Monday, November 27, 2006

The Skinny on Yoga - December Newsletter

Food and weight are such difficult issues for most of us – I can’t think of anyone who has a straightforward relationship with either food, or their weight. As children, we are often rewarded with sweets, or punished by having dessert withheld.

These and many other societal pressures shape our eating habits and self-images. It really doesn’t help most women that all our role models are super-skinny. Not all of us are made to be like that, and we can all be gorgeous, in our own unique way, which is better than the homogenous images we see in the mass media anyway!

Many, many people have asked me if yoga can help weight loss, and my answer is ‘Yes, but…’ As with all things yogic, there are many grey areas. On the most basic level, yoga will help you lose weight by getting you moving and burning more calories than you would sitting on the couch. However, even the sweatiest, most strenuous yoga session burns fewer calories than more traditional aerobic activities like running. So this is part of how it helps, but maybe not the main part.

Secondly, as with all resistance-type activities, you build muscle mass with yoga, so your basal metabolic rate (the amount of calories you need for basic bodily functions like breathing) rises. Muscle uses more energy than fat, even when you are idle, and most committed long-term yogis have high muscle tone.

By far the most important way yoga seems to help with weight loss and management, is that it makes you more conscious of how and what you eat. Unconscious eating habits are largely responsible for the ‘kilo creep’ that sneaks up over time. Once again, there are often emotional uses for food, and yoga can bring these into sharper focus, helping you to deal with your discomfort without having to ‘medicate’ it with food. After a while, you may even find that you want to eat in a healthier way because you are more aware of how food makes you feel.

Ironically, most people who are trying to lose weight are unhappy with themselves as they are, and since they don’t like themselves, they often do things that will sabotage their best efforts at self-control. A regular yoga practice will tend to improve self-image, when you discover that you are stronger or more flexible, possibly more graceful than you thought. You may discover that the breath awareness from a regular yoga practice helps you to be more in the moment and more inside yourself, rather than always reacting to what others expect, what the media tell you should be, and so on.

Becoming more aware may also start to shift your relationship to food, and you might begin to eat for nourishment, rather than to dull the pain of unresolved issues, or because you can’t help yourself, or because you are exhausted…..

I have personally seen some minor miracles with yoga and weight loss – one of the case-study patients I met in India had managed to reduce his weight by 40kg over a period of four years, with very simple yoga, and eating guidelines which he only began to follow several months after he began a regular yoga practice. His rationale was that if yoga was really so powerful, it would make him want to stop overeating, and it did! His success was also partly due to the fact that he knew it was going to be a long-term process – yoga is not a quick fix, since it involves changing your entire lifestyle.

I also lost a considerable amount of weight, primarily from my yoga practice. I lost around 14kgs, and have maintained a healthy weight for years now. I do yoga every day for an hour and a half, and sometimes I pig out on chocolate. It always makes me feel rotten though, and in a few days I come back to eating well. So I know that greater self-awareness is one of the most important aspects to the complicated weight-loss equation.

One thing yoga can’t do, is make you into someone you are not. For instance, I may be slim and wear small sized clothes, but I still look curvy and always will, unless I develop an eating disorder. Mostly I am OK with this, because when I am doing my asana practice, my body feels strong and open, and in some postures, beautiful. I have no idea how it looks – not important! If you are made with hips or a tummy, you will probably always have a little bit extra in that area. Embrace your uniqueness, your perfection as you are now. If you can do that, you may find weight loss disappearing from your to-do list!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Sun Salutes to get you through the holidays

The end-of-year holidays are looming, and with them invariably come too much food and too little exercise. December's newsletter will cover the food part, but if you are going away and want to continue your yoga practice, start with the basics: Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutes).

Just repeating this sequence several times (or many times!) is a full-body workout, moving all your joints, slightly elevating your heart rate, and encouraging good digestion.

If you want the Sanskrit names of the poses, they are in Asa-what?

Begin standing with feet together, hands at your sides.

Inhale, raise your arms.

Exhale, fold forward.

Inhale, lunge the left leg back.

Exhale, step your feet together for downward dog.

Inhale, upward dog.

Exhale, chaturanga dandasana.

Then go back the way you came:
Inhale, upward dog.
Exhale, downward dog.
Inhale. lunge the left leg forward.
Exhale, feet together and fold forward.
Inhale, raise the arms.
Exhale, hands by your sides.

Repeat with the other leg, to complete one round, then do as many more as you like!

Remember, your breath should be smooth and even, and if you have health issues, its always best to learn this with a qualified teacher first.

More sequences coming soon.

Making Space

Ever noticed how people in pain curl into the foetal position? Or how, when you are in the midst of a crisis, you just can’t see a way out? So did the ancient yogis. That’s why the Sanskrit word for suffering is dukham, which literally means ‘shrinking’, while it’s opposite, comfort or ease, is sukham, which translates as ‘expansion’ or ‘space’.

These concepts apply to the physical body, the breath, and the mind in equal measure, since they are all interconnected. In ‘The Yoga of the Yogi’, Kausthub Desikachar writes: “Yoga teaches that the human system is a holistic unit comprised of several dimensions or levels. We are not just a physical body, our human system is much more complex than that. We have a breathing body that keeps us alive. We are made up of senses, which help us feel and perceive the world around us. We have a mind or intellect, which allows us to perceive or analyse things in a particular way. A philosopher will look at a situation in one way, for example, while a scientist will look at the same situation in an entirely different way.”

The basic goal of all yoga practice is to ease or end dukham (suffering). The Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali say:
dukha daurmanasya angamejayatva svasaprasvasah viksepa sahabhuvah (YS 1.31)

‘Emotional disturbance, negative thinking bodily reaction and changes in breathing pattern are the symptoms of the agitated person.’

We are all familiar with these symptoms. Sometimes they occur together, and at others there will just be one.

For example, if you get the flu, initially the only change may be a bodily reaction, but if the unpleasant symptoms persist, you might find yourself prey to daurmanasya (negative thinking) too. And then you start to ‘shrink’. This is why we need yoga - to make space.

Kausthub Desikachar says, again in ‘The Yoga of the Yogi’, that “Krishnamacharya knew this about yoga, that it replenishes us, refreshes and calms us, and gives us space to examine our lives. This is why he insisted on a daily discipline, not only to keep us healthy, but also to allow us the space to evaluate our overall health.”

We practice asana (postures) to make space in our joints by promoting flexibility of the muscles and connective tissue, and we make space in the lungs by breathing consciously. These practices give us a bit of quiet time to examine and calm the workings of our minds.

The practice of yoga is not restricted to asana and pranayama (breath control), but encompasses a wide range of activities, including mediation, chanting, devotional practices for those who are religious, visualisation, dietary restrictions, and of course, the yamas and niyamas (yoga ethics) which govern how we live in the world.

This means yoga is accessible to everyone on a daily basis, and the benefits can be reaped from any and all of these practices. For example, if you are allergic to wheat, and every time you eat it, you get a horrible rash, you can practice the restraint of excluding it from your diet. This will have the result of easing your suffering - promoting sukham or space.

This month, think about what causes you the most distress - be it physical, emotional, mental, or all three. Spend some time reflecting on what would ease that distress, and then take action! You may decide to include more yoga classes in your weekly routine, or you may decide to practice sun salutes every morning when you wake up.

Perhaps your yoga practice will be as simple (but not easy!) as eliminating a food from your diet that causes ill effects. You may want to step up your religious observances, if you have a religious practice. For example, most religions require their adherents to stick to certain dietary regulations. This has a very important function - eating with awareness and respect for your food improves the quality of prana or nutrition that you take from that food.

If the action is performed consciously and with the intention of eliminating suffering, it qualifies as yoga.

Yoga for Comfort

At KYM (the yoga school I went to in September), everything is very logically ordered, including the way asana practice is taught. There are three main krama (stages) that apply to most people:
Shristi Krama
This is basically Ashtanga yoga - postures are taught in a flowing sequence linked by sun salutations. The aim of this type of practice is to increase flexibility and strength and improve concentration. It is usually taught to children and teenagers.

Sikshana Krama
Once a student has mastered shristi krama, they move on to siksana krama, with the emphasis on perfecting the classical asana. This is taught in much the same way as Iyengar yoga and is usually taught to older teenagers and young adults.

Raksana Krama
This stage of yoga practice is for people who have many commitments - children, jobs, running a home and so on. It is designed to undo any damage caused by your day-to-day activities and to provide the necessary strength and energy to cope with life’s demands.

In The Viniyoga of Yoga, TKV Desikachar writes:

‘In planning an asana sequence, asanas are not placed one after another at random, but are arranged carefully. First the student should have a goal for the practice. In a classical situation, the goal is to achieve a specific asana, or to prepare for a precise pranayama practice.

Often, in actual situations, since many people are not ready to practice the classical postures and come to practice yoga for different reasons, this goal can be expressed in terms such as:

  • practicing a difficult posture, or doing a daily routine to keep fit
  • getting some specific physical benefits like becoming more flexible
  • gaining strength or stamina
  • improving some mental characteristics - patience, determination, achieving inner calm
  • reducing some pain. recovering from an injury, working towards better health.
  • preparing for a prayer, a meditation, a specific spiritual practice.’

People who start practicing yoga as adults are usually motivated by one of these reasons, and at KYM healthy adult beginners will usually be taught a raksana practice.

The central concept of raksana is that the practice should not aggravate any pre-existing conditions. Function is more important than form, so the way an asana looks is less important than its effect. This is interesting for me - coming from an Ashtanga background, where everyone has to fit the practice, rather than the other way around!

The asana practice during the first part of our course was very gentle, with a great deal of emphasis on breath. This turned out to be a great idea, since most of us Westerners are not accustomed to 38 degree heat with 80% humidity, and we would probably have passed out if the practice was vigourous. This is the essence of raksana - first do no harm.

As the weeks progressed, the practice got more strenuous, although still much calmer than what I am accustomed to.

Remarkably, instead of feeling tired after my practice, I felt rejuvenated and alert. My body and breath also started to change - my shoulders got more flexible, and my breath count doubled.

This raised an interesting question for me:
Is an extremely challenging practice either necessary or beneficial?

I haven’t come up with an absolute answer, as a challenging practice has its pluses - increased confidence, the endorphin rush, strength building ... Perhaps its just as they say at KYM - the practice should suit the individual, so for some of us challenging is great, and for some of us a quieter practice is better.

In the next few weeks, perhaps take time during your practice to reflect on what makes you feel energised, calm and alert, and what makes you feel edgy or unbalanced.

Self Consciousness

Most of us associate self-consciousness with discovering you have the World's Biggest Pimple on the eve of your Matric Dance, or with being caught in your slippers at the garage shop by an ex-boyfriend. But there is another kind - the consciousness of your Self - of who you are, without the soundtrack of your mother's voice, without your possessions, without your physical or mental abilities. It is this self-consciousness that yoga aims to achieve, through the practice of asana and mediation.

This has huge benefits. I can credit the beginning of a serious daily meditation practice with having the confidence to quit my job, begin teaching yoga full-time, and make a living. It just never seemed like an option before. According to Dr Tracey Gaudet, in her book Consciously Female, women who make time to become more in tune with themselves report a significant decrease in PMS symptoms, and a recent study in the US on a group of 5th grade females tracked the influence of a 10-week intervention based on yoga, guided relaxation, and journaling. The experiment was aimed at possible prevention of eating disorders and found that the participants reported reduced feelings of body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness at the end of the study. Although not an exhaustive study, this gives us proof that yoga and other mind-body interventions offer a way to counteract the constant sensation overload we face every day - email, phones, TV, radio, magazines, bombarding us with ideas of how we 'should' be. Much has been said about the detrimental effect of mass media on women's self images, but the effect is spreading to men as well, with increased numbers of males presenting with eating disorders and depression in both genders on the rise.

Why do we feel that we aren't good enough as we are? We complete degrees, hold down jobs, look after our families, and still it is not enough. Yoga teaches the concept of samtosha - contentment. Being happy with who you are right now. Admittedly this concept has its roots in the strict Caste system of ancient India, where if you were unlucky enough to be born as an Untouchable, or for that matter a woman, all you could do was hope for was to be born higher up the ladder next time. But it has huge merit in our society. We have complete freedom to invent ourselves - we can choose any career, and the possibility of wealth and fame is open to all. We (at least those of us who are middle class) have more than we need, in fact more than we want a lot of the time. Yet we are still not happy. If the stuff isn't going to make us happy, what is? Indeed, what. This is what we need to work out for ourselves.

One of the best ways to do this is to start listening to your innermost thoughts and desires. Meditating, which can be as simple as sitting every morning, and observing your breath as it enters and leaves your lungs, is the ideal way to make space for your inner voice to be heard.

Even if you don't meditate, there are ways to become still and present in your daily life:

Watch your breath
As you sit in the traffic, notice whether your breath has become fast and shallow, or whether you are holding your breath. You don't have to change it, just become more aware.

Practice Silence
This is something I find particularly difficult. When it is not necessary to speak, don't. It's amazing how little we actually need to say. And here ladies, we can learn from men!

Try to do every task 100%
When you are chopping carrots, think about chopping carrots. Don't think about how you are going to do everything you need to do tomorrow, or whether you should have ice-cream for dessert. Just the carrots.

Observe you inner tape-recorder
Most of the time, there is chatter going on in our heads - and often it mimics a stuck tape recorder. Common themes include 'I'm too fat', 'I could never do that', 'I'm a bad parent' and so on. These little gems are often so ingrained, we don't even notice we are thinking them. In yoga we refer to these as samskaras, which are much like the grooves in an LP record. If you notice what they are, you can choose to replace the negative groove with something more constructive.

Be compassionate
It is an unfortunate fact of life in South Africa that we all experience some degree of compassion burnout it is impossible to survive otherwise, in the face of so much need. But if you are willing to think about why that driver expressed hi road rage at you has road rage, or that beggar is leaning on your car, you may find your response to their actions begins to change. And you may begin to understand why you react the way you do.

You may already have noticed a spontaneous deepening of your self-awareness as a result of yoga practice. For many people, yoga is a moving meditation, and I have had a number of students tell me they have noticed things about how they use their bodies that they never noticed BY (Before Yoga). The techniques above are just a way to extend your yoga practice off your mat and into the rest of your life.

Asa – what?

By now you have all heard at least one yoga teacher prattling on in some foreign language during yoga class. They will tell you to do tadasana, or trikonasana. What are they on about?

Most yoga teachers learn the Sanskrit names of postures as part of their training, because these names tend to be standard across yoga traditions, while the English translations (or more accurately, transliterations) vary widely. Sanskrit is the ancient language of the Indus Valley civilisation, believed to be the mother of all Indo-European tongues, and the language in which the ancient yoga texts are written.

Yogic tradition holds that the sounds of Sanskrit words have a special power, and if pronounced correctly, the name of an asana will create the same effect in your body as performing that posture. This may seem a little far-fetched, but there is still value in learning the names of some poses. One of the greatest benefits is that you start becoming more familiar with the philosophical basis of yoga, and you may find this gives you a deeper understanding of your physical practice. Of course, if you ever find yourself in a yoga class in Taiwan, you will also know what postures the instructor is talking about. As long as he or she sticks to Sanskrit!

Here is a short glossary of some of the more common Sanskrit words you will encounter in yoga class:

Om - The sacred sound of the universe, made up of three parts – A, U, M – representing masculine, feminine and neutral.

This syllable is used as a dedication before asana practice or meditation. It means ‘I am’ and also has a similar meaning to ‘Amen’.

Asana - Asana refers to a posture or pose, although it literally means ‘steady seat’. Physical poses were traditionally practiced to strengthen and open the body for a comfortable sitting meditation.

Tadasana - Mountain pose, standing at the front of your mat, hands at your heart or by your sides.

Surya Namaskara - Salute to the Sun. Traditionally practiced at dawn, to welcome the sun’s life giving warmth. Also a great way to warm up the body! Consists of the following movements:
  • Urdvha Hasta - Literally means ‘hands up’, the upward salute, raising the arms overhead and touching palms.
  • Uttanasana - Standing forward bend
  • Chaturanga Dandasana - Four-limbed staff pose – basically the ‘down’ pushup position, sometimes preceded by plank position.
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana - Downward Facing Dog Pose -you all know this one! Tail in the air, hands and feet on the mat, forming an inverted V.
  • Urdvha Mukha Svanasana - Upward Facing Dog pose – you all know this one too! The backbend usually practiced in the Sun Salute sequence.

Trikonasana - Triangle pose – ‘tri’ means three, ‘kona’ means angle. One of the most fundamental standing postures.
Parivritta Trikonasana - Revolved Triangle pose. Great pose for new moms, to help draw the uterus back to its original shape.

Vrksasana - Tree Pose – ‘vrksa’ being a tree. Probably the best known yoga balancing pose, seen everywhere, from yoga studios to vitamin adverts.

Padmasana - Lotus Pose – padma being the lotus. The classical position for seated meditation, although not accessible to all of us! The lotus is considered a symbol of enlightenment because although it has its roots in murky water, it blossoms to the light, opening to the heavens.

There are around 80 thousand known yoga poses, so they won’t all be getting a mention in this newsletter! If you want to know more, go to the Yoga Journal posture finder. It’s a great way to spend those in-between work moments.


- FEET -

Our feet are the intricate structures of fifty-two small bones each bound by four layers of muscle. The mechanism is a miracle combination of strength and flexibility, designed to support the weight of the whole body, maintain its balance, propel it in motion and to act as shock absorbers. To do their job efficiently the feet must be alive, supple and springy, otherwise their weakness will transmit up through the legs and into the hips and the rest of the body, throwing the whole structure out of alignment. Through the practice of yoga the feet gradually begin to come alive; the toes regain the independence of movement that they were born with, the arches lift, the ankles strengthen. To be stable and solid on our feet is to feel secure and confident at a very fundamental and profound level, giving us the base from which to walk tall through life. To achieve (a deep backbend) is impossible unless you have learned to establish a powerful connection between your feet and the floor.

Why, then, do most of us neglect them? Anyone who has suffered so much as an ingrowing toenail knows how we take our feet for granted most of the time, and how incapacitated we are when they cause us problems. Given their elemental importance, you would think that a large, wide, muscle-bound foot would be the ultimate aesthetic, and yet the foot has been the subject of fetishism and distortion; the idealised foot is small, delicate and soft, not a functioning clod-hopper. The most famously extreme example of this comes from China, where it was the custom to bind women’s feet from early childhood so that they remained tiny and became squashed-up to the point of deformity, thereby incapacitating the women. Throughout history small, soft feet have been the erotic ideal, representing class, a life of leisure, and beauty. ‘I don’t love you coz your feet’s too big,’ goes the jazz song. Until recently in the Western world – where most people can afford shoes – women particularly have stuffed their feet into shoes that are too small, squashed their toes into sharp points and thrown the balance of their whole weight onto towering heels with tiny stiletto bases, forcing them to walk with their bottoms stuck out and their hips swaying. Not only does this put intolerable strain on their lower backs and knees, but clearly restricts freedom of movement both practically and symbolically. Anthropologists may be excused for equating these dictates of Western fashion with the indignities once inflicted on women in China.

But there are many places in the world still, especially in cultures where it is normal to walk barefoot, as in India, in which beautiful feet are portrayed as strong, sinuous and flexible. This is particularly true of representations in the Buddha, as if real enlightenment were only possible with lovely wide, grounded feet.

(From Kathy Phillips' wonderful book, The Spirit of Yoga.)

We spend a great deal of time and effort wishing our bodies were thinner, or more flexible, or stronger, or taller or shorter, anything other than what they are. This just alienates body and mind, and since the goal of yoga is union of body, mind and soul, becoming comfortable in and with your body is a vital first step towards unity. Maybe start with your feet. Our feet are our foundations; our first point of contact with the earth, and just as with a house, if the foundations are shaky or poorly cared for, the rest of the structure will be weak. Start to watch how you stand, where you carry your weight, and make subtle changes that will take you closer to balance.

You can do this in the queue at the supermarket, while brushing your teeth, in fact any time you are standing.

In your yoga practice, focus on the fine muscular adjustments in your foot as you stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) or balance on one leg in Vrksasana (Tree Pose). Wear comfortable shoes, walk barefoot, have a pedicure or reflexology. Celebrate your feet, your foundations, and enjoy how they support you all day, and particularly in yoga class!

The Yoga of Shopping

As we move deeper into our yoga practices, there is often a natural increase in desire to help our communities – to engage in seva or selfless service. Imagine my excitement when I discovered that one way to do this is by shopping – something I am already so good at!

What Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, realised decades ago, is that what we buy affects the people who made that item, the people who grew the raw ingredients, the environment, and our own well-being. It’s a long chain of people, creatures (sometimes) and plants, and every cent we spend can be used to the greater good. So we can take our yoga practice off the mat and into the supermarket or clothing store.

It’s almost a form of economic voting. The more people choose to shop responsibly, the more big companies will feel it in their bottom line, and this creates a powerful force for change. This can already be seen in SA, where the organic food industry has grown from a mere R5 million per annum three years ago, to around R155 million currently, according to Leonard Mead, head of industry body Organics SA. To paraphrase Renee Bonorchis in the Business Day, August 30, 2005, this growth has so alarmed large (chemical) fertilizer company, Omnia, that in their 2005 annual report, Chairman Neville Crosse made an attack on organic food, quoting an outdated British Foods Standards Agency study, run by Sir John Krebs, a man thought by many to be a proponent of genetically modified food. Crosse ignored all more recent studies, which have shown that organic food is in fact richer in most essential nutrients, and of course lacking in chemical residues from the products his company makes.

The first step towards yogic spending is becoming aware of how we spend our money. Do we know where our food was grown, how it was grown or if people were paid a fair wage to grow it? Do we know where our clothes were made, once again, were they made with fair labour practices?

Start small, with one focus, so that it’s not too overwhelming, trying to change all your shopping habits at once. Maybe you don’t want to harm animals, or perhaps you are worried about the environmental effect of all those chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, not to mention genetic modification. Perhaps the plight of people in Asian sweatshops worries you. Every bit you do will help, far more than you think.

Woolworths have been at the forefront of making organic produce available to the general public, and in the last few months costs have dropped considerably – organic fruit or veggies now cost much the same as their chemically and genetically altered cousins. And they offer a range of organic dairy, eggs and meat, which are infinitely preferable. Animals on modern farms are usually treated as commodities – they lead miserable, overcrowded, drugged lives, all for the sake of maximum productivity, so if we choose to consume animal products, organic gives us the guarantee that the animals are not medicated unless they are sick, are allowed to range freely, and lead generally more pleasant lives. If we believe in ayurvedic philosophy, we will understand that the life an animal leads influences the quality of prana or life-force we get from eating dairy, eggs etc.

You may choose to take your responsible food shopping even further, and stop buying meat, chicken and fish, eliminating the deaths of animals altogether from your shopping cart and shopping karma!

Buying South African products is another great way to positively influence our economy. The Proudly South African campaign has made it much easier for us to identify ‘home-made’ products, by the nifty little flag on their tags, and most items say where they were made – locally made products not only help our immediate community, they also remove the environmental impact and costs of long-distance transportation. Our textile industry has come under considerable pressure recently, with the removal of import controls and a flood of cheap imports from China. Human rights groups have reported great difficulty in accurately monitoring the conditions in Chinese factories, so buying South African is the better route. For every South African clothing designer whose business takes off, there are new jobs for pattern makers, seamstresses, shop assistants and textile mill workers.

On this note, you may decide you want to make sure you are buying fair-trade products. This means that the people who grew or made the product were paid a fair market price, sufficient to live on. It is quite shocking how often this is not the case. Two favourite comfort foods, coffee and chocolate, are among the worst offenders. According to John Robbins, author and activist, the bulk of the world’s cocoa is grown in Ivory Coast, and the big confectionery companies pay the farmers such a low rate that the farms often resort to slave labour to make ends meet. Yes, slave labour, in this day and age. The only sure way to make sure your chocolate or cocoa is human-friendly is to buy organic, since there are no organic farms in Ivory Coast. As for coffee, growers in South America are paid less per kilo than they were 20 years ago, resulting in a vicious cycle of increasing impoverishment. All Seattle Coffee Company coffee is now fairly traded, in the wake of the US coffee scandal several years ago, and they offer several very tasty organic coffees too.

There are many other ways to influence the world around you with your “cash vote” – you could buy environmentally friendly cleaning products, energy saving light bulbs, or you could buy all this years Christmas presents from the numerous street vendors at a traffic light near you!

Just as a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a storm on another continent, one change, made by one of us, makes ripples of changes, and before we know it, MacDonald's will be serving food as wholesome and ethical as that at your local health store!