There is a vociferous debate at present in social media about the cultural appropriation of yoga. It's not a debate I have wanted to enter into mostly because feelings run high and positions are defended to the point of offensiveness. But I read something this week which made me want to put my thoughts in writing.
I am a mitra in the Triratna Buddhist Community as such I undertake weekly Dharma study over four years. This week we were looking at the specific approach to Buddhism taken by Triratna. A distinctive feature of the Order is an ecumenical approach: transcending the differences between Buddhist schools, looking for inspiration and practices across the whole tradition. I read this particular passage and the message seemed to hold true for how I feel about yoga.
"For Buddhism to take root in the West it has to outgrow this culturally biased sectarianism. We need to look at the different schools, see what they have in common, appreciate them, gain inspiration from them and learn from them. We need to get back to the basic truths of Buddhism that underlie all schools and use what is useful under present circumstances from the whole range of the tradition. And we need to do this without simply taking a magpie approach, picking up the glittery parts of the various schools that attract our eye, while ignoring the apparently duller or more challenging teachings and practices that may be what we really need to transform ourselves."
Yoga, like Buddhism, is thousands of years old, has flourished into many approaches and traditions. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves similar questions. What are the basic principles of Yoga? What is useful under present circumstances? What will help us transform ourselves?
For some, of course yoga is not a transformative discipline in the spiritual sense; they look to it to transform their bodies in a physical sense. Postural, physical yoga has taken precedent over the more contemplative practices in the West because our culture is predominantly focused with the outer rather than the inner world. Having said that, more contemplative practices like mindfulness are coming into prominence and perhaps we will see a shift in yoga practices in the future.
In a BBC Radio 4 episode of Beyond Belief aired on 10 February 2014 the guests - Jim Mallionson from SOAS, Suzanne Newcombe from the charity Inform whose doctoral thesis was on the popularisation of yoga and Ramesh Pattni from the Hindu Forum of Britain - described yoga in the following ways respectively: yoga is a system of physical and mental disciplines which are used to bring about liberation and equanimity; it is a variety of beliefs and practices with a common goal of stilling the mind and bringing about health and well being; yoga is about uniting with the breath, mind and that which is transcendental.
Many may initially come to yoga as a physical practice or as a means to relieve stress in the same way that mindfulness can be practiced in a secular way devoid of its Buddhist roots. But this initial taste may encourage the practitioner to go further, explore deeper contemplative practices and underpinning philosophy. We may start with health and well being, but find ourselves on a path toward equanimity and liberation. Either way yoga has an effect.
We bring ourselves to yoga both as practitioners and teachers.
My approach is from a Buddhist perspective. I am interested in helping people be at ease physically and mentally, to live in greater awareness, to explore how the mind mediates our world, to explore how the body and mind are interconnected, to cultivate compassion for ourselves and others. I am also strongly influenced by a background in dance and somatic practice. I hope to enable people to become more embodied, to explore their inner worlds, sensations, emotions, patterns, and thoughts.
Yoga like Buddhism is a path that can be practised by all; it is a human practice. Although it emerged from India it has relevance to all of us. It can be transformative on many levels.
Taking control of your own health and well being is important. Yoga is an excellent way to do this. it can increase, flexibility, strength, co-ordination and balance as well as improve your sense of calm and well being.
But if you looked at (social) media perhaps you think yoga is for bendy twenty somethings? Well, as a 50+ teacher I can tell you it’s not.
You might be unsure yoga is for you, not certain how to start, worried you will feel out of place in a yoga class, I understand this.
I’d like to reassure you it’s worth trying yoga and it’s never too late to start. I know you want to improve your health and well being and I’d like to help you.
Maybe you have tried yoga before but couldn’t do it because it was too fast, too difficult.
My classes are slow, peaceful, attentive. I provide a lot of modifications as everyone’s body is different. I understand that your body might not be used to moving, you may have a sedentary lifestyle, or the opposite: work too hard, sleep too little. You may be overweight or over a certain age. I welcome you.
There’s no need to invest in a yoga mat or any equipment as I provide all of those. I am trained by the British Wheel of Yoga; this is a three year diploma training equivalent to a foundation degree. It not only includes a thorough grounding in anatomy and physiology, but also postures, philosophy and meditation. In my training there is a great emphasis on teaching accessible yoga for all.
Agility is balance in motion. Every day situations require us to be agile, getting in and out of cars, walking up and down steps, navigate crowds. Agility not only relies on strength, flexibility and balance but also on good postural reflexes. These reflexes kick in automatically to balance the orientation of your body in motion. Our postural reflexes develop as infants from lying to rolling, sitting to crawling, crawling to standing, standing to walking. At first a lot of co-ordination is needed, but over time these responses become subconscious and reflexive.
There's a lot going on in this process.
Our vestibular system through the inner ear canals send information to the brain in relation to our body's response to gravity. Our eyes feed information to the brain about our position in space relative to other objects and our environment, including depth, velocity and motion.
Our somatic sensory system helps your brain to make co-ordinated responsive movements and requires us to use:
- proprioception (knowing where you are in space)
- exterocetpion ( responding to our environment, bumpy paths, steps etc)
- interoception (an interior sense of how it feels in the body)
These three qualities allow us to maintain our balance in movement .
Yoga is invaluable in all of these processes though it slow dynamic and static postures helping cultivate our somatic nervous systems and postural reflexes (which can diminish as we age).
Try these balancing movements:
- test your balance by standing with one foot directly in front of the other heel to toe
- stand on one leg and use your other leg to mark out a clock face around you going as far round to 5pm or 7pm on your clock face as you can manage
- stand on one leg and bend the other, then take the knee out to the side and back a few times, then try taking the leg from forward extending the leg straight to the back (you can challenge yourself even more by standing on a brick)
- place a brick between your ankles as you rise to the balls of your feet and lower down
- find as many ways as possible to get up and down from the floor with legs in different positions and maybe without using your hands
I wanted to share with you this beautiful rendition of the Heart Sutra in Japanese by Kanho Yakushiji. If you want to know more about the Heart Sutra and it's meaning this article is worth reading http://www.andrew-may.com/zendynamics/heart.htm.
Or you can just let the words wash over you and notice their effects...
Spring always brings a sense of renewed energy, so that is why our focus for April and May is energy and spirals.
One of the earliest Yogic Classical Texts, The Upanishads, describes how the body has five layers, these are called Koshas. The first layer Anamaya Kosha is our physical body. The second layer Pranamaya Kosha is our Subtle or Energetic Body. The other three layers are concerned with the layers of the mind and wisdom.
We are particularly concerned with the Pranamaya Kosha or our Energetic Body. This layer of our body is the interface between our physical body and our mind. It is concerned with energy and is highly active and every changing, responding to impressions brought in through the senses and mediated by our emotions and our mindThis energetic subtle body- the Pranamaya Kosha - encompasses our nervous system and our respiratory system - our breath. It is our vital energy dimension.
This vital life energy we call Prana in yoga. (Chi in Chinese tradition) Flows in and through all that is living, it is our energetic blueprint it is the animating force in the body.Prana has been described as having certain characteristics, electrical, electromagnetic, light emitting, gravitational and thermal. Prana has many layers of meaning from breath to energy to consciousness itself. Even modern physics recognises that everything is made up of elementary particles continuously moving, coming into and out of existence. We are fields of energy which is moving and shifting and there is a theory in that these fields work in interlaced loops - spirals if you like
The classical yogic text (Hatha Yoga Pradipika) said that life energy or prana in the body circulated through 72000 nadis (or pathways) which are like our bodies energetic irrigation system. But that the two most important were Ida and Pingala. Which spiral and intertwine either side of our central channel called Shusumna crossing over at certain nerve plexus points (chakras). Ida is related to the left side of our body and our left nostril when we breath. It is regarded as a passive energy, cooling and nuturing, linked to our subconscious mind and parasympathetic nervous system. Pingala is related to the right side of our body and right nostril when breathing. It is regarded as active, warm and stimulating, linked to our conscious mind and sympathetic nervous system. Shushumna - the central channel - is the passage only for the most refined prana.Through pranayama - breath patterns - we can amplify prana in the body, because prana enters the body through the breath. Through the breath we can enliven, balance and sustain prana. And through pranayama we link body to mind. According to the Bhagavad Gita, yoga is eveness of mind and in the Yoga Sutras yoga is settling the mind to stillness. Yoking together of energy/mind/breath is heart of yoga training.
The Five Elements in Yoga
‘You are not separate from the whole, you are one with the sun, the earth, the air.
You are life’(Ekhart Tolle)
In Eastern philosophies everything in nature is made up of five basic elements:
Ayurveda and Yoga
In yoga (the science of self) and Ayurveda (the science of well being) the five elements are a fundamental principle. They are known as the Pancha Mahabhutas. They refer not to
the element itself, but to different characteristics that they possess. The mahabhutas represent the physical qualities, energetic properties and biological functions related to the given element.
Yoga and Ayurveda are closely related spiritual sciences rooted in the Vedic tradition of India
Ayurveda is a Vedic system for healing body and mind; yoga is a Vedic system for self realisation, understanding oneself and the world. Both disciplines have developed hand in hand. Yoga is far more than a system of physical exercises and Ayurveda is far more than a system of healing
Both look at the entire human being: body mind and spirit. Together Ayurveda and yoga from an ideal system for healthy mind and body
The five elements
Our body is made up of the five elements and so is everything we consume. Because natural substances such as foods, sunlight, air, and water are of the same composition as our structure, our body’s can use them in a harmonious way.
The concept of five elements can be applied to maintain health and promote healing. In a healthy body, the five elements are maintained in proportion. When the state of the body is not in its natural harmony, the body will try to maintain it’s equilibrium by eliminating excess elements and taking in others. Bringing the elements into balance is of great value to our health and well being.
When elements are balanced, we are in harmony within ourselves, feel both stable and energised, and can maintain high levels of health and wellness. When our elements are out of balance, we may suffer disrupted equilibrium within ourselves and the natural world.
Earth (Prithvi) represents the solid state of matter. Earth is heavy, hard, stable, compact, rigid, unctuous, and dense in quality. Bones, teeth, muscles, fat, and the structure of the different organs are derived from the earth element. Earth is related to the sense of smell and to Muladhara chakra, also called the root chakra located in the area of the perineum.
In an earth based practice there is a focus on the exhale as a grounding, gravitational breath, and the use of slow, steady base poses to establish a solid foundation for all other element practices.
When the earth element is in balance it can help us feel grounded, rooted, stable, steady, and calm.
Water (Apas) constitutes the fluids of the body and represents the force of cohesion, as well as the abilities to attract and to change that are associated with water. This element provides the bodily fluids such as urine, plasma, lymph, and makes up most of our bodily weight. The bodily fluids move between the cells and through the vessels of the body carrying nutrients, wastes, antibodies, and hormones. Water is related to the perception of taste it is also associated with Svadhistana chakra which is located in the sacral area and concerned with fluidity and liquid. A practice focused on the water element is aimed at finding fluidity between grace and strength with postures related to the sacral area.
Agni (fire) is hot, sharp, subtle, fine, light, and radiant in quality. Agni is found in the heat and energy of the body. Fire exists in all metabolic processes and chemical reactions. Fire is the transformational force which promotes appetite, digestion, and metabolism. It is related to vision and to the manipura chakra located around the solar plexus.A fire based practice will include more dynamic asanas focused on the area of the solar plexus to leave you feeling warm and radiant.
Air (Vayu) is the gaseous form of matter. It is mobile, dynamic, light, cold,rough, fine, subtle, dry and exists without form. All empty spaces are filled with air. Air flows freely throughout the body, controls breathing, feeds the cells with oxygen and helps to give movement to biological functions.
Air relates to the sense of touch and corresponds to anahata chakra, also called the heart chakra.
The air element is poignant as it is said to fan the fire in our body-mind and is related to prana, the life force. In a practice focused on the air element there is a great deal of attention on the breath integrating the breath into our practice and noticing the effects.
Akash (ether) is the space in which everything exists and acts. Akash is fine, subtle, soft, light, porous, and smooth in quality. In the body aakash is found where there is empty space such as in the tubes and channels (srotas) of the body. Such empty spaces are found in blood and lymph vessels, openings, pores, and the intestinal tract. Akash also contributes the sounds of the heart, lungs, intestines, and swallowing.It is related to the sense of hearing and to Vishuddha chakra which is located in the area of the throat and is directly related to the sense of hearing and sound.
Ether is the most subtle of the five elements, it is always present and part of every practice. The focus is on accessing the innate quality of space and freedom within our practice and the power of sound perhaps through the use of mantra. It is the overarching element.
The five elements condense to form three doshas or types. Each dosha has it’s own qualities. All three doshas are present in all of us, but we often have a predominance of one or two. Sometimes this imbalance of our doshas can be problematic and for optimum well being we seek some harmony. The three doshas are vata, pitta and kapha.
Vata is ruled by the elements of air and space and it concerns movement and change. Quick to learn , they are excitable, lively, high energy types. When in balance it can bring out potential and creativity, it can make us active and inspired. Vata types can easily become out of balance, they can often being scattered and too much on the go. When out of balance in can lead to anxiety and lack of focus as well as digestive complaints. If your type is vata you will benefit from grounding, calm and contemplative yoga practices which work on the sacrum and pelvis.
Pitta is ruled by the elements fire and water, the energetic force is associated with the digestive system and body temperature. Pitta types are characterised by assertiveness, self confidence, sharp minded.In balance it leads to contentment and intelligence.Out of balance: Can cause digestive complaints anger and irritability.Pitta types benefit from a yoga class which includes cooling postures which open the chest and release the abdominal area.
Kapha is ruled by the elements of earth and water, the literal translation is that which sticks. It is like the glue that holds the body together. Kapha is allocation with density, stability, stockier frames.
They are easy going, slow paced and relaxed, forgiving and compassionate
Imbalances can lead to lethargy, depression and tendency to gain weight. Better balanced kapha types can be gentle, self sufficient and understating. They strive to maintain peace.
Hasta Mudras and the five elements
In the Indian tradition, each finger relates to the energy of the five elements. Hasta mudras, or gestures of the hand, are said to have spiritual, emotional and physical benefits in how they harness energy in the body. The thumb is related to the fire element, index finger the air element, middle finger related to ether, the ring finger the earth element and the little finger water element. Mudras may be widely used in a yoga practice focusing upon the elements.
Big Sky Yoga
David Frawley, Yoga and Ayurveda.
Swami Sardananda, Mudras for Modern Life
Stress is a powerful and emotive word and has many connotations. It occurs on a multiplicity of levels and originates from many different sources.
Stress is commonly defined as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.
Stress is a the body’s ability to adapt to changing environmental stimuli and can render some situations positively or negatively stressful. Some stress is always present and is a catalyst to activity.
However, when our nervous system is unable to cope with stimulation we can reach overload. A stressed nervous system cannot function well and symptoms appear. Because the nervous system is at the intersection of mind and body, we experience stress written large on the body in the form of psychological, physiological and social effects
Our perceptions of the external world are mediated through our thoughts and sensory processing; sometimes our mind thinks too much or in ways which are detrimental to our well being. This is where deep relaxation and yoga relaxation techniques can be of benefit to help dampen down our overstimulated nervous system and become aware of tension in our bodies and serve as a means to release it, helping to create the environment for positive thought processes.
The ultimate effect on our psychological and physiological heath as a result of stress depends in a large measure on how skilfully we adapt to continual change while maintaining our balance and sense of coherence, which in turn depends on the meanings we attribute to events large and small, our beliefs, values and how much awareness we bring to our state of mind and body. If we can become aware of our reactions we can intercede before they spiral into unhealthy responses and create an environment where we can feel more at ease.
Yoga can contribute to this process not only on a psychological level but also on a physiological level be alleviating the bodily symptoms of stress. It can help us regain control, retain the body in homeostasis and regain balance.Yoga touches on our physical and psychological well being, Although it is far more than a method of stress reduction it can have significant impact on reducing negative effects of stress.
Through elements of yoga we can work on the parasympathetic nervous system to slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure and calm a busy mind, this is why the parasympathetic nervous system is often called the rest and digest mechanism. Many yoga practices help do this: quiet asana, breath work and meditation.
The breath is the bridge between the body and the mind and working with the breath will help calm the mind and release tension in the body. The insight and effects it brings to breathing patterns, muscle tension and states of mind helps to offset the effects of stress and restore our internal equilibrium more readily.
Equally, working with meditation and relaxation will help counter many of the physical symptoms of stress. Relaxation can help people release tension and become more attuned to their bodies and emotions and how they interact. While meditation and turning the senses inward can reduce stress through calming the amount of input and managing our though processes. Both process involve developing awareness. Yoga can provide this therapeutic and healing environment.
Yoga as an ancient discipline and approach has much to offer us in modern life with its many demands upon our well being. Practising yoga can bring a sense of balance and alleviate many of the symptoms of stress as we have come to know it.