We are all happy when our practice seems to be progressing nicely: We learn quickly, our understanding evolves, our abilities increase. On the other hand, we all have periods of frustration, when our efforts seem to bear no fruit, either physically or mentally. Even more infuriating can be periods when we are unable to practice at all due to busyness, injury or some other force.
During these periods of frustration, it is important to remember: yoga practice is an ultra-marathon, not a sprint. In the scheme of our whole practice and our whole life, having a bad week, month or even year is a small thing. What is significant is that we regain our determination and continue.
Believe it or not, yogis burn out as often as they fizzle. We begin with such passion and vigor that we practice too much and too hard. At first this leads to tremendous progress in a short period of time, but it is unsustainable. We trim our practice back to an ordinary amount and become frustrated by the slowness of the progress. Practice loses its excitement, and we are too worn out to continue.
We recently asked one of our teachers (Swami Shambhudevananda) about this. He reminded us that yogic burnout is common. The remedy is to rest, recover and revisit your inspirations. Don't be derailed by the ebbs and flows in your practice. If we practice long enough, ups and downs are to be expected. They are simply a sign of a mature practice.
Don't lose hope, and certainly don't stop the practice!
Bending the spine backward, or "backbending," has myriad benefits to the body and mind. You can do it standing, kneeling, lying on your belly or even on your back. In our culture of sitting in chairs and hunching over a computer or phone, backbending is more important than ever for simple, functional health. Here are 5 reasons to backbend:
5. Improve your posture: Most of us spend the day sitting and hunching to some degree. Our back arches forward, the chest collapses and the head juts forward. The back muscles get longer and weaker and lose their ability to hold the body upright. Over time this can lead to shallower breath, digestive issues and pain in the chest and back. Doing backbends, especially ones that encourage strength like Cobra, Bow or Full Locust (pictured above), will straighten the spine, lift the chest and head. This goes a long way to preventing all the problems listed above.
4. Energize your nervous system: Bending the spine backward exposes the chest and throat, stimulating our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response). For those of us who are lethargic or sluggish, this stimulation has the ability to energize the mind and body.
3. Increase confidence: As explained above, backbending stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, increasing our alertness. If we do backbends while lying on our bellies, we also push the pelvis into the ground, which stimulates the secretion of testosterone. Combining these two---alertness and testosterone---has the general effect of boosting self-esteem and confidence.
2. Improve your digestion: We usually sit or stand with a slight hunch, our ribs pressing down on our bellies. Unless we move around a lot, the intestines (in our bellies) become somewhat stagnant and lose some of their ability to move food through the digestive system and waste out. When we bend backward, this whole area gets stretched, drastically changing the shape of the intestines and abdominal viscera. This often has the effect of unsticking stagnant areas in the gut.
1. Reduce stress: When we backbend, we compress the back of the body where the kidneys and adrenal glands are located. This has the effect of reducing cortisol in the blood, lowering our stress on the chemical level. Several scientific have shown this to be true, one of the great "medical" benefits of practicing yoga and backbending.
When taken altogether, these benefits make backbending a powerful tool for mental and physical health.
When we are new to any given discipline, it is easy to be a sponge. We eagerly soak up the information presented to us by teachers and books. As we become more knowledgable, we are more likely to become closed off. We are sometimes justified in our confidence and skill, and it can lead us to skepticism and rigidity.
It is admittedly difficult to stay open and humble as we learn more and our experience grows. There are times when you will know more than your teachers, and times when you will know your teachers to be wrong. The danger comes when we assume that we know more than others and entrench ourselves in our current level of knowledge and belief.
The way around this is (temporary) openness and acceptance. When you are in the position of the student (which is more often than you think), listen and process, accept the knowledge temporarily. Develop a short-term reservoir for new knowledge where all the teachings can go unedited. Afterward, take the time to research and confirm. Some of the teachings will hold up, others will not. The stuff that works will go into your long-term knowledge bank, the stuff that doesn't gets discarded.
The more skeptical we are, the less likely we are to learn. We will simply hold onto the status quo and reject any new information that does not confirm our current state. The art of being a student, the art of learning is putting aside skepticism for awhile, no matter how justified it may be. Put yourself in the presence of good teachers, and then trust them to give you good information.
As a yoga teacher I often hear students say that they fall asleep in Shavasana. This is a pretty common thing. We hear the snoring of one or more students quite clearly as they break the silence of relaxation at the end of a practice.
As a practitioner, this isn’t something that I often struggle with. I am usually able to relax quite deeply without actually falling asleep. Recently, however, I’ve personally experienced this very phenomenon.
A few months ago, Scott and I took an intense course. We began at 4:30am everyday (even on our day off!) and ended around 10pm. The day was pretty much spoken for, although I would sometimes catch a 10 minute nap when I had the chance. After keeping up this schedule for a few weeks, I was exhausted. At around the same time in the course we started adding in Yoga Nidra, or long and deep relaxation. I inevitably would fall asleep. Of course I would try not to, but my system was tired and that was all there was to it.
More recently, my life has been extremely busy with commitments. I definitely notice this throughout the days as my body is achy and my mind is slow. But where I notice it the most is in pranayama practice.
Pranayama is most often thought of as a breath control practice, but it is even subtler. In English, we don’t have a great translation for “prana” so it becomes easiest to think of this in terms of breath, but it is the practice of working with your life-force energy.
Yesterday afternoon, I sat down to do pranayama. I made it through most of my usual routine which consists of three rounds of Kapalbhati and ten or more rounds of Alternate Nostril with long retentions, followed by either Even Count or meditation.
Typically when I practice, I begin to become very aware of energy in-between my eyebrows as I sit upright and breathe. Yesterday however, I became aware of energy, yes, but that energy was very tired. After finishing the practice, instead of continuing on with my day, I laid down and slept for 45 minutes.
The moral of the story is if you are tired it means you need to sleep! If you fall asleep in Shavasana, good! If you do pranayama and want to sleep, go for it. Ideally, we will lead a balanced life and we will get the rest we need. But in times when that’s not the case, we should take rest when we can.
Yoga classes are filled with students of different skill levels. The majority of students are somewhere in the middle: familiar with the practices, having attended dozens or hundreds of classes, neither beginning nor advanced. Some are new, never having done yoga before, and a few are more advanced, having practiced for long enough to move past beginning techniques. As teachers, how do we navigate this diversity?
BEGINNING AND ALL-LEVELS CLASSES
One of the solutions that the yoga community has developed is "Beginning Class" or "All-Levels Class." These classes are attractive to newcomers since the practices aren't too difficult, and tentative new students won't be distracted or discouraged by confident, flexible yogis on the mat next door. A beginning class is targeted toward beginners. "All-levels" is a descriptor that basically means "beginning," but it tries to avoid alienating more experienced yogis the way that a term like "beginning" might.
The obvious complements to "Beginning" class are "Intermediate" and "Advanced" classes. But there aren't nearly as many intermediate or advanced students, so these classes are unsustainable to a yoga studio. Non-beginning classes generally get limited to once or twice per week or dropped altogether, while beginning classes fill the rest of the schedule. So it is difficult for intermediate and advanced yogis to find classes or spaces to practice at their level.
What we end up with is more advanced students in "beginning" classes.
It is the teacher's responsibility to direct the students in his or her class, whoever those students may be. A teacher needs to be able to guide a beginning student in appropriate beginning practices, and also guide an advanced student in appropriate advanced practices. This requires some knowledge and skill from the teacher, who needs familiarity with beginning postures, modifications and injuries as well as intermediate and advanced postures and variations.
Too often, teachers hold back their advanced students, demanding that they do beginning postures that will not benefit them, or worse, encouraging them to do beginning postures but work harder. This is the most common way to injury.
THEIR OWN PRACTICE
We often hear yogis make the case that beginning students should embrace "their own practice," meaning that they shouldn't be ashamed if they struggle or look silly. This helps the student trust the process. But the same is true for the advanced student who needs to embrace "their own practice." Too many advanced yogis hold back their practice for the sake of someone else in the room.
Ideally, a yoga teacher can direct students of all levels at once. The beginner gets simple instruction while the experienced practitioner gets more detail and depth. All parties should respect their own place and the place of their peers.
The Sit-Up that we often do in this lineage of yoga - starting flat on the back with the arms overhead and legs straight, then sitting all the way up and touching the head to the knees - is more complex than it looks. It requires strength in two major muscle groups: those of the abdomen, specifically the rectus abdominis (6-pack) and the psoas, which crosses the hips.
INHALE OR EXHALE
The question often arises, "should I inhale or exhale while doing a sit-up?" The answer is clear: You should exhale.
In a recent New York Times article about the remarkable abs of USA olympian Adam Rippon, Rippon's trainer Steve Zimm said, "Breathing is everything when it comes to abs. If you want ripped abs, you need to allow them to contract. Before every move, breathe out. Pull your belly button into the spine and continue breathing out as you’re contracting, so your abdominal wall is sinking into you."
Not surprisingly, Bishnu Ghosh agrees. In his book Yoga Cure he instructs: "Start from lying position with arms stretched beyond your head, exhale and hold your breath and then raise your upper body..."
How do I make my life simpler? And how do I become and stay humble? These are two questions that keep popping up in my own life, so I struggle with them on a daily basis.
Simplicity is the easier of the two questions, I think. I just have to remove the extraneous bits at the periphery of life: the 2nd and 3rd hobbies; the storage closet, basement or unit; all the outfits; the toys (like an iPad) that I thought would be useful but turn out to be worthless.
This is a lot easier when I feel strongly about my purpose in life. I can keep the things that make it possible for me to do my work, and remove the things that are unrelated. My life becomes a little more streamlined, and I am empowered to do the work that is important to me.
Humility is tougher because it is internal, and it changes with every bit of knowledge that I gain and every interaction I have. It even changes depending on how my day goes and how I'm feeling. Some days I feel invincible and humility goes out the window. Some days I feel worthless and humility comes all too easily.
In some ways, humility gets harder as we learn more. Our knowledge grows, our abilities grow, and it is easy for the ego to grow too. "I am so smart, I am so talented."
In other ways, learning, teaching and practicing make humility easier. For each bit of knowledge that I grasp, 3 more bits are revealed that escape my understanding. So the more I learn, the more I realize that my knowledge is a tiny, tiny bit of existing knowledge.
Spiritually, the more I practice, the more I realize the true nature of my power, which is to say, it is very small. Inner practice reveals myriad forces in the universe which are far grander than me. This makes humility easy as practice progresses.
I am always on the lookout within myself for the demise of simplicity or humility. These are the first signposts on the road to corruption and ego-driven existence. They are moving targets, since circumstances are always changing. They need to be constantly monitored.
As a teacher, it is easy for time spent teaching to cut into time that used to be for personal practice, as if both endeavors draw from the same “yoga time.” With this system, as teaching time increases, practice time necessarily decreases. This leads to trouble, because the two are not the same.
Teaching, even though it is rewarding, is a service that draws from our well of energy and strength. Most of us begin as teachers with an overflowing well, so we can continue for some time without noticing, but eventually our work will suffer, we will become repetitive, uninspired and uninspiring. We will be drawing from an empty well.
Personal practice fills the well. It inspires and fulfills our curiosity, propelling us forward and directing our progress.
The more powerful we want our teaching to be, the more powerful our personal practice needs to be. Otherwise teaching is unsustainable and can even be detrimental to us personally, sapping our energy and will. Not to mention we are not serving our students, which is our most important job.
Our recent blog about the myth of oxygenation got a big response. Lots of surprise, some disbelief and a lot of requests for more information. Specifically, if deep breathing does not have a positive impact on our oxygen levels, why do we do it?
There are three huge benefits to practices of breathing: activating and balancing the muscles of breathing, which in turn affects the nervous system; balancing the hemispheres of the brain through the nostrils; and awareness and minor control of the breath-regulating parts of the brain.
THE MUSCLES & THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
You may have heard that some people are belly breathers and some are chest breathers. Most of us have at least a slight imbalance between the abdomen and chest, while others have extreme imbalance. This doesn’t necessarily have an effect on our ability to get oxygen, but it does have an impact on our nervous system.
Generally speaking, abdominal breathing that uses the diaphragm and relaxes the abdominal muscles stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. The opposite is true for chest breathing that uses the intercostal muscles. This stimulates the sympathetic nervous system.
Neither of these is a problem until our breathing patterns become imbalanced and we breathe primarily through only one of the systems. When years or decades go by, one part of the nervous system chronically gets stimulated while the other gets suppressed. Belly breathers will be more relaxed, sleep more, have lower body temperature, be more lethargic. Chest breathers will be more energetic, more stressed, warmer, sleep less.
It is vital for progress in yoga to have balance in the nervous systems. So the first step of breathing practice is to learn to use both parts of the breath, strengthening the muscles and evening the nervous systems.
The olfactory nerves in the nose go straight to the brain. They have the most direct connection to the brain of any of the senses, so their stimulation through the nostrils is potent. The breathing practice of Alternate Nostril, which goes by many names, is one of the oldest yogic techniques. By alternating which nostril we breathe into, we vary the hemisphere of the brain that we stimulate. This has a further effect on the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and goes even further to balancing the dual nature of the body and mind.
PARTS OF THE BRAIN
The breath is controlled by the brain stem, the oldest part of our brain. Most of the time, we breathe with no conscious thought. But the newer parts of the brain, specifically the cortex, have the ability to override the brain stem to some extent, especially with practice. This awareness and control is very difficult and not appropriate for beginning practitioners, but it is the ultimate reason for breathing practices. Gradually we come to realize the true nature of the breath, which brings us closer to realizing the true nature of the self. (Apologies for the abstract yogi talk, but I don’t know of a clearer way to put it.)
So breathing is powerful. If we use it correctly it has the ability to balance our nervous system, the hemispheres of the brain, and even put us in touch with some deep and essential parts of our being. To me, this is all way more exciting than oxygenating the body!!
How many times have you heard a yoga teacher tell you that deep breathing "oxygenates the blood?"
It isn't true. At the very least it is misleading.
Our nervous system forces us to breathe at the necessary rate to fully oxygenate our blood at all times. This is true when we're resting as well as when we're running a marathon. The body's oxygen requirements are different depending on our activity, and the nervous system automatically adjusts to oxygenate the blood fully. Normal blood oxygenation is 95-100%.
When we are at rest, we breathe slower since the body's oxygen demands are less. Breathing more or deeper while the body is at rest does not "oxygenate" the blood. It hyper-ventilates, which is just a way of saying breathing (ventilating) more than necessary.
Anytime we breathe more than the body requires, the big change we are causing is the removal of carbon dioxide, one of the body's metabolic wastes. Hyperventilation removes more carbon dioxide than the body produces, and this leads to a whole host of physiological effects. Most significantly, the blood vessels in the brain constrict, limiting blood flow to the brain. This makes us light-headed.
So that light-headed feeling you get when breathing deeply isn't energization or "oxygenation," but constricted blood vessels in the brain. Your brain is actually getting less oxygen than if you were to breathe normally!
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
- Understanding Chair Posture
- 5 Reasons To Backbend
- Lock the Knee History
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- Should We Be Teaching Advanced Postures in a Beginning Class?
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- The Oxygenation Myth