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.”
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.
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.
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 21 day lockdown in Varanasi, India. This session takes us step-by-step through the foundational aspects of one of the main balancing asanas, Tree Pose, or Vikrashana in Sanskrit. Have a pole or broom handle handy!
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 theHealing 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 ThePolyvagal Theory in Therapy) and Stephen Cope Yoga and the Quest for the True Self.
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.
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.