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.

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 to look at your own body?

Different bodies

Just as in most sports, in yoga our body is the instrument we use to practice. Using it as an instrument helps us to become aware of our body and its boundaries. In some other sports the breath is also used as an instrument to practice. In yoga the breath is just as key as the body itself.

In fact, if you start investigating the meaning behind yoga you come down to the following: yoga means to unite, to connect. It means the union between mind, body & spirit. And to reach this we perform postures (asanas) with our bodies and we make an attempt to control our inner patterns of breath. In other words, we connect our movement with the breath. This is particularly true for Vinyasa yoga, the type of yoga I teach and practice.

So why is this important to know when I am writing about ‘how to look at your own body’? There are many ways to discover your own body. The most obvious one is something we do on a daily basis: looking at ourselves in the mirror. We get to see a reflection of our external self, we get a chance to see our body from an outsider perspective. When using a mirror, we usually only see the front of our body and we choose the angle by which we see ourselves, pretty or unflattering. However, the back remains un-known, or we don’t like the sight of what we are seeing, so we prefer not too look at it at all.

Another way to get to know our body is letting another explore it. This could be a doctor, investigating your body to find what is wrong. But it can also be your partner discovering every part in a more intimate way. This way you can discover your body through the eyes of another person. What is good, what is beautiful, where you are healthy & where you are sick. An interesting catch about this way of discovering your body, is that you are the only one also feeling what they do. You add an extra dimension that no one else can have while exploring your body. If you close your eyes, you can feel their touch and so you discover your body from the inside too.

Discovering your body from the inside is a very powerful tool to really understand what is going on with you, to really understand who you are. A simple technique to do this is used in Vipassana meditation and various therapies:

  • Close your eyes, lay down or sit still
  • Take a few deep breaths into your belly. Follow your breath in and out through your nose (as if you are meditating)
  • Start scanning your body: bring your awareness to your toes and feel them from the inside.
  • Slowly make your way up, from your toes, through your ankles, calf muscles, knees, thighs, hips, etc., all the way to the top of your head.
  • Scan your body up and down, down and up.

When you take a few minutes in your bed, or behind your desk, to scan your body with your eyes closed, you will notice that you can control your energy and your thoughts.

Leslie Kaminoff, the breathing guru of this moment, explains this action as follows: You are now piercing your body with a sharp instrument from the inside, your awareness. Instead of cutting it with a sharp instrument from the outside, a knife, we use our own sharpest instrument, our awareness. This instrument is really connected to you, and will therefore be able to make you really look at you own body and see it in a complete context.

In yoga we use the breath to deepen this piercing of your body. We can use the breath to discover the boundaries of our body, to calm our mind and gain self-knowledge. When you synchronize the yoga movements (called asanas) with the breath, you will notice how you can create space in your body with an inhale, and you will learn to let go on an exhale. Your breath can go to every part of your body, as long as you use your attention and awareness to the area that needs the breath.

If we learn to look at our body from the inside, with our awareness and with the breath, we get a completely different understanding about what are bodies need, what they look like and how we have to take care of them. Instead of having the outside view about how tight your clothes are, you can go inside and discover if we are healthy or not. You learn to feel how to feed your body: what are your cravings and what is a necessity to remain healthy and happy. You will also learn how your mind tricks you into being lazy before exercising, how it tricks you into eating fatty and sugary foods and how it changes your self-perspective. When you know your own tricks and when you really know your body, then you will learn to love it, with all its uniqueness, perfections and imperfections.

How yoga can help in difficult times

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As I am a Dutch person, born and raised, the news of last week’s plane crash, of the MH-17, hit me hard. 298 beautiful souls were killed in a plane crash of which 193 Dutch citizens.  Not that it should make any difference, every person on that plane had its own story and leaves behind family and loved ones, but all of a sudden a tragedy like this came a whole lot closer.

The day after the crash I went to my regular yoga class, I dedicated my class to these people, and it was then when it hit me. And instead of calming down, I noticed I started feeling more and more upset about this insane injustice. When I came home I felt the need to share some thoughts, which I did via Facebook:

” I am literally lost for words and sick to my stomach reading about the crashed plane. Shooting down a passenger flight with 300 people, for what exactly? To claim your land, to get what you want, to show who is the boss? It brings me to tears to know that this is the world we live in today. We kill innocent people to enlarge our ego’s, we kill innocent people over grudges we hold, we kill innocent people because we believe we own things. And the saddest part of it all is, that nobody owns anything. We all live on a piece of this earth, with our families, friends, neighbors, animals & plants. This land belongs to the earth and everybody that lives on it. Because in the end, when you die – like these 300 beautiful souls – we don’t leave behind what we own, that is not important anymore, we leave behind loved ones & memories. And they would turn in whatever you ‘own’ to get you back. So let’s take a lesson from this: let’s be extra good to each other, spend extra time with the people you love, be kind to your neighbors, connect with the nature around you and really see who else lives on that space you call ‘mine’. Share it with them and everybody else who comes along. I know I will <3″

I decided to see what yoga has to say about these occasions, these disasters, and this kind of suffering. And what I found was compelling and interesting to me. In yoga there is a word to describe this: Dukha, which means suffering.

In one of the oldest scriptures of yoga; the Yoga Sutra’s, there are some interesting insights.

Sutra 2.15: Parinaama Taapa Sanskaara dukhaihi guna vrittivirodhaascha dukhameva sarvam vivekinah

This sutra basically describes that every event causes some sort of pain. Suffering is in our lives, always, because we are on a constant search for happiness. The pain is caused by the amount of joyfulness we experience, because we will start craving for more. Because however joyful something is, there is a moment that it will end. And the greater the joy it created, the greater the pain when it ends.  The memories of this pleasure bring pain. The fear over losing it causes pain. Love creates pain, especially with separation.

So losing a loved one, is extremely painful, it causes a lot of Duhka, suffering. Losing a lost one over such a useless act makes it even worse.  The grief and the grudges we feel can create deep wounds. Wounds that will shut you down, wounds that will make you forget that you are alive – you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you have actual physical pain in your body and muscles.

Nothing can take this pain, disbelief and injustice away. However, there are some things we can practice to help us try to come to a state of mind where we can learn to accept, where we can learn to find a place for what is happening.

In this case, from the perspective of yoga, we can do the following:

  1. Calming our mind through breathing
  2. Practice compassion

Breathing

Breathing exercises practiced in yoga can help to calm our minds, create more clarity and create space. Through breathing we can stop our mind from lying to ourselves and give in to this suffering. We can stop repressing it and express it through our bodies.  We can start on the path to not undo what has been done, fight against the loss, but transform ourselves. Find strength and new different perspectives that can help us come out of our misery. Of course this can not all be done through breathing, but I believe it is a starting point.

Compassion

When we have found our way to calm our mind and work on coming out of our misery, there is a way to practice compassion. Even though in this situation it feels like an impossible act to practice compassion against the ‘bad guys’, we can practice compassion with our close surroundings and ourselves. The yoga sutra’s say the following about this:

Sutra 1.33: Maitri karuna mudito pekshanam sukha duhkha punya apunya vishayanam bhavanatah chitta prasadanam

In our lives we see people that are happier then we are, but we also see people who are less happy, people who suffer even more. Whatever our attitude is towards these people and their actions, if we can be pleased with others being happy and compassionate to others who are unhappy, joyful towards the things that are praiseworthy and remain undisturbed by the mistakes others make, our mind can stay calm. This way we can develop traits in ourselves such as love (maitri), helpfulness (karuna), friendliness (mudita) and eveness of emotions or temper / calmness (upekṣa).

I believe that when everyone practices more compassion, the world will become a better place. We will share love with our loved ones, neighbors, strangers in the street, nature and animals. By simply smiling to each other we create a different atmosphere and we can make a small change in this world.  Practice to not judge, but taking time to listen and by staying close to our own emotions and feelings. By being compassionate we stop fighting violence with violence, but instead we choose for compassion and love. Does this mean that people can get away with horrible things they do (to others)? No! Justice will find its way to these people, one way or another. But by calming our mind, creating clarity in our thoughts and by practicing compassion and love, we do not let these 300 un-necessary deaths go to waste. We honor these 300 beautiful souls, by changing our direct environment, and with that the whole world.

And so, this blog will end as I closed off my Facebook post:

So let’s take a lesson from this: let’s be extra good to each other, spend extra time with the people you love, be kind to your neighbors, connect with the nature around you and really see who else lives on that space you call ‘mine’. Share it with them and everybody else who comes along. I know I will ❤

 

NOTE: I found it extremely difficult to write about this subject, since I am very deeply touched by the downing of MH-17. If I have offended anyone with my writing I sincerely apologize. I merely tried to share my opinion and my thoughts for what it all means and how to deal with such a tragedy. 

How to meditate?

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Meditation has become a buzzword in the past few years. Nowadays you come across more and more people telling you ‘they are meditating’, which to me is great! The more, the better. However, also often people tell me: “I think meditation is good for me, but I don’t really know how to do it”.  And because of this unknown, or the fear to go to a course where explained, people hesitate to get into it.

In meditation there are several schools of thought on what is supposed to be the best way: labeling thoughts, imagining rivers, singing a mantra, clearing your mind completely, etcetera. Whatever label, technique or form you choose, they all have a few basic rules. And these rules are all you need to do it on your own.

Before I start explaining what you could do, I first want to take away a few misconceptions:

  1. I need to sit cross-legged

Many people are uncomfortable sitting cross-legged and this keeps them from meditating. Meditating cross-legged is the most common form, but most definitely not the only one. As a basic rule: you have to sit in a way that you can be comfortable while keeping your spine straight. If this means sitting on a chair or putting your legs in a different position, then this is absolutely fine. However, sitting on a chair means (trying) not to use the back of the chair, because you need to keep your spine up straight by yourself.

  1. I need to do it for a least 30 minutes (or any other length you might have in mind)

I also sometimes let myself trick into this one. Meditating for a few minutes per day is always better than nothing at all.  So whenever you have a few spare minutes, use them wisely: meditate.

  1. I can only meditate in a quiet, closed off room

This situation is preferable, since it will make it a whole lot easier to focus on your breath and calming your mind. The less the distractions, the easier it can be. But not having a space like this is no excuse to not meditate. When I was commuting in a train for work, I used to take my train ride time to sit calmly, close my eyes and meditate, also I used the toilet in the office, the taxi ride or a more quiet corner in a bar, bookstore or office.

SO HOW DOES IT WORK?

It is simple and at the same time not simple at all. Here a few basic things to know and do.

Basic things to know:

1. Endless stream of thoughts

As soon as you sit down and close your eyes an endless stream of thoughts will start. Meditation is to stop this stream of thoughts, something that sounds easy, but is not. You need patience, determination and compassion to make it work.

2. Nature of your thoughts

Maybe you know, maybe you never realised, but every thought is connected to either the past or future. You either have a memory of something that happened, a minute ago, an hour, a day, a week, month and so on. Or your mind wonders to what happens in the future, an hour from now, day, week or many years. The goal of meditation is to experience the present, to be in the now.

3. The mind wants to control you

Your mind wants to keep you busy, that way it controls you. So it will do everything to take you away from being in the now, in this very moment, because it has no control over the now. So it brings up memories, future thoughts, it makes you tired, angry, emotional, frustrated, anything that keeps you from actually living the moment. We all have had an experience (beautiful place, a sky-dive, birth of a child, amazing peace of art, an evening with friends) that was so mind blowing that, for maybe only a second, our mind stopped and got silenced with what you witnessed.  That moment is when YOU control the mind.

The basic things to do

  1. Sit comfortably (in any position that feels good for you, and in any location you feel ok meditating)
  2. Close your eyes (close them softly, don’t press them together)
  3. Start breathing in and out through your nose
  4. Breath in deeply and deliberately into your belly
  5. Breath out slowly feel how the belly, ribcage and chest deflate
  6. Keep on following your breath coming in and out
  7. Pay attention to the moment where the breath pauses before you breath in and before you breath out
  8. Stop breathing deliberately and come to breathing without any effort
  9. Face whatever comes into your mind. Try to not pay attention to it.
  10. When you have started wandering away with your thoughts, come back to following your breath coming in and going out
  11.  Start again having a few breaths more deliberately.
  12.  Come to a breath without any effort
  13.  Try to ignore what comes to your mind.
  14. When you wander away, come back to following your breath
  15.  Keep on repeating this however many times is necessary
  16.  When you get frustrated because this happens every second, acknowledge you are frustrated and accept it, be compassionate to yourself
  17. Continue this process

You can start doing it for 5 minutes, or 10 minutes. Over time you can make it longer, but only if that feels necessary for you. If you do it on a daily basis you will notice that the mind starts wandering less and less. Every second, becomes every 5 seconds, becomes every 10 seconds, becomes every 20 seconds, 40 seconds, 1 minute and so on.

My experience is that it really helps you to face challenges in a more calm and stable way. You do not freak out, can keep a clear mind and are able to make better decisions. Your creativity increases, because these moments of silence, no thoughts, create space for new ideas and insights.

I hope this explanation helps to take the hurdle and create a moment for you during the day to practice meditation. Remember, it is better to meditate for only a few minutes, than not at all. Enjoy, may peace and calm come to you!

Vinyasa Yoga in 10 minutes – instruction video

We often think that we have to take at least half an hour or more to do our exercises. So we skip moving our body due to time limits.But when you think about it, in the end moving your body for just 10 minutes is a lot better than not at all.

If you create a morning, evening, or lunch routine of 10 minutes yoga, you will feel tremendous differences in your body. All you need is space for a math. So you can do it at home, in the park, in the office, by yourself or with family & friends.

10 minutes of yoga a day will help you to:

  • Be energized (with the breathing you have a better oxygen flow in your body)
  • Reduce stress & anxiety and have a better focus
  • Have a clear mind and calm down your thoughts
  • Increase body flexibility, while strengthening at the same time
  • Reduce back problems
  • Have better body & breathing awareness throughout the day.

And last but not least, it just makes you feel good. Try it! For one week or maybe even a month. You will be surprised about the effects!