Meditation & Yoga

Navasana into Handstand

Navasana

I practice physical (Hatha) Yoga

and mental (Raja) Yoga.

I am not sure it is possible to do one without the other; just as we cannot inhale without exhaling – they go together. However, as we all know, there are different levels of practice to any art or science. Similarly, it is possible to be breathing every waking moment of the day and yet by days end be completely unaware of having experienced the incredible life giving exchange of oxygen.

“When the word Yoga is mentioned, most people immediately think of some physical postures for relaxing and limbering up the body. This is one aspect of the Yogic science, but actually only a very small part and relatively recent in development. The physical Yoga, or Hatha Yoga, was primarily designed to facilitate the real practice of Yoga – namely, the understanding and complete mastery over the mind. So the actual meaning of Yoga is the science of the mind.”

-From the Introduction The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Yoga is subjective and in Western culture this is very much the case. No one can define for another what Yoga should be. Once we choose to practice anything, we make it our own.

We can choose to simply go through the motions and be done with our practice, whatever that may be (Yoga, running, swimming, Tai Chi, etc.), and check it off our master list of things to do for the day, or we can choose to practice with intention, focus and purpose. It takes the same amount of time to do either and no more effort. It comes down to choice.

My Yoga practice over the last eighteen years has had its own evolution; years of intense continuous practice to some years with very little to none at all. There were moments when my ego subconsciously struggled with attaining physical goals to moments like right now where I feel deeply satisfied in practicing without a goal. The practice is the practice – just as I am beginning to understand, to really understand that there is only now.

It is definitely an interesting state of mind to observe oneself; like a spectator to my own thoughts and to my own physical practice. With this in mind I am sharing a video that I put together as an example of what practice can do.

I began filming myself as a tool to analyze my alignment. At the same time I realized that there aren’t many videos out there that actually show, through the progression of time, how we can improve with consistent practice. We often see photographs of the final product, or experts demonstrating the final product, which is important, but I think it is equally important for beginners to see that regardless of ability, we all have to start at the very beginning – our own beginning.

This video shows what 12 weeks of practice looks like (bloopers and all).

At this point, I would like to bridge the idea of practice with time. In this video I am demonstrating my attempts at doing Navasana (boat) into Handstand, which is the thirteenth posture in the Ashtanga Yoga Primary series. I get to Navasana by the fifty-minute mark and only spend about three to four minutes on this particular sequence. I proved to myself what an impact short duration practice can have. I only spent three to four minutes, two to three times per week on this.

But in the same breath, achieving the physical is actually unimportant. I realize this may come across as a contradiction, and I am fully aware of this, but I think that this is what makes it such an interesting state of mind. An important element of the physical and mental Yoga practice is about confronting one’s ambition and learning to manage it.

“Real yoga is what you can’t see. It’s invisible.”

-David Williams

I filmed this after about a year of an on-again regular home-based Ashtanga Yoga practice, which included Surya Namaskara A & B, the Standing Series, the first twelve seated postures, three backbends followed by the closing sequence, practiced two to three times per week. (A total of forty-five minutes for each practice session).

I did very few jump through or jump back vinyasa because doing them in previous years seemed to cause irritation (in hindsight, I realize now that because I was out of balance I would unknowingly compensate at my shoulders or neck or back etc.), so I made the executive decision to leave those vinyasa out and see what would happen.

July 2012, I felt that it was time to add on. The thirteenth posture in the series is Navasana. From all my years of practice I never attempted the handstand, which is part of that progression. I would always just do a seated lift, and carry on, which was typically taught in classes and I was not told to do the handstand by my teacher in Mysore class. Since I was reviewing and studying from John Scott’s manual, I took it as a sign that I should attempt it. Again, this felt like walking the tight rope of ambition…

Traditionally, in Ashtanga Yoga, the student should not proceed with postures until the preceding postures are attained with adequate proficiency. This makes perfect sense to me. In previous years though, when I would go to classes, students of all levels would be herded through the entire primary series regardless of ability. I decided I wouldn’t do this anymore. There is a reason for practicing the same thing over and over again until the body and mind is ready to add on. Western culture, tends to override theory with the customer is always right and wanting a perceived moneys-worth-of-a-workout. It is OK to proceed at a snail’s pace because being able to contort oneself into a pose doesn’t mean anything without Raja Yoga.

“Real yoga lives in everyday interactions, like being nice.

It’s the unity we can create around us.

If it were just about gymnastics, then Olympic medalists would be swamis and gurus. “

– David Swenson

In the video you will see that at the beginning I couldn’t even do a handstand to gradually understanding the transition from the seated lift attempting to pivot into the handstand. Now, hold on a second. I feel like I should clarify something. Yes, of course I could do a handstand in a gymnastics kind of way. But doing a handstand in a Yogic state of mind is very different. Try it sometime.

But what is important for me to share is that it is the process of practice that is the goal, not the goal of attaining the pose or sequence. I may never be able to move seemlessly from Navasana to Handstand, but that really doesn’t matter to me. If we truly understand what practice means, then we understand that a pose is never attained, no matter how beautiful of an image we see of one, because it continues to grow and transform with each practice.

We age. Life happens. We change. We grow.

And naturally so does everything we do.

Our body shifts and changes so much with every day as does our mind (from thoughts and experiences) that each day when we practice we are completely different from the previous day.

To me, this type of physical Yoga, is an incredibly thorough system of physical therapy, which makes its ancient beginnings so remarkable. As we progress through the system, if we take care and not rush through with ambition, our body will become innately prepared for the next posture. But this takes time and practice.

“Practice, and all is coming.”

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

Practice without ambition. Practice with focus and with a desire to learn with each breath. Practice being in the moment and not thinking about what comes next.

;

You will notice that I have sped up the video in some areas; however, I have not slowed it down at all. Shortening twelve weeks of practice (approximately 144 minutes of total practice time into a 5minute video has its challenges).

As an aside, I just wanted to explain that most of the seated postures in Ashtanga Yoga are only held for five breaths, which amounts to approximately one minute each. In the big picture, this does not seem like a lot of time. But when you practice regularly, then you will know that when we focus our attention on a task, a lot can happen in one minute; this is more profound than spending more time without focus. It makes a difference and it this which contributes to change.

I will talk more about focused practice vs. duration next time.

Advertisements

Modified Sun Salutation

Upward Salute – Urdhva Hastasana - Person perf...

“If this is how my body feels at twenty-one,

it worries me to think about

how it will feel in ten to twenty years.”

– Travis Nelson

Travis is a swimming coach and lifeguard at the pool where I swim. One day last year (September 2011) he asked me if I could recommend some exercises for his back. He told me that his lower back was sore and he thought that he should do some exercises to strengthen it.

I offered that it might be more complex than that and that focusing on strengthening the back could very possibly make things worse. There could be a whole host of possibilities as to why he feels pain and discomfort in his lower back. Oftentimes, this type of pain stems from imbalance. Meaning that some muscles may be over developed while others are underdeveloped and therefore being overworked. When our muscles are balanced, “not too tight and not too loose” then our joints are better supported and will work better on demand. Anyone can use brute force to blast through a set of an exercise or sprint to the finish line while in pain or not. But as far as exercise and physical movement is concerned, in my mind, exercise is about establishing a bio-mechanical functioning body. Sport on the other hand is about times and points. But as you will see, most professional athletes spend an inordinate amount of time perfecting the accuracy with each micro-phase of each movement.  It is this concept of precision, which is what I hope to relay in this site.

My conversation with Travis lasted no more than 4 minutes. I suggested he start with the 3-Hip Stretches and I showed him very quickly (pool side) how to stretch his psoas. He is the ideal student. He actually followed-up and did these exercises.

For quite some time afterward, in my mind I could not stop hearing him say: “If this is how my body feels at twenty-one…” and I wanted to share these words with you. So, I caught up with Travis and asked him if I could film him saying what he said to me in that first conversation. It was funny, because I wanted to assure him that I could edit the filming in the case he was uncomfortable, to which he assured me that it wasn’t a problem because he is an actor. Fantastic! He surprised me by walking me through what I had taught him in those few minutes from a few months earlier. You will see, I think he did very well.

Below is the long overdue video that I promised Travis that I would put together so that he would be able to see what the sequence looks like in its entirety. This is the modified Sun Salutation that I do each morning.

My Morning Routine (20 minutes):

  1. Bed Stretches (2 – 5 minutes)
  2. Wall and floor stretches with Travel Roller ball & roller (3 – 5 minutes)
  3. Modified Sun Salutation (3 – 4 minutes)
  4. 4 Minute Morning (week 3 – DAY 7) (4 – 5 minutes)
  5. Walk in a figure-8 (30 seconds)

Down the road I will put together a video to break down the finer points of the modified Sun Salutation. The first step for anyone is to learn the sequence by memory; once that is achieved then we can begin to fine tune and deepen our understanding.

Note: These stretches/ exercises are appropriate for my body but may not be for yours. Use caution when trying anything new. I find it works best to err on the side of caution. Begin with one exercise and repeat that one exercise for a week or so, until it is committed to memory, only then consider adding on.

Related Articles:

One One-Hundredth of a Second Faster: Building Better Olympic Athletes 

Meditation – It May Not Be What You Think

Buddha Seated in Meditation (Dhyanamudra), Ind...

I meditate every day.

But not in the way you might typically associate with meditation. When I meditate, I am moving. Sounds kind of wrong, doesn’t it?

Most of us have pre-conceived ideas with what meditation is. We tend to conjure images of a person sitting quietly, legs crossed in lotus, arms extended with the back of the wrists resting gently on the knees. Chanting OM. We imagine a blank mind, so still, devoid of any thing at all. Possibly, why so many people dismiss it as something that they could never do. How does one do, well…nothing?

Meditating Outside

About fourteen years ago, I went to a two-day meditation workshop. We were a small group of about 8 women. Some had a lot of experience meditating, (they taught others how to meditate) and me, with no formal training. We spent the first day reviewing a lot of material and practicing finding the meditative state. The second day, each of us got a chance to be connected to brainwave biofeedback technology.

I was surprised to learn that I was able to easily recreate a “meditative state” while the seasoned meditators were shocked to learn that they had gone too far, into Delta – that means asleep!

Let me give you some backstory. Growing up, I was always an active kid. I was good at imitation and did well in gymnastics and dance. I often got to play the lead in our year-end dance recitals. I remember well, discovering the meditative state then, though I had no idea that that was what it was. I just thought of it as “going on automatic pilot”. The recital began, and before I knew it, it was over and we were taking our bow. How did I get there, having performed every step? It was like a dream. I understand now and from the biofeedback, that I must have been performing in a ‘meditative state’ of sorts.

It still happens today, but now because I understand better what it means and the usefulness of it I enter my active meditation with purpose, it doesn’t so much just happen anymore. This is why I have always preferred to exercise alone. I don’t and won’t listen to music and definitely don’t and won’t have a conversation when I’m doing my body maintenance. When I practice any kind of movement I allow myself to fall into a meditative state. For me, that means focusing on what I am doing – deeply – not falling asleep! 🙂

This is what I focus on when I practice active meditation:

  • The repetition, precision and accuracy of each phase of each movement pattern
  • The myriad details that occupy the alignment of my skeletal structure
  • My breathing (pattern, tempo, capacity)
  • Still the fluctuations of the ‘mind-stuff’ (thoughts come and go, this is natural, meditation for me doesn’t mean that I have to have a blank mind – meditation is a dynamic practice).

When I am not meditating, but in full-on-go-mode, as in ok, kids are in school, I’ve got six hours to get as much done as possible mode, my brain is moving very quicklyI often think about a lot of different things at one time. Of late, this phenomenon has been occurring at what seems like an exponential rate. I attribute it, primarily, to having cut gluten out of my diet. I feel more awake; synapses seem to be firing more effectively. I still fall back on my old ways of course, which feels like a paralyzed state of confusion, how do I mentally organize, catalogue and categorize ALL the things that I have to get done along with the things that I want to get done. This is our daily practice and it is always changing. At this point I play a game with myself, as soon as I think it, I do it (within reason of course). So far it is working wonderfully, which segues to the following.

Recently, I came across this sentence:

The human brain processes 40 thoughts every second.

Photographer Isabel M. Martinez captures the beauty of the hyperactive mind in her collection Quantum Blink, which reconsiders the moment as we know it. Her muse? Electroencephalography, a measure of electrical activity in the brain.”

– Fast Company, October 2012

So, I looked her up and this is a portion from her “artist statement”:

“According to quantum mechanics we have forty conscious moments per second, and our brains 
connect this sequence of nows to create the illusion of the flow of time. So, what would things look like if that intermittence were made visible? This body of work explores that hiccup, that blink, that ubiquitous fissure in the falling-into-place of things.”

Perhaps all of us don’t really realize the potential of our awake state. How much we could potentially accomplish by tapping into our seconds of consciousness. Now THAT would be living in the now. If you stop for a moment and really conceptualize the meaning behind the above sentence: 40 thoughts every second. In my mind this encapsulates every possible stimuli, from temperature, sound, light/darkness, smell, touch, texture, images, language, meaning, movement (intentional or automatic), and so on. This is huge. It’s no wonder advertising and media have got us wrapped around their subliminal fingers. This is why we find ourselves buying things we don’t need but think that we do.

By practicing a moving meditation we learn how to distinguish between the fluctuations of the ‘mind-stuff’. We learn how to distinguish between time sensitive thoughts (actions that need to addressed in the moment) and learn how to dismiss those that are not. It is not easy and that is why it is recommended to be practiced daily. It is important in supporting a calm and patient mind.

In Sanskrit: Yogas Citta Vritti Nirodhah

Yogas = Yoga;  chitta = of the mind-stuff;                                   vritti = modifications:  nirodhah = restraint.

The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.

“If the restraint of the mental modifications is achieved one has reached the goal of Yoga. The entire science of Yoga is based on this. If you can control the rising of the mind into ripples, you will experience Yoga.”

The Yoga Sutras Patanjali, Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda

 

And it is for this reason that I feel that exercise and meditation are such good teammates. The point of exercise in my opinion, aside from enjoyment, because really that goes without saying, is to maintain a functioning dynamic human structure. To do that, we must tap into how we move with intention and precision and be present (in every second) as we effect movement.

So, you see, for me meditation isn’t about doing nothing, but rather the training of a state of complete focus and calm where clarity is nurtured because the fluctuations are restricted. It is a practice that translates into everything we do.

Next time I will discuss the phases of creating movement within the meditative state. I will explain HOW to get to this stage, keeping in mind that everyone’s stages and phases will look completely different. I realize that this idea can seem WAY OUT THERE for the beginner, and with this in mind I will endeavour to break it down!

We have to crawl before we can walk.

Meditation

Related Articles:

The Importance of Brain Waves in Our Everyday Learning

How to Best Support ADHD-gifted Children