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Yoga Me Well Blog Archive

Lingo Phobia

“Let’s begin in Tadasana. Inhale. Exhale, move into uttanasana . . . Place your legs wide, turn the right foot out, moving into utthita parsvakonasana. Sally, not trikonasana. Ian? We’ll do parivrtta parsvakonasana later. Right now, it’s utthita parsvakonasana. Remember? No, like this.”

Sanskrit was the sacred language of Hindu gods, so why are local yoga teachers delivering it to the world’s least receptive audience? For most Aussies, primary-school Mandarin and even `easier’ Latin faves like French broke the brain belt. Yet here we are, a nation of eager yoga students, straining to understand a zombie language barely uttered in India. (About 50,000 of the 1.1 billion population speak Sanskrit fluently). Even Catholics gave up on the Latin mass…

And yet, I love Sanskrit, the way those cascading consonants limber my lips, and it can be wonderfully soothing to chant foreign words, gliding along a soundscape instead of intellectualising its content.

As in all things yoga, there is a profound point to Sanskrit. Its spoken or sung vibration has therapeutic effects on the mind and body, whether you understand it or not. That “Om” tattooed on your “buttock”? You’re better off “omming” it, than wearing it, because its three-part chant delivers a vibrational connection to universal consciousness.

I did, however, spend eight years at an Iyengar school feeling like the slackest twice-weekly yoga student on Earth for not understanding the consonants that tumbled like dry pebbles from my teacher’s mouth. “Do what?” I’d desperately cast sideways for someone already in the pose. It was a big ask, I thought, to absorb kilometre-long foreign words in a one-hour yoga class as we swept from one asana to the next. I felt stupid, alienated.

I still do at times, because Sanskrit wasn’t a major part of my teacher training. There is earnest discussion among the teaching community about the use of Sanskrit for instruction in classes, and we’re divided over the issue.

While we can all appreciate the rousing vibration of a choir in full anthem, it’s only a select few who honour Italian Opera, and they’re given a program to understand the story, which isn’t the norm in an your average yoga class. “Here’s your Sanskrit sheet, now place your shoes to the side.”

You’ll find plenty of teachers who say “Mountain Pose”, “Extended Side Angle Pose” and “This is Really Good for Alleviating Stress Pose” to save the facial anguish that betrays Sanskrit-challenged students. And plenty more who make up lively mnemonics for poses: “Peeling Pelvis”, “Upface Puppy” or “Flopping Fish on the Pier”.

If you want to hook into the mystery of Sanskrit, check out the Sanskrit for the postures you do at Yoga, ask your teacher for a word sheet, or to consider using English translations. And if it’s all a bit beyond you, relax in the knowledge that you’re in the student majority.

Yoga Speak

It must sound weird the way yoga teachers desert street-side English for arcane forms of expression like “breath into your belly” and “linger in your heartspace”.

You’re thinking: “Okaaay. How exactly do I do that?” Then the seemingly impossible
metaphoric task arrives: “Imagine you’re a jellyfish, and as you expand and contract, the cells of your body pulse to receive life force and expel toxins”. (fab photo by Erwin Kodiat).

Teachers strive to make the practice meaningful for you and hope like hell you’ve got the Discovery Channel’s `corps de ballet’ jellyfish in your head, not some mashed-up, beached gelatine. They have some fairly nebulous concepts to get across as they guide your yoga practice toward a spiritual experience, and beautiful, evocative language is the key.

“Breath into your armpits”. You already know your aluminium-free deodorant doesn’t cut it. This instruction is about visualising the loosening of your muscles. Picture your breath, say, as a wave gathering momentum through your body and into the muscles of your armpit region, where it swells and, on the out breath, dissolves the tightness gained from hunching over a computer all day. It’s a far more useful direction, for some, than “stretch your pecs”; particularly if you don’t know what, or where, your pecs are.

“Fill your heartspace with light”. . . sure, the left chest cavity is filled with blood, soft tissue and bulky organ but, energetically (and we are just a collection of atoms), the heartspace is the seat of love, and light is the highest, most pure vibration we can see . Why not fill your heartspace with light, instead of less choice vibrations like car horns, text messages, or aching emotion?

Every lingo has its place. Imagine translating media footy-speak from “Juddy dug the ball out of the pack” to “Chris pulled the football away from his competitors”…

The language of yoga, be it bizarre, analogous, metaphoric and figurative, is about getting you to view your mind and body as something far more than just a physical presence. It’s about heightening your awareness on every level in order to peel back the layers to reveal your innate spiritual centre.

Lisa Mitchell is a hatha yoga teacher, relaxation instructor and freelance writer/editor who specialises in holistic wellbeing.

Liv Mitchell

Liv Mitchell is a hatha yoga teacher, relaxation instructor and freelance writer/editor who specialises in holistic wellbeing.

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Yoga-ing thru the Ups & Downs

If you’ve fallen in love with yoga or are newly exploring it, you’ve probably met at least one teacher or fellow student who radiates that something special you’d like more of. What is it about being bendy that makes you a shinier person?

Your teacher tells you how asanas rejuvenate your innards in multi-fabulous ways, but how exactly does yoga create nicer, calmer, more even people that others like to be around? How does mat practice help you yoga through the ups and downs of life?

Off, On, Off, On, On, On: For too many of us, the autonomic nervous system’s “fight or flight” stress response is jammed to “On”. Each class retrains your body to move quickly between the “On” response during heart-pumping asanas and the parasympathetic nervous system’s “Off” response when you’re instructed to take a micro-rest. Outside class, how quickly can you recalibrate after an argument? Can you employ the same focussed will to quiet a racing mind or heart? Be the duck – let the small stuff trickle off your back and you’ll swim more smoothly through life.

Surprise! You’re in charge: If you take just one breathing technique from class and use it to alter your state of being when you’re anxious, snappy, exhausted, you’re doing the world a big favour. It breaks that reactive cycle of lashing out when you’re not centred and, just as it does in class, it glues the fragmented pieces of you together again.

Adventure inward: Yoga is a multi dimensional practice and an adventurous journey. Your first destination is focus. You can spend years foraging here, working out when a stretch is heading for a strain, learning which postures ignite, or wipe, your energy. You practise catching your mind’s participation (and impact) during class as it meanders from critical thought to useful observation. Focus introduces you to feelings that bubble up on the mat, like restlessness, superiority, boredom, irritation and defeat, and asks you “Why?”.

Outside class, that multi-level directory of awareness begins filtering into your day until you become the expert observer of your own foibles. You’ll notice how many times you barely breathe, you’ll catch your shoulders hanging out with your ears, and any damaging thoughts before they become words or actions. You’ll learn to feel your feelings and deal with them, instead of stuffing them into your cellular structure where they backlog energy, swell and flare into dis-ease.

Theme of the week: Many teachers structure their class around a theme to give you a philosophical anchor and new perspective. It might encourage you to practise acceptance, gratitude or compassion. If it resonates strongly with you in class, consider that your spiritual homework for the week ahead. My favourite? Imagine your thoughts are on loudspeaker…

Roll the mat, nicely: Being asked to fold your blankets a certain way and to stack them neatly shows respect for the next student and respect for the property. Why forget those small acts of service outside class? The shiny person doesn’t mind changing the office toilet roll and hasn’t forgotten the Nod of Gratitude to the driver who lets them though. They put their own dirty clothes in the laundry basket and wash their own coffee cup at work, and maybe someone else’s.

I surrender!: In class we learn to “give in” and “let go” in between postures to allow the body time to assimilate the benefits such as nourishment received (richly oxygenated blood), improved energy flow and toxin/tension release. When we surrender in relaxation, the reward is an exquisite sense of wellbeing and connection with something bigger. Much bigger.

In life, sometimes when we’ve considered all the angles and still feel stumped, the answer comes through surrender, that process of turning it over to a higher power and saying “I’ve sat with this situation long enough, I’m dismissing it from my thoughts and handing it over. I’ll wait for a sign. When I see it, or feel it, I’ll know how to act.”

Life, it’s all practice: At a recent Yoga in Daily Life teacher’s workshop Gita gently reminded us: “It is just practice after all.” As on the mat, so in life. Yogis live by the credo that every moment of every day is an opportunity to grow. We’re practicing to be better people. When things go awry in life, practise new responses until you find what works. If you’ve learned to arrive at the mat with an open heart, and to practice without judgement and to accept where you’re at physically, emotionally and mentally during that hour, just roll that attitude up and take it with you. That way, you’ll keep practising.

Lisa Mitchell is a hatha yoga teacher, relaxation instructor and freelance writer/editor specialising in holistic wellbeing.

Liv Mitchell

Liv Mitchell is a hatha yoga teacher, relaxation instructor and freelance writer/editor who specialises in holistic wellbeing.

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Yoga – the New Religion?

Warrior 1It’s no coincidence that yoga is so popular. We are, after all, in the midst of a spiritual renaissance.

In 1901, a whopping 96.1 per cent of Australians were anchored to a particular religion while just 0.4 per cent had none, according to Census data. By 2006, only 63.8 per cent were packaging their god, while 18.7 per cent declared they had none ― that’s a lot of people weighing anchor.

As a spiritual path, yoga must be doing something right to have so many agnostics and lapsed church-goers rolling out their mats each week.

One reason why people gravitate so readily toward it is because they can hide their spiritual aspirations ― and their existential vacuums ― behind a bad back, a desperate need to contact their toes and the after-work stress detox.

Once ensconced in a class, it’s the stayers, who secretly hope this “my body is a temple” fever could work wonders for them too, though it often takes a while to realise it…

At first, only 18 per cent of the 4000 yoga practitioners in the RMIT University “Yoga in Australia Survey” (the world’s largest yoga survey!) saw it as a “spiritual path” or “personal development” tool. But after practising, that figure topped the chakra charts at 41 per cent.

DIY faith

As religious conviction waivers, yoga studios flourish on the corners where churches (and pubs!) once provided sanctuary. It’s not that yoga is the new religion, it’s more that cherry picking your faith is the order of the day ― a bushel of Buddhism, a peck of Patanjali, a chapter of Eckhart Tolle, and a pinch of Oprah ― and yoga’s countless traditions offer the confused seeker plenty of philosophical choice.

There’s Patanjali’s classic Yoga Sutras offering the yamas & and niyamas as your travel guide through life and the notion that a Divine spark exists within us as part of a much larger Creative or Intelligent Force. There’s Tantra, which far from being sex-obsessed, homogenises that Great Spirit ― it’s in everything, so embrace the Divine aspect in that flat tyre, that wily cat, that arthritic knee, that dulcet dawn. Advaita Vedanta goes a quantum leap further, saying that the physical self and world are an illusion, there is only one Divine reality.

So sip from one tradition, nestle into another, then shake it all up by diving elsewhere. These days, it’s acceptable to adopt the bits that resonate best. And if that leads to more self-aware, self responsible people with expansive values, it can only be good thing.

My body is a temple?

Religion, for me, always felt more like an intellectual exercise. I found no comfort on a hard pew in a drafty church on Sunday mornings. The recitation of prayers in arcane language only cured insomnia, and drab hymns failed to hoist me aloft a wave of vibratory joy.

My closest connection to God came in our private chats, which was far chummier than turning to the oration of some ornately robed priest atop his marble altar. I wanted a Bluetooth connection to God.

Yoga, meanwhile, offered something entirely experiential.

Regular use of yoga techniques like pranayama (breath work), physical postures (asana), song (chanting), and yoga nidra (relaxation), leads to that serene lily pad within that activates a reassurance about the complexities of life. Through meditation, the hum of the Big Spirit filters in, and lingers.

Slowly that very god-ness shifts into our very bones, our physical being. When we begin to enjoy stillness and, occasionally, that overwhelming sense of wellbeing during our practice, then we understand how the body becomes the temple.

Once my mind learned to direct tendrils of breath through the body, I became calm, concretised muscles softened, extending limbs felt like working with chewing gum. The very gradual unblocking of my body through regular work led to a lightness of energy, while meditation delivered that pervading sense of “it’s all gonna be okay”.

As for yoga nidra (end of class relaxation), like most stayers, I am ever eager to waft into that expansiveness, that place where the body connects with a floaty feeling of one-ness with all there is.

Spirit, Spirit, Who’s got the Spirit?

If you’ve reached that point in your practice where you’re noticing terrific physical benefits but feeling like this yoga caper promised much, much more, it sounds like spiritual guidance is missing.

Changing teachers to broaden your horizons is hardly like excommunicating yourself from religion. There are plenty of traditions that adeptly weave yogic perspectives into classes, such as the Gita, Satyananda, Shiva and Anusara traditions to name a few, and there are plenty of individual teachers who do not.

It’s the application of yoga philosophy from the mat to daily life that ultimately brings a true sense of direction and meaning to your life (see yamas and niyamas above), so don’t shy from asking prospective teachers if they tuck a little Spirit into your yoga hour.

Liv Mitchell

Liv Mitchell is a hatha yoga teacher, relaxation instructor and freelance writer/editor who specialises in holistic wellbeing.

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