An App for That: Profound Yogic Practices You May Not See in Class

To the average person, yoga consists of a series of poses that stretch the muscles and strengthen the core.  In truth, often the most profound and life-altering experiences had by yoga practitioners involve only a seated or lying posture. If you practice yoga, you’re probably aware that postural practice, or asana, is just only one element of yoga, and perhaps you’ve experienced some of the other elements of yogic practice. However, it’s not always easy to access such training at the local studio.

 

These days there’s another way. These practices can be accessed through apps such as EKA.

 

Below are five powerful yogic practices that you might not find taught at your local yoga studio, but that you’ll find on EKA.

 

5.) Yoga Nidra: Yoga Nidra translates to “yogic sleep.” It’s a practice in which one stays in the mind-state between wakefulness and sleep, i.e. hypnagogia, for an extended period while working through a sequence of practices. Yoga nidra is extremely relaxing, but also allows one to access the subconscious in a manner similar to that of self-hypnosis. This makes the practice useful both for people who have trouble with sleep or settling into rest, but it also allows one to influence the subconscious so that one can make changes in areas where subconscious influence is strong.

 

For example, a person seeking to lose weight understands that they need to be careful about what they eat. However, the subconscious isn’t always on the same page as the conscious mind, and cravings for sugary or fatty foods may win the battle. In yoga nidra, we use sankalpa — a resolution, to help win the subconscious over. We also use practices like visualizations to gain insight into what is happening outside the bounds of conscious thought, and to exercise influence over it.

 

4.) Kaya Sthairyam: Kaya Sthairyam translates to bodily stillness, or steadiness. If you’ve done any meditation, you were probably taught to adopt a position in which you could be as still as possible throughout the practice. The reason for this is that even subtle movements can distract one, weaken one’s concentration, or have a stimulating effect. In yoga, kaya sthairyam is used to achieve a state of maximum stillness. If one wishes to increase one’s ability to concentrate for extended periods, one must build one’s capacity to remain still. That said, kaya sthairyam need not be thought of as only a prelude to meditation. The tranquility that arises from these practices make them worthwhile in their own right.

 

3.) Bija Mantra: In India, chanting is a very popular practice among yoga practitioners, and many have found great clarity in it. In one of my early classes teaching yoga to children, I found that as soon as the kids sat in a cross-legged pose many of the younger children spontaneously started softly reciting the gayatri mantra. That’s how intense was their association between sitting down cross-legged and chanting.

 

In the West, mantra chanting is less familiar. The six bija mantra, or seed mantra, are a beautiful way to introduce oneself to mantra chanting because of their simplicity. Because the bija mantra (LAM, VAM, RAM, YAM, HUM, and AUM) are all monosyllabic, easily pronounced, and are related sounds, they can be picked up quickly and easily.

 

2.) Witnessing Meditations: The yogic teaching that has had the most life-changing effect on me has been dispassionate witnessing. While it’s not a complex idea, it requires some explanation.

 

Let’s first consider what minds usually do in the face of a problem. There are two common responses that are not particularly healthy.

 

The first is to distract oneself from the problem. In some cases, this distraction can be an unhealthy activity — such as drug abuse, but it might also be something neutral like watching television. However, even if you distract yourself with a wholesome activity like volunteering at a soup kitchen, the problem is still there and it will have its say. If not directly, then indirectly through nightmares, indigestion, or a stress-induced illness.

 

The second option is obsessing. The brain tries to lessen the sting by anticipating the worst possible scenario. The trouble with this obsession is that to find our worst case scenario — we have to hang toxic labels on all possible events and invent possibilities that are so unlikely as to be nearly impossible. And having invented such dire cases, we often give them too much weight. As Mark Twain put it, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”  The negativity piles up and causes stress and anxiety to balloon out of control.

 

In dispassionate witnessing, we don’t ignore or distract ourselves, but we also don’t strap on value judgements or build worst cases. We simply recognize what we are feeling, acknowledge it, but don’t feed our anxieties.

 

One of the most basic witnessing practices involves watching sensations in the body. Imagine you’re doing this practice and you feel an ache in your back. If you try to ignore the sensation, the mind may turn up the intensity to get your attention.  If you obsess, you’ll soon convince yourself that this sensation is really an ache… no, a pain… no, it’s agony… oh no, could there be a tumor growing on my spine? [That may be exaggerating a bit, but you see the point.] However, if you focus your attention on the sensation without labeling it, you’ll probably find that the sensation passes. In essence, the body says, “Hmm, the brain examined this sensation and didn’t think it was anything to be concerned about, let’s move on.”

 

1.) Pranayama: Probably the most under-rated yogic practice is pranayama, or breathing exercises. By controlling one’s breath, one can influence one’s emotional state, one’s physiological processes, and the state of agitation in one’s mind. Breath practices are the most direct means to counteracting the stress response. However, despite constantly breathing — day in and day out — most people remain unaware of the incredible power of consciously controlling the breath.

 

There are a variety of types of breath exercises. There are breaths that have a stimulating effect on the body and mind, and those that have a calming effect. Scientific evidence has accumulated that there are benefits to practicing slower and deeper breathing, and pranayama offers a systematic approach to building this capacity. No matter what kind of pranayama one is doing, there is a side benefit from holding one’s focus on one point, the breath.

 

Pranayama is a great lead-in to meditative practices. It helps achieve a state of mind which is neither drowsy nor agitated. That said, pranayama is also beneficial on its own.

 

If you’re interested in exploring any of these practices, the EKA app is a great place to start.

 

BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Nidra by Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Yoga NidraYoga Nidra by Swami Prakashanand Saraswati
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Yoga nidra literally means “yogic sleep,” and it’s a technique in which one systematically pursues a high degree of relaxation. Still, it’s a bit of a misnomer in that one doesn’t actually fall asleep. In theory, that is, most practitioners will have the experience of falling asleep at some point in practice. That’s because one is entering a hypnagogic state in which one is on the leading edge of falling asleep. It’s not always easy to stay on one side of that line (without being excessively mentally aroused.) The practice is typically done with a teacher who verbally instructs the students (live or via a recording)—because it’s quite hard to keep the sequence straight without an excessively high level of mental arousal—particularly for new practitioners.

This 8-stage practice has multiple purposes. One is simply to achieve a relaxed state. Note: it can be successfully used with individuals who suffer from insomnia, but with the notable risk that they may have trouble not falling asleep during the practice if they come to associate yoga nidra too strongly with sleeping. I know that I—who could never sleep in planes or on buses—found it useful for getting sleep when one’s mind tends toward an overly mentally aroused state. The technique is also used to tap into the subconscious. If you’ve ever noticed the strange imagery that pops up as one is going to sleep, you are witness to the subconscious at work.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part offers background on the topic. It describes both yogic and scientific explanations for the working of this practice and its sequential arrangement. The middle part describes variations on the practice, including scripts. While I mentioned that the basic approach consists of 8 stages that are sequentially arranged, there are many ways to vary the practice depending upon how much time one has and what one’s specific objective is. So the middle part describes several options including one optimized toward children (who have slightly different needs due to cognitive development.) [FYI: the eight stages are: 1.) Preparation for practice, 2.) Resolution (i.e. sankalpa), 3.) Rotation of awareness around the body systematically, 4.) Awareness of breath, 5.) Awareness of sensations /opposites, 6.) Visualization, 7.) Repeating one’s resolution, 8.) closing.] The final part delves deeper into scientific explanations of the state of yoga nidra and its health benefits.

There are four appendices that present research on yoga nidra with respect to: 1.) stress and heart disease, 2.) biofeedback, 3.) brain imaging, and 4.) altered states of consciousness. There is also a reference section arranged by topics. The book has many graphics from line drawn diagrams to color plates of brain scans (if one has a hard-copy or an e-format that supports them.)

I found this book to be extremely valuable. It’s definitely a guide book and its readability varies. It can be technical in places (but most laymen shouldn’t have a problem following it), and it can be repetitive in the middle where it’s mostly descriptions of variations on the practice. It does include stories in a few places, but is intended as a text rather than to entertain and so it’s not without some dry spots.

I’d highly recommend this book as a reference for those who teach yoga nidra. It will definitely expand upon (and help one keep straight) what one learned in teacher training and yoga nidra workshops.

View all my reviews

An Unusual International Yoga Day Post: or, Dream Yoga and Fear Management

"The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" by Francisco Goya

“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” by Francisco Goya

I awoke exuberant that I’d achieved lucidity in my dream and that I’d apparently slain a nasty character (picture Hans Gruber on a bad day)–a task that had seemed impossible before my eureka of “I’m lucid!” Only my exuberance was short-lived when I realized that Hans was also me. Do you have the courage to talk it out with your dream world nemesis instead of reacting from fear?

I was thinking that I should do a post on yoga for International Yoga Day (June 21st), but what to write about? My answer came in the wee hours of the morning when I had a minor breakthrough in lucid dreaming–also known as, dream yoga. I know this seems like a stretch because, despite “yoga” being right there in the name, this practice is much more firmly associated with Tibetan Buddhism than Hatha Yoga. But my last couple yoga posts (which were a while back on my experience with RYT300 teacher’s training and teaching a Yoga Kid’s Camp) were fairly conventional, so I’m due one that’s out there. Furthermore, I promise to try to make clear the relevance of dream yoga to my hatha yoga practice. (If you read the aforementioned posts, you’ll see that the theme of freeing oneself by managing one’s fears and anxieties is a recurring theme across all these posts. And that is the crux of the relevance of lucid dreaming to unifying mind, body, and breath [i.e. yoga.])

 

What is lucid dreaming? It’s becoming aware that one is in a dream as one is dreaming. One can then exert influence over the course of the dream. Maybe half of you have had this experience at some point in your lives, and so what I’m saying will not seem far-fetched. For those who don’t actively practice lucid dreaming, it’s much more common among the young, so maybe you had such dreams as an adolescent but don’t have them anymore.

For the other half, the whole idea may seem like poppy-cock. I could easily have been such a doubter. Without following a practice, I almost never remember dreams–let alone dreaming lucidly. At best, I get disappearing fragments of dreams that are ephemeral and hazy. I’m one of those people who might claim that he virtually never dreams, except that I read the science, which suggests that each of us dreams every night that we sleep long enough to cycle through REM (rapid eye movement) mode (and commonly 4 or 5 times a night.) We just don’t recollect these dreams. [However, I have had lucid dreams on rare occasions, and so my skepticism on the subject was curbed.]

 

Why do I practice dream yoga? While it wasn’t part of my formal hatha yoga training, dream yoga isn’t as far removed as one might think. I have been trained in yoga nidra (yoga sleep), which is an exercise that takes place in a hypnagogic state (on the edge between waking and falling asleep.) Commonly, yoga nidra is used as a deep relaxation exercise, but it can also help one to access the subconscious (as is reflected in repeating a sankalpa [a resolution] in the yoga nidra state.) Lucid dreaming is another approach to assessing the subconscious in order to see what’s going on in there and to try to make changes as necessary. Curiosity about the subconscious mind and its–largely unseen–influence on my daily life is what drew me to dream yoga. It’s just another aspect of knowing oneself and trying to expand one’s capacities of mind and body.

 

How does one practice dream yoga? Hardcore practitioners set alarms to wake themselves up when they think they’ll be in REM sleep. This, as I understand it, helps them reconnect with the dream when they drift back and greatly speeds the process. As I sleep with a wife who would clobber me with a brick if I set alarms for random times in the middle of the night, I’m not among those hardcore. My practice consists of three main aspects. First, I make resolutions to remember my dreams and to dream lucidly as I’m drifting off to sleep. Second, when I’m not making said resolutions, I try to just observe the subconsciously generated imagery that pops up as a witness–rather than letting my conscious mind go into its preferred mode of planning for an uncertain future. [One can tell the difference because the subconscious images don’t make a lick of sense, and–for me–are devoid of any verbal/language element–i.e. it’s all imagery.]  Finally, I keep a journal in which I record any dreams or fragments that I can recall–sometimes with drawings to supplement the text (though my artisticness is lacking, to say the least.) The first and last of these are among the most common recommendations one will hear from experts.

I should point out that there are a number of books on the subject by individuals much more qualified than I. Said books give detailed guidance into how one can begin one’s own practice. One that I recently finished reading and would recommend is Charlie Morley’s “Lucid Dreaming: A Beginner’s Guide to Becoming Conscious in Your Dreams.”  At some point, I’ll post a review of that book. Also, there is “Dreaming: A Very Short Introduction” by J. Allan Hobson, which I have reviewed.

 

As I wrote up the entry in my dream journal, I made a resolution to stop attacking the “bad guys” in my dreams and to try to understand them. Note: I don’t recommend this approach for dealing with real world axe-wielding maniacs, but I highly recommend giving it a try in one’s dreams.

 

Sweet dreams.

The Good and Bad News About Yoga for Weight Loss

IMG_2643The good news is that yoga can help one lose weight. The bad news is that the mechanism by which this occurs isn’t what most people expect, and it involves the mind a great deal more than the muscles.

 

While many people hope for a secret to weight loss, there’s no secret. Weight loss is a function of calories eaten being less than calories burned.  This simple formula means that one can either eat less or exercise more. Both the diet and exercise matter for good health, but the eating part is more important to cutting weight. This statement may be controversial and seemingly gratuitous—particularly for people who think exercise is going to single-handedly shed excess pounds–and so I’ll take some time to try to make my point.

 

The first thing one should know is that our voluntary activity only accounts for about one-third of calories consumed. The other two-thirds are used whether we move a muscle or not. Between 20 and 25% of our energy consumption is devoted to our brain, and much of the rest is used to keep us at 37°C (98.6°F) because we are, after all, mammals. This means that increasing the intensity or amount of exercise—while it has tremendous health benefits—will achieve only a marginal increase in calories burned. From the Mayo Clinic website, I learned that a 109kg (240lb) individual will burn about 273 calories doing a typical hata yoga class or about 436 calories with Power Yoga. (Compare this to about 327 calories / hr. for tai chi or 654 calories / hr. for hiking.) So your hour of yoga has maybe knocked off a 32oz soft drink or one medium size French fries. Most people have trouble finding more than one hour of time and energy for exercise per day. And as someone who sometimes spends more than an hour a day exercising, I can attest that there is a point of diminishing marginal returns. So while exercise is an important part of weight loss, one can’t go hog-wild in eating just because one exercises.

 

[One should also note that many yoga practitioners experience a reduced basal metabolic rate (BMR) because of the calming aspect of the practice. A lower BMR means that you burn fewer calories just living and maintaining your metabolism. All things being equal, this makes cutting weight all the more challenging—though the effect is certainly counterweighted by the stress reduction aspect of the practice that will be discussed below.]

 

To summarize: unless you’re an elite athlete in training for something like the Olympics, the idea that you can eat whatever you please and cut / maintain a healthy weight is likely to result in disappointment.  A common piece of dietary advice for elite athletes is to daily eat one gram of protein for every pound of ideal bodyweight and eight fist-sized servings of vegetables. Beyond that, they can pretty much eat what they want. But with that much slowly digesting material, they’re probably not going to go overboard—even if they weren’t already, almost by definition, very disciplined people.

 

IMG_2737So if an hour of yoga a day doesn’t even make up for having a Mars bar, what good is it?  For one thing, the yoga student has the opportunity to become more attuned to his or her body and, in doing so, to learn to differentiate physiological hunger from the many other permutations of hunger that overtime merge into a multi-headed hydra of craving. What are these other hungers? First and foremost, there’s psychological hunger, or the use of food as therapy. People use food to reward themselves, to medicate themselves, to take their minds off of their woes. Secondly, there’s sensory hunger in which we have no real need to eat but the food looks or smells too good to avoid.

 

One of the forms of hunger that often remains hidden is social hunger. That is, one eats to be part of the in-group and to bond. For example, imagine you’ve just eaten, are not hungry, and someone offers you food. Depending upon who it is and what your relationship is that person, you may feel compelled to eat even if you don’t need it. The double whammy is that eating as socializing is so deeply engrained and that we humans—contrary to popular belief—are dismal at multitasking. We can’t converse and be aware of what we are eating, and thus one may overeat because one is so engrossed in the distraction of socializing. This isn’t to say that there is anything inherently wrong with social eating. We all have to do it to some degree or another. One just needs to recognize that if it becomes a habit to be distracted from one’s food, one may have problems.

 

Relating back to the idea of psychological hunger, yoga helps one destress.  Stress can be a perfectly healthy phenomenon, but when it’s prolonged it can have many adverse consequences. One such consequence is having cortisol levels remain too high, and this has the effect of ramping up the appetite. Your body has been pressed into fight or flight mode, it expects that you’re hauling ass away from a sabretooth tiger or an angry woolly mammoth mamma, and that you’ll soon need to replenish depleted energy stores. Your endocrine system doesn’t know that you’re curled up on the couch with a pint of ice cream… yeah, let’s call it a “pint.” As a form of exercise, yoga helps reduce this problem. However, beyond exercise, yoga offers many relaxation techniques such as yoga nidra, kaya sthairyam, restorative postures, and some forms of pranayama(breathing exercises) that can help you turn off the “fight or flight” and turn on the “rest and digest”—what Herbert Benson called the “relaxation response.” Sometimes you might delve into an intense practice like Ashtanga Vinyasa or Power Yoga, and other times restorative yoga might be just what the doctor ordered. [Disclaimer: “What the doctor ordered” is a figure of speech. I’m not a doctor, and I haven’t even played one on TV.]

 

IMG_2633There is yet another way in which yoga can help. Yoga helps one dispassionately observe one’s drives and this way one can slowly, over time, rewire one’s attitudes toward food.  One can begin to think of hunger pangs as a sensation, rather than projecting a negative connotation onto them. In this way, one can learn to begin to watch the sensation and learn from it rather than running for the food.

 

Finally, an important benefit of yoga is in teaching one to be contented with oneself, even if one isn’t content to live with one’s present health or physical capability. Santosa is one of the niyama, and it teaches one to be content with who one is–perhaps even while one is simultaneously practicing the austerities of tapas (another niyama) in pursuit of personal development. If one isn’t contented with oneself, one can fall into a shame spiral that may create the kind of persistent stress that I warned about above. Also, if one is at a healthy weight, but has some deep-seated drive toward “perfection,” the lessons of santosa can inform you as well.

 

Best of luck in the pursuit of good health.