Set an Intention Before Yoga Practice

When you first commit to practising yoga, in many ways, it can be easy to stay present. You are absorbed in learning the poses, the new type of music playing in the background, exploring what a yoga block is for, and getting used to chanting OM, or even vocalizing in public, for the first time ever.

Evolving Your Yoga Practice

But after you have learned the poses and engrained them into your muscle memory — after you begin to feel comfortable breathing properly, and can seamlessly link your breath with your movements — after OM becomes something soft and familiar like your morning tea, and your yoga mat as warm and inviting as your bed — a particular danger arises.

The beauty of this stage is that your practice is ready to evolve; the danger is that if you do not take conscious steps to do so, if you stay in this comfortable familiar practice, you will sacrifice the basic principle of yoga as a tool for self-transformation. So, it’s time to get out of your yogic comfort zone and deepen your yoga practice.

Establish Your Intention Before Practice

A perfect way to do this is is to set an intention at the beginning of your yoga practice. This is a fantastic way to anchor your mind to the present moment, as it is now familiar with the ‘routine’ of your yoga poses. If you let routine take hold, you are highly likely to wander away from your yoga mat and back into thoughts of the day you had or will have tomorrow.

If you are at home, create your intention at the beginning of your yoga practice. Take a moment to reflect on either: what you want to get out of your practice, or what particular things you are struggling with. If you are practising at a yoga studio and are not provided time for centering at the beginning of the yoga class, try to arrive five minutes early for class and do so then.

Choose One Intention and Concentrate

Your intention can be incredibly simple, like remembering to breathe fully throughout your yoga practice. Or it can be deeper, more emotion-based, like releasing fear around feeling vulnerable in backbends or releasing anger around the limitations caused by an injury. Working with these ideas breathes life into your yoga practice, making it truly your own.

At the end of your yoga practice, invite your intention to step off your yoga mat and into the rest of your life. How can it apply in your day-to-day experience? Can you remember to breath fully when driving or working? How can you release anger or fear in other realms of your life?

These intentions are about checking in with what is going on with you, not only in your yoga practice but in your life as a whole. When we set intentions, we allow ourselves space to reflect on the issues or struggles we are facing and invite them to be a part of our consciousness for an hour or two.

We are asking ourselves to be honest with what we are dealing with, and to be brave, to confront these issues with gentleness, with compassion, without judgement or expectation.

Forgotten Yoga Practices: The Yamas and Niyamas

While many yoga classes today focus almost exclusively on asana, the set of physical postures, perhaps with a little pranayama or breath-work thrown in for good measure, few actually dare to venture into the entire realm of yoga practices recorded by Patanjali in the “Yoga Sutras.” For the ancient yogis, yoga was a way of life, made of a comprehensive set of practices categorized into eight different “limbs” that extended way beyond an hour or two spent on a yoga mat, but reached into each waking action, thought, word and breath.

The Bedrock of Yoga Philosophy

The ancient yogis, or sramanas (wandering ascetics), developed a highly refined set of practices intended to allow the practitioner to perceive “ultimate reality” by transcending the five koshas of the body. In other words, yoga was seen as a way of peeling back these five illusory layers, like an onion, to reveal the core of our true inner nature, or pure consciousness.

The eight limbs of yoga are, in this order: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. The first and second limbs, yama and niyama are interrelated ethical precepts advising our behaviour. They are the bedrock of any yoga practice. The five yamas relate to social discipline, or how we treat and interact with others, and the niyamas focus on personal discipline, or our relationship with ourselves.

What are the Yamas and Niyamas?

The yama and niyamas are not edicts but rather inquiries inviting us to explore our behaviour and how we can harmonize our inner and outer worlds. They are necessary to the overall goal of yoga as practice of self-transformation. If we focus only on asana, then we are only committing to part of the whole, and what’s the point of being able to stand on your head, if you are still an unkind person?

There are five practices of “restraint” in the yamas: “The five external disciplines are not harming [Ahimsa], truthfulness [Satya], not stealing [Asteya], celibacy [Bramacharya], and not being acquisitive [Aparigraha]. These universals, transcending birth, place, era, or circumstance constitute the great vow of yoga” (Yoga Sutras 2.30-31). There are also five niyamas, and they are: Santosha (contentment), Swadhyaya (self-study), Saucha (purity), Tapas (discipline) and Ishvar-Pranidhana (devotion).

Purpose of the Yamas and Niyamas

The practices of the yamas and niyamas are not about overcoming our current behaviour; if we approached it as such, then we would be guided by ego, one of the illusory states of being. The yamas are about observing our behaviour, and our reactions, and consciously choosing how to act, as opposed to our more common function of reacting. Compassionate self observation is central to this shift from reaction to action, and interestingly enough, when we choose not to react, then we are freeing up a lot of energy that will flow and support positive change, in ourselves and others: “Being firmly grounded in nonviolence creates an atmosphere in which others can let go of their hostility”(Yoga Sutras 2.35-39).

In the upcoming “Forgotten Yoga Practices” series, we will explore the power and wisdom of the yamas and niyamas, in an effort to engage with the classic yogic teachings recorded in the Yoga Sutras and to enhance our own yoga practice, on and off your yoga mat.

Yoga: Are you breathing properly?

Breathing is an innate and unconscious action that we rarely ever stop to notice. Because no one had to teach us how to breathe, we assume that we are breathing properly. A fundamental principle of yoga is to ‘unlearn’ many of our ingrained habits by observing the things we take for granted, such as breathing.

Reverse Breathing vs. Yogic Breathing

Once we begin to notice how we breathe, most people find that they actually breathe improperly; what yoga calls reverse breathing. This means that we contract our stomach on the inhale, and expand our stomach on the exhale. Reverse breathing is usually joined by shallow breathing – when we are not filling the three sections of our lungs to their full capacity.

Proper yogic breathing may feel awkward at first, because we have to retrain ourselves to breathe the opposite way, filling our lungs from the bottom up, expanding the abdomen and chest as we inhale, and gently contracting the belly as we exhale.

Benefits of Yogic Breathing

Breathing in this way oxygenates the blood by creating a complete exchange of air in the lungs, (meaning that we are exchanging more carbon dioxide for oxygen). Proper yogic breathing also releases tension in your chest and abdomen, and gently massages your organs, which helps digestion. At a psychological level, this way of breathing calms and soothes the mind, while also increasing introspection, focus and mental clarity.

How to Breathe Properly

Here are the first steps to proper yogic breathing, which will benefit you immensely, on and off your yoga mat:

Begin by sitting in easy pose (crossed-legged), on a yoga block or meditation pillow, or if you have tight hips lie down. Place your right hand just below your navel and begin breathing deeply, filling your hand with your lower belly. Slowly invite more breath into your lungs with every inhale, and as you exhale try to gently push out a little more breath. It is important to even out your breath, taking the same length of time on your inhale and your exhale; a simple way to do this is to count for each part of the breath, and get them to the same number.

After ten breaths, place your left palm on your upper belly (at the rib cage) and begin to fill this, the second of the three parts of the lungs. First fill your lower belly, then move up to fill the space under your left hand with air. As you exhale, release your breath from the mid-belly first and then the lower belly. Imagine your lungs like a water glass being filled from the bottom up and then emptied from the top down.

Finally, move your right hand to your sternum or heart-center. Once you have filled the first and second part of your lungs, draw breath into your chest, right up under your collar bones. As you exhale, release your breathe from the top down, refilling your lungs from the bottom up. Continue this practice for at least 5 minutes.

Begin to notice how you breathe throughout your day, and use this technique when you do so. Over time, you will start to retrain your body to breath properly, and be rid of bad breathing habits! This will help you deepen your yoga practice and improve your overall composure.

Yoga for Repetitive Strain Injury

As a writer, I spend most of my day sitting at my computer. As a yoga teacher, I am keenly aware of what writing does to my body: as soon as I get on my yoga mat, I can feel the effects of my repetitive actions and the particular way I hold my body.

What is Repetitive Strain?

Repetitive strain injury, or RSI, is caused by repetitive motion, which places large amounts of stress in one area of the body. RSI is often linked with improper physical alignment, or ergonomics. Common causes of RSI are computer work (typing and mouse use); repetitive movements in sports, playing musical instruments or driving.

The effects of RSI can range from irritating to debilitating, and symptoms include: numbness, tingly sensation, soreness, weakness or short bursts of pain in the affected area. Typically RSI affects the wrists, arms and elbows, and can manifest as tendinitis or in some cases Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

How Can Yoga Help?

In addition to the particular recommendations by a health care professional, you can help manage the symptoms of RSI with specific yoga poses. Yoga is a fantastic way to stretch out the tendons and ligaments in your wrists and hands, and the muscles in the forearms to which they are connected.

Two Helpful Stretches

Here are two stretches to add to your yoga practice that target the wrists and forearms, and can help mitigate and prevent symptoms of RSI.

Note: Hold each stretch for about a minute while taking slow deep breaths into your lower belly and relaxing your shoulders. Do these stretches every evening to maximize their benefits:

1) Come into table pose on your yoga mat with your knees under your hips and your wrists under your shoulders.

2) Lift your hands off the yoga mat and rotate your fingers outward until they are pointing towards your knees and the inside of your elbows are facing out. Then bring your hands palm down and press into the yoga mat lengthening your arms. Stay here if this is a nice juicy stretch. To deepen it, begin to slowly let your hips drop towards your heels as you keep your hands firmly rooted: breath deeply and use your exhale to invite openness into the inside of your wrists and forearms.

3) After sustaining this pose for as long as feels good, slowly come back up if your hips are low, gently lifting up the hands once more. Now with hands back to normal, bend your wrists to point your fingers towards you, now gently bring your hands to the yoga mat. This time the tops of the hands are on the yoga mat with your fingers towards you. Keep most of your weight in the legs to avoid too much pressure on your wrists. Like the first stretch, breathe here, or deepen by dropping the hips. This opens the outside of the wrists and forearms.

4) Slowly release and come sitting on the heel or down on the yoga mat. Shake out both arms, take a few big belly breaths, releasing with any noise/sound that feels like a great release.

Springtime Yoga: Detoxing the Liver and Kidneys

Spring has finally arrived – and while it may seem like the warm sunny days and bright green buds are enough to rid you of your winter lethargy, it takes a specialized yoga practice to truly detoxify and reinvigorate your body.

By the end of the winter season the major cleansing organs of the body (the liver, gallbladder and kidneys) are at their most stagnant and toxic. This is due to a combination of factors, which are at their peak in the winter months: sedentary lifestyle, over indulgence in heavy foods, and too little exercise and fresh air. These factors cause an accumulation of toxins in the body, and can leave us feeling heavy and lethargic, at both a mental and physical level.

Yoga can enhance the natural detoxification process by increasing the circulation of blood through our body, and stimulate organ function. Imagine a sponge filled with dirty water – when it is squeezed, the water drains out, and when it is released, it absorbs clean water. Yoga poses create the same type of effect on the organs as the movements and placement of the body creates subtle pressure in the abdominal cavity. When this pressure is created, toxins in the organ are gently squeezed out, and when the pose is released, new, freshly oxygenated blood is absorbed, revitalizing the organ, helping it function optimally.

Side bends specifically target the kidneys, while twists are ideal for targeting the liver and gallbladder. Here are two yoga poses to help you make a smooth transition from a slow, sedentary winter into a rejuvenated spring!

Half Moon Pose (Ardha Chandrasana) with Twist

Stand on your yoga mat in Mountain pose. Lengthen your spine and inhale your arms above your head, interlacing your fingers while pointing the index finger up (Steeple Position). Exhale and soften your shoulders away from your ears. Inhale and grow tall through the crown of your head, then slowly exhale sending your hips to the right and bending your torso to the left.

Keep your shoulders and hips stacked, as though you were between two panes of glass. Keep the flow of breath moving, using it to expand the right side of the ribs. Slowly, on an inhale, press into your feet and return to standing. Pause for a few breaths, and then repeat on the other side. Repeat the series on both sides three times.

Dashrath’s Twist

Lie on your back with your feet (hip-width apart) close to your buttocks. Grasp opposite elbows with your wrists above your shoulders. Inhale deeply, and as you exhale, let your arms fall to the right, bringing your right elbow to the ground, while dropping your knees to the left. (Keep both feet on the floor). As you inhale, bring your arms and legs back to center, and exhale to the opposite side. Keep the breath flowing deeply as you move smoothly from side to side. Continue for a minimum of ten breaths.