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.

Advertisements

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.

The other sort of yoga…

IMG_6076

My blogging schedule has been very off the past few weeks, but I am back, new routine, new energy and new ideas. So to start: we have arrived in San Francisco! However, the first few weeks of our time in the US we spent amazingly in a camper, traveling to Yosemite, Sequoia National Forest, Death Valley, Vegas, Zion Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Route 66 and some beach time along Highway 1.

I had planned to do lots of yoga, running, or anything else that could keep me fit. Nature called for some amazing hikes, down into the canyon, or up to the tops of waterfalls. At every single one of them I was amazed by the beauty of this country and the vastness of the landscape. But apart from some stretches after the hikes, not much physical yoga happened.

It was either too cold in the morning (freezing), the space in the camper was literally too small (with dog plus husband), it was wet outside, there was snow outside or I had asked too much of my body already racing up down mountains.

I started to get a bit frustrated: this was the moment to really get myself into shape, to be ready for San Francisco yoga and to improve my personal practice. And then I realized, that yoga is designed for the mind. As the yoga sutra says: Yoga is designed for the mind, in order to reduce suffering and to feel better. And there I was, beating myself up over not doing the psychical element of yoga.

Once I had established this thought in my mind, I realized any moment of the day was a yoga moment. A moment to train my mind, to see how far I was able push it, or how much it tried to control me. Basically a moment to rethink and refine my chosen direction and by being in nature and making amazing walks, I was able to distract my mind from any unnecessary thoughts, fears or judgments.

The reason why I am sharing this, is because we often forget why we are doing things. What is our will and what is our mind telling us? What are our expectations and are they pursuable? What if things go different then planned? In the end, all these thoughts are in the mind, all these actions are based on what we think should be. What if we decide to let things be as they are, shift our perspective to what you have right now. Would that make you happier as a person? It most certainly did for me!! And that’s how I got content with my yoga practice, not the physical yoga we talk so often about, but yoga as a lifestyle, yoga as the way to reduce my suffering, yoga to make me feel better and also the others around me. Because ultimately, all I ever want is to feel the best I can, and isn’t that what everybody wants?

5 steps to find your yoga style

Yoga has become more commonly accepted, but some misconceptions still cause some people to reject it. In this blog I will try to clear up these misconceptions!

People often cite these two reasons for why yoga isn’t their thing:

  1. I am too stiff
  2. I am not the type of person that likes to sit around and do ‘zen things’. I don’t know how to find the peace in my body.

Both of them are misconceptions about yoga. The first one I already thoroughly discussed. The second one is linked to a very important choice in yoga: your teacher and the style of yoga.

Yoga is a collector name for many different approaches to how to connect your mind, body and spirit. In the past decades many different styles have been developed. Some became more popular and others are more low key and unknown. Finding the style that fits you is essential to your enjoyment of yoga.

The common ones you will come across often are Hatha Yoga, Bikram Yoga, Iyengar yoga, Asthanga Yoga, Vinyasa Yoga, Kundalini Yoga and Yin Yoga. If you want to know more about the different styles, there is a perfect description of them on this website.

So how to pick your style, school and teacher? I see 5 steps to find your style:

  1. First think why you want to do yoga, or why you are doing yoga. What is it you want to achieve with it? This will help you to eliminate a few styles.
  2. How do you want to practice? Big group? Smaller group? Private? This will help you find a school and / or teacher.
  3. Ask your friends who practice what style they do, which school and teacher they go to. Let them explain why they like it.
  4. Make a selection of 5 schools and teachers and go there to try out different styles, teacher and schools. Where do you feel most comfortable? Where can you find what you want to reach in yoga?
  5. Start your practice as many times per week or month as you want. Find the right pace to ensure you enjoy your yoga and get the most out of it.

It sounds like a logical process but often people get stuck with one teacher and style because it is taught at your gym or work. I know many people that quit their classes, because they weren’t sure it was what they wanted. My belief is that you just haven’t found your style or teacher yet! Keep on looking, because you will feel it when you have found it.

The pose begins when you want to leave it

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 3.27.05 PM

In yoga we try to balance in the poses, we balance strength with flexibility, we balance left with right and we’re trying to sense what’s going on in our body. We need to sense in our body how far we can move into a stretch. However, often we have lost this type of connection with ourselves, because we are so used to pushing over our boundaries or not pushing them at all. This article focuses on those who push themselves over their boundaries.

The title of this blog is a famous quote of Eckhart Tolle, who is considered one of the most spiritual people of the moment. This quote never had a real significance to me, until I (re)stumbled upon it recently. This simple quote started to make a lot of sense, because I had experienced the effects of not leaving a pose, but also, I often see that yoga practitioners try to get out of a pose whenever they start feeling discomfort.

This is exactly the interesting contradiction of what I am writing about. Practitioners prefer to leave the poses when it gets uncomfortable, but on the other hand, we often push over our boundaries as if it is nothing.

To explain this concept, I prefer to use my own experiences. Ever since I was little I used to push myself in various ways; I always wanted to be better, do more, achieve more and be some kind of super woman. When I was in university I was studying for my Masters Degree, enrolled in a Full-Time board function for a student organization, working in the weekends to make money, meeting up with friends every night and I was trying to be the most amazing girlfriend ever. Nothing was less important, all had to be done, I always felt like there was no option. Until my body and mind had made the choice for me: it shut down, so I went from all to nothing. For months I was so tired, walking on egg shells, not enjoying the good things in life, because it always felt like I had no option, like it was another task on my to do list.

What this example shows is how pushing over your limits goes beyond uncomfortable. And what it also shows is that boundaries can be moved, but only if you do it for a short period of time. On the long term it will get back to you.

That is also very true for yoga. When people come to class, they often come from work, are on their way to another activity and have a mind that is racing. That is because we live in a fast paced world, where we all want results quickly. This short-term focus causes that we push ourselves further than we can. However, in yoga we are supposed to do the opposite, we slow down. We don’t go for quick results, but we build everything up slowly. So when we go too fast and we are not aware of what is going on in our body, we will hurt ourselves. And all we do is a simple exercise routine that we can do in every gym around the corner.

In yoga we sense, we connect our breath to the movement, we create space in our body, we discover where our boundaries are, we show respect to our body, we don’t let our mind control us, but we let our body tell the story. We don’t go for the quick wins, but we train for a marathon. So the moment we realize we get uncomfortable in a pose that is the moment where we can learn, because in that exact moment all our automatic responses and habits come into place. And instead of giving in to our mind, we give ourselves the gift of breaking down our old habits. And that is what yoga is all about.

Shifting your perspective

Inothim

Yoga has many different benefits and it can also be described in many different ways. However, one thing always returns: yoga changes your perspective.

Yoga has a great influence on how we perceive our body, what we believe we can do with it and how we look at things. We often think we are not flexible enough, or we can’t do something that requires silence / sitting still. It is these ideas and perspectives that are on the surface that we can work on immediately.

When we go to a class we realise that our bodies are stiff in one part and more flexible in others. We learn that many poses have to do with strength or a combination of the two. You learn how to play with your body, with the perspectives and beliefs about ourselves.

If we go more in-depth into our practice it opens a whole new world. Towards who we are, but also towards the outside world. We get different ideas on how to feed ourselves, we get different feelings about the nature and animals around us, and we learn to deal with daily struggles in a different way. And above all we learn to literally see things from a different perspective: through inverted poses.

Seeing the world upside down helps to see things differently, see people differently, the room you’re in from a different view point. But also putting the pressure on your head instead of your feet will create a completely different perspective on what you carry around on your feet every day. And if you are able to find your balance and be stable, you can find a peace, which is different, then any kind you can experience.

What this meant to me is that I changed my food habits completely. I tested which foods were not beneficial to my body and tried to cut them out as much as possible. I also learned more about how I perceived the outside world. A good example is traffic, either being on my bike in a busy street in Amsterdam or being in my car in traffic in São Paulo. The moment I realized I personally cannot change the traffic, I realized it was me that could make different choices: go into the busy street and face the traffic as calm as I could or I could try to avoid it by going at different hours or with different routes.

Also the perspective of who I am on this planet and why I am here have changed completely. The world I grew up in has a very strict determined path for young people, at least, that’s my perspective. It took me a while to realize that it is an idea that lives in my mind. Once I was able to let it go, I was able to come closer to who I am.

Simple things you can do in your daily live that can help you see things from a different perspective:

  • Switch your fork and knife when you eat.
  • Brush your teeth with your other hand.
  • Take a different route home (on your bike, in the car, in the train).
  • When taking the same route, look out for something you have not seen before.
  • Practice yoga (or any sport) in a different spot then you normally do.
  • Start a conversation about something that is bothering you (or something you’re stuck in) with somebody you do not know, or normally do not talk to about these subjects. They might have new and interesting insights.
  • Try to stand on your head (if you have never done this, please only do it with a certified teacher!) and see the world upside down.
  • For one day only give compliments to every one who crosses your path.
  • Smile to everyone you pass by in the street.
  • Download the app Cucalu. It will help you look differently to your environment
  • Don’t eat meat for a whole week (or any other thing that you can skip from your diet)
  • Write down 10 positive thoughts about your day – every night, for at least 7 days.

Try at least one action from this list and see if that changes anything and if so, what has changed, what did you discover. If nothing changed, pick another one and take the challenge again. Get out of your comfort zone, because that is the only place where we get to learn more about who we truly are.

How yoga helps to reduce stress (the scientific explanation)

Image

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.