Reasons to celebrate

Pine needles/Agujas de Pino

Holiday stress
It is not uncommon that the holiday season brings with it conflicting feelings. The holidays are rituals that invite us to change our routine activities and to get together with family and friends to celebrate. Changing our daily routine gives us a chance to see our usual activites from a different perspective. However, we can also interpret these changes in our habitual actions as annoying disruptions or stressors. In many cases the changes to our activities place extra demands on our already busy schedules. So, even if we do not see the holidays as a disruption it is quite likely that some tension and stress may arise. I think the list of reasons for these apparent contradictions in the holiday celebrations can be quite long, from feeling lonely and disconnected, to the regret of overindulgence in consumption of food, drink and stuff. I often talk to people who can’t wait for the holiday season to be over.

Ask a question
Just like the holidays have conflicting facets, a time of joyful celebration and a time of stress and tension, our Yoga practice can also be seen as a celebration of life or a practice that depletes our energy .
When we practice Yoga as a celebration of life, our practice helps us acknowledge, honor and immerse in life as it is, here and now. How do we do it? We pause and ask ourselves: Why do I practice Yoga? What is my intention in practicing Yoga today? Then we listen intently for the answer to come from our innermost essence. When we make this genuine answer the guiding intention for our practice, our Yoga practice unfolds exactly as we need it that day, some times expressed as a restorative practice, other times as a very physically demanding asana sequence and yet other times as a contemplative practice. In every case the practice is a life supporting response to our needs.
Similarly, we can pause and observe our reactions when the stores start dressing their windows with holiday themes, when holiday catalogs start crowding our mailbox and as we make plans for the holidays. Observing and acknowledging our reactions to the holiday season prepares us to ask ourselves questions such as: How do I feel about the holidays? What are my reasons for celebrating the holidays? After we ask our question, we wait silently for the answer to emerge unclouded by judgment. When we are ready AND open to receive the answers, they manifest as clear thoughts, words, feelings or emotions. We know the answers are authentic when they resonate with us deeply. Genuine answers remain, even after deliberate examination, unequivocally clear.

Live the answers
The clarity of the answers make them powerfully compelling. Consequently, we can choose to turn the answer into wholehearted intention that provides guidance for our actions, so that we celebrate in ways that are appropriate and congruent with our deep beliefs, needs and circumstances. By setting aside our preconceived notions about the holidays, we are free to make our participation in the holidays our authentic expression and perfect response to our specific circumstances. As we live the answers, we can still pause, observe and reflect, noticing if the same feeling of clarity from the answer continues to pervade our actions and interactions. In this way our participation in the holidays can be a joyful celebration of life.

Namaste

Simple guided meditation with Rubén

 

The quality of our participation

Ancient astronomic observatory tool/Artefacto antiguo de observacion astronomica

Multitasking Required.
Although various studies indicate that multitasking slows us down, it seems that multitasking continues to be prevalent . Now it seems that we are often in multitasking mode, talking on the phone while driving, working on multiple projects at once on the computer, for instance checking e-mail and listening to a podcast while we work on a specific task. It is not surprising that multitasking does not seem conducive to learning. However, more and more, job descriptions indicate that experience with multitasking is required. But is multitasking bad in itself? Multitasking, more than working on several tasks at once, is shifting our attention from one task to another.

Multitasking and Yoga
It could be argued that practicing Yoga asanas is a form of multitasking. When we practice a Yoga pose, we continually shift our attention from what we are doing with different parts of our bodies, to our breathing and also to maintaining our awareness fully in the current experience. For instance, sometimes in Yoga classes teachers give very detailed instructions for some or many of the moves. This requires our attention to remain focused. However, keeping our focus on the actions of the breath, body and mind throughout a full practice can be quite demanding and even mentally exhausting. One way our minds deal with these demands is by tuning out some of the instructions, thus avoiding feeling overwhelmed. When our multitasking in Yoga goes well, however, all of our actions integrate, flowing harmoniously and resulting in a vibrant and energizing feeling. If we are unable to integrate all our actions, the outcome may be less felicitous, for example, our mind may get distracted thinking about something else, which may not have a fully negative outcome, unless the distraction happens while we are doing something that truly requires our full attention, like standing on our heads.

Immersing in the experience
Thus, it seems that multitasking can go both ways, depending on its effects on the final outcomes of what we are doing. We can say that multitasking is positive when it enhances the quality of our experience and negative when it detracts from it. Consequently, one possible approach for discriminating the type of multitasking we are engaged in is to observe the quality of our participation. In general, it seems that when we are wholeheartedly engaged in any activity, the multitasking that takes place helps to deepen our attention into what we are doing, thereby further enhancing the quality of our participation. On the contrary, multitasking that draws our attention away from the activity may be an indication that we are not fully immersed in the experience, and that perhaps we are looking for something more interesting or engaging. In those cases when our participation is perfunctory or mechanical, does it even make sense to participate at all? Maybe, we can use a very simple way to confirm that our multitasking is bringing our attention to the present activity. Any time we notice that we are shifting to a different task, we can pause, observe and question what our multitasking is doing, is it helping (by integrating) or hindering (by distracting) the quality of our participation. Answering this question can really help us participate fully in our actions.

Namaste

Trying too hard and finding flow

Flowing on bikes/Fluyendo en bicicleta

Earlier this week I read a brief interview with Shiva Rea , a well known Yogini, teacher and activist. In the interview, Shiva Rea talks about the most common mistake that beginning Yoga practitioners make and gives advice for beginning students.

The most common mistake
Trying too hard, according to Rea is the most common mistake that beginning Yoga practitioners make. I would add that this is a challenge for other Yoga practitioners as well. Many of us live in highly competitive societies. As a result, we may bring the same competitive drive into many areas of our lives, including our Yoga practice. In my opinion, that competitiveness leads us to assume that we should be able to do more today than yesterday or last week. The competitive mindset takes us out of the present by pushing us to emulate or surpass our previous ‘accomplishments’.
Rea suggests to keep the feeling of centeredness on your own experience to overcome this common mistake.

The advice
In the interview, Rea points out that, as beginner students of Yoga, we may already be familiar with the experience of Yoga, particularly when we are fully relaxed and present in our current experience. As Rea also notes, “Yoga is just a matter of tapping into something that’s already a part of you”. I guess the underlying advice is to be open to the experience of Yoga by allowing it unfold from a state of relaxation instead of trying too hard to make something happen –which immediately takes us away from the now experience by drawing our attention to some abstract goal. In my opinion, this is related to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life refers to as Flow, in other words, being fully immersed in the activity you are performing. From Csikszentmihalyi’s perspective the experience of Flow seems to be enabled by having clear objectives, listening to feedback and finding the balance between level of challenge and level of ability. In my opinion, these elements of the experience of ‘Flow’ are encompassed by the Vinyasa Krama approach.

Advice into practice
In a previous post I mentioned that the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali say that the state of Yoga is reached through the combination of persistence and detachment. Since trying too hard can be a sign of our attachment to the expected results of our actions, we can find a practical approach to combine persistence and detachment in our Yoga practice, and perhaps in our everyday experiences. First, since the breath happens only in the present moment, paying attention to the breath focuses our awareness on the present moment and circumstances. Second, in the Yoga Sutras persistence requires practicing sincerely. Thus, still with our awareness on the breath, we use our inhalation to clarify our motivation and intention. Third, we can use our exhalation to relax and let go of any attachment to the results of our actions. Instead, we can focus on being curious about the outcome of our actions, which serves also as feedback for the subsequent action.

To immerse ourselves in the experience of Yoga, we simply let go of our expectations, giving ourselves permission to discover, by observing attentively the feedback we receive in our body, breath, mind and spirit. Paying attention to the breath can really help us focus and participate fully into our here and now experience. Applying these ideas into something simple, like performing a Yoga position, may help us prepare for participating more fully both in the Yoga practice on mat and in any other activity.

Namaste

One step at a time – Vinyasa Krama

One step at a time/Un paso a la vez

Doing more
It happens often that we try to do more than we can or that we push ourselves too much. Living in a society that asks that we give our 110% all the time puts pressure on us to go beyond our capacity and ability. However productive that strategy might be, it is not sustainable. Nevertheless, many of us allow that mindset to permeate many, if not all, aspects of our lives. It is, thus, not surprising to find that we end up stressed out and feeling overwhelmed because, even when things are going wonderfully, we feel that we could still “do more”, “be more”, etc. This seems to be a present conundrum for many of us, and it is not uncommon to see the same situation in Yoga classes. We are so oriented to the future goal and to our need to achieve, that we are not fully immersed in the process, thereby ignoring our present circumstances and becoming increasingly dissatisfied.

Vinyasa Krama
There is a sound, logical and elegant principle in Yoga called Vinyasa Krama that can provides guidance that can be implemented in multiple facets of our lives.
According to A.G. Mohan,
in Yoga for Body, Breath, and Mind, Vinyasa Krama “means intelligently placed, orderly steps.” In other words, Vinyasa Krama consists of an intelligent and appropriate progression of steps that takes us in our intended direction. Let’s take a look at this idea in more detail.

Intention
In Yoga, we align our intentions with our innermost essence so that we can honor our intentions through life-affirming actions. In some cases our intention can be as simple as being able to relax more easily or deepening our understanding of something. When the intention comes from our heart, we understand that we have minimal control over the ultimate outcome of our actions. Therefore, we know that it is useless to feel tense and worried about the results. Consequently, we can devote our energy to being the best expression of ourselves in the particular action that we need to take.

Starting point
As in any other activity, once our intention and goal are clear, the next step is to recognize our starting point so that our clear intention can guide our actions to take the most appropriate steps for our current situation.

Step by step
Breaking down the journey into smaller steps can be useful in realizing that the goal may not be as unreachable as it sometimes appears. In addition, by working on the smaller steps consistently we develop the knowledge and skill necessary to take each successive step without wasting our energy reaching beyond our capacity or ability. Furthermore, dividing a task into smaller steps becomes a built-in safety mechanism, because it helps us to progress gradually at our own pace while allowing us to make any necessary adjustments or corrections. Moreover, as we take each new step successfully, our confidence grows further removing unnecessary tension and doubt.
In addition, working mindfully at each stage of the process gives us insight into how we learn and how different approaches work in various ways.

Example
A typical example that comes to mind in asana (physical postures) is the sequence of poses known as Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar in Sanskrit). At first, many students new to Yoga find the whole sequence long, complicated and seemingly impossible. However, breaking down the sequence into its constitutive poses makes it easier to learn how to perform each pose safely and appropriately for one’s body. In the process of practicing the individual poses we learn to focus and to breathe comfortably while we allow our bodies to develop the necessary combination of strength and flexibility to practice the poses without harm. As the poses become familiar, it becomes easier and easier to string a couple or a few of the poses together, until, gradually, the body, breath and mind are ready to perform the sequence without any pain or discomfort.

The Vinyasa Krama principle makes our Yoga practice safe and enjoyable by breaking large tasks intelligently into manageable steps aligned with our intention. This principle is easily applicable into our daily lives, to help us become mindful of how to use our energy in constructive ways by working gradually and consistently over time without becoming tense, stressed or getting exhausted in the process.

Namaste.

Reduce stress in one minute

Jardin japones/Japanese garden

Even though many people start practicing Yoga to stay fit or to treat physical ailments, many people new to Yoga say that their main objective is to relax and reduce stress. For years stress used to be a problem that affected mostly (I think almost exclusively) people in industrialized countries. Now stress affects an increasing number of people around the world. For instance, this year the World Health Organization released a publication aimed at raising awareness of stress at work in developing countries (PDF). It is clear that stress has physiological, emotional, cognitive and behavioral effects. How can Yoga help?
In The Heart of Yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar talks about the great significance of the connection between mind and breath. This connection is evident in the changes of our breath according to our state of mind, for instance, our breath becomes faster and shorter when we feel anxious, and conversely the breath is slower when we are relaxed.
During asana practice, paying attention to the breath helps us tune into the rhythms of the body so we can learn how to change them to feel better. In order to connect our Yoga practice and our everyday lives, I often suggest to students to try a simple homework to notice the relationship between the breath and how we feel. The homework takes just 4 minutes a day. Why four minutes? Because we generally tend to feel that we are too busy already to find time to add more activities to our days. However, finding 1 minute four times a day seems more than reasonable.
Here is the homework: Four times a day, take one minute to pause whatever you are doing, observe how you feel, close your eyes, breathe deeply, either lengthening the inhalation or the exhalation (without forcing the breath), finally observe how you feel and see if you find any noticeable differences between how you feel before and after the pause.
The effect of taking a one-minute pause is incredibly powerful because it shows us that we can relax just through breathing. After observing the effects of this simple practice is very easy to take as many of these pauses as many times as necessary.

Would you like to try the homework this week? Does it work for you?

Namaste

Simple guided meditation with Rubén

Yoga of eating: Taste

frutas y verduras/ fruits and veggies

As the title of this blog indicates, Yoga is being fully present. In other words, real Yoga is not about being a good contortionist but about living consciously, which can be interpreted as immersing ourselves fully in the flow of life. The flow of life is predicated on eating, because eating provides nutrients to our physical bodies. As a Yogi or Yogini, it is important that we are aware that having food to eat is a luxury not enjoyed by many people in the world.
Sadly, the number of people in the world who are hungry continues growing. And even in wealthy countries like the U.S. –where obesity is a serious epidemic– hunger still affects almost 12% of the population. In my opinion, as Yogis or Yoginis, it is our responsibility to help
however we can. And also, it is our responsibility to relate to food in a conscious, life-affirming manner.

A couple of years back, while attending a Yoga workshop, one of the presenters, Dr. Gurleen Grewal, talking about nutrition and food in Ayurveda, asked a simple question, when should we swallow the food we are chewing?

The faces of the people attending the workshop showed signs of puzzlement indicating that we might not have a clear and logical answer. We offered various answers but nobody produced the answer Dr. Grewal expected: we swallow our food when its taste is gone.
These words really resonated with me. I love eating and trying different types of food but I was not sure that I was ever mindful enough in my eating to keep chewing my food until it had lost its entire flavor. Over the next few days I set my intention to observe carefully my eating habits. I was shocked to notice my lack of attention to the act of eating, it just seemed that I was eating mechanically. For instance, quite often I filled up a fork and directed it towards my mouth when I was just starting to chew my food! In many cases it was clear that I was eating without immersing myself into the experience. I was disappointed to find out my lack of awareness in my eating because it made me feel like I was not really honoring the food I was privileged enough to have.
I decided to try to make the change from eating mechanically to eating consciously. The results were immediately favorable as many flavors I had not taken the time to savor before, started to emerge and become noticeable. Another immediate effect was realizing very easily when I had eaten enough. It was also clear that some foods that I ate were not that enjoyable or beneficial. In addition, it was clear that masticating more thoroughly seemed to have beneficial effects on my digestion. As I think about the numerous effects of this simple change in my way of eating, I find a parallel between my actions then and the practice of Yoga, we pause, observe attentively, notice what we are doing and its effects, then we act in a way that is life-affirming and not mechanical and finally we observe the effects of our actions. I have to say that it is not always easy or even possible to be attentive to what we do, but it does help us participate more actively in our own lives.

By taking the time to honor the food we eat, we can appreciate all the love, work, effort and resources involved in growing, harvesting and cooking our food. The tastes, aromas, textures and colors of the food we eat are the result of the intricate dance of life. When we eat consciously, besides enjoying the myriad tastes, aromas and textures, we are celebrating the deep link we have to the food sources and to the dance of life.

Over the past couple of years, I have talked to many relatives and friends about this “Yoga of eating”, eating mindfully, chewing our food until it looses its flavor. I have found that many people, including self-proclaimed food lovers, (unless they are part of the slow food movement ) are not mindful of how they eat. Making a simple and free-of-cost change to our pace of eating challenges our deep seated habits. As such, it requires our focused attention, and this is what Yoga is all about: integrating our actions and establishing a connection between ourselves and the world.

he “Yoga of eating” beckons us to establish a meaningful connection with our food. This, in my opinion, is a transformational step that can have profound impact on what we eat and how we eat it, with effects that range from the individual level (such as health and nutrition) to societal levels including the economy, the environment and public health. At the individual level, making this change can help us relax and enjoy our food more while opening our sensitivity to taste, showing us the foods that best agree with us, improving our digestion, helping us realize when to stop eating, and perhaps making us grateful for having food on our table.

There are numerous resources that can help in the process of thinking and learning more about our own relationship with food. For instance, you can learn about specific aspects of eating and chewing, in the classic treatise from the 19th century, The Physiology of Taste, written by Brillat Savarin, where numerous aspects of taste are explored in painstaking detail. You may find interesting to learn about The Great Masticator, Horace Fletcher ,
and his dogmatic approach to eating. Or, you might prefer the clarity of Fisher and Fisk’s work on mastication , or Dr. Kennedy’s clear explanations of common food myths. You might also enjoy reading on Ayurvedic tips for good digestion, or learning about the relationships between our food choices and social, political and economic practices, like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.

Eating, like any Yoga practice, if done mindfully is a simple act that can be transformed by our conscious awareness.

I hope that you enjoy thoroughly the taste of your next meal.

Namaste.