The balancing act

IMG_3008

Finding balance in your life, in your mind, in your breath, in your personality, in your being – it seems to be something we all want. To me, it also sometimes seem like an utopia. When I find balance in part, I tend to lose it somewhere else. When I put in the work to balance one part of my being, I lose the time and effort in the other one.

However, I also believe it is possible!

Balance is not something you can find, it is something you create” – Jana Kingsford

In your life you will always go through highs and lows. It is inevitable. We cannot control the outside world, we cannot control the actions of others and therefore we will have periods of suffering throughout our lives. It is however the balance and connection inside the Self that will determine how off balance you get. And to understand when we are in balance we have to learn where that point is.

Don’t avoid extremes, and don’t choose any one extreme. Remain available to both the polarities – that is the art, the secret of balancing” – Rajneesh.

When we are kids we are constantly exploring our boundaries. We are figuring out our world by falling and standing up, by testing the boundaries of our parents and by making mistakes. The older we get the more consolidated and fixed our ideas, thoughts and ways of being seem to be. However, the search for balance inside continues. Over time we change and we constantly try to figure out who we really are. We dig into our past to figure out why certain highs and lows have impacted our lives, so that we can make sense of where we are now. So that we can figure out where our balance is.

In yoga we have a concept that talks about this search for balance, which is called Sthira Suhka Asanam (Yoga Sutra 2.46)

  • Sthira arises from the root stha, which means “to stand, to be firm, to take a stand.” It translates as steadiness, awareness, stable and firm.
  • Sukha arises from the root words su (good) and kha (space), so giving it the meaning “good space.” It translates as comfort, ease, pleasure, lightness.
  • Asana is translated as posture, attitude (mental, emotional, physical), physical exercise and seated posture.

So when we translate that ‘Sthira Suhka Asanam’ means the posture is firm/steady/stable AND comfortable/ light/ at ease.

So in our practice we look to be steady and stable, while light and at ease. We are looking to be rooted and strong, while being joyful, easy and gentle. The breath is our guidance in this process, by following how it changes with each pose we can get a better understanding of the impact a pose has on us. By working on keeping the breath and the posture stable, means you are in complete focus, you are in the moment and because of that the mind is still. The mind is present.

When we learn these qualities on the mat, by focusing on the stability of the mind and the steadiness of our breath, we can take the lessons learned with us off the mat and apply it in our daily life. Being aware of when you are in a high or low, will give you insight in what you need to develop more in your life. It is a first step towards a healthy balance, and we keep on practicing until we are able to keep the balance in all parts of our life, all the time.

Is yoga for everybody?

 

Snapseed

Back in the day, way way back in the day, yoga was only for a few, and only for men. It was a sacred practice and mostly practiced in complete solitude & isolation.

Times have changed. Yoga is now a common good and belongs to everyone and anyone. Yoga nowadays comes in so many forms and styles that almost everyone will be able to find a style that suits their personal needs.

And even though not every yogi will agree with me that it’s OK to adapt this ‘sacred practice’, I believe that it is amazing that we can bring yoga to everyone. We are in it together! In one way or another.

One of the main reasons why I love to teach BoxingYoga is because I am able to bring yoga into a group for whom stretching is far from the list of priorities, even though all fighters know they have to. Coming to a yoga school is intimidating, because they feel they are too bulky, not flexible enough or are turned off by the ‘wishy washy’ music / talk.

The great thing with all these different styles is that eventually we all work towards the same goals. Ultimate bliss, a connection with the Self and less suffering in our lives. So does it really matter how you get there? Does it matter if you are able to connect with the Self via a sweaty class or one where you are chanting? Does it matter if you start with philosophy or if that might become part of your practice later? As long as we are able to create a steady and stable breath, a calm heartbeat and a quiet mind, we are working towards our own liberation.

Some days I love a strong intense work-out, other days my body is craving something slower, something to restore. Some days I want a straightforward physical class, on other days I’m looking for deeper meaning and philosophy. Our bodies and needs are not the same, every day is different, every time when we step onto the mat is different. As long as we can understand that, all that we need to do, and all that is asked, is to show up, do the work and be honest to yourself about what you can and cannot do.

Enjoy your practice! Because YES, yoga is for you and for everyone!

Why should you be in the now?

LJO_1059-001.JPG

There is so much talk about being in the present moment that it can make you feel that you are doing something wrong when you are not in the now. At least, that is how it makes me feel. Because, let’s be honest, how often are you really fully engaged in the present moment? How often can we say that our minds were not off to some other place?

This week I was in a class of one of my favorite teachers in San Francisco and he changed my perspective by simply saying that you shouldn’t search for constantly being in the now, but focus on realizing when you are not. When you become aware of when you are not in the now, it gives you an opportunity to return, be aware of where you are, how you feel and connect to what is.

I remember when I started meditating and doing yoga, that all that talk about being in the present moment seemed so exaggerated. Why can you not be day dreaming? What is wrong with reliving parts of your past through memory? And what is wrong with envisioning the future? All of that helps you to grow, right? It helps you to have a purpose. It helps you to learn from mistakes.

How I look at it now, is that there is nothing wrong with envisioning your future or learning from the past. What I do believe is that hanging around constantly in either one of those planes will keep you from enjoying the moment you are in.

When I was younger my mum and dad would take me to this place called ‘de Zaanse Schans’, a very typical Dutch village with windmills, a place where they made cheese and mustard. I remember going there and it was always packed with tourists. One time I was there with my other (blonde) friends and a group of Chinese people wanted to take a picture with us. It went on for 15 minutes, one picture after the other. They did not communicate with us, in any kind of way, they just stood there. And I remember me stepping away from the picture and saying to my mum: why are they doing this? Why do they want to be in the picture with us while they don’t know who we are? Why are they not looking around and enjoying this place?

Now I get that we were very typical Dutch blonde girls in a very typical Dutch setting. But I do believe my questions were very valid. They only saw De Zaanse Schans and my friends through the lens. They did not pay attention to their surroundings, almost as if they weren’t really there and would look at what they had seen in the pictures at home.

This is something we constantly do in our own lives. While we are living through a moment, we are showing pictures from the past, we are talking about what we will do next, we do all these things except for really enjoying the moment itself. And that’s where it is important to realize when you are not really in the moment. That is what my teacher meant with becoming aware of when you are drifting off, when you are physically there, but mentally not engaged.

The best practice, (which is hard; let’s be honest), is to not look at your phone for 1 hour, 2 hours, a full day (depending on how much you normally look at it). Be fully connected to the person that is in front of you, being engaged in the conversation and reading their signs – are they enjoying the conversation, do they understand what you say, are they genuinely interested in what you are telling them.

Another fun practice is to look at something you see everyday, a picture, a plant, a house on your way to work, a little table in the corner, and so on. Look at it for a couple of minutes and really see it. You most likely will notice something new, or you realize you never really actually looked at it before.

And obviously, meditate, at least a few minutes per day. Become aware of how often the mind drifts off to the past or the future, and practice to simply become the best at tracking when you are there or not.

So why should you be in the now? My simple answer would be:
It allows you to be there, be aware and let life surprise you as it unfolds every minute of every day.

All you need is inside

DSC_0529

Lately I have been sharing a stream of quotes and thoughts with my students and I started to recognize a pattern. They were almost all about the appreciation of good, bad, big and little things in life.

“ All the things that truly matter, beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace – arise from beyond the mind” – Eckhart Tolle

We live in a world dominated by the mind, as most of us are well aware. But being aware is sometimes not enough to tap into the things that truly matter to you. It does not help you to connect inside with what brings you joy, love, creativity. It doesn’t help you to recognize beauty or find your inner peace. We have to take an extra step; we have to put in the work.

You need to be willing to perceive things in a different way, to see things in a different way, coming from the heart, from the connection you make inside. Not coming from the mind. Many times we are stuck in our day-to-day habits. We take the same way to work, we have our breakfast routine, we sit in the same spot for lunch, etc. There is nothing wrong with having a routine, the only danger is that you get stuck in your way, stuck in your mind, stuck inside. When we are stuck in our ways, it becomes more difficult to see the little things that can give us joy. Often we only give credit to the big things that happen in life and we dwell in the time between. But what about all these little things that bring you joy? Things like waking up to your baby’s smile, or the cuddle of your dog, getting a message from your family or friends, seeing the flowers grow, feeling a stray of sunlight on your face, the smile of the stranger on the street, laughing with your friends or colleagues, finding a space to sit down and take a deep breath, and so forth. The things that can bring us instant joy and happiness happen constantly. The question is: are you open to it or not? Are you grateful for what presents itself to you? Brother David Steindl-Rast said a beautiful thing about this: “In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.”

But what if life presents itself in the most shitty way you can think of? I recently lost people who were dear to me, to old age and to cancer. These moments are hard, and all I wrote above seems to become irrelevant. But is it really? When life shows itself to you in its most ugly way, it becomes increasingly important to appreciate all these small things. They can give you a small spark of happiness, they give you direction to find your way out. It helps us to understand that you can choose to be loving to yourself, or you can choose to judge. You are in charge of setting your direction, you are in charge of when happiness is allowed back in. This choice is crucial, some people mistake this difference by thinking that loving means there is no room to push yourself, no room for improvement. None of that is true! You can support yourself and lovingly speak with words of encouragement.

Because “every thought you produce, any action you do, it bears your signature” Thich Nhat Hahn. You put your signature on what your world looks like on the outside, how people respond to you and what you bring forward. But more importantly, you put your signature on what goes on inside.

Practice this every day, in good times especially, find happiness, joy, inner peace, love, beauty, creativity in the simple things in life. Change your routines, try to see something new everyday, change where you sit down, take a different route home, switch around your fork and knive. Break out and break through. So that when difficult times arise, you know that there is something on the other side. Because ”the best things in life are free. Sleeps, hugs, kisses, love, friends, family, memories, smiles, laughter & fun” Author uknown.

How does yoga benefit you physically?

Benefits-of-Yoga-Infographic

Yoga, as a movement and lifestyle, has really grown in the past 10 years in the Western world. It went from an almost women-only activity to a common good for both men and women. It went from fluffy and hippie to hip and a necessity for our mind and body. Basically it went from underground to mainstream. To me it feels great to realize that so many other people have seen and felt the benefits of yoga.

However, I still often get the question: what is different about yoga when compared to other sports? Or: How is yoga better for you than sport X? To be honest, I prefer not to answer this question. For the simple reason that yoga is no better than any other sport, just like no person is any better than another person. What I can answer are the known benefits of yoga and how it helps me.

There are different categories to answer this question: mind, body and spirit. In this blog I focus on the body and how that works technically, where possible I will share my own experiences.

Body
As I started doing yoga I noticed that my body transformed. It got more lean and fit. In yoga we spent a lot of time stretching, flexing and strengthening our bodies. We always put an equal effort on the left and right side of our body, as well as to the top and bottom.

Flexibility
Most beginners tell me, I won’t be very good at yoga, because I am not very flexible. First of all, yoga is not about flexibility, but about your state of mind while performing your poses, or when you meditate. Having said that, when I started doing yoga the first improvements I noticed were in my flexibility. The first class I found it a struggle to touch my toes, or even worse, do a backbend. Doing these stretching exercises weekly quickly showed me progress. My body was loosening, because I was able to breath to the discomfort and therefore able to let go of the tensions in my body (mainly my hip area). The pain and aches were diminishing as I was gradually becoming more flexible. Nowadays we don’t stretch and flex our bodies often. We spend our days behind our computer, shortening our muscles around the hip, we then get into a car, or on our bikes, to then sit down behind the tv or to have dinner. We need to deliberately stretch our bodies, we need to put in the effort. A great thing is that we can exactly feel where we need the most attention. As soon as we start stretching, our body hurts and aches, in that moment and the days after. It also gives quick results, giving us the energy and power to continue.

Strength
In yoga we strengthen our bodies with our own body weight. Usually I see women having an easier time with the flexibility, men have more strength. Same goes for me. Building strength is still my main focus. In life we need both, strength and flexibility – this needs to be equally developed. If you only have flexibility you are like a twig, fragile and easily imbalanced. With only strength you are like a Michelin doll, pumped up with no space to move your body.

I am part of the first category, I have too much flexibility. And even though that allows me to elegantly do the poses (asanas), I really learned that I often need to take a step back and simply squeeze. The squeezing helps to build strength and because of that I have become a lot stronger. I am better in balance poses, headstand, handstand and poses on one leg. This is due to my core muscles (the muscles around your hips, belly and sacrum).

Healthy joints
In yoga we go through a full range of movements: forward bends, backward bends, twists. All movements are being done on both the right and left side of our body.  Not a single part is neglected. By moving the joints you keep the joint cartilage elastic and lubricated, this is the only way for your cartilage to take in the nutrients it needs. This is extremely important to ensure that your cartilage will not wear out, which prevents bone-on-bone action. This counts for every joint: ankle, knees, hips, elbows, shoulders, neck and the vertebras of the spine.  Doing yoga on a daily basis, for me means a lot of joint movement and a lot of possible injuries.  To warm up my joints before a class I do a rolling the joints session (credits go to my beloved teacher David Lurey), to prevent myself from getting hurt.

Circulation of blood and oxygen
Yoga helps to improve your blood circulation and it increases the amount of oxygen to our cells. By making a forward-bend, we rush blood to our head, which helps us to release headaches and sinus infections because the ‘old’ blood is replaced by new oxygenated blood once we come back up and we are able to release the built up pressure.  By twisting we wring out venous blood from our organs and by releasing we allow new, fresh oxygenated blood in. Inverted poses reverse the direction of all the fluids in our body. Blood from the legs and the pelvis makes it way to our heart, which in turn has to work harder to pump the blood the other way around, and to get new fresh, oxygenated blood into our lungs. Because the oxygen in our blood cells helps against blood cloths swelling, yoga helps to decrease the risk of heart attacks, swelling in your legs and kidney problems. My direct experience with the circulation in my body is that the circulation in my fingers and feet improved tremendously. I used to always have very cold fingers, especially in wintertime they sometimes turned blue and seemed almost dead. This problem has completely disappeared.

Immune System
Yoga helps to boost immunity at a cellular level. It helps to boost our overall health, since we increase the amount of oxygen in our body, we take good care of our skeletal system (bones and joints) and we improve the circulation of our body, which helps the organs to function at its best. I used to be sick at least 3 times per year. Flu, fever, cold, you name it. Good years 3 times, bad years countless times. Now, I am hardly ever sick. Obviously I have days where I can clearly feel my body is fighting a flu, but it rarely happens that I actually get it, and it usually doesn’t last longer then a day.

Changed nerve system
Back in the days, when offices did not exist, we 0nly had two responses to stress: fight or flight. Nowadays, we cannot fight against our boss, neither can we run away from them. By focusing on your breathing while doing challenging yoga poses, you can learn to slow down your breath and to remain focused and present. This lowers our heart-rate, blood pressure and increases the blood flow to our intestines and reproductive organs. In other words, you create a mechanism in your body to calm down and restore your body. My reactions in stressfull situations have changed a lot. When I notice I get stressed, I also notice I need more meditation and yoga. Which sometimes proves to be more difficult, less time available means less time to do my practice. But these are the perfect practices to work on my nervous system and to calm myself down. In Vipassana it is said that when you get into stressful and difficult situations you cannot do it all good in once, but what counts is the time you get stuck in your emotion. You work on decreasing that time. And that is what I am doing, decreasing my moments of stressed and intense emotions.

Lymph drainage
Drainage of your lymph nodes is caused by the contraction and stretching of the muscle and by massaging our internal organs through twisting the body. This helps your system to fight infections, to drain the toxins in our body and to destroy dangerous (cancer) cells.

 There are many more physical benefits to describe, but these are the once I know of and am able to explain and describe. The next blog I will go more in-depth in the benefits for the mind and spirit.

Yoga and a healthy diet

IMG_1704

For many years I have been concerned with what I put in my body. At a young age I was confronted with the fact that my body couldn’t process the meal type I had everyday: meat, vegetables and potatoes. I wasn’t able to digest it well, leading to a bloated tummy, headaches, extreme tiredness after a meal and an overall feeling of not having enough energy. When you are 18 years old, these are conditions you should not have on a daily basis. So I had to go on a diet: no meat and potatoes (or pasta or bread) at the same time. So that basically meant, no carbs and proteins in the same meal. The improvements in my well-being were incredible. And that’s when it clicked: I am what I eat. However, it took me years to find a way of eating that served me as a person. Yoga played a really big role in it, because there I learned to be more in contact with my body. I learned to feel what reactions food gives me and what effect is has on my emotional state. I also learned a lot from the yoga vision on food.

Yogi’s and monks have a few simple rules when it comes to food. They avoid any food that involves killing or harming of animals and they encourage foods that grow harmoniously with nature. In other words, they (prefer to) eat vegetarian and organically farmed fruits and vegetables. Another rule is to try to avoid eating products that distract the mind. Meaning foods that either prolong digestion and therefore takes away your energy and focus (for example meat, fried foods, white flower products), or because it creates a scattered state of mind (spices, onions, starch, alcohol).

But above all, the food choices you make are not a diet; they are part of a lifestyle. We have a conscious choice of what we put into our body everyday, and the more good stuff we put in, the more good stuff comes out.

I’ve made changes to improve what I eat. In my case this means the following: I am a flexitarian, I eat meat or fish on occasion, about once every 2 weeks. I eat parts of my meals raw and other parts cooked. In the morning I drink a glass of water with lime juice. I drink green smoothies, fruit juices (non packaged) and water during the day. I try to cook my own meals as much as possible. I give preference to organic products (if they are available). My average dinner plate is ¾ vegetables and greens and ¼ potatoes, pasta or rice. I try to avoid lactose and gluten, by making my own non-dairy nut milk and by substituting gluten food for similar non-gluten products. And last, but not least, I include superfoods in at least one of my meals per day. Goji berries for breakfast, spirulina and propolis in smoothies, açai as a snack, baking in coconut oil, etcetera.

So now you might think, that is not what I eat. And I am not a yogi, so how do I do this? It is not that hard:

  1. Reduce the amount of times you eat fish or meat per week
  2. Give preference to organic farmed fruits and vegetables in the supermarket
  3. Buy one superfood and include this in your breakfast at home
  4. Take a look at the division of your dinner plate. Make sure that at least half of your plate is vegetables.
  5. Don’t cook all your vegetables; also eat some of them raw.
  6. Take a water bottle to work and fill it, so you can skip several rounds of coffee, sodas and packaged juices.
  7. Don’t make it a diet, make it a lifestyle. Allow yourself to also eat the things that make you happy.

What makes me happy? I love chocolate, a good white wine for dinner and French fries with salt. Because in the end, we cannot control all of our cravings all of the time! And it is ok to have them, as long as we do it in moderation.

Exploring yoga

IMG_1673

After having thought about creating my own blog for a long time, I’ve finally taken the step to do so. My main reason is to create a platform with useful content just for me, but why not share the fruits of your work? So the focus of this blog will be my discoveries in yoga and the path I will be walking, which hopefully can be an inspiration for others to start doing yoga too, or learn with me as I am going.

So what is yoga for me? I’ve started reading many books about yoga and its impact in the past few years and now even more as I am preparing for my yoga teacher training. The more I read the words of Patanjali, Deshikachar, Iyengar and so forth, the more I realise that yoga is something personal. Yes, yoga for me is also a way to connect my mind, body and soul, however explaining it this way is still too conceptual for me at this point. When it comes to practicing it, I believe I am in the phase where I am able to make a strong connection with my body, while stilling my mind. This is as simple as being so absorbed with my movements while posing, that there is no space in my mind left to wander. Or as simple as realising the differences in my body between left and right, bottom and top, and how connections are made between parts of my body.

When I started doing yoga, I always wanted to be better than the previous time. Push myself a little further to notice progress and to become better than others in class. But soon I learned that yoga is not about being better than others, or getting better everyday, it is about making the connection with yourself. This means that some days your body is more stiff, tired, energized, flexible or willing to do your practice. The willingness is where your mind plays the biggest role. There are days when my mind is so occupied I can’t focus, my head pounds and the poses seem to be too much as it is. Other days I come to the mat and I feel strong and at ease. I try not to like one day better than the other, I try to see it as opportunities to learn new things about my state of being. So my mindset, when I come to my mat today, is that I am a beginner. Every day is a new day, every day there are new things to learn. There are days to deepen the insights in my poses, there are days to deepen the insights in my mind and there are days where I consolidate what I believe to have learned so far.

So for me yoga is about exploring. Exploring yourself from within, with all the stillness and struggles you come across. Exploring all the lessons that I can learn about who I am, how I connect with my surroundings and what I can be for others.

In the coming weeks I will explore various subject about yoga. Yoga as we know it physically, yoga as therapy, yoga as a spiritual guide and yoga as a lifestyle.