you practice, at home or at a class, doing the yoga correctly is very important for a positive outcome. Whereas a right posture can cure many diseases, a wrong one can create troubles too. Here are some types of yoga which are very popular nowadays.

Pilates Yoga- Developed by George Pilates, this type of exercise is very popular in the United States. Though it is referred as yoga, actually it is not. The only resemblance is that it also gives an exercise to the mind. It can be referred to as a yoga with movement or yoga with machines.

Bikram Yoga- Bikram yoga is a more aerobic and a physical type of yoga. It was founded by Bikram Choudhry. This type of yoga is not meant for everyone. It is carried out in a warm room with a temperature around 90 to 100 degrees and therefore it is also called as hot yoga.

Power Yoga- This is actually a modified version of Ashtanga yoga, which will be described later on. It is a practice of doing ‘yoga poses’ in a continuous series of exercises. This type of yoga helps you to enhance your inner power and to make a connection with your soul.

Ashtanga Yoga- In Sanskrit, Ashtanga means ‘eight limbs’ and it refers to the eight limbs of the Yoga Sutras. It was taken from Yoga Korunta, a very ancient text. A student has to progress through six different series in this type of yoga.

This method helps in the realignment of the spine, detoxification of the body, building strength and flexibility and also in the strengthening of the nervous system.

There are three different levels of Ashtanga yoga. The first level helps you to align the body and gets the toxins out of your body. The second level helps to clean and open the energy channels. The last level is for the advanced ones and it helps in measuring power and grace.

Ashtanga yoga is a very popular type of yoga. It is a very energetic and athletic form of practice. It has many benefits like relieving from sore muscle and joint pain. Along with these physical benefits, it does have some mental and emotional benefits also. If you practice this yoga, you gain the ability to focus mentally and release the negative energy. It will give you relief from unwanted tensions as well.

If you are searching for a perfect yoga fitness program, Ashtanga yoga can be a good choice for you. If you are a beginner in the field of yoga then this can be quite tough for you to start with. You can start with some other simple methods. After bringing yourself up to its level and gaining the required fitness level, you can surely give it a try and reap the benefits!