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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 medical 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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Respect yourself, explore yourself.
Several years ago, when I was working in radio production for a program in Los Angeles, I interviewed Dr. Andrew Weil, a renowned holistic health doctor. One of the questions I asked him was, ‘What is your definition of health’ to which he replied instantly, ‘Health is resilience’. What he meant by this, as he went on to explain, was that health is not something that can actually be measured in terms of a stack of test results, since the body is constantly in flux. Our physical processes are changing all the time in relation to many different factors. Health, therefore, is also not a static measurement. Ill-health occurs when things go out of balance to a point where one or more bodily system begins to break down. Health is not when the body is in perfect balance. There is no such thing. It is rather the ability of the body to cope with the stresses that are constantly being placed on those systems. This is resilience.
In other words, resilience is the ability to cope with changes in the body. But there is another extremely important kind of resilience — the ability to cope with changes in our lives. A change might be an enormous upheaval such as the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship, or simply the ability to deal with day to day disappointments or an annoying neighbour. As Heraclitus was famous for pointing out, ‘nothing endures but change’. Change is really the only thing we can rely on, so learning to cope with changes in our lives is nothing short of a super-power.
If our life resilience declines, the good news is that we can build it up again. We can begin by developing resilience to smaller difficulties, and through familiarity, we can learn to apply the same skills to the major challenges that we are all inevitably going to face one day, and to the ones we might face as soon as a few minutes from now. It’s a package that includes insight, kindness (to oneself and others), adaptability, creativity, and humour. Resilience creates a rubbery layer between us and change that provides a softer landing for life’s blows.
Yoga is a wonderful way to develop resilience that benefits both our bodies and minds. We learn to stay with a challenging pose in a compassionate space, exploring it for what it can teach us. We build strength and endurance through a gentle testing of our limits and discover new ways to go beyond them. We learn to giggle rather than tut when we topple over, as we inevitably will do at times. And we learn to breathe through the changes, rest when we’ve had enough, and conserve our energy for the next move.
Respect yourself, explore yourself
I am often asked what kind of yoga I teach. My answer is Hatha Yoga with an
Iyengar influence. But what does that mean? The word ‘yoga’ is often translated
simply as ‘union’, referring to the union of body and mind. Hatha in its simplest
definition means ‘force’ since it is involved in breaking habits of the body through a
certain level of exertion but the word also refers to the power behind the force itself.
Hatha is the general system of yoga poses (asanas) and breathing techniques
(pranayama) from which all modern yoga schools stem, and is made up of word
roots reflecting the union of opposites.
Ha – signifies the sun, the right side of the body, the masculine principle and energy.
Tha – signifies the moon, the left side of the body, the feminine principle and
Hatha yoga is included within the 8 branches of Ashtanga Yoga, an ancient system
of practices that was compiled and elucidated by the Indian sage, Patanjali, in the
Yoga Sutras in the early fifth century CE. All forms of yoga today originated as part
of this comprehensive system that includes ethical discipline, somatic purification
practices, textual study and meditation.
Over the centuries, the postural and breathing techniques of Hatha Yoga began to
gain popularity among the laity outside of the ashrams, and eventually it emerged as
its own discipline. Even today, in India, when someone says they are doing yoga this
is generally what they mean. It wasn’t until the 20th century, that yoga began to sub-
divide into the different schools that we see today.
Swami Sivananda (1887-1963) and Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) both contributed enormously to reviving interest in yoga in India that had waned after a peak in the middle ages. Swami Satyananda (1923-2009) founded the Bihar School of Yoga, the lineage in which my own teacher, Sri Surinder Singh, was trained. Around the same time, K. Pattabhi Jois developed a modern version of classical yoga, called Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.
But it was B.K.S. Iyengar who perhaps had the greatest influence in bringing yoga to
the West. He founded his own yoga school in the 1950s, emphasizing precision
alignment and the use of props such as blocks, blankets and belts. One of his most
famous students was Yehudi Menuhin who was so convinced that yoga improved his
musical abilities that he liked to refer to B.K.S. Iyengar as “my favourite violin
Today, there are numerous other yoga schools, and some are controversial, so it’s
good to do some research beforehand. There is Bikram Yoga (sometimes called ‘hot
yoga’ because it’s performed in a room at temperatures up to 40 Celsius), Anusara
School of Hatha Yoga, Integral Yoga, even Kundalini Yoga that claims to awaken the
dormant energies at the base of the spine. And with the West’s love of endless
categorizations, more yoga schools seem to be popping up all the time. Lately, I have been incorporating more Somatic Yoga into my classes (see DSM’s September
issue) with gentle flow through movements that work to reprogram muscle memory.
What type of yoga you end up doing will be based on a number of factors, including
accessibility and your own personal motivations. The best way is always to get a
recommendation from someone you know and trust and don’t be afraid to try out
difference classes. There are a number of yoga teachers in the Deux-Sèvres so you
might find one down the road! And it’s worth remembering that not all types of yoga
will suit everyone. Find the style that works for your own body and mind. If you feel
happy when you leave the class, that’s the best indicator!
For information email: email@example.com
Respect yourself, explore yourself
Balance is something we’re always working towards, whether it’s balancing work with play, exercise with relaxation, the elements of our diet, or the dynamics in our relationships. Too much of one thing might tip us over, and not enough of another can make us feel deprived. The benefits of Tree Pose include helping not only our physical balance but our mental balance as well, since it requires a certain amount of concentration. You’ll find that if you start thinking about your to-do list while in this pose, or an argument you just had with someone, you’re more likely to wobble! It is amazing to observe the impact that the activity of the mind has on the body. This pose is also fantastic for strengthening the muscles of the feet and ankles, the knees and legs, and in improving overall posture.
First, stand with your feet and ankles together, feet straight. Ground your soles and toes firmly into the floor. Keep the arms loose at the sides, relax the shoulders, and inhale as you lift the chest and upper back. Shift your weight onto your left foot and, with the help of your right hand, bring the right sole flat against the left leg, either above or below the knee. You can begin doing this pose by standing just enough away from a wall so that you can touch it with the end of your finger. A light touch is all you need to control your balance. Practice removing your finger from the wall for a few seconds, increasing the time with each practice.
If you’re doing the pose away from the wall, you can either put your hands with palms together overhead, or simply place your palms together at the chest. Stand tall, lengthening through the tailbone, lift the head, and connect your gaze to a point directly in front of you. Imagining yourself as a tree with roots coming out of your soles can actually help you to keep stable. Breathe nice and slow. When you’ve had enough, exhale and repeat on the other side.
For information on classes email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Respect yourself, explore yourself.