Leading with your Breath

The breath can lead the body toward wellness and the mind toward calmness.

A.G Mohan

The theme of my class today was inspired by this quote. We can try and understand this quote intellectually and know that it is probably true but it is only through our practice that we come to know fully the absolute truth and wisdom of this statement. When we practice yoga asana (postures) without a focus on the breath it is not true yoga. Focussing on the breath anchors us in the present moment but also has deep physiological benefits for not only the Nervous System but all systems of the body as well as the mind. We must start our practice with the breath and try to experience our movement as an extension of the breath. When we begin yoga we might force ourselves into an asana but stress and discomfort will disturb out breathing which creates imbalances in both body and mind.

So too when we are deeply connected to our breath throughout our day we can maintain a sense of serenity regardless of what is going on around us (or we can make a choice to get back to that place if we're knocked off centre). The ability to stay calm comes from within us and is intricately linked to our breath. I think we know this intuitively but we forget - our breathing quickens and becomes more shallow in stressful or anxiety producing situations. When we tune into the body through yoga practice we notice this and we know what to do to counteract it, to give us space to respond rather than react. We lengthen the breath, we deepen the breath and physiologically we trigger a calming response.

This knowledge then guides us to begin to understand that we have a choice. As Wayne Dyer notes 'Blaming others for our lack of calmness will never bring us to the state of being that we'd like to attain.' How often do we blame others for our emotional reaction?

Dr Dyer also says 'The solution to a life of unrest is choosing stillness.'

Personally I have lived 20 years of unrest until I chose stillness as a daily practice. Our asana practice, with a focus on the breath, prepares our body and nervous system for stillness, to be able to connect to that deep place of calm which is there, often unseen - like the eye of a storm -  forgotten in the busy-ness, veiled by fluctuating thought patterns and over-activity. Yoga begins to lift that veil.

So let your breath lead you to calmness, to true wellness, as you practice on and off the mat. 

5 Ways to Calm your Nervous System

Stephen Cope writes in his book The Wisdom of Yoga:

“The shape, look and feel of this world is actually a function of our own nervous system”.

This encapsulates my own experience so vividly. A couple of years ago my nervous system was headed for a breakdown and the look and feel of my world at that point matched this malfunction. At the lowest points in my struggles I was barely sleeping each night and experiencing strong muscle twitching and jerking in my limbs – surely a sign of my sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” part) being in overdrive. In Ayurveda (the sister science of yoga) such symptoms would constitute a “Vata Derangement” – in other words a whacked out nervous system! Both wings of our nervous system are necessary and important but in our fast-paced world we live mainly from the sympathetic wing - which is like the accelerator of our car – think about what would happen if you only used the accelerator of your car while driving - crashing likely!

Here are my tips for soothing your brain, spine and of course, in turn, your nerves – the central components of your nervous system. It’s time to start applying the brakes….

1) Do abdominal breathing / relaxation / meditation. Some people find it hard to sit in meditation. It took me many years of yoga postures before I finally sat for more than 10 minutes, so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t sit! An alternative is laying on your back with your hands on your belly, breathing deeply and raising the belly with each breath. Don’t let your chest rise – it’s harder than it sounds. Abdominal breathing activates the soothing and calming parasympathetic wing of the nervous system. Making your exhale long and slow increases the benefits.

2) Eat “grounding” foods. The following foods are recommended for those with a “Vata Defect”!

Protein and omega 3 oils such as fish oil (or if you are vegetarian you can use a combination of flax oil and DHA from algae).

Avoid refined sugar and flour

Good quality dairy, eggs, nut and seed butters

Sesame oil and ghee added to cooked foods

Cooked vegetables (salads are to be avoided as they are too light but if you can’t resist in summer, use an oily dressing)

3) Do yoga poses that increase blood flow to the brain or involve a “chin lock”. These activate the parasympathetic nervous system and calm the brain. Poses in which you bend forward, invert or lay back over bolsters are beauties.

4) Cut stimulants such as caffeine, sugar and alcohol. Alcohol deprives the brain of oxygen – the buzz is the feeling of neurons drowning.

5) Get regular exercise and more sleep. Note, if you’re ill, stressed or working hard you need more sleep!

As Dr Robert Svoboda, a renowned Ayurvedic doctor says:

It is easiest to harmonise the body-mind-spirit complex by starting with the body….balance of the mind and spirit…comes more easily once the body has been made firm and healthy.”

A healthy nervous system = a healthy and happy you and a different world to enjoy!


Cultivating your Inner Light

"The joy of Christmas" is a much used tagline perhaps started to describe this time of year with some depth and meaning but is most often used now as an advertising hook to encourage more buying. For many, Christmas is a happy time - family, fairy lights and food - which do provide a sense of joy but this can fade after all is unwrapped and consumed and we head back to our daily tasks.

I strolled around the block earlier this week to check out a house one street away that every year produces an epic display of twinkling extravagance and this year was no exception. It got me thinking because in the light of day this house doesn't have a lot of sparkle and I would not tend to describe its residents as joyful. It made me wonder what life would be like for them, in fact all of us, if we put as much effort into cultivating our inner light as we do on the external, flashing veneer of joy we cover our houses in for a month each year. I'm not saying ditch the fairy lights (I LOVE them) but rather calling us to consider whether our attention is more focused on external "lights" than the internal one. As a result of my musings I've remembered some practices to help us cultivate light and joy on a daily basis - long after the fairy lights are packed away!
Here are 5 ways to strengthen the light within for 2016:
1) Experience the divine in everything. Nischala Joy Devi calls us to focus on a simple repetitive chore such as making the bed (or washing up or hanging out the washing) and ask ourselves how this can be made into a spiritual practice. Perhaps by savouring the smooth feel of fresh sheets, the warmth and comfort of the water and bubbles in the sink or the smell of clean clothes....it's a matter of bringing full sense awareness to every daily task and performing it mindfully.
2) Take note of what saps your joy and positive energy - make a decision not to do / eat / drink / listen / watch / engage with these.
3) Connect with nature regularly - observe the natural display of lights available every night. Spend some time gazing at the moon or doing some meditation beneath the stars.
4) Find time for the things that make you feel happy to be alive (e.g for me: yoga, meditation and surfing!!). Don't just do them in the holidays.
5) Experience your breath and moments of stillness throughout each day (after yoga practice is a great time) so that you can become a witness to your unchanging, true nature which IS joy - a fact that we've forgotten.

I hope these practices give you inspiration for strengthening your inner light in 2016 to make it your brightest yet!


Living each step as a prayer

"As you walk upon the sacred Earth treat each step as a prayer."

Black Elk

This quote came to me in a bar of organic raw chocolate. The quote is on my prayer table at home so it’s been a few months that I have been contemplating what this could actually mean for my life. It’s a massive undertaking – to make each…step…a….prayer! It caused me to consider what this could look like and I came up with the following (it’s always a work in progress of course):

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