Withdrawing the Senses

pratyahara

“If you don’t go within, you go without.” –Darren Main

 

Are you mindful of your sensations? Your words? Your idle activities? Pratyahara is one of the eight limbs of yogic philosophy, which means the withdrawal or control of the senses.  This is a stage of yoga practice just beyond the physical where internal yoga practice begins.  Practicing pratyahara takes place when your individual consciousness is turned inward so you can master the flow of prana, or energy, in your body.  Specifically, pratyahara is the withdrawing yourself away from anything unwholesome, excessive, or distracting for the mind. 

Most people don’t have the ability to withdraw into seclusion in the mountains to meditate without distractions. It is a little easier to harmonize with prana when you can renounce the world to focus on controlling the senses.  In the real world we have temptations of money, sex, fame, etc. If you can overcome the temptations here then you have really mastered your senses.

“If you control your mouth—what you put into it and what comes out of it—you’ve controlled much of your mind already,” Sri Dharma Mittra explains in his book.  Every effort helps.  If you can master your senses even a little bit, you can calm your mind, improve concentration, and increase your energy.  Think about what you put into your body.  Do you nourish your body with what it needs? Or are you feeding your senses?  Even if you are vegetarian and in control of some aspects of a regulated diet, there can still be issues with overeating, eating unhealthy choices, processed foods that make you feel lethargic.

Just like yoga practice, it starts physical and external (your diet) and the next stage is more internal.  Are you mindful of what you say?  Any form of communication can be included: texting, emailing, body language, small talk.  How much time do you spend watching bad TV, listening to talk radio, or playing virtual games?  These temptations are satisfying for our senses but the satisfaction can wear off quickly and the cycle continues.  

One common technique to get a handle on the senses is to practice breath control, pranayama.  When breathing mindfully, we automatically withdraw from the external and focus inward.  So if you can control the senses, your energy is focused on one single-pointed thing.  Rather than feeding your body with unhealthy food, words, or thoughts, you can send out your energy to whatever is important to you.  This mindful discipline towards an intention has many physical and psychological benefits. You will have more energy since it is not wasted on distractions, more contentment by being present in the moment, and more productivity because of the increased concentration and focus.

Try driving to work without the radio on. Try eating a meal in silence without any distractions—no phones, television, or activities.  Try avoiding gossip, eavesdropping, and idle speech. At first your body or mind may react negatively, feel annoyed, or give up.  The more you practice focusing on one single-pointed thing and releasing the power of the senses, you can diminish your desires and experience true peace and contentment.

Pose of the Month: July

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Wild Thing

Sanskrit: Camatkarasana

There are many different ways to transition from downward facing dog and Wild Thing or  “flip your dog” as you might hear it, is one of them! Wild thing is a fun and challenging way to open up the hips and chest!

Benefits: Opens up chest, lung, and shoulder areas as well as the front of your legs and hip flexors. Builds strength in your shoulders and upper back.

Directions:

Start in downward facing dog with your hands spread wide, hips pressed up and back, heels lengthen down.

INHALE- Extend your right leg high. Make sure keep the right hip in line with your left to keep your hips squared.

EXHALE- Bend your right knee to rotate your right hip open. Lift your right palm towards the sky while your left hand remains the grounded palm.

INHALE- Press your sternum up and allow the head to drop back behind you.

 

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Yoga for Athletes

Lots of professional athletes are catching on to the fact that yoga can help repair their bodies.  Through vigorous exercise and repetition in sports, athletes tend to have problems with tightness, tendonitis, and even struggle to touch their toes.  Through athletic training, these athletes tend to have a lot of strength in some areas but inflexibility in others.  The other tricky part is, most athletic sports encourage healthy competition which can be challenging to leave at the door of the yoga studio.

For athletes that can come with an open-mind and let go of the win-lose attitude on the mat, the benefits are extensive.  Increased strength, flexibility, mobility, focus, and improved sleep-wake cycle are just some of the list.  In turn, yoga has the potential to enhance athletic ability and peak performance. Yoga by Degrees has a partnership with the Chicago Red Stars, a professional women’s soccer team.  They visit our facilities to help balance their intense soccer training and season schedule.  “Doing yoga has been very beneficial for both my body and mind,” said Red Stars forward Alyssa Mautz. “It has helped me with mobility and recovery. And for me, it helps clear my head and allows me to focus on the present moment. It’s helped my game tremendously.”

Usually with the repetition in disciplines like running, biking, and playing soccer, there are several muscle groups that are under-utilized.  For any type of student, yoga works to bring us into balance.  Increasing core stability and optimizing a more balanced strength tends to rehab athletes from their injuries caused by overuse.  When you find balance on your yoga mat, it tends to leak out into a more balanced life off the mat.  Through consistent yoga practice, improved coordination and balance can lead to better technique and form in the athletic realm.  When you improve your flexibility through yoga, practitioners are enhancing joint, muscular, and deep tissue pliancy to increase range of motion.  For example, a soccer player with increased core strength and more flexibility in their hip joints and legs will be able to have a longer stride and a greater ability to change direction on the field.

So that takes care of just the physical benefits of yoga for athletes.  While the physical benefits are huge, they are still just the tip of the iceberg.  What about the mental aspect of yoga?  Most people who are first starting out with yoga come for a great workout, which is right in the typical athlete’s wheelhouse.  The meditative aspects of yoga, especially savasana (corpse pose), can be super challenging for some.  After you have worked, stretched, toned and invigorated your body and mind, savasana is a time to lie on your mat completely still.  People who resist savasana may just opt out and leave the class early or spend the time mentally and physically fidgeting.  Many people think the hard work is over but savasana is the most essential pose of class.  It is the time to meditate and let all the benefits of the practice settle into your body and especially mind.  Savasana helps to improve your focus, and quiet the impulses of the mind.  For an athlete, training the body is very important.  But training the mind is what can remove blockages and free them from fear, doubt, or negativity to help them persevere and be the best version of themselves.

 

Meet our Teacher of the Month: Bonnie

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Bonnie has been an amazing asset to the Yoga by Degrees company since her arrival.  In 2010, she completed her 200-hour teacher training in Vinyasa at Yoga to the People in New York. She teaches at all locations and is constantly bending over backwards to sub whenever she can. Her classes aim to be challenging, but accessible, with a strong emphasis on breath and alignment. She attempts to create a safe space for students to tap into their deepest, truest selves. An avid music fan, Bonnie’s playlists provide an ambiance which promote a challenging flow and rhythmic cadence. In addition to teaching and practicing yoga, she is in medical school training to be a physician.  She is so busy with med school and boards, yet she makes time in our studios an important priority. Thank you so much for going above and beyond being an awesome yoga instructor and integral part of our YBD family!!! Learn more about Bonnie:

When and how did you come to yoga?

When I was a freshman in college, I signed up for a class at the rec center. It was sort of a hatha/Iyengar blend, and I actually found it sort of boring. . . My background was in dance and gym-based fitness, so the slow pace didn’t suit me at the time. It wasn’t until my boyfriend in college brought me with him to his Bikram studio that I fell in love with yoga. I practiced Bikram avidly for about four years before I found vinyasa. Bikram is still my yoga home, but I almost practice vinyasa these days.

Why did you start teaching yoga?

I studied biology in college, and every time I had a rough test, I’d convince myself that if I failed out of school, I’d just become a yoga teacher. Now, a decade later and in medical school, I still fantasize about leaving it all behind, moving back to northern California (where I’m from), living by the beach, and being a yoga teacher. I actually applied to a teacher training on a whim in the summer of 2010, and it ended up being one of the most transformative experiences of my life. Now I see my teaching as a parallel to my medical career. . . both are about helping people be their best, healthiest selves. What an amazing thing to be a part of.

What is your favorite pose?

Ustrasana/camel pose. I think it comes from my background in Bikram. I spent the first several years of my practice dreading it (and feeling nauseated and lightheaded every time I did it). A point came soon after my teacher training when I started to enjoy the fact that, even if it was unpleasant, it made me feel intensely. Now when I teach it, I like to have my students come out of the pose and sit on their heels with their hands at their hearts. I like to talk about how valuable it is to maintain a broad, open chest, even after that deep, intense backbend. . . What a beautiful metaphor for staying open and refusing to close oneself off, even after having been vulnerable. One of the many gifts our yoga practice gives us.

Who inspires your teaching?

That’s such a hard question to answer, since I learn so much from everyone at YBD. It’s a rare class where I’m not overwhelmed with gratitude for the amazing teachers I get to practice with. I will say, however, that I sometimes feel like I ended up at YBD so that I could absorb some of Lara’s goodness. She’s as close to a spiritual teacher or guide that I’ve ever had.

Tips for beginners…

Be willing to laugh… At yourself if you fall out of something or at us for the ridiculous contortions we ask you to do.

What’s your favorite quote?

to live in this world

you must be able

to do three things

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go

-Mary Oliver

 

Matsyasana: Fish Pose

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Matsyasana

Fish Pose

“Destroyer of all diseases”

 

Benefits:

Stretches your hip flexors (psoas) and your muscles (intercostals) between the ribs while stimulating your belly and front and back of your neck. Also helps to improve your posture.

 

Directions:

Start lying down on your mat with legs together and arms to your sides.

Roll your forearms and palms underneath your sits bones while pressing up to your elbows.

Press your heart up while dropping the crown of your head back and pointing the toes forward.

 

Modifications:

If you feel any pinching or pulling at the back of your neck, grab a blanket and place at the base of the neck for extra support.

Use a block or bolster to help support your sternum up and back.

 

Yoga for Stress Relief

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Do you use stress management techniques?  Or does stress manage you?  Yoga can help you manage your reactions to stress and help you control your health and well-being.  Whether you feel pressure from work, family, relationships, busy schedules, you may experience a good deal of stress or anxiety.  Most likely the things that put pressure on you are important to your life so dealing with the stress is a better alternative to deleting one of those valued assets.  Your stress reaction may be energizing—you feel your heart beat quicken and your face flush.  On the other hand, your stress reaction may be exhausting—you feel drained and shut down.  Stress is always a constant guarantee in life so the trick is to manage your reaction to it.  You have the power to dictate exactly how you feel in any situation.

You can navigate through stress by finding the balance between the fiery reaction and the exhausting one.  Let the voice in your head that pushes you be as strong as the voice that nurtures you.  Respond to anxiety with a blend of inner fire and inner calm.  Yoga can be a training ground for lengthening the time between your emotional reaction and a stressor.  You can train with a fiery practice of putting challenging asana into your body but having enough discipline to feel calm and still from within.  When the demanding physical practice is met with mindfulness, breath control, and calm you are able to find that balance.

Studies suggest that yoga conditions our nervous system to bring us into that state of balance. For some we need more fire and others need more calm.  The first step is discovering your reflex to stress through self-study.  There’s no need to activate your fight or flight response to handle most of the day to day challenges.  The fight or flight response kicks your autonomic nervous system into high gear. Your body will pump hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine which will increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and heighten your senses.  This would be great if you were being chased by a lion so you are primed with energy and focus.  However, when you are experiencing it in the form of road rage, the fight or flight response brings on anger, anxiety, and aggression.  On the other hand, you may be able to relax but only if you disengage from your stress.  The trick is to find enough fire to meet the challenge rather than letting it overwhelm you.  Sometimes you have to acknowledge the stress rather than remove yourself from it.

Yoga isn’t about burning your way through stress or escaping from it.  It goes deeper so your mind and body transform the way you approach and react to stress.  This process takes practice and patience.  Retrain your thought patterns and teach your nervous system new ways of coping and navigating through challenging poses both on and off the mat.

Balancing Yin and Yang

There are many different styles of yoga Imagein our modern world. Vinyasa Flow, Hatha, Power, Bikram, Face Yoga, Laughing Yoga—the list goes on and on. Yoga is becoming specialized in so many different forms so everyone can find what resonates specifically to their personal needs.  If you are a hot yoga fan, you may feel drawn to the powerful practice that requires discipline and strength.  The heated, yang, power yoga styles of the sun are really just half of yoga practice.  Yang is associated with masculine, outward, light, hot, and fluid qualities.  The yin, cooling, restorative, patient yoga of the moon is a beautiful counter to a balanced practice.  Some characteristics of yin would be dark, cold, feminine, and inward. Yang style of yoga can heat up and burn through some of our tension and issues, which yin style can melt them away.

 

Your yang practice works on strengthening and stretching out muscular tissue.  Yin style works the deep, connective tissues of the body, stretching fascia, tendons and ligaments.  Ancient yogis mapped out the energy system of the body through deep meditation.  There are thought to be 72,000 nadis, or energy pathways that carry this energy, or prana throughout the body.  The word ‘nadi’ can translate to ‘nerve’ in English so you can imagine little nerves or highways flowing energy through the body.  This system of energy led to the science of acupuncture, tai chi, and systems of yoga that open up and harmonize the flow of prana.  Both yin and yang play an essential role. To enjoy the light, we must understand the dark.  This lovely poem from Osho demonstrates the importance of opposition:

 

Sadness gives depth, happiness gives height.

Sadness gives roots, happiness gives branches,

Happiness is like a tree going into the sky, and

Sadness is like the roots going down into the womb of the earth.  

Both are needed…

The higher a tree goes, the deeper it goes,

Simultaneously, the bigger the tree, the bigger will be its roots.  

In fact, it is always in proportion, that’s its balance.

 

Osho

 

Yin is the stable, unmoving, hidden aspect of things; yang is the changing, moving, revealing aspect.  Yin and yang, hot and cold, down and up, happiness and sadness. Life is full of ebbs and flows. We are usually imbalanced in some way, and working towards balance.  If someone has a sedentary modern lifestyle, yang yoga provides enormous physical, mental, and emotional benefits.  The invigorating yoga postures like standing poses and Sun Salutations help to get the blood pumping to work muscles.  Most of the Western styles of yoga are yang styles because we crave the action. 

For people with an active lifestyle, yin is a great balance to undo the deep-seated tightness created over time in the joints.  In a yin style class, you may sit or lay in grounded postures for 3-10 minutes at a time because the deep tissue takes longer to stretch.  When you relax your muscular tissue as much as possible, the work gets put on the ligaments, tendons, and fascia around your joints.  By creating space and freeing up the energy pathways through yin, you can release blockages and allow prana to flow.  Through the quiet but intense nature of yin, extreme emotional releases can occur when you are freed from old holds and blockages.  If you are looking to explore the balance of both Yin (Restorative) and Yang (heated Vinyasa) styles of yoga, visit yogabydegrees.net for a detailed class schedule of all Yoga by Degrees locations.

 

 

Your Brain on Meditation

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A glimpse of the physical change meditation causes in your brain.

“Yoga citta vritti nirodhah.” –Yoga Sutras 1.2

Translated: Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations/disturbances of the mind. The ancient text (Yoga Sutras) outlines this yogic idea among other many other guiding principles for practicing yogis.  These sutras have helped centuries of yogis on their path.  Now, modern science has proven that yogic meditation reorganizes your brain and trains your brain to better concentrate, feel more compassion, and cope better with stress.

In our society, we have become accustomed to multi-tasking so our brains are usually doing many jobs at once.  Most of our brains are functioning in high gear for the majority of the day.  This powerful state usually shows beta wave readings in the brain.  Beta waves are not bad for you but overdoing it can cause stress-related illness or burnout.  Meditation gives you control of your brain waves. You have the power to literally change your mind and move away from thoughts that don’t serve you. Just through this mindful practice, you can restructure the anatomy of your brain.  Meditation trains your brain so you are able to focus on one thing. This single-pointed focus can be on a number of things including: your breath, a repeated mantra, or a goal that you are working on. Meditation makes you better attuned to receive the answers, tools and resources you need to fulfill your vision. It accomplishes this by developing your capacity to modulate and regulate the different frequencies of brain waves emitting.

In a 2009 study, Luders and colleagues compared the brains of 22 meditators and 22 age-matched nonmeditators and found that the meditators (who practiced a wide range of traditions and had between 5 and 46 years of meditation experience) had more gray matter in regions of the brain that are important for attention, emotion regulation, and mental flexibility. Increased gray matter typically makes an area of the brain more efficient or powerful at processing information. Luders believes that the increased gray matter in the meditators’ brains should make them better at controlling their attention, managing their emotions, and making mindful choices.

Considering all these benefits may peak an interest in sitting and meditating.  Seated meditation can be such a daunting task for those of us with Western minds.  Developing a disciplined seated practice can take years of patience and perseverance.  My favorite alternative to finding a seated meditation is to find meditation on the yoga mat.  In your yoga practice, you can access a moving meditation.  When you become focused on linking your breath with movement in a vinyasa flow, your mind no longer has time or space to obsessively fluctuate.  Instead of the endless to-do list, your attention is drawn to the rhythm of your breath.  According to Yoga Journal, for the past decade, researchers have found that if you practice focusing attention on your breath or a mantra during a yoga session, the brain will restructure itself to make concentration easier. If you practice calm acceptance during meditation, you will develop a brain that is more resilient to stress. And if you meditate while cultivating feelings of love and compassion, your brain will develop in such a way that you spontaneously feel more connected to others.  If you embark on this meditation journey, be patient with your human nature as you restructure and retrain your brain waves.

Pose of the Month: Fallen Angel

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Side Crow Variation: Fallen Angel Pose

Benefits:
Strengthens the arms, wrists, and belly while improving balance.
Directions:
Start in a squat position balancing on the ball-mount of both feet.
Begin to rotate and lengthen out of your side body while firmly planting both palms to the left or right. Hands should be shoulder width apart like in chaturanga.
Gaze 6 inches in front of you as you begin to lean forward, engage your core while your triceps support your knees your feet float up from your mat.
Once you have established balance on your triceps, gently support your head,cheek and ear to your mat. Begin to draw your knees into your chest while stretching your top leg up.
Modifications:
Use blocks under your palms to help support your weight.