Early Morning Mudra, Anyone?

I will admit it – I am decidedly not a morning person, which flies in the face of the yoga stereotype.  Sleeping in, for me, is a happy place, though I’m hoping that my ongoing quest for personal evolution will slowly make six a.m. more appealing.

There are a number of religious traditions that advocate getting up in the wee hours – i.e. four to five a.m. – to meditate and to pray.  I have attempted this once, and even I have to acknowledge the salutary effect that it had on my state of mind.  It is undeniably peaceful to rise before anyone else is awake, before the chaos begins (which you will ultimately float above like a lotus skimming muddy waters, yes?), and while all the world is quiet. A number of Buddhist lineages advise those beginning meditation practices to select artificially quiet environments at first; afterward, when a certain level of development is reached, bustle and activity will have little impact on concentration.  In this way, early morning ritual seems analogous – it is a time to “begin” again.

For those of us who haven’t yet become adept at leaping out of bed before the alarm goes off, it can be helpful to have a point of definite focus.  I’d mentioned mudras a while ago, and I’ve found them very useful in meditation.  The word mudra can refer to any of a number of positions, while hasta mudras refer specifically to positions or gestures of the hands.  A common mudra for morning altertness is ushas mudra, which can be performed by clasping the hands at your abdomen or chest.    Your fingers will be interlaced; think of a person celebrating a win at the end of a race – a common gesture is to interlace the fingers, creating a large “fist,” and shaking it at either side of the head.  That’s what your hands are going to look like, but we’ll leave the shaking for after the first cup of strong coffee.

For men, once your fingers are interlaced, ensure that your right thumb is on top of your left thumb.  For women, slip your right thumb under your left thumb; you’ll find that it rests at the base of your left index finger.

From here, you can hold the mudra and meditate on a sensation of fresh beginnings, alertness, and energy.  Five minutes may be plenty of time to feel refreshed, though don’t be discouraged if you’re still groggy – meditative practice, like all other worthwhile endeavours, takes time to develop.

Namaste.

Yogic Handshakes

Dedication to sadhana can look very different from yogi/ni to yogi/ni.  As discussed in a previous post, yoga is an umbrella over a variety of activities, each of which has merit and purpose.  As each person is entirely unique, so too will his/her development be at the beginning of a journey into yoga, and the activities that he/she needs in order to progress will differ.  My commitment to a steady practice has lately led me to study. I have gone back to basic sources, spending more time with Patanjali, and I’ve found that my understanding of the content has changed since my first reading.  When I open the pages of the sutras now, I have a developing appreciation of the scope and potential of ongoing practice.  Patanjali’s statement, ” now the practice of yoga begins” is profound in its seeming simplicity.

I’ve also begun to research aspects of yoga that are new to me, including mudras, which can be thought of as asanas of the hands.  These complement other elements of practice, from asanas to meditation and study, and can comprise practice itself. Gertrud Hirschi’s Mudras: Yoga in your Hands is a pleasant and interesting introduction to the mudras, and it gives the reader an excellent idea of how far-reaching the science of yoga is.

There’s some similarity between TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) theories of pressure-points and the basis of the mudras.  Hirschi refers to this, and delves into the effects of each mudra on various systems of the body and on psychological states.  The association of each finger and section of the palm with organs and the skeleton is discussed, and it’s not difficult to imagine how rich a practice could be, experimenting with mudras and complementary asanas.  While the mudras represent a single element of practice, they provide an excellent example of the tremendous thoughtfulness and diversity of yoga as a whole.  I hope that you will be encouraged to investigate the many avenues available and grow in your own sadhana.

mudra one

mudra one (Photo credit: kandyjaxx)

With anjali mudra firmly fixed,

Namaste

 

Patanjali and Astanga

To those new to yoga, the title may look like nothing but jargon, but I’m hoping that a little basic information will change that.  We don’t often get history lessons while practicing yoga, but having some background about the philosophy and purpose of the discipline can bring added depth to each sadhana. 

Patanjali was a seminal thinker who lived, as B.K.S. Iyengar writes, “some time between 500 and 200 B.C.” (1). He predated the concept of a “Renaissance man,” but epitomized just that – he wrote extensively about linguistic grammar, yoga, and ayurvedic medicine, and his works have prompted volumes of commentary over the course of more than a thousand years. It was Patanjali who described Astanga yoga, which originally stood not for classes of high-speed contortions, but for an eight-fold path of yogic pursuits.  Essentially, what Patanjali was introducing when discussing “Astanga” is the infrastructure of yoga itself.

Patanjali penned a collection of one-hundred and ninety-six aphorisms that we now know popularly as the “Yoga Sutras.”  This work covers the steps and stages that a yogi/ni will follow, from basic consciousness to cautions about “spiritual plateau,” and the ultimate goal of “emancipation” (Iyengar 4), a freedom from the fluctuations of life and our attachment to them.  To say that the scope of the sutras is vast is somewhat of an understatement, but Patanjali so elegantly categorizes and organizes his philosophy, it remains accessible and pertinent.

What are these eight paths that Patanjali describes?  Again, as Iyengar writes, there is yama – behavioural restraint, niyama – spiritual observances, asana – postures and practices of postures, pranayama – control of breath, pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses, dharana – concentration, dhyana – meditation, and samadhi – complete absorption (xvii).  What I found astonishing, when I first began to study the history and philosophy of yoga in addition to the basic asanas, was the fact that yoga is as much a mental pursuit as it is a physical one.  This is a revelation to those who begin with a belief that yoga is an alternative form of exercise.  While it can certainly be used this way, and to restorative effect if approached correctly, it is a system of boundless potential, far beyond its physical components.

I find Iyengar’s commentary on the sutras thoughtful and helpful.  While Patanjali writes clearly and with intentional design, intervening millenia between author and audience can obscure what might, at one time, have been self-evident.  Iyengar clarifies what a modern reader may find difficult to understand.

Given how much information about yoga has been published over the past handful of decades, it can be difficult to determine what is truly well researched and based on genuine material.  For this reason, I have always sought out those books that are closest to primary sources as possible.  I would say that consulting Patanjali is the best way to approach the source of yoga itself.  B.K.S. Iyengar’s translation and commentary, entitled “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,” is an excellent first step in understanding the aims and approach of yoga itself.

Namaste.

Iyengar, B.K.S. Lastname, Firstname. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 1993. Print. 

Balance

I studied for a while at a naturopathic college, and I recall most vividly an informal debate between students (organic chemistry requires a little stimulation sometimes) regarding vaccination.  A naturopathic approach can be polarizing in itself, but the vaccination issue is even more contentious.  I’m a bit of a skeptic.  I like study and proof, and I tend to believe that the scientific method and statistical constraints are essential fail-safes.  I appreciate the value of other forms of “knowing,” but when it comes to violent illness, for example, I’d prefer for my “knowing” to be backed up by long-term, incontrovertible evidence.

There’s such value in finding balance between intuitive, anecdotal, personal forms of knowing and large-scale, double-blind, scientific research.  Human progress in many pursuits is most endangered when ideas become so entrenched that they become inviolable.

And all of this is why I wholeheartedly support modern research into what proponents of yoga have known full-well for millennia.  After five-thousand years of existence, yoga has no need of lab-coats. A practice that has helped millions, and continues to do so, provides its own legitimacy, but I do believe that there are worlds of potential available for growth when all approaches to knowledge are accommodated.  Scholarly research into yoga, at least by Western sources, is currently scarce, but what is available convincingly demonstrates the efficacy – from a randomized, controlled, and objective point of view – of yoga for the improvement of a variety of conditions.

Of course, medical research tends to concentrate on already diseased states and the treatments devised to mitigate them.  Publishing methods of maintaining already good health doesn’t, unfortunately, make for groundbreaking news, though I have hope that we will one day shift away from “reactionary health-care” and move toward a more preventative model.  In the meantime, much of the research available concerns the use of yoga for the management of a number of psychological and physical conditions. It becomes quickly apparent that yoga is, according to legitimate scientific study, an effective and viable response to many complaints.

There’s an interesting collection of abstracts here: http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mental_Health_Letter/2009/April/Yoga-for-anxiety-and-depression

As I continue to learn about, and grow, in yoga, I recognize the usefulness of both traditional and modern approaches.  The most pleasant discovery that I have made is the uniformity of recent findings.  These confirm the salutary effect of yoga on health and recovery.  It’s beautiful to come across something so uncomplicated as universal agreement  – yoga does a body (and mind) good.

Namaste.

Playing with Bikram

English: Bikram Yoga

English: Bikram Yoga (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m always interested in learning more about yoga, most especially how different branches approach basic practice.  My own sadhana began at a Moksha studio, which based its routine on Bikram’s basic series, but which put slightly greater emphasis on “hip-opening.”  It’s been many years since I followed a Moksha routine, but I recently started practicing with Bikram’s twenty-six postures to see how they feel.  It’s amazing how our bodies become accustomed to patterns; after only a few minutes of going through the asanas, I suddenly remembered instructions and tips that my first teachers gave.  It was a pleasant surprise to come back to material that I haven’t experienced in such a long time, but that was at once familiar.

To go through the Bikram series as it appears on paper isn’t sufficient to give you an idea of how dynamic, yet how solid, a practice it provides.  Strict Bikram schools won’t deviate from the series, but I recall my first school using it primarily as a foundation, and not as a rule-book.  Though it might seem blasphemous to purist practitioners, I believe that the twenty-six asanas can very effectively be used as a skeleton, so to speak, and not taken as a whole.  While I was studying the poses, both physically and on paper, I realized how much potential there is for intermediary asanas effectively to lead the series toward a vinyasa-Hatha style.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting my forays into playful Bikram, and I hope that you’ll give some of the sequences a try.

Namaste.

A Picture and its Thousand Words

I thought that a little multimedia content might liven things up a bit!  If you head over to Surya Shemesh’s facebook page, located at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Surya-Shemesh-Yoga/351278291664573, you’ll see a series of videos that show a quick and simple way to unload some of the stress off of your lower back.  This series makes use of a commonly used vinyasa and demonstrates how the strength-building potential of an asana or vinyasa doesn’t need to be compromised by variations. In fact, variations are what make advancement in yoga possible and accessible.

I encourage you to head over and take a look – it may just open up a few doors for you in your practice.

Namaste.

Classes are Critical

I was speaking to someone today who mentioned that he had tweaked his lower back. He said that he couldn’t recall having done anything to cause the pain, but had gone to a popular video website a few weeks ago and searched for yoga poses for the back. As a sufferer of chronic pain, he had been looking for relief beyond the typical slew of medications. I asked which poses had been suggested, and learned that some legitimate asanas like Reclining Twist were discussed, but that a particular video had also advised watchers with back pain to try Upward-Facing Dog (urdhva mukha svanasana). In addition, the video hadn’t introduced any poses intended to lengthen the hamstrings or gluteal muscles, which I found very surprising.

I expressed concern that a pose involving as much potential stress as Upward-Facing Dog would be included in a list of poses for back pain.  It’s one of those asanas that can easily be performed incorrectly, creating stress in the shoulders, neck, and upper and lower back.  As well, most cases of lower-back pain can be linked to tight, weak hamstrings and glutes, and unless there’s a case of acute injury, this is a good place to begin to investigate the source of the discomfort.

My conversation this afternoon is a perfect example of why mixed practice is the best approach.  Do some reading, try out a few poses at home, take some classes, invite a friend into your sadhana.  There is always something to learn in yoga, no matter what your experience.  An unfortunate accusation leveled at yoga is that it injures practitioners, but this is the result of lacking or mis-information.  I was pleased to have an opportunity to demonstrate more appropriate techniques and poses today, correcting errors that had been advertised as suitable practice.  Yoga, in some ways, is like a form of alternative medicine; it must be tailored to the needs of each individual.  While the array of asanas is open for everyone to try, there are many factors – such as experience, skeletal structure, breathing capacity, mental state, muscle tone, and goals – that influence which are best for  given person at a given time.  Similarly, some asanas are patently not the right ones to be attempting when injury is present.

While I, myself, began to learn about yoga independently, I very quickly realized that participation in classes, under the guidance of a trained instructor, was crucial to dispelling some misconceptions that I had.  Even now, several years after having earned my instructorship, I find it indispensable to attend classes, learn from colleagues and students, and benefit from correction.  While the producers of online material generally mean well and provide reasonable content, it is still best – even today, in the age of “bright screens” – to consult another (qualified) human being, especially when beginning, or when injury is present.

Namaste.