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.

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.

Yoga and the wisdom of the body

dancers/bailarinas

In Yoga classes it is common to hear “listen to the wisdom of your body” as an instruction. However, for a long time, when I heard those words in class it was unclear how the wisdom of the body was expressed or manifested. Inability to tune into the wisdom of our own bodies can, and often does, result in injury. Moreover, practicing Yoga from a competitive or ego driven mindset tends to override the immanent wisdom of the body forcing our bodies to move in opposition to life preserving and life protecting mechanisms. It is readily apparent that some innate intelligence orchestrates the myriad processes that make it possible for us to move, eat, sleep, heal, etc. The wisdom of the body consists of innumerable actions that move the body toward balance and well-being. In this post I try to illustrate the wisdom of the body in action.

In chapter 4 of Yoga: The spirit and practice of moving into stillness, Erich Schiffmann’s says that, just like the action of stretching and yawning in the morning, Yoga wakes you up by stretching and energizing you. As I thought about this idea, it occurred to me that the stretching that accompanies yawning in the morning is a perfect example of the wisdom of the body in action.

Think about waking up in the morning. Many of us stretch in bed soon after we wake up. When we stretch in bed, our minds are still in a state between asleep and awake, so, most likely, we don’t hear the mind saying “stretch a bit more to the right” or “move the right arm much more to the side.” Actually, in many cases the mind is still in the process of waking up so the stretching happens unconsciously. As we stretch, we activate the flow of blood through our muscles to energize the body. If the intensity of the stretch is too weak, it doesn’t feel like a stretch at all. On the other hand, stretching too hard can result in pulling a muscle. During the morning stretch we move intuitively in the direction or directions that feel right and with the right intensity to energize us and wake us up. In this process we are not concerned with the exact form of the stretch or how it looks from the outside, we just stretch our body until it feels perfect.

The morning stretch is a process that is highly effective. Its effectiveness results from moving slowly and gradually, so the nerve impulses travel back and forth between the muscles and the brain, generating an accurate action-feedback cycle that helps us fine tune the stretch. In other words, the body has enough time to react to the feedback it receives, thereby enabling us to apply the right intensity to the stretch while ensuring the safety of our actions.

In Yoga we try to emulate that “perfect stretch” feeling in every aspect of our Yoga practice. Indeed, numerous Yoga practices aim to remove habits and conditioning so that we can connect with our internal wisdom. Connecting with our internal wisdom helps us to be fully present and to act according to our present moment, needs and circumstances. So, the next time you are practicing Yoga, pay attention to the sensations that emerge and move at a pace that helps you honor the feedback that you receive from your breath, body and mind. By paying attention to the feedback you receive, you can guide your actions so the pace, the intensity, the level of energy and effort are neither too much nor too little, just perfect. This is what listening to the wisdom of the body means. If you wish, you can try to apply these ideas to your practice or to the 5 minute easy Yoga practice.

Namaste.

10 guidelines to start practicing Yoga

Incense sticks drying in the sun/Incienso secandose al sol

People often people ask me how to start practicing Yoga. Here are 10 ideas to keep in mind after you decide to start doing Yoga:

1. Find a Yoga class at a convenient time and location.
It is perfectly fine to try different studios and teachers. Sometimes it may take a couple of classes to find a class that is right for you. If the class is out of the way or at an inconvenient time, it might be difficult to find the time to go to class.

2. Take beginning level classes.
The beginning level classes allow you to build a strong foundation. Many studios offer introductory yoga workshops and classes. This is essential, even if you are in good shape, because the beginning classes give you the opportunity to learn the basic vocabulary of Yoga and to become acquainted with sound guiding principles for your practice.

3. Be patient.
Allow your learning to unfold at its own pace. Sometimes we want to see quick results for our efforts. Bringing this mindset to Yoga may prompt you to go beyond your level of ability. Instead, remember that you have the rest of your life to practice Yoga. Work at a pace that is perfect for you.

4. Do not compete with yourself or with others in the class.
In the U.S., we live in a very competitive and achievement-oriented society. To please our ego, sometimes we try to compete with ourselves or with others in class. This competitiveness can result in injuries as we try to do more than we can. Yoga is about self knowledge, so there is no room for competition. Actually, competing with ourselves, or with others, interferes with our capacity to be fully present in the practice.

5. Enjoy being a beginner
People who have practiced yoga before may assume that they know the pose, which can result in a mechanical practice. Being new to Yoga gives you great advantages: First, you have no preconceived notions about the practice, which makes it easy to be open and pay attention to what is happening. Second, you have not developed bad habits. Moreover, in the book Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, David Coulter argues that the quality of our attention within the body determines if our practice is advanced Yoga or beginning Yoga. Thus, focus your attention on the practice and let the practice grow with your ability to focus.

6. Do not go into pain
Yoga is not about pain. As we said before Yoga is about integrating breath, body and mind. Always pay attention to how you feel before performing a pose, as you move into the pose and after the pose. At the first sign of resistance (mental, physical, respiratory), stop, back off a bit, normalize your breath and observe what is happening. As you become more comfortable in the pose you might be able to explore the source of resistance. Whatever you do, do not go into pain.

7. Breathe continuously.
The breath is the main axis for Yoga practice. Because the breath exists only in the present moment, attention to the breath brings your awareness to the practice. Use the breath as a focusing device by checking that you are breathing through your nose with smooth and even breath throughout the whole practice. This might be more challenging that you expect!

8. Take a break whenever you need to.
It is perfectly fine to stop when we need to stop. Remember that being present includes resting when we need to. A good pose to take a break is child’s pose. Besides, we have the rest of our life to practice Yoga!

9. Be responsible.
Awareness is a key component of Yoga practice. Remember that you are responsible for your actions. So, it is up to you to determine if the activities offered by the teacher are appropriate for you. By doing this, you are preparing for developing your personal practice.

10. Notice the effects.
Throughout the day, notice the effects of your Yoga practice, enjoy how you feel. If you feel better after practicing Yoga, use this feeling as a strong motivation to practice again.

I hpe these ideas are helpful to you as you decide to start practicing Yoga.
Next time, we’ll have an example of a simple 5 minute practice.

Namaste.

Yoga is a practice

Sembrados de arroz en Bali

Thinking about Yoga as a practice, and what that really means, seems like a good starting point to do Yoga.

How is Yoga a practice? At the first level, Yoga is a practice because Yoga is something we do, in other words Yoga is an action or series of actions that we perform. However, performing an action only once or once in a while does not constitute a practice. A practice is something that happens consistently. As we repeat an action or series of actions mindfully and intelligently over time, we, almost inevitably, sharpen the skills involved. As a result, we start developing the necessary knowledge and sensitivity to deepen our understanding of those actions. This is certainly true in Yoga. I feel it is important to emphasize that the practice is not mechanical, if it is mechanical it is not Yoga anymore, because the mind is not involved in the process, in other words, we are not fully present. When we are fully present in the practice, our awareness of the actions of our mind, body and breath moves from the gross toward the subtle. For example, we start noticing the brief pause between inhalation and exhalation, or we start feeling groups of muscles moving instead of feeling only the movement of a limb as a whole. Keep in mind, that at least in my experience, this process is slow and gradual, like most natural processes.

At the second level, Yoga is a practice because it consists of specific practical steps involved in performing its actions. In my opinion, there are three distinct practical steps in Yoga practice:

  • First, we pay full attention to our initial conditions so we can make intelligent decisions to perform the action that is appropriate to our circumstances and needs.
  • Second, we focus our attention on perceiving and processing the continuous feedback we receive from breath, body and mind as we engage in the chosen action.
  • Third, once the action is completed, we observe the results on our breath, body and mind.

These three practical steps operate at the micro level of the practice, for example when we are going to practice child’s pose we first observe the state of body, breath and mind. Then we gradually move into the pose, stopping at the first sign of resistance (physical, mental or related to breathing). According to the feedback we receive, we decide, moment by moment, how long we will stay in the pose. Whenever we are ready, we return to the initial position observing the effects of the pose on breath, body and mind. Following these steps helps us develop awareness of the effects of our actions on body, mind and breath.

These practical steps also operate at the macro level of the practice, so we observe how we feel and then we decide what type of practice(s) to perform, at what level of intensity, and for how long, and then we notice the effect of the practice. This idea is related to the notion that Yoga is a personal activity and thus it should be tailored to our needs. For instance, some days we wake up full of energy and feeling ready to accomplish many tasks. Other days, we might wake up with very little energy. The type of practice we chose for each day should be tailored to how we feel and what we need so that we feel energized, relaxed and balanced after we practice.

At the third level, Yoga is a practice in the sense of a rehearsal. From this perspective, Yoga practice becomes a safe space where we can explore, observe, feel and act as is most appropriate, so that when we find ourselves in a similar situation in our lives we can flow into the most appropriate actions with ease. For instance, some Yoga poses might make us feel terrified. As a result our muscles might tense up, our breath might get short and fast and our minds may fail to think clearly. We can use our breath, inhaling deeply and making our exhalation soft and long, to calm down so we can prepare to practice the pose under appropriate guidance. Perhaps, learning to use the breath to help us calm down can be useful when we find ourselves in a situation that we find terrifying, like speaking in public or going to the dentist. Partly the idea of Yoga practice as a rehearsal comes from Erich Schiffmann, a teacher I admire and find very inspirational. You can see a short video of him talking about The Mat as a practice for Life .

If you already practice Yoga, I hope the idea of Yoga as practice makes sense to you and may help to enrich your way of doing Yoga. And if you are interested in starting to practice, I hope this idea will help you prepare to receive the benefits from doing Yoga. Your comments are welcome.

Namaste

What is Yoga?

Lotus flower/Flor de loto

In recent years, Yoga has become increasingly popular. In addition, people’s definitions, ways of practicing and reasons for doing Yoga vary widely –-which can result in lots of confusion for people unfamiliar with Yoga. In my opinion, the way we understand Yoga changes with our practice and experiences. Here is my attempt to define what I mean when I say Yoga.

Yoga is a system of practices that integrates the breath, the body and the mind so that we can be fully present.

Our minds and bodies are prone to habit formation. Such habits often influence our actions and our ways of being in the world. Although the physical aspect of Yoga practice can be very helpful in developing strength, flexibility and the ability to focus our attention, Yoga practice encompasses more than physical exercises. Indeed, Yoga provides a complete system of practices that address the breath, the body and the mind to help us remove habit and tune into our innermost nature so that we can live consciously.

In other words, Yoga is a personal, ongoing process for self-discovery and self-reliance.

The personal nature of Yoga practice makes it non-competitive. As an ongoing process, our Yoga practice changes over time to reflect our changing circumstances and needs. Thus, it is essential in our practice to be attentive to the feedback we receive from body, breath and mind so we can act intelligently and according to our specific needs. Although this sounds simple enough, it is not an easy process. However, being fully present and living consciously allow us to participate in the profound interconnectedness between all forms of life.

Namaste