Friday, 18 December 2015

Samskaras and neuroplasticity, breaking the habits...

Sutra 3:9 of Patanjali's yoga sutra states:

The transformation toward total stillness occurs as new latent expressions fostering cessation arise to prevent the activation of distractive stored ones, and moments of stillness begin to permeate consciousness. (Chip Hartranft, 2003).

Exploring the word samskara; Sam = To come together; kara comes from the root 'kud' which means 'to create'. So samskaras are creations, things that we create ourselves. If we think of samskaras as grooves, we can think of our repeated actions chiselling out these grooves, making them deeper, imprinting them deeper into our consciousness, which makes these grooves harder to get out of, harder to fill in. 

Samskaras are things that come into being, through a process, through the coming together of actions. If this is the case, then what comes into being can also come apart. What arises can also pass away. All formations created out of conditions are transient, they come and they go.  Beliefs too, are samskaras. Beliefs are born out of our conditioned (material) world. Therefore if beliefs are born out of conditions, which are arbitrary and transitory, then it follows that they have no solid foundation and as such can pass as quickly as they were born. Luckily for us, samskaras are transitory, the grooves can be deep, but we can create new grooves and the old grooves over time will infill themselves until they are just a faint scar in our conscious mind, having no hold over us. We all have the innate power to change through practice. 

http://www.divinityseeds.com.au/images/brain3.jpg
You are not just a brain in a vat!

Thus as Patanjali states, we can create new latent expressions (samskaras) which will stop the old distractive stored ones and total stillness and peace can arise. 'Neurons that fire together, wire together'.

Neuro-plasticity is the core of understanding samskaras; no-one is 'hard-wired', they may have deep samskaras yes, but the brain is plastic and as such can change its structure and function by how we act, re-act, don't act, how we think and how we imagine things. It may just be harder and require more practice to carve out new and healthier neurological pathways. Plasticity exists at every level, the behaviour of the body, of bones, of cells, of thoughts and images. So in yoga we first of all work on the gross body, we change the way it moves, it functions and the more we do this the deeper those changes permeate into the bones, the muscles, the cells, our thoughts and our beliefs. It is even thought it can change on a genetic level, with the possibility of affecting the evolution of the human species. 

So we can use our regular practice to re-sculpt our brain, first finding more plasticity in order for it to change, then to create more structure so that new, healthier patterns remain. 

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Maintaining a Healthy Psoas

Responses to stress are hardwired into our nervous system and result in the contraction of the major flexors of the torso—somewhat like the response of a caterpillar if you poke it with a twig. For example, a tightening in the gut, the hunching of the shoulders, the sinking of the heart. As with all responses to stress, the problem is that the response becomes habitual, resulting in chronic tension and contraction, which we then experience as our “normal” state. Our yoga practice is an opportunity to undo this chronic tension and establish a deep and abiding sense of harmony in the body and mind. 

Tension in the Psoas

The psoas (so-as), an important flexor muscle, is particularly sensitive to emotional states. It runs from the thigh bone through the length of the belly and is the major flexor of the hip—it’s the psoas that lifts the thigh as you walk. It also acts in conjunction with the spinal muscles to support the lumbar spine. The psoas is a paired muscle, originating on the lowest thoracic vertebra and each of the five lumbar vertebrae of the lower back, and extending down through the pelvis to attach on the inside of the upper femur. It crosses three major joints—the hip socket, the joint between the lumbar spine and the sacrum (L5-S1), and the sacroiliac joint (SI joint between the sacrum and the pelvis). So it’s easy to see that if the psoas is not healthy and strong, there are major repercussions throughout the body.
Chronic contraction of the psoas, whether from stress or repetitive activity, limits range of movement in the hip sockets, with the frequent result of strain in the lumbar spine and the knees. 
Through its attachments to the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, the psoas affects a number of other important muscles, including the diaphragm, the trapezius and the quadratus lumborum, which also attach on these vertebrae. Through these muscles, tension in the psoas has the potential to seriously compromise structural integrity and physiological functioning throughout the upper torso as well as the pelvis and abdomen. If the upper segment of the psoas is tight and constricted, the lumbar spine hyperextends, the chest collapses, the lower ribs thrust forward, and breathing patterns are affected. Many problems in stability and alignment in yoga postures, lower back discomfort or injury, integration between the pelvis and the chest, meditation sitting postures and dysfunctional breathing patterns are directly related to tension in the psoas.
Strengthening and/or stretching alone may not result in a healthy psoas. Repetitions of leglifts, sit-ups, weightlifting, even standing postures, when done mechanically, may only reinforce existing patterns and do little to restore a healthy resting length for the psoas. In fact, improper training may increase the tension, restricting blood flow and increasing rather than reducing the overall stress level. For that reason a systematic relaxation practice can help with alignment, physiological functioning and the host of evils we have touched on above. A few simple stretches done with the intention to gently release the grip of these flexors and open up the breath will go a long way to restoring balance and comfort to all your body. 
For the full article including yoga postures to help release tension in the psoas, please see 
https://yogainternational.com/article/view/release-tension-in-the-psoas

Happy stretching!

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Martha Heilland-Allen RIP

In April 2011 I attended a yoga retreat in Portugal where I met a wonderful girl called Martha Heiland-Allen. She shined with light and beauty and had a deep passion for yoga. She was incredibly strong and flexible and could a great chaturanga :) She was training with Claire Missingham  in London  and after completing her course later that year, travelled to India where she continued her sadhana in Rishikesh, the Krisnamacharya Yoga Mandirim in Chennai and then down in Kerala. She came back and forged a full time career as a vinyasa flow teacher at many studios across London, including Tri Yoga. I was so inspired by Martha's strength and passion for the practice of yoga, we continued to email and she and her blog helped me to plan my own yoga sadhana in 2013. Below is the link to an extremely informative blog of her time in India, a must read for anyone wishing to travel India..

http://marthaheilandallen.blogspot.co.uk

Martha in action

We tried to meet in the summer of 2013 to chat about both our impending travels, but unfortunately our busy schedules meant that didn't happen. I was in my bedroom at Stan's House in Mysore, India, December 2013 when I read that Martha had died suddenly. I was in complete shock and disbelief as I read the words and felt so sad that such a beautiful and caring person had been taken from this world, just 28 years old. 

It wasn't until 2 weeks ago that I learned that in fact Martha had taken her own life, in the midst of a severe bout of depression and self-doubt. Yes, even yogis suffer depression. Even yogis suffer self doubt. It's not always 'namaste', 'light and love', even though that's what we sometimes show and try and want to believe. I came to yoga during a period of being lost. In western medicine they call it 
depression, in the east it is translated as 'being lost', I prefer the latter. At least with the latter term, there's the hope of 'being found'. It's not a permanent state, like everything in life, its impermanent. 'Even this will pass…' 

Martha 1984-2013

Many people come to yoga during difficult times in their lives. Yoga is known for its relaxing qualities, many students come just for the 'little lie down at the end' or 'savasana' as we know it :) A few minutes a week out of their busy daily lives to give themselves some peace and quiet and the space to let go, away from the demands of family, kids, husbands, work, life. It can make such a difference. When I teach I try to give the last 10 minutes of the class to this little bit of peace, this tiny taste of freedom. It means the world to many people. 

But the loss of Martha just shows that even us who try and follow the path of yoga, to make our lives better, are not infallible. Trying to be happy all of the time, doesn't necessarily work. Well, it doesn't work. I wanted to say that being aware that even this, these feelings, will pass, well, even that doesn't sit well with me when it comes to thinking about Martha, because I'm almost positive that she would've been well aware of those words and their meaning. It just shows that we are all susceptible to mental health problems, no matter how hard we try to stay on the path. 

So a year on, Martha, I'm so glad to have met you. You inspired me and gave me the courage to give up everything and go off on my own spiritual journey, for which I will always be indebted to you. I wish we had had the opportunity to 'catch up'. Maybe in the next life…

Claire Missingham has a scholarship fund for aspiring yoga teachers in need of financial support called 'Martha's Mat', which I find lovely. See here: http://claireyoga.com/marthas-mat-scholarship/





Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Book review: Yoga Sadhana for Mothers by Anna Wise and Sharmila Desai


So I've been graciously sent a copy of a new book from Yogamatters entitled, 'Yoga Sadhana For Mothers' for review. Many thanks to the guys at Yogamatters for the opportunity to read and review this book :) Was a little worried at first as I'm not a mother, in fact have not a single maternal bone in my body, but upon reading last night, was instantly drawn in and could not put it down. It's been written as an offering to women and families in the practice. The intention was to create a resource for women steeped in the practice of ashtanga yoga who are going through the rite of passage to becoming a mother. 

Here are the contents:



The book beings begins with a section entitled Parampara. The word parampara means an uninterrupted succession; the direct and unbroken transmission of knowledge from teacher to student. In this section we hear directly from the female lineage holders of Ashtanga yoga—R. Saraswathi, Guruji’s daughter, and Sharmila Mahesh, Guruji’s granddaughter. These interviews offer insight into the Jois’s family life and Ashtanga yoga as practiced by women. Both Saraswathi and Sharmila share their memories of life with Guruji and his beloved wife, Amma, revealing how this impacted on their own personal journeys into motherhood. They also share traditions that have been passed down through generations, and which Indian women follow for health, healing, and longevity. Parampara gives a cultural and historical background for what is to follow, and sets the book firmly in the traditions and teachings passed directly from Guruji himself.

The following section called Sadhana addresses the Ashtanga yoga practice itself in the context of pregnancy. Sadhana can be translated as ‘practice towards a spiritual goal.’ Written with direct input from Sharath and Saraswathi and using the Primary series by way of example, each asana is listed according to the traditional Sanskrit count, with instructions and photographs to show how it should be modified during pregnancy. These guidelines are primarily aimed at pregnant women who already practice Ashtanga yoga, and show how they can adapt their practice while maintaining a sense of form and flow. 


The personal narratives in the next section, Anubhava, are the heart of this book. Anubhava means ‘knowledge based on personal experience,’ and here 31 women from the worldwide Ashtanga community share their stories about conception, pregnancy, birth, and motherhood. These women come from all walks of life, often with long years of practicing with Guruji and Sharath and have experienced a wide range of realities in pregnancy and birth. The stories as a whole naturally unfold the different ways in which women weave pregnancy and motherhood with their Ashtanga practice. What they all illustrate is that motherhood is a path that relies very much on personal intuition.

The final section is called Chikitsa, which means ‘therapy.’ This final part of the book focuses on approaching postpartum recovery from a holistic perspective and especially how to use the practice as a tool for healing. Included here are Ayurvedic foods for mothers that give strength and health, supporting the process of recovery after birth. All the tips in this section and in the appendices that follow are ones directly experienced by the women and who have found particularly useful in their own pregnancies, postpartum, and in teaching pregnant women over the years. 

Whilst I am not a mother myself, I found this book just beautiful and insightful. The accounts from the women who have shared their own accounts of the practice, pregnancy, birth and motherhood are both profound and at some times heart wrenching. I have not read all of the women's stories yet (as I wanted to get this post done asap) but I read those stories of the women I have met, who are Saraswathi, Lucy Scott, Joanne Darby, Bella Rossi (my Oxford teacher, along with her wonderful husband Manu), Harmony Lichty (my first teacher at Purple valley, Goa) and Katia Marcia Gomez who along with her lovely husband Nick I had the pleasure to practice along side in Bali, late last year. 

Included is the suggested primary series for women who, after the first trimester, are advised to practice. This is a great tool for both the pregnant practitioner but also for the teacher who wishes to teach pregnant students the primary series. This section of the book has given me the confidence to teach the primary series to pregnant women, as it goes into great detail about modifications which Guruji gave and has photos of all the modified asana, for example…


These modifications would also be helpful for teachers and practitioners of any form of yoga. 

The last section is returning to practice and outlines the basic principle of sensibly returning to practice. What I found most heartwarming and inspiring is the honesty of the women in how their practice changed after childbirth. Sometimes, a lot of the time, the body did not go back to how it was pre-childbirth and the honest accounts of how these women now practice is both inspiring and encouraging.   I sometimes feel even practicing in this way during a period would be beneficial. I can imagine myself (if I ever have a baby) looking to this book for encouragement and inspiration. It even goes as far as giving ayurvedic advice on how to look after your body and your baby's after childbirth, which it seems most mothers did follow and which worked for them. 

There are also 'prenatal appendices' detailing the potential issues of pregnancy and how to overcome them. Finally the book gives advice from 'Birthlight Yoga' on the five gentle steps to postpartum recovery. 

All in all, this book is well worth the buy, for any female practitioner, whether or not they are a mother or not, it is inspirational for any woman. Thank you, Anna and Shamila.

Below is the link to buy the book from YogaMatters.

http://www.yogamatters.com/product/478/bkdesaysad/yoga-sadhana-for-mothers.html





Sunday, 19 October 2014

Sharing our lives...

"Nobody's life is just their life, it is an expression of the place and time we're living in." (Fisher, 2014)

This time of year, when the nights draw in and as it gets closer to my birthday, my mood changes. I tend to withdraw from society, hibernate, spend more time on my own, sleep more, and reflect on my life more. It's normally a difficult time for me. I should probably spend more time with others, get out more and socialise, but I just can't summon the energy. As a result I feel more alone.

In Heideggan philosophy, it is said that human suffering results from the fact that you live in the world with others, all of the time. Even if you are alone, you are with others, given the impact others have on all aspects of your life. There is no such thing as an isolated 'me'. We can only experience the feeling of 'being alone' because we are fundamentally always with others. So even the time spent on my own, I'm not alone, I'm always being affected in some way by others.

We all share the same ontological structures, such as time, space, mood and body, these intertwined experiences. However, our experiences of those ontological structures are not the same, they are our own (ontic) experiences, on which we imprint our own stories and individuality. So whilst you may have shared experiences with someone, both of your experiences will be different. This is why it is a waste of time trying to understand another person. It's healthier to accept that you've had different experiences and understand that you can't change them. The only thing you can change is your own reaction to the other (person), and yoga and meditation helps.

We all breathe the same air. We breathe it in (the they) and inside, we translate it and breathe out our selves, our own interpretation.  

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Mindfulness and compassion

What I like to teach students in my yoga classes (without them really knowing) is the art of mindfulness. You cannot practice yoga without mindfulness, mindfulness cannot be divorced from yoga. I'm enjoying seeing my students asana improve through the teaching of being mindful.

I was first introduced to mindfulness when I was suffering a really low point in my life back in around 2006. My mum had read somewhere about a book called 'Peace is Every Step' by the Buddhist monk, Thict Nhat Hanh. What I learned from this beautiful little book, I still practice every day.. Stuff like making my bed every morning, taking my time when washing the dishes, making sure my clothes are put nicely on the washing line, enjoying taking them in when dry, the smell of freshly washed clothes, bed linen, mmmmm…one of the best things.

Mindfulness is being taught everywhere now, people are being taught how to pay attention and this leads to being more effective at what you do, which is great yet sometimes it feels like it's just being taught as just being able to pay attention to something and not much else. But I feel its more than that. Mindfulness cannot be divorced from the practice of meditation, it is meditation. Michael Stone puts in nicely, mindfulness is being taught as having one foot in the traditional meditation practice and one foot in secular society. And that's fine too, as long as it's getting out there. It's like someone coming to  a yoga class to get physically fit, and finding it more a spiritual practice.

What I didn't know about mindfulness (well, zen meditation/buddhism actually), was that it was taught to the Nazi's and the Japanese Military, so they were able to be more effective in killing and well, I guess, be able to separate their actions from themselves. So whilst mindfulness is seen as a great thing, we must be aware that it can lead to being able to bad things effectively too.

But deeper than the 'being able to pay attention' part of mindfulness practice, beneath the superficial layer perhaps, lies the true meaning of the practice, compassion and right ethical conduct, being truly present and being able to fully engage with life in this moment. Being fully present in the moment doesn't mean you are always going to be happy however, it means being fully present even in the unhappy times. Not hiding from them or putting your head in the sand.

I have resurrected my pranayama and sitting practice, which I'm so glad about, it's made me feel about the practice the way I did about ashtanga practice back in the beginning, when I couldn't wait to get home and practice along with David Swenson's DVD :) Now I can't wait to get up, out of bed, still dark, lighting a candle, wrapping my blanket around me and sitting quietly. I  actually enjoy watching the thoughts as they come, acknowledging where they have arisen from, why they have arisen, distinguishing the good thoughts from the bad and letting the ones that do not serve me, drift away. And in the midst of these 40 minutes, there are one or sometimes two moments where there is nothing, but pure clarity.

There is a free mindfulness and compassion event on tonight at Coventry Cathedral, being run by The Flame where I teach my saturday class. If you're in the area you should go, Dav Panesar, an amazing teacher will be there to lead the meditation. I've attached the link to the Facebook page below.

https://www.facebook.com/notes/coventry-city-centre/mindfulness-and-compassion-event-breaking-new-ground-at-coventry-cathedral-for-s/780061405386122

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Black eyes, aversion (dvesha) and the quest for enlightenment...

During my ongoing quest for 'enlightenment' I nearly knocked myself out jumping into bhujapidasana on Monday night. 

It was funny, all in slow motion of course, but just prior to the jump, thought, 'hmmm my bandhas don't feel right tonight' (I was struggling with navasana (boat) and then 'I feel a little heavy' and 'my balance was awful in utthita hasta - will I make it?'...then jumped….nothing engaged, leant forward and then, 'tiiiimmmbbeeerrr!!!' as I fell head, well face, first into the brick wall of Ben's shala…! There was an almightily crack and I let out an audible 'Oh noooo…' as I curled into a ball on the floor, unravelled my arms from my legs, saw the egg which had appeared on my brow out the corner of my eye, put my hand over it and through the gasps from the back of the room, sloped out into the loo… 

(Just wanted to reach out to those who came to my rescue with cold water eye patches and neurofen, big love, you know who you are :)

Anyway, with my first workshop pending (Nov 8th) on 'Overcoming Fear in Asana' maybe it was meant to happen, maybe to focus my mind on what I'm trying to get across in my workshop! I was also asked today by someone who is interesting in attending, what my workshop is about, so started writing an itinerary for the afternoon. 

Here is my reply:

"Hi Janey

Nice to hear from you :) 

Yes, the workshop is on overcoming fear in the ashtanga practice. I decided to bring together all the knowledge gained from my year studying ashtanga in Mysore/Bali/US/Canada and formulate it into some kind of workshop! I haven't finalised the program for the afternoon but it will include:

  • Examining why and where fear arises in the practice
  • The nature of fear - examining the Kleshas (the '3 poisons') of Hindhuism and Buddhism
  • Exploring attachment and how to 'let go' in postures - a short guided meditation
  • How to effectively employ breath, bandha and drishti in postures and transitions
  • Then on the practical side looking at postures of the primary series and some of intermediate if that's appropriate on the day; hip openers such as baddha konasana and lotus, balancing in bakasana (crow), jumping out of bakasana, jumping into and out of bhujapidasana, jumping in and out of tittibhasana and back bending, including dropping back."
I've just had a reply from Janey, asking to book her and a friend on, so I'm really quite pleased :) Mercifully she didn't ask where I got the black eye from ;) Anyway…

For those of you who don't know what the 'kelshas' are, here's a brief summary…. 

In hindhuism, there a 5 kleshas, namely, ignorance (misconceptions of reality); egoism (erroneous identification with the self and mind); attachment (raga); aversion (dvesha) and fear of death (clinging ignorantly onto life). 

In Mayayana buddhism, they've wittled the 5 down to 3 main kleshas (the root of other 'minor' kleshas ), namely, ignorance; attachment and aversion. These 3 kleshas are known as the 'Three Poisons' in the Mahayana tradition. Other traditions have other kleshas, such as anxiety, fear, doubt, anger, jealousy, desire, depression and pride. 

So the kleshas are, to cut a long story short, destructive emotions which obscure actual reality, they dull the mind and lead us into 'Maya' or illusion (dillusion), where were end up with a 'wrong view' of reality. 

Now, whilst these philosophical view points are based primarily on overcoming obstacles to meditation and 'enlightenment', they can be used as a framework for how we approach our asana practice, our ashtanga (or other yoga) practice. 

But, the good news is, these kelshas, (these 'afflictions') can be overcome, so you can progress your practice  in the 'right' direction by the correct application of breath, bandha and drishti. 

And so I don't give all my workshops secrets away, I'm going to stop there. 

Book onto my workshop! It'll be fun and for anyone who has any doubts over whether their practice is advanced enough for the workshop, yes... yes it is... breath, bandha and drishti underlie the whole ashtanga system, no matter where you are in your practice. Oh, and I should mention, just in case you're worried about getting a black eye, the studio I've booked has a cushioned floor, so perfect for experimenting and allowing yourself to 'let go'… :)


And just so you know, I had Tuesday off as my unofficial moon day and practiced wednesday instead. I did intermediate, and whilst s**t scared of jumping into anything which could potentially damage the other eye, I did all the jumps. Aversion (dvesha)? What aversion?!! :)