You’ve probably been in a class where the teacher invites you to empty your mind and let your thoughts fall away in Savasana (Corpse Pose). As you lay on your mat, you let the chaos of the day remove itself from your mind. It’s so easy to do in the surroundings of the studio with the darkened room, with your body relaxed and your thoughts already quieted.
You may not have that kind of time to devote to meditation every day. Or you may find you can commit to five minutes a day during the work week and longer, deeper sessions on the weekends. The point is, just do it. A meditation practice—however long or short—can become an island of calm in your day. It’s a place you know you can go regardless of what’s going on in your life to get grounded, to stop the noise and to just enjoy “being.”
Meditating can seem daunting. Trying not to think isn’t as easy as it seems. But, there are a lot of ways to start. You can meditate on a mantra. You can picture an object or image. Or, if it does work for you, you can try to drain your mind of any extraneous thoughts, letting you mind rest on one concept. The metaphor teachers often use is to think of your mind as the surface of a placid lake. If a thought comes along, think of it as a ripple. Observe it, but let it go. Whenever there is a distraction—and there will be—just note it and return to that calm place.
If you feel like it’s easiest for you to use words to set your intentions, there are many chants and mantras to try, both in Sanskrit and in translation. You can try saying them out loud or silently. You might also, if you’re a music or literature buff, try meditating on lines from your favorite song or book to help create a centered place in your mind.
If you’re more attracted to visual focus points, trying to create a devotional atmosphere. You can visualize the image of a deity, especially if you feel you need empowerment. Meditating on an image of Shiva, for example, may be a useful tool to help you feel stronger and more able to clear the clutter in your own life. Or maybe you need the back-up of Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity who helps remove obstacles.
Maybe you’re looking for a less metaphysical approach. Remember, it’s all good. Only you know your objectives. So, if you are working toward a specific goal, see yourself in the process of doing what you’re just dreaming of. Say you are looking to change jobs. Picture yourself getting up and getting dress for that job, doing the work, feeling satisfied at the end of the day. Or maybe you are in the middle of making over your physical self. Focus on a vision of yourself running or playing with your kids or grandkids. Then, as you meditate, engage your senses in that image—what does it feel like, what do you see, what do you hear? And, finally, release all sensory perception and just float. Yes, it’s fine to want to achieve something but you need to remember that life isn’t about metrics and numbers; it’s about doing/being what makes you happy and whole.
If you want to meditate without a fixed image or words in your mind, start by trying to bring yourself to a place of stillness. You don’t have to empty you mind of all thoughts, but do try to get rid of ones that stop you from relaxing or focusing on deeper issues. Worrying about the groceries won’t help you meditate. Maybe try visualizing ripping up your to-do list. Whatever method you choose, walk your mind down that corridor that leads away from stress, anxiety and striving toward a place you want for nothing—where just “being” becomes the ultimate pleasure. When you return from meditation to awareness of your surroundings, it’s almost like coming out of a theater. You’ve lost sense of time and place—maybe the room is cold now or a storm has come and gone. But you feel energized, stimulated, totally alive.
How you meditate can be different every day. Your needs will set your meditation practice. Feel free to experiment with different ways of finding your mental center. There is no right or wrong here. Just do it.
Meditation on the go
Mantras for meditation
Yoga pose library
The weather is warming up, school’s out and it’s time for your vacation. If you are like most yoga students, you can’t wait to get away and have fun. But, you can most definitely wait for the process of getting there—long hours cramped in a car or plane—and the upheaval of being away from your usual yoga studio, teacher and home practice.
But, you don't have to abandon your practice when you travel. For most car trips, you can bring your YogaPaws with a few yoga DVDs or your computer and have a ready-made home practice when you arrive. Or, if you are flying, be sure to bring your YogaPaws in your carryon. Airports are even starting to have designated areas for yoga in between flights!! Even if its just in the corner at an abandoned gate, you will likely find that even a short practice helps you feel more grounded.
But, sometimes you need your yoga most when you are farthest away from your mat. The frustrations of transport, from flight delays to getting lost, can leave you yearning for a good Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) right at that moment. That’s not always an option, though.
The most important thing to remember is that your yoga practice is a state of mind as much as a physical pose. The same patience you cultivate holding your Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I Pose) serves you well if you are stuck in traffic. Take a deep breath, and try to find your focus.
That said, there are times when you need the physical release as well. Here are some poses to try without even taking your shoes off.
Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
Benefits: This balance pose can help you feel more in control during a long trip. How to do it: Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Shift your weight to your left foot. Reach down and clasp your right ankle, bringing your right foot up to your inner left thigh if possible (if not, resting your foot on your shin is fine). Engage your core to bring your pelvis into alignment. Raise your hands above your head, palms facing each other. Focus on something four or five feet in front of you and hold for 30 seconds to one minute. Release and repeat on the other side.
Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Benefits: This basic standing pose will help you get grounded. How to do it: Stand with your feet together, big toes touching. Turn your palms to face forward. Stack your pelvis over your ankles and your chin above your feet. Look forward and relax your face and neck. Hold the pose for 30 seconds to one minute.
High Lunge Pose
Benefits: This modification of Virabhadrasana I helps release your hip flexors, which are often tight after long trips. How to do it: Start in Tadasana. Step your right foot back about three and a half to four feet. Bend into your left knee until it is in line with your ankle. Lift your arms overhead. Hold for 30 seconds to one minute, then release, come back to Tadasana and repeat on the other side.
Use your head. Whenever you can, let your eyes soften their focus and look around. Try not to concentrate on any one object.
Move it. During any break in a trip, stand up and walk around. Even if you can’t get a practice in, any movement will help make you feel less stiff and confined.
And, don’t forget to breathe. After the stuffiness of planes and cars, any air feels good. When you get out, take a deep breath and visualize the air you’re breathing in cleaning the “gunk” of the trip out of your body.
Yoga on the go
Meditation on the go
Yoga pose library
Every time you put on your YogaPaws or hit the mat, you’re taking a big step toward keeping your heart healthy. Yoga’s emphasis on relaxation adds to the impressive array of benefits—increased lung capacity, better respiratory function and overall strength—that any activity offers. So, you’re already on the right track. Tailoring your yoga practice to your heart once in a while can enhance those positive effects even more.
Many of the risk factors of heart problems are lifestyle related, which is a big part of why cardiovascular disease in the number one cause of death worldwide. But, your risk factor isn’t just determined by physical factors like diet and exercise.The pressures in your life also have a major impact on your heart, in both the literal physical sense and the metaphysical one. According to cardiovascular health legend Dean Ornish, chronic stress can double the rate of plaque buildup in vital arteries around your heart. So, calming down is just as crucial as eating healthy and staying active.
Fortunately, you already have your yoga in your heart-health toolkit. When you go to class or practice at home, you know the feeling of release you enjoy. It’s easier to let go of the stresses of your day as you move through each pose. What you may not be as aware of is that some poses focus on the heart and, many yoga schools believe, can offer additional benefits. Here are a few to try:
Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose)
Benefits: This gentle twist creates space in your spine and upper back, helping you relax.
How to do it: Start by sitting on a folded blanket. Bend your knees and cross your left leg under your right, letting your left knee open so that the outside of your left foot is on the floor. Bring your right leg over so that your right foot is on the ground by your left thigh. On an exhale, twist to your right and put your right hand by your right hip. You can bring your left arm to wrap around your right leg, or snug your left elbow into your right knee. Hold for 30 seconds to one minute, then release and repeat on the other side.
Balasana (Child’s Pose)
Benefits: This restorative pose helps you slow down your thoughts and relieve stress. How to do it: Start by kneeling on the floor. Put your big toes together and make sure your knees are hip-width apart. Sit back on your heels and place your torso down on your thighs. You can bring your hands back by your sides, palms up, or extend them with your palms on the ground ahead of you. Stay here for anywhere from 30 seconds to one minute, depending on your needs and practice.
Savasana (Corpse Pose) Benefits: This ultimate relaxation pose invites stress to drip away from you. How to do it: Lie face up on your mat. Extend your legs gently in front of you and let your hips rotate naturally (your feet will probably turn somewhat outward). Place your hands by your sides, palms up. Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Let the tension leave all your muscles. Remain here for five minutes, then roll onto one side and come up.
Breathe. It might sound obvious, but remembering your breath as you practice amps up the heart-health benefits. Try Ujjayi breathing (victorious breath), focusing on deep, even inhalations and exhalations.
Open your heart. Sometimes, The best thing for your heart is sharing it with others. Donating your time to a good cause is good for your mental and physical state. Try checking with your yoga studio to see what charitable endeavors they support and how you can help.
Remember, too, that as you practice, your mind may wander. Unless it’s going in a negative direction, let it be. Sometimes, that mental break is a great stress reliever. If you want to direct your focus inward, visualize tightness and pressure leaving your body.
Yoga to relieve anxiety
Yoga for heart opening
Yoga pose library
Photographer Julien Balmer of Visual Spectrum Photography
It may be cliché, I know, but yoga has changed my life.
Somebody recently asked me how and I realized that it is has been a slow and steady process, one which is vast and deep and profound. I struggled for a quick and easy description. It got me thinking....... How has yoga really changed my life...... Or more to the point changed me.
I used to be a wild party girl, chasing the next thrill, the next high, the next hit and the next buzz. One day I finally realized that it was insatiable. There was never enough, it always left you wanting more. More music, more hits, more highs, more booze, more spiffs, more cigarettes, more alcohol, more sex, more rock and more roll, more more more more more. IT was never enough. IT was not satisfying. IT was endless because IT was not IT.
I woke up one morning with a nose bleed and a hangover from hell. I crawled downstairs threw up and then looked at myself in the mirror. There must be more to life than this. There must be more to me than just this.
I turned my back on my party ways, I packed my bags and left my life. I left myself! I jumped ship.
Mhari Scott | Seattle and Portland Wedding Photographer
I had found Ashtanga yoga a year before and it was the first thing I had done in ages that actually made me feel good about myself. It actually made me feel. I had been numbing myself to life for so long that I could barely feel anything anymore.
I chose life. I didn’t want o be numb anymore…..
I immersed myself in the new world I had discovered. I started taking my practice seriously. I devoted time to myself to making myself feel good. I started to take care of myself. Lesson one - if you don't look after yourself then how can u feel good? Inside and out.
I started to observe myself. What did I do, how did I do it.
I beat myself up. I put myself down. I hit myself with a derogatory stick all day everyday.
Lesson two - without observation there will be no change. First we have to recognize our faults before we can start changing them.
I started to taking note when and why I was doing this. I burnt my stick. I made a pact with myself to start being nice to me. If I am not nice to me then how can I expect anyone else to be?
I changed my ways.
Lesson three - by changing the way you do things in your daily life can allow a new person inside of you to grow. I stopped drinking. I stopped smoking. I stopped partying. I went to class. I did my practice. I changed my patterns. I'm not saying it was easy, not at first, but with persistence and continuity; then things will change (Lesson four).
India beckoned. I could hear it calling me. It's funny because when you drink and smoke and alter your state of mind then you begin to lose touch with you intuition. You simply can't hear it as clearly as you can with a clear head. I had lived in a blurry bubble for over 12 years and quite frankly, everything was hazy. As I began to clear my head I began to hear that little voice inside of me. The little voice of the larger me. The more I listened to it, the more it spoke to me. Guiding me, telling me which way to go, which path to take, which decision to make, what was right, what I wanted.
Lesson five - always listen to that little voice for it is the voice of your soul.
I went to India. Choosing life, expansion. Choosing to follow my path.
I learnt how to be on my own agenda. I realized that I had always done everything for everyone else and hardly ever did what I wanted to do for me. Lesson six. Live life for you! Put yourself first.
I learnt how to enjoy my own company, how to be ok with myself. Yoga teaches you to begin to be ok with where u are. Make peace with wherever you are and be content with that. Don't strive after achievements that you have not yet fulfilled or feel frustrated by things that have not yet materialized. Lesson seven. Make peace with exactly where you are today. Not where you were yesterday or where you want to be tomorrow, but where and who you are today.
My practice and experience of India was arduous. It was a hard graft. I had upped my practice from 2-3 times a week to 6 and my practice itself was almost twice as long and the level of demanding-ness had quadrupled. I learnt that once again perseverance leads to achievement. Lesson eight - Without commitment you don't get very far.
I kept going. When things got tough, when I felt like I was never going to get to where I wanted to go. I kept going. I was enjoying the journey and knowing that the journey was the destination I stopped looking forward and began looking at now. Living in the moment. Living each day as it came.
Lets pause there for a moment…..living in the now is a hard practice. It takes years of trying to even get close. But you have to start somewhere, you have to be happy where you are and you have to preserver. I realized how much I cling to the past and how much I try to mentally paint a picture of the future. Again it is extremely heard to let go of these things but you have to just keep on trying. Keep acknowledging what you are doing and keep recognizing that you are doing them. Lesson 9 to live in the now is really hard! Only severe determination and constant effort will get you there.
Lesson 10 - you are enough. Don't listen to other people's opinions of what you are capable of. If you want to do something. Just do it. Don't ask others people's advice. Listen to that voice inside of you. Don't listen to your fears of inadequacy. Don't let other people stop you from pursuing your dreams.
A 'friend' told me that I was not ready for my teacher training, he had not been with me in India. He had not seen what I had out into my practice. He had no right to tell me what he thought I was capable of. I ignored his advice and I did it anyway. I was good enough. I started to believe in myself.
Lesson 11 - don't give up!
On returning from my travels things went down hill. My world fell apart. My vision of how life was going to be was so very far from how it actually was. I was lonely. I was in a new place. My creature comforts where stripped away. I fell. I got very close to giving up, for the first time in my life I danced with death. I fought depression. I struggled through. I took on all my weaknesses. I cleared out all my dirty corners. I did a big spring clean of me.
When things got really bad I asked for help. (Lesson 12 always ask for help when you need it). I'm not very good at asking for help. I don't like to be a burden. Ironically I help other people endlessly, yet I can not ask for the anything in return.
I asked for help. I got out of my hole. I reconnected.
Lesson 13. Everything you need is within you. Don't ever forget that.
Lesson 14 - dream big.
Life is about following our dreams. About making them happen. Nothing is outside of our grasp. You really can do anything if you set your mind to it. Follow the things that excite you. Make decisions based on what feels right. If you can't find an answer then you are probably just messing with the wrong question! I was stuck between two options that I could not decide between until I realized that neither of them were what I wanted to do. I did a workshop with Nancy Gilgoff and she said to me 'come to Maui'. As she said it something inside of me lit up. I could go to Maui. I could go and spend a few months practicing second series with Nancy Gilgoff!! I could do that. Suddenly I got hit with the ' I can't afford it / what about my job / what would I do when I got back' thoughts. I decided to bin those and live in the moment. Right now it was the only thing that really excited me. It got my chi flowing. It made me sparkle. It made me feel alive! I was going to make it happen. I was going to live the dream.
Lesson 15 - choose life. Every day you will be more. Every moment you are getting closer to your dreams. Every second you are changing and growing. Every day you can be a new you. Every thought can be the birth of a new dream.
Who knows where you will be in six months, six weeks, six days or even six minutes from now.
So that is how yoga has changed my life. It has taught me so very much about myself, about how I live and how I can live. Yoga is not about the physical stuff. It is a tool to help you begin to see yourself. Imagine you have a mirror to see yourself in, well practicing yoga helps you to clean that mirror…. For the purpose of seeing yourself more clearly.
When you can see yourself, you can change yourself.
This is how yoga helped me to transform.
Laura Grace www.ashtangayogadeva.com
In the Western world, many are drawn to the physical practice of yoga. You might glimpse a class being held at their gym and think how nice it would be to more flexible. Or, maybe you just want to have a better golf swing. At first, possibily that’s made you want to come to the mat. Perhaps your intention was in no way metaphysical. You may just have wanted to stretch your hamstrings. If so you’re not alone. And, there’s nothing “wrong” with those reasons. Just by wanting to come to yoga, you are already deepening your mind-body connection. You can choose how much, if at all, you want to develop a more spiritual side to your practice. And, remember, there’s no “right” answer.
While that might seem a very modern way to approach an ancient practice, the idea that it’s okay to be motivated to begin a yoga practice for purely physical reasons goes back a long way. In some yogic thinking, the physical practice of yoga poses is held to be the starting point for all yoga students.
Many modern branches of yoga are based on the so-called eight-limbed path. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (written at least 1800 years ago), these eight principles are laid out to govern the physical, moral and spiritual conduct of yogis. They consist of: yama (ethics), niyama (self-control), asana (physical yoga practice), pranayama (breathwork), pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (enlightenment or peace).
This might sound like the ultimate reminder that asana is just one part of what makes a yoga practice, but many teachers contend that you can’t focus on the mental or spiritual side of yoga until your body is cared for. Many teachers remind their students that their yoga practice is a metaphor for living. It combines ease and struggle, challenges and opportunities. It requires student to understand what discernment mean—where the edge is, and the cliff is. The goal is still unity—not only of mind, body and spirit but also in a physical body that is strong, balanced and flexible. A body that has all of this in place gives you a better foundation from which to nurture your mind and spirit, as well as to support those in need. Feeling physically energized and capable is a powerful catalyst for building confidence. That “Yes, you can” feeling flows over into your mind and spirit, enabling you to let your authentic self shine.
In Ashtanga yoga, it is believed that students have to learn the first four limbs of yoga first in order to prepare themselves for the others. And, what those principles mean is up to you. As you deepen your appreciation for yoga, you can find your own way through them. Maybe for you concentration isn’t so much about not being distracted by noises outside the window as it is making clear priorities in your day so that you can focus on one task at a time. Maybe you will never enjoy meditating for extended periods of time, but you can reflect as you walk. Similarly, as Yoga Journal points out, enlightenment can mean, more simply, being at peace with yourself and the world.
Being present in your yoga practice
Yoga pose library
There are few yoga poses that students either love or hate as much as inversions. You might be clamoring to get to that part of class or you might dread even thinking about trying to kick your legs over your head. Whatever camp you fall into, though, looking at the world from a 180-degree rotation is a great learning opportunity, not just in your practice but in your life.
The biggest fear factor many students have about inversions is worrying about falling (not surprisingly). But, just like life sometimes does, yoga asks you to conquer your fears to experience the biggest rewards. And, the benefits of inversions are huge. By reorienting yourself in relation to gravity, your body has the chance to work your cardiovascular, lymphatic, nervous, and endocrine systems in ways that you normally don’t, according to Yoga Journal. That stimulates your body into becoming more efficient, research suggests.
So, if flipping your head to where your feet usually belong is not comfortable for you, remember that you can benefit from inversions with or without modifications. Just lying with your feet up the wall is as much an inversion as a headstand. Every time you fold forward , your brain and circulation receive the benefits of reversing your blood flow. Yoga is not an extreme sport that demands that you leave discernment behind and forget there is a difference between your “edge” and a cliff. You need to silence your ego and look inside to see whether fear is stopping you or whether there is a realistic mental, physical or spiritual reason a variation on pose simply does not work for you at this time.
And, don’t think that using props or supports means you’re “not strong.” All of the tools that complement your yoga practice are simply extensions of your body. They work in unison with your physical body to enable you to achieve poses your body alone can’t access. Think of them as friends. Starting into the more difficult poses with the support of a wall might help you feel more secure. Or ask if your studio has a headstand bench—a heavy stand with padding for the neck and shoulders which enables some students to rise into headstand more comfortably. Keep in mind that you don’t have to hold these poses for long. A few breath cycles when you are starting out is fine.
Here are some poses to turn your world upside down:
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
Benefits: This simple inversion helps you get comfortable with having some of your weight on your hands and your head below your heart. How to do it: Begin on your hands and knees. Make sure your knees are hip-width apart and that your hands are under your shoulders. Spread your fingers and press them into the mat. On an exhale, turn your toes under and lift your knees. Don’t lock your knees straight. Instead, keep your heels slightly lifted for now. On another exhale, straighten your knees gently and stretch your heels to or toward the floor. Keep your head between your arms. Stay in the pose for one to three minutes.
Salamba Sarvagasana (Supported Shoulderstand)
Benefits: This pose helps you find a balance point on your upper back so it’s easier to feel the alignment through your spine. How to do it: Take a couple of blankets and fold them firmly into rectangles that are about one by two feet. Lay down with your back on the blankets and your shoulders resting at one of the long edges. Bend your knees and put your heels on the floor near your hips. Exhale and press your feet into the ground to push your legs up and toward your chest. Spread your arms by your shoulders and bring them in toward each other with bent elbows. Pressing your upper arms into the mat, place your hands on your lower back, supporting it. Then, inhale and stretch your legs up to the ceiling. Remain in this pose for 30 seconds if you are new to it, gradually adding on five to 10 seconds until you can stay comfortably for up to three minutes.
Halasana (Plow Pose)
Benefits: Bringing your legs up over your head in this pose helps you engage your core and stretch your hamstrings, which both help you feel more confident in inversions. How to do it: Begin in Salamba Sarvangasana. Keeping your core engaged, lower your legs to or toward the floor behind your head. Try to keep your torso at a right angle to the floor. Keep your throat long and lengthen your chin away from your shoulders. You can keep your hands on your back, or you can clasp them on the floor. Remain in the pose anywhere from one to five minutes, then release. This pose may be contra-indicated for those with chronic neck, back or shoulder problems, those with unmedicated high pressure and pregnant women (past the first trimester).
Adho Mukha Vrkasana (Handstand)
Benefits: Using the wall as a support in this pose allows you to experience the feeling of being fully inverted without worrying about falling backward. How to do it: Start in Adho Mukha Svanasana with your finger a few inches away from the wall. Firm your shoulder blades and pull them down toward your pelvis. Then, bend your right leg and bring it closer to the wall. Continue to lengthen your left leg. Then, push your right foot off the floor while sweeping your left leg up. If this is as far as you can go, that’s fine. If you feel like trying for the full pose, kick up and bring your heels to the wall. Stay there for 10 to 15 seconds, slowly working your way up to one minute, then release.
Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand)
Benefits: Using your arms to support your head in this pose helps you feel more secure. How to do it: Fold blankets or a sticky mat firmly. Kneel on the floor. Place your elbows shoulder width on the mat or blanket and clasp your fingers together. Push your inner wrists toward the floor. Place the crown of your head on the floor and press the back of your head into your hands. Inhale and straighten your knees so that you are in a V shape. On an exhale, push both feet off the floor (you can bend or stretch your knees). As they come up, your knees and feet should align over your hips. Stretch your legs if they are bent. Remain in the pose for 10 seconds if you are new to it, adding on five to 10 seconds every time you practice until you can stay for three minutes.
As you practice, listen to your body. Some of these poses are challenging and if you feel a sense of unusual pressure in your head or your eyes are bloodshot, come out of the pose and scale back your inversion practice. Even if you have a regular home practice, try to get a teacher’s guidance when you start practicing more advanced inversions to ensure that you are working correctly and safely. Don’t feel pressured about trying the most advanced inversions. Listen to your inner wisdom. You don’t have to do a perfect handstand to have a beautiful practice that serves you best. In fact, that kind of striving for something that doesn’t feel good or authentic to you is the opposite of the liberation yoga makes possible. So go and have fun in your body and seek out some new points of view.
Yoga for your wild side
Yoga arm balances
Yoga pose library
Whether it’s typing out an email to a friend or using your hands to emphasize your conversation, your fingers and hands play an important role in communicating with the people around you—or on the other side of the planet. In your yoga practice, too, your hands say a lot. Often, your teacher will invite you to focus on the meaning of what your hands are expressing. Maybe you are told to visualize energy radiating out of your raised arms in Utkatasana (Chair Pose). Or maybe you have been instructed to feel like you are accepting the gifts of the class when you turn your palms up in preparation for Trikonasana (Triangle Pose).
Your hands are incredibly articulate. In yoga and meditation, mudras (hand gestures) are almost like a sign language. They allow you to deepen the dialogue with yourself. The placement of your fingers may be a small physical movement, but the significance each one has can serve to direct your focus as you practice or meditate. Each time you touch your index finger to your thumb, you can tap into the connection between the “I” symbolized by your first finger and the Universal symbolized by the thumb. Or, consider the feeling of stability as you wrap your first two fingers around your big toes then seal them with your thumb in a forward fold. Any pose that has the palms sealed, whether in front of you, behind your back or above your head, allows you to literally hold the spiraling energy of your body in your hands.
Mudras also serve as a tool to help remind you of your potential. Whether you need to feel strong, open or connected, adding mudras to your yoga or meditation practice gives you a physical reminder of those intentions. Your hands become a way to help turn your inner voice to be a helpful one.
Here are some mudras to try:
Anjali Mudra (Salutation Seal)
Benefits: This mudra, commonly practiced at the beginning and end of class, reminds you of your own power and that of the world at large. How to do it: Bring both hands together in front of your chest. Press the fingers and palms into each other. Focus on exerting equal force with both hands (your dominant hand will want to take over). You can practice this mudra in a variety of poses or while standing or sitting. If you are not doing it in the context of a class, you can hold for up to five minutes, then release.
Benefits: This gesture is a great reminder of the beauty and grace that is within you and those around you. How to do it: Begin by joining your palms in front of your chest. Separate your fingers, leaving only the base of the two pinky fingers touching. Your fingers will point upward. Spread them like flower petals. If you are meditating in this mudra, hold for a few minutes, then release.
Vajrapradama Mudra (Thunderbolt Seal)
Benefits: This mudra helps you feel empowered in the face of challenges and reaffirms both your strength and your belief in a higher power. How to do it: Cross your hands over your heart. Feel the rhythm of your heart and breath. Remain in this pose for a few minutes if you are meditating, then release.
Abhaya Mudra (Fearless Seal)
Benefits: This pose reinforces the idea that the way of the yogi is to offer peace and friendship. Often done in Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose), it is symbolic of laying down weapons. How to do it: If you are doing in a practice, come to Virabhadrasana II, raise your hand on the side with the bent leg to about shoulder height. Face your palm forward, fingers together and thumb separated. Place the opposite hand on your leg. If you are meditating, bring both hands into this mudra. Hold for a few minutes.
Benefits: This mudra, considered one of the basic hand positions in Hatha Yoga helps you to be more aware of the interconnectedness of the world. How to do it: In a seated pose, press the end of your thumb into the end of your index finger on both hands. Let your hand rest on your legs. Stretch the other fingers. Remain in the mudra for a few minutes, then release.
Remember, too, that you don’t have to be in a specific yoga pose to practice mudras. Many poses, like Tadasana (Mountain Pose) offer the opportunity in your own practice to use whatever mudra you want. Or, if you need a reminder of your focus, let your hands explore a mudra while you are walking, or even at your desk. Think of it as a wordless mantra.
Yoga mantras to inspire you
Yoga for energy
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Whether you meditate regularly or not, you’re familiar with the power of a word or phrase to focus yourself. In class, the chanting of Om (said to be the syllable “of the vibration of the Supreme”) or the quiet sharing of Namaste (which can be translated as “the divine in me salutes the divine in you) heightens your experience and brings your mind back to the present after Savasana (Corpse Pose). But, there is so much more to the power of mantras in your meditation or your yoga practice.
They can be there for you as a confidence tool, a sort of “you can do it!” mnemonic for yourself trying a hard pose or gathering yourself to achieve a personal goal, whether it’s a move, a promotion or a bucket-list yoga poses. Mantras can also still the monkey mind that is trying to spend your entire mediation session worrying about whether you’ve paid the bills, when you’re going to get the groceries or how you’re going to manage your hectic schedule for the next week.
In many yogic traditions, mantas are held to have a power that helps you access a different state of being, one that is calmer and less distracted than your everyday mental patterns. Some mantra experts contend that mantras can help you tap into your “super-conscious” which is the highest form of consciousness. Mantras also help you regulate your breath as you meditate, allowing you to breathe more regularly and deeply, which in turn helps you calm down.
You can meditate on any word or phrase that has meaning to you. You can also try chanting the mantra out loud or meditating on it in silence to find you what works for you. It might be easier for you to do this as a walking meditation, for example. However you choose to explore this practice, here are some mantras to add to the rhythm of your life:
Om bhur bhuvah svah
bhargo devasya dhimahi
dhiyo yo nah pracodayat
(May we attain that excellent glory of Savitar the god:
So may he stimulate our prayers)
Considered the mother of all mantras (so popular that a version was featured in the opening theme of Battlestar Galactica), this is usually preceeded by Om. It is an invocation of connection to the divine or a higher power and it’s a great mantra for times when you feel weak, helpless or unempowered. Here is a link to hear Deva Premal singing this mantra.
Om Namah Shivaya
While this ancient mantra has no direct translation, it refers to the elements which govern five of the chakras. It can be roughly interpreted as a salutation to what you are capable of becoming. If you are looking for a feeling of freedom or you want to explore the chakras, this is a mantra to try. Here is a link to Krishnas Das performing this mantra.
Om Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu
Om Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu
(May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.)
This mantra is a simple invocation about making the world a better place. It reminds you of the good you are empowered to do and receive in return. This is a fantastic mantra for times when you feel like you can’t fix the problems you see around you, in your life or that of others. Here is a link to hear Deva Premal singing this mantra.
These are only a few of the many phrases out there you can meditate on. There are a number of websites that have streaming audio with mantras, but, as with any site, do a security scan before clicking “okay.” One starting point might be iTunes or Amazon.com’s MP3 downloads—or your local library’s audio section. you can feel free to find ones that are meaningful to you. Try the name of a loved one, or a favorite concept. Find something that speaks to you and compels you.
Meditation on the go
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Some parts of your body have a way of telling you when they are tight. Your hamstrings, for example, feel stiff and achy when they’re in need of a relaxing stretch. But, with muscle groups that you work less often in daily life, it can be hard to even notice there’s a lot of room for expansion. The muscles that lie on the side of your torso are especially easy to ignore. Unless you’re doing a core move that specifically targets them, you probably aren’t thinking about how those muscles (mainly your obliques) are functioning. But, like a lot of other body parts that it can be difficult to focus on, this muscle group affects far more than you might think.
Your obliques are a crucial component of both your core strength and flexibility. Whenever you move out of a rigid plane of motion, you’re calling on them to support you, whether that’s slipping and sliding on an icy sidewalk or dancing. In yoga, too, a strong side body is integral for opening up your body to fully explore twists and to lifting up from your underside to extend fully into poses such as side plank and Trikonasana (Triangle Pose).
When you are trying to balance in any standing pose, especially on with one leg raised, your obliques are responsible for much of your stability.
In twists, they have to have enough flexibility to allow your torso to rotate. A core that is strong throughout the front, back and side bodies is a vital complement to arm strength in poses that challenge the whole body—as in Plank Pose or Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose). This encircling girdle of well-developed muscles pays dividends off the mat as well, making for an easier gait when walking, sitting up straighter and, for many, easing back pain.
On a deeper level, this sideways thinking invites students to investigate some off-the-grid thinking. Twisting, bending and balancing requires intense focus and a lot of momentary readjustment to hold these positions. It’s harder just to “phone in” the movements that place your body off-kilter. But, the more you call on your side body to knit together your core and back, the more you find yourself able to confidently tap into the fresh thinking that makes challenges into opportunities.
Here are some poses and tips for stretching and strengthening your side body:
Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)
Benefits: This standing side bend encourages you to stretch your sides while keeping your center engaged. How to do it: Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Step or hop your feet three to four feet apart. Lift your arms out to the sides until they are parallel to the floor. Focus on reaching out through your fingers, palms down. Turn your left foot in slightly and turn your right foot out 90 degrees. Anchor the outside of your left foot into the mat and bend your right knee. Bring your left arm up toward the ceiling and turn your palm toward your head. Look to your left. Exhale and bend to your right, trying to put the right side of your torso on your right thigh. Place your right fingertips or hand on the floor or a block just outside of your right foot. If that stretch is too deep, place your right elbow on your right knee with the palm up. Hold the pose for 30 seconds to one minute, then release and repeat on the other side.
Ardha Chandrasana I (Half Moon Pose)
Benefits: This pose provides a deep stretch for your sides. How to do it: Start in Tadasana. Bring your left arm up toward your ear. Turn your palm so that it faces your head. Keep your hipbones parallel. Engaging your center and bend to the right on an exhale. To deepen, inhale both arms overhead and interlace all except the index fingers. Remain there for three to five breaths, then return to center and switch sides for the same amount of time.
Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose)
Benefits: This pose allows you to deepen the stretch along your entire side body. How to do it: Start in Tadasana. Step or hop your feet three to four feet apart. Raise your arms parallel to the floor, palms down. Turn your left in and your right foot out, aligning your heels. Exhale and bend to your right, letting your right hand come to a comfortable point on your shin, ankle, a block or the floor. Work toward rolling your lower shoulder forward to avoid curling back toward your leg. Hold for 30 seconds to one minute, then release and repeat on the other side.
Stretch Both Sides. Whenever you do a side-bending pose, concentrate on keeping length in the side you are bending toward as well as the side you are stretching.
Stay Square. In a lot of side bends, it’s tempting to bring the top shoulder forward. Think of rolling it back to counteract that impulse.
As you practice side bends, remember that there is no prize for how far you can bend. Find a place where you feel a stretch, but don’t compromise your alignment to get there. And, as always, keep the focus on your breath. If it feels constrained or shallow, back out of the pose a bit. Side bending can help wring out tension and free your muscles. Take advantage of that to free your mind as well.
Yoga for strength and flexibility
Yoga for a pain-free upper body
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The concept of “spring cleaning” is a centuries-old way of recognizing the primal shift in the world as you move through the seasons. In Ayurveda, each season has a dominant dosha-- from the Vata dryness of winter to the Kapha calm of early spring. As the time of year changes, you respond to these shifts by changing your habits and environment. That’s especially true in spring. As you open your windows and literally let the sunshine in, you feel freer, lighter. It’s only natural to want to bring that lightness to all aspects of your practice and your lifestyle. Getting rid of things you don’t need is a wonderful tool for balancing the Kaphic energy that’s abundant at this time of year.
The other tendency of a Kaphic time is the lack of motivation to try new things. Kapha’s nature is habitual and when it’s in excess, you might find you tend to stay in less-than-optimal situations longer than you need to. That applies to major life issues like jobs, relationships or houses, but it also can creep into your practice, diet and home. That makes this a great time to throw caution to the wind and introduce some fresh ideas. They don’t have to be huge changes, but shaking up the routine on and off the mat can help you take full advantage of the opportunities that the season affords.
Before you take class or start your personal practice, house-clean your mind. Toss out the stories about what you’re “bad” at and open the way for new opportunities. This is the perfect time to take advantage of the warmer days and the comfort they bring to your body to try one new pose. Maybe Bakasana (Crow or Crane Pose) has a fear factor for you. Grab some blankets, put them in front of you, and give it a go the next time you’re in class. Whether you make it or not, you’ll gain so much from not letting the pose intimidate you. Try reaching for that bind you’ve never seen before when the teacher gives it, or pick a pose you’ve always wanted to learn and ask your teacher to help you work on it. Think about connecting with other students and taking the yogic lifestyle into life off the mat.
Spring is also a great time to experiment with what you eat. Finding lighter foods to balance Kapha is a good reason to look at other shelves in the grocery store. Even though a lot of locally grown produce isn’t in season yet, there’s plenty of variety to add spice and color to your plate. If, for example, you always eat quinoa, check out some other grains. Whole grains like barley and buckwheat might be fun to try. Adding more fruits and vegetables into your diet is also good this time of year and offers a chance to experiment. It’s a great way to make you sure you maintain your electrolyte balance—especially if you like hot yoga or a fast flow that makes you perspire freely. If you don’t have a body brush, check out the offerings at your local health food store. Exfolitation is a great way to slough off dry skin and bring a glow to the outer you that reflects the you within.
Finally, literal spring cleaning is a vital tool to help open your mind. Think about what physical stuff makes you feel “stuck” or “trapped.” Is that lamp from your college days still “you”? Could someone else use the piano that’s collecting dust or serving as storage? Decide to take on one or two of those places now.
Maybe finally getting the clutter out of your garage will make you feel like you breathe more easily, or maybe it’s the pantry shelf of expired spices that isn’t leaving room for you to move forward. Whatever that area is, use freeing that space as a meditation. Think about what thoughts feel like that physical clutter. As you remove the physical things, visualize yourself throwing away those ideas, cues or litanies in your mind.
And, definitely, add some “green” to your spring. Get your Yoga-Paws and take your practice outside, looking for areas without the emissions from cars or the toxins of city streets. Bring some houseplants and some potted herbs into your spring-cleaned home. Replace you pillow with organic ones or use organic towels and face cloths.
Enjoy the space you’re creating in your body, your practice and your life.
Yoga for spring
Yoga to open your horizons
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