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Monthly Archives: November 2016

Mindful Eating for a Happy Christmas

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How do you feel when you think about ‘Christmas food’? Does your mouth water? Do you resign yourself to the fact that you will over-eat and plan to make up for it in the New Year? Do you panic at the thought of there being lots of ‘fattening’ foods to avoid? Then it could be time to start practising ‘mindful eating’…

Tulsi with cake mixer for mindful eating blog

Eating should always be a pleasure!

Eating more than we really need, and eating food that is convenient but not necessarily what our body needs, is an easy thing to do – even more so during the festive season.  Whether it’s the seemingly endless supply of Quality Streets found in offices across the land, the box of mince pies hiding in every kitchen cupboard ‘in case someone comes round’, or those last few roast potatoes that ‘need eating up’, there’s always something available, always something to reach for without thinking.

For some people, the ongoing availability of food – particularly at Christmas – presents a different problem: they feel guilty about eating certain types of food and go out of their way to avoid them. This has as much potential to bring about an unhelpful relationship with food as the tendency to gobble up whatever is being offered – the mind develops thought-patterns which underpin and reinforce negative ideas about body image. In this way, under-eating can become something we do without thinking, too.

Mindful eating for pleasure and good health

One way of exercising our powers of awareness, so that we can make conscious decisions about what we eat – and, importantly, truly enjoy and benefit from the things we consume – is to practice ‘mindful eating’. Before we go on to the ‘how’, here are a couple of definitions of mindful eating:

“Mindful Eating is allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom” ~ The Center for Mindful Eating

“Mindful eating is eating with intention and attention: Eating with the intention of caring for yourself [and] eating with the attention necessary for noticing and enjoying your food and its effects on your body” ~ Am I Hungry?

As these two statements suggest, there are big advantages that come with eating mindfully – the main one being that when we are aware of what we are doing, we can make choices which will have positive effects on our physical and mental health. The person who has a tendency to unthinkingly swallow more than their fair share of chocolates can choose to say ‘No, thank you’ when offered yet another, and the person who has grown to deny themselves the pleasure of eating sweet treats can choose to say ‘Yes, please!’.

Yoga and mindful eating

Have your cake and eat it!

Have your cake and eat it!

This is all good news for those of us who attempt to live our lives according to the principles of yoga, which state that a healthy mind and a healthy body create the optimum conditions for our practice – and, therefore, for reaching the goal of spiritual enlightenment that a consistent and dedicated yoga practice promises.

Not only this, but by training our powers of awareness through the practice of mindful eating, we can pay more attention to everything else we do: the things we think about, the words that leave our lips, and our behaviour in the world. Practising mindful eating works very much like practising yoga postures – we learn to listen to our inner wisdom. Just as we might acknowledge thirst and quench it with a glass of water, we can identify the need to adapt a posture in order to avoid injury, or to deepen the pose.

How to eat mindfully

One very effective exercise for honing your mindful eating skills is given in ‘A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook’, by Stahl & Goldstein. It involves spending time looking at, smelling and considering what you’re about to eat, before gradually taking in more and more sensory details as you put the item in your mouth and chew it.

If you’ve never done this exercise with us in our classes, have a go at home. Try the exercise with a small a handful of raisins, as suggested in this adaptation of Stahl & Goldsteins’ mindful eating exercise, and then see if you can apply the same technique in other situations – like when you’re sitting at the Christmas dinner table!

Read more about how you can gain control over your desires!

Turn on, tune in, drop out?

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Could you give up communication technology for a month? No late night phone calls with your lover, no scrolling down your Facebook newsfeed on the bus, no emails to open while you have your first coffee of the day. On the face of it, it sounds impossible – we live in an age where these things are the norm – but when Peacock Tree Yoga student and teacher, Steve Poile, traveled to a remote ashram in India, he was determined to leave the electronic world behind… 

Sivananda ashram, Himalayas

An ashram by the Ganges. Perfect.

This was my second TTC – the first in Mysore at The Mystic School last year, was in the centre of the city with meals and access to the outside world a short walk from the classroom. Whilst it was a great Indian experience, it lacked the peace and tranquility I was seeking. I wanted a place where I’d be able to develop a deeper spiritual practice, create closer ties with the Sivananda path, develop my readiness to teach, and withdraw from the outside world in order to be able to focus on my own yoga practice.

After a lot of research, I decided to register with the Sivananda Kutir, Uttarkashi, an ashram next to the Ganges, in the foothills of the Himalayas. It offered everything I was looking for, in particular, a core focus on Sivananda yoga, remoteness in the mountains, and an absence of any outside distractions due to the (supposed) unavailability of wifi and mobile phone signals.

Leaving it all behind

Departing from York, it took over 40 hours travelling time to reach the Ashram, the last leg of the journey being a seven-hour car journey from Rishikesh (the spiritual home of Swami Sivananda) through mountain passes and past beautiful scenery to the little collection of buildings by the Ganges that was to be home for the next month.

After just one day to recover from the trip, the ashram experience began, with a daily schedule as reliable as the sounds that formed our soundtrack; the rushing water of the Ganges, the melodic calls of exotic birds, and the rhythms of the local bugs:

  • 5am – get up
    meal time at the ashram

    Even meal times were a meditation of sorts.

  • 6am – Satsang (meditation and chanting)
  • 8am – asana practice
  • 10am – brunch
  • 10.30am – karma yoga (performing helpful tasks around the ashram)
  • 12 noon – lectures
  • 4pm – asana practice (yes, another one)
  • 6pm – dinner
  • 7pm – Satsang
  • 9.30pm – lights out

The Ashram ‘rules’

All activities are compulsory at the ashram, there are no exceptions. All food is sattvic lacto-vegetarian, consisting of one veg curry or dahl and rice (sometimes substituted by a dosa, noodles or roti), and a piece of fruit – all very basic but delicious. Everything – Satsang, meals, lectures – is undertaken sitting cross-legged on the floor. Daily Vedanta and asana homework must be crammed into the few moments of spare time since there’s no room for falling behind – hand-in is required the following day.

I was expecting all of this. However, there was one ‘rule’ which no longer applied. The relentless march of technology meant that the local area had recently obtained a 3G mobile phone signal! Giving up communication technology was no longer an externally imposed withdrawal from the external world, but a choice I would have to make. Did I switch on my phone and have access to the outside world or did I keep it switched off and maintain the remoteness and withdrawal? I chose the latter, since this was an opportunity to experience a different pace of life and be liberated from the demands of modern technology.

Read about Rob Milner’s yoga studies in Austria

Tuning out and tuning in

PTY_ashram_blog_steve_meditation

A moment of pure stillness

Every day as I awoke, I no longer felt the desire to reach for the phone and see the latest news, emails, and Facebook posts. Instead, I focused on my own wellbeing, prepared for the day and quietly walked to the Satsang hall free from thoughts generated by this and that in the world beyond the ashram walls. As the month progressed, my mind became quieter and more peaceful. I didn’t once feel the need to switch on my phone. I felt liberated, able to sit by the Ganges, my spine tingling as I felt only love radiating out, and a blissful nothing coming in.

The modern world, with its demands on your time and resources is, you begin to understand, a self-made constraint imposed by the self on the self. I can choose to allow social media, email, mobile phone and so on to make constant demands, or I can choose to ignore these demands. The more I ignore them the quieter they become, and in turn the quieter and calmer my mind becomes.

Bringin’ it all back home…

When I returned to the UK I asked people what of importance had happened whilst I was away. My question was met with quizzical responses….nobody could really recall anything of importance that was worth a mention. I hadn’t missed a thing – and that’s partly why I have chosen to maintain a lower level of reliance on technology now I’m back on home soil. I leave the phone at home and don’t reach for it in the morning, and in doing so, I’ve managed to retain a quiet mind and a sense of calmness. It feels strange at times since I was used to having a mind full of thoughts.

So did I achieve the objectives I set out at the start of my trip? The answer is as loud and noticeable as the sound of insects scurrying along the stone floor of the quiet ashram: Yes! The regularity and simplicity of ashram life, combined with a voluntary withdrawal from technology, allowed me to delve deep into my yoga studies, and tune into an inner peace and tranquility that I’ve been able to hold on to – even when my phone lights up.

 

By the light of the silvery moon…

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Something big and special is in our midst, according to the world’s astronomers and astrologers. You might even have seen one of the many online articles about it – ‘it’ being the November 2016 Supermoon. This full moon, we’re told, will be one of the best for a long time to come due to its proximity to the earth.

For Ashtanga yoga practitioners, a full moon will always be worth observing. New moons, too. Ashtangis practising in the traditional way (as taught by Sri K Pattabhi Jois) consider moon days as holidays. Guruji, as the tradition’s founding father was affectionately known by his students, told his students that when the earth, sun and moon are all in a straight line in space, universal energy is much stronger, and the possibility of injury is greater – hence, asana practice should be avoided.

The Jois family has a strong background in Vedic astrology, which should be taken into consideration when we speak about the importance of the phase of the moon to Ashtanga yoga. It’s worth noting, too, that Guruji himself was born on a full moon, giving him the ability to “bring consciousness to bear on the hidden dimensions of life”, according to one astrology website. Why not find out what phase of the moon you were born in?

Subtle energetic body

Subtle energy in motion

But it’s not just in the Ashtanga yoga world, where we find respect for the phase of the moon, and encouragement to slow down and adapt our practice. Hatha yoga, which we can consider as the umbrella term for all forms of physical yoga practice, including Ashtanga vinyasa, is all about balancing heightened and subdued energy – whether these are brought about by the phase of the moon, or the time of the year.

What goes up…

According to Satyananda Saraswati, author of the popular contemporary text on Hatha yoga, ‘Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha’, during the full moon cycle, pranic energy (prana vayu) is dominant. This pranic energy is upward moving – through the spine and towards the head. When this happens, we tend to experience an increase of internal fluid, physical energy and mental activity.

During the new Moon cycle, apranic energy (apana vayu) is said to be dominant. Apranic energy is downward moving – towards the base of the spine – making this period one of elimination and reduction. People will often notice a loss of internal fluid, dry, stiff muscles and joints, decreased physical and mental energy, and a sense of lethargy and moodiness.

The ebb and flow of nature

Western science is pretty much on board with the idea that the phase of the moon can affect our energy levels. We know that our bodies are made of 70% water, and that this makes us vulnerable to the gravitational pull of the sun and moon, much like our oceans and seas. The science doesn’t end there, either, with yogic notions of energy and the movement of energy corresponding with Western medicine’s understanding of the nervous system.

The energetic body

PTY full moon blog anuloma viloma

Anuloma Viloma balances energy

In yoga, we have the concept of nadis, which are believed to carry this life force known as ‘prana’ (in Sanskrit) or ‘qi’ in Chinese-based systems. We can think of nadis as invisible veins running throughout the body. The most important ‘vein’ is the shushumna nadi, which corresponds with the spine and is the vessel for awakened Kundalini energy – energy which rises and leads to enlightenment!

Two other significant nadis are the Ida and Pingala nadis – and these are often compared to the two hemispheres of the brain; Ida reflecting the left side, and Pingala the right. Prana (active energy) circulates inside Pingala, while apana (passive energy) flows through Ida. For optimum health and spiritual wellbeing, Hatha yoga tells us we must ensure that these energies work in harmony with each other.

The physical body

The autonomic nervous system (which we can sum up as ‘all the things our bodies do without our conscious involvement’ – a beating heart or a perspiring forehead, for example), is comprised of two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic system prepares the body for ‘fight or flight’ during stressful situations, by raising the heart rate, releasing adrenalin and firing up the muscles. The parasympathetic system, on the other hand, operates during normal situations and is there for responsible for things like digestion and the conservation of energy.

If we’re constantly stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, be it with activity, stressful situations, or a full moon, we’re at risk of activating the parasympathetic nervous system so much so, that it becomes the norm. And as a result, so too does high blood pressure, inability to sleep, and a damaging expenditure of energy. Conversely, if we’re only ever in a state of rest, we will never get anything done! And so it is that we must find a balance between the two.

Yoga for a full moon

In Ashtanga yoga, many practitioners will gladly take a day off during a full moon, such as the one on November 14th – and understandably so, since they do generally commit themselves to six early morning practices a week! Many others will adapt their practice, often taking their lead from a ‘moon sequence’ devised by world-renowned Ashtangi, Matthew Sweeney (see video, below).

In our classes this week, we will observe the Supermoon and bring about energetic balance by focusing on twists, and along with postures which give us a sense of being grounded – tethered and resistant to the unbalancing, upward pull of the full moon. We’ll also utilise Anuloma Viloma and spend time in Tratak meditation – a way of focusing the mind, whilst honouring the light in our Selves and the light of the sun, reflected on the surface of the full moon.

The cool winds of vata…

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If you’ve noticed an increasing sense of unease lately, and have been feeling scattered, exhausted and anxious, then you’re probably wondering why – and worrying if it will ever end.  The good news is, it will, but maybe not until Spring – unless you choose to make some adjustments now. And how do you do that? Well, as Bob Dylan so memorably put it, the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind…

bob dylan album cover for PTY vata blog

Bob knows all about vata

It’s typical at this time of the year – when the Autumn winds are shaking down the trees and Winter’s long fingers begin to give us an icy poke, as though warning us of an impending deep freeze – for our bodies to respond. We can feel stiff and fragile, we might experience difficulty sleeping, and develop dry skin – as though the wind and cool temperatures are shaking us down, too. And when our bodies feel under assault, so do our minds.

According to the ancient science of Ayurveda (a system for maintaining physical and mental wellbeing, which developed alongside yoga and is considered its sister science), when we experience these changes, it’s due to an excess of ‘vata’.  The cooler months of the year are renowned for creating this effect.

What is vata?

Vata is one of the three doshas, or types of energy, which Ayurvedic science tells us each person is made up of (the others are ‘kapha’ and ‘pitta’). None of us are the same, according to this theory; we’re all composed of different amounts of each dosha – and it’s a matter of maintaining our individual constitution in order to maintain optimum health. If you’re curious to know your dosha type, you can find out very easily and for free on the Chopra Center website (in return for your email address).

For our purposes, the point is this: whether vata plays a dominant role in your make-up or not, Autumn and Winter still have plenty of potential for creating excessive amounts of this fast and flighty kind of energy – an energy which, when in balance fuels our creativity and vitality, makes us quick and bright, joyful and active, but causes fear and anxiety when in excess – as well as countless other symptoms, as listed in this article from Svastha Ayurveda, a holistic healthcare practice based in Colorado.

‘That which moves things’

Windmills and vata

Vata in balance brings joy, not stress

So, what to do with all this ‘vata’ swirling around in the November air, moving through us and within us? Well one thing we can do is play vata at her own game. If we translate the word ‘vata’ from Sanskrit to English, we get ‘that which moves things’ – and therein lies the answer: we move – mindfully. In doing so, we soothe the nervous system whilst generating lubricating and nourishing heat in the body.

A fluid, yet grounding yoga asana practice, such as the one we’ll be working on in our classes this week, offers us the perfect way to raise the temperature and focus the mind. But it’s not only the healing effects of asana that yoga brings to the Ayurvedic table. Pranayama, meditation and relaxation also help to stop our swirling thoughts, our fluttery stomachs, our shortness of breath. In short, yoga can help us remain calm, joyful, warm and secure, in even the strongest of winds.

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the yoga student adjusts the sails” ~ William Arthur Ward (paraphrased!)