Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in…

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Breathing is a thing in yoga, almost every yoga teacher will point out its importance. The breath initiates the movement, follow the breath, and generally speaking breathe in when you make upward movements and breathe out when you go down, backwards or twist.

The focus on breath stems from the ancient yogis who believed we were only given a certain amount of breaths in our life. So the longer you made them, the longer you would live. There is no evidence in favour or against this idea, but what we do know nowadays is that a steady & long breath and the awareness it creates in our mind and body can help us to improve our health. And therefore, maybe even prolong our lives.

Breath is ’smart’, as the quality of our breath tells us how we are doing during our practice. When you lose your steady and stable breath, then it is time to reflect within: why is this happening? Am I pushing myself too hard? Am I distracted? Is my mind wandering? It is a good point of reference, because often it is hard for people to really feel what is going on in the body and mind.

In yoga we breathe through the nose. One reason is because the nose helps you keep the dirt from the air out of your respiratory system. It also helps you to not directly breath in cold air into our lungs. It is this cold air, that increases our chances of getting a cold or cools down the body quicker that necessary, causing problem in the muscles.

There is also a wide variety of breathing exercises yogi’s practice, which I consider a very interesting subject to deepen your practice with. According to Krischnamacharya, the father of modern yoga, the breath was the key element to a healthy and long life. One of his long-time students A.G. Mohan wrote in his book about Krishnamacharya that his guru would say “ that the breath was controlling the inner functions of the body. (…) If you practice asanas with control over the breath and long pranayama (means: lengthen the breath or control the breath), your pulse rate should come down over time”. Which indicates a healthy heart and potentially a longer life.

But most important to Krishnamacharya was the fact that it helps you to control the mind. A.G. Mohan one of his favorite quotes from the master: “To cure the ills of the body, use the body. To cure the wandering of the mind, use pranayama”.

In other words, doing the asanas, the physical part of yoga, supports you in keeping a healthy, strong body, so we do not disturb our mind with illness. But when the mind is disturbed, the most powerful tool to use is the breath.
“There is no greater austerity than pranayama to remove impurities”. So breath is the key to a healthy body, a calm mind and potentially a longer life.

So when you go to a yoga class try to be aware of your breath, give it more attention then the physical outcome of the pose. Read your breath, learn what it tells you. But most importantly, learn your own rhythm. In many classes a teacher will tell you to inhale with a certain pose and exhale with another. This is based on the ‘fact’ that for most people this will support the outcome of the pose better. However, when it feels uncomfortable for you, don’t force yourself to breathe along. Find your own practice, your own rhythm. Follow the teacher when his/her speed and rhythm connects with yours, but don’t be shy to have your own.

Because in the end, yoga is about discovering yourself; Your own body, your own mind and your own powerful tool: the breath.

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9 yoga poses for beginners

Yoga poses for beginners

Everybody that started yoga at some point remembers the constant looking up from your down-dog to see what the yoga teachers has in store for you now. One pose after the other follows and they tell you to focus on your breathing, while doing the poses is enough of a challenge. How do you combine the two, how do you keep on focusing on the one if your mind is completely occupied with the other? And that question is exactly what yoga is about: being able to focus the mind, being able to be present, by focusing on your breath, while your body is moving from one pose in the other.

Imagine that it is a reflection of your real-life, we are constantly distracted by our phone, our colleagues, what happens outside, the doorbell ringing, the mess you made in your house, etc. When we learn to focus, to be fully with the work we are doing, the presentation we make / give, the conversation we are having, you will see the quality of your work and life will change. Conversations get more interesting, the connection with that person intensifies, the presentation went better, the work is done quicker and the plus is that by the end of it all you have more energy left.

The longer you do yoga the more you will also realise that there are a few basic poses, which will convert into more difficult variations. When you begin the trick is to not want too much too soon, to hold back a little, focus on really understanding the basic poses AND know how to connect your breathing to these poses and sequences.

The following sequence is set up so you can practice the basic postures, to understand how they physically feel in your body and to be able to breath well with each pose. That way you will have more attention for your breath and posture when your teacher uses these basic poses in your next class. In this way your practice with the teacher will become even more beneficial for yourself.

The poses you can perform in the order of the pictures, but you can also do them separately. If you do all poses, you will also do all elements we practice in yoga, forward bend, backward bend, twist, standing poses, seated poses and balance. The sequence will take you 5 tot 10 minutes.

It is advisable to start the practice with 5 minutes of meditation, to calm the mind and be focused during the practice. End the practice with a Savasana pose (corpse pose) for a minimum of 10 breaths.

Some basis rules when you perform the poses:

  • Make long, deep and controlled breathes through your nose. Focus on your breath going in and out while being in a posture. Try to make your exhale slightly longer then your inhale.
  • Let your breath initiate a movement. Inhale is a movement upwards, exhale is a movement downwards or a twist.
  • Work both sides of your body. Do every posture on the right side and then switch to the left.
  • While you’re in a standing pose always check your front knee. When it is bent, it makes a 90-degree angle with your ankle; however, it should never go over your ankle.
  • There is NO pose in yoga where we have our shoulders close to our ears. So when you are settled in a pose, always pay attention to your shoulders. Roll them backwards and down.

If you have doubts about the poses, below you can find the basic ideas and adjustments per picture.

Picture 1: Balasana
Child’s pose. Sit on your heels. Take both your arms up. Bring your hands in front of you on the mat. Rest your forehead on the mat. Breathe deeply into your belly. Let your body come to a rest.

Picture 2: Urdhva Mukha Savanasana
Upward facing dog pose. Lay down on your belly. Place your hands next to your chest, fingers facing forward. On an inhale, push yourself half way. Then straighten the legs, the knees come of the mat. Next inhale, straighten your arms. Shoulders are straight over your wrists. Look forward or up.

Picture 3: Uttanasana
Standing forward bend pose. Hang forward, have your knees slightly bent or straight (your own preference) while holding your elbows. Feel how, due to your head hanging down, the vertebras in your neck are getting some space. Stay in this pose for at least 5 cycles of inhales and exhales.

Picture 4: Adho Mukha Svanasana
Downward facing dog: Come onto the mat on your hands and knees. Knees are 90 degrees with your hips, hands straight under your shoulders. Tuck your toes under and on an exhale lift your knees away from the floor. Keep them slightly bent. Stretch one knee, bend the other. Switch several times. Bend both needs slightly and push your sit-bones up in the air, while you push yourself away from your hands. On an exhale push your heels towards the mat. Stay for a minimum of three breaths.

Picture 5: Virabhadrasana I
Warrior 1 pose. Come to the front of your mat, standing. Step backwards with one leg.  Knee is 90 degree over your ankle, hips point forward, arms are up, shoulders are down.

Picture 6: Virabhadrasana II
Warrior 2 pose. Turn your back foot to a 45-degree angle. Open your hips towards the side. Roll your shoulders down and back. Look over your front hand. Stay for at least 3 cycles of breath.

Picture 7: Vrksasana
Tree pose. Put all the weight on one leg. Place the other one in your thigh or on your lower leg. Never on the knee!! Focus on a point in front of you and don’t let it go. Stand up tall. Hands in prayer in front of your chest. Inhale, next exhale bring your arms up, lower your shoulders, palms are facing each other. Minimum of 5 cycles of breath.

Picture 8: Paschimottanasana
Seated forward bend pose. Sit on the mat. Bring both legs forward. Pull your toes towards you. Inhale bring your arms up and straighten your spine, push your chest forward. Exhale come to a 45 degree angle. Grab where you can, knee, calf muscles, ankles, toes. Inhale straighten your spine again and exhale come forward as far as you can with your back straight. Look towards your knee.

Picture 9: Setu Bandha Sarvangasana
Bridge pose. Lay down on your back, knees are up, feet are hip distance apart. Measure the positioning of your legs by bringing your arms next to your body; the tip of your middle finger needs to just barely touch your heel. Then interlace your fingers behind your back. Push your hips up as far as you can, roll your shoulders together. Breathe into your chest.

How yoga helps to reduce stress (the scientific explanation)

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Ardha Padmasana – Half Lotus Pose. 17th of May in Inothim.

Stress is all around us, everyday. If it isn’t because we are stressed ourselves, it is because our friend is stressed and stays home to get rest, people in traffic are stressed because they need to get somewhere fast, our colleague stresses over a deadline, in other words: Stress is there, always!

People often tell me they like practicing yoga because it reduces their stress, it calms them down. And even though I know from my own experience that this is true, I couldn’t help but wonder how it actually works in our body and brain. Why does yoga reduce stress?

In the past few years a lot of research has been done on the effects of yoga. And while most of it showed that people practicing yoga reduced their stress levels, there was never a clear understanding of how that happened.

Controlling the breath
One thing they agree on is that the breathing used in combination with the postures help to reduce stress and to be able to deal with stress in our daily life. The scientific explanation of why controlling your breath is beneficial is that with every inhalation your nervous system goes into a ‘sympathetic activation’, which means it goes into a flight modus and brings up the stressors, basically it brings up the heat. This also shows in the increase of the heart beat. With every exhalation the opposite happens. Your nervous system goes into a parasympathetic activation, which means it calms you down and cools down the stressors. Which also shows in the slowing down of your heartbeat.

In other words, in our bodies we have a built in mechanism to control our stressors and heartbeat, the breath. In yoga you learn to control your breathing and synchronize it with a movement. So by controlling your breath & slowing down your breathing, you bring down your heart beat and come into this parasympathetic activation.

We might all have had an experience of stress, where we felt our heart racing, breathing fast and our mind racing at a 1000 kilometers per hour. Now imagine controlling your breathing, by focusing on slowly breathing in so you diminish the sympathetic activation and slowly breathing out to calm down even more. If you would do that in a stressful situation, you would be able to think more clearly in a short period of time. And you would not be stressed, but enjoying the energy that is created by the situation to use it for the better.

Challenging yoga postures
Another explanation is given in a research done by Kerstin Khattab, about the benefits of Iyengar Yoga. He found that when people practice a challenging posture, such as an arm balance or a headstand, and remain focused on a stable breath, then you are training your mind to remain calm in a stressful situation. You teach your nervous system to move quickly from a challenging & stressful situation to a calm state of mind, and store that response for later use This increases your own flexibility of moving in between these two states of mind, which helps you to deal with stress in your daily life.

Effects on genes and brain activity
The first scientist that also showed how yoga affects the genes and brain activity, is John Denninger – a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. He did a five year study with chronically stressed people and found that techniques used in yoga (pranayama: breathing exercises; and asanas: postures) can switch genes on and off, that are linked to stress and the immune system. This study showed that one session of Kundalini yoga was enough to get a positive response from the genes involved in energy metabolism and insulin secretion and helped to reduce the response of genes linked to inflammatory response and stress. In other words it helps you to relax and diminish the stress you feel in your body.

What does it mean?
To me this means the following: the more stressed you are, or the more stressful situations you encounter, the more you need to learn to control your breathing and calm your mind. You need to find a way to bring down your heart beat and the effect that it has on your nervous system. For many people, yoga turned out to be a very effective way to do so.  In yoga we come to the mat to learn something new about ourselves, so not to compete, not to be on a fast pace and not to be with scattered thoughts. We focus on our own body, boundaries, restrictions, thoughts and breath. We are the masters of our body: we allow stress and we decide the level of stress. When you become aware of this fact, you know that you can change the situation; it is just a matter of practice and mindset.