108 Lockdown days -what have we done?

If my calculation is correct today – 8th July 2020 – marks 108 days of lockdown. That’s 9 days in March, 30 days in April, 31 in May, 30 in June and 8 in July. So, what have I done with the time?

Only one word on the lockdown list
Only one word on the lockdown list. Photo by Markus Winkler on Pexels.com

Lockdown lists

Initially I planned to be productive within lockdown constrictions. I never imagined we would have over 108 lockdown days. Admittedly there has been an easing over the last week and everything is beginning to open up. At first I saw lockdown as an opportunity to make a list of tasks undone.

Finish that course I started a year ago. Catch up with friends and relatives. Read all the books piling up by the side of the bed. Try out that new vegan recipe. Practise more challenging yoga postures.

I would write a book. Start a new hobby. Go on a diet. Get rid of all the things that don’t bring me joy. Clear out loft and cellar. Blog … for goodness sake get on with the blog.

Never make to-do lists in a crisis.

Days went by. The list of things-to-do settled under a pile of papers. Few items ticked off. The first two weeks were spent glued to screens broadcasting coronavirus updates only punctuated by meals, cups of tea and bedtime.

Time slowed down. Life got simple. To do lists became uncool.

Quiet warped Eden

The world went very quiet. Time warped both disturbingly and deliciously depending on mood.

No cars, no buses, no planes, no trains. Just shanks’s pony for transport. But hey, no pollution for goodness sake! Nowhere to go except food shopping and an hour of outside exercise. All in the clean air and under blue skies. What a revelation!

Blue skies abounded and the sun beamed. The daily weather forecast was light relief after the grim Covid statistics. April and May were unseasonably hot with a a couple of record-breaking days. In the garden we found a new Eden where the grim reaper didn’t stalk. We could grow veggies. Get back to the Good Life. Seeds, seedlings, rain and sunshine became our new vocabulary. More immediate practical dilemmas became our raison d’être. Should we order non-essential seed packets and compost? Should we be buying seed trays, vermiculite and seaweed fertiliser or more toilet roll? After much soul-searching we decided it was ok. Self-sufficiency was ok. Growing veggies was ok. Growing toilet rolls not ok – alas.

Lockdown gardening - Grow your own veg and toilet rolls
Lockdown gardening – Grow your own veg and toilet rolls! Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

A ZOOMING good time

If I was to teach or participate in a group social event during lockdown then to ZOOM or not was the big question. To my dismay I discovered many of my students are technophobes. So my creative plans for my business bombed. Obviously I had targeted the wrong generation. Despite this disappointment I became friends with ZOOM for my own social sanity. For instance I ZOOMED into people’s living rooms and sheds all around the globe dancing with tiny gyrating figures in rectangles. Well, it was weird especially when dancing face-to-face in a breakout room to break the ice! In order to get social solace I joined a ZOOM workshop about online yoga. Yet again not much social interaction just a few terse conversations in the chat box! Further to this experience I ZOOMED-out in an online yoga retreat. Result! All in all a zooming good time!

Zooming out during an online yoga retreat
Zooming out during an online Yoga Retreat. Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Lockdown neighbours – friend and foe

We became more neighbourly. Skills were swapped – yoga lesson for a recipe; garden advice for home-made wine. We raised glasses to drown our sorrows and … boredom. Hopes and fears and Covid news stories shared. Thursday evening we jointly applauded the nation’s heroes. However, it was the rats – our common enemy – that made us really pull together with wartime gusto. Rallying together our first attack was with peppermint oil and chopped onions. As a result a calm descended. No more rats’ tails in broad daylight. But the daring foe was hungry and regrouping. Our second assault with rat cages proved more effective. But alas, the pests persisted. Trips to the local wood to release ratty became our daily exercise and numbers were ratcheting up [sic]. Time for the professionals. The war cabinet took time to agree strategy. By the time a decision happened the rats were back at the re-opened restaurant bins.

Lockdown rat
Photo by DSD on Pexels.com

It’s all in the response

Despite all the frustrations resulting from lockdown, there are many positives that have come out of restriction. Perhaps the most important plus is what happens within you. In other words how you respond to the situation emotionally and how that brings about change.

For an introvert this period of social restriction has probably been a gift. On the other hand for an extrovert lockdown may have proved to be hell. However hard or easy 108 days of lockdown has been what is most certain is that the majority of people will have found themselves reflecting on their individual lives. What’s more, people will almost certainly be thinking how normal life might change.

Indeed, we have already seen ‘new normals’ created. But are these changes those we welcome? If not, then we have a responsibility to ensure that in the future we have more of a say in what becomes normal.

The status quo is crumbling. Crisis often creates opportunity to build a better world. Look within at your responses during these 108 days. What changes would you like to be a reality in the future? Certainly a rat-free one!

Hridaya akasha in yoga

Hridaya akasha: gift of compassion- Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Hridaya akasha is the Sanskrit term for the psychic space of the heart centre. The word hridaya means heart and akasha signifies space. The hridaya akasha refers not to the physical heart space but to the heart of the subtle body. In Yoga the heart space is the home of the Self where we hold the secret treasures of our inner life. The Chandogya Upanishad describes the heart space as follows:

As great as the infinite space beyond is the space within the lotus of the heart. Both heaven and earth are contained in that inner space, both fire and air, sun and moon, lightning and stars. Whether we know it in this world or know it not, everything is contained in that inner space.

Chandogya Upanishad VIII 1.3 [The Upanishads translated by Eknath Easwaran (1987, 2007)]

All yoga practice ultimately aims to bring the practitioner into contact with the vastness of his/her inner Self. This Self is our inner knowing or divine intuition. In other words the Self is our inner guru (guru simply means teacher, or one who reveals the light). The inner Self is vaster than we will ever know and within it exists the whole of humanity and more.

Gift of Covid-19 crisis

It is to the heart space that we turn our attention in order to connect with the oneness of our humanity. During the Covid-19 crisis we have had time to pause and reflect during lockdown. For many this turning inwards can be very uncomfortable especially when much of the time people tend towards extroversion. The opportunity to go within, to be introverted, is rare in our fast-paced modern world. Perhaps the gift of the Covid-19 crisis is the enforced slowing down of our everyday life and the resulting awareness of what is happening around us and within us. There is no doubt that this experience will have brought change into many a heart.

Hridaya akasha and compassion

Personally I found the lockdown time quite fruitful once I had recovered from the shock of finding routines turned upside down. The time of reflection and introversion has been very welcome. As I watched the drama unfold on the news I became more aware of my own heart space as it resonated with the human stories unfolding on screen and in print. During my daily asana practice it helped to listen to the chanting of mantras (mainly Tibetan Buddhist chanting) to maintain concentration in the heart space. Asana practice has never been quite so fulfilling and the ensuing meditation time quite so compassion-based.

This A-Z series of blogs focuses on unpacking the Sanskrit terms used in yoga.

Return of the Blogger

Blogger’s block is now broken by circumstance and through the cracks a new creativity cautiously creeps. 2020, I resolved in January would be the year my blog leapt into life. The first quarter yielded diddly-squat (no that isn’t a modern yoga posture). Then Covid-19 crept into our consciousness and life as we had known it was transformed within a few weeks. Without much warning I suddenly find myself with more time on my hands as my yoga business drys up and I twiddle my thumbs wondering what to do.

Initially there was a numbness – a common symptom of shock – and a sense of unreality as though I was just in a nightmare that I could wake up from. As each day passed the reality of the situation leaked into my bones. This situation was real and though it will pass eventually (ever hopeful), it was going to take some time.  The first emotion that gripped me was a fear for the safety of family, friends and acquaintances and this extended to everyone everywhere whoever they were. And of course this fear was the inevitable fear we all have of the likelihood of death.

To feel alive my yoga practice has become ever more important.  Spending two hours a day on my yoga practice with emphasis on sun salutations and strong energetic postures got through the first week of lockdown. I felt strong, vital, energised and ready to tackle anything.  The second week (has it really been that long) my practice still has the vinyasa element but added to it is the need to refine and tune back into the classic yoga postures such as the headstand and the shoulder stand with more diligence.  And of course there is the relaxation,  meditation and the chanting.  There is something soothing about chanting mantras.

Along with renewed enthusiasm about my own yoga practice I am also ready to blog again. The character of this blog will change from its original incarnation which ground to a finite halt.  From now on the posts will be more about my personal interest in living life gracefully in order to enhance longevity. Out of every crisis and challenge, creativity comes.  New life is breathed into fusty ways of living, fusty habits, fusty institutions.  Welcoming the New …cropped-DSC01602-1.jpg

 

 

E is for Ekagrata

EKĀGRATĀ

Eka means ONE. Grata means pointedness. The full word – ekāgratā – means one-pointedness. This is essentially another term for concentration. The yogi is ever trying to cultivate single-mindedness in his/her practice whether that is within the asana (physical postures) or during dharana practices (concentration practices). One-pointedness can be likened to the idea of flow¹ both at the physical and mental levels.

In our daily life we are constantly distracted on the mental level. In Patanjali’s yoga sutras 1:30 he states the following disturbances keep us from the mental peace of ekāgratā.

Disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground and slipping from the ground gained – these distractions of the mind-stuff are the obstacles.

Satchidananda (1987)⁴

We also tend to be distracted at the physical level and this is where the postures of yoga come to our aid in preparing the firm ground for gaining mental peace.

All yogic postures are an effort to unify or simplify our somatic existence. They are as it were one-pointedness (ekāgratā) at the level of the body. Ordinarily we are as distracted on the physical level as we are on the mental level.

Feuerstein³ (2003)

Concentration on a single point in asana can involve focusing on an aspect of the body such as the space between the eyebrows, the tip of the nose, the big toe, the thumb. These points are known as drishti.

In Dharana activities the single object can be a candle flame (tratak) or any object from nature, or an image of a spiritual master. The object can also be mental e.g. a thought, a word, mantra or prayer. It could be a visualisation of a spiritual person.

The immediate result of ekāgratā, concentration on a single point, is prompt and lucid censorship of all the distractions and automatisms that dominate – or, properly speaking, compose – profane consciousness. … A yogin can obtain discontinuity of consciousness at will … It goes without saying that ekāgratā can be obtained only through the practice of numerous exercises and techniques …

Mircea Eliade (1969)²

So why would we aspire to cultivating such one-pointedness in our lives? What benefit does it have?

One-pointedness certainly helps us experience ‘flow’ in our lives. Read ¹Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1992) for a comprehensive explanation of how flow can be experienced. The main aim of ekāgratā is to calm down the flux of our everyday consciousness thus lessening the effect of fragmentation in the mental and physical spheres. By doing so, we begin to make ourselves whole, reintegrating all the diverse aspects of ourselves and unifying with something larger than ourselves. With ekāgratā we join with or tune into the rhythm of the cosmos. This is the first phase. In the long term yogis are aiming to gain liberation or samādhi. That is a subject for a future blog post.

Through samadhi, the yogin transcends opposites and, in a unique experience, unites emptiness and superabundance, life and death, being and nonbeing. Nor is this all. Like all paradoxical states, samadhi is equivalent to a reintegration of the different modalities of the real in a single modality – the undifferentiated completeness of procreation, the primordial Unity.

Mircea Eliade (1969)²
Mandala detail 2017 – eye of one-pointedness/ekāgratā © Sanandi-jacq

This A-Z series of blogs focuses on unpacking the Sanskrit terms used in yoga.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

¹Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1992) Flow, The Psychology of Happiness, Random Century Group

²Eliade, Mircea (1969) YOGA – Immortality and Freedom, Princeton Bollingen, Chapter 2

³Feuerstein, Georg (2003) The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, Theory and Practice, Shambhala

⁴Satchidanananda, Sri Swami (1987, second edition 1990) The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Integral Yoga Publications

D is for dharana and dhyana

DHARANA

Dharana is the sixth limb of yoga. It means concentration. The Sanskrit word dharana has the root dhr which means ‘to fix’ or ‘hold firmly’.

Concentration is holding the mind on one form of object steadily for a long time.

Patanjali, Yoga Sutras, III-I

The classic concentration practice in yoga is tratak. This practice involves sitting and gazing at a candle flame without blinking. Once the eyes become tired the practitioner closes the eyes and continues to view the after image of the candle flame in their mind. When the after image disappears the practitioner opens their eyes and continues focussing on the candle flame in front of them. Ideally the practice should take about 10-20 minutes to be effective. This practice aids concentration.

Your mind can be trained to concentrate on any object for example an apple, a leaf, a flower or any object in nature. The mind can concentrate on sounds or sensations in the body. Or focus on a mandala or yantra. The point of focus is endless and up to the practitioner to decide what suits best. Such concentration can then be brought to bear on daily tasks and life in general.

DHYANA

Dhyana is the seventh limb of yoga and means meditation.

Through regular meditation, the mind becomes clear and pure. The subconscious mind releases hidden knowledge that allows a better understanding of oneself and our relationship to the world.

Swami Vishnu-Devananda¹

There are many forms of meditation available and it is for the practitioner to explore which meditation best suits his/her own being. The simplest one is to sit and focus on the breath though many might find this quite difficult at first.

The benefits of regular meditation are enormous ranging from creating a better link between mind, body and spirit to promoting calmness of mind and inner clarity to transformation of the personality to a closer connection with the divine. The secret is to practise meditation on a regular basis.

This A-Z series of blogs focuses on unpacking the Sanskrit terms used in yoga.

Centre of the Mandala – a point of concentration – Mandala Yoga Ashram © Sanandi-jacq

Bibliography

¹The Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre, (2003) The Sivananda Book of Meditation, GAIA BOOKS P.7

C is for citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ

Citta means consciousness/mind. Vritti literally means whirl or can be translated as thought waves. Nirodha means restriction or control. In Patanjali’s eightfold path the second sutra in Chapter 1 is Yogaḥ cittavṛtti-nirodha. which can be translated as:

Yoga is the control of the thought waves of the mind.

Prabhavananda & Isherwood (1969)¹

This is the essence of yoga philosophy though I would argue with the idea of control. Perhaps an ‘increased awareness’ would be a better way to describe what we need to do to approach life with serenity.

It is normal for our minds to be busy and distracted with a multitude of thoughts streaming through our consciousness. This is our profane everyday consciousness and it can get very wearisome. Swept along by our monkey mind flitting here and there we move through our days in a whirl not always being as efficient as we would like to be. Anyone who has done any ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writing will know how busy and indeed creative the mind is. But it often isn’t very focussed.

All the practices of yoga aim for one goal: that of calming the mind so that we can view the world with more clarity and focus. Yoga is about developing the inner witness who can perceive the reality of the ego’s constant flitting from one thought to the other.

The eightfold path (ashtanga) of Patanjali gives us a toolbox to allow us to approach the ‘still point’ of deep calm and surrender that lies within each of us. By practising yoga we begin to see through the layers of our own conditioning and begin to unravel the suffering we may have been through. The techniques of yoga aid us in moving forward with more clarity and focus in our lives and ultimately gaining a sense of peace. All is well.

Yoga Philosophy is complex. However if the yoga practitioner can simply understand the idea of concentration on a single point then s/he is well on the way to benefitting from his/her practice. This may mean simply bringing awareness to the sensations within the whole body as s/he moves into, holds and moves out of a posture. Being able to switch to witness mode at any moment is the fruit of yoga practice.

Seated sculpture in group LOS RAQUEROS on the waterfront in Santander, Spain © Sanandi-jacq

1 Prabhavananda, Swami and Christopher Isherwood. (1969) How to Know God, The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. New York: New American Library (translation and commentary). pp.159-161

This A-Z series of blogs focuses on unpacking the Sanskrit terms used in yoga.

B is for Bandha

BANDHA

Bandha is a psychomuscular energy lock in the body which redirects the flow of energy and locks it in a particular area. Muscles and organs are contracted and controlled. There are three main bandhas in the human body.

Moola Bandha means perineum contraction and is probably the most well known of the bandhas. This bandha is a contraction of muscles in the pelvic floor. In men the area between the anus and testes is contracted whereas in women the area contracted is behind the cervix where the uterus meets the vagina. There are numerous benefits from performing moola bandha including:

  • stimulates the nervous system in the pelvic area
  • tones the excretory system and urino-genital system
  • relieves constipation and piles and may have a positive effect on the prostate gland
  • lessens the impact of depression by realigning mind, body and spirit

Uddiyana Bandha is an abdominal contraction. To be effective it needs to be practised on an empty stomach and ideally the practitioner needs to have empty bowels. Contraction of this Bandha is an advanced technique and should be practised under guidance. The benefits are many including:

  • relieves abdominal and stomach disturbances such as constipation, indigestion and diabetes.
  • tones the abdominal organs
  • stimulates blood circulation in the abdominal area.
  • stimulates the solar plexus around the centre of the belly.
  • When engaged the Uddiyana Bandha can help the practitioner lift up in a controlled jump in Ashtanga Yoga practice thus giving a sense of lightness to the body as though flying up into a jump. Uddiyana literally means ‘flying up’.

Jalandhara Bandha is a contraction of the throat area. It is a lock that stimulates the blood vessels and nerves of the neck. The head is bent forward so that the chin presses on the neck or throat pit. The practice once again is best done under the guidance of a yogic practitioner. The benefits include:

  • gives a feeling of relaxation
  • relieves stress and anxiety.
  • stimulates and balances the thyroid glands
  • regulates metabolism.

For details on how to perform the bandhas see entry 3 in the Bibliography below. It is best to find a qualified teacher to explain and demonstrate exactly how the locks are to be made.

This A-Z series of blogs focuses on unpacking the Sanskrit terms used in yoga.

Bibliography

1 Hewitt, James, (1977, 1983), The Complete Yoga Book, Cresset Press

2 Long, Ray, (2006), The Key Muscles of Hatha Yoga, Scientific Keys Volume 1

3 Saraswati, Satyananda, (2005 reprint) Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha, Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar, India

What is synchronicity?

Synchronicity means ‘the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection’. The origin of this word was coined in the 1950s by Carl Jung (1875-1961) Swiss psychologist who collaborated with Sigmund Freud in developing the psychoanalytic theory of personality. He later disassociated from Freud as he found Freud’s focus on sexuality masked the true nature of a human being.

Here is a simple true-life story that illustrates synchronicity well.

I hadn’t seen my yoga teacher, now in her 70s, for some time. I wondered if she was still teaching. Over the last weekend she was very much on my mind and I thought about contacting her. I had made no move to do so for months. My attitude being let it happen when the time is right.

Earlier this week I had just finished teaching the morning classes. Time for lunch and maybe a visit to a garden centre on the way home. In my pocket I had a note with the name of a plant I wanted to buy: ERIGERON.

Pushing a trolley with a squeaky wheel I trawled round the alphabet and eventually I came to the letter E. No sign of ERIGERON. Odd. I thought it would be popular. I had seen it in Cornwall sprawling across walls like a small voluptuous daisy in several hues of pink and white.

Erigeron in Cornwall © Sanandi-jacq

Giving up on the plant-whose-name-I-couldn’t-pronounce I looked for other plant orphans that might like a home. Whilst moving up and down the aisles adoring plants and wanting to give them all a home, I noticed a familiar couple in front of me. Believe it or not – it was my yoga teacher and her husband also seeking plants! What a happy coincidence!

Delighted at the thought of a reunion I jumped out in front of her (later thinking that was not a wise move). Though a little stunned she was equally pleased to see me again after a year. ‘Well. Well. Fancy seeing you. I thought you had moved on again’.

We exchanged pleasantries and updates on status. I asked her what plants she was seeking.

‘A daisy-like plant with an unpronounceable name,’ She said and took a slip of paper from her handbag.

And there it was in black and white – ERIGERON.

I pulled out my note. ‘SNAP! The very same plant I’m after. What are the chances of that!’

Well, if that doesn’t illustrate the idea of synchronicity … .

Can you recall any tales of synchronicity in your life? What explanation would you give for such events?

——————————————————–

Postscript: The nursery didn’t have the plant. We said we’d phone the other if we found a nursery that did. Let’s hope that is some time soon.

Ashtanga yoga jumps

Reinvigorating my practice of Ashtanga Yoga I realise how I have lost the ability to fly. During the years of static posture work I have lost my mojo!

I started practising the style of Ashtanga Yoga about twenty years ago. Ashtanga is a dynamic style of yoga founded by K. Pattabhi Jois consisting of set sequences which are grouped into series. Ashtanga means ‘eight limbs’. All yoga styles follow the eight limbs set out by Patanjali¹, author of the Yoga Sutras, but Ashtanga Yoga is the name of this particular school of yoga. The whole style integrates vinyasa – which literally means movement between poses accompanied by regulated breathing (ujjayi breath).

All those years ago I managed to practice the Primary series relatively well but then I signed up for a yoga teacher training course and found that the style I was to teach was actually termed ‘Hatha yoga’ which meant a more static form of yoga than Ashtanga. My own practice then became a mixture of Hatha and the Iyengar style and I dropped the vinyasa style. (In fact all yoga styles that include physical postures come under the ‘hatha’ label which often confuses folk taking up ‘hatha’ yoga).

It is now some 15 years later that I am returning to the discipline of Ashtanga. I am somewhat older. Despite my continuous ‘hatha’ yoga practice I am not so fluid in practising the dynamic sequences of Ashtanga as I was. One thing I have particularly found on return to Ashtanga practice is that I have forgotten how to fly.

In Ashtanga at certain points in the vinyasa the practitioner transitions from one posture to another by jumping. This has come to be known as flying in Ashtanga yoga if you do it well.

David Swenson, in his book: ‘Ashtanga Yoga – The Practice Manual – An illustrated guide to Personal Practice’ has a section on ‘Applying the Physics of Flight’. So for example if a practitioner is transitioning from the yogic posture of down dog to the sitting stick pose the idea is to jump the legs up and then bring them smoothly down between your arms and buttocks on the floor. This seems to require jumping the feet off the floor so you are almost in a half hand stand. But actually it is more complicated than that.

David Swenson’s advice is to follow a set of four rules for applying the physics of flight as summarised below:

To jump from down dog and bring the legs through to dandasana.

  1. Engaging the lower bhandhasMulabhanda and Uddiyana Bhanda
  2. Lift the sit-bones, sacrum and pelvis (‘your landing gear’) up towards the ceiling
  3. Lead the jump with the hips not the feet
  4. Imagine the ceiling is high and aim for it with the hips.
  5. Drop the sit-bones, sacrum and pelvis (‘landing gear’) when landing.

So I am now to be seen in my yoga hut hands on the floor, buttocks in the air, hips jumping up and down towards the ceiling pulling in my perineum so my hips can get as high as possible. That is all very well but I am no longer light enough to float my legs through my arms so in an ungainly manner I readjust myself so that I am sitting on my buttocks with both my legs straight out in front of me! Oh how I long to be able to fly up with the legs and float through again as I used to do in my younger body. At the moment I can only imagine that happening. But the great thing about yoga is that if you give the mind a posture to mull over in all its intricacy it does somehow send a message to the body that this may be possible in the future. And of course endless practice helps too!

‘99% Practice ~ 1% Theory’!

K. Pattabhi Jois (quoted in Swenson 1999 p.249)
Flying © Sanandi-jacq

Bibliography

Prabhavananda, Swami and Christopher Isherwood. (1969) How to Know God, The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. New York: New American Library (translation and commentary).

Swenson, David. (1999. Ninth Printing 2004) Ashtanga Yoga. the Practice Manual. An Illustrated Guide to Personal Practice. Ashtanga Yoga Productions. pp.60-65

Footnote

¹ Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras named the eight limbs of yoga as follows: Yama = ethical disciplines; Niyama = self observation; Asana = posture; Pranayama = breath control; Pratyahara = sense withdrawal; Dharana = concentration; Dhyana = meditation; Samadhi = a state of joy and peace

Yoga yoking to the whole

Each person is unique yet we belong to the whole of humanity much like individual pebbles belong to the beach. Pebbles are shaped by the action of the sea as we are shaped by the action of life’s currents of conditioning.

No two pebbles are exactly the same. Each pebble has its unique history, shape, colour and provenance. Each pebble has a right to be on the beach. Each pebble contributes to the beach.

Yoga in Sanskrit means ‘to yoke’ or ‘union’. Practising yoga brings a sense of wholeness with oneself and connection with all that is.

Pebbles on a Dorset beach – each one unique Photo credit: © Sanandi-jacq

Yoga joint-freeing series

Yoga is for everyone whatever age group. The secret is in modifying the postures according to the needs of the body. In yoga there is a series of movements called the joint-freeing series or Pawanmuktasana Part 1. This series can be performed at any age.

The joint-freeing series starts with wiggling the toes and finishes with gentle neck movements. Performing simple movements of the joints regularly helps to keep the synovial fluid healthy. In this blog I will concentrate only on the feet to get you started.

The secret is to perform the movements with awareness and intention. By bringing your awareness to the body part you are moving and having the intention to keep the joint well you are training the body to respond to positive thought. Moving the joint in conjunction with the breath aids in focusing the mind on the joint. Regular practice, i.e. everyday particularly in the early morning before or after rising, is recommended to get the body into a habit of healing.

Stop what you are doing now. Take off your shoes and socks/stockings and look at your feet and toes. People often don’t like their feet but for today admire the miracle of your feet. Become aware of all the joints in the toes.

Now begin to curl the toes. Then straighten them noticing what is happening as you do so. If you want to go further add in the breath. As you curl the toes breath out. As you straighten the toes breath in. Repeat the exercise 6-10 times on each foot. If you are short of time you can wiggle both sets of toes at the same time. But it is better to be focussed on one foot at at time as our feet are often different. Pause and notice how your toes feel.

If you should perform this exercise everyday you may find that your toes become so flexible that if you took up a paint brush you could paint with your feet! Some people find that their toes may get a little stuck – there may be a toe that doesn’t move much and so on. The secret is not to judge your own body but to be patient with practice and see if anything changes over time.

Once you have started wiggling your toes you will want to move the other joints in your body. So staying with the feet and starting with your right foot point your toes towards the floor then flex your foot. Do this 6-10 times. Then do the same on the left. As you do so bring your awareness to what is happening in the lower leg – you may find that muscles are moving in the calves. Is anything else happening that you are aware of? Enquire of your body how it is responding to the movements.

Then for the final foot exercise circle the right ankle 6-10 times in a clockwise direction then 6-10 times in an anticlockwise direction. You can use the breath to slow down the movements. Half a circle breath in and half breath out. Then do the same on the left. Be aware of how each ankle feels as you circle it. Maybe the joint clicks as it releases. Don’t worry about these sounds. It usually means that the joint is releasing. Notice if there is a difference between one ankle and the other. Bring your awareness to what is happening in the lower legs. Does circling your ankles affect more than just the ankles?

The joint-freeing series covers all the joints of the body (except the spine) and if performed with awareness and a sense of enquiry into the workings of your own body can have a beneficial effect on the joints, the muscles and fascia around the joints and your sense of well-being. As with all exercise regular and consistent practice is necessary to really appreciate the benefits.

SELF-PRACTICE: When you wake up tomorrow morning before getting out of bed focus on your toes, feet and ankles. Notice how each part feels without judgement. Then begin the three exercises outlined above in the following order. It is more beneficial to focus on one foot at a time. However, if time is an issue exercising both feet at the same time is fine. Do this for the next 30 days and see if there is any change in how your toes, feet and ankles feel.

1) Toe-wiggling

2) Pointing and flexing the feet

3) Circling the ankles clockwise and anti-clockwise.

MORE EXERCISES FROM THE JOINT-FREEING SERIES TO FOLLOW.

Looking after the joints of the feet. Photo credit: © Sanandi-jacq

Reference:

Satyananda, Saraswati, Swami (1996, reprint 2005) Asana, Pranayama, Mudra and Bandha, Yoga Publications Trust, Mungar, Bihar, India pp.23-27 Section on Pawanmuktasana Part 1 series – toes, feet, ankles.

Our daily yogic breath

Daily sitting focussing on the breath brings the mind to a calmer place. Less swirling of random thoughts. Less room for the inner critic. More room for awareness. More spaciousness and peace.

Twenty minutes regular practice in two sessions – one in the morning and one in the evening – eases stress and anxiety in everyday life.

Meditation on the breath has the added benefit of making the mind more creative when off the mat. Well worth the time.

Restorative yoga

What do I have in my yoga repertoire to restore my energy? In the past I would probably have practised several rounds of sun salutations to give me a buzz. Nowadays I know that tends to be counterproductive when the body systems are weary. They don’t need more sympathetic nervous system stimulation which is what the sun salutation sequences are good at providing. Instead I head towards restorative yoga practice which works on the parasympathetic nervous system.

So what is restorative yoga? Is this some new-fangled yoga fad? Well, it might be more popular these days because of the rising tide of stress and anxiety sweeping through the population however the actual postures have been around for years. They are simply resting yoga postures held for longer and that can mean minutes at a time. The body is placed in a restful position conducive to relaxation allowing the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in.

Take this morning. I went into the yoga hut having not slept much over night. I could feel the weariness as I prepared to do my usual practice which usually includes a few sun salutations. Tuning into my body I knew that a restorative practice would be much more beneficial even if that meant falling asleep (very tempting when so comfortable in a pose though best to keep awake).

So, first of all I simply lay down in the corpse pose and tuned in to how the body felt. Just a few minutes. Enough to scan through each body part and sense what state it was in. Next I put my legs up the wall and stayed still. Must have stayed there for a good ten minutes. A gentle pulse became palpable in my lower back. The body urged me to move on.

For the next pose I lay back on a bolster with a meditation cushion under my head. Buttocks on the floor my legs were stretched out straight and my arms rested by my sides palms facing up. Yummy! Another ten minutes until I felt a slight discomfort in my lower back. Time to move on. Having practiced a chest opening pose it was time to close down in a forward bend. Using the bolster and meditation cushion again I knelt in front of the poster and lay my stomach across the bolster resting my head on one side on the meditation cushion (changing head to the other side to balance the body when the urge to do so arose). Another ten minutes passed. This pose I could have held longer but I decided to keep the practice balanced in terms of timings in backbend/forward bend counterpose stakes. Better for the body.

Finally I relaxed back into the corpse pose – legs outstretched, arms outstretched by my side with palms face up. Head in neutral and not using a pillow and I stayed there for as long as I felt I could. When I next looked at my watch it had been twenty minutes! Might have been shorter if the sun hadn’t been shining in and warming hut and body!

You can do the maths. The whole restorative yoga session took about 50 minutes and I only practised five poses – one of those twice! And wow did I feel good as a result.

What did I do afterwards? Well, that’s for another blogpost! Whatever I did, I floated around in a state of calm and rest. Carry on restorative yoga!

Kathmandu trip 1990s

Central Kathmandu 1990 Photo © Sanandi-jacq
Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal Photo © Sanandi-jacq
Kathmandu Photo © Sanandi-jacq

In the 1990s I travelled to Nepal for two weeks to explore Kathmandu. I stayed with family who were working there at the time. During this trip I met Robina Courtin – a Western Tibetan Buddhist nun who inspired me to enquire into Buddhism. Whilst on the trip I experienced for the first time the burning ghats. It is without doubt that this experience of witnessing bodies burning by the river acted as a memento mori of the inevitability of death. As a result of this trip the reality of the impermanence of life struck home. Following the experience I became a keen reader of eastern philosophy.

G is for Garudasana

Garudasana means Eagle pose. Garuda = eagle. Asana = posture.

It is one of many standing balance poses in yoga. The balance postures help to balance the nervous system and ease stress and anxiety. Concentrating on an unmoving spot/point in front of you whilst in the asana can aid in keeping balance for longer because the mind has to calm down in order to stay focused on the point.

Garudasana is described as an asymmetrical standing balance pose. This means that the practitioner focuses on one side of the body then the other experiencing the condition of their muscles on each side separately.

Garudasana has many benefits but the main ones are as follows:

  • strengthens the muscles of the legs and arms
  • tones the nerves of the legs and arms
  • loosens the joints of the legs and arms
  • enhances the ability to balance
  • trains the individual to focus on a fixed point or drishti thus enhancing balance and reinforces the concept of ekagrata or one-pointed concentration

This is one of my favourite balancing asanas. By imagining oneself as an eagle about to fly off from a perching point one feels the inner energy being conserved in the still posture. The arms and legs wrap around each other conserving the energy within. In the forward bending posture there is also a sense of containment of the energy between the bandhas moola bandha and jalandhara bandha. Then if you allow the imagination to let you become the eagle as you release the arms and legs it feels as though one is the actual eagle with powerful wings lifting off into flight. For me ‘quality’ in asana is all about sensing the potency of the pose not only its physical benefits but its mental and spiritual benefits.

Pastel painting of Garudasana / eagle pose by Sanand-Jacq

This A-Z series of blogs focuses on unpacking the Sanskrit terms used in yoga.

Photo-of-the-day: Mandala

The making of the Mandala – symbol of impermanence © Sanandi-jacq

The mandala is created from a base of sand on which a group add powder paint, seeds, flowers, stones and other objects. The mandala is created in a day and at the end of the day the whole structure is dispersed to the four corners of the earth. The Tibetan Buddhists do this practice with great concentration making the most beautiful mandala which after a set period of time is ritually swept away showing the impermanence of life.

The empty mandala made of sand surrounded by rope with an orange rose set in the middle as the starting point for the creation of the full mandala.