Hold the pose like a baby

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.

LOCKDOWN YOGA: Vagus nerve hack for neck tension, anxiety and more

From the 21 day lockdown in Varanasi, India. This fast, effective (and very cool) biohack begins with a demonstration of how movement of our eyes muscles connects to the suboccipital muscles at the back of the neck where the skull meets the spine. Yes, you really DO have eyes in the back of your head! Decompression of these muscles reduces tension in the neck, helps alleviate headaches, anxiety, sleep disorders and depression, and has been found to stimulate the Vagus nerve, a key factor in regulating the autonomic nervous system for overall well being. This is followed by the BASIC EXERCISE developed by Dr. Stanley Rosenberg that you can read about in his book, Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve.

LOCKDOWN YOGA: Diaphragmatic breathing and the yogic breath

From the 21 day lockdown in Varanasi, India. Today it’s all about abdominal-diaphramatic breathing. This kind of breathing – called the ‘yogic breath’ is fundamental not only to yogic practice but to our general well-being. Learn how to re-connect with this unique muscle that provides the key to navigating between the conscious and unconscious, between the external and energetic dimensions of our experience.

References include: Dr. Stephen Porges and Polyvagal Theory; Deb Dana (author of The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy) and Stephen Cope Yoga and the Quest for the True Self.

The well is not dry: How our practice sustains us, even on the bad days

water architecture colourful church
Photo by tyler hendy on Pexels.com

A few years ago, a friend called me feeling down. She had a very demanding job and wasn’t always so good about taking care of herself, but for the past year she had been really turning her health around. She’d been exercising regularly and paying more attention to her diet, and creating healthier barriers between her work and her personal time. And it had paid off. She had lost the pounds she had always wanted to shed, and she’d been feeling really positive mentally to boot. Then she fell ill. Nothing terribly serious, just regular garden variety flu. But it took her weeks to fully recover. She complained to me on the phone that she felt that the illness had really set her back and that all that work she had done on herself now seemed like a waste of time. She had not felt up to doing any exercise or even cooking proper meals. She felt like she was going back to square one.

I felt strongly that this was not the case. There was another way to look at it, I said. “All of that self-care, it doesn’t just go down the drain. It’s part of your condition now. It’s in you. It’s part of the reason you take care of yourself, so you can get through times like this.” She was sincere in her efforts and had built up positive habits. I knew that she would return to them more easily than she thought. This turned out to be the case, and not long after we spoke, she was her bouncy positive self again and quickly shed the extra pounds she’d gained snacking in bed.

When we build substantive familiarity in our practice–whether it’s yoga or some other form of mind/body system, meditation, mindfulness, whatever—when (not if) we have times when we’re just not up to it, the results of our practice are still there, available to us, however subtly. By substantive familiarity I mean when we have invested time, energy, attention and effort in our practice. Then those off times are unlikely to seriously derail us, though we may end up in the bushes for a while. And who knows what we might find there. They’re mysterious things these energy cycles, and time in the bushes might be exactly what we need.

Yesterday was not a great day for me. I didn’t feel like doing much yoga and kind of phoned in my practice. I over-ate, spent too much time online, and began to plummet mentally and physically by the afternoon. It took some effort to get up this morning. I dragged myself like a sack of spuds to my morning practice, which I eventually did a bit half-heartedly on the carpet in my room instead of outside on the grass like I usually do. But what happened was, that although, yes, it took some initial effort, after that effort, something warmly familiar kicked in. It was like the practice had created a groove that I could slip into without too much huffing and puffing. It wasn’t a brilliant session, but I knew I wasn’t plummeting any more, that all was not lost, that I could RE-SOURCE.

Regular practice puts something into storage. It turns into a resource, and when we return to it, as long as we have built a robust and sincere relationship, it will respond like a caring and supportive friend. It takes less effort than we imagine to enter that ‘groove’ again. We just need to have a bit of faith that it’s still there, and orient ourselves towards it. Not even a second of such practice is wasted.

It’s natural to have days when we aren’t particularly motivated, and worse. There will be the good, the bad, the ugly, and – sometimes the toughest nut of all – the meh. Just remember this. Your practice hasn’t gone anywhere. It doesn’t disperse like water on the ground. It feeds the well. And the well is there waiting. Sometimes it takes a  bit longer and demands a bit more effort to lower the pail. But the well has not run dry. And neither have you.

The impact of yoga on social intelligence

golden-circles-of-light

While there is much investigation into the physical and mental health benefits of yoga, there is another aspect of the yoga experience often overlooked but known by anyone who regularly joins a class. This is the social aspect, an area that is now being given some serious study.

A few years ago, a study by Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada, showed that activities such as yoga can positively impact people with social anxiety disorders, to ‘literally change the way people perceive the world’. The research demonstrated that people who do yoga regularly view the environment in a less threatening and less negative way. Yoga activates a key feature of our nervous system, what American scientist Dr. Stephen Porges calls our ‘social engagement system’, vectored by the Vagus Nerve through its effect of informing and transmitting signals of safety, trust, and relaxation. Safety, as Porges explains, is like the ‘preamble’ to social engagement. It gives us the sense of security to engage with confidence.

This social engagement system can be activated singularly and then reinforced by a group, or activated within a group and reinforced singularly in a feedback loop. By attuning us more to our own nervous systems, yoga performed alone can help us to more skillfully interpret and demonstrate social signals to develop a more connected and coherent orientation of self in relation to others. These benefits can be further actualized and reinforced by a group of other practitioners, serving as a grounding template for our interactions throughout the day.

During periods of leisure our ancestors gathered together to eat, play and relax–to share a common experience of calm and trust. Group yoga harnesses the essential mechanisms of such activities on our nervous systems. Moving our bodies together in a shared space, while synchronizing the breath and posture, can enhance our social intelligence and help us to feel more connected to the people in our lives. We can foster this experience of connection on our mat at home by activating our sympathetic nervous system through the slow mindful movements, breathing techniques and concentration practices of yoga. This science of the nervous system helps to explain the spontaneous feelings of goodwill and loving-kindness that we can experience during our practice even when others are not around. As Albert Einstein beautifully put it:

“Although I am a typical loner in my daily life, my awareness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty and justice has prevented me from feelings of isolation.”

Yoga, therefore, not only helps to build a bridge between the body and the mind, but also between ourselves and others.

Progress, and why we don’t seem to make any….

We all want to change something.

Perhaps we want to lose weight, run a marathon, learn to play an instrument or learn a foreign language. But sometimes these goals remain stubbornly elusive and the lack of perceived progress can lead to a sense of defeat, and ultimately, to giving up. We try again and again, but there seems an invisible force blocking our progress. All we seem to end up doing, is reinforcing a pattern of failure so that we feel defeated even before we’ve hardly begun.

seedling

In his remarkable book ‘Philosophy of Hatha Yoga,’ Swami Veda Bharati quotes his father as saying, ‘If you’ve fallen in mud, you cannot expect to get up from a marble floor.’ This perfectly down-to-earth expression captures the practical importance of beginning from where you find yourself N THIS IS ALWAYS here and now. No matter how ‘muddy’ things might seem where you find yourself now, THIS IS YOUR STARTING POINT.

This seems almost ridiculously obvious. After all, we are only ever here and now, aren’t we? Yet oftentimes, and especially when we are learning something new, there is a tendency to think of ourselves somewhere ‘out there’ — like a phantom self, a product of our desire to supercede our current image of ourselves. To be ‘better’. It is certainly possible for that phantom to become a muse that inspires us to develop our practice. More often than not, however, it hangs around our head like a nagging aunt, berating us for our inadequacies and driving a wedge between our desire for change and any possibility for meaningful growth.

In accepting that we first need to rise in mud, we take our imperfect selves with us on the journey. We accept the unvarnished reality of where we are, without plans or embellishment. This is what Zen masters call ‘beginner’s mind’. This ‘beginner’s mind’ is the womb of all effort.  In meeting this reality we meet ourselves exactly as we find ourselves–imperfect, vulnerable, undisciplined. In short a little on the muddy side.

The biggest obstacle to leveling up our practice is the idea that there is something wrong with where we are.

Engaged Curiosity

Progress comes not so much from believing we are capable of more than we think, but from becoming actively curious about our capacities as they present to us in this very hour. Replacing goals with curiosity is a magic key. Goals lie outside our immediate control, and we can even wonder if they are truly our own or ‘expectations’ that we have become conditioned to internalize. Curiosity is always within our agency. Curiosity has a childlike quality that softens the nose-down toil and struggle with breezier elements of exploration, play and adventure. When we struggle through our endeavours, we fall victim to an uncompromising logic that says, ‘If I do this, then such and such should occur….’ Curiosity says, ‘Let’s see what happens when/if….’

There is nothing wrong with aspirations in and of themselves, so long as they don’t launch us away from the step right in front of us. It reminds me of a friend who keeps telling me, “I must learn French” when, in fact, he is already learning French. Perhaps the aspiration itself needs to remain grounded in the respiration of this very moment. Yoga is anchored in the breath for good reason. When we inhabit the spacious allowance of where we find ourselves now, we don’t need to hunt down our future. The future  finds us.

Just as the full bloom exists within the bud, so is the future budded within the present. If you want to know where you are headed, bring your attention to where you are now. You are not just on the path. YOU ARE THE PATH.

Admittedly, it’s not fun to realize that you’ve fallen in mud. It’s grubby and humbling. But this is the essential beauty of the image of the lotus that in Buddhism depicts the path from ignorance to enlightenment — with its roots in the mud providing the compost from which the unsullied lotus flower emerges. What we are now, in the present moment is our compost. This is perfect effort, the path of least resistance, where we say ‘yes’ to the mud even as we rise and grow out of it. Like all good gardeners know, you don’t fiddle and poke at young shoots; you give them what they need to thrive. It’s amazing how little they need. A little water and sunlight. Then the growth takes care of itself.

Baton Yoga – An Innovative Yoga Tool for Alignment, Balance, and Exploration

It’s often said that the best things happen by accident. A couple of months ago, a
simple hardware purchase led to the inspiration for the creation of an innovative
form of yoga. I had bought a wooden curtain rail from Mr. Bricolage in Parthenay, France, and was on my way up the stairs with plan to install it in an open door frame. It was a gorgeous late autumn morning after a week of grey and rain, and the sun was streaming in through the windows of the yoga studio. I couldn’t resist a few rounds of Surya Namaskar in its rays.

workshop1
A Baton Yoga workshop at the studio of yoga teacher, Patrice Gavard, in Parthenay, France. September 21, 2019.

When I finished, I picked up the curtain rail and was about to go get my hammer
and nails when something made me pause. I slipped the rail behind my
shoulders and rolled my wrists around the end. The encouraging effect on my
posture was immediate. I began doing some simple stretching movements with the rail in hand and found that it provided a very natural structure that deepened certain postures, accessed hard to reach muscles, and offered helpful support for specific postures.

workshop2
Creative ‘breakout’ session of the Baton Yoga workshop at the studio of Patrice Gavard, Parthenay. September 21, 2019

There was also something graceful and playful about it that evoked movements and
postures from both modern dance and martial arts, inspiring a move away from
static poses to a more dynamic flow. This simple lightweight pole acted as a
an extension of the body. I discovered it to be a very precise as
well as creative tool for alignment, balance and strength. As I explored the
potential of this practice on my own over the ensuing months, I became
convinced that this tool was at least as useful as the blocks, belts, and blankets
that have become such a regular part of Hatha Yoga to help students enhance
and develop their form.

I have been incorporating the curtain rail into my classes since Spring of 2019. On the advice of a French friend and fellow yoga instructor, I have called it
Baton Yoga even though this might invoke images of marching majorettes). I do
see his point. ‘Curtain Rail Yoga’ doesn’t sound very elegant, although I
personally think it has a nice utilitarian ring to it. More importantly, I’ve seen how this tool can benefit those at all levels of proficiency as well as people with specific issues,
being particularly effective in addressing shoulder and back stiffness, pain, and misalignment. It is also fantastically useful for working on deepening balancing poses. With their baton, anyone can quickly acquire the perfect form to experience the lovely effects of Tree Pose, for example, and work on building up their balance later. Participants have reported how they find the baton acts as a focus for their attention throughout the lesson, so that they become less distracted by the external environment and what other students are doing and are able to concentrate more easily. Over the months, we have been developing poses in pairs, threes and even larger groups.

Come and have a go. And there is no need to take down your curtains—all poles provided.

Respect yourself, explore yourself.

Rebecca

The Vagus Nerve, Yoga and the Heart

With all the focus on aerobic exercise, you could be forgiven for thinking that what your heart wants is for you to constantly running, swimming or cycling. But a number of Vagus nerve anatomy, illustrationmedical studies are showing that practicing yoga can significantly contributes to cardiovascular health. These days, doctors and other health practitioners are increasingly recognizing the benefits of yoga for the healthy functioning of the heart. More research, particularly in the past five years, is revealing how regular yoga practice can help to manage the levels of cortisol and adrenaline – the fight or flight/stress hormones – that stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and put pressure on the heart by narrowing the arteries and raising blood pressure.
This calming effect on the body and mind is due in large part to the activity of the Vagus Nerve, that has been dubbed the “air traffic controller” of our nervous system. The Vagus is our largest cranial nerve, connecting the brain to the rest of the body via the facial muscles, heart, lungs, digestive tract, kidneys and reproductive organs. The Vagus Nerve plays a key role in the function of the parasympathetic nervous system (our ‘all-safe’ response) and helps to regulate many bodily functions including breathing, digestion as well as how we receive and interpret information from our environment, in particular our social environment.

What is fascinating cardiologists is the connection between the Vagus Nerve and the heart. They have discovered that the Vagus Nerve regulates heart rate through electrical signals and the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. It is this neurotransmitter that tells our lungs to breathe. And here lies a key. If our body is getting flooded with stress signals what can we do? It turns out that we can indirectly stimulate the Vagus Nerve (and thus develop a more finely tuned response to danger and safety) by working with the areas and functions that it controls; throat, lungs, heart and abdominal organs, but especially by working with our breath.

Pranayama, the kind of slow, rhythmic abdominal breathing that we learn to do in yoga has been shown to stimulate the Vagus Nerve and improve what is called ‘vagal tone’—that is, the body’s ability to accurately interpret signals of danger and safety and to better cope with stress. This practice, embedded for centuries within ancient wisdom traditions, is fast coming to be seen an advanced biohack technique and a promising part of the future of medicine.

For information email: lavieenyoga@gmail.com
https://www.facebook.com/groups/lavieenyoga/

Respect yourself, explore yourself.
Rebecca