I don’t know about you, but when the winter comes and the days are short and cold, I feel like hibernating. Not literally, but I see the pattern each year and know that I tend to want to withdraw from people and shut myself in. Let’s call it “hermit mode”. I have found that if I succumb to this urge, I increase my chances of really dropping into sadness and depression. It’s not uncommon, as many people get seasonal depression this time of year, the clinical name is Seasonal Affective Disorder. Our bodies thrive in daylight and when that amount of light shortens, we feel the physical effects.
I find the most success in fighting this “SAD” time of year in forcing myself to stay busy going out with friends and being around the students at the studio. I get out my weekly calendar and start contacting people to get together so that most days, I have something nice to look forward to. Taking care of myself in this way helps me to move through these dark winter days. The friendships I take time to nurture sustain me and keep my spirits lifted.
I’m very interested in finding out about ways you might cope with “SAD” if you get it. Please take time to respond below and share your brief story. Thank you for taking time each week to read my blog, and for the encouragement to keep at it. Let’s remember that we’re all on this planet together, sharing our community, and find ways to remove that feeling of separateness. Reach out to me today!
Of course, with Thanksgiving a few days away, the theme for my blog is Gratitude. It’s easy to be grateful for the good things in life – family, friends, home… but, this year, I’m reflecting on the challenging times, the ones that are painful and leave you desolate, and finding that I can have gratitude for those times, too. Because, it’s those hard days that build our strength. It’s in the fight that we attain the victory. It’s through enduring the suffering that we become resilient. Just as we use resistance training to build our bodies’ muscles, it’s Life’s resistance that builds our inner strength. So, I’ll be more mindful this holiday of the adversity that has made me stronger. And, saying I’m eager to face more challenges in my future would be stretching it, I will say I don’t fear them. I know pain is never permanent and I know I’m good at working through it.
The first four limbs are outward practices, focusing on how we interact with others, self-discipline, observing ourselves breathing and moving. The next four are inward practices that begin to subtly take us deeper within our minds. These four practices build upon one another to bring us to the highest consciousness.
Prayahara is the withdrawing from the senses. In other words, it’s tuning out the physical and mental stimulators that take in the world around you. In this practice, we use pranayama as the tool for withdrawing our senses.
Dharana is acute focus and concentration. The practitioner strives for complete absorption into one thought by stilling the busy, turning mind.
Dhyana is moving into Meditation, or concentration upon a point of focus with the intention of knowing the truth about it.
Samadhi means to bring together to merge. In this state, the body and senses are at rest, but the faculty of mind and reason are alert. You need to control the feelings of Avidya (ignorance), Asmita (egoism), Raga-Dvesha (likes and dislikes), Abhinivesha (clinging to mundane life).
We practice the first four limbs in order to prepare the body and mind to take on the task of moving inward. Do we reach Samadhi? Is that the final outcome? Most likely, we won’t. Or if you obtain a bright flash of the brilliance of Samadhi, it goes as quickly as it comes. Seeking the state of perfect consciousness is the essence of the practice of yoga. Come, and let’s practice together. Let’s change the world by changing ourselves. One step at a time.
The fourth rung of Ashtanga yoga is Pranayama, or control of the life force. In a word, breath. Stop and think for a moment… breath is so important that it’s given its own category in the eight limbed practice. Breathing, this seemingly mindless, simple effort, has a powerful effect on our physical bodies. Additionally, it affects our ability to cope with life’s daily stress and in helping us maintain our optimum health.
In our Ashtanga vinyasa yoga practice, and in our Hot Yoga 40 and 41 sequences, we use Ujjayi (pronounced “OO-ja-ee”) pranayama, or Victorious Breath. It’s a deep, full breath through the nose with a lift or constriction of the glottis, or back of the throat. The resulting sound is a loud “whisper” often compared to the sound of the ocean as the waves wash in and out from the shore. So, using this Ujjayi breath, we put the effort of maintaining connection to the breath throughout the entire practice. Aside from the physical benefits of deep, concentrated breathing (increased lung capacity, more movement of the muscles involved with breath…) we find the concentration required is soothing to the nervous system and helps the body stay in a state of relaxation during an extremely demanding physical practice.
If life force = breath control, it would follow that the study of the practice of pranayama is the study of being alive; much like the study of Asana is practice being ourselves. And in addition to the Ujjayi pranayama, there are many other types of breathing exercises that are available to us in the study of Yoga. There are many teachers at our studio who can instruct you if you’re interested in studying pranayama. We’re here to help you.
I always like to leave you with some motivation to explore the subjects of my blog, and today’s motivation can be simply this: watch yourself breathing today. Come back to the observance continually throughout today and for the week ahead. Give yourself a trigger that you will associate with remembering this task. It could be each time the phone rings, or every red traffic light. Just watch how you breathe in the different situations that arise through your day. Watch and take note. You only need a minimum of 5 breaths, but shoot for more. Are you breathing deeply or shallowly? Do you use conscious awareness of breath? Try to breathe your way through difficult situations such as a working at a demanding job, the compulsion to eat because of stress, experiencing feelings of loneliness or anxiety… stay with your breath and stay connected to yourself and to being alive in this physical body. Take note of all you observe as you breathe. You will notice immediately a sense of peace. There are many things will learn from this practice.
Pay attention. Seek information from your body. Breathe deeply and keep practicing.
The 3rd limb of Ashtanga Yoga is Asana, or posture. Finally, something you’re familiar with, right? Asana is the physical practice of yoga and is meant to strengthen, build flexibility and symmetry, and bring about a spiritual connection of our bodies and minds. Asana is the study of how our bodies move. If we look at our practice as a self-study, it helps develop our acceptance of where we are in the moment, unattached to the outcome of the work. Studying the placement of feet, the alignment and power of the legs, the building of the posture can be very grounding and quiets our minds.
You may still be a beginner and working on opening up the back body (hamstrings, lower back, etc. ) or you might be more advanced and your asana work is in the demanding inversions of 2nd or 3rd series. The same benefits of asana apply to us all. We learn a new posture, working on alignment, transitions into and out of it, and by repetition we come familiar and more comfortable with it. Asana practice is a parallel to the study of the self in all areas of life. Asana practice is practice being you. It requires discipline over avoidance, compassion over coldness, and love over fear. It’s learning to see the beauty and the power of a single breath. It’s the consciousness of our contribution, through practicing mindfulness, to peace on earth. It’s learning to love ourselves just the way we are, right now, as if there were no tomorrow.
That is asana.
Practice and all is coming.