The Eight Limbs of Yoga by Kristen Keaney

 KRISTEN KEANEY

KRISTEN KEANEY

NIYAMAS - SVADHYAYA

This month we’ll look at Svadhyaya, the fourth Niyama, which can be translated as “self-study”. It’s important to note that in traditional scriptures discussing yoga, the word self with a lowercase “s” is in reference to our physical being and the same word used with a capital “S” is about the true self, or The Divine. So, in its truest essence Svadhyaya is the studying of the self, through reading of scriptures and looking inward to help us better connect ourselves to the divine that resides in all of us.

Now I will confess that sometimes it can be hard to digest The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and other similar scriptures on Yoga. If the ancient scriptures seem a bit too heavy it can be helpful to start with an article or a book that discusses the practices and traditions of Yoga to deepen your knowledge. Svadhyaya can simply be reading and studying any writings that help us to move towards self-realization. Taking time to delve deeper into the wisdom that can come from the tradition of Yoga provides us with the incredible opportunity to live and grow in life with a strong sense of Self. When we put energy towards developing ourselves in a way that is completely authentic to who we truly are we allow our lives to evolve in a positive direction and positively affect those who choose to be around us.  

Svadhyaya is easy to practice on the mat. One of the most beautiful elements of a yoga practice is that it forces us to become fully present. Without stimulation coming from our phones, daily tasks and human interactions we are left on our mats with nothing but our mind, breath and body. Awareness during our practice enables us to discover and study where we hold tension in our bodies and what thoughts we let take up space in our mind. With this new awareness our physical yoga practice (asana) gives us the opportunity to release tensions in the mind-body to help us better heal ourselves from the inside out.

Svadhyaya off the mat is a little bit trickier. Like we’ve mentioned, Svadhyaya can be viewed as the reading or studying of a text that helps to deepen our connection and understanding of Yoga. However, Svadhyaya can also mean studying the self as we go about our daily routines. In a society that thrives on multitasking it can be next to impossible to remove ourselves from our technology and our social engagements and allow ourselves to observe. Some days we may even find it difficult to rest in Savasana because the act of doing “nothing” can feel too challenging.

This month I suggest taking a step back and observing yourself. When you focus on your actions or your thoughts you introduce the element of Svadhyaya into your daily life. “Why am I choosing to do this?” or “why am I reacting this way?” can sometimes be enough to help us distinguish between our actions being driven by our ego (or how we think we should be perceived), versus our truest self. And lastly, Svadhyaya, as it relates to scriptures and study can be explored by reading a new book!


Reading Suggestions:

Light on Yoga by B.K.S Iyengar

Health, Healing & Beyond by T.K.V Desi achar

Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron

 

Grounding Practices For The Fall Season: By Laurel Marsh

The fall, and dare I say winter, is upon us, which brings quite a few changes to us New Englanders.  Yes, summer temperatures will pop up here and there, but let’s face it, they’ll be few and far between. 

During the change of seasons it’s important to note that just as we see changes in the external world, our internal being shifts as well.  This can often be overlooked as we get swept up in our everyday activities, but if you stop and pay attention, you may notice a growing desire for warm, soothing, comforting, and grounding foods or activities.  It makes total sense - these desires help to balance out the cooler temperatures, rough winds, and busy or un-grounding schedule.  This concept of like increases like and the opposite balances stems from the ancient practice and sister science of yoga, Ayurveda (Ayur meaning life, Veda meaning knowledge or science). 

So, to help keep you balanced, grounded, and in good health this autumn try incorporating one or all of these yogic practices into your routine.  Enjoy!

 Bhu Mudra

Bhu Mudra

Bhu Mudra (Hand Gesture or Seal)

Benefits

  • Calms the nervous system

  • Reduces stress and anxiety

  • Great for travelers

How To

  • Come to a comfortable seated position using a meditation cushion or chair

  • Make a fist with each hand and then release the index and middle fingers, forming a peace sign

  • Straighten the arms out to the sides and place the fingertips onto the ground (or the thighs if seated in a chair)

  • Close the eyes and breath down into the pelvis and belly

  • On the inhalations feel a subtle upward flow of energy from the ground up through the fingertips

  • On the exhalations feel a subtle downward flow of energy out through the arms and fingertips

  • Stay for 10 or so breaths

 Cat

Cat

 Cow

Cow

Marjaryasana-Bitilasana  

(Cat & Cow Pose)

Benefits

  • Gently warms the body

  • Releases tension in the spine, neck, shoulders, and pelvic region

  • Gently stimulates and tones the abdominal region

  • Helps establish a slow, steady, and rhythmic breath

  • Synchronizes breath and movement

How To 

  • Come to a table top position, placing the hands under the shoulders (or slightly ahead) and the hips directly over the knees

  • On an inhalation lift the tailbone and spread the sit bones while lengthening the chest away from the navel.  Broaden across the chest and gently lift the head – this is cow

  • On an exhalation draw the tailbone towards the floor, lift the lower belly, and curl the spine up towards the ceiling.  Spread the shoulder blades and let the head drop – this is cat

  • Inhale, come back to cow, and exhale move back into cat

  • Repeat 5-10 times

 Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold)

 Standing Forward Fold

Standing Forward Fold

Benefits

  • Lengthens the back body (back and hamstrings)

  • Improves digestion and helps reduce bloating/gas

  • Soothes the nervous system

  • Reduces stress, mild depression, and headaches

How To

  • Stand upright in Tadasana (mountain pose) with the hands on the hips and the feet hips width distance or a little wider

  • On an inhalation softly lift the spine and sides of the torso

  • On an exhalation bend the knees (as needed) to hinge forward and down from the hip creases

  • Place the hands to either the floor, blocks, or grab opposite elbow with opposite hand for a ragdoll variation

  • Keep the legs bent (as needed) to allow the entire upper body to hang heavily

  • Gently engage the fronts of the legs so the backs of the legs can open

  • Feel the soles of the feet spread onto the ground and inhale into the lower ribcage/belly.  Exhale down through the spine, head, legs and out through the feet

  • Feel free to add a slow swaying movement from side to side

  • Stay for 5-10 breaths

Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing)

 Alternate Nostril Breathing

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Benefits

  • Balances the nervous system

  • Reduces stress and anxiety

  • Opens and clears sinuses

  • Balances the right and left side of the brain and the pingala (solar) and ida (lunar) nadis (subtle energy channels) 

 How to

  • Sit comfortably on a mediation cushion or a chair

  • Using the right hand, gently place the index and middle finger between the brows.  Bring the thumb to the outside of the right nostril and the ring finger to the outside of the left nostril 

  • To start, close the right nostril and inhale fully through the left nostril 

  • Close the left nostril and open the right nostril to exhale fully 

  • Inhale fully through the right nostril

  • Close the right nostril and open the left nostril to exhale fully – this completes one cycle

  • Continue going back and forth for about 3-5 minutes

  • End by exhaling through the left nostril and then release the right hand from the nose.  Sit quietly for a few moments, breathing in and out through both nostrils, and notice any shifts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Eight Limbs of Yoga by Kristen Keaney

NIYAMAS - TAPAS

Tapas is the third of the Niyamas, representing the element of self-discipline.

Tapas can be translated as a burning, in which we can look at is as burning away of impurities within the mind and body to help us unearth the truest version of ourselves. 

Tapas is that inner fire that fuels our enthusiasm and passion to become better. When we are disciplined enough to go to bed early so that we can feel energized and ready to practice in the morning that is Tapas. Simply choosing a healthy snack like a fruit instead of a bag of chips can be viewed as tapas. Anytime we are working diligently and passionately towards something positive we are experiencing Tapas. 

Looking at Tapas in relation to your personal yoga practice is pretty straightforward. Using your body’s ability to “burn” away impurities through the poses can indirectly help you to burn away mental impurities as well. 

-Have you ever had a practice where you have felt focused and energized through all of the movements?

-A practice where the patience and discipline to work through an asana (one that continually proves challenging to you) has led you to feel stronger and more confident within the pose? 

-A practice where you’ve arrived at savasana to find that your mind and body have been washed clean of tension and you can rest blissfully for a few moments?

 All of that is Tapas! 

Experiencing Tapas on your mat is, in my opinion, one of the best experiences to help you during situations that can then arise in the real world. By using self-discipline and passion in our yoga practices we can begin to feel the positive effects of tuning into our breath and remaining fully present. Our yoga practice allows us to quiet those negative thoughts that tend to surface in our mind. We have all experienced that internal voice that can discourage us from taking risks, challenging ourselves and pushing towards accomplishing new goals and endeavors. Yoga helps us to burn through that mental negativity and challenges ourselves, even if it takes countless attempts. This so-called “burning” relates to the element of fire, also known as the element of transformation. When we approach things that take us out of our self-enforced comfort zones we have the option to either take a step back in self-doubt or to step forward in self-confidence. 

This month I encourage you, both on and off your mat, to look at challenges as an opportunity to harness your inner fire and burn off anything that doesn’t serve you in your quest for change! 

 

Anatomy of a Pose - Laurel Marsh

Upavistha Konasana  (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Fold)

LAUREL WLFF.jpg

Benefits:

  • Stretches the hamstrings, inner thighs, and spinal muscles
  • Stimulates digestion and kidneys
  • Therapeutic for mild depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, and menstruation

Key Actions:

  • Start in Dandasana (Staff Pose, see May 2018 column)
  • Place hands behind the buttocks and separate the legs out into a wide angle.  To increase the distance between the legs, slide the buttocks forward a bit
  • Sit directly on top of the sitting bones and lengthen the spine upward
  • As in Dandasana, neutralize the legs so that the kneecaps and toes point straight up towards the ceiling
  • Bring a heaviness to the thighbones by pressing them down into the floor
  • Flex the feet back toward the knees and press forward with the big toe mounds
  • On inhalation lengthen up along the spine and broaden across the chest
  • On exhalation hinge forward from the hips, causing the pelvis to rotate forward
  • While maintaining an upright spine and active/neutral legs, place the hands between the legs and play with walking them forward.  If the spine begins to round or bending at the waist occurs, stop and back off to re-establish length in the spine
  • If there is room to go deeper, come down onto the forearms
  • Maintaining the neutrality in the legs, hinging from the hips and staying long in the spine is what determines how deep one will go
  • In the final expression of Upavistha Konasana, bring the chest to the floor and wrap the index and middle fingers around the big toes.  Reach the elbows out in opposite directions and lengthen the crown of the head forward
  • Stay for 5-10 breaths
  • To come out slowly walk the hands back toward the body, bend the knees and return to Dandasana

Modifications:

  • If it is challenging to sit directly on top of the sitting bones, causing lower back to round, place a blanket or two underneath the hips
  • If the chest does not yet reach the floor, one can place a bolster underneath the torso to practice the actions of the arms

 

Anatomy of a Pose - Laurel Marsh

Dandasana (Staff Pose)

 Laurel Marsh

Laurel Marsh

Benefits

  • Strengthens the muscles along the spine & the hip flexors
  • Improves posture and helps build a strong foundation for healthy spinal alignment
  • Opens the chest and shoulders

Key Actions

  • Sit down at the back of your mat and extend both legs straight
  • Find the sitting bones at the base of the pelvis by shifting side to side.  Sit directly on top of them so that the tailbone and pubis are equidistance from the floor    
  • Bring the legs together, big toes touching and heels about one inch apart
  • Spin the inner thighs to the floor until the kneecaps face the ceiling, creating neutrality in the legs
  • Flex the feet back toward the knees and press the big toe mounds forward while drawing the outer blades of the feet back
  • Firm the tops of the thighbones down.  If this action causes the heels to lift it most likely means the knees are hyperextended.  In that case bring a soft bend to the knees but practice the activating actions of the legs
  • Place the hands by the hips, fingertips pointing toward the front of the mat
  • As the hands and thighs root down, lift and lengthen the sternum up and away from the navel
  • Draw the shoulders back and down until they are in line with the sides of the torso while broadening across the chest
  • Keep the chin parallel to the floor as the crown of the head lengthens upward
  • Take 5 well-rounded breathes and then release
  • Modifications

    If it is difficult to stay directly on top of the sitting bones, causing the lower back to round, sit on top of a folded blanket to elevate the hips.  If one is not enough use a second or sit on top of a bolster.  Be mindful not to lock out the knees.

     

 

     

 

The Eight Limbs of Yoga by Kristen Keaney

NIYAMAS - SANTOSHA

This month we’ll discuss an element of yoga that I believe to be the most important, the concept of Santosha. 

Santosha, the second Niyama, translates as contentment and when practiced daily can have such a profound effect on your quality of life. It wasn’t until I delved deeper into the philosophy of yoga and discovered Santosha that I began to feel a true transformation from within. It sometimes feels like we live in a society where the grass is always greener on the other side. If we aren’t comparing our successes and failures to that of our closest friends and family, then it’s usually because we are too busy asking ourselves the dreaded “what if” questions. “What if my job was different?” “What if my house was bigger?” and so on and so on. 

Santosha is that gentle reminder to be present and to be accepting of where you are in that moment. Comparing yourself to others, or even comparing yourself to the person you once were or the person you hoped you’d become is simply the minds way of robbing you of the wonderful joys you have right in front of you. However, contentment is not to be confused with complacency. No matter your religious beliefs, I believe the Serenity Prayer clearly explains the beauty of contentment:

“God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference.” 

Now if we look at Santosha as it relates to our physical yoga practice (asanas) we will see a crossover with many of the Yamas mentioned in previous months. In practicing contentment of where our bodies are at and not forcing certain positions (ahimsa) and by acknowledging that we are never the same person each time we arrive on the mat (aparigraha) then we start to create a yoga journey that has a foundation rooted in truth (satya). 

Santosha, as it relates to our daily lives, is where I truly began to experience transformation. Slowing down enough to genuinely appreciate what your life has given you opens so much space for more positivity to enter your life. For those of you who have taken my class you will know that I finish both my personal yoga practices as well as my teachings with an element of gratitude. I find that taking a moment to allow yourself to recall at least one thing in this life that you are grateful for is a perfect way to close out your practice. Some days you may struggle to think of one, and some days you may be flooded with beautiful thoughts. It’s the ebb and flow of life. We are all on one big journey and allowing ourselves to be content with the way things are will make this journey much more enjoyable. 

“Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.”

-Guillaume Apollinaire  

 

The Eight Limbs of Yoga by Kristen Keaney

NIYAMAS

Over the last couple of months, we looked into the Yamas (the “restraints”) to help us delve a little deeper into our yoga practice. You may have noticed that the Yamas and the Niyamas come before the Asanas (the poses) in Pantanjali’s 8-Limbs of Yoga. In the Western world we tend to focus on the physical elements of yoga. The original belief was that the mind & body must be purified together for the Asanas to deliver the most benefits. 

Here’s an example I once read that really drove this point home for me. Some of the highest pesticide counts are found on apples so, although apples are inarguably good for you, it takes a lot of extra effort for the body to digest and process these impurities before it can start to absorb the healthy components of the apple. Many people believe you should consume organic apples whenever possible. You can think of the Yamas (non-harming, non-stealing, truthfulness, restraint and non-attachment) and Niyamas (purification, contentment, asceticism, self-study, and devotion) as clearing away the impurities of modern day living so that we can approach our Asana practice from a more “organic” state.  

The first Niyama, Saucha (pronounced sow-cha), is the Sanskrit term for cleanliness or purity. On a physical level this Niyama can apply to personal hygiene. We all have been taught from a young age the importance of personal hygiene. Saucha applies to things such as wiping down your mat after each use and arriving to class in clean comfortable clothing. If you practice at home, it’s important to have a clean space that is preferably free of distractions. Awareness of cleanliness shows a certain level of self-respect that can bring a positive energy to your space and practice. 

When we look at Saucha as it applies to the mind we start to see all the Yamas come into play. Purity in our thoughts, both on and off our mat, has a profound effect on the quality of our lives. For the sake of this article let’s look at it regarding our yoga practice. If we arrive on our mats carrying the stresses and obstacles from our day, it’ll take some extra effort in our Asana practice to rid us of these “impurities” before we start moving deeper into our practice. It is recommended that for an evening practice you take time to shower beforehand and wash away some of the physical and mental toxins you’ve acquired. Briefly look at your thoughts before you practice and run through the Yamas: “Is this thought harmful? Is it true? Am I attached to it?” Sometimes pausing and acknowledging your mental state before you practice is enough to set you off on the right foot. If you take that time and you still can’t seem to let something go then it’s time to roll out your mat, tap into your Ujjayi breathing and allow the physical movements of your asana to help with the cleansing process.

“The practice of asanas tones the entire body and removes the toxins and impurities caused by overindulgence. Pranayama cleanses and aerates the lungs, oxygenates the blood and purifies the nerves” (BKS Iyengar, “Light on Yoga”).

 

 

Anatomy of a Pose - Laurel Marsh

Plank

Benefits

 Laurel Marsh

Laurel Marsh

  • Strengthens the spine, abdomen, arms, and wrists
  • Builds strength and stamina for more advanced yoga poses

Key Actions

  • Start on hands and knees in table top.  Be sure that the arms are parallel to each other and the shoulders are directly over the wrists.  Look back at the legs and bring them hips width distance with the hips directly over the knees.
  • Press down into the hands, especially at the base of each index finger.
  • Press up into the space between the shoulder blades taking any hollowing out of this area.  Feel how this slightly spreads the shoulder blades apart and firms them against the back.
  • Maintaining the previous actions, broaden across the collar bones and lengthen the sternum forward as the outer arms firm in.
  • Draw the frontal hip bones of the pelvis towards the lower ribs, shortening the distance between these two areas.  This brings the pelvis into more of a posterior tilt and helps to tone the lower belly.
  • Extend the right leg straight back and then the left leg, coming onto the balls of the feet.
  • Lift the fronts of the upper leg bones away from the floor to tone the legs.
  • Maintain the actions of the arms, shoulder blades and pelvis from table top and press the heels back as the sternum lengthens forward.
  • Keep the back of the head in line with the spine while gazing down to the floor.
  • Find a steady breath and relax the muscles of the face.
  • Stay for 5-10 breathes.

Modifications

  •  For wrist sensitivity, plank can be done on the forearms.  For this version interlace the hands and tuck the bottom pinky finger under.  Come onto the forearms and bring the elbows slightly narrower than shoulder width.  Stack the shoulders directly over the elbows and find the same actions as if coming into plank on the hands. 
  • Lowering the knees in plank is always an option if it gets to be too intense.  Continue to work the actions of plank in the body even if the knees are lowered.

Anatomy of a Pose - Laurel Marsh

 Laurel Marsh

Laurel Marsh

Virabhadrasana 2 (Warrior 2)

Benefits

  • Strengthens legs, arms, spine, ankles, and feet
  • Stretches the groins, chest, and arms
  • Increases stamina and confidence
  • Therapeutic for flat feet, sciatica, osteoporosis, infertility and carpal tunnel syndrome

 

Key Actions

  • Start in Tadasana (see April 2017 column) at the top of the mat
  • Turn to the left side of the room and widen the distance between the feet to about four feet
  • Extend the arms out to shoulder height and look to see that the wrists line up with the outer blades of the feet.  Place the hands on the hips
  • Turn all ten toes in and the heels out to slightly pigeon toe each foot.  This sets up the placement of the back foot/leg
  • From the right hip socket, turn the right knee and foot outwards 90 degrees.  Make sure the second toe is pointing straight ahead and not angled in or out
  • Look to see that the right (front) heel lines up with the arch of the left (back) foot
  • On an exhalation, lunge into the right leg while keeping the back leg straight 
  • The front knee should be directly over the ankle and in line with the second toe.  If the knee went past the ankle, widen the distance between the feet.  If it remained behind the ankle, shorten the distance between the feet  
  • With the hands on the hips, feel if the pelvis is level.  If the left side feels higher than the right, draw the outer left hip down and hug it into the midline
  • Look to make sure the front knee did not buckle in toward the big toe.  If it did, draw the outer knee toward the baby toe
  • Press into the outer blade of the back foot and lift the inner arch while firming the thigh bone back
  • Maintaining the set up in the lower half of the body, bring the hands together at the heart.  Notice if the trunk is rotated towards the top of the mat.  If so, without disrupting the hips and legs, turn the ribcage and chest to the left/long side of the mat
  • On the inhalation extend the arms out to shoulder height, palms face down
  • On the exhalation turn the head to the right, setting the gaze on the fingertips
  • Stay for five well-rounded breaths
  • To come out, straighten the front leg, relax the arms by the sides and angle the front foot/leg in
  • Repeat on the other side

Modification

To help with stability, place the outer heel of the back foot against a wall. 

The Eight Limbs of Yoga by Kristen Keaney

The 8 Limbs of Yoga: The Yamas (Moral Restraints), Part 5

 

Aparigraha

This month we’ll touch on the fifth and final Yama, Aparigraha.  In my opinion, this is one of the easiest yamas to truly digest and incorporate into your daily life.  Aparigraha can be translated as non-greed, non-possessiveness or non-attachment. Practicing Aparigraha allows us to truly acknowledge what serves us in the present moment while simultaneously allowing us to let go of what is no longer benefiting us.

This may be a very easy Yama to incorporate into your personal yoga practice without too much force and effort. Most of us come to yoga to experience its calming benefits on the mind and body, but oftentimes our minds can lead us astray. What usually starts as an internal practice can lead us towards keeping up with our neighbor, or worse, expecting more from our physical bodies than it may be ready for at that moment (Ahimsa). Social media doesn’t help the cause. Our minds are constantly being flooded with images of “the perfect pose” and we have unrealistic expectations of what our bodies should look and feel like when we practice. Personally speaking, Aparigraha is important for me to remember when it comes to individual asanas. Just because a posture looks and feels a certain way one day doesn’t mean it will feel the same the next. It’s important not to get attached to your practice and its progress and instead accept the constant ebb and flow of your practice. 

 

yamas2.jpg

Anatomy of a Pose - Laurel Marsh

 Laurel Marsh

Laurel Marsh

Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog)

Benefits         

  • Stretches the chest, shoulders, abdomen, front of the hips, arms, wrists, and ankles
  • Strengthens the back, arms, and legs
  • Stimulates the abdominal organs
  • Helps relieve fatigue and stiffness in the back

Key Actions

  • Come onto the belly and extend the legs straight back
  • Place the hands by the lower ribs, palms down and fingers pointing forward
  • Look to make sure the elbows are directly over the wrists.  If they aren't then slide the hands forward or back as needed
  • Firm the elbows in toward the sides of the torso so they are directly behind the shoulders
  • Bring the feet hips-width distance apart
  • Relax the legs and notice how the inner thighs naturally roll up and out and the outer ankles sickle outward.  Accentuate the rolling upwards of the inner thighs, firm the outer ankles in
  • Press down onto the tops of the feet from the big toes to the pinky toes, feel the legs turn on and slightly lift
  • On the inhalation press down into the hands until the arms straighten and draw the chest forward and up
  • Vigorously press into the tops of the feet to lift the knees, thighs, and hips off the ground.  Be sure that only the hands and feet are on the ground
  • Engage the quadriceps to keep the legs lifted as the inner thighs continue to roll up and the outer ankles firm in
  • Make sure the shoulders are directly over the wrists, if they are not adjust them by moving the legs forward or back
  • Slightly draw the pubic bone up towards the sternum and continue to lift the chest forward and up
  • Draw the outer upper arms back and press down into the hands, especially at the base of each index finger
  • To release, either roll over the toes into Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) or firm the arms in towards the trunk as the elbows bend and the body lowers to the mat

Modifications

  • If the upper arms and shoulders roll forward and it is difficult to draw the outer upper arms back, try slightly turning the hands out
  • If having the hands flat on the ground is very bothersome to the wrists, try using hexagon shaped barbells to keep the wrists straight
  • If Upward Facing Dog is too vigorous, take Baby Cobra.  Instead of straightening the arms, keep them bent and lift the shoulders to elbow height.  Practice the actions of Upward Facing Dog in the legs, shoulders, and chest while building strength in the back

 

The Eight Limbs of Yoga by Kristen Keaney

The 8 Limbs of Yoga: The Yamas (Moral Restraints), Part 4

Brahmacharya  

We’ve discussed Ahimsa (Non-harming), Satya (Truthfulness) and Asteya (non-stealing). The fourth Yama, Brahmacharya, is traditionally understood as ‘Celibacy’ or simply restraining from temptations so that our energy can instead be directed towards furthering our Yogic studies. It may be the hardest element to transfer into this modern way of living.

I hope I didn’t lose everyone with the use of the word celibacy, because Brahmacharya can still be practiced without necessarily adhering to its traditional definition. Brahmacharya in its truest form means to direct our energies away from external pleasures so that we can focus more on finding happiness and contentment from the inside out.

Think of Brahmacharya as the awareness of where you expend your “vital” energies. For a moment just close your eyes and think about where you think you direct most of your energy.  I’m sure to some extent we all direct a lot of our energy toward outward stresses that in the end don’t affect us as much as we feel. Energy is sometimes put into trying to make ourselves appear different than our true selves. Trying to appear more successful, more organized, more positive, just more than we really are. Excess energy directed towards outward “improvements” leaves us with very little to direct inwards. 

Try incorporating Brahmacharya into your daily lifestyle by slowing down periodically and observing your daily patterns. Take time to notice if any of your habits seem to drain you of energy.  I don’t necessarily mean the bodily fatigue that sets in after a vinyasa class. I invite you to look more deeply, who you surround yourself with, what you choose to consume to “fuel” the body, in both your foods and your conversation. 

Brahmacharya is traditionally taught as restraint from sexual desires in order to better focus on one’s Yogic path.  A modern interpretation can be understood as observing where our largest energy outputs are and acknowledging whether they are truly benefiting our personal growth or if they’re draining our precious energies.

 

 

yamas2.jpg

Anatomy of a Pose - Laurel Marsh

 Laurel Marsh

Laurel Marsh

Chair Pose — Utkatasana (OOT-kuh-TAHS-uh-nuh)

Benefits

  • Strengthens the ankles, thighs, spine, and arms
  • Opens the chest and shoulders
  • Builds heat in the body
  • Stimulates the heart, diaphragm, and abdominal organs

Key Actions

  • Start in Mountain pose (see April 2017 column) with the big toes touching, heels slightly parted, and palms facing the outer hips  
  • On the inhalation reach the arms forward and up.  Feel the upward rotation of the shoulder blades
  • On the exhalation sit the hips back and down
  • Press into the three corners of each foot while adding a little more weight into the centers of the heels
  • Be sure the knees are in line with the second and third toe of each foot
  • Hug the outer hips and legs in towards the midline and drop the tailbone to avoid overarching the lower back.  If the lower back flattens, instead of dropping the tailbone, spin the inner thighs in and down
  • Lift the sides of the waist and firm the outer arms in
  • Spread the fingers, soften the face and turn the attention to the breath
  • Play with sitting the hips a little further back and down while maintaining these key actions in the body
  • Take five rounds of breath and on the last exhalation press down into the feet to straighten the legs and rest the arms by the sides in Tadasana

Modifications

  • If bringing the big toes to touch and heels slightly parted does not feet stable, place the feet hips width distance.  Be sure the second and third toes point forward, maintaining neutrality in the feet and legs
  • To help access the actions of the outer hips and legs hugging in toward the midline, place a block the narrowest way in between the thighs
  • If reaching the arms overhead and shoulder width distance is a challenge, play with widening the arms.  Continue to practice the actions of firming the outer arms in

The Eight Limbs of Yoga by Kristen Keaney

The 8 Limbs of Yoga: The Yamas (Moral Restraints), Part 3

We have discussed the first two yamas: Ahimsa (non-harming) and Satya (truthfulness). We have looked at their meanings and how we can incorporate them into our yoga practice as well as our daily lives. 

The third yama is Asteya, or non-stealing. On a very physical level this is an easy one. Don’t steal that which does not belong to you. Whether it be items, ideas, emotions, time or energy. If they’re not given to you freely then leave them be.

Asteya can be applied to your yoga practice in a similar way as Ahimsa. Coming to a class and expecting your body to do advanced postures without “earning” them through diligent daily practice is essentially trying to take something that isn’t meant for you. Moving your body in a way that doesn’t suit your current physical and mental state is robbing yourself of the peace that would be attained through an honest practice. 

Asteya can also be looked at in relationship to our current environment. Do we take from the Earth more than she is offering? Can simple tweaks in our daily lives reverse our harmful actions? Absolutely. Shortening our showers by a few minutes. Trying to remember to bring reusable bags to the grocery store. It could even relate to how much “stuff” we buy and how quickly we get rid of it to replace it with the same thing only newer. This doesn’t mean renouncing the world and all your possessions, it just encourages you to take from this life only what is needed. It is a reminder that these things typically don’t bring us long-lasting happiness and if we look to material things to fill that space we will never see an end to that cycle.

Lastly, Asteya can relate to our emotions and actions. How we act, react and express ourselves around others can have more of an impact than we sometimes realize. Are we stealing someones peace by loudly complaining about minute obstacles from our day? Are we stealing someones happiness by constantly changing the subject to circle back to our losses? 

Asteya is an easy Yama to incorporate into your life and practice. So as we begin a new year I invite you to slow down and make sure there is ease to your practice. Daily, committed practice brings about the best changes in the body; changes that can be long lasting if we remain honest and open.

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The Eight Limbs of Yoga by Kristen Keaney

The 8 Limbs of Yoga: The Yamas, Part 2

Last month we discussed the first Yama in yoga, Ahimsa, or non-violence. Hopefully you’ve found a way to introduce elements of it into your daily habits. This month we’ll discuss Satya, or truthfulness. 

Satya means so much more than simply not telling lies. The Yamas are meant to help us build better relationships with the people and the world around us. Yet, more importantly, they’re meant to help us build better relationships with ourselves. I would say the most difficult part of implementing Satya into our own lives is actually looking closely enough to realize if we are letting our constantly changing thoughts and emotions determine how we identify with ourselves. 

“I am not good for this position because of….” or “I don’t think I can succeed because of….”

It’s very easy to not see the truth or reality in life’s situations when we are either observing them from different emotional states or worse, if we’re choosing not to truly see the truth of a situation because it’s not the outcome we were hoping for. 

It’s important to slow down long enough for our minds to react to a situation from a more pragmatic state and not a purely emotional state. It’s tricky at first, and harder some days than others, but you eventually begin to realize that “you are not your thoughts” and that realization can be liberating. 

The best way to slow down your thoughts is to practice Yoga! When we focus our attention on our breathing we create an opportunity to slow down the fluctuations of the mind and approach our practice from a place of truth. You can implement Satya in your own practice by being truthful with your body’s limitations and your breath will be your best teacher. When your breath gets rushed or shallow, it’s an opportunity for you to see your limits and to work with them. 

Introducing and improving Satya to your personal relationships can help you build stronger foundations. Whether it be a romantic relationship, relationships with friends or family, or even co-workers and acquaintances it’s important to not only be truthful but also compassionate. A big element of Satya is also discernment; understanding what aspect of truth should be expressed and when to express it. Sometimes honesty calls for us to remain silent. It’s important to slow down and observe our motives before we speak. 

A very good question to ask yourself before you speak is “will this truth serve this person? Or am I saying this to prove my point or to gain something from it? Is my ego getting in front of the situation?”

Yoga teaches us to slow down our erratic thought processes and gives us the space to approach situations in our lives from a more honest and rational state of mind. Life is always going to be full of challenges and setbacks, it’s how we choose to react to these circumstances that determines the outcomes.  

Adding elements of Ahimsa (non-harming) and Satya (truthfulness) to your everyday life is great foundation to your journey through Yoga. 

Next month we’ll discuss Asteya (non-stealing), the 3rd moral restraint of the Yamas.

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Anatomy of a Pose - Laurel Marsh

 Laurel Marsh

Laurel Marsh

Legs Up the Wall (Viparita Karani)

Benefits:

  • Restorative to the nervous system
  • Soothes tired /swollen feet and legs
  • Helps with anxiety, insomnia, mild depression, high blood pressure, circulation, digestion, headaches, varicose veins and menstrual cramps
  • A great way to receive the benefits of an inversion in a gentle way

Key Actions:

  • Be sure to have a block, folded blanket or bolster
  • Start in bridge pose (see September 2017 Column)
  • Press down into the feet to lift the hips high enough so the prop can be placed under the sacrum.  If using a block turn it to the lowest or medium height.  Be sure the prop is not directly under the arch of the low back (lumbar spine); it should be placed below this area (the sacrum
  • Draw the knees in towards the chest, lifting the feet off the floor, and then extend the legs up towards the ceiling
  • It may be useful to wiggle around on the prop to find that sweet spot where the legs feel as though they are floating in mid air
  • Relax the arms on either side of the torso, palms facing up
  • Do very little work to keep the legs lifted and stay for 1-3 minutes
  • To come out bend the knees in towards the chest and then plant the feet to the floor.  Lift the hips high enough so the prop can be removed and then lower the hips to the ground

Modifications/Variations:

  • To invert the arms and help with leg support - when the knees hug into the chest place a strap/yoga belt around the sole of each foot and then extend the legs towards the ceiling.  Keep the arms straight as each hand lightly holds a tail of the strap.
  • For leg support, move to a wall.  Place a neatly folded blanket 2-3 inches away from the wall.  Sit on top of the blanket with the outer right hip facing the wall.  Mindfully swing the legs up so that the backs of the legs rest against the support of the wall.  If the backs of the legs feel tight, slide further away from the wall to decrease the angle of the legs.

Anatomy of a Pose - Laurel Marsh

Child’s Pose (Balasana)

 Laurel Marsh

Laurel Marsh

Benefits:

  • Helps relieve stress
  • Gently stretches the back, hips, thighs and ankles
  • Calms the central nervous system & mind
  • A great way to move inward, reset, and connect to your breath

Key Actions:

  • Start on hands and knees in table top; wrists under the shoulders and knees under the hips
  • Bring the tips of the big toes to touch and separate the knees a little wider than hips width
  • Lower the sit bones back onto the heels and hinge at the hips to rest the torso onto the thighs
  • Walk the arms forward and rest the forehead onto the ground
  • Once the arms are straight bring a soft bend to the elbows and rest the forearms onto the ground
  • On the inhalation feel the breath move into the back of the torso. On the exhalation feel a softening of the body

Modifications:

  • Place a blanket under the knees for additional padding
  • If the head does not touch the floor comfortably place a block or blanket under the forehead
  • If it is challenging to lower the sit bones to the heels place a folded blanket or two in between the back of the calves and thighs

The Eight Limbs of Yoga by Kristen Keaney

The 8 Limbs of Yoga: The Yamas, Part 1

Yoga is believed to be over 5,000 years old yet has only recently gained popularity within Western cultures. Usually when we hear the word “yoga” we think in terms of Asana, or simply put: yoga poses.  Yoga is an 8-limbed path for life that was designed to help strip us of our egos and lead us to self-realization.

The “8 Limbs of Yoga” was created so we could all live from a place of authenticity, looking inward for most answers.  This system was first documented by Patanjali in the 2nd century B.C. 

Human beings are emotional creatures, and how we choose to react to these emotions says a lot about who we are as a person. I grew up in an Irish-Catholic family, so most of the time emotions were things you simply replaced with sarcasm.  Yoga teaches us not only to acknowledge our emotions, but also to own up to them, meaning not looking for outside reasons or people to blame for the things we might be feeling. It also teaches us to slow things down a bit, so we can truly feel these emotions, good or bad.

To look inward we must do so with a very honest and open mind, which brings us to the first limb of yoga: Yamas, or restraints. Yamas encourage us to get to know ourselves better, not based on our possessions, accomplishments or our stature in life but based on what we feel at a very deep and personal level.  

The best part of these “restraints” is that they don’t require us to be perfect. They’re meant to be guidelines that help us better connect to the things we do, say, and believe. They encourage us to explore our behaviors and choices at a deeper level so we can realize how our actions affect not only ourselves but those around us. Simply put, the

Yamas are meant to awaken us to the fact that we are all part of something that is greater than ourselves, and that our actions are our contributions to the world.

The 5 Yamas are not commandments or strict rules requiring mastery to achieve enlightenment. They are guidelines to help us live our lives with more satisfaction with ourselves and those that we are lucky enough to have around us. Understanding that Yamas are an integral part of your yoga practice and gradually introducing them is a great first step in your personal journey towards finding and expressing the truest form of yourself.

The first Yama is Ahimsa, or nonviolence.  Ahimsa applies to all sentient beings.  I believe that diet is a very personal matter, therefore I will choose to focus on the element of Ahimsa as it applies to our emotions and social actions.  Ahimsa is a fundamental tool that allows you to see your thoughts and actions from a place of non-judgment. Here are some helpful ways to introduce ahimsa into your daily life:  

  • Before you speak make sure your words are truthful and have good intentions (no gossiping);

  • If you feel “hatred” or “dislike” towards someone or something allow yourself the space to genuinely understand the root of the situation and think of positive ways to address it;

  • Slow down and notice your thought patterns, and try to shift to more positivity. Ahimsa applies to the way we think and speak about ourselves as well;

  • Let go of expectations of the way a pose should look in your Asana practice like and give yourself the positive space to truly feel the posture. Forcing your body into a position it's not ready for is a prime example of overlooking Ahimsa.

 

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Anatomy of a Pose - Laurel Marsh

 Laurel Marsh

Laurel Marsh

Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

Benefits:      

  • Opens the chest, hip flexors and stretches the spine
  • Strengthens the back body
  • Stimulates the lungs and abdominal organs
  • Helps to alleviate mild depression, fatigue, menstrual discomfort and anxiety

Key Actions:

  • Begin reclined on the back
  • Bend the knees and place the heels directly under the knees
  • Make sure the feet, thighs, and knees are hips width distance apart, forming parallel lines.  The second and third toes of each foot point forward
  • On the exhale press down into the three corners of each foot to lift the hips and torso off the floor without disrupting the alignment of the feet, thighs and knees
  • Lengthen the tailbone towards the knees as the inner thighs spiral down
  • With the arms by the sides of the torso, turn the palms upwards, bringing the arms into external rotation
  • Without sliding the shoulder blades down or disrupting the back of the neck, tuck one shoulder blade in at a time, creating more lift in the chest and protecting C7
  • Option to interlace the hands
  • Stay for several breathes and then release

Modifications:

  • If the feet and/or knees V open, loosing the parallel lines, place a block in between the feet and/or thighs.  Hug inwards to the block to maintain alignment
  • For a more restorative version or if the fronts of the hips are tight, place a block underneath the sacrum

 

Anatomy of a Pose - Laurel Marsh

 Laurel Marsh

Laurel Marsh

Crescent Lunge (Anjaneyasana)

Benefits:

  • Stretches the hip flexors
  • Strengthens the quadriceps and arms
  • Improves balance and concentration
  • Great preparatory asana (posture) for back bends

Key Actions

  • Begin in Tadasana, Mountain pose (See April 2017 column).
  • Shift weight into the right leg and take a large step back with the left leg.  Make sure the left heel is lifted, pointing directly back, and root down into the ball of the foot.  If the stride feels too narrow, walk the right foot out to the right 1-2 inches.
  • Track the right knee over the right ankle and press down through the three corners of the front foot.
  • To bring more space into the lower back and increase the opening of the hip flexors, bring a soft bend to the back knee and lengthen the tailbone downward.  This will cause the frontal hips bones to lift and the lower ribs to soften as the pelvis moves into more of a posterior tilt.
  • Feel the back of the rib cage lift as the arms raise overhead; palms face each other.  Firm the outer arms in and soften at the base of the neck.
  • Maintaining all these actions, see if there is space to take some of the bend out of the back leg. 
  • Stay for 5-10 breathes then repeat on the other side.

Modifications

  • Lower the back knee to the floor if balance is a challenge.
  • Take goalpost arms or hands to the hips if raising the arms overhead is too much for the shoulders.