What Makes a Practice “Personal” ?

You’ve done it.  After moving piles of books and laundry, you’ve managed
to clear just enough space in your home to roll out your mat.  Feeling
dedicated and productive, you take a deep breath, find the ground beneath
your feet, raise your arms to the sky and….

If you are anything like I am, you immediately begin obsessing about what
type of practice you’re going to create.  You start to attach your
awareness to visions of floating  arm balances, sweet hip openers, maybe
even some core strengthening for that summer bikini hanging in your
closet.  Or, you take the opposite route, completely check out and embark
on a journey of sun salutations followed by the same sequence you did in
last night’s group class.  And after you’re done, even treated yourself to
a few peaceful moments of savasana, you feel pretty good for taking the
time out of your crazy schedule for a personal practice. But how much of
what you just did was “personal”.

It’s an easy trap to fall into. After all, we are creatures of habit.  But
as any yogi (yogini) knows–every day on the mat is different.  You may be
facing tight hamstrings on Monday, feel fluid and strong on Tuesday and in
need of a more restorative practice by Wednesday.  And on Thursday, you
may experience all of the above in a single hour.  Your body, mood, energy
level and perspectives are at times unpredictable, seemingly schizophrenic
by nature.  But this doesn’t mean you should abandon hope.  In fact, it’s
in recognizing these fluctuations that your yoga practice truly begins to
unfold.  By paying attention and tuning into your body, mind and breath,
you begin to learn to recognize what you need to bring yourself into
balance, in that space, at the moment.  When you begin to explore
modifications, new sequences and props, you start to become your own
greatest teacher.  Taking that time out, for yourself, means really being
with yourself.  Accepting where you are at, moving in ways to feel strong,
safe, tension free and open. And maybe you find yourself in a modification
or position that doesn’t “technically” exist, but feels amazing; If you
are breathing, moving and present–then you are practicing yoga.  Don’t
worry so much about being able to retrace your steps, tomorrow you may be
on a completely different path.

-Megan Merchant, RYT 200, M.F.A.

September 26, 2012 - 6:57 am Antonio - So true Christian!That's why when I do yoga I feel so much better on all lelves, not just physically.I love the way doing yoga helps me feel centered and grounded, the way it gets all the juices and energy in my body flowing, and the way I'm able to integrate this energy into my daily life. Thanks! I feel better just sharing that.Mary Ann

My Experiments with Yoga: The Blind Leading the Sighted

by Ryan Larsen

I was at home, concentrating on the tip of a houseplant leaf, using it to steady myself in Tree pose.  My mind was quiet, and I was still.  I was fixated on this leaf when quite suddenly, a thought came to me: “How does a blind person balance?”  If I stand on one leg, I have to use a gazing point to steady myself.  Yet they balance perfectly, so I know it can be done, but how?  Still in Tree,  I closed my eyes and instantly lost my equilibrium until a suggestion came to my mind.  “Inner ears”, it whispered without words.  With my eyes closed, teetering precariously, I began to try to feel my inner ears and focused on them being very still and level, like the level tool a carpenter uses.  Suddenly, my body became quite still and steady…until I was so surprised with myself that I lost complete focus and toppled over.

Success!  It can be done!  The next time I did my home practice, I tried again, but I couldn’t replicate the same stillness.  “It must be something I ate; I’ll try again later.”  Days after, I relaxed into Tree, my hands pressed together at my chest, my eyes were open, and I was still.  Then I closed my eyes, and I toppled over instantly.  Hmmm.  I concluded that in my first experiment in my full Tree with my eyes closed, I succeeded by grace.  Now I needed to build the skill the old fashion way—from the beginning.

Just as I teach my beginners, I walked to the wall, stood in Mountain Pose, and placed the pads of my palms against the wall.  Shifting my weight to one leg, I slightly bent the other and turned my knee out, pivoting from my toes.  I did not lift my foot all the way up my inner thigh as I normally do.  Instead, I kept my toes on the ground by my ankle.  I closed my eyes, concentrated on a level feeling in my inner ears, and slowly pulled my hands away from the wall, leaving only my fingertips to steady myself.  I began to teeter lightly.  After 13 years of practicing yoga, I again find myself a beginner.

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Mantra Mystique: Calming the Monkey Mind

By Lisha Ross

You don’t need to be a Buddhist monk or master of Zen meditations to understand the Eastern philosophy of the “monkey mind”. Just take a minute to notice the way your brain jumps from one thought to another like a monkey leaping from tree to tree. Our minds are in constant motion, playing and re-playing a laundry list of to-dos, memories, “what if” scenarios and often negative associations that make it nearly impossible to slow down and enjoy the present. “What if I don’t finish my report on time?” “My husband does not appreciate me.” “What if I get fired?” “Where will I find the time to make dinner?” These are the kind of distracting thoughts that play in a perpetual loop in our overactive, multi-tasking minds. After a while, they not only begin to affect our mood, behavior and social interactions, the particularly anxious ones cue up the body’s psychosomatic responses to stress: muscle tension, sweaty palms, high blood pressure, adrenaline release and so on.

The question of the ages is, if throughout our lives we can learn how to control our bodies and, to some extent, our emotions, why can’t we keep our thoughts from bounding around like a hyperactive primate? What if there was one simple thing you could do each day to slow down that racing mind of yours? A simple word or phrase that could produce a sensation of tranquility you could carry with you everywhere. Well, Eastern philosophers and many Western neuroscientists believe there is such a thing. It’s called a mantram, or mantra, and if given a fighting chance to take root deep in your subconscious, it just might sedate the monkey in your own mind.

Mind Games

In its simplest sense, a mantra is a word or phrase that is repeated again and again to clear the mind of extraneous thoughts. Historically, they’ve been used for thousands of years to help propel travelers along the spiritual path to enlightenment. Yogis, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus and other students of Eastern philosophical schools all ascribe to some version of the practice, but it’s not entirely foreign to Western culture. Though they aren’t called “mantras”, repetition of the name “Jesus” and the prayer “Hail Mary” have been used in Catholicism to a similar end. And yet, despite this common link between mantra and religious devotion, it is not a necessary connection. The benefits for the psyche are considered by many practitioners to be just as solid as those for the soul.

Physician and neuroscientist Daniel H. Lowenstein, M.D., in his foreword for Eknath Easwaran’s The Mantram Handbook, explains how repeating a mantra has subtle effects on brain function. He contends that by utilizing MRI, studies have shown that concentrating on a mantra activates areas of the brain that make it possible to maintain a single focus while tuning out distracting stimuli. “The mental repetition of a simple phrase,” he suggests, “can provide a guidewire to move your attention away from a troubling stream of thoughts.” It is in these moments of rest that your mind can stop dwelling on inconsequential, perceived problems and outcomes and put your immediate needs into perspective. Among the many purported long term domino effects of this mind break are decreased incidences of day to day depression (although deep depression should always be discussed with a qualified professional), increased focus and concentration, and the transformation of negative emotions such as anger, fear and nervousness into their positive counterparts.

Making it Your Own

Though there is some scientific evidence to support the many claims of mantra practitioners, it’s largely experiential; something you just have to try for yourself and discover the ways it can potentially brighten your world. When you’re ready to give it a shot, there are a few preliminary things to consider.

A Mantra for You

Selecting a mantra is not complicated, but it does require some inner reflection. The one you choose is yours and yours alone. In fact, in many Eastern traditions, practitioners are warned against telling theirs to others, lest it will lose its power of transformation. That being said, Easwaran, in The Mantram Handbook, advises those who are new to the practice to choose a mantra that comes from an established tradition. However, as most of these are steeped in spiritual allegory, one will have to identify their own purpose before making a selection.

If you are a person of faith who seeks to glean strength from a higher power, a holy name alone is said to be a simple, yet effective mantra. Those without religious roots who wish to cultivate a deeper sense of spirituality might want to select a very traditional mantra that has somewhat neutral connotations. Easwaran recommends use of the name “Rama”, one of the simplest, most powerful and popular mantras in India. Though there is an epic tale behind the name, Rama represents joy in a world of trial, something most of us could use more of. Still, those who are just looking for the basic mental health benefits can choose any word or phrase that appeals to them; a line of poetry, a quote from an admirable person, “peace” or “love to all” may be just the ticket.

Once you’ve decided on a mantra, it’s important to stick to that mantra and not change it. It takes time for a mantra to take effect. Changing it before it’s had time to settle in is like repeatedly re-potting a plant before it’s had time to take root; the plant will never grow to its full potential. Granted, you may want to play around with a few options before deciding on the one that feels right. That’s okay, but once you’ve practiced with one for several weeks, make it your own forever.

Repetition is Key

Using your mantra is easy. It does not require seated meditation, blocks of free time or any real effort. You don’t even need to say it out loud! Repeating it quietly in your mind is the preferred method, as it does not force you to wonder at the sound of your voice or your tone. Plus, you can do it whenever, wherever you like. Use it liberally and often. Repeat it when you’re standing in line at the grocery store, pumping gas or just before a meal. Saying it at night before bed, like a lullaby, is even more beneficial, as it is believed to continue working even as you sleep. Writing your mantra repeatedly in a notebook is another cathartic option, particularly if you’re agitated and having difficulty focusing. After a while, most practitioners say they don’t even have to think about repeating the mantra anymore; it just manifests when they need it, like a trusty and loyal friend.

As you foray into the wonderful world of mantra, keep in mind that it is not a miracle drug, and will not provide immediate relief to what ails you. Much like yoga, exercise, dieting and meditation, it’ll take time and practice before you begin to feel real results. With consistency, however, comes a greater sense of self awareness, inner peace and better control over thoughts that normally control you. But don’t take my word for it. Learn from the masters. Read Easwaran’s handbook and others, such as Mantras: Words of Power, by Swami Sivananda Radha and Healing Mantras, by Thomas Ashley-Farrand. And when you’re ready, as Easwaran suggests, “Try using the mantram in your daily life, and see what happens!”

Published in the May 2011 issues of the Zip Code Magazines

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The Health Benefits of Yoga

Sure, practicing yoga makes you less likely to yell at other cars in traffic, but did you know there are plenty more amazing benefits of yoga? Let this article from WebMD tell you more about the Health Benefits of Yoga.

Reflection upon Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.2

“Yoga is experienced in that mind which has ceased to identify itself with its vacillating waves of perception.”
–M. Stiles

I love to frequent garage sales–to see pieces of peoples’ lives
overlapping front lawns and driveways.  It would be a perfect form of
non-attachment, expect for the price tags.  This morning,  I scored a wood
framed mirror, in perfect condition, for a grand total of three dollars.
It fit perfectly in our entryway– reflecting splices of our front door, a
storage cabinet, corner of a couch and seemed to complete the room.  As I
was securing it to wall, I began to notice something remarkable.  As my
reflection passed in and out of view, I became aware of how the image in
the mirror shifted according to where I stood.  At times, it echoed
silhouettes of furniture and books,  mixed with particles of sunlit dust
floating in the air.  And if I moved to the opposite side of the room–I
could see only the mirror itself–it’s thickness, the discolored splinters
of striated wood, smooth edging and silver colored glass.  Even the
subtlest movement caused a shift in visible perception.  I thought about
all of times I had looked into a mirror, so fixated on the details of my
reflection, that I failed to notice the mirror itself.  Even worse, I
began to consider how many times a day I repeat the very same thing–
attaching myself to fluctuations of thoughts, judgments, opinions and
whims ( all fleeting reflections), completely missing the present moment
unfolding before my eyes.  Or, how many times I had mistaken the mirror
itself for the parade of images dancing upon the glass.

I’m pretty sure that Patanjali wasn’t looking at a mirror when he composed
the Yoga Sutras, but the metaphor seems fitting.  The next time that I’m
on my mat–indulging in those chitta vrittis (fluctuations of the mind)–
I’m going to take a deep cleansing breath and conjure up the image of that
solid wood frame holding a clear piece of glass.

~ Megan Merchant, RYT 200

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Some Like it Hot!

If you like Hot Yoga, this is a must read – it has life saving tips and valuable information for sweaty yoga enthusiasts: 

Facing the Heat by Shari Waxman

Great Article: “Your Brain on Yoga”

Here is a useful article published by Yoga International:

Your Brain on Yoga – by Timothy McCall, MD

Hope you find it useful!

Interesting Article: “Yoga for Chronic Pain”

Here is a great article published by Yoga International:

Yoga for Chronic Pain – by Kelly McGonigal

Enjoy!

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