The Vital Energies

Leading on from my last blog post, I wanted to give you a bit more detail about the pranamaya kosha and the vital energies within that sheath. 

The information is adapted from the book 'Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha' by Swami Satyananda Saraswati (pages 371-372). 

The pranamaya kosha is the energy sheath. It consists of five vital energies; prana, apana, samana, udana and vyana. These five vital energies help the body function as each looks after a certain area of the body and its organs.

Prana 

In this context it refers to energy within the body rather than the overarching cosmic prana of the universe (the vital life force). It is concentrating on the flow of energy in the thoracic area between the larynx and the top of the diaphragm. It governs the heart and respiratory organs along with the muscles and nerves that activate them. It can be thought of as the force in which the breath is drawn inside.

Apana

The apana energy flow looks after the abdomen, below the belly button. It provides energy for the large intestine, kidneys, anus and genitals. It controls the expulsion of waste from the body. It's the force that forces out the breath.

Samana

Samana focuses on the space between the heart and the navel, the main part of the torso. It looks after the digestive system and the function of the liver, intestines, pancreas and stomach. Samana controls the assimilation and distribution of nutrients throughout the body.

Udana

We moved to the top part of the body with the udana energy flow. Udana is in charge of the head and neck, leading it to control the sensory receptors like the eyes, nose and ears. Because the udana energy flow governs the sensory receptors it makes sense that it is responsible for the erect posture of the body and consequently our ability to respond to the outer world.

Vyana

Vyana is the concluding energy. It pervades the whole body, regulating all movement. Vyana coordinates the other pranas and is the reserve force for the other pranas.

You can remember these in a more logical order working from the bottom of the body, up; apana, samana, prana, udana and vyana. Or from the top to the bottom; udana, prana, samana, apana and vyana.

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The Yamas and Niyamas of Yoga

Our perception of yoga

Most of us come to yoga for physical reasons (feeling unfit, sore back, bad knees etc), we don't realise how broad a thing yoga is until we've been practising for a while.

My understanding of yoga before my first class was that it was people being bendy. I had the misconception that you had to be flexible to do yoga. I'd heard of 'Aum' and knew people sat crossed legged with their thumb and index finger touching (which I now know as Chin Mudra). I had no idea what the benefits were or that there was a level of philosophy to it. I literally stood on my mat, staring oddly at my teacher who was explaining various things I had never heard of.

Years down the line and I am still learning. One of the reasons I love yoga is because you can always learn something whether this be a new posture, a school of philosophy or something about your Self (with a capital S to signify our higher and divine nature).

Yoga is like an onion

Yoga has many different layers to it. There are four main forms of yoga: Raja Yoga (Royal Yoga - control of the mind); Karma Yoga (selfless service); Bhakti Yoga (yoga of love and devotion); Jnana Yoga (yoga of self study and knowledge). 

Raja Yoga is where the eight-limbs of yoga sit. These eight limbs are: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyhara, Dharana, Dyhana and Samadhi. These are the eight guidelines yogis follow. As you may know, asana is the physical practice you do on the mat and pranayama is the breathing you do. At an average yoga class, you will only be taught about two of the eight limbs. 

To the point of this blog...

This blog will focus on two more of those limbs; yamas and niyamas. These can be compared to the ten commandments (but please don't panic, we aren't talking about yoga being religious here - we're talking about the principles of being a good person).

Yamas are the abstinences we practices and niyamas are the observances. There are five of each.

The Yamas

The Yamas are: ahimsa, satya, asteya, bramacharya, aparigraha.

Ahimsa means non-violence. This means practising non-violence against others and ourselves. We are our worst critics. I believe it's easier to put this into practice when it comes to others. It's easy for us to show compassion to others, to not want to hurt anyone. However, we quite often don't apply this to ourselves. We are violent towards ourselves in the way we view ourselves, the way we think about our actions and how we treat our body. When we feel down, instead of excepting that's how we feel, we tell ourselves to 'get over it', 'you're useless', 'you can't do anything right'. We can learn to be more gentle with ourselves in order to practice ahimsa.

Satya means truthfulness. In order to encompass truthfulness into our yoga practice, we can learn to be honest with others and ourselves. Try not to tell lies and try to listen to your body and mind to stay true to what you need. No-one else's opinion matters. It's important to live with integrity.

Asteya means non-stealing. As a yogi we should never take what is not ours. It links with satya and the last yama, aparigraha.

Bramacharya means celibacy. At the time when these yogic texts and scriptures were written, life was very different. Yogis would go off and live in caves alone, leaving their family behind if they had one. In today's society, and especially in a Western society, this is not practical. Therefore, one of my teachers told us to think of bramacharya as being with one person whom you love. It's a practice of being faithful and loyal in a loving relationship.

Aparigraha means non-greed or non-covetousness. This yama tells us to ensure we don't want for other people's possessions. It teaches us to not hoard or have too many material possessions. It also teaches us to not be jealous of what others have and to practice gratitude. 

The Niyamas

The Niyamas are: sauca, santosha, tapas, svadhyaya and ishwara pranidhana.

Sauca means purity. This niyama helps us to ensure we are living purely. This can mean many things and can be practiced in many ways. We can practice sauca by making sure we remain clean and hygienic, that our practice area stays tidy and we eat good food. You can also expand this to mean living with purity in the world by being environmentally friendly whenever possible.

Santosha is contentment. This links with aparigraha for me as we learn to live without greed and at the same time, this teaches us to accept what we have and be grateful. The more contentment we can practice for the things we've been blessed with, the easier life feels. We aren't constantly chasing a desire so our mind can become more peaceful.

Tapas means austerity. Shiva is the God, in Hinduism and yogic philosophy, who likes austerities. These are purifying to the body and soul. We aren't talking about not eating for a week or living with one arm up in the air (like some extreme devotees of Shiva do!) We are talking about not having those biscuits at work, giving up caffeine for a week or fasting one evening. Your austerities never have to be huge - anything small and do-able (and that's the main thing) is perfect. 

Svadhyaya means self-study. We are able to practice self study while doing asana. This allows us to look deeper inside to find all our hidden depths. We can also practice svadhyaya by reading spiritually enlightening books or spending time with advanced yogis and teachers.

Ishwara pranidhana is related to surrender and worship. Some use this as a way to connect with the divinity inside and outside of us. If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of worship (I understand, it's usually understood in a religious context), you can always practice surrender in a personal manner. The next time you're feeling sad, surrender to that emotion, embody it totally without your harsh self critic. Learn to let go and lose that sense of control we often feel we need. 

I hope by having a deeper understanding of some of the eight limbs of yoga, your home practice can flourish. I know that it helped me to learn about the philosophy so I could better understand the aim of my yoga practice.

NB: I used The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali - translation by Swami Satchidananda to write this blog. I recommend it to learn more about Raja Yoga. 

"The paths are many but the peak is one"

According to the Advaita teachings of Hinduism, we all have one goal in life but there are many ways to achieve it. Everyone's goal in life is to be happy. It doesn't really matter how we came to be on Earth and living the life we do, the main aim is to be happy and find peace within ourselves.

Yoga helps to keep us grounded and strong so we can find that inner stillness which is where our true happiness resides. This is a happiness that is separate from desires and material things. It's a quiet place of confidence that we can always go back to.

Personal Practice

Over my years of personal practice and my few years of teaching, I've managed to find a particular style that works for me; this being Sivananda. It's the form of yoga I always come back to and get the same buzz from. I have tried many other styles which have benefited me but not the same way Sivananda has. I love the teachings of Sivananda and they resonate deep within me. 

However, over the last few months, life has got exceptionally busy and finding time to practice the Sivananda sequence has become next to non-existent. I've even had to miss my teacher's lessons which I've found really hard. I've had to adapt my practice to fit in around lots of other daily tasks. A huge part of me wants to escape and only do my practice in an Ashram or anywhere secluded. But I know that this is not the aim of yoga. It's not to shut yourself away and be separate from the world we live in. It's about unity. I have to stay where I am and adapt.

Using online videos

I've signed up for Ekhart Yoga so I can get a 20-30 minute practice in whenever I can. It's great because I don't have to intellectually think about what I want to do next in my sequence. I am being taught. I can let go and be in the moment. 

Now this isn't a Sivananda online yoga place. This is an online yoga community for many yogis. There are thousands of videos to choose from from so many teachers. I can literally try any style I want for such a small fee per month.

Try new things

Some teachings teach that the mind needs repetition to create new grooves and new habits, these are known as samskaras. We have both negative and positive samskaras that make up who we are - they are the reason why we react the same in certain situations, why we struggle to change our bad habits and why we hold certain opinions. They are based on our past experiences, in this life and before. These samskaras create grooves like on a vinyl record that we automatically slip into. Our needle (mind) follows the same pattern as before. Having one form of yoga that you practice emphasises a new, positive samskara. Your mind doesn't need choice as this is a distraction. I agree wholeheartedly with this idea. And if you asked me after my teacher training, I would have rejected anything that wasn't Sivananda.

 A few years later and my opinion has altered significantly. Creating that new samskara with only one form of yoga practice can create a whole other challenge. We can become complacent, bored or practice on auto-pilot. How are we then in the moment with our breath? I have found that, in the absence of not being able to connect with my teacher each week, Ekhart Yoga has been my rock. It offers me variety which keeps my practice fresh. It offers inspiration for my own teaching. It offers me the chance to explore my practice to another level. 

I would encourage anyone who has a yoga practice to always try and keep it fresh. Finding the motivation some days can be hard. You have to try different things to keep you on this path in life. There is no harm in experimenting with varying practices. You might find something that really works for you. And isn't that what yoga is about? Accepting and building connection. The more you shun other ways of achieving the same goal of happiness, the more you are not actually practising yoga.

Ultimately, whenever I haven't practiced Sivananda in a while, I crave it. I can practice lots of styles through Ekhart Yoga but eventually I miss Sivananda and know I must return. This diversity of styles highlights to me how much Sivananda has impacted my life and that bond will never be broken. 

My struggles with my ego

I've recently started going to another yoga class during the week. I attend my teacher's class every Tuesday in Bristol. It's an intermediate class so does challenge me (rather intensely some weeks) but I felt I wanted to try something new.

After the Christmas break, I felt like I'd lost a lot of strength. I'd set myself the challenge of being able to hold Pincha Mayurasana - forearm balance by the end of 2017 (without a wall may I add) so I knew I needed to get back into my practice, and stronger than before.

I started digging around to try and find some local classes to me. I came across yogapod and decided to try their class on a Wednesday night in Frome. These are Ashtanga based classes and I know Ashtanga is great for building strength and muscle. I thought the combination of stamina for holding poses that I get from a Sivananda class would complement the strength I could build doing Ashtanga.

I have to admit that I haven't been to another class in a long time. I tend to stick with my teacher as I haven't found a teacher like her anywhere else. Once you click with a teacher, you tend not to go elsewhere (or at least not very often). I have been taught by various other people on retreats and when my teacher has had cover but I haven't attended a regular class with anyone but her for the last two years or more. 

I thought 2017 would be the year to change that; to gain more experience of how different teachers teach to aid my own teaching, to gain a deeper understanding of where I am in my practice and to gain more strength than I have ever had before.

So off I went to my first Ashtanga class in Frome. The teacher greeted me with a smile and chatted to me for a bit about my previous experience and style that I teach. I felt quite nervous. It was new environment and I didn't know anyone. I had that same fear beginners get, "What if I'm not very good? What if everyone is better than me?" It was odd to be back in that position. I hadn't felt that for years.

The class started with Kriyas (cleansing practices). We were practising things I hadn't done since my yoga teacher training in 2014. I began to feel I'd already made the right decision. It felt good to experience these other aspects of yoga that I don't always have time to do.

The class then took a turn I didn't expect. We started with super gentle exercises but these lasted 45 minutes - this is not how I thought an Ashtanga class would go. I'd geared myself up for a difficult, maybe even impossible, 90 minutes. I was sat there thinking, "Oh no. This isn't going to help my practice or get me in to Pincha Mayurasana. I've made a mistake."

After the gentle stretches, we started doing the Ashtanga Sun Salutations and the pace picked up suddenly. At that point, it clicked in my head that my ego had been interrupting the first half of the class. I was so caught up with my expectations I had been taken away from the practice itself. 

I was so used to how a class should feel or how a teacher should teach based on my expectations from my own teacher that I had sat through most of the class with a stubborn attitude. I could feel myself wanting to show off and pick up my own pace but I fought this. I listened carefully to instructions. It was like there were two parts to me; the part that wanted to show off and push myself too hard and the part that wanted to just be. I listened to the latter one. 

At the end of the class, after the last 45 exhausting minutes, I rested in my relaxation. I completely zonked out. I felt a sense a relaxation I hadn't for a long time. As my teacher said on my yoga teacher training, "If you give a good relaxation, it doesn't matter how hard you push them during the class". It truly is the relaxation that will keep me coming back to a class. After all, isn't that what yoga is all about - finding that sense of peace and stillness that comes from a place deep within. When the body is rested, the mind will follow.