Sunday, April 24, 2011

What Ayurvedic type are you?

Ayurveda is the Indian equivalent to natural or holistic medicine as we know it in the west and it is the sister science to Yoga. Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word meaning the science of life. It is a traditional Indian health and lifestyle practice over 5000 years old, but is now appreciated all over the world. Ayurveda is strongly rooted in the idea that everything is composed of a combination of five elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether. Human beings are included in this model and from that comes three types, or doshas, which each person is classified under. Dependant on your dosha, Ayurveda tells you what and when to eat, what kind of yoga to practice or activity to undertake, when and how much to sleep, among many other things, in order to keep your elements in balance, and your health and happiness in an optimal state.

People with dominant earth and fire elements are pitta, earth and water are kapha, air and ether are vata. Most people are not strictly one, but a combination of two, or even all three. Although an Ayurvedic doctor goes through an extensive testing and interview process to determine your dosha, there are a few general rules that can give you an idea of which you fall under. Please don’t use the following to “diagnose” yourself!

Pitta dominant people tend to be very active, energetic, ambitious and fiery in temperament. They have strong metabolism and large appetites, are very perceptive, aggressive and intelligent and are prone to feel anger, hatred, irritation and jealousy. Their bodies are of moderate build; their skin is soft and warm but prone to rashes and acne. Pitta people make good leaders and appreciate luxury.

Kapha people are generally stable and grounded and find themselves easily attached. Their bodies produce a lot of oil and their digestion is slow, often resulting in extra weight being carried. They are tolerant and forgiving in nature and they are able to easily acquire and accumulate what they need in life, but also tend to be possessive and even greedy. Kapha dominant people tend to be strong, happy and peaceful.

Vata governed people usually have light, underdeveloped bodies prone to impulsive, flighty movement and have fast respiration and heart rates. Their digestion and hunger are variable and they tend not to be or feel grounded, having restless minds, short memories and common forgetfulness. They often experience anxiety, fear and emptiness. Vata people earn money with ease, but also spend it with ease. They talk and walk quickly, but are easily fatigued.

As far as food goes, Pitta dominant people should avoid heating or spicy foods (salt, oil, alcohol, tomatoes, garlic, refined flour and sugar, corn, egg yolk, vinegar, nuts). Kapha people should eat less cooling foods (cold drinks, dairy, oils, nuts, ice cream, yogurt, cheese, cooked oats, rice, wheat, sweet and juicy veggies). One with too much Vata should try to avoid dry and high protein foods (dry fruit, raw veggies, potatoes, barley, dry oats, pork). Not following these guidelines (they are much more extensive than these few examples!) will result in an aggravated dosha, an imbalanced bodily make up and ultimately poor health.

Along with these eating and health guidelines, Ayurveda tells each person, depending on their dosha, when to sleep and on which side of the body, what kind of personal and mental hygiene to focus on, what sort of daily routine to follow and for all types, to practice yoga. Ayurveda holds that yogic exercises cleanse the body, mind and consciousness in order to remove toxins and disease causing energy. There is a very lengthy chart of recommendations for each dosha of which asanas and breathing techniques are best, but here are some of the main ones.

Pitta people should practice yoga with deep, even breathing. The best poses are shoulder stand, fish, locust, bow, boat, and headstand for not more than one minute. Kapha Yogis should practice headstand, forward and backward bends, plough, lion’s breath and breath of fire (Bhastrika) and cobra. The best asanas for Vata are child’s pose, corpse pose, lotus, tree, yoga mudra, half wheel and knees-to-chest, all with deep, quiet breathing.

What I have blogged about here is just the most basic of introductions. As mentioned before, we are all a combination of all doshas, not strictly one or two. Our basic constitution or nature (prakrti) does not change, but can fluctuate throughout the lifetime. The key is keeping the three doshas in balance. Following the food, daily routine, yoga and lifestyle guidelines can help you stay in balance and in optimal health, giving you increased vitality and longevity. For more information or a proper determination of your constitution, contact an Ayurvedic practitioner or to learn more, pick up one of many books on Ayurveda.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Teachers of teachers.

As a yoga teacher, I will be the first to admit that I do not know everything. FAR from it. There is always so much more to learn. Considering that, I found it amusing when I told one of my students I would be away for two weeks because I was going to take a yoga course and she was completely dumbfounded over that idea. She asked me what could a yoga teacher possibly learn from another yoga teacher, as if, I couldn't possibly have anything else to learn. Flattering, I suppose, that she thought I knew everything about yoga, but couldn't be farther from the truth. She asked me if the other teacher was more flexible than me? I chuckled, and said, well, Yes, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. She opened her eyes bigger and asked me what I meant and what I would learn while away.

I am going to take a workshop for two weeks in Encinitas with Sharath Rangaswamy Jois, grandson of Sri K Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga Yoga as we know it in the west. How could I possibly explain to someone what he could offer to me. I felt like I would never have enough time or words to fully explain what I believe I can learn from Sharath.

As with all yogis, I know that I have endless progress to look forward to on this path of yoga. The simple part to explain is the physical progress. There are always more challenging postures, breathing techniques, better alignment, increased strength and endurance to be gained. And there is always someone more experience to help you find the proper ways to attain those. I believe that I have many years ahead of me where I will still become more flexible, strong, light, balanced and healthy as I continue to practice Ashtanga yoga. Eventually, of course, that progress will halt and my body will slowly (and hopefully gracefully!) move in the opposite direction.

Despite this inevitability, the progress never has to stop. With practice, one can always become more mentally advanced. Wisdom and understanding does not ever need to decline, as the body does. And this is where great teachers come in. To share with us their wisdom, impart to us their knowledge of yoga, anatomy, history, the vedas/sutras, sanskrit, etc. Yoga is both a science and an art, and the theory seems nearly endless. Personally, I can't absorb enough wisdom. I love hearing other teachers speak, interpret, share and inspire. Kino Macgregor is one of my favourites to listen to.

More than the physical and the mental progress though, what I look forward to the most, is the spiritual progress I will continue making. And for this, I most certainly could use guidance. I was never a religious person, and maybe even rolled my eyes at religious ideas for many years. So I am less inclined to talk about this side of yoga, for fear of the same reaction from others. However, spirituality is not the same as religion, and I find it much easier to swallow, as probably most others do as well. I believe that the yoga teachers who yoga teachers go to and look up to, are admired because they are clearly closer to the divine. They are more practiced at understanding the connection of one to all. They are farther down the path of arriving at the ultimate truth. These advanced teachers, or gurus, can inspire, instruct and guide us less experienced teachers and yogis closer towards that as well.

I know I will always need time with great teachers to help me better serve my own self, the universe, and my students, even if they believe I already know everything (haha!). As challenging as I find it to pass on the spiritual element of my practice to my students, perhaps it need not always be spoken. Maybe the spiritual teachings are in part, passed on through the physical and mental work they do with my guidance. Maybe on an energetic level, I am showing them their own divinity as a product of regular yoga practice. I must have faith that if I continue to do all of my own work, practice with wonderful teachers and guide them through what I have learned along the way, that they will get what they need. For myself and for them, all is coming.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Teaching Yoga: What it's all about for me.

Today I had an AHA moment, about what teaching yoga is all about for me. I found myself fighting back tears at the grocery store checkout, and then letting them flow freely as I drove home in the rain (maybe not the safest choice as far as road safety goes). I often wonder, when I think about the yoga I teach, what my students want and need and if I am, in fact, offering that to them.  

Well, walking through the grocery store today, I bumped into one of my regular students and we said “Hello”, and had a laugh over the fact that we were holding the same item. We then started chatting (blocking the whole aisle, of course) about a sore issue going on in her life that was less than ideal. I knew a bit of the background, but she shared with me a little more about what was causing her some distress and pain. I was happy she was willing to share her story with me and I was glad to be able to listen and offer my support and a few thoughts. I was genuinely upset that she was upset, and I hope my understanding and compassion was a small comfort to her as we stood there holding cheese.

At the end of our chat she said, “I just wanted to let you know how healing your yoga class is.” I got choked up. She told me that she didn’t want to say it in class, but that it has helped her so much, to work out so many things. YES, this is what it’s all about for me! I told her that I was so glad that practicing yoga meant this to her and that is why I teach it, because it is exactly that for me too. Yoga has helped me and healed me, and my hope as a teacher is that I can inspire others to help and heal themselves through yoga as well. If my arms weren’t so full of organic produce and naan bread I would have hugged her!

We parted and I headed for the checkout. I felt emotional; sad and happy at the same time. I felt sad because someone was experiencing pain, but happy that I may have some small part in lessening that pain and helping her to deal with it and move forward. I was also happy to know that something I take as such an important job (teaching yoga) was having an actual impact on at least one person, and hopefully more.

Leaving the store, her story started striking a chord with me even more. I had been healed by yoga too, and am still being healed. Naturally I started thinking about what I was healing and how it was similar or different from her. I had all kinds of pain in my life when I started to take yoga seriously. Physical pain, from fibromyalgia, back pain from fracturing 3 vertebrae, wrist pain from breaking both wrists (at the same time), pelvis and bladder pain from acquiring IC (interstitial cystitis), a painful hip from a surfing accident which I was told I might need surgery on. Among other physical problems, but those were just the small pains.

The big pain my life was depression from being a sad child, a lonely only child, moved away from her family and friends at age eight. This bred an angry teenager. Angry at my mother for an endless myriad of typical teenaged blamings (who I am now best friends with), angry at my father for not being there and for not being the father I thought I wanted (who I now see as a good father who I wouldn’t trade for the world, as he was doing the best he could at the time), angry at the kids at my school for forming cliques that I didn’t feel part of, and mostly angry at myself for not being the fastest on the swim team, for not being the best dancer in ballet class and for not being as perfect or cool or rich or pretty as I thought I should be. Later in life, the anger turned towards failed relationships and thwarted expectations all around. 

That’s a lot of stuff to deal with! Or rather, not to deal with. As I grew more connected to my yoga practice and actually started taking in what my teachers were telling me to do, breathing deeply, allowing feelings to come and go, relaxing my body fully, opening and being aware of energy channels, I often found myself, at the end of class, silently crying. Which I thought was curious but kind of fascinating and actually felt really, really good to just let it out. I would hide my face and slink out of class so not to be embarrassed, not showing the teacher that they brought me to tears. Thinking back, I should have shown my teachers the affect they had on me, and thanked them. I hereby thank them all now!!

My physical ailments started to lessen as my body became stronger, lighter and more flexible. My organs became clean and healthy and started to function better (hello awesome digestive system!) My aches and pains slowly evaporated (no longer needed hip surgery) and as Bikram tells us, yoga helped me to cure what I could not endure and learn to endure what I could not cure.

The most remarkable change though, was this all-encompassing feeling of happiness that moved right on into my life. I had always felt moments of happiness here and there, but now, I feel it there with me all the time. Through ups and downs, successes and failures, I always feel happy underneath it all. I'm happy when it's raining out, but I also feel great when it rains. I know that when something happens and I do feel sad, I am not a sad person, but a happy person experiencing sad feelings. I have become so much more stable and unreactive to whatever presents itself to me. I have come to feel that life is like boat pose. Even if it starts to get hard, or feel painful, you can always persevere for a few more breaths, staying calm until it’s over.  Because everything comes to an end. For that same reason I have also learned through yoga not to become attached to the highs in life, the great moments. I breathe them in, bask in the momentary enjoyment, and then let them go.

All I ever wanted from teaching yoga was to offer this possibility up to others, this chance to practice yoga in order to heal deeply. Yoga eventually shows us the truth about ourselves, mind, body and soul. This knowledge helps us and allows us to listen to, to fix, to nourish and to love ourselves completely. And today in the grocery store I realized that my question, about whether or not what I was trying to share was actually getting through, had been answered. What I have been giving has been received. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

YIOM #1 - Thoughts on the moon

I love astrology but I often get googly eyed looks when I bring it up. Is it so strange to believe that the sun, the moon and the stars affect humans? I think not and yoga philosophy supports that theory. As a yogi, I understand that everything, EVERYTHING, is interconnected. Mind, body, breath, myself and other people, intentions and actions, celestial bodies and human bodies.

We pay homage to these important forces in yoga by practicing surya namaskara, or sun salutations, at the start of each day. We also observe "moon days", where we take rest from practicing asana. In Ashtanga, this is a very important tradition, where no yogis practice on the new moon or on the full moon.This is because the moon has a strong pull, or effect, on bodies of water. The moon affects the ocean, the tides, and since we are 70% water, humans as well.

A full moon has an uprooting effect, causing lightness and heightened frenetic energy. On a full moon we often feel emotional and maybe even unpredictable. Hospital emergency rooms experience more visits during full moons and animals tend to get antsy and howly. It is believed that on a full moon, we are more prone to injury if we practice asana, and more apt to push to far, too fast, be out of balance etc. Therefore it is best to take rest on this day. The farmers almanac even suggests transplanting plants on a full moon, since grounding forces are lessened.

Conversely, a new moon has a very grounding effect. So much so that we tend to feel heavy, lethargic and not energetic at all. Practicing asana on a new moon would cause extra fatigue on the mind and body, so again, it's best to rest on this day. Farmers are advised to plant seed on the new moon, because of this grounding force, securing the seed into the earth.

I love the following metaphor: A full moon is like the top of an inhale, where we are airy, at our maximum energy level, full of light and ecstatic. A new moon is much like the point at the end of an exhale, when we are feeling grounded, empty with lower energy and calmness. Each month, the celestial universe takes a deep breath in and then a deep breath out, deep and slow, about 4 weeks per cycle, pushing and pulling us humans along with it. As our own yoga practice progresses we become more and more aware of how these forces are part of our own cycle and that the sun, moon and stars most certainly do affect us.