Lightness & Luminosity in Yoga Practice & In Life – The Play of the Guna-s

by Mary Hilliker, RDN, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT

Do you ever feel that you have a carnival in your mind, heart, or body? 

A stuck emotion here, an attitude lingering, a ruminating thought there, an ache or pain in a joint, tight back or neck muscles – all these possibilities creating either a ‘stuckness’ or a constant motion instead of lightness and clarity.  

The ancient wisdom of yoga says that the natural state of our mind is lightness and luminosity (a state of sattva).  This lightness and luminosity can extend to our thoughts, feelings, memories, emotions, physiology, and physical bodies.  Through yoga practice that is skillful and intentional, we can foster more self-regulation. We can create the conditions to be discerning, less reactive, and positive even in the face of life’s ever-changing reality. 

Our yoga practice can teach us about the nature of things that are constantly changing and that which is always the same. It’s in the quiet space of our practice that we develop the inner muscle of awareness to see what is.  Through a skillful approach to practice, we can feel the universe within us and us within the universe. 

So, what’s constantly changing?  Pretty much everything! In yoga philosophy, we know this concept as Prakṛti.  In their book, Embodying the Yoga Sutra: Support, Direction, Space, Ranju Roy and David Charlton, refer to Prakṛti as “outside.”  

Anything with form or substance is changing and is Prakṛti.  That rock, this river, my thoughts, our loved ones, the earth, the universe – it’s all in a state of constantly changing materiality.  The qualities of all materiality are the guna-s. The qualities of the guna-s are described as:

Sattva Guna – Lightness, Clarity, Harmony, Buoyant, Joy, Understanding

Raja Guna – Movement, Activation, Mobilization, Turbulence 

Tama Guna – Inertia, Stability, Stickiness.

In life and on the mat, the play of the guna-s will find us. If we have too much raja guna, we may experience more pain, anger, greed, agitation, and anxiety.  More balanced raja guna will support motivation and creativity for changes that are necessary.  

When tama guna is dominant, we may feel stuck, deluded, indifferent, heavy, ignorant, limited or restrained. When tama guna is balanced, it may provide a sense of stillness, stability, groundedness and structure.  

When we balance tamas and rajas, we come closer to the state of sattva where inner wisdom, discerning awareness, clarity, and a sense of connectedness persist. Our yoga practice can cultivate a sattvic state where we are able to perceive unchanging source, referred to as Puruṣa.  Think of this as “inside.” 

You may have had the experience of taking yourself from a rajasic state (anxious, in constant motion, distracted) or a tamasic state (dull, listless, foggy, sluggish) and landed in a place in your yoga practice where you feel light, luminous, and more knowing of inner truths.  This is the sattvic state and a goal of yoga practice. 

The sattvic state is where we “park” everything – aches and pains, symptoms our bodies experience, the reality of constant change, the drama of our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, moods, reactions, and behaviors. When we “park” everything, we’re not suppressing it. We’re just resting it in the support of our practice so that we experience the light and luminosity of unchanging source.  By parking everything, we can often be more discerning in how we transform through difficulties.  Call this whatever you want for yourself, knowing that resting in the awareness of unchanging source is helpful, healing, and whole.  It is there that we can allow all of life’s experiences to be a source of growth and transformation.

If we can take the time to see the guna-s at play in our lives and then collaborate with them in our practice, we can avoid being trapped or enmeshed by them.  Like often attracts like. If we’re in constant motion, we may be attracted to constant motion and distraction in our yoga practice and in Life.  If we’re dull and listless, we may not even make it to the mat, avoiding the work that may be helpful. Ultimately, a goal of yoga practice is to bring about a sense of lightness, luminosity and clarity. 

Observing what’s happening without judgement and taking a small step in the opposite direction is a start toward creating a more proportionally helpful soup of the guna-s.  We can use the play of the guna-s in our practice and be grateful for what each guna provides in our practice and in our life.  

Tama Guna 

Prepares the structure for our practice

Put supports in place like a chair, the earth, a view of a tree, a candle

Cultivates stability, trust, and groundedness

Raja Guna

Provides a starting point

Puts forth a goal or intention for the practice

Helps us take intelligent steps toward the goal of our practice

Cultivates creativity and change

Sattva Guna

Cultivates illumination and light, spaciousness, and openness 

Provides insight into suffering and the causes of suffering and how it manifests in our life and in our relationships

Provide the means to change habitual tendencies that create suffering

Helps us track progress 

“Sattva is the natural quality of the mind, rajas of the life-force and tamas of the physical body.”

-David Frawley in From the River of Heaven

 

My teacher, Gary Kraftsow, has advice about cultivating a sattvic mind. He offers recommendations like:

  • Study and understand teachings
  • Cultivate discernment and non-attachment
  • Avoid being excessive in acquisitions and actions 
  • Avoid laziness and too much sleep
  • Practice self-care
  • Watch what you feed your mind
  • Be in good company
  • Practice serenity in the face of praise or blame
  • Be humble
  • Be truthful and respectful 
  • Help others
  • Awaken your faith
  • Endure during times of stress 

The guna-s are always in constant movement, co-mingling in different proportions.  We get our own individual experience of how the guna-s impact our physical bodies, physiology and minds through personality, cognition, emotions, and identity.  We can use our yoga practice to observe the guna-s (aka the carnival!) and gently coax them into the proportions that help us connect to lightness, luminosity, and clarity.  

Harvest: The Gathering of the Crop

By Mary Hilliker, RDN, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT

We plant seeds, sometimes with great intention and clarity.  We have a plan and things are working out.  The harvest is bountiful and rich beyond measure.   

The more common situation in life is that seeds are planted but there are obstacles.  We’re still open to the process and looking optimistically to the harvest but we know our methods need to change or be refined. We can avoid harvest failure with the right inputs.  

Other times, we are stuck in the muck, unsure of either what to plant, where to plant it or how to take care of it.  These times are often precipitated by big transitions that may be planned or unanticipated.  Leaving home, getting married, starting a family, a job change, starting a business, closing a business, moving, divorce, retiring, the death of a loved one or friend or a global pandemic are just some examples of things that get us stuck in the muck.  There may be a sense of indecision, a gnawing, an inner discomfort, a disconnection from what feels like an inner alignment, or a frozenness.  

These times of uncertainty will always be part of the journey. When we are in the muck, uncertain of our direction, but knowing that we need to do something different or make a change, the ancients guided us in a few ideas about what to do.    

The Yoga Sutra-s of Patanjali are one of the key philosophical texts of yoga that lay out teachings on the mind and how to cultivate mental clarity and discernment.  They had ideas about how to dig our way out of the muck.  One of my favorite sections is 1.32 to 1.39, a list of practical solutions when you are stuck in suffering:   

  • Commit to the practice of a single principle (1.32) – This might be something as simple as committing to some daily journaling to gain clarity when things are not clear.   
  • Cultivate mental attitudes of friendliness toward those who are happy, compassion toward those who suffer, joy towards those whose action are virtuous, equanimity or disengagement from those who act poorly (1.33) – If we can cultivate these mental attitudes, we will be sorting things out from a place of peace, non-grasping and equanimity instead of being pulled by competition, attachments or aversions. 
  • Pay attention to exhale and suspension of exhale (1.34) – We gain mental clarity by working with our breath to reduce the stress response and quiet the mind and emotions so that we have clear discernment in making decisions. 
  • Work on mastery of the senses (1.35) – Our senses can pull us in many directions but typically the senses run in the direction of avoiding aversions and toward attachments. Our senses like to offer up false solutions by keeping us clinging to what offers a short-term ease from the discomfort of growth. 
  • Mediate on that light that is beyond the mind (1.36) – Meditating on light is common in many of the world’s religious traditions and it stands the test of time for cultivating clarity, optimism, and faith.  
  • Meditate on an inspired being or object (1.37) – This is one of my favorite ideas on this list.  What if we invited into the banquet table in our hearts all those who inspire us to seek their wise counsel?  
  • Pay attention to your sleep and dreams (1.38) – My teacher always counseled that the dreams in the wee hours of the morning are the ones to pay attention to.  This is the time when unconscious problem-solving or other weird, way-out things come up to be sifted and sorted. 
  • Meditate on something that is meaningful to you (1.39) – And this is the ultimate wisdom of the ancients.  What works for us may be something very deeply personal.  I personally like to meditate on plants as a representation of the possibility for growth.  From the muck comes the harvest of trees, fruits, vegetables and flowers! 

These teachings are timeless and relevant to situations and times in life where we get stuck in the muck.  Through conscious intention we can plant seeds and apply the tools for gaining clarity and discernment.  We can foster growth.  We can produce the harvest.  

Reduce Your ‘Coronasomnia’ and Get Your Sleep Back on Track with Yoga

by Mary Hilliker, RDN, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT

When sleep escapes you and fatigue is your daytime companion, it’s time to evaluate what actions you can take to improve sleep.  Your yoga toolbox has many tools, but you need to know which ones to apply to your situation.   

Insomnia was a major health issue across the population before the pandemic.  As routines were disrupted and stress amplified during the pandemic, more people are suffering with insomnia or ‘coronasomnia’.  Occasional sleeplessness is part of the human condition but chronic problems with sleeplessness can take a toll on physical and mental health.

The roots of sleeplessness may be related to stress, age, hormonal changes, pain, digestive distress, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, other health issues, medication side effects, lack of exercise or the wrong timing of it for your body, diet, or lifestyle routines.  Yoga is especially helpful for reducing symptoms of stress, anxiety, pain, and digestive distress – all big disruptors of sound sleep.  Yoga also creates awareness around factors that impact the body’s natural rhythms of wakefulness and sleepiness.

The tools of yoga are skillfully applied based on the characteristics of sleeplessness.  Some people have trouble falling asleep.  Others wake in the middle of the night.  The early risers may wake at 4 am even though the alarm is set for 6 am.  And some individuals sleep for 8 – 10 hours yet never feel rested and refreshed.  An assessment of what is happening for you is a first step in applying the tools that may be helpful.

One of the issues that has emerged during the pandemic is drastic changes in personal, work, school, and household routines.  Working parents of school age children have had some of the most drastic shifts in their routines.  These shifts in routines can be a major source of sleep problems.  One way to approach this is to see what is now returning to normal as we emerge out of the pandemic (hopefully!) and what might still be hanging on as a habit formed during the pandemic.  Some habits are major sleep disruptors – caffeine after mid-day, lack of exercise, no outside time or natural light before mid-day, high sugar consumption, and late in the day heavy meals, consumption of alcohol, too much alcohol and use of electronic devices.

Yoga tools that may be used for sleeplessness include yoga postures, breath adaptation in the postures, breathing practices, guided relaxation, meditation, or sound.  If you work with a Yoga Therapist to improve sleep and reduce daytime fatigue, you might work on:

  • Setting the stage for better sleep with lifestyle techniques and environmental controls
  • Unwinding tightness, tension and pain using yoga postures
  • Using yoga postures and breathing to fall asleep
  • Techniques you can use in bed when you wake during the night
  • Ideas for managing waking early
  • Quick and easy techniques for dealing with daytime fatigue
  • Changing attitudes and stress around managing sleeplessness.

One of the most common experiences of sleeplessness is not being able to fall asleep because of stress and repetitive negative or worrisome thoughts or strong emotions.  Keep in mind that the more stressful the day, the more valuable some movement and breathing to reduce stress hormones.  Yoga tools that may be applied in this situation include lifestyle changes, and a short evening yoga practice of simple postures with breath adaptation, a short breathing practice that promotes calmness, and guided relaxation or meditation.

Here’s one scenario for falling asleep at night:

  • Write down any reminders you need to offload from the chatter in your mind to empty yourself of the day.
  • Turn off the electronics.
  • Take a hot shower or bath.
  • Do a few favorite yoga postures slowly and with progressively lengthening exhales through 4 – 6 repetitions. You might start with a standing posture, then do a kneeling posture, then transition to your back to do a few postures.
  • Crawl into bed and visualize a favorite place in nature. Keep that visualization in your mind’s eye.
  • Make your inhale extremely easy such as 4 sec – 6 sec. Then progressively make the exhale longer (4 breaths with each step that you increase the exhale) until it is twice as long as your inhale.

Whether you need better sleep, more sleep, or better energy during the day, your yoga toolbox has options for skillful action.  You can learn how to use your yoga tools for sweet dreams at night and vitality and clear thinking during the day.

Be Like the Wildflowers: Return to the Core of Who You Are, Rest, Digest, Bloom

By Mary Hilliker, RDN, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT 

How can we emerge from this year?   Let’s just say it.  It’s been a crazy year.  Uncertainty and quickly changing circumstances have dominated our lives.  Situations and events that tear at the heart have happened with greater frequency.  Even the most balanced and steady among us have felt stress, anxiety, loss, and grief.  I’ve been thinking about how wildflowers have some answers for us.  

Every year wildflowers return to the core of who they are, allowing their brilliance and show-stopping displays to whither and return to the earth as compost.  I’m not suggesting that you turn yourself into compost right now, but prioritizing some time to be with yourself in quiet reflection is a great alternative.  Turn off the news.  Shut down the electronics.  Let nature be a therapeutic balm for your senses.  Breathe.  Courageously know yourself.  

One of our students has a ritual of watching the sun rise over the Wisconsin River.  It’s his contemplative time of day.  Rituals of connecting to nature, the cycles of the day or season, and faith are all powerful ways to return to the core of who you are.  

Breathing deeply is also another way of returning to Self, that part of you that is unchanging.  Self is that center that is unchanged by the drama all around.  And the quickest way to return to that core is via the breath.  Even 12 deep breaths can lead you home.    

Wildflowers rest.  In all my years of teaching yoga, teaching teachers, mentoring students, and working with clients on therapeutic practices, I’ve never seen a time where people have been so in need of deep rejuvenating rest.  The chronic stress and anxieties of this last year drain our systems.  We can become like wildflowers without any food, water, or sunshine.  

Movement practices like gentle breath-infused yoga postures, Tai Chi, embodiment, Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement (ATM) or any movement done in a meditative way are all wonderful ways to slow down and provide nourishment in the form of circulation to muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, fascia, organs, glands, the brain, and entire nervous system.  It is just like giving a wildflower some oak leaf mulch, warm spring rain and a good dose of sunshine.  Even if you are extremely attracted to a hard driving workout, it’s supportive of your immunity to do a gentle practice at least once a week to rest and rejuvenate.  

Guided relaxation and meditation also help with deep rest.  Even 5 – 10 minutes of relaxing music with legs up on an ottoman or chair or up the wall will signal to your body to do its “rest and digest” function.  This is particularly helpful to our immune system and can support the work of your Covid-19 vaccine.  

Wildflowers digest food, water, and sunshine to emerge in the spring.  We too need nutritious food, water, and light to digest the experiences of this last year.  There are many ways to digest what has happened.  Loss and grief and coping with change looks different for each person.  Prioritizing some time for what helps you is a good start.  As we emerge, we risk jumping back on hamster wheels that are not really our own.  Find what really nourishes you and helps you process what happened this last year.  Some people meditate, some journal, some take counsel in a good friend, some pray, and others return to activities that help them feel like they are contributing to the greater good.  It is enormously helpful to have a process that helps you feel like you are digesting your own individual experience to reflect on what’s been lost, what remains and what feels more important than ever before. 

And that brings us to blooming.  Without fail, the wildflowers return each spring.  From delicate, almost Victorian-like preciousness to bold and strong displays, they return.  They have used the gift of returning to their core, resting, and digesting to emerge once again.    

The lessons for us as we emerge are perhaps simple.  Be like the wildflowers:

  • Return to the core of who you are for at least 5 minutes each day.  Take in nature through the senses.  Breathe deeply.  Turn off the drama of the world for some time every day.   
  • Prioritize some rest in a way that helps your body achieve its most optimal immunity.  We all need that right now.  In fact, the entire world is banking on every human building immunity.  Schedule your restful self-care.  
  • Digest and process the experiences of this last year in a way that suits you.  Reflect on what has been lost, what remains and what feels more important than ever before.  And set your sights to that light of inspiration.  
  • As the time comes, bloom!  Don’t feel any need to rush the process of emerging.  Let what is meant to manifest in your life do so.  Honor the cycle that we are in right now as it is likely to be different with some small and large changes.    

May your mind-body practice (and vaccine) support you like soil, food, water, and sunshine nourishes those wildflowers. 

Non-Attachment Through Yoga Practice: Freedom, Peace, Courage

What have you had to give up an attachment to this year?

Some of the attachments may be more superficial, some more deeply difficult. Your list might be long. Family rituals, friend gatherings, travel, work, school life with in-person contact, in-person volunteer work, shared interest with others in hobbies, sports or causes, in-person entertainment. You may be suffering with those most deeply difficult changes, such as death of someone you love, loss of a relationship that was important to you or major changes in relationships due to the stresses of this time.

We are all living with the reality of our many attachments. The pandemic is like a big mirror, reflecting our attachments and aversions. While this pandemic, in its size and scope, is new for all of us, suffering with attachments and aversions is not. The ancient philosophical teachings of yoga describe these concepts and offer suggestions for managing attachment and aversion.

We can move through life tethered to our identification with things, ideas, opinions, and self-concept. But if we walk courageously willing to examine our identifications, we can experience the fruits of freedom, peace, and courage. Let’s explore these concepts and their relationship to loosening the grip of attachments or aversions.

Freedom

Non-attachment or vairagya “is an ability to remain centered, without being knocked off balance and impelled to behave in ways we may later regret.” It “is the ability to reside in a space without the compulsion to act; it gives us the freedom to choose how to respond,” according to Roy and Charlton in Embodying the Yoga Sutra: Support, Direction, Space.

The pandemic has created a space to explore what we really do not miss. It has also created a deeper understanding of what is most meaningful, what our hearts yearn for.

There is freedom in understanding how we used to spend our time and energy and how we want to spend our time and energy going forward. Observing and exploring attachments and aversions helps us peel back the layers to see our own true nature and to live more fully from that place. As we loosen the grip of things, repetitive patterns of thinking and emotional reactivity patterns, we open ourselves to being more selfless, to serving others and our communities.

Peace

When we can observe our attachments and aversions without acting on them, we suddenly have a newfound sense of peace. An introspective mindset helps us see the desires, discomforts and motivations that are underneath what we cling to and what we avoid. If we are hooked by attachments, we are also accumulating a lot of maintenance work. If we act less on attachments, energy is freed up for what gives our lives meaning.

You can’t live through an election cycle without some awareness that we are all tethered to our opinions. Social media and group-think amplifies this attachment. Instead of really studying an issue and trying to understand it at a deeper level, there is the tendency to quickly like or dislike or tweet about it.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author and winner of the National Book Award, said recently in a Washington Post article, “If I’m honest with you, I feel like the need to have an opinion on everything corrupts thinking.”

Peace can wash over us when we dedicate our thinking and talking and writing time to what really matters to us and where we feel we can effect change. Non-attachment doesn’t mean not caring or absolving oneself of responsibility to others and the community. Discerning how to act to effect change is a very individual experience. Snarky tweets and Facebook outrage are typically just amplifying and broadcasting our attachments, while the quiet work of the peaceful warrior is one of steady actions toward goals that will make a difference.

“Detachment is not indifference. It is the prerequisite for effective involvement. Often what we think is best for others is distorted by our attachments to our opinions. We want others to be happy in the way we think they should be happy. It is only when we want nothing for ourselves that we are able to see clearly into others needs and understand how to serve them.”
-Mahatma Gandhi

Courage

We can be pushed around by our aversions, letting them define us, perhaps even limiting our openness to new and enlightening experiences and to love without expectations. I often think of parenting in those first few years of childhood as the ultimate act of being able to let go of attachments and aversions to love and serve another human being without expectation.

Non-attachment or vairagya is an active process, a tending to the smudges on the mirror so that peace and love are more well-established than fear, selfishness, and attachment.

Problem-solving is an important skill anytime but maybe even more so during a pandemic. The less attached we are to our ideas, or the way we’ve always done things, or the way we thought things would be, the more skillful and less anxious we can be in working out solutions. Openness invites the presence of creativity and problem-solving.

Methods to Work with Attachment and Aversion in Yoga Practice – On & Off the Mat

Yoga practice can create a space for working with our attachments and aversions. It provides a space to explore what is, and to strengthen our ability to observe and change attachments and aversions that keep us from peace, freedom and living a courageous life.

  • If physical postures are part of your yoga practice, explore new postures or change up how you do a posture. Use a contra-lateral adaptation, add chanting, or adapt the breath to cultivate openness and curiosity over habitual ways of moving.
  • Start a regular breathing practice if you don’t already have one. Even 5 minutes a day can be life-affirming. Pranayama cultivates focus, energy, and patience – all qualities that help us stay steady through life’s ups and downs. Pranayama also helps reset the reactivity dial every day.
  • Meditate on attachments and aversions. What are the underlying motivations or intentions for those attachments and aversions? Reflect on true sources of happiness. Whenever we can turn from self-serving to selfless, we orient more toward the deeper callings of the heart.
  • Meditate on loss. Examine it. Give it space. Understand the depth of the loss and what attachments and aversions are wrapped up in that loss. Explore what remains as a connection that endures through time. Meditate on what is coming out of that loss. Ask yourself if you can experience your life with all the richness and difficulties and remain open and in awe? As you process the loss, turn your mind in meditation to objects of attention that symbolize what you are trying to cultivate moving forward.
  • Off the mat, try to put a space between what happens to you and how you react to it. Consciously take 3 or more deep breaths, keeping your mind focused on the sound, physical sensation, and length of the breath. Be present with where and what you’re experiencing. Is it an attachment to a certain way of reacting? Are you feeling like you want to run from what you’re experiencing? Any disturbing emotion such as anxiety, sadness, anger, or fear provides an invitation to understand what’s underneath the push or pull for us.
  • When you complain about the way things used to be in the “before times,” or rail against new routines in the “now times,” or feel the attachment to the “after times,” take a few moments to identify what you are clinging to and what you want to run from. What is a ‘feel-good moment’ that you miss and what is the deeper suffering that relates to loss of connection? If we can identify the foundation of the suffering, we can be more effective in a course of action.

“Wisdom is the ability to rise above perceptions that are clouded by biased self-interest to discern the meaning concealed in a fact or event,” says Reverend Jaganath Carrera in Inside the Yoga Sutras: A Comprehensive Sourcebook for the Study and Practice of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

We all have our attachments and aversions. They are the smudges and fog on the mirror that obscure clarity. These wonderfully human imperfections invite us to transform and live more authentically. Through the practice of non-attachment, we can let the big mirror of the pandemic help us see where we were, where we are now, and how much we want a deeper connection to freedom, peace and courage for the future.

Yoga for Focus & Attention as the Season Changes

Autumn brings a distraction, more so this year as we navigate the change along with the pandemic and all its twists, turns and complexities.  Have you noticed how your mind and thoughts run around like squirrels gathering and burying acorns?

Squirrel!

It is the season of the squirrel.  Summer has said its last goodbye for the year.  The crispness and color of fall is upon us.  With the season change comes distraction, cognitive fog with fewer hours of daylight and maybe even this year, an accompanying worry about what is next as we are still actively in a pandemic.

The nature of the mind is to have runaway thoughts.   Fortunately, the ancient yogis devised techniques for harnessing thoughts to create focus and improve attention.  At our disposable are simple but effective tools and techniques.

Tips for Yoga Practice for Focus & Attention during Seasonal Changes

  • Infuse yoga postures with the breath.  Each part of a movement is accompanied and powered by a phase of the breath.

  • Do yoga postures with contra-lateral adaptations
  • Adapt the breath in yoga postures to lift energy or calm, depending on what you need.  If you need to focus and lift energy, use a short retention after inhale.  If you need to focus and calm down, extend exhale progressively as you do a posture.
  • Do breathing practices (pranayama), especially with nostril valving such as Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing)
  • Use meditative techniques such as fixing your attention to an image of light in your heart and mind or using a mantra (a word or phrase that is supportive for you).  A supportive mantra at this time of year is Om Jyotir Aham (invoking light within).

When to Get Help

As the season changes, it’s important to work with your health care provider if you get significant symptoms of seasonal affective disorder that deeply impact your life such as having trouble functioning at work or home, difficulty in your personal relationships, or you have significant feelings of depression and hopelessness or anxiety.

Resources

If you are interested in using yoga techniques to help with seasonal changes, contact a Yoga Therapist as they are trained in tailoring techniques for your unique manifestation of seasonal changes as well as other health conditions you may have.

For other writing on yoga and seasonal changes, see past blogs on fatigue and general yoga practice tips for seasonal changes.

Intention

As you move toward the winter solstice, use your yoga practice to support and nourish your focus and attention.  Use your practice to gently harness your attention to do what must be done and cultivate light to burn off any cognitive fog that clouds your day.

Stick figure graphics by Sequence Wiz, www.sequencewiz.com.

Mary Hilliker, RDN, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT is a Certified Viniyoga Teacher and Yoga Therapist and Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist with 5 Koshas Yoga and Wellness Center and River Flow Yoga Teacher Training School in Wausau WI. Mary offers individualized Yoga Therapy in person and online.  She teaches therapeutic and wellness yoga classes, mini-retreats, workshops, webinars and yoga teacher training (200 hr. Yoga Teacher Training | 300 hr. Advanced Yoga Teacher Training for RYT-500). 

How to Reduce Stress with Yoga

The stress from the COVID-19 pandemic is as unprecedented as the the public health regulations and recommendations needed to control it. There’s stress around the fear of getting infected. There’s stress around making a living as the economy contracts. Parents are stressed about their children keeping up with their education.  There’s stress in the uncertainty about how long this will last.

Especially amidst this coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to set aside time for yourself to reduce stress levels and process what’s happening for you and your family, even if only for a couple minutes. If you’re looking for a way find some inner peace and balance, yoga reduces stress with simple and accessible tools.

A Holistic Approach to Stress Relief

The pressure can build up, and a sense of discomfort can make us turn to habitual discomfort relievers – checking social media, turning on your favorite reality TV show or heading to the junk food cabinet. We have all been there in the last several months.  These temporary pressure relievers are unable to offer lasting stress relief. Yoga is a holistic approach to stress relief that synchronizes your body and mind to help you come back to your center so that you can mindfully do the best you can in these circumstances.

Research has shown that regularly practicing yoga can help to reduce stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, lower blood pressure, and increase blood flow.

Stress-Relieving Yoga Tools

When it comes to yoga for stress relief, it’s all about awareness, holding attention, and breathing. Start with awareness of where you are beginning (body, mind, emotions). Hold attention on the breath or the coordination between the breath and the movement. By focusing on breathing, you will have more conscious respiratory rhythm, which helps you tune your nervous system. Incorporating meditation (again, holding attention in one place) into your routine will help you become more mindful of the world around you and, more importantly, yourself.

When you focus your attention on one specific aspect like breathing, you temporarily offload the stressors of the world around you to gain new perspectives and regulate your autonomic nervous system

Table to Child’s Pose (Cakravakasana)

Use this posture to connect to your breathing and to stretch your low back. To get into Child’s Pose, start with a tabletop on your hands and knees. Place your knees hip-distance apart and your hands below your shoulders. On an exhale, hug in belly muscles. Lower your forearms to the floor and slowly move your hips toward your heels as you lower your head and chest toward the floor.  Repeat the posture several times and then rest in the Child’s Pose for six full deep breaths.

Cranky Knees? Sit on a chair and fold chest toward thighs on an exhalation.

Morning: Make inhalation and exhalation equal in length to energize. Progressively make the inhale and exhale longer.

Evening: Focus on progressively lengthening your exhale to calm and relax.

Eagle Pose

Pauline Zweck, RYT-200 pictured above in Eagle Pose

Balancing poses require deep concentration, which makes them effective for stress relief. All your energy is focused on staying upright, keeping you in the moment and helping you forget about the stressors around you. Eagle Pose is also a great posture for relieving stress in the upper back and shoulders. If you’re having trouble balancing, try staring at a fixed object or spot in the room. Choose something that’s pleasing or calming to you.

To get into Eagle Pose, begin by standing with your feet hip-width apart and your shoulders down and back. Making sure all your movements are slow and smooth, pick up your right leg and cross it over your left, standing on one foot. Imagine you are sitting on a chair that is not  there. Now, cross your left arm over the top of your right arm at the elbows, and bring the back of your hands together. Bend your elbows until your hands are in front of your face. Hold Eagle’s Pose for at least six full breaths before switching to the other side.

 

Holistic Stress Relief

Stress is not a new invention brought on by the coronavirus outbreak but it provides a learning opportunity. By learning to stay present amidst the storm of the pandemic, you will embed tools for a lifetime. Practicing yoga impacts every layer of who you are – physical, physiology, mind, character and heart. You can become a stronger, healthier person and relieve stress by regularly practicing simple and accessible yoga techniques, leading to an overall higher quality of life.

Yoga + Mindfulness Tools for Conscious Eating & Embodied Well-Being

When we start to pay attention in an intentional and nonjudgmental way, as we do when we cultivate mindfulness, and thus bring ourselves back into the present moment, we are tapping into very deep natural resources of strength, creativity, balance and yes, wisdom – interior resources that me may never have realized we even possess.  Nothing has to change.  We don’t have to be different or “better.”

– Jon Kabat-Zinn in the Foreward to ‘Mindful Eating’ by Jan Chozen Bays, MD

Are You Ready For A New Relationship to Food, Eating and Exercise?

Are you ready to inhabit your body from the inside out?  Are you ready to listen to your internal cues for what nourishes you?  Have you had enough of scales, diets and external sources of control?  Yoga and the mindfulness tools that are part of this ancient science can re-orient us to our own inner wisdom about what makes us feel well.

How Yoga Helps Conscious Eating

Yoga has a vast set of tools that can be helpful for cultivating conscious eating and emotional well-being around food, eating, exercise and body image.  Here are a few ways that yoga and mindfulness can help:

  • Breath-centered yoga postures done slowly and mindfully can create a feeling of groundedness and rootedness for inhabiting the body we have
  • Yoga posture practice and breathing practices help cultivate stability and strength in body, thoughts and emotions
  • Yoga postures, breathing practices and meditation help manage stress, a saboteur of a positive and healthy relationship to food, eating, body image and enjoyable forms of movement
  • Breathing, meditation and awareness exercises often improve our internal sense of hunger, fullness, thoughts and emotions that ultimately drive behaviors
  • A well-rounded yoga practice helps us continually dig into the well of our own deep wisdom around what helps our energy level, sleep, physical comfort, and emotional well-being

We live in a time where they are so many “shoulds” and “don’t’s” around food, weight and exercise.  The tools of yoga and mindfulness offer an intuitive, conscious and inner wisdom-based approach to food, eating, movement and relationship to oneself.

A Mindful Eating Exercise

As we move through this time of celebrations and resolutions, you might ask yourself, “What is it I really hunger for and how am I hungry for it?”  Here are 6 questions to guide you in your mindfulness around eating:

  1. Are my eyes hungry for this because of its beauty?
  2. Am I hungry for the smell of this food?
  3. Is my stomach feeling hunger or thirst for this food?
  4. Do I have a deep craving for this food at a cellular level and how is my body responding to this food that I craved?
  5. Is my mind running a script about this food, telling me the “shoulds” or “don’ts”?
  6. Is my heart craving this food because it’s soothing or nourishing to me, and what is the story about this food that attracts me to it?

Access Deep Inner Wisdom Through Holistic Yoga Practice

Slowing down the art of eating with simple mindfulness tools can help re-establish a deep inner connection to food and eating.  Moving, breathing, grounding, and reflecting through a holistic approach to yoga practice can help cultivate a sense of inhabiting the body.  By accessing deep inner wisdom, we become more fully aware of what helps us feel well at all levels of the Koshas – physical body, physiology, mind, intuition and heart.

Yoga for Fatigue as the Season Changes

Summer has said it’s last goodbye for the year.  The crispness and color of fall is upon us. With the season change comes the very real problem of fatigue for many who live in northern climes.  It’s one of the more overwhelming symptoms of seasonal affective disorder and a troubling symptom for many as the hours of daylight fade.

Fatigue can have different qualities.  It may feel physical (more muscular) or physiological (shortness of breath, no “mo-jo”, lethary) or cognitive (presenting as difficulty concentrating and processing information).  It can be mild at one end of the spectrum or bone-numbing and paralyzing at the other extreme.   A dandelion scattering its seeds is symbolic for the scattering of energy that comes with fatigue.

The ancient yogis devised models for understanding human energy and how to transform it.  We can use these ancient models for the fatigue that comes with the season, health conditions, treatments, grief, or other factors that cause fatigue.

Breath-centered postures, breathing practices and relaxation/meditative practices have the greatest potential to help us transform fatigue.  We can choose postures that build energy, adapt the breath in postures to awaken and nourish, or use breathing practices that feel awakening when we are tired or calm us when stress is depleting our energy reserves.  We can also use yoga to become more sensitive to when we need more energy-conserving practice like relaxation or meditation.

Here are 5 ways to get started with yoga practice tools to transform fatigue:

  1. Awareness – track your fatigue level, stress level, work hours, leisure activities and lifestyle habits such as exercise and diet for 1 week to see if you notice any trends
  2. Asana – do a short practice of 1 – 3 postures to get going in the morning.  Lengthen your breath over 4 – 6 repetitions of the posture.  Standing postures are the most energizing but if your energy is really low, you may need to do something on your back or in a kneeling position.
  3. Breathe – when energy is low but you need to be present or productive, do 12 full deep breaths with Inhale = Exhale and a short 3 sec pause after Inhale.  An example is:  Inhale 6 sec, Pause for 3 sec after Inhale, Exhale 6 sec.
  4. Meditate – spend about 5 minutes visualizing light moving to every part of your body, especially the heart space, center of the head and hands and feet.
  5. Breath-infused Relaxation or Nap – systematically work through the body, sending a deep breath to each major part of the body (R arm, R leg, L leg, L arm, center of the head, center of the chest, belly, abdomen).  Do 1st round with 1 breath, 2nd round with 2 breaths, 3rd round with 3 breaths.  Continue until your body feels suspended in a deep state of relaxation and rejuvenation.  Spend 5 – 10 minutes in this rejuvenation.

Fatigue is often transformed more by a variety of short practice tools that are “do-able” and not too energy-consuming than a monster practice. As your reserve of energy improves, you may be able to exercise more or add stronger yoga practices or begin to work with breathing practices that build your energy reserves.  A yoga teacher or Yoga Therapist trained in the Vedic models of human energy can help you out.

It’s important to work with your health care provider if symptoms of fatigue feel overwhelming or are new without any discernible reason.  If you have trouble functioning at work, home or in your volunteer work, your personal relationships suffer, and you have significant feelings of depression as a result of the fatigue, it’s time to talk with your doctor.

As you move toward the winter solstice, use your yoga practice to support and nourish steady energy and to transform fatigue when it presents itself.

Transition and Transformation

Change in our life comes in many different ways.  Sometimes we plan for the change.  A retirement, career change or getting married are examples of things that we often consciously choose.  And then some changes blow in like a strong wind taking with it any sense of order and stability.

There are many teachings in the ancient tradition of yoga for transforming through life’s inevitable changes.   Some of the most profound and useful teachings on change come from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  The teachings most helpful center on our relationship to attachment and aversion, understanding what causes suffering, how to free ourselves from suffering and staying centered in regular practice that is suitable for us as individuals.

Radical and deeply shocking changes may require the simplest yoga tools possible.  It may be a very basic but comforting posture infused with a long exhale.  It may be simply trying to extend your exhale to try to fall asleep.  It may be extending the breath in the morning as you first wake up to try to get more clear-headed to face the day.

Whether changes is radical or planned, yoga can be profoundly useful in helping us build our prana shakti or vitality so that we are strong and stable in body, physiology (especially our immune system) and mind.  We build prana shakti through postures and breath practice (pranayama).  We can then use our vitality to work with the more difficult aspects of change including thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviors that create suffering around the inevitable changes that life brings our way.

When unexpected visitors come to your door, welcome all knowing that you have the tools to be present, open and grounded.