The Breath Blog

For most westerners, the word “yoga” conjures up something that looks like Cirque du Soleil auditions. In truth, you can only use the excuse that you are not flexible or strong enough to do yoga 1/8 of the time, (and that doesn’t really float since yoga postures are a way to gain flexibility safely). Let me explain the 1/8 comment. The yoga postures, contorted or comfortable, function as “Asana” which is the third of eight facets in the yogic system. The purpose of Asana is to get your body into shape to sit still in meditation with as little fidgeting and discomfort as possible. Can you believe that? The goal is not to put your hands below your toes, drench yourself with sweat or increase endurance. The body is the vehicle for the spirit. Asana is not what this blog is about though, and it doesn’t even have to be part of your yoga. It wasn’t part of mine for many years since I was introduced to yoga to alleviate anxiety.

A common phrase in the yoga community is that if you can breathe, you can do yoga. This is only partially accurate. Philosophically speaking, breathing IS yoga. In the Eight Limbs of Yoga (Ashtanga), yogic breathing practices (Pranayama in Sanskrit) are so important that they claim their very own limb #4.  Pranayama is an essential part of a complete yoga practice. It involves regulating the breath to control the mind. Pranayama is also it’s own practice (no pretzel-like postures needed!). Pranayama is used to prepare for meditation; its an invitation into limb #5 Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), the first stage of meditation.

Most yoga traditions would tell you that Pranayama is much more important than Asana when it comes to heath and happiness. If we subscribe to the philosophy that the goal of yoga is to decrease suffering, develop inner peace and feel our aliveness, it is typically Pranayama, not Asana, that awakens us to our highest potential.

The classic teaching of all wisdom traditions is that humans suffer because we forget who we are – Divine beings. We forget who we are because as humans we are hard-wired pleasure seeking survivalist. We seek enjoyment and relief from agitation and pain from things outside of ourselves – drugs (both the prescription kind and the ones that will get you in jail), alcohol, food, working too much, and in our relationships with others. The yogic path reveals that who we seek and what we need is buried inside of us under all of our human roles and repetitions of self-defeating stories.

It is just one yoga teacher’s opinion that many American yoga classes are another form of exercise. What is missing is the link of movement to a reasonable breath pace. Asana is supposed to introduce the student to regulating the breath. When the practice is too physical or choreographed like the Jimmy Fallon History of Music Video Dancing (recommended if you need to laugh after this!) the breath is strained or forgotten about all together. You may as well be hitting a punching bag or doing crossfit; nothing wrong with that – strenuous sweaty stuff can be a release valve. Additionally, a gymnast or high-endurance athlete may one up you and excel quickly at Asana practice; it is beautiful to watch the flexibility and strength of the physical body. But can that fit body sit still in meditation? That takes a fit mind! Admittedly, if what you want is a good looking exterior, any exercise may work. What about exercising the mind? Do you do something that increases awareness and brings inner peace? Sleeping does not count – unless you have mastered lucid dreaming. We are multi-layered beings with a physical body, mental body and spiritual origin. Pranayama is experienced on the physical level as the breath, but it takes us beyond into the mental and spiritual layers of ourself. Pranayama is a fitness program for all the layers of our being.

On the physical level, Pranayama positively influences the systems of the body including respiratory, immune, cardiac and nervous system. Typically, our breath is automatic and involuntary. It is continuous and we do not have to think about it, but we only use about 20% of our breathing capability. The mechanics of your default breath might include chest breathing, which is too shallow to bring in maximum oxygen and does not allow the lungs to be fully expelled. The diaphragm is the main muscle of respiration but it is is often under utilized. The chest muscles are considered accessory muscles in breathing. When we maximize the role of the diaphragm in respiration, our breathing is slower, fuller and more powerful. We increase our oxygen consumption and the ability to release carbon dioxide. We also exercise the often tight respiratory muscles.

The pattern of your breath is intimately connected to the mind. There is a breath pattern for every emotion. By learning to control the breath, we control the mind and emotions as well. Our involuntary breath responds to fatigue, stress or fear unconsciously by being incomplete or unbalanced. This auto-response ranges from the more obvious hyperventilation, shallow rapid breathing or to a simple reflexive sigh. The breath is the bridge between the brain (what your thinking) and body (what you feel). A starting point to control emotions is to simply observe the breath as it is. You could even close your eyes and do that right now for 1 minute…

Breath observation makes us more sensitive. Observation takes us into the present moment were we notice when the mind runs off to ruminate over the past or worry about the future. Our breath is a built in mindfulness teacher. But put your phone down – it doesn’t require money or meditation apps. We learn to block outer distractions and uncover what is especially present inside us. This is not for everybody and contrary to popular belief, it can be unpleasant. We may learn what troubles or agitates us; a bit like being stuck sitting with a blabbermouth stranger on a small airplane. You just want to put your headphones in and block her/him out, but the stranger is you. Instead of escaping physical or mental pain, we embrace it and lessen it with acceptance.

Once breath observation reveals what we are hiding from, we learn to safely and consciously lengthen and control the inhale (puraka) and exhale (rechaka). This practice alters the brain’s information processing. When we breath voluntarily, we actually change the region of the brain that we breathe from – unconscious breathing is controlled by the lower brain or brain stem and conscious breathing is function of the upper brain. We also balance the heart rate; the inhale slightly increases heart rate and the exhale relaxes the heart. By controlling the breath, we can listen to the chatty stranger in our mind with kindness, and redirect the story when it is not serving us. Pranayama is a free companion fair where you get to pick the person you want to sit with (you) and tell them when they are being irrational.

Energetically or spiritually (choose the term you like), Pranayama is how we begin to direct our Prana, Chi or life force (again – pick the term that works for you). On the subtle level, inhalation increases our focus, energy and vitality; the breathe out is an opportunity to purge, purify and relax more deeply. Eventually, you can learn to add a breath retention (kumbaka) which culminates in a balanced mind and provides a “peaceful pause” in energy body. The power of controlled breathing leads to a fusing of the complimentary opposites of solar/lunar and expand/contract. In this state of balance, the pleasure seeking senses and physical cravings are controlled.

Yogis believe we are all given a particular number of breaths in each karmic cycle. A lifespan is only limited by the number of breaths you breathe. Listen to the sound of breath in your own body as the argument of being alive.

Namaste,

Megan

PS – If you are looking for a place to get started with a Pranayama practice at home, visit the Breath Meditation Series in the free meditation library. BFY also offers free meditations the second Wednesday of each month or a private Pranayama and Meditation session with Megan can address your unique needs.

Eight Limbs of Yoga: Ashtanga in The Honey Jar

Do you want to know what meditation is?  If you practice yoga, did you know that yoga postures and meditation are inextricably linked? Meditation is the highest form of yoga.  There are common misconceptions around the terms meditation and mindfulness, and dare I say liberation.  This is the definition of meditation from the point of the Yoga Sutras, a classic yogic text.  Ashtanga, which refers to the 8 limbs of yoga (ashta – eight, anga – limbs), is the foundational text for anyone who wants to bring more of the benefits of their yoga practice into daily life.

#1 Yamas – Why are you buying the honey in the first place? Who are you going to feed it to? Will it in some way bring joy or harmony to others? Yamas are the social ethics of yoga. Feed others only what you would want to eat yourself.

#2 Niyamas – Take the time to read the label before you buy the honey; for your own good.  Buy locally to support your unique geography. The main ingredient in the Niyamas is your own true nature flavored with self-discipline (tapas – the flame of purification). Observe the inner self and be aware of what you put in your body, mind and spirit.  You are what you eat.

#3 Asana – In order to get that thick, golden honey out of the jar, you may need to stir it around a bit first.  But not so much that the jar breaks. Asana refers to the physical practice of yoga, (what is often mistaken as yoga itself.) Just as the honey dipper moves the viscous liquid with both determination and vigilance, yoga postures are done with alertness and ease. Even if the shape of the glass jar does not change, there is movement on the inside. You are creating stability and freedom in the body that will allow it to sit comfortably in meditation .

#4 Pranayama – Have you noticed how air fills the empty spaces in the honey jar? It is like prana in the body.  The jar represents our body of “matter” as we stabilize it in posture. The prana, or life force energy that fills the body in the form of the breath floods and mobilizes those spaces.  Pranayama (prana -life force, ayama – to extend or draw out) is using awareness and technique to regulate the physical and energetic breath. You are balancing the flow of prana in the body.

#5 Pratyahara – The honey slowly begins to trickle down.  You can hear it, see it, smell it, touch it and maybe even imagine the taste.  This is pratyhara, the beginning stage of meditation, which is often confused with meditation itself.  Our mind is active, and something stimulates the senses; we turn them inward to cultivate the experience.  Think of techniques such as guided imagery, yoga nidra, use of mantra or chanting, and pranayama techniques; or zen-like activities like running or surfing can feel meditative.  But we are still doing.

#6 Dharana and #7 Dhyana – The honey comes out at first in spontaneous drips (dharana) and eventually in an even flow (dhyana).  Both of these limbs are states of being as opposed to doing. The difference between the two is quantity vs. quality.  Dharana gives you small tastes of the bliss of meditation as the mind comes and goes.  In a state of Dhyana, your world is nothing but an even flow of honey and you have let go completely into the sukha (sweetness or joy of life).

#8 Samadhi – The full stream of honey is coming out continuously.  We are no longer aware of this though.  We are the honey (liberation to our Divine being-ness and oneness).

Just as eating local honey brings amazing health benefits to your body, meditation drips sweetness into all aspects of our lives.  It is liquid gold for the mind and spirit. You don’t have to be a bee keeper to make 2019 the year to open the honey jar!

Peace and Light,

Megan

From Mat to Mind

Bear Foot Yoga and Bodhi the yoga dog featured in the 2018 summer issue of  Lake & Country magazine! Read the full article here: From Mat to Mind

Megan MacCarthy, owner of Bear Foot Yoga in Burlington, aims to make yoga welcoming and accessible to all, through a focus on yoga therapy. At her studio you can find a delicate balance and assortment of classes from yoga as a physical exercise, to restorative classes. Bear Foot Yoga offers one vinyasa flow per week, as well as cancer and cardio rehab classes where mindfulness is the core of the practice. Megan cherishes the community and relationships she’s built. “Twenty years ago, health clubs and yoga studios in this area were few and far between. Now, they are becoming more prevalent and for me, it’s really great to be able to know all my students by name and see familiar faces in my classes,” she told us.

From Mat to Mind

 

5 Year Anniversary

Dear BFY Students,

This week quietly marked the 5 year anniversary of my yoga studio. 9 years of teaching, almost 30 years of practicing, and my overwhelming thought is that none of what I do is about me. It is about you, what you give and the community you create. That is an odd conclusion for someone who savors the privacy of her home practice. But I realize how much I need you all; to see your faces and remind me who I am and that I am serving my highest purpose. Your vulnerabilities and willingness to share your stories are the mirrors that reflect the space I hold for you. You also do this for yourselves. With each posture, and each encounter with your bodies, you bravely sew the thread between thought, sensation and emotion. Holding space requires raw reality and radical acceptance. There is no room for “what do others expect of me”, egos or hiding behind our protective shields of perfection. When we connect with our own reality, we connect with the Universal Source. Our wounds heal faster when we expose them to each other’s Light.

I recently read a twisted definition of the word alchemist – an imperfect, beautiful being who instinctively uses his or her pain to create something exquisite. I would add that pain can be a part of what creates community. It is in touching vulnerabilities and hardships, yours and mine, that our commonalities exist. In a good way, I see myself as pandora’s box, filled with the grief and troubled secrets of all my students. The box always stays shut wrapped in prayer and hope, but sometimes I wish it could open so you could see each other through my lens. Then you would know how magnificently strong and courageous you all are. Scars and all.

Thank you for being alchemists with me and beaming your own unique beauty. Keep supporting one another, shifting and raising the vibration.

Love and Light,

Megan


Everything Is Waiting for You

Your greatest mistake is to act the drama as if you were alone. As if life were a progressive and cunning crime with no witness to the tiny hidden transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny the intimacy of your surrounding. Surely, even you, at times, have felt the grand array; the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding out your solo voice. You must note the way the soap dish enables you, or the window latch grants you freedom. Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity. The stairs are you mentor of things to come, the doors have always been there to frighten you and invite you, and the tiny speaker in the phone is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation. The kettle is singing even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots have left their arrogant aloofness and seen the good in you at last. All the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves. Everything is waiting for you. – David Whyte

Helping Clients Overcome Challenges

Helping Clients Overcome Practice Challenges through Somatic Space

This article was originally published by the International Association of Yoga Therapists, Yoga Therapy Today, Winter 2018, Yoga Therapy in Practice, www.iayt.org 

Increased interoceptive awareness—the deep knowledge of what’s occurring in the physical body, the soma—can be a negative experience for some. Notwithstanding the long-term benefits clients gain through heightened self-awareness, we yoga therapists may find ourselves needing to help clients navigate uncomfortable sensations and emotions that arise from yogic inquiry. Yoga, perhaps initially perceived as a purely physical activity, can move students through the three psychic layers of the gunas (qualities). I use somatic yoga and the pancha kosha (five-sheaths) model to guide people toward sattva (balance); here I offer practical ideas to help others to do the same.

When muscles fail to perform, it is not necessarily because they are strong or weak. Muscle inhibition occurs in athletes and armchair quarterbacks alike. The ability to control muscles comes partly from nervous system communication. Somatic Yoga was developed to increase communication among the nervous system, brain, and pranic body. My eyes opened to the benefits of a regular Somatic Yoga practice as a result of experiencing chronic pain in the sacroiliac joint (nervous system), post-concussion syndrome (brain), and energy-body consciousness (pranic body).

I liken the journey through the somatic space to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey; separation, initiation, and return. In yogic terms, The Hero’s Journey translates as the gunas, or subtle basic components of life. Tamas (often translated as “darkness”) is the road of separation—appearing wide and easy, it represents ignorance and inertia. Innumerable people are breathing a lackluster survival breath and walking the black road of tamas without even knowing it. Perhaps they cannot or chose not to be present in the body. Often in the depths of physical or mental despair, they receive the call to action. Rajas (passion) is the winding, uphill road of action/initiation.

Yoga practices, particularly Somatic Yoga, in my experience, can delicately guide clients through rajas when they feel agitated (or, for some, when they feel anything at all) and when they face off with the things they fear the most—the kleshas (obstacles). Students who view this awareness as a negative may be scared, sad, angry, or in denial. They may discontinue the practice and go back to tamas because it is safe and familiar. Initially, rajas requires surrender. With guidance and regular practice, rajas is where we start to see we have control of our lives. Tamas is the victim mentality. The discomfort of rajas is where you learn to love yourSelf, dragons and all, to get to the purity of the sattvic state. Yogic philosophy doesn’t see the journey as acquiring a new strength, as Campbell does; rather, in Somatic Yoga the superpower is something that was always there. Remembering and returning to awareness of the Self is the steady state of sattva.

 

Demystify the Somatic Space

A starting point for somatic inquiry may be to take the mystery out of movement with a brief overview of the nervous system. The somatic system, or voluntary nervous system, includes both sensory and motor neurons, allowing communication to flow freely to and from the muscles, sensory organs, and skin. What we call muscle memory is really one of the jobs of the nervous system. Habitual movement, aging, and trauma (conditioned reflexes) can cause the nervous system to “forget” how to move with fluidity and freedom. We should explain to our students that both physical and emotional trauma can result in the inability to feel ourselves. Psychological trauma is held in the brain, but we also hold trauma in the body in the form of unconscious contractions. Despite being voluntary, much of our somatic movement takes place below the level of conscious awareness; the fact that this does not always have to be so is a tremendous asset that we can use to empower our students.

How do you guide those who encounter difficulty doing what on the surface appears to be a simple practice? Let the goal be to stay present. Teach them that they have the tools within themselves to heal; they need only to listen to their bodies. When physical or mental challenges arise, normalize movement and emotional response. Give such clients veto power. “Veto” means “I forbid” in Latin and can be absolute or limited.

Working with a sensation scale rather than a pain scale teaches clients that it is safe to be present in their bodies, even in discomfort. The body communicates through sensation. Discuss pain as a complex communicator that is about structure and emotional response, much of which is attached to previous experience and fear. Don’t make the scale all about difficulty. Encourage them to remember the sensation of pleasure: massage, eating something delicious, petting a furry friend, sexual satisfaction, or a simple hug. The traditional ayurvedic techniques of garshana (gentle dry-brushing of the skin) or abhyanga (warm oil massage) can be intimate gateways to reintroduce the nervous system to the sensation of pleasure through the skin.

What happens when a student discovers structural imbalance or an inability to feel a muscle? For instance, when working with the quadratus lumborum, a client may feel an immediate muscle response on one side of the back and think the muscle doesn’t exist on the other. Similarly, Somatic Yoga is a recommended postpartum practice to reconnect to the pelvic floor and transversus abdominis, but these muscles may be difficult to locate kinetically. Guide the students to bringing their awareness into the area with the intention to visualize it; visual aids such as a photograph of a particular muscle and thoughtfully placed props can accentuate cognitive connection. In the case of movement disorders where there is an inability to move or movement cannot be controlled, guide clients to imagine the experience of the movement.

Give people ample time to “mind their Ps”: pause, present, precious perception. Allow them to experience how much sensation can exist in stillness. When doing asymmetrical movements, take a full minute of inactivity between the two sides. The mind loves to entertain contrast in the body. The first side can communicate the experience to the brain to prepare the second side for the movement. Learn from the experience but don’t anticipate how the second side will respond. When both sides of the body are done, pause again, noticing the similarities and differences.

Ask clients to describe recurring and unfamiliar sensations as fantastically as they can and to label perceptions as something other than “good,” “bad,” or “okay.” Remind them occasionally that you are the DJ choosing the song, but they control the volume knob of bodily sensation.

Work within the Kosha Model

What door would enable a client to enter the body: spanda, shakti or grace?

Spanda: Annamaya Kosha

Spanda is play and spontaneous expression of aliveness! Let the practice be “sloppy yoga.” This often works with those who are more physically oriented, like to overdo movements, and have difficulty stepping away from the bigger, stronger, faster philosophy. Sitting too much, rigidity, and habitual movement patterns are what get us into trouble in the first place, so play! One approach is to ask students to invoke their inner child and do the practice as if just learning to move. Suggest they give themselves permission to approach the movements like their favorite animal would. Ask them to continually notice when bodily sensations move, increase, dull, or subside.

Even when the practice is familiar, invoke the beginner’s mind; don’t just go through the motions. The practice may at times appear uneventful, but fascinating things are happening at the subtle-
body level. Enthusiastically encourage curiosity and amazement. Freedom of expression in the body inspires creative thinking. If it adds to the creative pulse, somatic yoga can be a breath-centered practice. The inhalation deepens the student’s experience of expansion and elongation; the exhalation allows release. As Carl Jung said, “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity.”

Shakti: Pranamaya Kosha

The vital force of prana shakti makes itself tangible though the breath. This approach is for those who are more devotional, spiritual, or who enjoy meditation. A healthy dose of skepticism works, and yoga nidra can be used to develop conscious awareness of the pranic body. A goal of yoga therapy is to create energy and distribute it to all parts of the body. It can be valuable to offer your client a simplified explanation of the subtle body that may include nadis (energetic channels), chakras, vayus (“winds,” or functions of prana), and/or marma points. When the students can sense where their breath originates or can connect to their spiritual heart, they are ready to explore the power of creating energy through awareness and intention. Explain that pain can be thought of as congested energy. Ask them to breathe into the body, noticing where they feel tension or discomfort. Then on the next inhale, breathe into the tension; exhale the energy out. If a specific point in the body needs healing or release, the student can use all their senses to create an active image in their mind and fill the particular part of their body with the image.

As prana is experienced on the subtle level as touch, placement of hands can result in clearer communication. This is different from manual manipulation, which may fall outside the scope of your practice and can be interpreted by the students as “doing it wrong,” “not doing enough,” or that you are fixing them. Use your hands to teach them to use their own hands as feelers for the nervous system, transmitting their own life force from their heart (the seat of prana) through their hands. When finished, have them ask the subtle body if it has any messages.

Grace: Manomaya Kosha

One aspect of grace is the ability to surrender all limiting beliefs and previous experiences. Make the practice about self-acceptance over self-improvement. This is best received by those who feel more emotional, those who present with low self-esteem, or those for whom healing needs to triumph over curing. Two influential words are “allow” and “trust.” You may also want them to start by creating an affirmation or sankalpa (heartfelt intention) and to keep repeating it. Teach them to let go of self-judgment. In a society that rewards “perfection,” teach that it is okay to make mistakes! Stay away from language that leads to what the movement should look or feel like. Offer the understanding that the senses are intended to bring joy. Explain imagery as the language of the mind: it listens to what is outside us through our senses, then speaks in images that can turn into words. We decide to attach a positive or negative association to the words, and therein lies the difference between pain and suffering.

Hold Space: Vijnanamaya Kosha

Always hold space for your clients. We hold sacred space for them by asking for their highest good and offering unconditional love. The greatest gift we give our students is to teach them to cultivate that same sacred space for themselves outside the safety of our guidance and to continually stay present and objective when experiencing signals within the body. Witnessing consciousness of self and experiencing this awakening through yoga gives the client a glimpse of the illumination of pure consciousness.

Sukha: Anandamaya Kosha

Yoga teaches that we need to have sweetness (sukha) in our lives to bring us closer to our Source—bliss. Recognize and praise the joy of small successes with your students. A benefit of a traditional asana practice is that we purposely challenge ourselves, stress the physical body, and consciously watch the mind’s response. In Somatic Yoga, we undo by underdoing; there is personal accountability in recognizing and doing only what makes us feel good. The more we experience joy, the more it becomes our natural state of being.

Somatic Yoga is highly adaptable and achievable, but needs to be structured for the individual. Yoga therapy clients have often tried several modalities before they find you. They are familiar with the failure of checking out mentally and the unfulfilled expectation that someone else would “fix” them. Start with a thorough and thoughtful intake, which may hint at the client’s current level of self-awareness. The intake should include a discussion of any history of physical or emotional trauma, even when the trauma does not have any obvious correlation to the issue the client is presenting with. Ascertain the mental and spiritual state of your client using the qualities of the three gunas. Let the client do the talking with words and body language. To the best of your ability, give the client a voice in creating their yoga therapy plan. Continually adjust the plan based on feedback. Using the kosha model, ask them what door they are most comfortable with: the body, the breath, or the mind. As the client gradually increases her or his awareness of internal body sensations in your presence and in the rest of life, the practice is no longer about overcoming pain or dis-ease, and joy can be developed in the purity of the sattvic state.

Peace and Light,

Megan

Access a printable PDF copy of the article here: YTT_Winter 2018_MacCarthy

Setting Intention in Yoga

The Significance of Setting Intention in Yoga

The word yoga has 2 meanings in Sanskrit: one definition is to yoke or union, as in the way we bring together the physical body and mind with postures and breathing. We also use the word yoga to describe a state of being where we do everything in life with more awareness. What we do and say to ourselves in class becomes a mirror into who we are and our self talk in life.  How do we respond when we are challenged in a pose? Do we painfully push our way through, degrade ourselves, get angry, or compare ourselves to others? When the practice appears easy or uneventful, do we mistake relaxation for boredom, have difficulty surrendering or does our mind wander off?

An important component of yoga as a state of awareness is setting an intention.  An intention can help guide us through the physical poses and choose the modifications that are right for our body and mind that day. Heartfelt intention also brings positive energy like gratitude, acceptance, peace or unconditional love to ourselves and others. The teacher will typically ask you to set an intention at the beginning of class. It is your responsibility to bring the mind back to your personal purpose throughout class.  When the intention is made from the heart, it is simple, pure and feels expansive, as if it is already a part of us that maybe we just forgot about or misplaced. Intention may be the same for days, weeks, or even years, and comes out of a commitment to support our highest self.  Where there is nothing wrong with doing yoga just for the exercise and physical benefits, setting an intention helps to make yoga part of your life!

A few suggestions if you are new to setting intention:

Sometimes an intention doesn’t come up right away.  Don’t pressure yourself.  Keep the space open for something to formulate any time during or after class.

Simply ask yourself any of these questions: what brought you to your mat today? What does grace mean to you? What makes you feel strong?  How do you find calmness?  What can you let go of today?

Think of something or someone you are grateful for; or think of the idea of gratitude.

If you come up with several purposes for your practice and have a difficult time choosing one, politely ask your heart what it wants.

When you are experiencing physical discomfort or disease in your body, set your intention to continually send healing thoughts and energy into that place.

Ayurveda sees the Self as a 3 legged stool; one leg is the physical body, one is the mental/emotional body, and one is the spiritual body.  If one leg of your stool has been neglected, set your intention to focus on that leg!

Feeling exceptionally joyful? Consider dedicating your practice to someone else who could benefit from your practice like a prayer. Imagine them watching you and send them your blessings at the end of class.

If the spiritual, esoteric and philosophical components of yoga do not appeal to you, set an intention purely for the physical body.  On a scale of 1 to 10, with one being completely easeful and 10 being extremely challenging, pick a number for your practice and honor that.

And if you don’t practice yoga, you can still benefit from the daily mindfulness of intention.

Namaste, Megan

Breaking Through the Self

I celebrate Earth Day coming from the inside out.  Like the hatchling, I break out first.  You may see it as a crack or a hole.

My specialized egg tooth is meditation; well equipped on the inside. Breathing the air deeply I ready myself to break free; the air that is within the egg.  Like the egg tooth itself, all dissolves.

Then I have to peck to break out. This takes consistent effort. Rajas – passion, energy and motion. Not just when my butt is on the cushion or the mat is rolled out; daily with self-love and discipline; striving toward my goal. The yolk that sustains me is tapas – the fire of desire.

Working in circles, using its wings for propulsion and feet to kick, the chick takes rest in between pipping. Permission to spend more time on the inside to strengthen when what is outside is hard. I cannot break out until I land.

Some chicks are preoccupied with the pecking itself…always trying to do, learn, expectations, accumulations, letting busy be a distraction.  Mistaking grace for boredom. Release and allow.

My tendency is to let the shell become armor for the Self. I will not let it harden ever again. Rest and peck the way nature intended. Too much substance breeds self-doubt. Tamas – complete darkness holding and limiting me.  Engage in outer activity. Break that shell.

Be open to the forces coming from the outside. Who breaks into me? Teachers? Loved ones? Difficult neighbors? View them all with a non-rejecting mind. They are here to help me find freedom. Agitations and affirmations coax me out equally. They peck in as I peck out.

My pecking out.  Their pecking in. They lead to the same place – life history, experiences, stories, all that is in my shell. In me, but not me.  I will break out.

Mother Earth supports transformation in spring. This chick will decide for herself when she is ready. My only goal is to break out. The final push, with no urgency to fly.

Love and Light,
Megan

Digesting Spring – Ojas

Ojas is the beautiful sanskrit word that explains the essence of life. It is the subtle form of radiance, heath, immunity and longevity. On the physical level, Ojas corresponds with our bodies’ muscle, fat, bones, bone marrow, blood, plasma and semen. Ojas, along with Prana (physical vitality) and Tejas (mental clarity), make up the three positive forms of our constitution or doshas (Vata, Pitta, Kapha)in Ayurveda. In spring, this essence of life makes itself known in the sprouting buds and singing birds. After a stagnant winter, everything around us is bursting with life and creative juice; and so should we! As our earth receives life from water, air and the heat of the sun, we have the ability to restore our Ojas through the food and thoughts we take in. Ayurveda teaches that we are all born with a certain amount of Ojas. Think of Ojas as your bank account – if you are always withdrawing (“burning the candle at both ends”) – this vital essence gets depleted faster. Some indications of low Ojas are feeling tired, weak, fearful or worried. If you spent this winter catching all the colds and flues around you, that can also be an indication of low Ojas.

Since Ojas is most simply understood as the byproduct of our digestion, (what we digest both physically and mentally), we have the ability to deposit into our life savings account through our diet and lifestyle. Everything from the food choices we make to our relationships can drain or sustain Ojas.

Building Ojas through our diet starts with how the food is prepared and eating mindfully in a peaceful environment. This leaves out sports bars with dozens of loud T.V’s and business lunch meetings. Even if we eat healthy foods, we do more to build our Ojas account if we take a moment before eating to appreciate the source of the food – what it took to come into your possession, who grew it and prepared it. It is with this same gratitude that we then invite our body to receive all the nourishing qualities of the food. There is a good reason why we don’t feel like eating when we are emotional; we digest our emotions with every bite. The awareness of the whole digestion process starts with smelling our food, letting it touch our lips, beginning to feel it in the mouth and tasting it on the tongue before the teeth get called into action. This 30-60 second process sets the stage to eat slowly while sitting down (and not in the car!) Even if we can do this for one meal a day, we are depositing into the Ojas account.

Another way to strengthen Ojas and make the energy available for use in our subtle body is with a regular meditation practice. We lose Ojas through the mouth from too much talking and through the mind with negative or excessive sensory input. The constant stimulation and stressors of our modern lifestyle are always depleting our life-sustaining source. Winter is the season where nature gets quiet and stores its energy like a long meditation. As spring arrives, there is a natural order of releasing the stagnancy of winter and stimulating just enough activity to flourish without exhaustion. As in nature, quality and quantity are both a part of restoring the balance of Ojas.

The home of Ojas is in the heart. So what makes your heart happy physically and mentally? Walking outside and connecting your feet to the earth and all your beautiful senses to the rhythm of nature is another way to rebuild your Ojas. Make your life digestible and Happy Spring!

Namaste, Megan

The Heather Tree

There is a pine tree on the golf course across the road where I live. I remember the day it was planted over 35 years ago. I was 9 years old with a new golden retriever puppy and given the grown up responsibly of walking her. I would take her to that tree and let her off the leash to swim in the river while I rested my body on the wobbly trunk. Eventually, the branches made a good perch. This is how life flew though my childhood summers…walking to that tree with my dog and a smile in my heart.

Now I am older with 3 dogs and the wacky Wisconsin seasons test the hearty winter lover in me. Some days the walk is a chore. However, a small miracle occurs at that pine tree.  It is too large to climb, but instinctively, my hand reaches out to touch the trunk; a warm flow of energy goes up my arm to my heart, and I smile unintentionally.

You see, that tree is me.

The once flexible branches, are no longer able to bend on a whim with the wind. Where the outside was once smooth and soft, weathered lines appear on the thickening bark. Yet in the harshest of winters, the roots have been nurtured, growing deep and strong. As the tree grew bigger, it took on more responsibility; providing a warm shelter, restful shade, and happiness for the creatures who come in contact with it. If we could see the rings, we would know the inside has not died or changed; it still radiates with pure childlike love.

In memory of my first 4 legged love, Heather.

Peace, Megan

Embody the Nervous System with Yoga

Perhaps it is the climate of our nation, but I am overdue for a geek blog. If the words “gray matter” intrigue or excite you, or if you just wonder why savasana feels so good, please enjoy.

Gray matter is brain tissue located in the cerebral cortex of the brain.  Studies have shown (you are going to have to look them up on your own) that there is a decrease in grey matter in individuals with chronic pain. It is a downward spiral: decrease in grey matter can lead to memory loss, decreased motor response and emotional problems like anxiety and depression. But guess what? Yoga can increase grey matter! The process requires that we get out of our head and give our brain “feel feedback” from the rest of the body.

To understand the importance of how yoga helps to mentally connect us to our physical body, you need to have a basic nerd understanding of the Nervous System.  The brain thrives on stimulation; it is what allows the continual growth and repurposing of neurons, the specialized cells of the Central Nervous System (CNS).  As babies, we have to  learn to move the arms and legs with sensory motor awareness from the brain and spine – the CNS. More specifically, the motor cortex of the brain sends impulses from the neurons to the muscles.  The motor cortex is a chunk of the cerebral cortex (yep, back to gray matter), that is involved in control and dishing out orders to the muscles to create movement. Most of us don’t remember having to think to learn to crawl, but it was difficult stuff. With repetition, movements like walking become effortless.

Like a baby first learning to crawl, trauma, chronic pain and disease can make us work to make what were once conditioned reflex movements happen. Sometimes we are able to make those movements, but don’t realize that muscles that once turned on automatically are in a permanent state of savasana and other muscles are pulling 70 hour work weeks. Depending on previous physical and/or emotional trauma, we can experience diverse loss of sensory motor awareness (coined Sensory Motor Amnesia by Thomas Hanna).  This is no longer a response to the actual damage. It is a learned habitual behavior by the brain. These habits can only be permanently changed by relearning sense of movement through movement- the big word – neuroplasticity – and it takes the disciplined, captivated mind of a yogi!

If the nervous system never experienced physical or emotional trauma, the benefits of yoga would rest solely on who wears the best pants. In a healthy adult, the brain and spinal chord respond to conscious thought by sending nerve impulses from the senses and the Central Nervous System to the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS – the nerve fibers that branch out from the spinal chord to all parts of the body that receive and send messages to the brain). The CNS also sends hormones and chemicals through the organs and the rest of the body.  Think of the CNS as driving on the nerve expressway and the PNS as getting off to take a local, more distant route; it is two way traffic. In individuals who have disconnected from their bodies for numerous reasons, nervous system response time can be slow, like driving the Kennedy into Chicago at 5pm on a Friday.

The Peripheral Nervous System is divided into the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS – stuff just happens, ignore it and you don’t need to do a darn thing) and the Somatic Nervous System (voluntary “I got this” system). The ANS is mainly responsible for involuntary responses such as heart rate, digestion and breathing. This system is no buttercup and will do its job without coddling, but yoga recognized the ability to positively influence the ANS through asana, pranayama, meditation and thought patterns. The ANS is famous for hosting our good twin and evil twin, Parasympathetic and Sympathetic; except nether of them are actually evil, unless they are getting all the attention all the time. The sympathetic throws tantrums on a diet of STRESS and the parasympathetic thrives on RELAXATION. When the sympathetic is acting out, it hangs out with troubled kids like Amygdala, who feeds fear to our brain. In this overstimulated, noisy, multitasking, ever present electronic-devices world, our ANS often needs a timeout – a safe space to overindulge the peaceful parasympathetic. The Eight Limbs of Yoga are structured to deepen our sensory withdrawal from all the external rubbish (pratyhara – the 5th limb) and nurture the parasympathetic or Relaxation Response (as termed by Dr. Herbert Benson in his 1975 book).  Encouraging the sense to go internal can be as simple as watching the breath breathe (pranayama – the 4th limb of yoga), or it can be more systematic.  In a yoga practice that includes postures (asana – the 3rd limb of yoga), we bring awareness to the muscles, bones and breath.

The Maya Kosha model of yoga teaches that we are multi-layered beings. Our first layer  is the Annamaya Kosha; our outermost physical body.  We may dress it up and look at it in the mirror but this layer where our muscles and bones live needs to feel like part of something bigger inside of us. When we do formal techniques in yoga like progressive muscle relaxation, the mind and body both benefit. The overlying goal in squeezing specific muscles then releasing them is to see where tension is held in the Annamaya Kosha.  The body/brain relationship goes on a date to Cognitive Connection where they dine on skeletal muscles and sensory organs…the Somatic System gets a romantic interlude!  Additionally, when we do yoga postures, the Somatic System provides voluntary control of the body movements and tells the brain the position of the body in space through specific nerves called proprioceptors.  Normally, the voluntary activities of the Somatic System happen effortlessly below the level of conscious awareness. Unfortunately, somatic signals don’t come to us in the form of words. When we are able to experience them, they are felt as bodily sensations. Yoga strengthens this conscious feeling based interfacing from the brain to the periphery of the body. Incoming (sensory) and outgoing (motor) messages change lanes freely between the CNS and the organs, muscles and glands.  The expressway and local routes are wide open!

If you read this far, here is your bone: There is no need to re-read this or study the nervous system.  Embody means “to embrace, to give a concrete form to, to provide with a body”.  Yes, simply provide your brain and nervous system with your body! It also doesn’t matter why you come to yoga, what style of yoga you choose, or if you can stand on your head.  When you are on your mat and feeling yourself, your grey matter is having a party in your brain!!!  As long as you stick with your practice, the party can get bigger and will never run out of cake.

Next Up:

When we are stuck on the jam packed CNS expressway with the radio playing a cascade of adrenaline and cortisol; the psychological and emotional healing that takes place in yoga.

Namaste, Megan