Yoga and the Five Elements

This term we are returning to the basics of asana (yoga poses), and pranayama (breath regulation) and that will be particularly served through our next two weeks dealing with the element of Earth.  Earth is the first of five elements we’ll be using this term as the springboard for our practice. After that we look at 2. water, 3. fire, 4. air and 5. Space.  This progression is handy as it ascends from the basics of yoga to the more complex.

The sister science to yoga, known as Ayurveda, is what we would consider today the “medical” side of yoga, dealing with diagnosis, diet, lifestyle, exercises and other techniques to bring us back to our own particular balance.  Ayurveda’s concept is that the human existence, all its sensory experiences, all the stages of life, all the likes, dislikes and personality traits are manifestations of the balance of the five elements.  As yoga developed, its power to restore health was attributed to the five elements being brought together into a harmonious relationship with each other.

We won’t be delving into Ayurveda, but we will be using each element as inspiration and as a route of enquiry for our yoga practice.

 

The well-researched benefits of the practice of Gratitude

The experience of gratitude has historically been a focus of several large world religions and philosophies, but the systematic study of gratitude within Western psychology only began around the turn of this century, possibly because psychology has traditionally been focused more on understanding distress and dis-function rather than positive emotions. Gratitude is now a mainstream study of psychological research because of the dramatic findings in an ever-increasing number of studies.

A large body of recent work has suggested that people who are more grateful have higher levels of well-being.  Gratitude has been said to have one of the strongest links with mental health of any character trait!

Numerous studies suggest that grateful people are more likely to:

  • have higher levels of happiness,
  • a greater feeling of control of their environment,
  • have positive ways of coping with difficulties
  • higher perception of personal growth
  • Reinterpret and grow from the experience of a problem
  • seek support from others
  • a strong sense of life-purpose
  • possess a higher level of self-acceptance.

Grateful people are less likely to:

  • avoid or deny problems,
  • blame themselves
  • abuse substances.

Grateful people display significantly lower levels of stress and depression, and grateful people sleep better than non-grateful people.

Like all the other spiritual muscles we have been strengthening this term, if gratitude doesn’t come naturally to you, then you need to practice!

Here are some links to peer-reviewed psychology websites if you would like to read more:

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain

https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/in-praise-of-gratitude

 

The Very Real Importance of Joy and Play in Yoga

Last week we discovered that to have a strong compassion muscle, we needed to work and strengthen that compassion muscle within ourselves first.  Functional muscular strength is best built from the inside out, just like spiritual strength.  Over the last term we have been building  awareness, acceptance, balance, focus, strength in all it’s guises, and learning to tap our energy sources.  Once we have all these muscles starting to work there is a bit of an energy shift from solid foundation to lightness… we can start to work the joy muscle.

Joy is a by-product of playfulness.  This week’s practice introduces some spontaneity (read Play!) into, so let go of perfection, have a lighthearted approach, transcend your egos and soften rigid dignity.  Everything in this practice has its roots in yoga tradition, but we can still laugh.  Levity is great for our health, great for creating a sense of community. Many spiritual masters use humorous stories to convey their messages.  Think of the current Dalai Lama or Mahatma Ghandi.  Think of the laughing Buddha!

Like any other muscle, the joy muscle also needs regular use to work properly and to respond quickly.  Work it and you will feel wonderful!!

 

Energy and Confidence

Energy and confidence tend to travel hand-in-hand in a similar way to the connection between our bodies and mind.    A confident, reliable body leads to a confident mind.  A mind with energy will tap hidden resources of energy in tired body.  When our energy levels are low, our self-confidence can be hard to find.

One of the biggest misconceptions about our source of energy is that “it’s out there somewhere”.  The truth is that energy is within us already but sometimes we forget that we already know how to access our innate life force or prana, and we might grab a cup of coffee or something sweet and fatty for their “medicinal” qualities.  Yogis know that breath control can be as powerful and potent as external substances.

It takes effort and therefore energy to be able to break unhelpful habits.  In a competitive world it can be easy to slip into lack of self-confidence.  Critical messages about ourselves might run in our head almost automatically in the face of a challenging situation.  However we do have a choice.  Challenging negative thoughts and integrating positive ideas takes time and practice, and sometimes an element of faking it until you make it.

In the Energy and Confidence Practice, act as if you are confident.  “This posture is getting easier every time I do it”,  “I am becoming a highly skilled yoga practitioner”. Cultivating competence does not mean becoming cocky, defensive or egotistical.  Rather, it is your birthright to feel assured of who you are.  Take in a deep breath and gather a sense of assurance.  Keep this sense with you even if your body starts trembling a bit in the practice.

The only thing we can count on is change.  Yoga helps us to find the confidence and energy to meet the changes in our lives.

Focus

Unless you are living a very alternate lifestyle in this busy urban environment, chances are you are a multi-tasker.  You have trained your brain to respond quickly to a stimulus which comes up while you are doing something else, and you take on that activity as well as running with what you are already doing figuring you will save time.

You have trained your mind to respond to distraction.  If this “talent” isn’t balanced, you might find that at the end of the day a lot has been started and nothing finished…you have, in fact, wasted time.

In our everyday, real life that we lead, developing a strong, flexible “focus muscle” is a very useful by-product of practising yoga.  When the mind wanders, every time you bring it back to a focus point you are strengthening that psychological pathway which aids concentration.  If you admonish yourself for allowing your focus to blur, this is simply adding clutter and more mental wandering.  Enlisting the powerful guidance of your internal control system to refocus your attention and to recall your goal is to clear rather than clutter the mind.  You will find that when this “muscle” is toned during your regular yoga practice, it will also kick into your life off the mat.

Training your mind to stay on the job is what this week’s  lesson is all about – focus.

Awareness and Acceptance

If we want to make changes or improvements in our lives, we must first become conscious of what is actually going on now.

When people do yoga consistently they’re much more open to change.  That’s the key:  If I’m not open to making changes, then I won’t let myself be aware.  What’s the point of being aware if I’m not going to listen to my Awareness and act upon it?  (Jeff Midgow – MD and yoga practitioner)

In modern society, it is easy to get divorced from our body and all the important signals it is constantly sending us. One of the many great gifts of yoga is that it offers an antidote to this trend, and a pathway for reconnecting more deeply with our body.  (Leila Stuart, yoga therapist co-author with Donna Farhi of the book on Pathways to a Centered Body.)

Practising yoga will bring you face to face with Acceptance.  There will be times when your body will not be able to hold a posture.  Some days you’ll set aside time for yoga to help you reduce stress, and it will bring you more in touch with your anger and resentment.  Trust that putting your body into different positions you explore the many levels of being that a human can be confronted with.  Acceptance is not passivity or giving up.  Rather it is an active willingness to face all aspects of our humanness.  Acceptance is an acknowledgment of what is, and an opportunity to find meaning and to grow from it. (Rachel Shaeffer)

Spiritual Muscles? I just want to develop my real muscles…

No doubt about it…Yoga helps us develop our physical self.  Stiff muscles and joints have a lower limit of strength than flexible muscles.  On the other hand, naturally flexible bodies can sometimes lack strength.  Often the usual Western vision of yoga places emphasis on increasing flexibility and strength.  However, after practising for a while we start to realise that not only our physical self but also our inner selves seem to be changing.  Rachel Shaeffer (Yoga for your Spiritual Muscles, 1998) says,

“As I was able to accept my body’s limitations in a yoga posture, I was better able to accept whatever life presented to me.  As I learned to breathe through challenging postures, I felt more at ease breathing through difficult decisions.  When I practiced compassion with myself on days I struggled with yoga, I became a more compassionate friend to others.  Whatever was happening on the yoga mat was happening off the mat”

Our theme for this term places equal emphasis on a group of physical and personal qualities. As requested, this term each week we will work on core strength and a bit more on upper body strength.  I’ll be placing even greater emphasis on stress reduction.   And along the way we might start to build strength and flexibility in our inner qualities as well as our outer bodies.  Over the next ten weeks, we will use the following concepts as a springboard for our practice:

1. Awareness & Acceptance

2. Focus

3. Flexibility

4. Balance

5. Energy and Confidence (lots of Core)

6. Strength

7. Softness and Compassion

8. Joy and Playfulness

9. Gratitude

10. Peacefulness

Buddhist philosopher Jack Kornfield says:

More than anything else, the way we experience life is created by the particular states of mind with which we meet it.  As always, we will practise with Ahimsa, non-harming, as our over-arching intention.

I Can’t Sleep and it’s driving me Crazy

Insomnia; the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep long enough to feel rested.

Most of us know the feeling of “knowing” we need to get to sleep but being unable to get there.  Sometimes the pressure we place on ourselves to get back to sleep could be having the opposite effect. Rubin Naiman, a clinical psychologist and sleep therapist explains, “Our attitude to sleeplessness changed after the Industrial Revolution.  If you look at all the documentation on sleep recorded from 1500 to 1830, you find that people typically did wake in the middle of the night—they had a little ‘night watch’ and used that time to pray, or meditate, or talk quietly, and then they went back to sleep. Conversely, people also regularly napped in the middle of the day. We have the misconception that if we aren’t dead to the world, we aren’t sleeping. We want to go to battle when we realize we’re awake in the middle of the night, but it’s perfectly normal to have periods of wakefulness at night.”

Of course, if insomnia is something new for you or it’s becoming a real problem, rule out anything which might require medical attention such as chronic low-level pain, depression, heartburn, hormone imbalances, restless leg syndrome, and sleep apnoea.

Some yoga students find it surprising that a wind-down practice still has quite an active asana component…an overactive mind needs to be addressed by a physical practice to “digest” restlessness. However, doing a practice which is too active just before bedtime will make it hard to fall asleep.  The best time is before dinner to help with the transition between day and evening. Consider splitting the asana component from the pranayama/relaxation component, keeping the latter for just before bed.

A practice for winding down and encouraging restful sleep will:

  • Begin with more active asana and then reduce to a slower pace
  • Accentuate slow flowing movement with the breath, particularly lengthening the exhale and will favour breathing techniques over strong asana alignments
  • Have more forward bends than backbends
  • Have few standing poses but include lots of inversions and heads down to calm nervous system
  • Ask you to use lots of ‘letting go’ imagery, eg “Breathe out the day, breathe in peace”, Namaha on the exhale, meaning “this is not mine, I let it go”

If you are wakeful in bed, try practising breath awareness, concentrating on gliding down the exhale (or the pranayama in the Winding Down Practice).  Go through a Progressive Muscle Relaxation from your toes to your head; “I am relaxing my toes, relaxing my toes, my toes are completely relaxed” and so on.  If you don’t get to sleep, at least your body and mind are resting while doing this.

In the end, Yoga teaches us to give our best effort but then let go of the results…so sometimes you might need to accept sleeplessness for a night rather than obsess about it, giving yourself a chance of breaking a habit.

“The mind skirts the edge of consciousness during sleep, and likewise skirts the edge of sleep at moments when we space out and lose track of our surroundings during waking hours. In other words, the states of being asleep and awake are not as black-and-white as you might think. Our consciousness is coming and going all day and night. When you accept this process, you’re better able to let periods of night time wakefulness arise and fall away without resistance….” Richard Miller, psychologist and noted teacher of yoga nidra.

 

“I feel so lethargic”; increasing energy

“Energy is eternal delight.” William Blake (1757 – 1827)

Fatigue is not necessarily a bad thing.  It indicates it’s time to rest…but the trick is knowing what to ease off doing to have a rest: active physical things?, concentrating for long periods? or worrying or stressing for long periods?  Lack of energy can be physical, mental or emotional.

Physical, mental and emotional energy levels are affected by diet, exercise and sleep and stress levels.  In a feedback loop  diet/ exercise/ sleep can all be negatively affected by fatigue. To complicate matters in trying to sort out why you feel tired, physical, mental and emotional energy do not necessarily rise and fall in tandem.

It is important to try to work out why you might feel tired because the right action will depend upon why you are fatigued.  Have you been doing extra physical activities over those you would normally do?  In that case, you are probably physically spent and need to physically rest to let the body recover and build.  After lots of physical work often one feels “tired but happy” and the emotions are peaceful and the mind pleasantly soft.  The practice for you then is a quiet, stretchy, restful one.  Sleep will probably come very easily to a tired body.

Are you tired because you have been concentrating all day…studying or working out your taxes, sitting in one position?   Are you tired because you have been stressed for a few days or longer, feeling sad or cross with yourself or someone else?  These examples might wear you down, make you feel physically tired and your resistance to activity mistaken for physical fatigue.  In these two situations a physical practice might lift the heavy load and increase energy levels.  The practice from Week 5 includes lots of arms overhead, big breathing, working big muscles in movement and quite a few back bends.  These are all energy builders.  An added advantage to a more physical practice is that it will give you a better chance of a good sleep.  If the mind and spirits are exhausted, but the body has done little,  the mind will keep you up all night!

Remember that there are huge natural differences in energy levels between individuals. The aim is to optimise and manage your energy levels.  It is important if fatigue has become a problem for you to see a doctor to have any chronic physical causes ruled out such as anaemia or thyroid function.

How can I Boost my Immune System?

…well, it might not be possible to actually enhance our immune system!  According to the Harvard Medical School Health Publication, “The idea of boosting your immunity is enticing, but the ability to do so has proved elusive for several reasons. The immune system is precisely that — a system, not a single entity. To function well, it requires balance and harmony. There is still much that researchers don’t know about the intricacies and interconnectedness of the immune response. For now, there are no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle and enhanced immune function.” 

Our immune system has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and, if allowed, does a great job at seeing off infection.  Unfortunately, most of us are actually living with an immune system that is not performing optimally in the first place.  Anecdotally, we do know that sub-optimal nutrition, sleep deprivation, and chronic low-level stress can predispose us to picking up, and not fighting off, various germs.

The good news is that we can do plenty to make sure it runs at it’s optimum.“Yoga is unlike other forms of exercise that focus only on certain parts of the body,” says Kathleen Fry, M.D., president of the American Holistic Medicine Association. “Yoga works on everything.”

Yoga helps lower the stress hormones that compromise the immune system, while also;

  • maintaining the lungs and respiratory tract at their optimum,
  • stimulating the lymphatic system which removes bacteria, viruses and cancerous cells from the body,
  • increasing blood supply to the various organs. Blood carries defending elements and cells as well as oxygen for optimal function.

Essentially it’s easy.  Don’t get in the body’s way by living a sedentary life, living with and accepting chronic stress, drinking too much, eating poorly, accepting lack of sleep.

Let the immune system do what it has evolved to do over millions of years.  It will serve you well if you serve it well.