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“The only journey is the journey within.” ~~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Those of you who have been to one of my classes know that I constantly remind you to pay attention to how your body and mind feel as you move through your poses on the mat. There’s a reason why I do this, and it’s not because I love to nag you.

When you are in a yoga class, you are all alone, even when there’s a room full of people around you. You’re all alone because the practice of yoga is meant to be for YOU only. It’s not about competition (I know I’ve mentioned this at least one or two times over the years J). It’s about figuring out who you are, both inside and out.

We’ve been talking about the niyamas these last few weeks, and this week, our focus is the fourth niyama. It’s Sanskrit name is Svadhyaya, which translates to “the study of one’s self.”

We usually start off by doing this self-study on our mats by noticing our breath, how our muscles feel in each pose, how calm our minds are. Paying attention to these things makes you aware of what you are doing, so that you’re able to stop before hurting yourself. But it also nurtures self-knowledge.

For those of you who have been practicing for some time, you’ve probably noticed the changes that yoga is making in your life off the mat. If you’re not quite to that point yet, don’t worry…it’ll come in time. Remember that yoga is a practice, a journey – not a destination.

For me, yoga has helped me to better understand the situations that cause me stress. I’ve learned to recognize the physical symptoms that tend to crop when I’m stressed, and I’ve learned a variety of ways to help myself de-stress when I notice those symptoms. For example, I tend to get very short of breath when I’m stressed. So when I notice myself doing that, I stop whatever it is I’m doing and take some deep breaths. I’ll also drop into Child’s Pose if I’m in a location where I can do that easily, or maybe I’ll move through a few restorative poses to calm myself down.

I’ve also learned what my physical limitations are, and as a result, I am much more kind to my body when I practice. For example, my body will never be able to do Lotus Pose due to a structural issue with my hips. For years, I tried and tried to achieve this pose, always walking away frustrated because I could not seem to progress at all. I ended up injuring myself during one practice, and it resulted in me having residual knee issues ever since. If I’d been listening to my body all along, I would have noticed that whenever I attempted this pose, I would hold my breath, scrunch up my face, and feel pain in my hips and knees. So why did I keep pushing it? Because I saw everyone else in the room able to do it. There goes that competition thing!

Stop and ask yourself, “Why am I here?” as you practice on your mat. You may be surprised at the answer if you truly look inside yourself for it. Once you get comfortable doing this in class, you may find yourself asking that same question in relation to your job, your personal relationships, etc. As the answers present themselves, you start to discover who you truly are. That is what self-study is all about.

Namaste,

Melanie

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By constant self-discipline and self-control you can develop greatness of character.” ~~ Grenville Kleiser

Last week, we learned about the second niyama, called samtosha (contentment). We learned the importance of accepting where we are in any given situation, so we can more easily focus on the present moment. Basically, we learned how to let go of expectations and be OK with where we are RIGHT NOW…both on and off the mat.

This week, we’ll explore the third niyama, called tapas. In Sanskrit, “tap” means “to burn”. Remember that the niyamas are the internal rules of conduct you should be following in order to live in the best way possible for you. So when you think about tapas and how to apply it to your life, it equates to self-discipline. It’s that burning desire to achieve a goal, and then to have the self-discipline to actually achieve that goal in a way that will bring out your true self, free from attachments.

Think about this in terms of your yoga practice on the mat. If you’re not working hard enough, that’s when it’s time to start practicing tapas. We need to be progressing toward our goals in our poses if we are to achieve a stronger and more flexible body and mind, and this requires effort. However, it is important to remember not to try to force things, as it could end up doing harm. It’s important to balance tapas with samtosha (effort with contentment). When you bring ego or pride into it, then it’s no longer tapas. B.K.S. Iyengar says that true tapas destroys all impurities, which balances the body, mind and senses so that consciousness can function freely.

From a physical standpoint, you can see tapas in action when you bring intensity to your yoga practice. Think about the heat you build on your mat when you practice your Sun Salutations, for example. I don’t know about you, but after two rounds of Sun Salutations, I am usually sweating and can feel the increase in my heart rate. Building this heat in the body and working up a sweat creates a purifying action. It helps cleanse the body, removing the toxins, so that we can experience improved health and wellness.

But self-discipline involves more than just what we do on our yoga mats. After all, what good is all that hard work on the mat if we keep up with the “dirty” habits (i.e., how we eat, how we breathe, how we hold our posture when sitting down) we’ve got? When we can take what we learn on the mat in terms of breathing, alignment and cleansing to start making better choices in our lives off the mat, that is the true practice of tapas.

This week, when you’re practicing on your mat (whether you’re with me in class, or doing your own practice), think about how to practice tapas. Can you increase the intensity of your practice on the mat without losing the big picture? Meaning, can you move to the next level in at least one pose in such a way that it’s purifying in not just a physical way, but in an enlightening way as well? You’ll know if you’ve gone too far if you pay attention. For example, if you’re forcing your breath or holding it, if your alignment is compromised, or your thoughts are all over the place, those are indications you need to back off.

Feel the intensity from the heat you build as it works its way through your body and mind. Don’t make it too easy…to practice tapas, you need to be challenging yourself, working hard to get to the next destination on your journey. That’s where the self-discipline comes in…can you keep up the practice when things start getting harder? I bet you can. In fact, I know it!

“There is no end of craving. Hence, contentment alone is the best way to happiness.” ~~ Swami Sivananda

contentment

Lately, I’ve been noticing that many of my yoga students are gearing up for some challenging tasks. Some of you are training for physical things like doing a triathlon for the first time, or preparing for the next big distance in your running events. Some of you are getting ready for some big life changes, like going back to school, getting married, having a baby. These are BIG things, and as such, we need to be ready for whatever may come up as we dive in.

This week, we’ll be focusing on the second of the niyamas, which is called Samtosha. Samtosha means contentment, and if we can be content with our lives just as they are in the present moment, happiness is attainable.

For those of you who are currently in the midst of something challenging, it can be stressful. Personally, I am just getting back into my running routine and am still on the fence about whether to register for my 5th half-marathon in October. When I trained for my 3rd half-marathon, it was SO stressful for me, and I don’t want to do that to myself again. If I do another, I want it to be fun. I don’t want to constantly be beating myself up because I’m not as fast as everyone else. My last half-marathon was great because though I started off my training with a particular time goal, I eventually just resigned myself to do the best I could. I ended up getting my worst time ever, but it was the best race ever for me. And I think it’s because I reached a point where I was just content with the fact that I was doing something good for me. Running makes me feel happy and has helped me with some health issues, and so that’s what I focused on as I completed the last half of my training. And so, as I ran the race, I stopped focusing on the clock. Instead, I focused on the sights around me and it was awesome.

And in my yoga practice, I am finally OK with the fact that my body will never be able to achieve Lotus pose. My hips just aren’t structurally made for that pose, and that’s cool. I used to get so frustrated that everyone else seemed to be able to get there and I couldn’t. But now, I know that as long as I can do things to open up my tight hips, I’m good. There are tons of hip openers to choose from, so there’s no need for me to hurt myself by choosing one that isn’t right for me.

As you practice your yoga this week, make sure you are not pushing yourself too hard. Remember that it’s OK if you can’t get into the deepest version of a pose…whatever variation you’re in is perfect, as long as you are relaxed and calm. Checking in with your breath, your body and your mind throughout class is a great way to ensure that you’re working in variations that are safe for you. For example, if your face is contorting, if your breath is choppy, or if your mind is all over the place, you’re most likely in a variation that just isn’t right for you at that moment. When you notice these types of things within, simply stop and find a variation that returns you to a calm breath and mind. That’s samtosha.

Then start to explore how you can apply this to the other things in your life where you may be overdoing it. No matter what it is, just take a moment to reset. Close your eyes, relax, and take a deep breath. Remind yourself that where you are right now is the perfect place. Don’t focus on what’s wrong…focus on what’s right. If you can do this, for even just a few of the things that may be causing you stress, you will be amazed at the difference. This is the path to happiness.

“When you express ‘purity’, which is the truth about yourself, you feel a love for yourself that is expressed by self-respect, self-esteem, and self-confidence!” ~~ Tae Yun Kim


(I got this pic from here)

Many of us here in the West come to yoga to practice the postures (asanas), using them to get our bodies into shape, both mentally and physically. While this is a wonderful thing, practicing the asanas is only one small part of the discipline of yoga.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, we learn that yoga is actually made up of eight limbs (called ashtanga). These limbs act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. Asana is actually the third limb on the eightfold path.

Over the coming months, I’d like to begin exploring all the limbs with you, so that you can begin to understand the more holistic effects yoga can have on your life. However, I won’t necessarily be covering everything “in order”. As I explore my own journey on the path of yoga, various aspects of the eight limbs resonate with me more strongly than others, depending on what I am dealing with in my life.

This week, I’d like to focus on the second limb, which is Niyama. This limb has to do with self-discipline and spiritual observances, and there are a total of five niyamas Patanjali says we need to develop. It is the first of the niyamas that I’d like to hone in on this week, which is called saucha. Saucha means “cleanliness” or “purity”.

This concept of cleanliness and purity has been resonating with me a lot lately, but especially in this past week. As many of you know, I’ve been dealing with some medical issues for quite some time. For almost two months now, I’ve been on a medically-supervised diet, where I’ve had to eliminate gluten/wheat, dairy, and sugar. It’s been much easier than I thought it would be, I have to say. However, with the holiday and summer festivities I attended this past week, it was very difficult for me to stay away from some of those things. I have to admit that I indulged in a couple of desserts and appetizers which contained all the things I am not supposed to be eating. They sure tasted good, but let me tell you…I felt HORRIBLE the next day. My stomach was a mess, I felt sluggish, my head hurt. Yuck! Basically, my body was responding to “dirty” food. Because I’ve been “clean” for so long, my body knows now what feeling good really feels like. So when I introduced processed junk back in, even for just a day, my body reacted and let me know that it was NOT pleased.

On a more spiritual level, I’ve really come into my own in many ways these past few months. Dealing with a variety of obstacles, both good and bad, has taught me a lot about myself. Some of these obstacles had to do with my health, some with my job, some with my family. At times, it felt like I was being bombarded, but God never gives you more than you can handle. And I learned that I can handle a lot, and I really had to dig down deep and make some hard decisions in a few areas. I’ve always been a rather wishy-washy person, especially if I feel I might hurt someone’s feelings by telling them what I REALLY think. I’m a total confrontation avoider. But not anymore. I really do feel like I know who I am now…at least 95%, anyway. 🙂 And this feeling of knowing who I am has really boosted my confidence, and I am starting to be a bit more aggressive in pursuing the things that matter most to me.

What about you? What areas in your life can you work on to improve the purity of your mind and body? In class this week, we’ll use the asana limb of yoga to help us improve our saucha…we’ll do this by exploring twisting poses and backbends. Twists are wonderful, as they are known to help rid the body of toxins. And backbends are known to be energizing and heart-opening, which I feel is very helpful at helping with improving our thoughts about ourselves. My hope is that you’ll walk away feeling a bit “cleaner” in both body and soul.

Namaste,

Melanie

“Yoga is invigoration in relaxation. Freedom in routine. Confidence through self control. Energy within and energy without.” ~~ Ymber Delecto


(I got this pic from here)

This is the week where we will celebrate independence and freedom here in the United States. Celebrating these things means so many things to so many people. For me, it’s always a reminder that I am so very fortunate in my life, especially when I think about the people around the world who don’t have the same privileges and opportunities that we have here in the United States.

When it comes to freedom, what does it mean to you? In what areas of your life do you feel truly free? And are there areas where you feel “stuck”? I know that personally, I feel stuck in quite a few areas. I feel that if I had taken more time in my younger years to really think about what I wanted to do with my life, my path would have taken a much different route. I have a strong tendency to make impulsive decisions…I wanted everything decided right away so I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. Sometimes, it ended up being a good decision, but I have to be honest…there are SO many decisions I’ve made that I ended up regretting, and many of them were decisions that could not be undone.

However, when I think about the bad decisions I’ve made, I don’t get upset about them anymore. I am who I am BECAUSE of the decisions I’ve made. And I actually like the person I’ve become. So right or wrong, my decisions are what they are. When I make a bad one, I have the freedom to do something about it. Sometimes, I can make a change. But sometimes, it’s a matter of accepting the decision as-is and dealing with the outcome, no matter what, and using it as a learning experience.

In yoga, sometimes we can get stuck as well. Many of us practice the same style of yoga over and over, developing a set routine that provides little variation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You have the freedom to make your yoga practice whatever you want it to be. For me, I frequently use my Sun Salutations as a way to switch things up. Sometimes I’ll practice with jump backs and jump ups, sometimes I’ll take those out and use lunges instead (especially if I feel like my hip flexors are needing a good stretch), and I’m always throwing various strength and balance postures in the middle.

You have that same freedom. Play with your practice a little bit…maybe even a lot. Try switching things up in some way. Maybe you try a new style of yoga, or try going to a class taught by a teacher you’ve never taken from before. If you have an established home practice, try practicing in a new location…this may be a good week for that, especially if you’re traveling for the holidays. I remember one vacation where I did a short yoga practice on the beach…wow! What an amazing experience!

Have fun this week playing around with yoga. Maybe you can even make up your own yoga pose…you have the freedom to do that…it’s YOUR practice.

Namaste,

Melanie

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