My yoga teacher and good friend, Surinder Singh ji of Swasti Yogashala, Rishikesh, is not fluent in English, but somehow, the fact that he is forced to keep to a simple vocabulary, helps to drive home the salient points of his teachings with a straightforward clarity that often gets lost in the kind of lecturing style that some teachers adopt. But one thing that I heard him say every day of our training had me a bit perplexed.
“You are doing better and better, every day in every way.”
This was, as far as I was concerned, demonstrably untrue.
Even back then at the start of my yoga journey, some days I could perform the tree without a wobble, other days I felt like a drunk on a skating rink. Some days I could hold the camel pose for a full minute, other days I’d collapse into a heap after only 30 seconds. Certain mornings could be so dramatically different from the previous one often with no clear rhyme or reason. Was it the gluten in the pizza I’d had for dinner? Had I slept funny? You realize after a while that on some days, well, things just don’t work as well, and the body is no exception. But there he went, my dear Surinder ji, every day the same mantra “You are doing better and better.”
What on earth was he on about? I was beginning to think there was something wrong with him.
Fast forward to a full two years later, when Surinder ji began offering lessons via Zoom because of the pandemic. It was so lovely to see him again. I had missed him terribly and particularly that bond of respect and trust that comes with working with someone over a long period of time. But at the end of the lesson, there he went again with the you are doing better and better every day. And then it hit me.
He wasn’t saying that every day the nuts and bolts of your yoga practice is going to improve. He was saying that we are always becoming a better student of yoga. And that includes learning to accept the days when our thighs wobble or our shoulders stiffen, or we just feel tired or unmotivated or frustrated or irritated. It means getting better at not regarding every development (good or bad) as a trend. It means getting better at doing things when you just don’t feel like doing them, not doing them when you simply can’t, and understanding the difference. It means getting better at being honest with where you are at any point in time. It means getting better at enjoying when you improve and having patience when you don’t. It means getting better at befriending impermanence and imperfection. In short, It means getting better at responding to whatever comes up in the moment. Oh, I thought, in that ‘it’s been staring in your face the whole time’ kind of way, that’s what he means! And now, like the Beatles song goes, “It’s getting better all the time.”
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Respect yourself, explore yourself.
As the Winter is firming its grip upon those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, I find myself contemplating the centrality of the sun in our lives. How all life, animal and vegetable, depend upon it. How it provides us with Vitamin D for healthy bones and resistance to respiratory illnesses, and now the growing evidence that the sun improves the health of our heart and even lowers blood pressure. And then there is that whole soul-to-toe gratitude we can feel in its presence that sometimes borders on bliss, especially when we’ve been deprived of the warmth and caress of sunlight for long periods of time.
Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) is the perfect yoga sequence to add to any morning routine, or to do on its own. It involves a flow of forward and backward bends together with hip and shoulder openers. It’s a sequence that engages the entire body, both the right and left sides in equal measure. It can be performed at various speeds in a flow of balanced movement, offering the same time to each posture. Traditionally, it is performed at dawn facing an easterly direction, but if this isn’t possible, you can imagine the rising sun in your mind’s eye.
At the start and end of each round, we perform ‘namaskar mudra’ — bringing the hands together with the backs of the thumbs gently pressing the sternum at the location of the heart (Skt. anahata) chakra. Anahata translates, poignantly, to ‘unhurt’. This in itself is worth a few moments of reflection. The mudra is a tactile reminder of our deeper identity. Just as the sun is the heart of our solar system, the heart—not the brain—is where eastern wisdom traditions place the seat of the mind as the centre of our conscious experience. The mudra is also a reminder of the powerful connection between the sun and the heart that wisdom traditions have long known about and cardiovascular clinicians are presently discovering.
Some say that Surya Namaskar originated two and a half millennia ago, but as tempting as it is to evoke ancient mystical origins, this seems rather doubtful. The sequence is not mentioned in any text on Hatha Yoga, nor in the ancient Vedic texts, not even by Patanjali, considered the father of yoga and the author of the Yoga Sutras. As much as it might be tempting to mystify its origins, it appears that Surya Namaskar, at least as we know it today, was developed as a military exercise as late as the 17th century as part of physical preparedness training for the army of a powerful Indian warrior-king named Shivaji Bhonsle I (pronounced bhoh-slai). Yoga actually fell out of fashion in India in the modern era, but since 2016 the Indian army has begun incorporating Surya Namaskar this sequence into its training exercises.
There is a meditative effect that you can experience on your own as you deepen the practice. Coordinating the movements with the breath activates the regulatory capacities of the nervous system. Delicate, slow, conscious nasal breathing, especially exhales, calms the mind by shifting awareness from the external to the internal landscape. Each posture counter-balances the preceding one, so that the distribution pattern of load bearing on the limbs ensures that none of the joints are over-stressed. A common practice sequence is 3 full rounds, which means 6 half rounds, but even one full round will make you feel more alert and more ready to face the day. Different yoga traditions teach different variations of this sequence and if you search on Youtube you can surely find a sequence that feels right for you. In this way, you can keep a little sun within you even during the dark days.
According to a November 28 press release from the Department of Health & Social Care, the UK government is planning to distribute free Vitamin D supplements to 2.7 million of the most vulnerable people in Britain this winter, a move already taken by the Scottish parliament. This is welcome news to the hundreds of researchers and medical professionals who have been urging governments and healthcare bodies since the beginning of the pandemic to pay more attention to the growing body of evidence that Vitamin D reduces the incidence, severity and mortality of Covid 19.
In September, the evidence was amplified when David Meltzer, an internist and economist at the University of Chicago, and his colleagues, published the results of the first analysis of Vitamin D deficiency with testing positive for Covid-19. The results found people low in Vitamin D to be “at substantially higher risk of testing positive for Covid-19”. In study after study (40+ at the last count) researchers the world over have been discovering significant correlations between Vitamin D supplementation and reduced severity of Covid-19 symptoms, including fewer deaths.
So why did it take the UK government so long to begin talking seriously about Vitamin D? And why is the messaging still so muted?
Although the supplement distribution is a welcome move, with all the evidence now amassed and health professionals in such vigorous agreement as to its significance, what we should be seeing is a massive public health campaign around Vitamin D, with state funding of large-scale clinical trials. Hopefully, this is just around the corner since the government has announced a reviewal of the evidence. And yet, disappointingly, the media is not holding the government to account. In their article announcing the planned free distribution of supplements, the BBC claimed that ‘there is limited evidence that vitamin D protects against or treats Covid-19’. This echoes the statement of Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, who said in a parliamentary session in September that government-led research did not ‘appear to have any impact’ on the virus, when in fact, officials admitted that no such trials have been conducted. Whether this was a genuine mistake on the part of the Health Secretary or an intentional obfuscation is anyone’s guess.
Some of the confusion about what constitutes reliable evidence lies in the difference between observational studies and controlled clinical trials. Clinical trials are the gold standard for medical research, and include a control group (or placebo group) and an experimental group; the one that receives the intervention. However, when the resources are not available for control studies, well-designed observational studies, particularly of larger populations, can be extremely valuable in determining associations between specific exposures and results. Whereas it is true that a few of the studies have not demonstrated a statistically significant link between Vitamin D supplementation and improved Covid-19 patient outcomes, the findings of dozens of peer-reviewed, randomized, double-blind, observational studies suggest otherwise.
As far back as May, Joanne. E. Manson, Prof. of Medicine at Harvard Medical School described the evidence as being “quite compelling” that Vitamin D offers protection against infection and complications from Covid 19, ”particularly against the severe reaction cytokine storm.” Rose Anne Kenney, from Trinity College Dublin called the evidence, “very strong.” And in his letter to the British Medical Journal on October 5, Australian GP, Peter J. Lewis echoed these and other voices, when he referred to the evidence from research studies as “overwhelming”.
Large scale controlled clinical trials require serious funding, organization and human resources, which is why, especially when there is no drug company behind the intervention, they more often require governmental support. For the past several months, doctors, scientists and healthcare professionals have been calling for such trials to be conducted into Vitamin D and Covid-19 on the strength of the results of the numerous observational studies. This issue has been raised in several BMJ Rapid Responses and can be read in the conclusions of many of the researchers themselves, often in quite urgent terms.
Thankfully, (although apparently unbeknownst to the Health Secretary or the BBC) we now have two, albeit quite small, controlled clinical studies on Vitamin D and Vitamin D analogues in the treatment of Covid-19. The most recent was carried out in India and was published in Nature on 19 November 2020. This study concluded that Vitamin D deficiency not only markedly increases the chance of having severe disease after infection with SARS Cov-2, but that Vitamin D deficiency translates to increased mortality.
The first randomized clinical trial in the world on Vitamin D and Covid-19 was conducted at the Reina Sofía University Hospital in Spain and the results were published August 29 in The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. The results were clear. Vitamin D supplementation improved outcomes for Covid-19 patients, reduced the chances for ending up in intensive care, and reduced mortality. The researchers are now extending the study throughout hospitals in Spain.
These two clinical studies support a number of the findings of the other 40 or so observational studies on Covid-19 and Vitamin D:
- There is a greater incidence of Covid-19 in Vitamin D deficient patients and Vitamin D deficient people are more likely to test positive for the virus.
- Covid-19 patients with low Vitamin D levels are more likely to be hospitalized.
- Vitamin D supplementation reduces the likelihood of a Covid-19 patient going to intensive care.
- Vitamin D offers a protective effect both in terms of symptoms and survival in those who take it as a regular supplement before contracting the virus.
- Supplementing with Vitamin D, or exposure to UVB radiation that forms Vitamin D through the skin, reduces Covid-19 fatalities.
- The most gains are experienced in patients who are more severely Vitamin D deficient.
- Moderate doses are more effective than high doses.
Vitamin D deficiency is a global problem but its safety and usage is well-established and understood. Vitamin D toxicity is extremely rare and there are no nasty side effects at the doses being recommended. We can source it from fatty fish, cheese, eggs, and beef liver, but we get most of it from sunshine. Healthcare professionals have long advised supplementation of Vitamin D in the Winter, since the the lack of sun leads many, particularly the elderly, to become deficient. Vitamin D has been found to enhance innate immunity and suppress the expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines. The link between strong Vitamin D levels and resistance to respiratory infections has also long been known. And now we have persuasive evidence that Vitamin D can play an important part in any treatment program for the coronavirus.
You would think that in light of this, international and government health agencies would be lining up to conduct the kind of clinical trials that would remove doubt once and for all. Yet there have been none so far, neither by the World Health Organization as evidenced by their International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (WHO ICTRP), the CDC, nor the National Institutes of Health. In fact there are currently no federally funded clinical trials of the effects of Vitamin D on Covid-19 at all. One can’t help but wonder, if we were we talking about a new or redeveloped drug that could be marketed to giant profits and reputational acclaim, whether the enthusiasm would be greater. After all, the discovery that hundreds of others have already made that an ordinary Vitamin (actually a hormone, but let’s not nit pick) that anyone can get reading the newspaper in their back garden on a sunny day and costs pennies to produce commercially can help Covid-19 patients is not exciting to those driven by such motivations.
As Robert A. Brown, Chair and researcher at the McCarrison Society, a nutrition-based think tank, writes in the BMJ, ‘…if the depth of information, and number of studies on ‘D’, consistently pointing in the same direction, related to a new COVID-19 ‘drug’, with minimal side-effects, it would have been front-page-news. Additional clinical research would have been prioritised with determination and alacrity, and ‘D’ by now, licensed as a standard-treatment-protocol.’
Fortunately, institutions are now taking it upon themselves to forge ahead with clinical trials of Vitamin D and Covid-19. There are currently 59 such trials either planned or already underway around the world, including several in the United States and a large trial in planning by Queen Mary University of London funded by Barts Charity.
Such large scale clinical trials could easily have been supported by the likes of the Gates Foundation that has made Covid-19 a central focus of their current work. In May, the Gates Foundation joined forces with Wellcome and Mastercard to the tune of 125 million dollars to ‘identify potential treatments for COVID-19, accelerate their development, and prepare for the manufacture of millions of doses for use worldwide.’ This initiative is being coordinated by the Covid-19 Therapeutics Accelerator which is seeking international investment of ‘at least’ 11.6 billion USD over the next year. Back in March, the Therapeutics Accelerator donors announced grants of $20 million to three institutions—the University of Washington, University of Oxford, and La Jolla Institute for Immunology—to fund clinical trials in order to identify highly potent immunotherapies for the current pandemic. None of these institutions are engaging in clinical trials of Vitamin D in treatment of the disease.
Currently, the only FDA-approved Covid treatment drug is remdesivir, produced by the biopharma giant Gilead Sciences and sold under the brand name Veklury. Remdesivir was also the first Covid treatment drug to receive a conditional marketing authorization in Europe. Surprisingly, the WHO recommends against its use, having stated that there is no evidence that it improves survival or helps people stay off ventilators. Last month, Therapeutics Accelerator, granted 500,000 USD to Almac to develop production of a drug for the treatment of Covid-19. That drug was remdesivir.
From a business point of view, remdesivir kicks Vitamin D out of the park. While remdesivir costs over 3000 dollars for a 5-day course, a one month supply of Vitamin D3 will set you back around 4 dollars. Vitamin D is not and cannot be patented. It can be made very cheaply in huge amounts with production not confined to a single country or region.
The reluctance to invest in clinical trials or to promote the robust body of evidence for a cheap and easily scalable intervention for Covid-19, raises many questions about the influence of the pharmaceutical industry and their backers and lobbyists on government health ministries and public health policy. How these relationships might be impacting the interests of public health should be cause for concern. Hopefully, the full force of scientific inquiry and the integrity of thousands of researchers and health professionals who genuinely seek to improve the outcomes for people affected by this disease will prevail. Fortunately in this case, if our institutions fail us, we need go no further than our local chemist, or – weather permitting – our own back yard.
One of my first introductions to the power of the mind-body connection was through a set of muscles called the ‘psoas’. These are the muscles that attach our lumbar spine to the legs. They’re often called the ‘fight or flight muscles’ since they are a first responder to conditions of threat, allowing us to high kick, bring our knee towards our stomach in defense–or run.
Several years ago, I was in a traumatic relationship with a man with all the traits of narcissistic personality disorder. Although the relationship only lasted a few months, the experience had left me terribly depressed and anxious and my self-confidence in tatters.
As I gradually gained the strength to end the relationship, something very strange happened to the tops of my inner thighs. They began to throb with a kind of pain I had never before experienced. I hadn’t done any demanding exercise to explain it, but it felt as if these muscles had been massively over-worked. It felt incredibly uncomfortable, like a cry for help that I didn’t understand. It was particularly concentrated in the dip below my hips, half a finger length towards the pubic bone, which later, when I became more familiar with anatomy, I learned was exactly where the psoas muscles connect with the tops of the thighs across the hips. No matter whether I was sitting, walking or lying down, this part of my body kept on screaming as if for attention. The feeling was like being trapped in burning building without begin able to find the EXIT. I listened to calming music on Youtube, tried to meditate (impossible!) and went for walks by the sea. Probably the latter helped more than anything else, but what I actually needed was not so much to calm down but to RELEASE the huge stores of built-up tension as I had continually ignored my body’s signals to remove myself from the abuse.
What I didn’t know then was that my psoas muscles had become trapped in a chronic sympathetic nervous system response. They were communicating something very important to me. GET AWAY. Had I known then what I know now, I would have been able to release this trauma response much more effectively and saved myself days of agony. (Literally running would also have helped but I’m a lousy runner and I generally end up injuring myself).
The psoas muscles are engaging when our legs quiver or shake during an episode that we experience as threatening. Those of us who have had to work to overcome a fear of public speaking know what it’s like to stand with fight or flight neurohormones flooding our system with a neuro-chemical scream of “run!! while we are forced through external pressures to continue to stand still. The audience members may not look like saber-toothed tigers, but this is how our nervous system is experiencing them. Our psoas muscles tense, sending neural signals to our brain to gear us up for a motivated response to a threat to our safety. Our brain responds by sending cortisol and adrenalin to help us to mobilize away from the threat (flight) or towards it (fight).
When we don’t move in response to the brain’s SOS signals our legs can begin to shake uncontrollably, because our bodies are trying to discharge excess energy that is not being discharged through mobility. Although this can feel embarrassing, it is actually our body’s way of protecting us. What happens this protection protocol fails i.e., when faced with a perceive threat we can’t expel this urge for motility, this energy becomes trapped as emotional tension. The psoas muscles are a prime target for this tension to reside since it is the psoas muscles that recruit the movement that signals to the nervous system that we are responding to the perceived threat. When the nervous system doesn’t receive this message, it continues to put out a cocktail of sympathetic system chemicals that keeps our body’s on high alert. This becomes quickly exhausting, physically and mentally, since we will certainly sense this tension psychologically as a dis-ease, a relentless and deeply embedded anxiety.
I wish I had known two things while lying in bed with my psoas muscle chain on red alert but without much of a clue how to calm myself. One is TRE or Trauma Release Exercises and the other is what Marlysa Sullivan, assistant professor at Maryland University of Integrative Health calls “constructive rest”. It’s a term first introduced by Mabel Todd in 1937 in her book, The Thinking Body. Sullivan describes constructive rest as ‘…a position of complete rest in which the spine is relieved of the weight of the arms and legs, and the major joints are free to release into gravity and fall into rest. The goal is to distribute the weight of the body so that no work is required in order to maintain equilibrium.’
If we feel tension in our psoas muscles, it’s logical to think that we need to stretch it more, but this isn’t necessarily helpful and can cause a counter-tension to occur. Sometimes we need to encourage the psoas to relax and release by creating an open resting space around it. Lying on the back with a folded blanket under the shoulders, legs elevated, perhaps up on a couch, a couple of bolsters or a deep-seated chair is one such position.
TRE followed by a position of constructive rest is a very effective way to relieve tension.
I like Charlie Maginness’ explanation but your can run a search and find a session that works for your temperament. Some people call it Tension Release Exercises because not everyone identifies with the word ‘trauma’. It looks far more dramatic than it feels. Most people find that TRE feels very natural and is not frightening at all. On the contrary, it feels oddly soothing. Having said that, it is of course possible that someone might experience anxiety with this practice, so take it slowly and stop and take breaks if you need to. Or if it seems like too much right now, simply put it aside for another time. I would recommend watching this video a couple of times before trying it yourself. One thing that Charlie Maginness leave out is the TRE ‘break’ which allows you to stop the tension release shaking by straightening your legs and pointing your toes. I will be doing my own video on this topic soon, but in the meantime if you’re feeling stable and curious I recommend you give it a go. Just be gentle with yourself and don’t overdo it.
You might find, like me, that you want to lie down for a while afterwards in bed or on a couch. When I’m going through a period of restless sleep, I find it helpful to do these exercises just before bedtime.
If you’re suffering from a significant number of the following: constant fatigue, muscle soreness, weakness and lethargy, unexplained headaches, insomnia, irregular or fast heartbeat, low blood pressure, brain fog, dizziness, memory loss, attention deficit, confusion, clumsiness, unexplained mood changes, skin ‘tenting’ (skin staying erect for more than 2 seconds when you pinch it), pruney or wrinkly fingers, sudden appearance of face wrinkles, bad breath, dry mouth, dry or flaky skin, inability to sweat, dark urine with strong odour and decreased urination, sweet cravings, sluggish bowels, nausea, blurred vision, extreme thirst and reduced physical endurance-(phew!)-then chronic dehydration may be your problem.
Of course, these are also symptoms of many other health conditions, but it is worth to consider chronic dehydration as a possible cause if you have been exposed to long-term fluid-depriving conditions. Why? Because if left untreated chronic dehydration can require hospitalization and can even be fatal. And secondly, it is really easy to treat. You just have to not make the same mistakes I did. It seems counter-intuitive but it turns out that chronic dehydration, although initially the result of not taking in enough fluids, can actually be made worse by consuming large quantities of water, as I was about to discover.
I had returned home to France three weeks earlier, after spending six months in North India, much of it over the monsoon season. In monsoon, the humidity can remain as high as 85% with temperatures hovering in the upper 30s to mid 40s. In between the downpours, it is uncomfortable to stay outside for longer than a few minutes. Even a brief walk is exhausting. The high humidity + high temperatures is a perfect recipe for dehydration. I was not unfamiliar with the Indian monsoon, and at the time I thought I was drinking enough water. Looking back, I now realize that some of the symptoms of mild dehydration had already begun to set in.
Once back in France I drank less water initially, thinking I didn’t need as much now I was out of the extreme weather conditions of the subcontinent. When my symptoms worsened, I gradually increased my fluid intake. The often recommended water intake is 8 x 8oz glasses of water per day (about two litres) plus 12 ounces for every 30 minutes that you work out. But there are widely differing schools of thought. Water intake needs differ from person to person and depend on several factors such as age, sex, weight, activity levels, climate, etc. I was drinking over two litres of water daily, being careful to pace myself since I’d read somewhere that it’s better to drink slowly throughout the day rather than glugging half litres at a time, but I just felt worse and worse. After three weeks, I had almost every single one of the symptoms mentioned above and I woke up each morning feeling like I’d been hit by a truck.
I would begin to feel a bit better as the morning wore on, but I usually had to lie down by lunch time and would be a zombie by around 5 pm. No matter how much I lay down, I never felt properly rested. The nights were especially difficult. I woke up often, my heart thumping out of my chest. Some days were better than others but mostly I wasn’t good for much more than Netflix and fitful dozing. My symptoms were similar to the early onset of dengue fever (which I had contracted in 2014 in Delhi). Had I been so unlucky as to get it twice, and out of the season for it as well? Maybe I had succumbed to Covid-19 (which has similar symptoms to dengue in the early phases) even though my nasal swab test at the airport in Paris had come back negative. I’d read that false negatives from molecular tests such as RT-PCR were unlikely but not unheard of. Was it chronic fatigue syndrome? Or something even worse? My mind was entertaining all kinds of unpleasant scenarios trying to make sense of it all and my mood was teetering on the edge of depression–a condition with which I am quite familiar. Then I had a brainwave–or so I thought.
I would fast for three days and “reset” my system. Now, I’m not an avid faster. I intend to fast more than I actually do. But I had done several three day fasts over the past couple of years with very positive results. I would only drink water, I decided, and lots of it. It turns out that in my condition the fast was a terrible idea. And this is why.
Longterm exposure to the monsoon climate in India combined with improper and inadequate water consumption while eating a diet low in electrolytes had resulted in my body becoming dehydrated. This condition had become exacerbated after my return to Europe where the temperatures were still in the 20-30 celsius range; certainly not helped by the couple of glasses of wine I was enjoying two to three times a week, flushing water out of my system more rapidly than normal. We are more prone to dehydration as we age, and being in my mid-50s was also a factor.
What I didn’t realize was that the two litres of water I was drinking a day was now exacerbating the condition. My body was crying out for electrolytes more than water; sodium, chloride, magnesium, and potassium, which we need to deliver fluids to our cells. It was like taking packages to the Post Office when there were no postmen to deliver them. Even though I was taking in fluids it wasn’t getting to its destination. Then on top of this, I stopped eating for three days, increasing my water intake to three litres per day, thus removing all sources of electrolytes from my diet both liquid and solid.
Fasting while suffering from chronic dehydration turned out to be a magnificently bad idea. And all that extra water was simply leaching the few stores of electrolytes that my body had left.
By the morning of the third day of fasting I had to call in the army corps of engineers just to get to the bathroom. I could even feel a cavity forming in an upper tooth, that made it excruciating to brush my teeth (I was able to completely sort this by using a time-honored Ayurvedic technique of ‘pulling’ which I’ll blog about another time). I started racking what was left of my brains since the mental fog was so thick I was having trouble stringing rational thoughts together. Had I felt like this before, other than when I had dengue? Yes. Yes, I had. When I had been dehydrated. I looked up the symptoms and they all ticked off like a perfect mark. One word hovered over all else with rays of sunlight streaming from it and harp music (well, I was practically hallucinating by then)–electrolytes. I dragged myself to the supermarket and bought a packet of powdered electrolytes and electrolyte-containing foods (avocados, bananas, Greek yoghurt, olives, pumpkin seeds, miso soup, chocolate milk, turkey, etc.). Less than half and hour after dosing up with electrolytes, I felt a small improvement. I ate the foods gradually at 15 minute intervals. I continued to drink water (though much less) with electrolytes added throughout the day and I actually managed to stay up until 9 o’clock. The following morning I felt what it was like to wake up refreshed. And so the healing began…
Now, two days later I’m back to normal. I feel incredibly grateful to have my health back and will never take my new best friend for granted again. Electrolytes. Don’t leave home without them.
From the 21 day lockdown in Varanasi, India. In this session a set of 9 techniques and practices that have been particularly helpful in warding off depression and bringing vitality to the mind and body. Bon courage!
FROM THE LOCKDOWN IN VARANASI, INDIA. A breakdown and step wise guide to how to master the transitional move between 2 key poses of Surya Namaskar. This transition often eludes the beginning student who arrives at the resolution after weeks of trial and error and often without really understanding how they have accomplished it. The transition between these two poses – Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog) and Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge), once properly understood, will allow us to really enjoy the sequence and progress in our practice, while the techniques that we learn to accomplish it will teach us a great deal about how yoga works. Bon courage!
There is a wonderful moment in Stephen Cope’s glorious book, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self where he writes, ‘Hold the pose like you’re holding a baby.’ This one line, in a book jammed with wisdoms, has had a lingering effect in my own practice as well as in my practice of teaching yoga. It didn’t come like a bolt from the blue. It was more like the way of fairy dust, incrementally settling on the furniture, until before you know it, you are inhabiting a more numinous reality than before. Hold the pose like a baby perfectly expresses the kind of mental and emotional stance that allows us to truly progress in our yoga practice and, in equal measure, along the path of self-inquiry. It is a shining gem of a metaphor that can bring us into a more refined and joyful relationship with our practice and with ourselves.
When we hold the pose like a baby, we are gathering together a bunch of positively co-conspiring conditions that can lift our practice to a whole new level. This simple single phrase is a kind of Western mantra, a syntactic formula that delivers meaning on several levels at once; mental, emotional, physical and metaphysical. If this is sounding a bit far-fetched, let me show you what I mean.
So what does in mean to ‘hold the pose like a baby’?
Imagine holding a baby in your arms. Really imagine it, not just visually. Feel the weight on your chest. What is the sensory input? What feelings does this act pull out of you? Even if you’re not a massive baby fan; even if you’re worrying about it dribbling on you (or worse), you will probably feel immediately protective — a sense of responsibility to keep this tiny fragile creature safe from harm. You will likely feel some goodwill towards it, so vulnerable and new to the world, remembering that this was once how you yourself were. You might feel a sense of friendliness, affection — even love. You will naturally give to this baby the lion’s share of your attention, without conscious effort. And as a result of this increased attentiveness, you will be responsive to the baby’s needs, adjusting your hold, tightness, looseness, and so on; adapting to changing conditions. From the ground of all of these conditions, the better parts of your nature will emerge like a shoot emerges from prepared and watered soil. All of these qualities that holding this baby engenders in you; attention, care, friendliness and responsiveness, will envelop you in a sense of immediacy and presence — in a more direct and less filtered experience of the moment. Holding a baby, in short, brings out the best in us, if only for a brief time.
attention, protection, friendliness, responsiveness
So when we hold the pose like a baby, we hold the pose with the best of our attention; we hold the pose with a sense of friendly protection and a responsiveness to the moment; a little extension here, and little relaxation there, not too tight, not too loose, and so on. When we bring this metaphor to bear in our practice, our relationship between our body and the poses themselves completely transforms. We are kinder to ourselves, we are less likely to hurt ourselves, we become more creative, more open and curious, more receptive, and more attentive. Even our breath becomes finer, just as it does when we hold a baby and we begin to match our breath with the subtler baby’s breath. We begin to notice subtle changes, and discover techniques and methods to enter poses that had eluded us in the past. We will progress in ways we never expected. Not from pushing ourselves harder from the pressure of some internalized voice of judgement, but from holding ourselves more lightly with an attitude of friendliness and joyful responsibility.
How not to hold a pose/baby
It can be very edifying to examine the attitudes that we don’t want to dominate when holding a baby, since it’s not a given that we will be inspired to express the best in ourselves every time we practice. We can then examine the same attitudes in relation to our asanas. In examining these negative qualities through the metaphor of holding a baby, we can really see how they impact not only our yoga practice but many other aspects of our life, and how we can cultivate their opposite.
Inattentiveness: I’m holding a baby but my mind is wandering
Result in practice: General unsteadiness; inability to remain present in the pose and tendency to lose track of the posture.
Judgement/Expectation: I’m carrying this baby all wrong and if it cries I’m a terrible person.
Result in practice: An inability to identify and thus rejoice in progress causing a lack of vitality and joy. A tendency to take set-backs personally and to become easily discouraged.
Arrogance: I’ve held thousands of babies. I have nothing more to learn.
Result in practice: An inability to receive or absorb new information.
Recklessness: I could throw this baby up in the air and catch it in one hand.
Result in yoga: Not adequately preparing for poses, resulting in a greater chance of injury.
Pessimism: I’ll never be able to hold a baby properly. I don’t have the ability.
Result in practice: Lack of trust in one’s potential causes a lack of confidence that manifests in half-hearted and mediocre effort.
Impatience: When am I going to be able to put down this baby?
Result in practice: Loss of balance, focus and dissipation of energy.
We can all recognize some of the attitudes in this list when it comes to our yoga practice. We’re all human, after all. What is really encouraging is that in our asanas, we can turn all this around simply by asking two simple questions: what does that pose baby need from me? How can I respond to it?
We can take all of this far beyond the boundaries of the yoga mat into how we hold opinions, for example. Opinions, even well-conceived ones, are nothing more than mental postures. The Buddha warned against attachment to views and advised that these were the most difficult attachments for us to let go of. Even recognizing opinions as attachments is difficult, since we tend to identify with our ‘views’ so closely, almost as if they define us. If we can hold our opinions as gently and as gracefully as we hold a baby, the ground we walk upon will become a much friendlier place. That’s a big ask, but we can begin with the pose — we can hold the pose like a baby — and go from there.
From the 21 day lockdown in Varanasi, India. An amazingly simple technique for fast-acting relief from panic and anxiety. All you need is a wall and an adventurous bottom!