Category Archives: Yoga

How To Improve Your Yoga Practice

Many Yoga practitioners are so eager to get to the more challenging poses of Yoga that they short-cut the process of building the foundation that is necessary for an effective Yoga practice. I know I was when I first started Yoga. I was often in a rush to get to the “big” poses and didn’t always enjoy spending time with the “little” things, like body awareness, breathwork, and linking movement to breath. I found teachers who would give me the workout I craved, and enjoyed sweating through the challenges.

Since I was young and fit at the time I could jump in and do a lot of challenging poses rather quickly.   Though there is nothing wrong with this approach – in fact, it often suits a younger person to challenge their bodies in this way – but with experience I started to find I was missing out on a huge part of what Yoga has to offer by treating it like any other exercise. Yoga is more than just any other exercise.  First and foremost, Yoga is an inner exploration that builds awareness, mindfulness, a feeling of centeredness, and yes – also strength and flexibility in body and mind. If we don’t ground our practice in the essential building blocks, we miss out on a huge part of what Yoga has to offer. One has to start with the basics, and come back to them again and again to get the full effects of the process.

As a Yoga practitioner, one probably has to arrive at the sense there is something more to Yoga than mere exercise on their own. The wonderful movement and purely physical part of Yoga is often the portal to the deeper levels of the practice. That’s how it worked for me.  As I continued to practice, I saw that the inner work in Yoga was cultivated by the “simple” poses and that there are no short cuts to this deeper level of awareness. Now, as a teacher and a practitioner, I focus on what many would call “basic” poses and in the process, encourage a deep awareness of sensation, breath, and linking movement with breath throughout the practice. I do this mainly because this is how I found Yoga to be most helpful to me. But through my continued study and research over the years, I know that many master teachers teach this way too and get good results as well. Yes, it is fun to throw in a challenge pose to the mix – but what I find works most effectively in my Yoga practice is returning to simplicity again and again.

Some suggestions to deepen and improve your practice:

  1. Return to simplicity. Feel the fine points of the basic poses, which you will be able to do better in these simple poses than in the more complex ones. When you feel motivated to add a more complex pose, be aware of the finer points of the basic pose contained within the more complex pose. You’ll be able to feel the subtleties much better in the complex and combined movements if you’ve taken this time to experience them in the foundational movements.
  2. Don’t push past your “edge”. You will progress better if you feel the edge, and come off it about 5%. This will enable you to explore sensations much more effectively, and to create greater awareness in general.
  3. Go slowly, and spend time in each pose. Your ego will prompt you to keep going as soon as you come into a pose, but try to slow down and really experience what’s happening.
  4. Give your breath priority. Always find the breath in each pose, in each sequence. If you cannot feel your breath, or your breath feels ragged, you are almost certainly pushing too hard. There is a thorough, expansive quality that occurs when you practice Yoga with deep awareness of the breath. It’s one big thing that makes Yoga different from other exercise.
  5. Have a deep awareness of the part of your body that is touching the floor in every pose. This will literally keep you grounded throughout your practice. Return again and again to this sense of being grounded and breathing throughout.

Rooting myself in the basics, with an emphasis on these five points improved my Yoga practice greatly. Try it and see if it doesn’t do the same for you.

Mental Outlook – One of the Four Pillars of Health

Be the type of person you want to meetSince you are the only one that thinks inside your head, it would seem that choosing positive thoughts and creating good healthy mental patterns would be quite easy. But for any of us who have tried to walk this path and create thoughts, behaviors, and habits that lead to the life we want to manifest, we all know that it’s not always as easy as it sounds. Despite our best intentions,  at times we get engulfed in the negative story line.

Besides going through emotional upsets and even traumas in each of our respective lives, as a species we also have a negativity bias built into our brains that makes it easier to lean towards the negative. Indeed, left to our own devices, we all tend to put more weight on the negative than the positive in our lives. Yes, we can get a nice warm glow when someone gives us a sincere compliment or praises our achievements. But where is the residual value of this praise if we are wounded so easily by criticism or a harsh word by an unmindful, thoughtless person? Think of how easy it is to allow a negative story line to spiral out of control in our minds until we are convinced that we are not loveable or worthwhile. It often doesn’t take much for us to sink to a low depth in our self esteem.

You can devote some time to doing things that make you feel good, that make you laugh, that give you a high. But those same demons will sneak in the back door as soon as something goes very wrong, or someone decides to take their frustration or own low self esteem out on you. The yo-yo method of Mental Outlook doesn’t work any better than the yo-yo method of dieting. We swing from “vine to vine”, looking for something else (we’re not sure exactly what) because we don’t see we are already whole and complete as we are right now. We have to wake up and tune into this.

What really helps take you further down the path of love and acceptance is a conscious choice, then being willing to do the work to make this happen. Geeze,,,,it’s like so many other things, eh? Even a positive mental outlook takes work, a bit of mental and spiritual weigh-lifting. This is not because we are lacking in any way, but most of us have learned what we know and believe from others, who had their own wounds and issues to work out. “Unearthing” the richness of who we are and what we have to offer takes work mainly because we have to get rid of the unnecessary baggage before we can dive deep. It is simply part of our life’s work to discover first hand what is true for us and not just blindly accept another’s blueprint for our life.

For me, a meditation and yoga practice is important for clearing the clutter in my mind and tuning in but there are other practices that can be just as valuable, including Tai’ Chi and Qi gong (pronounced Chi Gong).  I believe a spiritual practice of some sort – whatever that is for you – is important for a sense of fulfilment and vitality. Does the word “spiritual” bother you?  Then pick another word.  But a practice where you can quiet the mind and stop the chaos, and feel a part of something greater than just yourself and your problems is crucial for good health.  This positive spiritual practice will help you plug into things that really nourish and recharge you.  You must nourish yourself, otherwise it won’t take long for you to become depleted. Even if your time is limited, you can set priorities and let something go so you can have a mini-break and recover. You only have 30 minutes while the baby sleeps? Spend it meditating instead of watching some silly TV program. The meditation will leave you more calm and refreshed than the TV. Remember that you can only do one thing at a time well, whatever the hype is about “multi-tasking”. If you try to open up too many windows on your computer, what happens?  It crashes! So will you. Get calm, close some windows, take a deep breath, and focus on the one thing you need to do in front of you. When that is done, you can move on to the next thing. Work on one “window” at a time.

By now, we’ve all heard how important a positive attitude is for health and happiness, and more than likely you’ve incorporated some of this sage advice into your life already. If so, good for you!  If not, don’t take my word for it – just commit to adding some positive practices, such as positive affirmations and a gratitude journal, yoga, meditation, etc. into your life every day for one month, and then see if your life improves. If it doesn’t you’ve lost nothing.  But you will never know that life can be so much better if you don’t give it a try.

Suggestions to get started:

  • Commit to devoting time to becoming the person you want to be. Writing an agreement with yourself is good, or teaming up with a good friend can also be beneficial. It is not easy to stay the course on your own if you have no experience with this. Work out one or two small steps to begin in the direction of your goal (even if the goal is just a vague idea like “I want to be a better person”). You can get more specific after you begin and get more clear on what is important to you.
  • Start small, and add to this as you have some success. Meditate for a few minutes (10 is good, then add more time.), write in a gratitude journal every day for 30 days without fail, look at yourself in the eyes every morning and say something positive. 
  • Practice mindfulness. Try “closing all the Windows” and being present – to the activity you are doing, to the person you are with, to the feelings you are having. Notice the next breath and place your full attention on this. Place your focus on the sensations in your body….is your jaw tight, are you slouching, are you warm or cool, is there discomfort anywhere in your body? Tune in and really feel what is happening for a few moments. It can start this small, but be fully present to what is happening now.
  • Bring more positive people in your life. Spend more time with the ones you already know. Limit your time with people who bring you down, make you doubt yourself. Don’t waste your precious time with people who want to tear you down.
  •  Be persistent but kind to yourself. Don’t immediately think, “I’m no good at this” when you try meditation and your mind is all over the place. If you had to fly a jet plane, you would probably not feel confident your first try. So just show up for it, no matter what happens. Be present for the chaos, for the calm, for the anger, and for the happiness. No judgement.

Feel free to let me know how you do with this, or for that matter, how you feel about this post.

 

Living With Good Health and Vitality – Implementing The Four Pillars of Health

happy-people-in-the-poppy-field-1280x800-wide-wallpapers-netOur bodies are designed to perform optimally. Knowing this yet seeing the number of people who struggle with feeling good every day can be perplexing.  Why does it seem so elusive for many people to wake up feeling great and to have energy throughout the day?

There can be complex issues that effect our quality of health caused by modern 21st century lifestyles, but in an effort to distil information into bite-size chunks let’s keep this simple. I believe there are four essential foundations for optimum health and that often we leave one or more out of the equation while trying to care for ourselves  The Four Pillars of Health, which form the foundation for great health and vitality, are Diet, Exercise, Good Sleep, and Mental Outlook. Very often people will focus on one, two, or even three of these categories but it is a bit more rare to embrace all four consistently….so at times we get out of balance, or homoeostasis.  The body will always circle back to homoeostasis if we give it what it needs.

All four of these “Pillars” are equally important and support good health, but let’s arbitrarily start with Diet. (This is where most people start when trying to make changes to enhance health.) There are volumes of wonderful blogs and books dedicated to this subject, but in a nutshell what you must do is eliminate, or severely restrict, all processed foods from your diet. You want to eat foods that come from Nature, not from a laboratory. Your body does not know what to do with the artificial ingredients in processed food and they will cause serious problems for you in time. Begin this process by adding in good healthy things to your diet – focus on the plethora of foods you CAN eat, instead of the things you cannot. If you build your diet on what you must stay away from, your willpower WILL cave in time! Ask yourself the question, “What great foods can I add to my diet?” Stop thinking “no,no,no” when it comes to food, and instead make a list of healthy foods you like and have fun creating new meals. Give yourself the tools you need to get started by doing a little research, collecting tasty recipes, and start adding great food to your pantry and fridge. Remember to make the shift to focusing on everything you can eat and don’t browbeat yourself. Begin to crowd the bad stuff out of your diet by adding in the good.

Exercise: Most of us simply don’t get enough. Our ancestors walked around about 10 times more than we do. (Great quote from Lucas Rockwood: “Sitting is the new smoking” – I love it!) Sit less, and move more. The fact is, the more lean muscle mass you have, the more energy you’ll have. And, even better – the more you will need to eat to maintain your lean muscle (without gaining weight) and keep going.  If you don’t have much lean muscles mass, you won’t have as much energy and you will require much less food to maintain your weight.  So, look into Burst Training (sometimes called Interval Training), and move your body every day. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk whenever you can, join a class, and move your body throughout your day in as many creative ways that you can think of.

Sleep:  It doesn’t matter how great your diet is, or how much exercise you get; if you are not sleeping enough consistently, are are not going to function optimally. Full stop. Rest and recovery phases are crucial for healing and maintaining vitality and good health. Sleep dysfunction is tricky because there are so many different causes for lack of sleep.  Good sleep hygiene is essential, and an upcoming blog will be devoted to this topic. But it’s really good and proactive for you to dig into your own research about this, so even googling “sleep hygiene” is a wonderful start. Take even a small step in the direction you want to go and try to let go of worrying and fretting about not getting enough sleep.  I know how hard it can be, because I have not been a very good sleeper at times….but never once was it helpful to worry about it.  Watch this space for more information about improving the quality of your sleep.

Mental Outlook: We’ve all heard how important a positive attitude is for health and happiness, and more than likely you’ve incorporated some of this sage advice into your life already. If so, good for you!  If not, don’t take my word for it – just commit to adding some positive practices, such as positive affirmations and a gratitude journal, yoga, meditation, etc. into your life every day for one month, and then see if your life improves. If it doesn’t you’ve lost nothing.  But you will never know that life can be so much better if you don’t give it a try.

We swing from “vine to vine”, looking for something else (we’re not sure exactly what) because we don’t see we are already whole and complete as we are right now. We just have to wake up and tune into this. For me, a meditation and yoga practice is important for clearing the clutter in my mind and tuning in but there are other practices that can be just as valuable, including Tai’ Chi and Qi gong (pronounced Chi Gong).  I believe a spiritual practice of some sort – whatever that is for you – is important for a sense of fulfilment and vitality. Does the word “spiritual” bother you?  Then pick another word.  But a practice where you can quiet the mind and stop the chaos, and feel a part of something greater than just yourself and your problems is crucial for good health.  This positive spiritual practice will help you plug into things that really nourish and recharge you.  You must nourish yourself! Even if your time is limited, you can set priorities and let something go so you can have a mini-break and recover. You only have 30 minutes while the baby sleeps? Spend it meditating instead of watching some silly TV program. The meditation will leave you more calm and refreshed than the TV. Remember that you can only do one thing at a time well, whatever the hype is about “multi-tasking”. If you try to open up too many windows on your computer, what happens?  It crashes! So will you. Get calm, close some windows, take a deep breath, and focus on the one thing you need to do in front of you. When that is done, you can move on to the next thing. Work on one “window” at a time.

Choose one of these four pillars that you think needs some bolstering (Diet, Exercise, Sleep, and Mental Outlook) and add one positive thing to your life every day. You will be the one to benefit from this positive attention. Please watch this space for future blogs on each indivdual Pillar of Health.

Note: Dr. Pedram Shojai is a wonderful teacher to learn from.  I discovered him while compiling notes for this blog. He is teaching and writing about the very same thing (now I know there is nothing new under the sun!…..ideas, thoughts, and words are part of our collective knowledge base and are constantly being recycled and given a new spin, a new life.) that I am writing about only he calls it The Wheel of Vitality, and Mental Outlook is referred to as Mindset. Follow him if you are interested – a beautiful man with wonderful things to say.