pranayama for seasonal allergies

How often are we aware of the presence of a certain power source with which we are born, and without which we cannot exist?

We simply refer to it as the breath, but it is so much more.

And, seasonal allergies directly interfere with the health of this precious power source. Here, Pranayama, breathing practices, help to soothe the symptoms by activating the body’s healing process in order to make each season manageable.

Pranayama – a brief introduction

Prāāyāma is a Samskritham (Sanskrit) word  which means “restraint of the prana or life force” or “extension of life force.”

  • The first syllable is Prāna, referred to as the life force, vital energy, cosmic breath.
  • The second syllable can be conjugated in two ways.
    •  yāma”, denotes restraint, control. Here, Prāāyāma refers to control or restraint of prana.
    • āyāma”, means to extend, lengthen, liberate. Here, Prāāyāma means expanding the dimension of prana, creating a process to teach the body and mind to heal itself.

Both convey the essential meaning of Prāāyāma. The breath is the medium through which Prāāyāma is instructed.  Ancient yoga scriptures detail collective practices, and hence, Prāāyāma is simply referred to as breathing practices.

Types

There are many types of Prāāyāma practices taught by different schools with multiple variations. They can be categorized as heating and cooling, energizing and calming. The teacher who is well versed in this science is able to structure the practice for a student based on her health and personality. In other words, the teacher will find the correct mix of heating and cooling, energizing and calming Prāāyāma in order to promote optimal health and well-being of the student.

I am going to present four types of Prāāyāma and relate them to allergies in the next few posts. However, these practices also have many other benefits, such as – to promote emotional well-being and to assist in cultivating discipline for a spiritual aspirant, etc.

The four types of Prāāyāma are:

  • Dhirgha or Three-part Breath
  • Ujjaiyi or Victory or Ocean Breath
  • Kapalabhati or Skull-Shining Breath
  • Nadi Shodana or Anuloma Viloma or Alternate Nostril Breath

Caution

The techniques of Prāāyāma include various ways to manipulate the breath such as restraining, controlling, expanding and suspending. This requires proper instruction, disciplined practice and ongoing guidance in order to decipher the effects and adjust the techniques, based on the changes that may be perceived through regular practice.

If you have already been instructed in Prāāyāma by an certified teacher trained from a certain yoga school or lineage, please continue to follow the same. It is possible that you were given specific instructions according to your health and personality and hence need to consult with the same teacher before you make any changes to your practice.

On the other hand, if you are just getting into daily yoga asana practice and are considering adding Prāāyāma to your personal routine, Dhirgha Prāāyāma (next post) is the best place to begin. This Prāāyāma is safe for any age group, youth to elderly, for those who are recovering from injuries or surgeries and can be practiced anywhere, anytime.

General Practice Tips

  • First, Jala Neti, nasal wash, must be performed before any Prāāyāma for best results.
  • Next, a comfortable seat – asana must be established. Fighting with the aches and pains in your body throughout the 15-30 minutes defeats the purpose of Prāāyāma. Quoting one of my teachers – ‘hang up your ego and pull up a chair’.
  • Early mornings are usually the best time for any breathing practice as the stomach is empty and you are well rested. However, you can do them at other times, as long as you haven’t had a large meal. (2-3 hours after a main meal is recommended)
  • Some gurus recommend the practice of Prāāyāma both in the a.m. and p.m. Many may recommend 3-4 times a day. Remember the phase of life you are in before abiding to such rules.
  • For example, if you have chosen the path of a householder (family) or as a caregiver for the elderly, or a professions/careers, etc., then time may be a constraint. Then, plan accordingly so you can stick to a simple Prāāyāma routine, instead of giving up the practice altogether.
  • Conversely, if your choice is monastic or ashram life to pursue your spiritual practice, intensive Prāāyāma should fit in nicely. And you won’t need to read this blog!
  • Always remember to begin slowly and allow enough time (weeks, months) for the breath to get acclimated to being ‘controlled or manipulated’. It helps if you are consistent in your practice.

My Practice

I cannot begin to tell you how much I have benefitted, and continuing to benefit with Prāāyāma practices. I try my hardest not to miss a practice. But, if I did miss my regularly scheduled ‘sitting’ one day, there is a nagging feeling that I have forgotten something really important, and my body continually asks for it. Sometimes I am able to squeeze in a quick 10 minute Prāāyāma at some point in the day, and at other times I have to wait until next day. On these days, I notice a decrease in my energy, calmness and concentration. I have come to rely on Prāāyāma to take me through the day.

I started Prāāyāma with the intention of managing my seasonal allergies. The practices have not only helped me manage them but also enjoy Mother Nature at her best with reverence and gratitude. But more importantly, I need Prāāyāma to manage my emotional triggers and issues of self-worth. And, to deal with menopause and a teenager! And, since Prāāyāma is essentially a precursor to Dhyāna, meditation, and I want to continue on the spiritual path, I have chosen to make it a permanent part of my yoga practice.

                                                                                       Next Post – Dhirgha Prāāyāma

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Rama, Swami., Ballentine, Rudolf. M.D. 1978. Science of Breath. Himalayan Institute, Honesdale, PA

jala neti – nasal wash

As the warmth of the sun descends upon the earth, the layers of sweaters and coats are discarded to reveal pale skin that has not been touched by these golden rays for six long months. Waking up to the chirps of young ones getting ready to make their first flight is music to my ears. From the front stoop I see signs of life pushing through on bare branches.

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Buds have appeared, ready to open their faces to the sun. A baby chipmunk pokes its head out from under the rocks, and hastily retreats fearing human presence. A squirrel shoots up the majestic maple trunk with another in pursuit, only to come down as fast as King-Da-Ka at Six Flags. Ah! The joys of spring!

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I bravely emerge on this sunny day and take in the smell of spring air. Walking up the driveway, I catch a glimpse of the beginnings of spring before Mother Nature awakens from winter’s hibernation. The earth is preparing to be reborn. And I – will enjoy her spectacular birthing from behind a glass curtain! Lucky guess – Allergies!

Spring is the time of the year when some of us are tormented by allergies while others rejoice in the hues and warmth. Allergies affect my sleep, concentration, and my yoga practice. I am exhausted and at times, end up in a bad mood. Sneezing and red, itchy, watery eyes means blooming has begun. If I am not careful, my sinuses can get clogged which may cause infections and headaches.

And evidence shows that allergies and asthma may be related – meaning asthmatics are more likely to be allergy sufferers and those with allergies have a greater chance of developing asthma. Soon – a full blown congestion where I am popping pills, squirting drops and inhaling puffs. Many times I have lost my voice as well. Some folks (who remain nameless) were very happy! But try going to work as a speech pathologist or a yoga instructor with laryngitis!

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While people often think of spring as “the allergy season,” my immunologist in New Jersey, explained that there are actually three separate times of year when allergies tend to occur: spring (tree pollen), summer (grass pollen), and fall (ragweed pollen). Many suffer due to indoor allergens such as dust mites, carpet fibers and mold during the winter season as well! Growing up in Bengaluru, India, I suffered from allergies all year round. The triggers were pollen, dust and pollution. I remember using saline nasal drops but other over the counter allergy medications were not popular then.

Being medicated long term via allergy shots, nasal steroid sprays, and prescription antihistamines is something I have never wanted to do. Yet, I am so grateful for them as they have brought a sense of normalcy to my life. Along with medication, a holistic approach of yoga and ayurveda (diet adjustments) has significantly reduced the allergy symptoms by calming my immune system’s response to the perceived triggers, and has helped me find a balance.

Yoga’s cleansing practices are called Shat Karmas or Kriyas, (6 practices), of which jala neti, nasal wash and kapalabhati pranayama, skull shining breath, are effective for seasonal allergies.

Jala Neti – Nasal Wash

Neti (pronounced as Naythi) is a technique used to cleanse the nasal passages and sinuses.

This cleansing is done in one of two ways: with a warm saline solution, known as jala neti; or with a cotton thread, known as sutra neti (not familiar with this technique). Is one easier than the other? It’s probably a personal preference.

Technique

  1. Mix one-half teaspoon of  non-iodized salt in a 8 oz cup (500ml -8 ounces) of lukewarm water. I use fine sea salt.
  2. The traditional method is to take some saline water in the hollow of your palm. I use this method and it works well.
  3. Close the left nostril with the index finger of your left hand and slowly inhale through the open right nostril, drawing the water in. It will sound like liquid being sucked/slurped in through a straw.
  4.  If you inhale too fast, it will go into your sinuses causing a slight burning sensation. This only happens in the learning phase.
  5. Vigorously expel the water out through the same nostril while continuing to hold the left nostril closed.
  6. If the water drains into your mouth, gargle and spit it out.
  7. Repeat 2-4 times on the same side or until you feel that side is cleansed.
  8. Then, repeat steps 2-7 on the other side.
  9. Finish by blowing your nose to clear any residual liquid.
  10. Gargle deep in your throat with the remaining saline water.
  11. Jala Neti is usually done once a day. Use apps to track the levels of pollen and ragweed. During allergy season, end of the day cleanse may be essential.

Neti Pot

Nasal wash may also be performed with the help of a neti pot. The market is flooded with neti pots made out of plastic, stainless steel, porcelain and copper. They also come in various sizes and shapes. Your choice – the neti pot or the palm of your hand.

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Benefits

This kriya loosens and flushes away incrustations of dried mucous in the nasal cavities, dissolves and expels dust and other impacted pollutants and thoroughly washes the sensitive olfactory endings, helping you to effectively manage your seasonal allergies and making you less susceptible to colds with regular practice.

Jala Neti is usually followed by Pranayama and is necessary to enhance the capacity of your breathing practices.

Jala neti and breathing practices have helped me to manage my allergies. I began these practices in 2008 and noticed improvement in 2012. In 2012, I was able to decrease the frequency of medications to spring and fall, after being dependent on them throughout the year for many years. Since last year, I am taking the medications from March through May only, and have been laryngitis free for 4 years.

I am grateful.

Next Post – Pranayama for allergies

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Rama, Swami., Ballentine, Rudolf. M.D. 1978. Science of Breath. Himalayan Institute, Hinsdale, PA

 

 

my practice, my abhyasa

 “Yoga is 99 percent practice and one percent theory.”   Ashtanga Yogaacharya, Shri Pattabhi Jois

In the Fall of 2000, I felt a gentle push to begin yoga. Opening the yellow pages, I found YogaLife Institute, located only 3 miles away. On a warm September evening, I entered their doors for a simple yoga class. What I got was a royal introduction to the eight limbs of Raja Yoga. Here, are the beginnings of my practice before it turned into real Yoga-Abhyasa.

Although I was fascinated by Raja Yoga at the outset, I had to work hard at being disciplined, combating laziness on a regular basis. If I skipped a day of practice after hitting the snooze button or having to care for a sick child, it would quickly turn into a week, or more especially on voyages to India. Sadly, my practice was the first thing to be dropped when life got hectic. I had many reasons for not upholding my new year yoga resolution – some valid, while the rest which I validated so skillfully, fell into a long list of excuses.

The word Ahbhyasa in Samskritham means having an attitude of patient, consistent effort; a discipline; simply referred to as practice. To do anything well, including yoga (asana) requires practice; meaning it must be repeated over time to invite mastery.

Remember mastering shoelaces and abc’s, math equations and computer code? As adults we are called ‘experts’ in our professions. What about those not-so-flattering vices like anger, greed and worry?Through repeated practice, we are masters at these too.

I can be a master at procrastinating. I can also be a master at being critical, at reacting, at getting angry, worrying, making excuses – a long list. Becoming aware of my shortcomings was hurtful, but nonetheless, a wake up call to act, to change. And to change I needed guidance, a path – a prescription for practice if you will. That prescription was Raja Yoga. The hard part – undoing the effects of prior destructive mastery and replacing it with new constructive ones. Heeding to the call to act, I began the practice with the popular choice, asanas, poses.

I bought my first yoga mat a year after I joined Yogalife Institute. At first, it seemed like I was always in a hurry to get to class and find my corner in the classroom. I would lay down the yoga mat and mark my territory before the other students entered. Cornering off a space so no one else can have it, is selfish. Obviously, I had not yet learned the essence of yoga or understood the sacredness of the yoga mat.  

At that phase of my life, there was always something to do (infant in the house!). At the peak of this busyness, bright lights were bothersome, loud noises made me jumpy, chocolates made me cranky and Sundays brought the blues. Though I attended playgroups and planned birthday parties with a smile, there was a false impression of being in control. I did not know how to turn ‘off’. But for some unexplainable reason, after that first yoga class, the mat was always inviting. I fervently hoped that the busyness that accompanied me everywhere would melt away as soon as I settled on my yoga mat.

Each week my body and mind were in a state of anticipation. With child-like eagerness I arrived at the class happy to move and grateful to rest. Once on the mat, I realized how tight my body was only when I began to convince it to move and release. I noticed how shallow the breath sounded only when I was introduced to my own breath. And I hadn’t the faintest idea how loud my thoughts were until I experienced a moment of silence. No wonder I was not able to turn off and relax.

The class always began with centering – a process of noticing the breath by deliberately slowing down inhales and exhales and checking in with our thoughts. I wondered if today was the day that I would be successful in turning off my thoughts and find some peace. I wondered if everyone in class was thinking the same. Because each of us probably knew that we must leave behind the concerns of ordinary life, of chores and bawling kids, the world of meetings and schedules. I believe each one’s yoga practice is unique and an individual experience. However, was everyone hoping that they might get some relief from the stressful, chaotic and unpredictable nature of life by practicing on the mat?

Centering was followed by a 15 minute introduction to the week’s topic. Topics, based on the eight fold path of Raja Yoga, helped to set an intention for the day or the week. We began by using this intention while moving in asanas.

For example, Ahimsa, non-harming the first Yama (1st limb) as an intention, was a prerequisite for asana practice. Was I hurting myself in poses? Was I pushing myself into positions that caused injuries? Answers to these questions began the practice of Ahimsa. Being a novice, I was just looking for relief from my aches and pains. So I did not push. But, sadly, a couple of years later as I became somewhat proficient, competitiveness and pride crept in which led to injuries. This was when I was harshly persuaded to practice Ahimsa, each time I stepped on the mat.

After the 15 minute introduction, the instructor would start the warm ups and lead us through series of poses from standing to seated to lying down on the mat. In her calm voice she guided us through the movements. She somehow knew the right place to pause so we could breathe and experience being present. Soothing chants wafted in and out of my ‘hearing’ consciousness. It was exhilarating. It was calming. It was incredible. You get the idea.

When balancing in Vrikshasana, tree pose, my shaky legs did not upset me. In fact, it reminded me that I was still on the yoga mat and the best was yet to come. The sound of collective breathing of my peers while we moved through the asanas, was somehow comforting. The pain in my back became bearable and my posture improved because of asanas. Bottomline, it was sheer pleasure to be in my corner practiceing asana with others.

When it was time for relaxation in Shavasana, corpse pose, the instructor asked us to focus our attention on the breath. Then, she asked us to make each inhale a nourishing breath and each exhale a letting-go breath. What a wonderful way to train the mind and at the same time, help the body. After a few breaths, my mind drifted back to the habitual mental chatter (still does). Slowly I became aware that the breath had taken me deeper into the comfort and protection of the yoga mat. There was an elusive moment where time seemed frozen. Here,  I knew I could not be touched by the ups and downs of life.

The gentle sound of the singing bowl, roused me out of the stillness, signaling the finality of this earthly heaven. The end of the  class – but mostly a warning that real practice begins off the yoga mat. Then, with immense difficulty I stirred, not wanting to be awakened from this momentary peace. As we sat breathing as one, the instructor hinted to take the ‘peace’ off the mat and into the world we were about to enter. The chatter of the students at the door, waiting to enter for the next class signaled that we were already connected to the outside world. Then slowly, I rolled up the mat, tucked it carefully under my arm and would leave, taking with me the serenity of the classroom and hoping that it would last longer this time.

This routine went on for quite a while, a few years, until I signed up for teacher training. It took me a long time to realize that I was ‘turning off’ on the mat, but I am still learning to turn off at will. I left each class with a hope that someday I could live a life of inner calm without having to work so hard for it. Although at times I was discouraged when I “lost it”, I still returned to the class each week ready to try again. Each class was a preparation to face the triggers in the material world with renewed sense of hope, courage and compassion. However, when I did slip-up (many times and still do), I was/am able to slowly regroup by going back to the mat and to the tools of Raja Yoga.

For me, Abhyasa, daily yoga practice, specifically refers to performing the disciplines outlined in Raja Yoga, the path I was initiated into. My Abhyasa, is still evolving. To bring the eight limbs to life has been both frustrating and inspiring. Here, I realized, to invite mastery means that these practices must be done for a long time, and without a break.

I have learnt to move my body in various asanas using my breath. I have learnt how to center myself using my breath. I have learnt that yoga-asana practice is not just for the body; it is about training the mind using the breath. I am still learning how to settle my thoughts and anchor my mind to the breath to find those precious moments of peace. I am becoming aware that this practice is helping me to play the various roles in my life a little better. Now I realize that ongoing study of the eight fold path is mandatory in order to adopt a true yogic lifestyle. In other words, bringing the theory of Raja Yoga to life is what true Abhyasa, is all about.

I have a very long way to go before I can claim eradication of vices or everlasting calmness. Right now, I am happy  to show up on the yoga mat and on the meditation blanket – everyday, ready to work hard and enjoy my practice. Every morning I set an intention of Raja Yoga and every night I have to forgive myself for my lapses in order to begin again the next day.

The first step of Abhyasa is showing up. My favorite first line by Sage Pathanjali in the yogic text, Yoga Sutras, states – “Atha Yoganushasanum,” – “Now begins the instruction on practice of yoga.”

I translate it as “Now begins the true discipline of Abhyasa.”

Only when I show up each day, I can truly begin my Abhyasa .  

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible”. St. Francis of Assisi

yoga props

“To use or Not to use”- that is the question.

To answer the question, let’s take a peek into the world of yoga props.

Many of us (me too at first) think that using props means that we cannot do a pose or we are somehow cheating. This is an obstacle the ego puts before us.  In class, we notice a few students not using the props. If they can do it without a prop, we can too, is our motto. Or seeing others using a block or a strap incorrectly, we decide that we are not going to be caught dead using these props.

A yoga prop is simply an object that is used to assist in the practice of yoga poses. The props make the practice accessible to everyone as there is no one-size-fits-all type of practice. People from the ages 8 to 80 should be able to practice yoga-asana as long as the poses are assisted and modified, to reduce the risk of injury.

Age of electronics has led to a sedentary lifestyle. Both children and adults seem unable to touch their toes or sit with their backs erect. Utilizing props helps them to understand that flexibility is needed to succeed in sports and that posture is important. Many seniors make good use of the props which allows them to do their activities of daily living with strength and flexibility. Therefore, age aside, I believe finding your modifications is both positive and empowering. Most importantly, it will keep you injury free.

You may already be aware of a few props like the blocks, straps, blankets and bolsters. B.K.S. Iyengar founder of the style, Iyengar Yoga refined the use of props so everyone can receive the benefits of the postures regardless of physical condition, age, or length of study. Leann Carey gives us an idea of how to use these simple props.

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Depending on where you take a class; in a well equipped studio or at the YMCA/gyms, you may find all or a few essentials to add to your practice. However, as you get acquainted with each of these props, you can carry with you what you personally need to make your practice a fulfilling one.

There are few other props worth mentioning – towels, chairs, walls, sandbags and eye pillows. Aside from using a towel to wipe your perspiration in a vinyasa (poses in sequence or flow) class, a rolled-up towel can also be used for supporting the head or neck when lying on the mat. It can also be used under you feet in Vajrasana, thunderbolt pose.

chair can help with support and balance in standing poses or backbends, and if you are pregnant or a senior. A popular new style of yoga, called Chair Yoga is built around use of a chair.

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Walls provide a solid structure for balance and support during certain standing poses such as Virabhadrasana (warrior pose), Adho Mukha Shvanasana (downward-facing dog), Vrikshasana (tree pose) and Viparita Karani (legs up the wall). Using the wall can help you hold some poses longer and eventually allows you to balance without it.

Using a yoga sandbag (different weights) for its weight can help you achieve a deeper stretch. A sandbag on your lower back during Balasana, Child’s Pose is soothing or on top of your feet in Viparita Karani, Legs Up the Wall, can stabilize the legs.

Eye pillows are small sandbags that can be placed over your eyes during lying poses such as Shavasana, Corpse Pose. The little bit of extra weight helps to deepen the feeling of relaxation by keeping your eyes closed with ease.

A few Benefits of using props

  • To learn the skill involved in maintaining alignment
  • To take unwanted struggle out and cultivate a calming practice
  • To make a pose more accessible now, and also as we age
  • To help old injuries to heal and prevent new injuries 
  • To lengthen the spine and support the joints
  • To achieve a deeper release to stay longer in a pose comfortably
  • To promote balance by encouraging weak parts to strengthen and less flexible areas to lengthen
  • To increase stress where there is too little or none (adding sandbags)
  • To decrease stress (using blocks or blanket) if there is too much

The inner dialog of “I can do this pose without a prop”, can hinder your practice. The intention is not to ‘look’ a particular way in a pose; it is not to get into a pose with a competitiveness: the intention is to feel a certain way; to notice the release or stability. If a little extra support is needed to get the sensation in the ‘right’ area to give your body what it needs – please use them. Over time you can try other props or discontinue their use completely.

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Having these props may not mean you know their diverse benefits or how to use them correctly. Please make the time to ask your instructor, read other articles (Yoga Journaland watch a few you-tube videos to educate yourself on how to use yoga props effectively. I have only briefly summarized here what the experts have expressed eloquently on their websites.

Today, I am comfortable with my practice because of a few props. A blanket on a couple of blocks helps release my hips in Ardha Padmasana, half lotus so I can practice “sitting” for a longer time. On cold days, a spine-roll helps to support my stiff lower back. For a deeper back bend, I use a chair. Yesterday, to come into a bandha, a bind, in a seated twist, I used a strap.

However, it is essential to remember that each day the practice changes based on the health of your body. Training yourself to honor the body by practicing non-harming (Ahimsa) is the first and most important ethic (Yama – 1st Limb) in Raja Yoga .

Therefore, deciding to use or not to use props is a question of respecting your body. 

May you have a joyful, injury-free practice in your sacred space.

yoga mat – sacred space

“Yoga is about getting on the yoga mat and uncovering who you are.” Unknown

It’s true – the himalayan yogis did not use a Gaiam or Jade yoga mat. But tradition suggests that ancient yogis did use some sort of ‘mat’ woven from grass or animal skin (tiger, deer or sheep); essentially for cushioning on hard ground and a clean surface for asana practice. Today, I want to share with you that a yoga mat is much more than that.

Have you bought a yoga mat recently? Finding the best yoga mat can become as serious as an athlete trying to buy the right pair of shoes or a tennis racket. Flexible sole or a bigger grip, lightweight or heavy, wide toed or wide head; many individual needs. Buying a yoga mat is no different. Some things to look for – thickness and cushioning, stickiness and texture, type of material used, eco-friendliness, lightweight or heavy, size and style and the price.

free-shipping-Eco-friendly-6mm-font-b-yoga-b-font-font-b-mat-b-font-slipBut before you go shopping consider this. Have you practiced yoga-asana on grass, in the sand, or even on a blanket? If you have, you would know for instance, that standing postures require more strength than flexibility. Your effort to engage the right muscles is needed to prevent your hands and feet from sliding. Without this awareness you may be causing an imbalance in the strength and flexibility required for asana practice. Let’s compare asana practice on a sticky mat versus on these other surfaces.

For example, the front and the back leg in Trikonasana, Triangle pose on a sticky mat may stay steady even if you, the practitioner did not put in much effort. Hence, it is possible that the muscles that are needed to anchor and steady are not completely activated. On the other hand, try doing the same pose on a blanket or in the sand. Notice if your legs shake as you try not to slip. This means your muscles may be weak, but they are attempting to work as you are trying to stabilize your pose. Check yourself from your feet and work your way up. For starters, you may need to spread your toes and push down with your heel to anchor. Then, let the calf muscles engage to lift the ankle. Next, activate the hamstrings and thighs to lengthen and steady the legs (see the above link for detailed instructions). Essentially, as long as you are consciously aware of the muscles and how they work in standing poses, you are fine to use any mat. Then you won’t be compromising your strength in your yoga-asana practice. Another concern could be painful knees in Ushtrasana, Camel pose. Here, a thicker mat can help or place a blanket under the knees for added cushion comfort. Just a couple of things to keep in mind when you shop for a yoga mat.

All of us begin with the idea that a yoga mat is place to perform asana. It becomes especially important when practicing at a studio or with a group of people. It creates a partition between our spaces. No matter how crowded the yoga classes or workshops, we still have our own private yoga space. The yoga mat defines our space, a place to pause, to notice our breath. At that instant, we can decide what we are going to do and treasure every moment of our practice. Slowly, we may realize that our mat can be much more than just a sticky surface to do asana.

I admit to having a couple of yoga mats; received them as birthday gifts. One, permanently, takes up a corner in the trunk of the car. There are a couple of strays that have ended up in the classroom basket as well. But my daily practice is on this beautiful blue mat that I bought for $30 at YogaLife Institute  15 years ago. Initially, it was just a space that I used, to learn the “how-to” of yoga-asana. However, as I spent time on it, it began to feel more like a compassionate friend than just a yoga mat. It has provided me a safe place for solace and respite.  Slowly, it has become a revered space for reflection and surrender.

IMG_2014As my practice deepened I realized that a yoga mat can also serve the purpose of transforming any space into a “sacred” one. When traveling, having a yoga mat is clearly a saving grace. In a hotel room or at a home of a friend or a relative, I quickly clear the surrounding clutter and spread the mat creating an instant sacred space so I don’t have to miss my practice.

I am filled with gratitude each time I step on the mat. Because of how the practice on this space has transformed me, I have developed a sense of reverence toward my yoga mat. Hence, it is important for me to store it properly, keep it clean (yes – in the washing machine and hang dry on sunny days), prevent others from eating or stepping on it, especially with footwear in order to maintain its sacredness.

The yoga mat is my sacred space. It is a place I consider pure, holy and safe. I trust that within the sacred space my practice is protected. This space allows me to enter a quiet inner-world where transformation and healing occurs. Within the sacred space my burdens have become lighter for having been touched by the hand of the Spirit.

Now that you’ve bought your yoga mat with an intention to practice, let’s figure out how the practice can begin. Each time we practice on the yoga mat –  you, in your sacred space and I in mine;

  • Let’s make it a place to discover the intelligence of our physical body, and understand how to heal and honor it.
  • Let’s make it a place to understand our emotional body; i.e., our habitual patterns of behavior (why do we do the same thing repeatedly even if it doesn’t work in our daily life) and to practice letting go of negative ideas, perceptions, opinions, prejudices, resentment, judgment, greed, jealousy, etc., which do not feed the health of our body, mind and Spirit.
  • Let’s make it a place to discern our mental body – to create pure intentions, clarify our motives, resolve to be disciplined, and to practice forgiveness and compassion.
  • Let’s make it a place to connect with our spiritual body by making gratitude our fervent prayer, to ask for courage to introspect, to practice silence often in order to notice the presence of the Spirit.

And remember, when you and I gather in a class to perform our yoga practices, we are connecting with others of impeccable intent in their sacred spaces. Here, in partnership with the Spirit, we discover our true selves, a sense of freedom; what Eknath Easwaran refers to as original goodness. Here, many yogis declare, we prepare to meet the Divine.

Amidst the joy of practice and knowing that practicing yoga-asana on the mat is a way to prepare for the union, yoga, it would be absurd for me or you to judge the various yoga mats/spaces as being good or bad. Before you shop, check out a few reviews on yoga mats here.

Whether you buy a thicker mat or spread a blanket to cushion your knees, practice in the sand or on grass; just make it your sacred space. But don’t waste your time denouncing one and commending the other. What works for you may not work for another. Practicing with conflict creates more discord, and that is not the purpose of mat practice. Here, freedom means awareness to the options you have for your practice, and having the power to make the right choices to create your own sacred space. Only then, you will be able to surrender and enjoy the time you spend on your mat.

Now, having created your very own sacred space, may you have the best yoga practice each time you step on the mat. This is only the beginning. And whatever you discover or transform in your sacred space, may you remember to take it off the yoga mat and into your daily life. Then, watch closely, because the best is yet to come.

SUGGESTED READINGS

Bennet, Sage.2007. Wisdom Walk : Nine Practices for Creating Peace and Balance from World’s Spiritual Traditions. New World Library, CA

first things first

Faith is taking the first step even though you don’t see the whole staircase.” Martin Luther King Jr.

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There are many firsts in life; a first step, first bike-ride, first hike, first job. Yoga-asana practice, has many firsts as well – first yoga-mat, first yoga teacher, first yoga class, first yoga retreat, first yoga chant, first yoga text. Of course, if you didn’t have a ‘good first yoga’ impression, it is difficult to get a second chance to create a first impression. This becomes a hurdle to get to the next stage of practice. But once you cross this ‘first’ hurdle, and seriously commit, practice becomes surreal.

My first yoga experience is an amusing story. I did not frequent many studios or try different styles, although this is how many make their choice. There is some wisdom in doing this as long as one doesn’t fall prey to their likes and dislikes. That makes commitment to a style or studio challenging. I am grateful to have skipped this step.

Anyhow, at 6 months pregnant, I was introduced to Prenatal yoga by my husband’s cousin; my first exposure to yoga. She, at that time, had been taking classes at the Yoga Institute in Mumbai, India. She gave me a handbook specific for prenatal issues published by the institute. I read through the book and was diligent with the practices as they helped keep my back pain-free and my mind calm. Having had lower back issues for a few years and frustrated with not finding a remedy, this was a welcome relief.  I promised myself to continue ‘yoga’ after delivery as well.

But first, I had to find a yoga studio. Few had heard of Phoenixville, a little town in eastern Pennsylvania, where I delivered a beautiful baby girl and where we settled for 11 years. Six months after my daughter’s birth, I discovered YogaLife Institute, a small studio that had recently opened 3 miles away. The name sounded familiar, but I was focused on the short drive to my first class. The thought that the studio in Mumbai, India and this one in Phoenixville, PA were related, never crossed my mind.edificio-de-la-escuela_318-62517I remember being excited, ready for my first class, my first impression. There was a room in the back where the students were filing in, books shelves on the left with small plant, an incense plate, a small couch and a couple of chairs. Bob (my teacher) was at the desk on my right, speaking with a student. After a casual greeting he told me that the first class was free. I remember thinking that was good and that I did not have to worry about coming back if I didn’t like it. Obviously, that’s not what happened at all. I signed up for the next session on the spot and haven’t looked back since.

Here is what some might call a coincidence, while I feel that I was truly blessed. As I was signing up for the session, I was surprised to see a set of thin books on a corner table titled Yoga for Total Health, Rs.15, currency of India. Curious, I asked Bob about it, he said that he had done his training at the Yoga Institute in Mumbai, where those books, a monthly journal were published. My mind overflowed with questions for him. Since I had just met him, I decided to hold off the inquisition. Anyways, it didn’t matter; the decision was already made. I paid for the sessions, thanked him and left.

My first impression; was it the day I was introduced to the prenatal practice or the day I took the class at the studio? I chose YogaLife Institute, without knowing that the prenatal practices that provided physical relief and emotional respite, came from its parent studio in Mumbai. But I also chose YogaLife because I was inspired by the introduction to the eight limbs of yoga in the first class. So began my first phase of Raja Yoga study with Bob, which continued for the next 10 years. I am blessed.

Eight-Fold or Eight-Limb yoga is referred to by many names.  In the text, Yoga Sutra, it is called Kriya YogaSelf-Realization Fellowship by Paramahamsa Yogananda uses the name Kriya Yoga, which involves other breathing protocols as well. Moreover, in Sanskrit, the term for eight limbs is ashtanga, (ashta – 8, anga –limb). But, Ashtanga Yoga that is popularized, is a set of asanas (primary & secondary series) taught by Sri Pattabhi Jois of Mysore, India. The term Raja Yoga, was propagated by Swami Vivekananda, as the eight-fold path that is complete within itself. Whatever the name, it is the wisdom within the eight limbs that matters the most. For those who put their effort, the Yoga Sutra gives clear instructions on how to enable the practice. I cannot begin to explain what the practice of these eight limbs has taught me.

Eight-steps-of-ashtanga-yoga

First and foremost, these eight limbs must be studied frequently. Each time I read through them, new insights emerge that support my practice. I have slowly and tediously applied them to my life, experiencing both failures and successes. Being in the YogaLife Institute setting initially, helped me as I was able to study it each time the topic came around in the teaching cycle. Experimenting with them in daily activities has brought them to life. Raja Yoga has certainly kept my yoga practice fresh and dependable. I am on this path for the long haul.

I can be the first to tell you that the eight-limbs of Raja Yoga is good for you. But you already knew that. I can be the first to also tell you that it takes hard work and commitment to persist in the practice. But, you know this too. Then, I can be the first one to tell you that there will be failures and successes, although the failures (opportunities to do better) may outnumber the successes. Of course, you know this as well.

But please, let me be the first to tell you that when and not if you begin on the path of Raja Yoga, you will be guided all the way. Moreover, Sage Pathanjali assures us that these practices will transform our personality from selfish to selfless, from uncaring to loving, and ultimately from human to divine. This is the privilege of yoga that we will receive. There is no doubt about that.

The first draft refuting this privilege is yet to be written.

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SUGGESTED READINGS

Rama, Swami. 1979. The Royal Path: Practical Lessons on Yoga. Himalayan Institute, Honesdale, PA

Vivekananda, Swami. 1920. Raja Yoga. Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, NY, NY

Butera, Robert. 2009. The Pure Heart of Yoga: Ten Essential Steps for Personal Transformation. YogaLife Institute, Devon, PA