Ayurveda and Yoga Asana

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“Stretch out your legs, and bring them together like a mermaid’s tail. Take a deep breath and lift up like Superman flying”   I am teaching a mother and daughter class. My usual instructions would be “Reach into the soles of your feet, draw your inner thighs together and lift the pelvic floor” but trying to activate this young girl requires language to inspire her imagination. She is lethargic, sluggish, doesn’t really want to be here, but her mother is trying to interest her in some physical activity. It will be a difficult task to motivate her.

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While I am no expert in the ancient discipline of Ayurveda, I see she has a preponderance of kapha in her constitution. Those with kapha bodies put on weight easily, have cool pale soft skin without obvious tendons and veins, and move slowly. They have good stamina once they are motivated but are burdened with laziness. A well balanced kapha constitution is strong and healthy, although with a tendency to excess mucous.   The nature of a person with this constitution, when in balance, is affectionate and forgiving. But when this constitution becomes unbalanced, there is lethargy, laziness, depression, greed and a tendency to hang onto things.

The Ayurvedic analysis of body and personality types describes 3 doshas or basic constitutions. These are rather like the three colours in an artist’s palate. All three colours are used to make an individual portrait, but in some paintings there may be more of one color than another. In the real world there is never a situation where a person has a body or mind that is entirely governed by one dosha. Always there will be an interplay of all three. Some constitutions will be described just as kapha, or pitta, or vatta, but many people will have a constitution called kapha pitta, or pitta kapha, or vatta pitta, etc, depending on the particular mix.

One can think of the doshas in terms of the elements: kapha relates to water and earth, with heavy damp and immobile qualities, pitta is fire and water, oily, hot and mobile, while vatta is air and ether, being dry, cold and mobile.

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Whatever constitution one has, if it is in balance, there is physical and mental health, as far as this is possible. Disease, old age and death of physical body are inevitable, as too are material anxieties, while one still has a material consciousness. Recently i figured out on how to get rid of this material consciousness from an amazing website founded by the science of identity institute and it is completely dedicated to teach one about the real science of yoga. There are some ways But the doshas may also be in a state of imbalance, either aggravated by an increase brought about by particular foods, events or activities, or in a decreased or diminished state. Usually problems are based on an increase in one’s predominant dosha, so a person who has a kapha constitution may develop problems due to too much kapha increasing food, cold, oily or heavy foods, such as ice cream, cheese, cold drinks etc. Behaviors such as sleeping more than necessary, overeating in general, and lack of physical and mental activity in one’s life also increase kapha.

This is a big subject and I will not go into the details of diet, what foods increase, or decrease the different doshas, but overall, the general principle is that like increases like. Sometimes it is quite clear what will be aggravating, such as cold, heavy food for a kapha constitution, hot, spicy foods for a pitta constitution and dry, rough, cold foods for a vatta constitution. However things become more subtle the deeper one looks into them. For instance it is not initially obvious that wheat is kapha increasing and buckwheat is kapha reducing. A chart of which foods increase or pacify which doshas helps in this regard.

I have a cookbook with such a chart; I have some basic knowledge but have not fine-tuned it to my everyday use, and often overlook these helpful principles altogether – partly kaphic laziness, partly due the fact my constitution and current condition makes food choices a little more complicated, having a kapha pitta body, with aggravated vatta, so needing to take all three doshas into account. I put off going to a professional for advice as I fear the advice will limit my food choices beyond what I am currently willing to accept. I LIKE my food, with the greed of imbalanced kapha – think “Homer Simpson”

In relation to teaching yoga asanas, if you have a large class of mixed doshas, which will usually be the case, it is not so easy to individualize your teaching to the students’ different constitutions. However there are some things that affect the whole class. The weather, the time of day, and the seasons of the year all influence the doshas. A wet cold winter morning will increase kapha, and in this case a more vigorous warming practice will help balance things. And a hot windy day like the Santa Ana’s one gets in Southern California suggest a calming, slow paced, yin style session to help balance the pitta increasing heat and movement, and the vata increasing aspect of the excessive wind.

If you have the luxury of teaching private classes you can adjust your class to suit the constitution of the student. A fiery, ambitious, pitta dominated person will be attracted to vigorous challenging asana classes, but in fact these can increase pitta and lead to irritability of the nervous system. Rather you can “challenge” them (taking advantage of the pitta desire to rise to a challenge) to slow down and work at 75% of their ability, encouraging them that this increases their skills in a steady manner.

They need long relaxation at the end of the class, and should learn to take advantage of this time to relax fully, body and mind, and not be planning out what comes next in work or play, or even cutting relaxation short to go attend to those things. Soothing mantras, such as Gauranga, or Om Hari Om, can be played softly at this time. These mantras are mostly sung in a group and led by Jagad Guru Chris Butler. A lot of musical instruments have also been used to make these chanting of Holy names more sweet and pleasing.

A vata student may like fast paced classes, but this can exacerbate vata. They may find it difficult to be attentive, with their mind darting here and there. Reminding them to relax eyes and face can be useful, as well as emphasizing the base for poses. Grounding poses such as squatting and seated poses can be earthing, grounding, for this airy ethereal constitution. Simple pranayama such as Brahmari (Bee humming), or Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing) are ideal.

A kapha student, such as my friend’s daughter, can lack motivation, which is why attending classes will be much better for them than home practice, which may be sporadic or lackadaisical! Metaphors can provide inspiration. Kapha is reduced by a vigorous challenging practice, but this will be difficult to keep up if there is lack of motivation. And in the case of my friend’s child, she did not come to yoga asana practice by her own choice, and therefore, rather as I feared, after being cajoled to come along by her mother for a couple of sessions, I didn’t see her again, at least on a mat in my class.

I can fully sympathize with her, I know, from my own kapha constitution, how hard it can be to get moving. But, I remind myself, inactivity increases kapha, and thus to not move will develop a vicious cycle. It is a kapha inducing day today, a cold, wet, spring day, and so I am keeping warm, with a pot of kapha reducing spices stewing on the stove, ginger, cinnamon, and fenugreek. I am going to have a cup… good luck for your health, friends…

Feet & Foundations

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Recently I blogged on feet, and how we should be desiring something a bit more profound than a solution to aching feet and bunions, and I thought I’d continue on the foot theme.

When teaching yoga asana, especially in beginners’ classes, I often begin with the feet, standing in mountain pose, getting students to lift their toes, and feel the inner arch lifting, the arch from the ball of the big toe, to the heel, and then to spread their toes and place them softly back on the ground, while keeping that arch lifted.  I then encourage them to become aware of the other two lesser known arches in the foot, from the ball of the big toe, to the ball of the little toe, which some people can become aware of by pressing their toes into the ground; and the arch from the ball of the little toe to the heel. When the foot is working healthily these three arches are like suspension bridges reaching up from the ground and strongly supported by the tripod of the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe.  This lift activates the muscles in the ankle, hugging them gently inwards, and the whole base provides an energetic foundation for the body, lifting up through the legs, thigh muscles hugging in softly, inner thighs and pelvic floor lifting (a soft mula bandha) and energy continuing upwards in a gentle drawing in of the navel (a beginning of uddiyana bandha which translates as flying up), the lifting of the sternum and upper palate (without a corresponding forward thrust, just a movement up the spine) the lifting energy moving right through to the crown of the head.  This lift is supported by the foundation of the feet pressing into the earth.  The better the foundation, the easier the rest of the pose.

Working one foot at a time in a balance pose can really show the importance of this.  My left foot is structurally compromised, and as I wobble and sometimes fall, I use myself as an example that one doesn’t have to be “great” at asanas, to do a useful practice, and that asana practice is not a competitive sport.  In fact my whole left side is less functional than my right, with a multiply twisted left ankle such that the ligaments are over stretched and partially torn; a ripped ACL (the soccer players bane… there goes my soccer career!) diagnosed as requiring surgical repair, though I decided against that and chose long hard physiotherapy and training in walking using extra muscular support (co-contraction of quads and hamstrings); and gradually developing issues with other muscles including shoulder and wrist.  Boring, really, and I have left out many details, but I have a point here, and that is, I wonder how much of these issues have been based on my foot problems?  I concur with the physiotherapist that many of them are due to the lack of a good base.

And the deeper point here is that we all need a base to stand on.  If we don’t find solid ground somewhere, we keep sinking, into despair and nihilism.  Through our lives we start out with the feeling that our base is mother and father, but time proves them, no matter how well meaning, to be fallible.  Then we move onto likewise fallible friends and partners, and to some form of employment which has become more and more obviously impermanent and not to be relied on.  Those societies and times which had family farms that lasted over the generations might have felt they had some sort of solid foundation, at least in the earth they farmed and lived on.  But wars and pestilence come, or at least the fear of them and in the end death takes it all away.  This is the case in every time and every society, even when people may avoid the despair and sense of floating, the anomie that sociologists speak of, that sense of instability and lack of purpose, that becomes more available to those in a less stable society.  And I say available, because the advantage of realizing your so called foundation is sinking, lacking stability, temporary & fallible, is that one can start looking for a real base.

That real base is there to be found, discussed in fact in all the scriptures of the world, but most clearly expounded upon and explained in the Vedic scriptures.  This material world and all things in it are lacking stability, are temporary and fallible.  But we need solidity, eternality and infallibility in our foundation.  It is our natural state to desire this.  It is our natural state to have this, to have stability, to be aware of our eternal nature, and to be protected by an infallible agent.  And as we start the journey of self awareness, the yoga teachings leads us on to a bona fide path, we are able to begin to settle into this base, this spiritual foundation:  first, understanding we are not the body, we are eternal.

This understanding is like the tripod of the foot in mountain pose, without this connection with the ground of truth & reality we cannot have the upward lift that enlivens the rest of our spiritual life.  Without some understanding of our eternal non material nature we are unable to see and reach out to and accept the protection of, and be lifted up by, the Supreme Infallible Agent, eventually redeveloping our full natural relationship with that Supreme Agent.  So first things first, we must clearly understand the difference between our self,  our body and mind.  This is the basis of all further understanding.  If our understanding of this first point is weak, the rest of our understanding will be shaky.

And here is a little coda, a footnote, so to speak:  a weekend or two ago I went on a mini retreat, catching the train to a bordering city, and staying with 2 friends in a hotel close enough to walk to the gatherings which had been organized to celebrate some special days with ongoing Kirtan (mantras with music) and the association of some wonderful yogis (not all necessarily practitioners of asana, but yogis in deeper sense).  I also took the opportunity to go to some other kirtans at a yoga studio in an adjacent suburb.  As usual, I took my shoes off and left them outside before entering.  I then put on my “dancing shoes.”  I love dancing but my feet need help to overcome their structural issues.   Without this help, I dance anyhow and then, depending on the length and enthusiasm, I may end up with difficulty walking later.

Being somewhat distracted due to catching up with long time unseen friends, I walked out in my indoor shoes and left my walking shoes behind.  I was peeved when I realized… the new shoes, inserts and a visit to the podiatrist to retro fit the shoes would set me back several hundred dollars.  I rang and texted around to see who was responsible for lost property.  No luck.  The next day I caught up with the person who closed up shop the previous night and she hadn’t seen them.  Nor had the person who told me she checked on her way past to see if they were still there.

Usually I’d have been more perturbed, and would have fretted over it for some time.  Fortunately for me, I was at that time, standing in my mountain pose of spiritual life.  All the Kirtan I had been doing over these 3 days had drawn me downwards towards the real foundation of my life, and I didn’t want to let my mind topple me, distracting me with concerns with an ultimately temporary issue.

The pleasant irony was that, having given up the shoe concern, I was approached some hours later by a yoga teacher.  She handed me my shoes.  They had sat for 2 days outside the front door of the studio, which was located on a busy shopping strip, where the needy homeless could have been excused for souveniring a pair of apparently homeless shoes.

Providing Internal Support for our Yoga Asanas

Recently, that is over the last forty years or so, there has developed an ‘asana language’ that contains all the ‘correct’ cues to get one into a pose and all the ‘correct’ cautions to help prevent any problems ensuing from it. I use the word correct dubiously as they fall into the same category as does science – truths are always changing according to new findings!

I have chosen two such cues which I feel should not be used generally but really only on an individual basis if at all.

Let’s start with ‘squeeze your glutes’. Over the years this cue has popped its ugly head up in a number of places. My first meeting with it was in the 90’s where it featured as an asset to great posture.  The somewhat vulgar admonition was to squeeze as if holding  credit card between the butt cheeks! Another we time met it was to purportedly  support the spine while moving into and holding a back arch and yet another time to bring the knee into alignment in Warrior 2 (Virabhadrasana 2). A simple explanation of why not to do this for these poses can be given simply by experiencing for yourself what it feels like when you squeeze your glutes. Try this simple experiment: sit upright in your chair with you feet on the floor and squeeze and release a few times and while you are doing it feel what happens in your lower back.  Did you feel the lower back getting tight?  When we activate the glutes like this we are creating a tightness in the lower back that is counterproductive to most if not all asanas. Rather than isolating muscles to do a job it is far better to create a strong support from a variety of muscles. These muscles are known as the core support muscles and are essential to every pose.

Which brings us to the next cue used as core support. ‘Pull your navel to your spine’. While it might be necessary in some poses to perform this action along with the other muscles of core support it is sad to be using it as the only core support cue. In fact this cue originated in the late 90’s after a scientific study showed that the TrA (transversus abdominus) muscle activates a fraction of a second before any action is performed. This study also brought to light the fact that in people with lower back pain the TrA muscles are weak and perform poorly. It was supposed then that these TrA muscles which are the deepest set of abdominal muscles need to be strengthened in order to support the lower back and hence this well known cue was devised to implement this activation, which indeed it does. The TrA is indeed a very important muscle for back support because when it is activated it also activates the multifarious muscles of the back which are needed for spinal support. So when the TrA is activated a corset of strength is created around the lower back.

Recently however it has been found that it is not just the TA muscles that are weakened in lower back pain but virtually all the muscles of the torso display some kind of perturbed activation during incidences of back pain. Muscles work as teams to support the torso so some of the fitness communities inspired by the work of Stuart McGill an expert in spinal mechanics are now trending to what is said to be the more effective technique of bracing of the abdomen which doesn’t just single out the one muscle (TrA) but activates the whole spectrum of abdominal muscles plus some of the other back muscles also. Bracing is the abdominal activation that happens when we hold the muscles tight as if we are about to be punched in the abdomen.

Both these actions however – drawing the navel to the spine and bracing the abdomen, are brought about by external activations which are impossible and impractical to hold for any length of time. What we need is an action that provides core support from deep within3. We need this core support in all our yoga asanas, indeed we need core support in every action of our daily life but imagine supporting ourselves all day until night time when we flop into bed by squeezing and bracing. We’d be tense, worn out and anxious. So while there might be times when we need to squeeze or brace (especially when you’re about to be punched in the stomach!), the more practical, more body friendly way of enhancing our core support is to gently support the whole body, not just segments  of it, with a light activation of our bandhas.

The activation of our bandhas starts at our feet and ends up at the roof of the mouth and it ensures optimal balance and support of all our joints. Basically it can be activated in the following way:

Enliven the tripod of your feet (two points at the broadness and one in the heel), lift up the inner thighs, pelvic floor and sternum, broaden your ribcage, rotate your upper arms slightly outwards and lengthen the roof of the mouth up to the ceiling while keep your chin level to the floor and drawn back to the base of the skull.

If the bandhas are on this gentle alert throughout the asana class all our poses from standing to sitting to lying, from forward bends to back arches, twists, side bends, inversions and balances will be supported and safe usually without the need for squeezing and bracing.

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Living A Healthy and Balanced Life Starts with The Food You Eat

Many of us have heard the popular quote, “You are what you eat.” Actually, the original quote was written by an 18th century French politician called Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and it read, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”

Just over a hundred years ago, when naturopathic medicine came into existence in the United States, naturopathic practitioners used diet along with other methods to treat their patients. Developed by a man called Benedict Lust in New York, Naturopathic medicine became popular and widely available throughout the United States well into the early part of the 20th century. In 1920, there were many naturopathic medical schools, thousands of naturopathic physicians, and thousands of patients using naturopathic therapies around the country. By the 1950’s, conventional medicine and the discovery of ‘miracle’ drugs such as antibiotics had caused a huge decline in the popularity of natural medicine but it wasn’t to last very long.In the 1970’s people became disillusioned with conventional medicine and again there was a new surgeon favor of alternative medicine.

In essence, Naturopathic practitioners are guided by six principles:

(1) Do No Harm

(2) The Healing Power of Nature

(3) Find the Cause

(4) Treat the Whole Person

(5) Preventive Medicine

(6) Doctor as Teacher.

Of these 6 principles, diet comes under The Healing Power of Nature and Preventative Medicine, and plays a fundamental role in living a healthy and balanced life. Eating foods which are processed, full of chemicals and pesticides, laden with fat, sugar and salt, do very little to promote health and balance. On the contrary, these foods are devoid of nutrients and are high in empty calories. Why are they empty? There are very few or no nutrients in these foods, so actually when we eat them we never feel satisfied. In addition to not feeling satisfied, we also don’t gain any nutrient value from this food, so instead of feeling energized and strong, we feel weak and ready to fall asleep. In today’s society, where eating fast food has become a daily routine, we see more and more people suffering from obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and other illnesses. If we take a deeper look at their diets, many of these people eat foods of very poor quality which does little to improve health or provide energy and vitality.

Although there are a few exceptions, fast food usually equates to food made from inferior quality ingredients, high in (empty) calories and with very few or no nutrients. The table here shows countries with more fast food transactions per year, with the US, Australia, New Zealand and UK amongst the highest and Switzerland, Italy, Belgium and France among the lowest. Given this data, it is not surprising to see the large number of fast foodchains in America such as KFC, McDonalds, Burger King, In & Out Burger, Jack in the Box, Denny’s, Taco Bell, Del Taco, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, Dairy Queen, Carl’s Junior, Arby’s, Subway, Quizno’s, Chick-Fil-A, Panda Express, and Starbucks.

Nutritional Difference between a homemade versus Taco Bell Burrito

While both burritos have 420 calories, the home-made burrito contains more nutrients for the same amount of calories.

Dietary Fiber: 6g versus 10g

Protein:           11g versus 17g

Calcium:          15% vs 25%

Total Fat:         17g versus 13g

Sugar:              4g versus 2g

Although this example is not perfect, I feel that it demonstrates how choices are really important. Eating a diet of whole or minimally processed foods such as grains, legumes (including beans and lentils), vegetables, fruits and nuts can ensure we getthe most nutrients, vitamins and minerals our bodies need to function properly.

In addition to diet, when making the decision to live a healthy and balanced life, other factors should be considered including regular physical exercise, adequate sleep, reduction in stress and balance in our lives and our relationships with others.

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