Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Yoga > Practice Relaxation During Your Asana Session

Almost every yoga class finishes with relaxation. Read my article on how to practice relaxation during your asana session. This article first appeared in Asana International Yoga Journal, May 2015.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Insight > Celebrating Yoga

There are many reasons to celebrate yoga, International Day of Yoga is just one!

I never cease to be fascinated with the way our ancient yogis understood much more about the human body ages before medical science could comprehend what was what. The benefits of yoga (even those that go beyond the physical body) have been expounded upon by many saints and sages, new age gurus and trendy celebrities who have experienced them. But I'm not getting into all that right now. I only want to share with you what I know for sure. And that is the fact that I feel happy and alive when I do yoga. 

I know that when I stretch my body upto its optimal point I am pushing the boundaries further. Although I am blessed with a naturally flexible body, I am very grateful for the strength in my muscles and bones that allows me to stretch into varied asanas. This reminds me of a wonderful quote I read recently: Do Yoga Today So That You Can Do Yoga Tomorrow! Our body is meant to be agile and healthy, no matter what our age. It is only when we stop short of utilising the body’s optimal potential that we start diminishing our scope of movement. When was the last time you could sit comfortably on the floor and get up without any trouble? Do you feel out of breath after climbing a few flights of stairs? Muscles and lungs are only a few parts of the body that benefit from this lovely practice. We can’t even see how wonderfully the abdominal organs are massaged during bhujangasana or how our nerves are soothed by bhramari pranayama. Yoga has benefits that penetrate deep within the physical body and impacts our overall being. 

Although it is an ancient practice, the relevance of Yoga is Now more than ever before. We seem to be living in a world filled with toxins, right from the air we breathe to the food we eat. The increase in lifestyle diseases is scary. And while we can either succumb to the ill effects of our lifestyle or live in perpetual fear, there is a way out. In the face of all the negativity and fear, yoga is one tool with which you can actually do something about improving your health naturally. 

Coming back to what yoga does for me: all the stretches and contortions into asanas with complicated sanskrit names leave me blissed out. I can safely say that the time spent on my yoga mat is the happiest part of my day. It makes me appreciate the wondrous mechanisms of the human body that we have learnt not to trust. In the larger picture it makes me appreciate nature for what it is. It makes me realise that I am just a little dot in the vast universe that is perfect just as it is, even with all the toxins and the negativity. In fact, it infuses me with an unmatched positivity. It makes me realise that life is indeed beautiful and makes me want to live it to the fullest.

I sincerely hope that you try this wonderful practice and let its magic hook you on!

Friday, 12 June 2015

Healthy Practice > The Most Important Reason To Try Jal Neti

Many years ago I had a mild allergy that led me to bouts of sneezing, watery eyes, et al. After ruling out sinusitis and various other allergies, it seemed that I was "allergic" to stress and fatigue. Actually, the body's immunity falls drastically in conditions of stress and exhaustion, hence one is susceptible to allergic reactions. As a result, every time I was preparing for any exams in school or college my allergy would come up. And if I prepared for my exams over a couple of months the symptoms would remain over that many months. But I realised this correlation between stress and sneezing only much later. When I started working for a magazine, whenever the pages were being readied to be sent for printing my sneezing would return. A regular anti-allergy pill usually settled the condition.

Over the years, as I practiced yoga consistently and moved to freelancing (that reduced the stress of sending a magazine to press) I thought I had outgrown this condition. In the last few weeks however my day-long bouts of sneezing started again. Only now, I am wary of popping pills. I do like to experience the magic of yoga and our ancient techniques that actually help the body to cure itself rather than merely suppressing the symptoms by having a medicine.

I had, of course, heard of Jal Neti, but had never tried it (not even during my teacher's training course at the Sivananda Dhanwantari Ashram, Kerala). Like most people I just didn't like the idea of taking in water through one nostril and expelling it from the other, and alternating this procedure. I used to call these techniques "abusive", justifying the label by saying that it was "unnatural" to treat a body this way. But in reality these practices are a far more natural alternative to healing a body than ingesting chemical laden medicines.

The Technique
1. Buy a neti pot. They come in various materials including different types of metals or plastic. Since I wasn't sure how long I would practice jal neti, I avoided the metal one since it was more expensive and bought a plastic pot online. It is light and convenient. I even plan to carry it with me for my forthcoming vacation.
2. Pour lukewarm saline water into the pot.
3. Now tilt your head to one side and slightly back.
4. Insert the nozzle of the pot into the upper nostril; keep your mouth open and continue to breathe through your mouth. Insert the nozzle gently but thoroughly to ensure that water doesn't leak out from the same nostril.
5. The water will naturally flow out of the other nostril.
6. Now repeat with the other nostril.
7. Centre the head and look downward to let the excess water flow out.
8. Gently blow your nose to remove excess mucous.
9. I also like to rinse my mouth once I'm done.

The whole process doesn't take more than 2 minutes. I do it right after brushing my teeth in the morning.

The Benefits
1. It clears up the sinuses and removes mucous from the hard to reach areas.
2. Especially beneficial if you stay in a city with a high rate of air pollution.
3. It cools the eyes from within.
4. It helps deal with and prevent various respiratory conditions like asthma, bronchitis, etc.
5. Even if you don't have any breathing problems, you will realise that you're breathing much better.
6. And the most important benefit according to me, and one that inspired me to write this post is that having both the nostrils unobstructed have lots of positive effects on the entire body.
In the benefits of this practice, Swami Satyananda Saraswati has explained in the book Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha: "A balance is brought between the left and right nostrils and the corresponding left and right brain hemispheres." This leads to harmony between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems of the body which is important to induce a state of balance throughout the body and the systems governing circulation as well as digestion.

So, there you go! I hope I have inspired you to give jal neti a shot because of its far reaching benefits on overall health and not merely a technique to clear the nose.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Insight > 3 Most Powerful Prayers for Success

At times we end up learning something profound while teaching our kids.

Recently when my 8 year old was preparing to participate in a competition, I shared some tips with him that I practice subconsciously. I realised that if one was to apply these tips to anything that you do, stress free success is almost guaranteed.

I am a strong believer in the power of prayers. Call them prayers, mantras, affirmations, visualisation or simply positive thinking, I feel that they have a profound effect on our psyche. And the right attitude is usually the most powerful way to experience success.

So, while preparing my son for his competition, I told him about the following important prayers to get him started with a productive attitude. Here I'll also explain how they help at various levels.

* Pray to Enjoy Whatever You're Doing
When you enjoy whatever you do, you naturally end up doing your best. The sense of enjoyment lends an inherent sense of confidence. In case you need to enhance your knowledge about it, when you learn about something that you enjoy there is usually no pressure, but a genuine urge to learn. This makes you learn more about the topic of your choice without any pressure to do so.

* Pray to Do Your Best
As I explained to my son, while we needn't pressurise ourselves with competition with others, it is important to feel satisfied with the effort that we've put into something. There shouldn't be a situation where you come back feeling that you could have done better. While I don't believe in pushing myself, or anyone else, into achieving success, it is important to make sure that you don't fall short of doing whatever you're capable of doing.

* Pray to Be Happy with the Result
If you've done the first two things, ideally you can just surrender to whatever the outcome is. But I feel good praying to be happy with the outcome. Then, in case you come out a winner, it's great. But if there's somebody else who is actually more deserving to be a winner, so be it!

As long as you've enjoyed the whole process (of participating in a competition, for instance),  knowing that you've done your best, and are genuinely happy about the outcome, then you're a winner in any case!

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Yoga > The Importance of Bandhas and Mudras Explained Very Simply

As a dedicated practitioner of yoga for more than 15 years now, I have always been very partial to one of the 8 limbs of yoga - asanas. A few years ago I started enjoying pranayama. And although I do practice certain mudras and try to incorporate bandhas in my practice I had never really understood the importance of the latter two. This is fine because mudras and bandhas are usually introduced after some proficiency has been attained in the practice of asana and pranyama. 

But the latest issue of the Yoga magazine, published by the Bihar School of Yoga helped demystify the mudras and bandhas. Understanding how they impact our energy body, and hence our complete entity, motivates one to understand these subjects deeper and also make them a part of our regular practice. 

Mudras: In the article entitled 'Hatha Yoga' by Swami Niranjananda Saraswati, it is explained that mudras and bandhas are ways to enhance the workings of the energy body. As observed by various scientific experiments under Kirlian photopgraphy (a camera that captures the images of our energy body) it has been seen that even simple mudras of the hand (some mudras even involve the whole body in a combination of asana, pranayama, band and visualisation techniques) help to preserve and reabsorb the energy that may otherwise get dissipated or wasted. To give you an example, in the jnana mudra, the hand gesture of joining the tips of the thumb and index finger, it was observed that the energy that would have dissipated from the hands, re-enters the body. In other words when one practices mudras in accordance with yogic scriptures and under the guidance of an experienced teacher, the energy can be recycled within our body.  

Bandhas: The same article explains the application and importance of bandhas very simply. Bandhas are locks in the physical body that impact the pranic or the energy body. Bandhas are applied in the three major areas of our body where there is a large mass of nerves. One group of nerves is in the neck region, another is behind the navel in the abdomen and the third is near the rectum. Physically, these are centres that collect sensations from the body and deliver them to the brain. But when you apply a bandha, these sensations are contained in one region and the energy flow is limited only to one place! "Why must we do that?" you may be wondering. 
Swami Niranjananda explains this through an example. "When a running tap is closed it builds pressure. Gradually the pressure increases. Then when the tap is opened, the pipe throws the water swiftly through the tap, and the water pressure normalises. Similarly, the use of bandhas unites the energy by blocking it, then by releasing the bandha the energy is distributed more evenly."

For more details on Mudras and Bandhas refer to the book Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati. 

Monday, 6 April 2015

Yoga > The Pawanmuktasana Series – Simple, Yet Highly Effective

I have been talking about the simple asanas being very effective. What could be more effective that the Pawanmuktasana series as designed by Swami Satyanand Saraswati! I can safely vouch for this series to be solely responsible for strengthening my muscles gently and preparing my body for more intermediate and advanced asana practice.

The Series: For details on the Pawanmuktasanas either consult a teacher certified by the Bihar School of Yoga or refer to the book titled Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyanand Saraswati himself. The detailed instructions and diagrams are sufficient to get you started on these series that have almost no, or negligible, contraindications.

The Benefits: As prescribed by Swami Satyanand the Pawanmuktasana series must precede other asanas. Holding an asana for a long duration (even if it is only for half a minute) can be quite intense on the muscles involved. The repetitive movements of the Pawanmuktasana series prepare the muscles gently to enable the holding of a posture comfortably and joyously, instead of putting a strain on the muscle and making one prone to injury.

But if one was to do the complete series it can even amount to a full body workout. In fact, the complete series provides a very balanced routine because it engages most of your limbs and muscles. Just because it seems very gentle it may look rather ineffective as far as toning up the body is concerned. But actually, if you practice the complete series just for a month you'll notice considerable physical effects, including toning of the abs.

The ‘simple’ hand, foot and neck movements are anti rheumatic, the ‘simple’ leg movements are great for digestion and strengthening the abdominal muscles and ‘simple’ exercises like chakkichalan and rowing are great for shakti bandhas. And beyond the aforementioned benefits these seemingly simple exercises work at various levels like loosening and stretching of muscles, nerves and joints at the physical level and even at the deeper levels of the energy and the mind.

The Modern Application: Although it can work up to be an effective cardio activity, the simplicity of movements ensures that it works gently even on stiff muscles, hence greatly reducing the chance of injury. I also feel that the Pawanmuktasana series may have been the base for vinyasa yoga, and hence most of the trendy and new age flow yoga styles. In this series the emphasis is on movement and repetition. 

My Experience: Even though I have been practicing yoga consistently, whenever I let go of the pawanmuktasanas for a long gap I start seeing the stiffness coming back into the body, especially in my shoulder joints or wrists. I have thus decided to incorporate the Pawanmuktasana series regularly in my practice. 

Friday, 3 April 2015

Insight > For The Love Of Yoga

I love yoga for its versatility and flexibility, vastness and simplicity, intensity and ease. Yoga can be curative and restorative. Yoga enables you to use the power of your body optimally, in turn leading the body towards optimal health. 

There literally is something in yoga that everyone can do. And I learnt this only by experience. I went through a phase when i had given yoga a rather long break in my life. So while my body was still quite flexible, my muscles had lost considerable strength. Every time I got back to an intense yoga practice, I landed with a mild muscle injury. Although the injury was mild enough to be cured only with adequate rest, it was painful enough to keep me away from practicing yoga for a few days. This went on for almost a year.

This is when I truly realised the flexibility of Yoga. Instead of refraining from yoga altogether due to a muscle strain,  I started designing practises for myself that included asanas that didn't require any movement or pressure on the strained muscles. For example, with a strained intercostal muscle in the chest, I focussed on asanas for the lower body and the core, without any pressure on the chest muscles. When I strained a muscle in the hip/thigh, I focussed on asanas on the upper body, and so on. The vast choice of asanas, along with umpteen variations, made it possible for me to practice a full hour of yoga without overstraining the already strained muscles. This choice of practice not only made it possible for me to practice yoga regularly, it also slowly started building strength in my muscles. The variety of sequences that I followed also made the entire experience more interesting for me, without falling into a boring repetition.

I like my Yoga practice to leave me feeling energised and refreshed and not groaning with pain unlike some other physical workouts. It has been over a year now that I have not succumbed to any injury due to yoga. Having done my teacher's training helped me in designing balanced sequences for myself. But even if you can't do that, always discuss openly with your yoga teacher and help them to offer sequences that are most suited for you.

Insight > Acceptance: Do We Really Have A Choice?

We've heard many-a-guru make a big deal of Acceptance. Accepting our circumstances is a very brave thing to do, they say. They even teach us the difficult practice in order to enrich our lives.

But is acceptance really a choice?

If we don't accept what is, we are merely running away from reality. Living in a bubble of falsity and what should "have been". And if you fail to accept the past and present exactly the way they have been you are simply living in denial! Since you cannot change the past and this very present moment, not accepting it is a mind-game that many people get trapped in,

Not accepting your present graciously usually arises from dissatisfaction of what is. It also relieves you or your responsibility in creating your present life. We can ponder all we like on the various permutations and combinations of an imaginary past. "If that had happened then this would not have happened", "if so-and-so had done this then that would have happened" and so on. But isn't all this a mere waste of time and energy?

In not accepting your present you even give away the power that you have in creating your highest life. Only when you truly accept your circumstances exactly as they are can you work on effectively working towards a future that you truly desire.

Acceptance of your life exactly as it is opens you up to the power of the present moment. It is in this present moment that you can make choices that will create the rest of your life. And if you choose each action wisely you can make a string of decisions that you will one day look back at and feel happy about the life that you created for yourself.

So instead of living with regrets for the past (or even the present, for that matter), start by accepting totally and whole-heartedly your current circumstances, embrace your life exactly as it is. Then you can take stock of the things that you would like to change. But be very mindful of the fact that you cannot change the past, but you can do things differently in the present and steer your life towards your most cherished goals and deepest desires.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Insight > The Freedom of Forgiveness

I am my worst critic.

I have an elephantine memory. There are things that I may have done, unintentionally, in the distant past. Maybe no one else remembers something inconsequential like me refusing to write an article just because the editor of a magazine changed. But I remember. And there are times that I still curse myself for doing that. That refusal cost me the connection with a big media house at that time. While I have written for many other media houses since then, I feel that I lost out on some opportunities just because of that one mistake that I made. The editor has changed since then, but my association with that particular magazine is still affected. 

This is just one example. While at some level, I sincerely believe, that there are no accidents. That everything happens for a reason. Yet, there are so many things from my personal experiences as well that I curse myself for doing. Those incidents are over and done with. Life has moved on, and beautifully. But still these incidents are haunting reminders of the mistakes that I have made in my life.  

When I started practicing forgiveness I realised how very freeing it is. It frees me up from the uncomfortable past. Forgiveness just frees you up from emotions that unnecessarily get clogged somewhere in your body-mind. I say "body-mind" because of all the research that shows that unresolved emotional issues create all sorts of blocks in your physical body, hence leading to disease. 

You may not even go up to someone to tell them that you've forgiven them. Just forgiving someone in your heart is extremely powerful. While I occasionally forgive people who may have harmed me, intentionally or unintentionally, I know that the most important person that I need to forgive is MYSELF. We are often the harshest on ourselves. We need to understand that none of us are perfect. Just an honest and constant effort to be the best that you can be is enough to lead a deeply fulfilling life. 

There is a lovely prayer that encourages you to practice three-fold forgiveness. 
  • forgive someone who may have harmed you intentionally or unintentionally
  • forgive yourself for harming someone intentionally or unintentionally (this includes forgiving yourself if you may have harmed yourself as well)
  • forgive yourself if there's still a situation that you're not ready to forgive
We all have grudges with family or friends, colleagues and at times even strangers. When we harbour these grudges we stay connected to those uncomfortable situations through our mind/emotions. Forgiveness just helps you release all the energy that you end up holding unknowingly. Go ahead and give it a try! 

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Insight > Coping with the Loss of a Loved One

It's been a year today! Here's what I wrote for Better Homes and Gardens, January'15 issue on how I dealt with the loss of my parents.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Yoga > The Final Step For A Headstand

The headstand or the shirshasana is quite the epitome of a good yoga practice. It is not called the "King of Asanas" for nothing. The innumerable benefits aside, the ability to stand upside down looks very impressive too.

But I resisted doing the headstand for the longest. In fact, I went for my Teacher's Training Course (TTC) at the Sivananda Ashram in Neyyar Dam, Kerala, without ever attempting it. This was ironical because the headstand is the first asana after a few warm up rounds of surya namaskar in a Sivananda class. Even so, I was glad that there was no pressure on me by any of my teachers to perform this asana. The TTC is quite intense as it is. With a hectic, packed routine in an austere setting with classes back-to-back, it is rather demanding. Probably that is why the teachers allow the students to progress at their own level of comfort.

While I thoroughly enjoyed my morning and evening asana sessions, I thought I knew what was holding me back from the headstand. I have always been non-sporty. I felt that I lacked hand-eye co-ordination as well as the strength required for almost any sport. Yoga was something that I could do because I have been blessed with a flexible body. But I had heard that "you need a strong core to hold a steady headstand".  Knowing that the core was my weakest point, I was sure that it just wasn't my cup of tea. In fact, I even found the preparatory pose - the dolphin - extremely difficult. Anything that required strength seemed impossible for me to perform.

One day, at the end of the evening asana session, a fellow student who I had not spoken with in the 3 weeks that we had already been there, came up to me. "I have seen you during the asana class, you do all the asanas except the headstand," he said. I nodded vaguely, not wanting to discuss my weak points with someone who I didn't know. "Seeing how you perform your other asanas I'm sure you can do the headstand," he continued without any hesitation owing to my lack of interest in his observation. That was that. He went about his business thereafter and I got busy with mine.

The next morning, after the surya namaskar came the time to do the headstand. I typically would get into the child's pose at this time, and while everyone else flew up into the headstand, I would usually continue staying in the child's pose, with my forehead touching the floor.

On this day, though, I thought of just attempting the first step of getting into the headstand - my forehead on the floor, the hands clasped around my head, and my elbows right next to my knees. The foundation is very important for getting any asana right. As I rose my tail, I got into the inverted V with the forearms, forehead and the feet firmly on the floor. I felt a balance of lightness and strength through my body.

This gave me the confidence to move to the next step: walking my feet towards my torso, straightening my back in line with my neck and shoulders and rolling gently towards the top of my forehead. At this point, my heels had risen off the floor and I was on tip-toes.

Then came the challenging part: I had to raise my feet off the floor one at a time and fold my knees near my torso in a suspended child's pose. I was surprised when I could actually do it. I was balancing on my head already! All I had to do was raise my knees towards the ceiling, with my legs folded back and eventually unfold my legs to straighten them up.

Seeing me finally attempting the headstand, my teacher came up to me and supported me while I went up into the headstand gracefully and steadily. Although I did come down with a jerk, which is not advisable, I had at least done my first ever headstand.

So what was the final step for me getting into the shirshasana?

My core didn't become stronger overnight. But probably my mind did. Someone else believing that I could do it made me believe that I could. I could have believed in myself without some random person having the faith in me or my ability. Trusting that I could do it was all that was required all along.

And this is my favourite example of the mind-body unity that yoga displays so beautifully. In many cases, physical inflexibility actually arises in the mind or mental strength manifests into physical strength. It is lessons and observations like these that make it possible to carry your yoga practice off the mat and into daily life.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Healthy Practice > 7 Ways to Get Healthy in 2015

Here is a story that I wrote for Better Homes and Gardens, Jan'15 issue on simple ways to get healthy this year. Do give it a read and incorporate at least some of these easy-to-follow practices in your daily routine. 

Monday, 5 January 2015

Insight > The One Value That I Want To Inculcate In My Kids

There is one phrase that I seem to be using quite often with my kids: "You are not doing this for me, you are doing this for yourself".

Even though it may have an impatient tone, the underlying message is that of Self Motivation.

Aged 8 and 6 years, my kids may still be too young to understand the concept of self motivation. They are all too eager to impress their parents, cousins or friends by all that they do. While approval and appreciation play a very important role in raising confident children, I know that this is the time to lay the foundation of this all-important value. In fact, you may even start using self motivation at an earlier stage.

Instead of pushing them constantly to eat healthy, do their best in academics or extra curricular activities, I find that telling them that they are doing it for themselves has a much deeper impact.

And as they grow, competition amongst peers and external pressures to perform at a certain level will only increase. But self motivation is the one thing that will ensure that they are always giving their best, without succumbing to stress of any kind.

This is one value that I cherish the most in myself. Believing that I am trying to be the best that I can be, at a personal as well as professional level, makes me enjoy all that I do. It also takes away the need to prove myself to anybody.

While I don't have a competitive streak in me, self motivation ensures that I don't become complacent. I am sure that everyone, without exception, has a combination of certain talents and qualities that makes them unique as well as special. We need to nurture and develop these qualities to be the best version of ourselves.

And if there's just one thing that I'd like to teach my kids, it is this - always strive to better yourself! Then whatever activity or lifestyle they undertake, I'm sure will be met with success.

Here's wishing you all a very Happy New Year 2015. I hope you have set personal and professional targets for yourself to be the best that You can be!

Friday, 2 January 2015

Yoga > Why I Enjoy Kate Potter's Namaste Yoga

Kate Potter's Namaste Yoga series is an absolute favourite of mine!

Since I have a home practice, I am always looking out for ways to add variety to my yoga sequences to make it fun and more effective by way of working different muscle groups. And Namaste Yoga is my go to practice for just these reasons. 

A few highlights of the Namaste Yoga series:
  • Balanced Yoga Sequences: Each episode is for around 22 minutes. It is split into a warm up sequence of about 5 minutes, the main vinyasa for 10-12 minutes and the cooling down sequence for about 5 minutes. This split up ensures that each episode offers a complete yoga session. Whenever I have more time to practice, I like to do two main vinyasas. 
  • Soothing Voiceover: If you haven't done vinyasas before, and even if you have, one needs very clear instructions to move gracefully from one asana to the next. The articulate instructions in a soothing voice is what got me hooked to Namaste Yoga in the first place. 
  • Appropriate Music: Music has always been an integral part of my personal yoga practice. The right kind of music can make a huge difference - from energising you to give the sequence a dance-like quality or have a calming effect whenever required. The Namaste Yoga music beautifully complements the sequences. 
  • Fantastic Visuals: The highly inspiring visuals, of typically three female practitioners, flowing with ease and grace from one asana to another makes me want to take out my mat on the laziest of days. Although some vinyasas are very challenging, the ease with which they are executed makes one aspire for the strength and flexibility that is required to perform them.  
  • Varied Levels of Difficulty: I love the fact that between the two seasons of Namaste Yoga (also available on DVD), with 13 episodes each, you get a great mix of sequences from beginner levels to intermediate and challenging. I love choosing an appropriate level depending on my mood and level of fitness and flexibility.  
So if you're looking for a good video to complement your home practice, I would highly recommend Namaste Yoga. In my experience, I feel that the sequences are balanced so well that even if they are strenuous, they leave you relaxed. They have certainly been designed by a master who is deeply rooted in tradition and understands the philosophy of yoga yet presents them with a contemporary appeal.