Archive for category: Yoga

Aparigraha – The Art of What is Needed

“It is not the receiver who is blessed but rather the giver.” Swami Vivekananda

I have always loved this quote as it highlights a very great truth which if understood can really refine how we develop as individuals and grow within a practice of yoga.

The essence of it is a lack of, or at least a reduction in, selfish behavior. The mental attitude is not one of “what am I going to get, what can I get or I really want that”, but rather no interest to acquire and keep. There is a stronger urge to give and share, use things as needed and be willing to let them go when done.

Also in this statement of Swamiji’s is a reversal of a strong inborn pattern which compels us to hold on to things, to ask for things and to want more things. Just by giving freely, especially of things that are actually of value to us, we unravel a pattern formed over millennia that has held us back from our own development. When you do so, not once but now as a new “habit”, you can literally feel the shift right through your nervous system.

This gets at the heart of “aparigraha”. To break down its literal meaning we find three components; first is “graha” which means to grab or take, second is “pari” which means from all sides and lastly is “a” which negates it adding a “non”. So we come up with a meaning of not taking more than is needed, non-acceptance, non-accumulation; all part of the development of an attitude of detachment or non-dependence.

By its nature it is a great remedy for the affliction of greed, but so are the other Yamas. It is more than just managing greed, it is a real respect for others and nature. Modern man has done its best to not just maximize nature’s resources but exploit them to the point of over-indulgence and a real lack of respect for nature’s forces. Additionally, aparigraha is a respect for oneself, treating the body and material possessions for what they are and not getting held back by them. The lack of material bondage allows the spirit to reveal itself.

Aparigraha is the art of what is needed. Truly applied it is a great freedom for the practitioner and distills all our material and psychological possessions down to what we need.

We need clarity of mind to see the need as it often gets mixed up with our desires. There is nothing wrong with satisfying a desire provided it does not supersede a need. It gets confusing for people to decipher in the realm of our basic bodily needs where we mix up needs and desires of food, drink, sex, shelter and clothing. Often we will force a situation, abuse someone, be dishonest, take beyond our means, follow the senses, all just to satisfy a desire. To help us distinguish what is needed more clearly we need the help of the previous four Yamas. These are promises we have already made for ourselves; to be respectful and not hurt, to be honest, to use or take what has been earned, to be non-indulgent with the senses but rather respect the power behind them. The combination together along with the essence of aparigraha, taking only what is needed, brings about a refinement of this virtue.

Aparigraha on one side is a balance in taking and receiving while on the other is in keeping and giving away. To receive and not share is selfish and deprives others of income and experiencing similar benefits from needed objects. It is true not only for material items but also for subtle elements like certain teachings and great truths.

To apply aparigraha can be a great source of healing. It is the art of decluttering, something in vogue today in self-help circles. Give away all things you do not use or need anymore. Now see how light you feel. Even more effective in healing, but perhaps harder to achieve, is letting go of many of the ideas, prejudices and past hurts we continually hold on to. Forgiveness is a powerful tool here. Clear the space between you and the other. You may not need to reignite the relationship but you can feel clearer and lighter by directly letting go of that “story”.

There is a beautiful use of words in Sanskrit that says “idam na mam”, meaning “this is not mine”. Whenever we practice and perform a ritual which involves offerings, “swaha”, we follow it with “idam na mam”. It is a sense of giving back and an understanding that this is not mine anyway, I have received all from You (Divine, Nature) and I gladly and respectfully return. The doing of this in a conscious manner helps refine the spirit of non-acceptance and non-hoarding.

As with all these values and practices there is always a fine line. We all meet someone with their own strong opinion stating that such and such should be given because they want it that way. Even more so we have to be clear on what is needed and what is to be given when and why. Though the person demanding in this case may not see it so, over-giving will throw off the balance, leave the receiver in some kind of debt while satisfying their desires and demands. The giving does not stop but it is spread and shared. An unselfish attitude predominates and we are never afraid to give when called upon but discriminative in the how, when and where.

From a yoga practice point of view aparigraha is a tremendous help. The Bhagavad Gita (VI.10) highlights this, that a Yogi should abandon all possessions which work as a hindrance in the path of yoga. This attitude of being free to give and non-dependent or not holding on to things frees the practitioner from bodily and sensual demands. All worldly possessions and the memories we hold on to, have to do with our present life. We neither bring them with us nor carry them to our next life. Hence, when we completely detach ourselves from them we get inquisitive about our past and future existence. This is the focus in the Yoga Sutra. Patanjali does not define aparigraha but just gives an explanation of its outcome in II.39:

“On attaining perfection in non-acceptance, knowledge of past and future existence arises.”

In time one becomes conscious of the body as a superfluous burden and separate from the self. Rising above bodily delusion one comes to know about one’s past and future lives.

The less importance we put on having this or that the freer we become, in a sense free from the psychological burdens others may place on us, not dependent on current wants and the consciousness is now free to experience our true nature at a deeper level. Possession previously had required a resource of prana which now is free to harness the potential within.

When someone offers you something be respectful and accept. You can choose to share it with others or pass on to one more in need of it than yourself. The more neutral you are in this the clearer you remain. The majority of what is given comes attached with the hopes, desires and agenda of the giver. In other words you receive the psychological burden along with the material element. This is of paramount importance for a yoga practitioner. Taking it a step further it definitely requires we don’t go begging or asking for things which always implies a restlessness within. It will come as is needed. Can you trust that?

There is a nice phrase, whatever you own really owns you. There is trouble in acquiring possessions for pleasure and enjoyment. We use up valuable nervous mental energy to get it, worry about keeping it and grieve when losing it. Further, the impression of them leaves a longing which causes further unhappiness in the future. To know this can help immensely in freeing oneself from the burden of unnecessary possession. Just take what is needed. Likewise, do not preserve wealth without utlising it for the good of others.

Most of us like to shop. What would modern society be like without it. Just make a personal decision for ourself how much time and energy is needed for it and base it on the principle of need. Still get nice things, designer if we like. We don’t need to live like monks, shave our heads and give away everything. We just need to be balanced and judicious in what we have, use and keep.

To progress in yoga maintenance of the body and an appropriate environment for practice is essential. So earning a living that supplies food, clothing and shelter is needed. This will also vary at different stages in life. A new graduate going out looking for opportunities, perhaps with a yoga practice started, needs little beyond clothes and a cheery attitude. Another with a family and bills has a different level of responsibility to fulfill. Then when work and family duties are completed again a much simpler level of personal possession is required, though one may have a risen to a wealthy and powerful position by this stage their attitude is one more of a steward of the wealth. The outer display of aparigraha is of no value without the inner attitude of free from ownership and possession.

Having or not having should not cause you to be angry and hurtful, dishonest and greedy, self-indulgent and selfish. Please, see what you need and apply that in your life, always with an inwardly detached attitude.

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Brahmacharya

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One of the more discussed and misunderstood topics in yoga, the common belief is that it is celibacy, a complete abstinence from sexual activity. But this is only part of the picture.

“Brahma” is the Ultimate Reality, the Creator. “Char” is to move. Literally then the move to the ultimate reality or more practically put, ways or methodology to be used for self realization. It comes up as one of the five Yamas presented in classical yoga by Patanjali. Other texts that deal with the Yamas also present it, most notably the Vasishtha Samhita, listing it as one of ten Yamas.

Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras does not give us a definition of Brahmacharya, he only states for us the effect of it.

“Brahma charya pratishthayam virya labhaha” (PYS II.38)

When brahmacharya becomes stable then the yogin gains great energy and power.

We need to look at this further. The yogic process is one of channeling and managing energy within, where as in average daily life this life energy, or prana, is wasted, drained out the senses. The thought of sex and the force of the sex drive is a huge component in this. So if we look at it from a practical, modern day point of view we can understand Brahmacharya as harnessing the energy or power of our senses and directing that instead to greater personal understanding.

In a very traditional sense Brahmacharya was a description for the early part of life, on average up to about the age of 25, before marriage, time focused on studies. Here all energy was devoted to learning of which much of that was gaining the tools to practice the ways to self-realisation. It was typically a time of sexual abstinence. Later one entered family life and naturally sex was part of it. This was the system and culture around the time of Patanjali and Vasishtha.

Today our student life is full of self-enjoyment and sexual activity is begun very early. There is not much check on the senses and impatient and distracted states of mind are the norm almost. To work on oneself requires some discipline and self-control. To harness the power of the senses requires this same discipline and control. One of the biggest drainers of energy is the sex impulse. Very often it plays a large distraction just in the mind even though no physical engagement has occurred. It is very difficult for that individual to find peace when the mind is continually distracted and desirous of sexual activity. It draws the energy down and keeps it low. The flip side is some people totally suppress the sexual urge which leads to an unnatural state and block. Neither are desirous.

So today we can benefit from Vasishtha’s further explanation of Brahmacharya. He offers three explanations (VS I.43-45). First is an absolute abandoning of sexual indulgence, on mental, verbal and physical. But second he offers for householders that Brahmacharya includes sex with their partner. Thirdly he offers that serving the Guru or Master regularly is considered also to be Brahmacharya.

From all of this we can see that Brahmacharya is a level of self discipline and proper behaviour, especially in terms of sexual activity, and quite obviously requires a harnessing of sensual activity. At certain times or stages in life it is natural that sex would be abandoned but at other times it is necessary and appropriate. For if we all abandoned sex the human race would fizzle out in one generation.

Sex is a need, both for society and for our personal well-being. Abstinence should never be forced. It should come naturally. One might find at a point in life that time in sex is complete. This aspect of Brahmacharya has arisen from within.

What is clear is that nowhere in Yoga does it suggest a liberal use of sex and random partners to satisfy one’s craving and appetite. It comes up in the Yamas after Ahimsa (don’t hurt another), Satya (be truthful) and Asteya (no greed, don’t take what is not your’s). Typically loose sexual conduct ends up with one person being hurt and very often lied to. People feel let down and something taken from them. So to follow these three Yamas is key in behaviour and relations with another. Then the sexual activity becomes shared and understood.

Enjoy sex when engaged in it. Share it. Give attention and care. This is love in itself. The self control as meant by Brahmacharya brings a healthy relationship into your life and, being so channeled, gives great strength and energy, as Patanjali has explained. If complete celibacy arises then it is as a natural result of the focus and practices engaged in over the years of yoga practice.

Ahimsa

“I will not hurt you.” Is this a promise you are willing to keep or at least try? Could you extend it beyond your family and friends to all members of society? To all animals and insects? Not just in action but through what you say? To totally taking care of your actions so that even a seemingly non-hurtful one is done mindfully so there is no indirect hurt? To watching all thoughts that bring up negative and hurtful images and feelings within? Are you tired of people hurting you through their words and actions? Is there a relationship between the hurt you experience and the hurt you “cause”?

The foundation stone of the practice of yoga is to not cause harm to others. This is Ahimsa, usually translated as non-violence. It is the first of the Yamas, the first limb of Ashtanga. Naturally it is not exclusive to yoga. It can be found as a major part of all major philosophies and religions. The five precepts of Buddhism list ahimsa first. It features strong in the commandments of the Judeo-Christian beliefs. Simply put, it is a primary law of nature.

With such a uniform global emphasis on not hurting others why does it seem to be the primary part of character that is broken the world over or the most difficult to keep? One quick look at news and we have our direct proof. But look more closely on a personal level and see how often and repetitive it arises in one day for you. This attitude of hurting seems to start early in life to even being born with it. Look at a small innocent child playing will freely try to squash an insect it sees crawling across the ground. Naturally no malice is present but the attitude and capability to hurt, and even kill, is there from early on.

So you might ask, is it possible at all to avoid hurting others? In addition, why do I experience hurt when I am actually doing a good act? Helping a cat out of danger and it bites me, sitting in the garden and a bee stings me, why do these things happen for no reason, or so it seems?

Patanjali has presented an ideal moral approach to life through the Yamas but their primary purpose is to address our internal psychology. How can we have peace and therefore work on ourselves if our very thoughts and actions are harmful and disruptive? We are born with this tendency to hurt, it shows at a young age and continues all through life. These negatively conditioned aspects of character have to be worked on, restrained and overcome. This is exactly what the teaching of Yama exists for. We have a capacity to hurt and must therefore become aware of it, watch it and try to overcome it.

We might remember our recent past but our early years are forgotten and the memory of past life actions are not available to us freely in this life. Due to the law of karma the effect of past hurt may be coming back when we do not expect it thus explaining supposedly random hurtful situations. It is fair to say we have caused our share of hurt in the past but by making an effort now we can change this pattern. We can start to apply the Yama of Ahimsa in our life. In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali only explains the outcome of establishing it:

“As the yogin becomes established in non-hurting, all beings coming near to him cease to be hostile.” (PYS II.35).

Such a firm establishment of non-hurting radiates from within to affect all those around, much like a fire spreads its heat to all near it. Yet at the same time it tells us that as we have ceased to hurt all others and that is fully established within there is no possibility left for hurt or injury coming back to us, the plate is clean so to speak.

The emphasis of Yama then is to refine our behaviour and help us not give into “natural” urges that cause hurt, deceit, lies and so on. This is the beauty of the Dharma or Yoga, through a discipline and mindfulness we overcome conditioned patterns that leave a negative impact for us or others and thus start to experience our true natural state. Every subsequent teaching of yoga includes this principle of non-hurting. If we move to Satya, honesty, we see Ahimsa at its base, for dishonesty, deceit, manipulation automatically has a level of hurt involved in it. Asteya, taking from others automatically hurts another. Being unfaithful to one’s partner is both deceitful and hurtful. If I really live by Ahimsa I can manage the other values much more simply.

Why does this level of hurt exist at all? As already stated, the pattern has been built up by an ongoing conditioning over time, life times really. If we have never worked on ourselves to overcome it then it has only increased in intensity. Its strength is due to the presence of greed, lust, hatred, pride and delusion. The moment we want something and cannot get it an immediate internal response of violence arises. It might be a negative criticism inside for that person who is not letting us have the object of our desire to an outward action physically striking that person.

Attitude and intention are key but also how we take care of our actions. In a healthy diet you increase the level of healthy gut bacteria which effectively attacks the negative bacteria. Every breath sees the passing away of some microbe. It seems unavoidable yet dissolution, passing away is one of the few definite features of life. So an attitude of “Save the Most and Kill the Least” should prevail. The emphasis here is on saving the most. In other cases, the intention of hurting may not be present but our careless actions bring about injury and hurt. You leave your bike carelessly on the path while you go in to the shop for an ice cream. An old man walks around the corner and stumbles over your bike causing him a big injury. Your careless act unintentionally hurt another.

What about anger? Is it wrong to get angry? This is such a key point, to understand the nature of anger and how it processes into hurt or violence. As my teacher has taught me, “don’t become the anger”. There are many situations everyday that require firm, authoritative words. But there is a fine line of exercising the dharma, nature’s law, and associating personally with the situation and becoming the anger. Someone may take your jacket, intentionally or not. The right thing for you and them is to get it back but in the process of being firm to bring that about you lose your centre and instead redirect a level of hurt or violence back. This takes time and training to develop and know the line of centre.

This is the key emphasis of yoga practice. How you practice and the continuity of it can bring about a reformation in your nervous behaviour so that you are not a victim of these conditioned patterns anymore. Hatha Yoga initiates the student in asanas, kriyas and pranayama to channel and therefore redirect prana or energy. Through this redirection the old pattern does not get fed or given attention and eventually shrinks and a new internal approach of awareness grows.

Regardless of what philosophy we subscribe to or form of Yoga we practice, Patanjali leaves us with the most excellent solution: Pratipaksha Bhavanam. When a hurtful thought is arising, to be performed either by yourself or getting it done through others, brought up by greed, anger or delusion, mild or intense, then apply the opposite thought based on the understanding that such a thought to action will continue this stream of misery and ignorance in your life. Jesus taught it when he said “Turn the other cheek.”

Simply put, catch yourself thinking, saying or doing hurtful things and apply the opposite; care, attention, love. If someone cuts you off while driving, let them go, peace; if your child does something crazy don’t hit them instead understand the situation and then try to explain it to them; if someone hurts you in love or business don’t wish them bad or problems, let them be and wish them on their way. The more you do it the more it becomes natural for you because whatever you put your attention on grows. The negative pattern shrinks. Every day there is an opportunity to exercise Ahimsa. The fact there is an opportunity with a capacity to hurt and you choose to overcome it is the true practice of Yama and naturally Yoga.

For me I try to remind myself everyday and promise “I will not hurt you” to my wife, children, and whoever else I come in contact with. I’m still working on it but I feel its positive effect. A greater environment of love, care and affection both at home and work. Let’s all strive for some of this.

Pratyahara

Pratyahara is taught and discussed in many texts on yoga and related philosophies. A thorough presentation of the topic would require much reference, a lot more than is necessary for this article. So without getting too academic and caught up in all the texts let me attempt to offer a simple and workable understanding of it.

The most popular reference to Pratyahara is as one of the eight limbs (ashta – angas) as presented by Patanjali. He presents it as the fifth limb and later refers to these five limbs as part of external yoga (bahiranga yoga).

sva-vishayasam-pra-yoge chittasya sva-rupanukara ivendriyanam pratyaharah YS II. 54

When the senses cease their contact with the objects in their realm, they become assimilated with mind-field’s nature, a withdrawal, known as pratyahara

In practical terms pratyahara is not so much something you do as it happens. There are some techniques to aid it but it is primarily an outcome from the practice of pranayama and mindfulness practices. As it has to do with objects of the outside world it still is an external limb of yoga yet it is the bridge to the internal limbs, the final three of dharana, dhyana and Samadhi.

In a nutshell, when the energy of life, prana, has been managed skillfully through the methods of pranayama, then energy is concentrated within and does not travel to, or leak out of, the ever present sense organs. Though the organ remains, naturally as part of the body, the force behind it, which causes the contact with the outside object, is withdrawn. You no longer waste energy in an outward sense. This is a process cultivated over time till it becomes a true nirodha, or control of chitta vrittis, all the subtle activity, and one is moved to a deep internal state.

At the beginning of the Yoga Sutras Patanjali uses the word “nirodha” to explain how yoga is achieved. This “nirodha” is a channeling or controlling and the means to do this are later given under “abhyasa”, repeated practice, and “vairagya”, non-dependence or non-attachment. A high level of vairagya would be similar to a perfected pratyahara. This would come from your continuous effort to work on yourself. To watch your thoughts and behavior, treatment of others and yourself, manage, ideally skillfully, the energies of the body and breath, will in time refine the internal energetic process of life and lead to a greater control over the senses.

For Patanjali pranayama brings about the state of pratyahara which when perfected culminates and concentrates the energy at the base of the spine, without any further outward stimulation through the peripheral nerves, sense organs, so the practitioner has a deep internal experience that he calls dharana. In tantra and hatha it is called the experience of kundalini, stimulating our true potential energy thereby raising consciousness.

Your “world” consists of the things you come in contact with. How much you are pulled by them will cause you to feel free or trapped, joy or misery. Your experience of the world is directly based on the contact with it which is why two people in similar circumstances can have very different experiences. You can try to understand the other’s plight, and your higher sense will appeal to their circumstance and feel compassion, etc., but ultimately you are only experiencing all you come in direct contact with. Then when you go into a true deep sleep where does this world go? It did not cease. Only your contact with it did. So now at the point of pratyahara one has mastered the ability to indulge in the world, via the senses and mind activity, or withdraw and gain, as it were, an inner growth.

As pratyahara refines the practitioner goes from a mini experience of it in concentrated moments, such as in practice if practicing correctly, to a heightened awareness and mindfulness at all times throughout the day. In such a case the outer object is noticed, the sensation within is observed, the capacity to withdraw is present and integrity is preserved so to speak. Early on an effort to withdraw is required but over time there is an automatic internal centering due to prolonged practice that the possibility of distraction or temptation is almost minimal. The outer object has minimal pull on the senses or rather the energy being pulled through the sense organ. This does not mean you become boring but rather a champion over your desires and sensual pulls and can still enjoy the activity of the senses as need be in life. You eat chocolate, enjoy it. But are you pulled strongly to eat it every time you see it or think about it.

To practice pratyahara itself is really a practice of awareness, of mindfulness, of self-discipline. For this to occur you need aids, support, grounded strength, which is the guidance and advice from the first four limbs; how you live and how you manage the energies of life. If you are making an effort to live peacefully, honestly and respectfully and are daily practicing a routine of techniques that are based on a sound tradition, the result will be an increased level of awareness. From there the advanced techniques of pranayama will bring about a more complete pratyahara. In other paths, the heightened awareness of the mind’s functions and the continual practice of observance on it, as is taught in various vipassana traditions, will lead to the activity of the mind, the energy or prana, being inward, centralized, internally concentrated, so the flow is reduced out the senses, and in the moment of deep experience it is temporarily stopped, or withdrawn so the senses receive no output and as a result the mind does not make contact with the external object. When this happens the concentration of energy within will cause such a concentration that the only outcome would be dharana, an awakening of the potential energy.

Life functions through the senses and wants to pull us out all the time. The yoga process says, “oh man, turn within”. Upon living clean and honorably and mastering practice, especially the flow of the breath, such a shift in the flow of internal energy can occur that it is not automatically pulled outward but managed well within. As the practitioner continues to refine this a tremendous sense of inner strength as well as calm and peace arises. Not a state of leaving the world but rather a capacity to better handle the world and ultimately be of more help to others. But do know this, the only way is through a form of self-practice, it does not magically appear, it is earned. Love, care and attention can assure that. Patience, enthusiasm and perseverance bring it about over time.

So, daily do your practice with a sense of connection and feeling, and throughout the day try to observe your thoughts, words, actions and desires. Don’t suppress them but build the awareness. This is why you need care and patience. And be happy !!

Satya – Honest and True

Since the dawn of time the refined mind has understood that one’s behaviour, actions, speak loudest about the character of an individual. We are taught growing up that “talk is cheap” and “actions speak louder than words”. It is the actualization of this through our systems where satya lies for us.

Satya does literally translate as truth. By definition it refers to subjective truth. The ultimate or objective truth is ‘rta’. This is unchangeable and permanent and thus can only be attributed to our own true self. But as we look at this world and observe behaviour we relate through subjective truth. Honesty. It is true statement that I am a man but in the ultimate reality of things I am pure consciousness, Brahman, and not in fact a man. This being a man is only determined by the physical form and certain mental notions associated with it. On a subjective level it is a true statement but on an ultimate level it too is false.

Satya has been presented in Yoga as one of the Yamas both by Patanjali and Vashistha. It is advised in order to refine our actions, both subtle and gross, so we may grow towards or come in line with the ultimate truth, our true nature. Vashistha informs us that one is said to speak the truth only when he or she fulfils three conditions: speech must be in accordance with fact; he/she must be guided by good intention and justice; speech must be couched in agreeable words. It consists in saying only that which one has directly perceived, inferred or learnt from a reliable source.

Gandhi is well known for his application of the first yama, ahimsa, non-violent behaviour, yet he named his organization Satyagraha. This means “firmness to truth”. He built his entire approach on this quality. In its fullest it is complete honest behaviour applied in all situations in life returning one closer to one’s natural state.

Yoga has emphasized satya as it is fully understood that dishonesty leads to subtle and even gross disturbance in our minds and ultimately outward actions. We cannot progress on this internal path if our words, thoughts or actions are misaligned. Even more, either subconsciously or consciously, we are aware that we have been untruthful and it sets up a large block in our own chitta (psyche) limiting spiritual growth. Shakespeare wrote “to thine ownself be true.” You cannot lie to yourself though you may get away with it with others. Even if convinced you yourself are true the mistruth lies deep in the subconscious causing a counter pattern in behaviour.

We are all presented with situations where we find ourselves asked something and we choose to say an answer that makes us look better. Our ego and lower mind has circumvented the truth and presented a response purely for superficial reasons, how we look to the other. In spiritual terms, though maybe only a white lie, this has added one more block or negative credit to the list to be cleared. Something we are trying to do in our own yoga practice is to clear the pattern from past ‘false’ behaviours. To swallow pride, think for a moment, and say what is true progresses one the most internally though the external result may mean losing that deal or people seeing us as only ‘ordinary’. It comes down to where you place the priority – on your internal or external growth.

How to speak the truth is governed by ahimsa. Tact and sensitivity to another individual is important here. One does not need to advertise their mistruths or preempt a question and tell everything. When asked simply choose to give an honest answer. Undo the counter pattern that causes us to respond with misalignment to the truth, to the facts.

Satya also implies integrity. Can your actions live up to all that is said and promised out of your mouth. Alas, this is where the largest gap is in the world today, yoga or not. Pure intention and clear execution leads to a refinement in behaviour. Meaning what one says and living up to it. Correct understanding is needed for this. Humility will be the groundbase that leads one to embody and express satya in word, thought and action.

It should be understood that we are all in process. We will fall prey to a-satya at times. Our work lies in checking our actions and intentions. Is how we live stand up to what we say. Though we may not be able to choose what comes to us in life we can choose how we respond. A strong counter pattern may exist but an aware, mindful attitude can counter this. Stand up to the pull of your senses and lower mind. Let us not promise too much and deliver too little or wallow in the realm of hippocrisy.

It is our aim in life to pursue satya – integrity, honesty and truth. Yanjnavalkya calls the seventh, and final, loka satya loka, the abode of Brahman attainable through jnana and karma, direct experience or understanding plus true action. This in reality exists within us.

May we all be satyavadi’s, speakers and embodiers of truth.

Shaucha – Pure and Natural

There is a big difference between something that is clean and something that is pure. If you were to hold out both hands and have a flower placed in each hand, one being plastic and totally clean, the other being real but with some dirt still on it, could you tell the difference? You can tell just by feeling. Automatically you know which is artificial and which is natural. You know instinctively because it is your essential nature.

This is the difference between pure and clean. This is the heart of shaucha. Don’t be artificial, be natural.

Cleanliness is part of shaucha. But to think only of cleansing the body as part of shaucha is to be considered ignorant, according to the Darshanopanishad. It states since the self is pure, the knowledge “I am the self” is said to be the true shaucha, purity itself.

Many other sources will consider an internal and external shaucha. According to the Shandilyopanishad, cleansing the body with earth and water is external shaucha whereas purification of the mind is said to be internal shaucha, which is attainable only by training the mind. TheVashishtaSamhita states something similar,that mental purity is to be achieved through right action and spiritual knowledge.

Patanjali introduces shaucha as the first niyama in the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra (II.32). Vyasa, the primary commentator of the Yoga Sutra, also emphasizes here the difference between external and internal cleanliness-“for cleansing the body a purifcatory wash is needed and pure food should be consumed.” This introduces two key principles in the practice and living of yoga. One is the ground basis for what are known as the Shat Karma Kriyas, or simply kriyas, meaning the six cleansing acts recommended by Hatha Yoga. Two is the fifth Buddhist principle, not consuming any intoxicants.

We take time everyday to wash our outer body. Who today would go to work without having showered or brushed their teeth? The inner (physical) body is rarely cleaned, especially with the onslaught of pollutants. Excess mucus is produced, circulation deteriorates, lymph movement reduces, acidity rises, bowels slow down, constipation arises – all primarily due to poor lifestyle habits. And who wants to look at what is happening on the inside? In daily life we are so obsessed with the physical body yet when we see what comes out of it we are completely repulsed.Hatha emphasized that if energy is to flow the body itself, primarily the internal structure, needs to be kept very clean. In so doing energy (prana) is freer to flow appropriately and the activities of mind and heart tend to flow more harmoniously, an important element in aiding one’s refinement and growth.

To take impure food is one of the main perpetrators of the above described condition. Today we consume much in terms of artificial ingredients, drugs and a variety of pollutants. Alcohol, and today drugs, are then considered intoxicants, impure, not so much for polluting the body as the effect they have on the state of mind, typically causing a disturbance, a dilution of any possible concentration, and, according to Charaka the great Ayurvedic author, “people lose sight of what is best for them”. The Buddha emphasized this non-taking of intoxicants as the fifth principle and here we find its yogic equivalent. It is not to be prude but to value purity, inner concentration, which can easily be overshadowed by delusion. One with any slight addiction to a drug or alcohol can quite easily justify the taking of it and say they are not affected. The reality is different and ultimately as obvious as the difference between the plastic and the organic flower.

This sense nicely bridges external shaucha to internal shaucha. Yoga requires control on the mental level. How else can one see their actions, words, know their effects on others and have the nervous power to override these pattern and therefore purify the heart, redirect the mental pattern, purify within? So anything seen as causing a loss of this inner state of awareness, initiated through some level of mental control, is seen as counter productive.

Shaucha stands on the shoulders of the five yamas. The inner and outer body purified what really matters isto behave and conduct ourselves with integrity. To strive to not hurt, be honest, to earn rightfully, to respect the senses and sexual energy, to abandon greed and focus on need, is a powerful practice of inner purification. A tall standard for us all to look up to but a set of values for us to live by. Therefore we are asked in working on ourselves to look to purification. Be pure, have integrity.

What does this mean in terms of everyday life? One, do I keep my outer body, garments, food and living space clean? Two, do I periodically clean the inner linings of the body? Three, do I watch my conditioned patterns that end up causing others and myself some pain? Four, how natural do I behave? Do I often wear a mask for different people and different situations, essentially being artificial? Am I comfortable with myself, can I just be myself, be natural?

To be honest and kind, to care – this is purity in action. Watch what comes from your heart. Every bad word, every corrupt thought you indulge in, every unrighteous action, they all spring from the heart. Our practice is to purify this. We need to be aware, gain mindfulness. Then we need to shift the pattern. Kindness, caring, charity, selflessness, honesty, all come from the heart too. The purer the heart the more natural thesequalities flow. It does not come from imagining it, though positive as that may be. It comes from directly being aware and taking action to catch each impure stray thought and action. It is not easy and a lifelong process. But what is our alternative?

Patanjalirefers to this when he continues to discuss the outcome of shaucha:

Sattva-suddhi-saumanasyaikagryendriya-jayatma-darsana-yogatvani ca

Purification of the mind, pleasantness of feeling, one-pointedness, subjugation of the senses and ability for self-realization are acquired.          PYS II.41

Swami Hariharananda, a realized master from the last century and one of the highest minds on sankhya and yoga philosophy, explains it like this:

“The evils of arrogance, pride, attachment (meaning selfishness), etc. being wholly removed, a sense of cleanliness of the mind arises and a spirit of aloofness from one’s own body as well as from others’ grows. This state, uncontaminated by the body-sense, is called internal purification. It brings about purification of the mind, and lessening of impurities in the form of worldly obsession. This leads to the development of mental bliss or a feeling of gladness and the body acquires a Sattvika form of easiness. Without such a feeling of gladness, one-pointedness of mind is not possible, without which it is not possible to realize the soul beyond the senses.”

From my perspective, real inner joy is a result of purification. It exists naturally as the mind and heart are not burdened with thoughts and pressures built from greed, anger, selfishness, etc. There is a natural ability to be kind, honest and caring. With this joy, meaning a reduced mental burden, the mind can concentrate. This means the pranic current can pass beyond the pull of the senses and gather at the base of the spine, eventually moving within where the experience of total mental concentration or one-pointedness is felt. This is the beginning of internal yoga and the path to self-realization.

In a sense the whole of yoga is included within this one word “shaucha”. It provides a formula and incorporates all the key elements of yoga. It also very much highlights that one’s over-emphasis on cleaning the body or attachment to it through over-indulged asana practice, can be futile, even counter productive.

Be natural, be yourself, be comfortable in all situations. To develop this take care of your body, food and living arrangement. Be aware of and deal with your own irregular thoughts. Don’t condemn yourself and become more unnatural through guilt, instead focus on not letting traits of pride, dishonesty and arrogance dominate. Ask yourself can I be caring, kind and honest in this situation. To care is the essence of us, the essence of yoga practice. It means we have to do that little bit extra, always. Gradually see your heart and subsequently your actions change. Purify. You become more natural, pure, as you are you in the moment. Now the base for yoga is laid.

Joy and caring, true to yourself – this is the purity. This is shaucha. Work on it in your life.

Practicing During and Around Our Cycle

A Common Topic of Discussion

Questions that come up in every training and retreat — without fail! -reflect concern about a woman’s monthly cycle. And it is always surprising how many students deal with amenorrhea (absence of periods) or irregular periods.

Often students ask Paul, which many people find funny, considering that he doesn’t have direct experience. But then he is wont to point out (while smiling), “It’s okay because I have been a woman before in many past lifetimes.” He is comfortable discussing the topic and knows more about the topic than many female teachers.

We have all been mothers, fathers, men, women, etc. countless times. And we don’t need to tap into this storehouse of memories and past impressions to empathize with others,to understand what they are going through. We don’t need to have had a period in our presentbody to understand the female cycle. If our intention is to teach, or if we are teaching already, we should know how to advise our students, regardless of our gender.

As women, we need to give personal accounts, and there is the added responsibility to set a good example for our students by staying healthy. While it can be an uncomfortable topic in a co-ed classroom, we should have no problem talking about these things, which are natural and directly affect practice, whether talking in first person or not.

Growing-up with Sports

When I first heard about what a woman should and shouldn’t do in practice during her cycle, I thought it was stupid and archaic. I associated it with how they used to limit a woman’s physical activity in athletics because they were afraid it would hurt her ability to bear children.

I grew up very active – I swam on a swim team from age 3 until age 14, and I ran cross-country and distance track in high school and for two years of college. The attitude was always practice through menses. I dealt with bouts of amenorrhea throughout my teenage years due to stress, unhealthy sleep habits and a very strict vegan diet. Over-activity certainly didn’t help the situation, even though I don’t think it was the primary cause.

Intellectually I knew for years how serious the situation was. But it was my running coach at Bowdoin College, Peter Slovenski, who made me really understand and change; and ironically, he reached me through a very light-hearted, silly yet deeply caringapproach.

Amenorrhea is common among young, female runners. But Coach Slovenski promoted healthy running; he would always say, “Do it for the team!” That meant get our periods for the team. How we ranked or finished in a race was always secondary to our health and healthy attitude.

And he went out of his way to make things fun and stress-free. Distance runs would be runs like “Beans and Back,” which was running 9 miles to the L.L. Bean outlet in Freeport, ME and getting ice cream – or in my case, sorbet. The “Back” was optional, and usually after the ice cream most of us were content to hop in the van and let Coach drive us home.

One thing I have been blessed with over the years is some amazing mentors, teachers and coaches. I caught the problem in time, and my cycle has been very regular now for over 11 years, largely in part to Coach’s lasting influence.

Changing Over Time

I have been doing yoga throughout those 11 years, but in that time my opinion about practicing on my period has changed. I wasn’t as aware of subtle energy and the effect practicing had on my cycle when I was in my early 20’s; things that didn’t bother me before do now. And I wasn’t doing Ashtanga in my early-mid 20’s.

Physically, I have felt shifts in my body over the years. The processes of the body are living things, and like everything they change. Energetically things change as well. Every year my cycle is a little different and every month is also not the same. Our practice should make us increasingly aware of subtle changes.

To respect our cycle doesn’t mean to do the same thing every month, year in and out. Rather, it is to listen to what is going on and to adjust our practice accordingly. What we do this month will not be what we did 10 years ago, what we will do 10 years from now, and maybe not even what we do next month.

One thing Paul reminds me of is that “Nothing is lost.” If we need to alter our practice around our cycle we do not get in the way of our growth. In fact, by respecting the natural processes in the body we are better able to harness and cultivate the energy, and things are less likely to go off.

Ashtanga

Menstruation is an apanic process, like going to the bathroom. Anytime we over engagemulabandha and uddiyanabandhaduring our cycle we are messing with the apanic/downward moving energy, which can easily disturb our cycle. It would be like having to go to the bathroom but holding it in, on a regular basis.

Ashtanga works with mulabandha more than many other forms of asana. Some schools don’t even mention the use mulabandhaduring asana. Definitely watch that you are not overly squeezing mulabandha or you are likely to run into problems with your cycle, constipation, hemorrhoids, etc. It should be a more refined hold, the amount of mulabandha you use varying depending on the intensity of the pose. And a few days before your cycle it could be extra delicate and refined. During the first 2-4 days of your cycle, use only what is minimally necessary.

It is, therefore, advised not to do Ashtanga on the heavy cycle days (taking 2-4 days off). You might take the first two days of your cycle off, even though you could do some gentle or restorative asana. Some months you might decide to skip the third day as well. Other months maybe you find the day or few days before your cycle comes you need to ease up on asana, taking an extra day off due to fatigue.

By the fourth or fifth day (if you are still bleeding at all) you could get back into your regular practice. If you are into Second, maybe you take at least one day of Primary to reset the system. When you get back into your practice you will feel great, happy to have taken the time andgrateful to be practicing normally again.

I am not saying everyone should do the same thing, but every woman should try to find what works for her. We should never listen blindly, but we also don’t want to ignore what we hear or read without taking it into consideration and making sense of it for ourselves. Each of us must figure out a way to practice that is supportive of ourindividual monthly ebb and flow.

What to Practice in Asana During Our Cycle

Of course people know not to do inversions. But a lot of times you will see women modifying their pranayama and skipping the inversions while continuing to do everything else full-on in asana practice.

A lot of jumping (particularly in the Asthanga practice, when the hands are on the ground and you are really working mulabandha), deep binds and twists that work with the internal pressures in the body, any postures that put the feet in lotus or foot in half lotus, anytime you are required to sit on your heel or press your heel into your pelvis (i.e., Janushirshasana B and C), and any poses that require a great deal of pelvic floor support should all be avoided.

That doesn’t mean we are invalid. Exercise, gentle stretching and restorative asanascan help ease menstrual symptoms. But you might prefer to go for a walk, swim, easy run, etc., which do not require the same mulabandhaactivity, even though you always need some. And of course other exerciseand stretching are very different from the asana, but I am speaking in terms of being active.

Some great poses to hold during your cycle days are: Trikonasana, BaddhaKonasana (more on the passive side, without too much mulabandha activity, and you could have the legs further out in front of you), UpavishthaKonasana (also more restorative and passive than normal), Pigeon (simple version), Hanumanasana (assuming this pose is not too uncomfortable for you), SuptaVirasana and Matsyasana. Restorative poses with bolsters and blocks are also therapeutic.

What to Practice in Pranayama During Our Cycle

Assuming you practice pranayama, anything that overheats or overly engagesmulabandha and uddiyanabandha should be avoided. Therefore, retention work is skipped the first 2-4 days of our cycle. Surya Bhedana, as well asNauliKriya, Kapalabhati and Agni Sara are also skipped the first few days. However, by the end of our cycle Nauli can aid the final elimination process, and a light Kapalabhati is also fine, even beneficial.

You might also find that the few days before your cycle you need to lower your retention count because the internal pressure is off. And maybe the day or two before your period comes you need to do your cycle practice if you feel uncomfortable.

It is important that we sit, no matter what. But what we practice when we sit will change, depending on the time of the month. You may also decide to do some extra chanting or japa/mantra repetition during and around your cycle, which is very soothing.

Avoiding Injury

One thing I have found is that when I get injured (minor/small things or major ones), it is almost always around my cycle. Mostly this is – I think — because my connection to mulabandha is a lot less, so there is extra strain in other areas of the body to support me.

Normally I am surefooted, but around my cycle I am more clumsy and I lack grounding. I am not as mindful as I normally am and, therefore, it is easier to pull or strain something in practice or when adjusting in Mysore. Knowing this about myself forces me to be extra attentive, to watch the gaps in my awareness and to ease up, doing 70% or less of what I normally might in asana practice, and being extra attentive to my own posture when adjusting.

And with fluid retention, aches and pains, joints being more open, etc., there is all the more reason to back off and modify practice as needed. Again, “nothing is lost.”

Amenorrhea or Irregular Cycle

If you are missing your cycle or are very irregular, you should take the days off each month that would normally be during your cycle. Everyone needs time off, even men. Physically days off are needed, and mentally they are even more necessary. Do your cycle pranayama practice on these days as well. Pretend you have it, respecting it even though it is absent. Also make sure you are regularly taking at least a day or two off from asana each week.

And make sure that your entire practice is always enjoyable. That doesn’t mean it is stimulating the senses, fun and exhilarating every day. Instead, it should bring a sense of inner calm and stability, regardless of how it feels physically. It should allow you to go inwards, taking you beyond the sensory effect of the practice. And if you are overly tired, achy, negative, overly distracted while practicing, etc., these are signs you are overdoing it.

Also look at other factors, like food. Make sure you are getting enough iron, protein and healthy fats in your diet. For me, protein was a huge factor. Not only was eating more solid sources of protein important, but also being able to relax a little with myself and not be so strict with my diet was a big stress release. It was part of a process of letting go, which I am to this day still working on.

I am not saying that veganism is bad, but it is very difficult – for me it was not possible at that time – to be vegan, be very active and stay healthy. It also depends on where you live (what foods and supplements are available), your genetics, your age, what you grew up eating, your approach and attitude towards diet, etc. It is for you to look at and assess for yourself. And allow yourself the freedom to change your mind. Never identify with what or how you eat or take food or life too seriously.

Another huge factor is stress. Look at outside strain from work, family, relationships, etc. If you are going through a very stressful period, you might want to modify your practice. Keep practicing, but maybe do less, and/or with less intensity, on days/weeks you feel particularly stressed. Sit each morning (at least for 10-20 minutes), but maybe cut your asana down to 3-4 days a week (if you are doing more than that).

Our practice should give us the energy and focus we need to do everything we need to do in the day; it should not make us want to go back to bed. It should make us peaceful, instead of robbing us of our peace. It should make us less stressed rather than adding to our stress levels. And it should support a positive outlook and a balanced way of life that free us, rather than promote unhealthy patterns and behaviors that imprison us.

Let’s all enjoy our practice and stay healthy!

Understanding the Female Body

A woman experiences two or more (depending on pregnancies) significant hormonal shifts in her life, which can dramatically impact what’s going on for her physically and emotionally when she comes to the mat everyday. If you are teacher, ask yourself… before you adjust someone in an asana, do you take into consideration what tendencies they are predisposed to because of their gender? Or, if the student is a woman, where they are in the female hormonal life cycle? The very fact that a woman’s body is designed to bear children, tells us it has some distinct features adapted for this miracle. As a male or female yoga teacher, recognizing and understanding these distinctions enables us to both educate and assist students thoroughly and sometimes, more safely.

Directed by the brain, the hormonal (endocrine) system takes women through puberty, pregnancy and menopause, contributing to different changes in bodily functions. These changes exhibit themselves in body structure, neural control and co-ordination, along with mental and emotional state. They differentiate men from women anatomically, physiologically and psychologically. This should not be interpreted to mean that men and women cannot accomplish many of the same things, but that the result may be reached in a different way.

I am a firm believer that no two people will look exactly the same in a given asana and that we need to account for individual differences and exceptions to any rule. However, when merely considering biomechanics, there are key anatomical components we look for in every pose. It is in those key components that being female (or male for that matter) can be the difference between finding space, or creating strain, when we align our body in a certain way. Understanding these can help guide us to whether a student, or ourselves, may need to focus on building support (strength) or improving range of motion (mobility) in a movement or posture.

Specifically, consider the changes in female bone, muscle and other supportive tissue that begin during the grand hormonal shift of puberty. With the ultimate purpose of preparing the body for pregnancy, these changes often create tissue laxity, or joint instability which, on a simplified basis, translates into decreased lower body co-ordination and increased hip and upper body flexibility, including the already mobility-oriented shoulder joint. Applying this information to Ashtanga asana practice, we must pay special attention to joint stabilization in women, and keep a close eye on their shoulder positioning during any asana that loads the upper body.

An important focal point for yoga practice, and another, perhaps more obvious example is in the pelvis. We cannot deny that women have a broader pelvis then men. A woman’s ilium bones (hip bones) are more outwardly flared, creating an open, circular inlet, which serves as the birth canal. This contributes a greater angle between the hip and the knee (called a Q-angle) and for some women, means an adjustment in the alignment of their feet or hips in some postures to reduce the risk of repetitive strain injuries in the knees or back. Women also exhibit a more anterior pelvic tilt, where the upper hipbones come forward and down, which puts a greater demand and higher injury risk on the hamstrings during straight-leg forward folding movements.

An introductory article such as this only scratches the surface of the complexity of the female body. We must also consider where a woman is at in her menstrual cycle and hormonal life as a whole. The processes happening underneath the skin, on a physiological, emotional and energetic level, have their own implications for a woman’s yoga practices. A deeper knowledge and understanding in these areas can be extremely helpful in providing insight for us and for our students.

5 Tips for Teaching Pregnant Women in a Yoga Class

Many pregnant women look to start a yoga practice during pregnancy, and although they should go to a Prenatal Yoga class, what happens when they show up to yours?  Without the proper knowledge, it can be frightening to glance up at the group when your class is starting to see a woman with a baby on board.  Too often, pregnant women are actually ignored in classes, or just told to “skip this one” because the teacher doesn’t know what to do.  Here are 5 Tips to steer you in the right direction.

  1. Remember, she’s pregnant, not sick.
    There is a fine line between coddling and caring.  A Pregnant woman will like to have reassurance and be cared for during a class, however coddling her as if she was sick in bed with the world’s worst flu likely won’t turn her into a raving fan, nor will it do her much good to prepare her for the marathon of birth.  Providing her with necessary props and modifications, as well as quick check-ins to ensure she’s comfortable will provide her enough support and you the feedback you need.
  2. Encourage Rest.
    Always encourage a pregnant woman to take a comfortable resting position when she needs it. This allows her to monitor her own energy levels and not overdue it. Often women experience dizziness with positional changes in the first trimester due to their pregnancy-induced decreased blood pressure. Adequate rest is built into a prenatal class, as is a long side-lying or inclined savasana.
  3. Modify as needed.
    Deep closed twists are ill advised during any time in pregnancy and rather than have her sit and do nothing while the rest of the class breathes into Marichyasana C, show her how she can twist the opposite direction and stay comfortable and safe.  Every day will be different for her in terms of what feels good so be sure to check in and give her modifications on the spot as needed.
    This modification of Baddhakonasana opens the pelvis, allows for a release or lift of the pelvic floor and opens the chest and diaphragm

  4. Know the Do’s and Don’ts.
    Did you know that it is advised that women no longer lay supine once they are past 14 weeks? This is because pressure could be exhibited on the inferior vena cava, which would restrict blood flow. This, like many other things are quite specific in terms of what a pregnant woman should and should not do during a yoga class to remain safe, feel good and reap the benefits of practicing. High-risk pregnancies require even more attention.
  5. Get Educated.
    There are many reasons why Prenatal Yoga Teacher Trainings exist.  There is a lot to learn and understand about the physiology and biomechanics of the pregnancy journey.  A good course will cover pre-pregnancy and post partum topics as well as focus on pregnancy-specific practices.  Think about it like this:  All athletes can benefit from increasing their strength and basic fitness level, however, specialized sport specific training will better prepare them for performance at the highest level, is required.  This is the same for pregnant women.  Participating in a yoga class will bring them great benefit, however, working with a prenatal yoga teacher will help prepare her mentally and physically for both childbirth and the postpartum months of early motherhood. Also, learning how to teach prenatal yoga makes you a better yoga teacher overall.  In a prenatal course you’ll learn a variety of modifications that can also be used for beginners, in a restorative class or for students with injuries.

This barely scratches the surface. If you want to be confident teaching pregnant women in your classes or you’d like to start a prenatal program, you should check out my next prenatal course : “Prenatal and Postpartum Yoga Teacher Training” in beautiful Thailand.

Arielle is teaching a Prenatal and Postpartum Yoga Teacher Training on June 3-16, 2018 at Samahita.

3 Tips for Teaching the Post-Partum Student

My last article left you at Sirsasana while I was 27weeks pregnant with twins. I had gained 14kg and was feeling fantastic on the mat and off. That 14kg turned into nearly 30 by full-term and Sirsasana became a calculated risk, but I still felt amazing, for the most part.

After our twins arrived, everything changed. I was shocked at how incredibly tired I was. Breastfeeding two newborns, totally sleep deprived and recovering from the birth along with a postpartum hemorrhage that left me anemic, all took its toll on me physically and mentally. I was trashed. I wanted to return to practice. I craved it. At times, I found myself longing for my old life and freedom on the mat. I imagine every new parent experiences something similar once the novelty of the first few days has worn off. It wasn’t until I embraced the change in my life and was ready to show myself a little compassion that I rolled out my mat.

From my experience, and my knowledge of anatomy, I want to share with you some valuable tips for teaching your post-partum students. Before sharing them, I will re-iterate that every woman is different and pregnancies vary. Recommendations on when it’s safe to return to practice vary and are highly dependent on the woman and circumstances around her pregnancy and birth.

Keep the following in mind when teaching asana to any woman after giving birth.

1. Don’t rush it.

Don’t rush the return to the mat and certainly don’t rush things while on the mat.

Returning to the Mat

Although an avid practitioner may be keen to jump on the mat just days after her bundle(s) have arrived, remind her that her body has been through a lot. It takes a few days just to replenish the calories lost during the work of labor and delivery, not to mention the sleep. It’s important to ensure that she has recovered from the initial physical and mental expenditure.

Further, if a woman has suffered any pregnancy induced injuries, it will take even more time. 25% of women experience Symphysis Pubis Dysfuntion during their pregnancy and some continue to have symptoms, indicating that more time is needed, well after birth.

Over 60% of women experience some degree of abdominal separation (diastis recti) in their third trimester or the immediate postpartum period. The gap takes a minimum of 4 weeks to close, and care must be taken when practice is resumed not to increase the gap and prevent healing.

On the Mat

There are many factors at play for the new mother that will affect what she brings to the mat. Sleep deprivation is almost a given in the early days. A sleepy body is a heavy body, so she must listen and approach practice as recovery, rather than something that will add to her lack of energy. Do what feels good. It will take some time to get back to a regular routine. There may also be some specific asana that need to be avoided or modified at first to encourage healing and rest. Encourage her to enjoy each breath she has on the mat as a chance to be healthy and clear her head in order to care for her newborn(s).

2. Let Go…

It is difficult in the beginning to understand that when you have children, you aren’t actually giving up anything . Instead, you are practicing vairagya (non-attachment). It’s ok to let stuff go. Actually, it’s imperative.

Past Self

As a new mother, she must take some time to mourn and let go of her previous life. This is not a bad thing. Babies do change lives and clinging to the “old” identity of “self” doesn’t do anyone any good. A seated practice can be very helpful in taking this needed time, without the physical practice to get in the way of clearing that image, in order to move on and be fully present as a mother.

Expectations of Self

Not only must a new mother let go of what she thinks she should be like in order to be the perfect parent, she must also let go of any expectations she has of her babies. Trying to be everything to everyone is impossible and often a stumbling block for new mothers. It can also assist in brewing post partum depression if a new mom fails to meet her own expectations.

Expectations of Self on the mat

It’s no secret that having a baby or two changes a woman’s body. Even a consistent practice through the entire pregnancy cannot completely combat nature. The body will shift. Some asanas will become impossible, others unsafe. After the birth, some of those same asanas will still be impossible. Possibly, what she was challenged with most physically as a beginner, will be easy and asana that used to be effortless will now require effort. It will take some time to build back the physicality. As her teacher, remind her, there is no rush.

3. Get to know your New Body

A woman’s body does not magically return to it s pre-pregnancy form after giving birth. This means she shouldn’t just pick up with asana where she left off pre-pregnancy. She should start at the beginning; building the foundation of primary series, regardless of what “level” she was at before she got pregnant. Her pelvis will feel different, her hamstrings and hip flexors will inevitably be tight, and if she is breast- feeding, her whole front line will be shortened. Starting at the foundation will assist in correctly realigning her body.

While these tips are extremely important to post-partum practitioners, they only scratch the surface of teaching students experiencing this massive spiritual and anatomical shift.
This June, Elonne and I are teaching “Yoga and the Female Body”, a continuing education course that will cover this and other practice considerations for women in more detail.

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