I always tell my yoga teacher training students that they don't need to look beyond their own struggles and experiences for pulling meaning into their classes. I tell them to let go of the idea that as teachers that they need to be perfect or 'other than'. I tell them to let go of the idea that there are emotions that are ok to feel and emotions that are not ok to feel and to just use whatever emotion they are currently experiencing as an opportunity to drop into their bodies and really feel. Yoga is a powerful tool. It is this amazing French restaurant with all these nuances and flavours and often, we come to our mats and we order the French fries. We hold so much emotion in our bodies and there is this profound opportunity to face our fears, to let go of the emotions that we are holding in our tissues and to embody a new pattern for ourselves.
So, as I headed to the studio this morning, I found myself thinking about FEAR. In Sanskrit there are two terms: sankalpa and vikalpa. Sankalpa is the intentions that we set for ourselves and the dreams that we imagine. Vikalpa is the core underlying beliefs that we hold deep in our psyche that tend to sabotage or undermine our intentions. And so I found myself thinking about fear and my own vikalpas that stem from fear. At some point, I think I confused being nice with giving away my power because I associated being powerful with taking power from someone else. At some point, I adopted the message that the most important things are to keep the peace, to be nice, to make sure that others are happy with you. But at their roots these messages stem from fear, fear that if I am assertive and direct, that if I speak out powerfully that this will cause others to be displeased with me, to not like me or that I might cause them pain or hurt their feelings.
And so, this is what I framed this mornings empowered flow yoga class around. I invited students to face their fears, to explore the things that they believe at their core and to inquire into what is holding them back. I asked them what they felt ready to let go of today and what new pattern they would like to see for themselves. It was so moving to hear students share about their own fears of insecurity, unworthiness and self doubt. Vulnerability is often portrayed as weakness, but the vulnerable quality in the room was anything but. It was powerful and emboldening to hear and see over and over again how these are human struggles and issues, that at our core we are not alone in our troubles.
As I pondered the theme of facing fears and letting go, I couldn't think of anything better to explore asana wise than sirsasana (headstand). At first glance, the pose looks like it is about strength and balance, which it is, but there is so much more that goes into the posture behind the scenes. The effect that it has on you emotionally and energetically is transformative and empowering. It quite literally turns your world upside down. I often see students kicking and perhaps flailing a little bit into the pose and like my french fry analogy, when we enter the posture this way, we miss the point and we lose out on the benefits the posture offers. It truly is the perfect pose for learning how to let go of fear and step into a new way of seeing things.
To see how I sequenced the class , read my next post on Sirsasana.
For #womenshealthwednesday I wanted to share three poses that prepare the body during pregnancy for a more easeful labour.
Pictured above is baddha konasana or bound angle pose. This is a common suggestion for pregnancy but it is often practiced incorrectly. When practiced in a seated position, we draw the tailbone back behind the body, allowing the hips to roll forward into an anterior (forward) position. To facilitate this, I suggest placing a folded blanket underneath your seat and sliding forward until your sitz bones roll off the blanket onto the floor. Your tailbone and glutes should still be on the blanket. You can imagine that if you were to grow a tail that it would extend back behind your body as opposed to being tucked forward toward your legs. When we allow the tailbone to roll back into this position, taking it out of a tucked stance, we create freedom in the pelvic floor muscles.
This is because the pelvic floor muscles, create a sling from the tailbone (coccyx) to the front of the pelvic bowl. When the tailbone is tucked, the pelvic floor muscles shorten. In this shortened state they are unable to fire correctly and we can develop dysfunction. With the tailbone in its optimal position we can develop tension free strength as all of the muscles are in their optimal position for firing correctly. For labour this becomes crucial. With the pelvic floor in a tension free state, we have less resistance during birth and have more control over engaging and working with our bodies to facilitate vaginal delivery.
In the later stages of labour this stance, with the tailbone lifted becomes even more important. Pictured above is malasana (or squat pose). In this position with the legs turned out laterally and the tailbone lifted, the lower portion of the pelvis opens up more fully. (I will talk more on how the positioning of the legs affects the opening of the pelvis next week.) To come into the pose safely, without harming your knees. Turn the legs out laterally with toes pointing toward the long edges of your mat. Lower into the pose with firm thighs slowly. You can place a block under your seat for stability if you like. Once there, use your elbows to create stability by pressing into your inner thighs while focusing on drawing your tail bone toward the back of the room.
To finish the sequence, I like to end with supta baddha konasana or supine bound angle pose. This is a great posture for releasing the low back and hips while giving you time to rest and re-energize while pregnant. I would be less likely to use this pose during labour and view this posture more as a posture during your preparation times. As you progress further into pregnancy, you will want to use more than one bolster so that your heart is elevated higher than your hips. You can view the video on my instagram feed https://www.instagram.com/mandorlayoga/
We are all born with an innate knowledge of what we need and what we want. It would seem that for many adults, we have lost touch with these inner mechanisms. One of the very first things that I share with my students is to learn how to re-establish a dialogue with these inner mechanisms within their bodies. Instead of going into stories, explanations and narratives about why things are the way they are; we instead talk about the physical sensations that result from these experiences.
Our minds like to categorize experiences in an effort to make sense of things and often, at least on a subconscious level, an experience that we are having now will trigger something in the mind, somehow linking it to an event from our past. If you smell a chocolate cake baking in the oven, you may be reminded of a previous occasion or occasions when you enjoyed eating chocolate cake. On a different level however, a colleague may express a need to speak with you. Based on their body language, you may feel a sense of unease as your mind decides, based on past experience that the conversation is probably about something negative. Whether your perception is true or not doesn’t matter. Your body reacts on a chemical level to what you perceive to be true in this moment and a cycle begins.
Like a storm that rapidly builds, there are warning signs in the initial phases that you can become aware of. Based on your own neurological patterning, you will likely feel something physically first. It might be a tightening of your chest or throat, a gripping in your stomach, an increase in body temperature or sweating. From there, you may experience a surge of adrenaline and feel a quickening in your heart or an increase in your blood pressure. Depending on your past experiences and what your mind is associating the current experience with, you will have your own unique pattern. In a sense, this is the calm before the storm of thoughts and emotions that will begin to craft the explanation and story for why you are feeling this way. Given enough time, you may begin to imagine the conversation that you will have with your co-worker and so on, until you are fully in the storm of thoughts and emotions that may consume you.
Many of us have been given the message that we shouldn’t feel ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ emotions. And our culture tends to encourage the stifling of behavior that falls outside of socially accepted levels of sarcasm, blasé and humour. We are encouraged to entertain or distract ourselves when we feel depleted and to numb ourselves when we feel uncomfortable. But if we can become knowledgeable about our patterns that rear up when we encounter trigger situations, we can create new patterns for ourselves that allow us to live our lives with freedom, ease and a sense of lightness.
And this begins by tapping into the physical sensations that we feel. Notice the patterns that you have throughout your day. How are you seated? Are you gripping or clenching any of your muscles? How are you breathing? What do you feel physically in your body?
There is a mistaken concept around meditation that it is about turning off your thoughts and controlling your mind. Like everything else, we have ideas about what meditation should be like and who it is for. Because of this, you may have an idea in your head that you are too stressed out to meditate, that you couldn’t sit still or that it would drive you crazy or be horribly boring.
What I would like to suggest to you is something a little more pragmatic. You can say, “I have had enough today.” You can acknowledge that you feel stressed or spread thin, frustrated, tired, angry, or sad. You can give yourself permission to feel whatever it is you are feeling. A study in British Columbia showed that students are showing less empathy these days and the hypothesis around why this is so, was based on the fact that children are not given enough empty pockets of time in their days anymore. Their little schedules are as packed and chaotic as our adult ones. Give yourself permission to clear your schedule, even if only for 5 minutes between meetings. Go in the bathroom stall and shut the door. Sit in your car with the music off. And once you are there, instead of trying to force yourself into a different state of mind, instead of fighting with how you are actually feeling; close your eyes and allow yourself to feel the physical sensation. Don’t try to change it in anyway but allow yourself to feel it. Let yourself notice your patterns that exist.
From there keep your awareness on what you are feeling and if the sensation changes, let your awareness naturally shift to that new sensation. It may be helpful for you to label the sensation you feel. Just avoid investigating it beyond that. Let go of the story or narrative behind the sensation and just feel the sensation in its pure form.
If an emotion comes up, do the same thing. You can name it but avoid the story behind it. Drop into the emotion and let yourself feel it.
Thoughts can be tricky as they come in a torrent but even then, what is the flavor of the thought? Is it based in worry, fear, or planning? Name it and let yourself feel the essence behind the flood of words.
In my experience with stress and anxiety and all the joys of dealing with other humans, I have found that the more I practice these techniques; the more able I am to notice the initial triggers that set me off. As I learn my patterns more and more, I have found that I often can nip the storm in the bud before it begins. I can say “I have had enough today” and taking some quiet time for myself to sit with the physical sensations that are unique to my own psyche, they seem to dissolve, more quickly on some days than others. I find myself having a stronger dialogue with what I need and want in a given situation and more aware of the situations that tend to trigger a reaction in the first place. This is empowering for me and I find I am able to go into situations that were previously terrifying for me with a great deal of more ease, confidence and freedom.
The energetic body or the pranamayakosha is often explained in a subjective and/or esoteric manner. And perhaps this is because we are each unique and our experiences are so individual that a topic such as this requires such an approach. And, perhaps the energetic body is, in its very nature, esoteric. But, after having played with yoga these several years and after having experienced the benefits of acupuncture, I now see correlations that interest me and I wonder, if perhaps, it is possible to tweak the lens through which we have viewed the chakras, ever so slightly, and maybe, in so doing, we could come to understand the energetic body in a manner that integrates more fully with our understanding of the physical body and its workings. This is my attempt at explaining my own subjectivity on the matter.
I believe the correlation begins with the myofascia that weaves itself throughout the body. Myofascia is a taffy like substance that coats and weaves together: the muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons and organs. Think of it as a pliable structure; like a building made out of extremely strong rubber bands. As a massage therapist, I encounter the myofascia a great deal. Running in 12 distinct patterns through the body, you can see its pull on the muscles and bones after a person has repetitively engaged in certain activities over a period of time. With this repetition, myofascia can become locked long or locked short. It is my belief, and the belief of some of my colleagues, that we work with the fascia far more than we know. I believe that we are working with the fascia when we integrate trigger point therapy. This is a technique where pressure is applied at a “trigger point” and held while sensations radiate to another location of the body and then dissipate or release.
The Ayurvedic system, a sister art of yoga that originated in India, would seem to affect the myofascia with the application of marma therapy. The marma points were discovered during times of war, as mankind became aware of the vulnerable points on the body. Many of these points correlate with the acupuncture points of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) but several of the points are unique to this system. Unlike TCM, however, marma points can be more unique to the individual and the location can vary. Some authors, such as David Frawley, would suggest that trigger points and marma points are one in the same. Marma therapy is where, I believe, we can begin to see a connection between the physical and energetic body that is quite tangible. When I explain marma therapy to my clients, I usually say quite simply that, “marma therapy is like a yogi’s version of acupressure and reiki.” They are, quite literally, where the energetic and physical body meet.
Also connected with the fascia, in my opinion, are the energetic lines themselves. Called Sen Lines in Thailand, meridians in China and nadis in India, Paul Grilley references studies that have indicated evidence that these lines run directly through the fascia. For myself, this suggestion resonates strongly as I have experienced and witnessed very emotional responses when fascia has been released through a yoga practice and also through massage. Drawing from my yoga background, my understanding of the nadis is that they are like empty tubes that are similar to the veins of the circulatory system. And like the circulatory system, they can be blocked, emptied and filled. In other words, they store the prana or chi for the energetic body. We draw prana in through conscious practice and this is where that prana is stored.
And though, the different systems do not match one another perfectly and do not even match the 12 fascial lines perfectly, I think it is a correlation that is worthy of mention and further exploration. The lateral fascial line correlates with the gall bladder meridian. The superficial front line correlates with the stomach meridian. The bladder meridian correlates with the superficial back line. The deep front line correlates with the liver meridian.
If the meridians are like the circulatory system, than the chakras are like the nervous system. In fact, some individuals, including myself, see a very strong connection between the chakras and the nerve bundles that run along the spine. Though yoga teachers tend to focus on the seven main chakras, or eight main chakras for some schools, there are actually chakras occurring throughout the body. This is because a chakra is simply a place where two nadis intersect with one another.
The yoga community has almost deified the chakras and in some cases personified them. But perhaps, in our obsession, we have overlooked the big picture. What if the chakras are like an energetic ear through which we perceive, comprehend and take in information inclusive of what we hear and see but also what we feel and sense? What if the chakras are that part of ourselves that allows us to have that extra sense as we enter a room? What if the chakras tie in through the nervous system and are a part of what makes us emotionally intelligent?
So this is how I see it. The chakras and the nervous system are highly tied in with one another and perhaps on some level, even synonymous with one another. We have come to think of our brain as being something that exists in our cranium and we assume that this is where our mind lies as well. But studies have shown that we have tissue that is similar to brain tissue even in our stomachs and yogis believe that the mind or Chitta, is actually located at the Heart. I believe that it is highly possible, that the chakras and nervous system work together to form a body/mind connection that allows us to feel, perceive and process in an embodied manner. My stomach speaks to me when I am hungry. My eyes send me a message when I am tired. My solar plexus grips when I feel threatened.
In the 20th century, we broke things apart in an attempt to isolate, uncover and understand. In this century, it is about reassembling, integrating and looking for the whole picture. I believe that the chakras work with the nervous system to take energy, emotions and information in through the body. I believe that depending on the information that we receive, that we may experience a bodily response through the muscles and organs yes, but also through the fascia. I believe, that on some level, this information is then stored in the fascia and the meridians which it contains. If certain events are highly traumatic or repetitive, we may even start to see the individual take on the shape that the event incurred. I think of this when I see elderly individuals with slumped shoulders. Our body mind stores the events of our life physically in our tissues.
So how does this hypothesis affect my practice or the way that I work with the chakras? On some level, I feel like it has made what I do on my mat more potent. Let’s look at the heart chakra as an example. If I place my hand over the center of my chest, it rests on hridaya marma. This tangible place on my body connects fascially with the heart and pericardium meridians. Both are meridians where we store or get blocked emotionally. People with depression tend to slump their shoulders forward and often have short huffs when they exhale. Some studies have shown, that if such an individual is challenged in their posture and taught how to open their chest and breathe more fully, they can experience a change in mental outlook. When I work with my students and clients, in such a scenario, I am inviting them to let go of the story that they have been holding in their body mind tissues. I am inviting them to challenge the physical pattern that they have been practicing and encouraging them to practice something new. By challenging the physical pattern that is held in the fascia, we create space around the meridians that run through the front of the chest and more energy is allowed to flow in these regions. This invites a new pattern neurologically too. I guess you could say that when I do yoga now, I see each pose as a way to create a new story and each pose becomes potent, special. Each posture is a form of self acupressure and a way to invite more energy and well being into all the regions of the body while letting go of all the things we have been carrying in our tissues. I still use chakra therapy techniques. I love singing and so mantra is something that really clicked for me. But that is such a small piece. If the chakras are taking things in at all times than it is about nourishing myself with good foods, spending time outdoors, breathing fully, moving my body, surrounding myself with beautiful people, singing Christmas tunes in the shower, dancing in the kitchen and randomly kicking into handstands now and then.
It is about what we feed ourselves; what we allow ourselves to marinate in. If your thoughts are stuck in a negative pattern, look to your body. What is your posture like? How does your breath sound? If you have been hurt and you tend to hold yourself in a particular pattern, how can you challenge that pattern and invite a new posture into your experience?
Stefani Wilton and Contributors
Finding beauty in the midst of joyous imperfection