Yoga: More than just asana

I have felt the need to write this post for some time. I think within the social media, photographic driven modern world we now exist in, it is so easy to lose sight of all that yoga encompasses. For myself, yoga has always been about self love and acceptance. The dialogue I constantly had in my head was: I was not good enough, I was not thin enough, I didn’t speak well enough, I was not graceful enough; the bottom line being: I was not enough. How cruel I was and have been to myself.

When I found yoga, my mat became my sanctuary, my sacred place. If I had a hard day, if the dialogue in my head was driving me to consider self harm, I rolled out my mat and practiced. I have cried on my mat, laughed, danced, cursed and shouted, screamed into a pillow on it many times. At the end of my practice, I always found peace. My mat wasn't a space where I pushed down my emotions, locking them deep within, compartmentalising them so I could stand steadfast, head held high, not allowing the tears to fall in public. I still struggle with crying in public and in front of people. I see a therapist every week and there have been times when I have talked about my assault that I could feel the tears well up. And yet, from years of holding it all in, I never allow them to fall. I literally tell myself, “Lock it up, Marina, lock it up!” Then I breathe through the tears that did not fall; using long, slow, deep breaths, which I had learned from my yoga practice.

Why state all of the above when the title of the blog states this is about more than just asana? It is because it is all relevant. As humans, we are complex organisms. Made even more complex with the vast mysteries still yet to be uncovered and discovered within the brain. I do not suggest that anyone lock up their emotions, that is not healthy. That is my daily struggle to be softer with myself. Of the truths I uncovered from my sexual assault, and with the help of my therapist, is the validity and importance of expressing and experiencing your emotions. If you are not harming anyone, then I see that there is no harm in feeling the pain, the joy, the wonder; the full spectrum of emotions.

The style of yoga that I practice is Vinyasa Flow. Vinyasa Flow is said to have been created by bored Ashtanga teachers. Ashtanga is an eight limbed path that was developed by Patanjali over 2,000 years ago in the Yoga Sutras (1). I personally experienced an Ashtanga class with Karen Kirkness, at Meadowlark Yoga Studio in Edinburgh, whilst completing her advanced Yoga Anatomy course last year. I absolutely loved it. When I want to not think and to just practice, I practice Ashtanga. It is disciplined and straightforward. As I stated previously, Ashtanga is made up of 8 limbs:

  1. Yamas - ethical restraints

  2. Niyamas - observances

  3. Asana - postures

  4. Pranayama - extension of life force energy

  5. Pratyahara - withdrawal of the senses; focused inwardly

  6. Dharana - concentration

  7. Dhyana - meditation

  8. Samadhi - enlightenment; union with the Universal spirit (2)

As you can see above, asana - the physical postures/poses that we practice, is only one limb. Yoga as a whole is made up of so much more than achieving that advanced/challenging posture. In addition, there is no rush. From my understanding of yoga, it is about harmony of the whole being (you). If we are racing with ourselves, placing pressure on ourselves to go further, reach that advanced pose, then we fall into the pool of ego. Ego is not bad, but when it is unbalanced and super-inflated, it can take away our joy and lead us down a path of relying on outside sources to try and find our own inner peace. I’ve been there, done that, still struggle with it all the time. That is a main reason I do yoga and meditate every day. There is nothing wrong with wanting to challenge yourself or achieve something that looks really cool, but I would suggest not at the expense of your overall joy. Competition is great when it is joyful and fun, however, when it is not and you begin an unhealthy dialogue with yourself, then what is the point of that? You then would not be in harmony with yourself and would be in conflict. Again, there is nothing wrong with healthy conflict, physics, art and biology prove to us the beauty that can occur with conflict. It is when it becomes unbalanced that problems can arise.

I have been practicing yoga for seventeen years. In that time I have challenged myself and aimed to be able to do as many poses/asanas as possible. Unfortunately, due to hyper mobility in some limbs, I injured myself. I lost sight of what yoga was by trying to show off all that I could do and accomplish. More than that, I was part of the unbalanced ego problem we see in the yoga world. Hey, we’re all human. However, I was also putting some people off of beginning the practice of yoga. Some were encouraged to want to do what I could, whereas others were discouraged. Again, all part of the human experience and the ebb and flow of life. I am fortunate that I obtained some of the best training in the yoga world. Yes, that is my opinion, however, I thoroughly researched into my training programme and found one that suited me best. Everyone is different. As a FLY (Frog Lotus Yoga) teacher, we are taught to incorporate more than just one limb within our yoga classes. I was also taught to chant and teach in Sanskrit in every class. Sadly, not everyone can appreciate that, as it is very different and the pressure to conform is intense; so, I have adapted my classes slightly. When people get to know me more and become more comfortable, then I will offer things such as chanting and OM-ing. Every class I teach involves meditation and breath work, in addition to the physical postures. When we learn to move with our breath, or to stop and notice our breath, it can help in stressful or tense situations. I have personal, lived experiences with this (that’s another blog post to come). This is another main reason why the physical postures are not the end all and be all with yoga.

Within the first 2 limbs of yoga, the Yamas and Niyamas, they each have five branches:

  • The 5 Yamas or restraints:

    • ahimsa - non-violence, non-harming

    • satya - truth or truthfulness

    • asteya - non-stealing

    • brahmacharya - integrity in relationship to sexuality/chastity

    • aparigraha - freedom from desire and greed

  • The 5 Niyamas or observances:

    • saucha - purity or cleanliness

    • santosa - contentment

    • tapas - self discipline; spiritual passion, practice

    • svadhyaya - mindfulness; self-study

    • Ishvara-Pranidhana - surrender to God or the Absolute (3)

To be honest, I spend more time practicing the Yamas and Niyamas on a daily basis then I do on the physical asana practice. Throughout the day I practice all of the above. I am lucky and grateful that I grew up in a household where all of the listed above were instilled in me as a child. With that, I am able to practice them more easily than others. The struggle is still there, but probably not as intense for me as it would be for someone whom did not grow up in such a household.

In closing, my goal of this post was to inform and educate that there is more to yoga than just the physical practice: asana. So if you have not mastered that advanced pose yet, or are giving yourself a hard time for not keeping your hips squared in Natarajasana -Dancer’s Pose-, remember: asana is only one limb in the eight limbed path. Yoga is so much more than a physical practice. It is moving meditation, emotional balance, taking care of your overall well-being and mental health.

Namaste,

Marina

1-3: Excerpts from my Frog Lotus Yoga Teachers’ Training Manual. Intellectual Property of FLY International, not allowed for reprint.

How it all began

I had been wanting to begin a blog regarding my yoga journey for some time.  I thought that it would help me to process the many things that are going on in my life.  As well as show that the journey is in fact that, a journey.  It is not easy, it is not pretty, nor is it a lovely walk amongst the meadows and flowers.  It is more like Frodo trekking through Mordor.  Or Bilbo, excited for adventure, journeying to places he has never been before.  It is beautiful and fascinating but, the crap does hit the fan occasionally and you may nearly be eaten by a troll.  Okay, enough with the Tolkien analogies (big fan over here if you haven't guessed yet).  So let's begin.  

If you read my "About" section, you will know a little bit of how I came to practice yoga.  I had an eating disorder.  First, it was Bulimia, eating a bunch of stuff and then throwing it all up about 5 minutes later.  Then it turned to anorexia, just not eating.  Usually with an eating disorder we're pretty good at hiding how prevalent it is, until you keep making comments of how fat you are when you're a size zero.  Growing up in Los Angeles is hard.  There are so many messages in the media and magazines of how and what you should look like.  What is acceptable, what is beautiful.  Eventually, it wreaks mental havoc in your mind and you are cruel and hurtful to your body.  Desperately trying to fit in to impress the ever evasive, accepting audience. I realised I had a problem on a couple of occasions.  The first one was at a family event.  I was going on about being fat and "my rolls" when my cousin pointed out to me how skinny I was and that I didn't have anything there.  I honestly couldn't see it.  I saw myself as a big, fat person.  I was so uncomfortable in my own skin, unless there were no creases on my stomach, I couldn't believe I wasn't fat.  And even if I was, so what?  Just goes to show how low my confidence and self worth were; which is still sometimes a struggle (more on that in another post).  Now I know that I had body dysmorphia.  Before I knew the term or what it was, I was curious about what was going on in my brain and curious as to why I couldn't see what everyone else saw.  The second time I realised that something wasn't right, was when we were shown a film about a girl with an eating disorder in high school.  At one point in the film, she was standing in front of the mirror, pulling at and hitting herself.  She was so thin you could see every rib.  I remember watching the film and the feelings of shock and shame that surfaced when I thought to myself: "she does what I do when I'm alone in front of the mirror."

After that, I knew that I needed to do something to help myself to get out of where I was.  That is when I discovered yoga.  I used to get the occasional fitness magazine and in one of them was an article about yoga, with some poses to do.  At the time I was working out 3-4 hours a day with my boyfriend at the time, lots of cardio, weightlifting, etc.  Yoga was a great contrast to all the intense, powerful, fast-paced workouts I was doing.  I didn't feel so guilty doing it as I knew I was doing some form of physical exercise.  Guilt of not working out: another way of mentally harming and shaming myself of not being good enough.  I enjoyed the short sequence from the magazine so much that I decided to go to Target to get a mat and DVD (I was doing yoga on a beach towel or just the floor).  I went to the fitness section, found a purple (my favourite colour) mat for $17.99 or $19.99 and I picked up a Rodney Yee Beginner's Yoga DVD.  For quite some time I did the 30minute sequence on the DVD.  Then I would alternate between longer ones.  Gradually, without me noticing or realising, I began to love and appreciate myself a little more.  

Yoga isn't always pretty, although sometimes in photos it looks like it.  Yoga is hard.  It is intense teaching yourself how to master your breath.  To make that inhalation and exhalation ever so slightly longer.  Engaging your navel to your spine, activating your hands and your feet. I was so focused on doing all these things correctly, I didn't care what I looked like on my mat.  It became my safe place.  The place I could go to where I wasn't unkind to myself, I didn't say hurtful things or judge myself harshly.  I wasn't pulling at my stomach in various directions, slapping and hitting myself for having a little 'meat.'  I just practiced.  I moved with each breath, smiling from time to time when Rodney would talk about how some poses were childlike; and I felt free.  My mat became my safe place of peace and love.  It still is.  Whenever I feel that I am getting stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, I roll out my mat and practice.  Sometimes it is just a few sun salutations, at other times backbends and twists, sometimes all three of those.  If I don't have my mat, then I go to the wall and kick up to a handstand or gradually raise my legs, one at a time, into a headstand.  Holding either for a minute or two, until I feel my breath ease and slow down.  Then I take child pose, placing my forehead on the ground, re-centering myself, practicing gratitude.

The point is, we all come to yoga for different reasons.  How we arrive doesn't really matter, it is how you show up for yourself each and every moment. 

And so, the journey continues... 

Marina x