Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Relaxed Body, Mind and Breath

The second of the Ten Principles of Yoga is having a relaxed body, mind and breath.

When we think of yoga, we tend to think of stretching, strengthening and ultimately relaxing the body. That’s what rest pose is all about, right? Even when holding a challenging pose, we look for ways to relax the muscles and tissues. First we get the structure of the posture just-right, then we learn to relax into it. It isn’t necessarily easy. But when we figure it out, it feels so right!

But what about the mind? Relaxing the mind means letting go of thinking and processing and what-if-ing and just “being.” Not just during rest pose, but throughout class.

And the breath? Having a relaxed breath means that we’re not striving to breathe in a particular way. We’re not forcing the breath. We’re letting the muscles around the lungs and other breathing apparatus relax. We’re just letting the breath flow smoothly in and out.

When we think, we tend to tense up the body and the breath (not to mention the mind if we’re thinking too hard [brain cramp!]) Pay attention to how relaxed you are when you practice yoga. See if you can relax more. Then try applying this practice to everyday life.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The 10 Principles of Yoga: #1, Being Present

For the next 10 posts, I will be discussing The Ten Principles of Yoga, to which I was first introduced in a workshop led by pregnancy yoga guru, Janice Clarfield. The principles can also be applied to childbirth.

The first of the ten principles in Being Present.

This is not so much about being physically present in the room (although that of course is important too). It’s about being present, mentally. Being Present means that while you practice yoga, you are focused on your breath, on physical sensations in your body, and on your mental and emotional states. You are not just letting your mind wander off from one topic to another.

Another way to define Being Present might be “being conscious” or “being mindful.”

There are so many benefits to Being Present while you practice yoga. If you focus on your breath and draw your awareness inward, your practice will become more meditative and serene. By focusing inward, you will be more attuned to insights and inspiration. You will also be more in tune with your physical self, and thus will be able to sense which muscles are tight, or prone to injury – so you will be able to adjust your physical practice accordingly.

Reminding yourself to Be Present will also lessen the detrimental effects of a wandering mind. For example, if you find yourself comparing your own butt to the “perfect butt” of the person in front of you, and lamenting the notion that yours is less than perfect, then you are letting yourself become distracted with mental chatter. When you catch yourself comparing, bring your awareness back to the present – find your breath, notice what’s going on in your body, notice how you are feeling.

It’s a valuable practice that can be applied elsewhere in your life as well.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Samadhi, or Enlightenment

Samadhi, or enlightenment, is the eighth limb of yoga. It can be defined as a becoming one with the divine, or being in a state of bliss, where there is nothing more to be done or sought. It is generally achieved via deep meditation.

Some say that this is what we strive for while practicing yoga and meditation. There are plenty of seekers that want to achieve enlightenment and live in a permanent state of bliss. It’s a noble goal, and entirely possible. Who doesn’t want bliss?

But in the meantime, we have all the other limbs of the yoga tree to help us along the way -- to teach us valuable lessons about ourselves, and others, about our own worlds as well as the entire universe.

Spiritual seekers are often categorized into four sets or stages. There are the new seekers, aka students, who are actively learning the ropes of spiritual reflection. There are more mature seekers, or householders, whose charge is to apply what they have learned to their family lives. There are those who still later in life – think of retirees or crones -- begin to withdraw from the world and turn their focus inward. And there are renunciates – think monks and nuns -- who withdraw completely from the world and devote their lives to spiritual seeking.

Where are you on this spectrum?

In the past decade, I have crossed the threshold from student to householder. Before my son was born, it was a priority for me to attend yoga workshops – sometimes for two weeks at a time – twice a year at Kripalu in the Berkshires. It was a wonderful way to immerse myself in the reflective practices of yoga, meditation, pranayama and (relative) solitude. Now as a mother of an active four year old, I’m lucky if I can fit in a daily meditation. I’m fortunate, at least, that one of my jobs is to teach yoga . . . .so it’s my “duty,” in a sense, to stretch and breathe each day.

Transitions like these can be startling. To go from focusing on my own spiritual path to learning how to practice what I’ve learned in the context of a family – and all the demands that family life (combined with part-to-full-time work) bring into the picture. Not easy, not easy.

But still, there are moments of deep insight and stillness that seem to arise out of nowhere and help me to see how it’s all connected. Glimpses of bliss. I’m content with this for now.