Quieting the mind

Originally written August 1, 2017. 

Here’s my best current understanding of how the eight limbs work…

We have habitual patterns of thoughts (samskaras). These are places the mind tends to go automatically, without awareness. Thinking without thinking.

The goal of yoga is to quiet the mind by becoming passive observers of those thoughts rather than engaging with them / following those patterns.

By becoming detached, self-aware, and fully conscious, we become less reactive and less automatic in the way our mind works. We can remove ourselves from the incessant engagement with thought and instead more fully tune into ourselves — whoever we are beyond our thought patterns.

This begins as a conscious process, but as we practice we will lose our conscious sense of the self and experience a merging between the self and what we are doing (or the self and the collective consciousness / the Universe).

This can also happen in a flow state: we get distracted from activities by taking ourselves out of the activity and into our heads, but the better we are at tuning out distractions and the more we are immersed in the activity (and not ourselves/our thoughts) the better we end up doing at the activity.

Balancing

Every day of yoga training feels like five days — by 5:00 I felt like our 7:45am asana practice was days ago. It’s not a bad thing! It’s just that we cover so much ground each day. I’m loving it though and talking Danny’s ear off about it. He’s been supportive of this learning process. The end of today was really cool, too — we did some stuff with bamboo poles including all kinds of twisty things and strength-y things, but my favorite was the last part where we balanced the poles on our heads and walked extremely slowly across the room, pausing in the middle to sit down and meditate. It was such a fun and intimate experience to be focusing so intently and also to watch others do the same.

Related image

Maybe we’re gearing up for something like this…

Image result for balance on head indian dance

And I taught my first yoga class tonight! Danny, Alexa, and Tommy were gracious enough to let me free-form instruct them for about 20 minutes. I had fun trying to think of ways to incorporate their requests into the practice. I would love to do a longer session with more time in each section, and to incorporate my own music too. I feel like it helped me think through what I want to include in my full lesson plan, too, which I’m now enthusiastically creating.

-T

Teaching begins!

So much going on this week. So far I’ve been getting away with just attending class and taking notes, but today I finally started a practice of studying in the evening. I really love this summer intensive format — I feel like I get so much out of each day and I get to really just immerse myself in my studies. I’ve been reviewing my notes, making flash cards, and preparing for tomorrow. It’s fun (but exhausting) being a student again. I can hardly find time to write, but I feel like it’s worthwhile getting these thoughts down while I’m going through the experience. I also have SO much I want to read, and learn! It’s like the more I learn, the more I want to know.

In the last two days we’ve covered:

  • Our first times learning about and practice teaching!
  • Chapter 1 of Patañjali (“Pa-TAWN-jah-lee”)’s Yoga Sutras
  • Asana modifications
  • Anatomy of the hip and pelvis
  • Standing forward bends
  • Sequencing

Here are the forward bends we explored today. It’s really cool getting into all the little details of a pose and seeing the way it works in different bodies. We focused especially today on how to modify these poses to accommodate different levels of mobility or to help someone get more deeply into a pose. Also loving learning the names of these poses in Sanskrit and breaking down the words to see what they have in common with other words.

All images except the first are from Pocketyoga.

Prasarita Padottanasana: wide leg (“spread leg”) forward bend
(image credit: Yoganonymous)

Yoga Pose: Standing Forward Bend (Uttānāsana)

Uttānāsana: forward fold (translates as “intense stretch”)

Yoga Pose: Pyramid (Pārśvottānāsana)

Pārśvottānāsana: pyramid (translates as “side intense stretch”)

I really loved the chance to talk about and practice teaching each other! (Are you surprised? I doubt it.) I felt like the instruction came really naturally to me and I wished I had longer to do it! I felt like I was drawing on so much of what I’ve heard and absorbed from other yoga teachers over the years as far as common phrases, voice modulation, etc. I’m also excited to think about designing a practice and making it my own (with a theme, music, poetry, etc). Our first homework, due in about a week and a half, is to design our own lesson plans for an intro class (total yoga newbie) and a basics class (level 1/beginner). Danny has agreed to let me try out teaching the intro one to him once I’ve gotten it figured out. I was also thinking about designing special yoga classes for certain populations — e.g., older adults, people who sit at desks all day, dentists, etc. So so exciting.

I’ve started thinking about what I might want to do with my newfound knowledge once I’ve finished teacher training. One possibility is incorporating some breathing/stretching into my regular psychology classes. I feel like this could be great for my students in so many ways — I’ll explain more deeply what I think this could look like in a later post. I could also design and teach a new “psychology of yoga” class which would try to explain some basic principles of yoga through a psychological perspective (not totally sure what this would look like yet, but I’m thinking it would be mostly positive psych with probably some social psych thrown in). I also think I would enjoy offering free community yoga classes if I could find the space — I feel like it would be really rewarding to be able to give back to the community and serve various populations in this way. I’ve been thinking a lot about trying to create a yoga space at home, too, where I could teach two or three students at a time (probably friends/family). The basement could work, once the dogs aren’t living there. I could also do it upstairs in our bedroom if we made a change to the flooring. Could even hold outdoor classes in the backyard when it’s nice out. Exciting possibilities…

-T

Eight limbs

Day three of my yoga teacher training included another 2-3 hours of asana practice along with learning about:

  • The eight limbs of yoga
  • History of yoga
  • Sun & moon salutations
  • Asana modifications

Surya Namaskar A: sun salutations (version A)

It was interesting to discuss the eight limbs of yoga, which can be thought of as steps along the path to a state of enlightenment (which I’m currently thinking of as an intense flow state). Contrary to popular (Western) assumption, yoga is not just the poses (asanas) you do. Asanas are only one of the eight limbs. Yoga (as prescribed by these eight limbs) is an approach to experiencing your connection to the world around you.

Yoga means ‘union’ or ‘connection’. In Sanskrit, the word ‘yoga’ is used to signify any form of connection. Yoga is both a state of connection and a body of techniques that allow us to connect to anything. [source]

These eight limbs can also be thought of as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life.

The eight limbs of yoga are:

  1. Yamas: moral guidelines for how we relate to our environment
    • Ahimsa: nonviolence in word, thought, and action
    • Satya: truthfulness
    • Asteya: non-stealing – this can be physical objects or others’ time/energy
    • Brahmacharya: restraint with how we use our energy
    • Aparigraha: non-possessiveness; letting go of attachments
  2. Niyamas: moral guidelines for how we relate to ourselves
    • Saucha: cleanliness – in one’s body, diet, environment, thoughts, etc.
    • Samtosa: contentment; being at peace with and grateful for what one has rather than striving to attain and acquire moremoremore
    • Tapas: heat (passion/enthusiasm)
    • Svadhyaya: introspection, self-study through readings and teachers
    • Isvara pranidhana: humility, recognition of others’ influence in one’s accomplishments, devotion to something greater than the self
  3. Asanas: physical postures that keep the body strong and the mind focused so we are ready for meditation. This is synonymous with “yoga” for many people, yet is just one part of the bigger picture — “doing yoga” involves not just doing poses but also living a life that is in keeping with this philosophy.

    “Practice of asanas without the backing of yama and niyama is mere acrobatics.” -B.K.S. Iyengar

  4. Pranayama: breath control (prana = breath, life force). Regulating the breath, such as by breathing more slowly, gives us control over our overall physiological arousal (increases parasympathetic activation, which relaxes us). This also impacts our emotional and mental states.
  5. Pratyahara: withdrawing or detaching from external stimuli and our senses; being aware of the world, yet directing attention within. Gives us an opportunity to observe the self with a sense of detachment, which can giver greater clarity — for example, about what habits do and do not serve us.
  6. Dharana: concentration and focused attention — for example, focusing on a single sound (like “om”), a point of light, or a mental image.
  7. Dhyana: meditation: mental stillness and awareness without focus; the mind is quiet and produces few to no thoughts.
  8. Samadhi: merging of awareness between self and the object of focus; feeling of unity or oneness with the world; realization of the interconnectedness between all things.Two ideas seem important to me about samadhi. First, this final stage is a state, a temporary experience, not a permanent way of being (i.e., you don’t achieve it and then just stay there forever). Second, this final stage should not be thought of as a “goal,” at least insofaras we tend to strive for goals. Reaching a state of samadhi is like trying to be happy in that the harder we try to attain it, the more it slips from our grasp. Instead we must just try our best to live well, train the body, and train the mind, and see what follows from there.

-T

Second

Our second day* of yoga training began and ended with an asana practice.

Asana means posture and is the physical practice of yoga.

Our morning asana practice focused on warming up our feet and legs and practicing three postures we would explore during the standing poses class. We discussed six standing poses across the first two days of training. I’ll provide illustrations and names below; all illustrations are from Pocketyoga.

Poses discussed on day one:

Yoga Pose: Mountain with Arms Up (Tāḍāsana)

Tadasana: mountain

Yoga Pose: Triangle (Trikoṇāsana)

Trikonasana: triangle

Yoga Pose: Half Moon (Ardha Chandrāsana)

Ardha Chandrāsana: half moon

Poses discussed on day two:

Yoga Pose: Warrior I (Vīrabhadrāsana I)

Vīrabhadrāsana I: warrior 1

Yoga Pose: Warrior II (Vīrabhadrāsana II)

Vīrabhadrāsana II: warrior 2

Yoga Pose: Warrior II Forward Bend (Pārśvakoṇāsana)

Pārśvakoṇāsana: side angle

When I say we “discussed” each pose I mean that we spent about 45 minutes to an hour per pose having different students model it while the teacher made minor adjustments and talked about various aspects of each pose (where do the hips point, how are the ribs rotated, what variations can you expect in the pose depending on people’s body types vs. what aspects of the pose should you correct). I took copious notes. It was fun diving more deeply into exploring these poses which I’ve always done (probably incorrectly) in big classes. And it has been so great to explore and learn in an environment with others who are just as intensely interested as I am. I’m enjoying getting to know my classmates.

In the afternoon, we had a class on anatomy & physiology (our second of the training). I’ve never taken college-level anatomy and have found myself curious and interested in learning. There is so much information to take in and apply to understand our physical bodies. It’s really amazing. Now I can look at my foot or leg and think about the muscles and tendons and ligaments and bones and how they are related to each other or how they can become injured, and why it’s important to warm them up dynamically before doing static holds. The teacher was also great at taking what could be a dry, boring lecture (e.g., bones and arches in the foot) and having us apply the material immediately (e.g., three classmates stood next to each other with heels together/toes out, and we decided who had the highest and lowest medial arches). We also talked a lot about different kinds of students one could expect in a yoga class and the kinds of complaints they would probably have (e.g., office workers often come to a 5:45pm class with super-stretched glutes and hamstrings from sitting in chairs all day). Our closing asana practice focused on applying some of the things we had just learned in anatomy & physiology. (Our teacher would say, for example, “dorsiflex your foot, and laterally rotate your femur.”)

Randomly: I also remembered that I’m hyperflexible in my knees because I can do virasana like a champ. (I used to “w-sit” all the time when I was younger and I somehow kept that mobility as an adult, which I’m grateful for.) Based on what I’ve learned about hyperflexibility, it sounds like I just need to make sure I don’t push myself too far, or I could overstretch my medial collateral ligament. So no more feet-sideways for me in this pose.

Yoga Pose: Hero (Vīrāsana)

Vīrāsana: hero

I ended the day yesterday feeling grateful for a full day spent thinking about, talking about, and doing yoga. And feeling more than ever like a yogi.

 

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* Day one was technically Wednesday, June 28, but it was just a 1.5 hour introductory meeting so I’m thinking of it as day zero. I’m calling day one the first full day of training: Thursday, June 29.

Beginning

be·gin·ning

noun
  1. the point in time or space at which something starts.
    • the first part or earliest stage of something.
    • the background or origins of anything.
adjective
  1. new or inexperienced.
    • introductory or elementary.

Today was the first day of a new adventure. A beginning, in so many respects. Today I began a summer training program to learn how to teach yoga. For the next five weeks, I will spend eight hours per day at a local studio with 13 other students learning everything about yoga from pranayama and ayurveda to anatomy and physiology.

I feel a lot of things about this beginning of my immersion in this program. Two feelings I’d like to acknowledge are nervousness/apprehension and gratitude, and I’ll acknowledge them in that order.

First, nervousness. Although I have attempted yoga on and off for years, I don’t think the casual way I have approached and forgotten it over time can really be considered a practice (in the sense of repetition/regularity). So, I am nervous. I am committing and throwing myself completely into an intense experience, and I’m scared that (1) it might be overwhelming/I might get burned out, (2) everyone else might be “better” than me (impostor syndrome, my old friend). Better as in: stronger, more flexible, more committed to a lifelong interest related to the physical body (dance, kinesiology, physical therapy, etc.). For many years I’ve been much more cerebral than physical. I’m working to change that but I feel like I’m starting off from 100 meters behind the line. I’m also nervous because I know myself, and sometimes I have difficulty finishing things I start. I’ll often start off on some new interest strong and with the best of intentions, then lose interest or focus after a short time. (I think many of us might recognize this as New Years Resolution syndrome.) I hope this doesn’t happen. Yet, one of the things our teachers told us today is that we will get to know ourselves even better through our experience in this program. I’m looking forward to that. So on to the second emotion: gratitude.

Gratitude. I’m grateful to have the time and resources to immerse myself in this experience full-time for the next month. I’m grateful for the emotional support of my family. I’m grateful to have a body that can support me, however imperfectly, in this journey. I’m grateful to have a curious and inquisitive mind. I’m excited to take on this new challenge and to be a student again. I’m grateful to the other students who are studying with me — I hope to learn from them, and to listen more than I talk.

Our teachers asked us our intentions for this experience, and mine were: immersion, openness, and connection. One way for me to fulfill these intentions is by writing about this journey and sharing with the multiverse. I hope to write more about each of these intentions in the weeks to come. I also plan to document daily gratitude practices, interesting things I learn, changes I notice, and thoughts on how these teachings might impact my personal and professional lives.

I’d like to offer my tentative promise that these blogs will be more interesting or funny in the days to come. I am looking forward to sharing this journey with you! For now, though, I’m exhausted and sleep beckons.

-T