• Posted on March 26th, 2014 Alice G. Walton No comments

    The Language of Yoga: Ujjayi
    Learning how to breathe isn’t just a neat little thing you can do when you do yoga – it’s a central, and, some would say, nonnegotiable part of the practice. Pranayama, the art and science of controlling the breath, is an integral part of the Eight Limbs: Getting your body into the right state through breathing is the threshold to the next goals – focusing attention and calming the mind. Regulating your breathing has a measurable effect on the nervous system, so whether you’re a yogi or not, learning how to breathe differently can be life-changing. And a specific kind of breathing, known as ujjayi breath, is a very effective way to home into that calming, regulating part of the nervous system.

    “Ujjayi is also called Ocean Sounding Breath,” says DevarshiSteven Hartman, Dean of the Pranotthan School of Yoga and the former head of Kripalu’s School of Yoga. “But the difficulty is with the simplicity. True enlightenment lies in the continual practice of this breath alone.”

    The key, he says, is to layer ujjayi on top of dirgha breath, which itself breaks down into three separate phases. “Dirgha breath is learning to articulate the full range of expression of your inhale and exhale with consciousness,” says Hartman. “With dirgha breath, one breathes first into the lower abdomen, belly, then fills the middle (the ribs), then up to the top (the chest and clavicles). When exhaling, one empties from the top down – chest, ribs, then belly. Inhale belly, ribs, and chest. Exhale chest, ribs, and belly. Learning how to fully articulate the lung’s capacity helps to break open habitual patterning in the breath, restoring consciousness to resisted emotion and experience.”

    Once you have dirgha breath down, you can bring in ujjayi. “By slightly constricting the glottis (the back of the throat) one creates a smaller passageway for the breath which results in a sound like the ocean, or the beginning of a snore. Some call this the Darth Vader Breath.” As Jason Crandell says, what you want to do in ujjayi breath is reduce the aperture of the throat to get slow, smooth, regulated breath. Imagine that you’re trying to fog an imaginary mirror in front of you – it will be audible and intentional, but not labored.

    Hartman says that part of the value in this type of breath is that it may stimulate the vagus nerve, which among many basic bodily functions, is also linked to mood. “Recent studies have been focusing on the importance of vagal tone and happiness. The parasympathetic nervous system is soothed, natural endorphins (antidepressants) are released, the fright/flight response reduces, mental activity calms, the heart rate slows, digestion is aided, and much more – all from dirgha-ujjayi breath.”

    Deliberate breathing not only calms the nervous system in a physical way, but since it gives us something to focus our attention on, it also calms the mind in another way.The “monkey mind” phenomenon that many of us experience every day happens when the mind is unfocused and allowed to spin in multiple directions. But focusing attention on the breath (or on anything, for that matter) can reign in the wandering mind. “Practicing dirgha ujjayi breath results in becoming more present in your life,” says Hartman. “It establishes the ability to be in charge of directing your attention on what you choose, deliberately calming the common chatter of the mind at will. This ability begins to break existing thought patterns that are indoctrinated, unhelpful and unconscious. Witness consciousness (Vijnana Maya Kosha) is re-established and you become free to choose where and what you wish to place your attention on… Clearly being able to deliberately direct your attention is a foundational skill for obtaining a sense of well-being, happiness and self-improvement.”

    Again, ujjayi breath can be integrated into your practice whether you’re doing asana or a stiller form of meditation. And the great thing about it is that you can take it with you outside the home, at work, sitting in the park, or even in a coffee shop. (If you’re self-conscious, you can do it a little more quietly, but for the most part, ujjayi is quieter than you think, and passersby aren’t likely to take notice.)

    “Throughout the scriptures,” says Hartman, “the authors explain clearly that yoga asana without deliberate breath is not yoga at all; merely gymnastics. Deliberate and conscious breath, dirgha ujjayi, ignites the whole being into presence, integration, and ultimately the true knowing of the experience of bliss…beyond words.”

    He says to try ujjayi breath wherever you are, and as often as you can. “Just begin,” he says. “That’s the assignment.” He suggests making it a key part of your practice now and in the future, whether you’re doing asana, a sitting meditation, or just taking in the view of your cityscape or landscape. “That’s yoga – union,” he says. “Yoga is not yoga without ujjayi breath. Begin.”

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.

  • Posted on March 11th, 2014 Alice G. Walton 1 comment

    The Language of Yoga: Jai Ma
    You may have heard the term “Jai Ma” at some point in your practice, either used in mantra, or perhaps just “jai” alone more casually. It’s a lovely and simple phrase that calls to mind the creative forces in the universe – and more specifically, our acknowledgement and gratitude to them. Even more interesting, it calls to mind the feminine forces, which not only give birth to new things, but can also effect change in the old ones.

    “’Jai’ is the modern north Indian pronunciation of the Sanskrit ‘jaya,’” says William Mahony, PhD, Charles A. Dana Professor of Religion and Chair of the Religion Department at Davidson College, “the latter meaning: victory to, hail, praise to, or admiration/adoration/respect for. ‘Ma’ is a word for ‘mother’ and in this context refers to the universal Goddess … powerful, protective, creative, effective. So, ‘jai ma’ could be translated as ‘great gratitude to the divine Mother. May her power be victorious over all obstacles.’”

    The maternal or female energy is one of the earliest objects of contemplation and worship. ‘Ma’ itself refers to the universal creative force that’s represented in the powerful feminine deity Shakti. Says Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, PT, “The Divine Mother represents Shakti, or cosmic energy. I would use this phrase to say, in effect: ‘May the Divine rule in the form of the energy and love of the Mother, and may that energy bring us all good things.’

    Shakti is the counterpart of Shiva, who represents the masculine, “destructive” force in the universe, and who ultimately makes room for the creation of new things. Shakti, on the other hand, is that creative (feminine) power that fills the void with new energy and matter, and is a key agent of change. So, says Lasater, the phrase “Jai ma is another way of saluting the Divine Feminine in our world. We need it!”

    “Jai ma” is often used in chanting or mantra, says Lasater, but “jai” by itself can also be used in everyday communication. For instance, Lasater herself often signs her Facebook posts with “Jai!” as a valediction. “Jai itself is an exclamation meaning ‘victory to the good’ or ‘victory to God.’” 

    So try including a “jai” in your communications (and see if people ask you what it means). Or if you’re searching for a simple mantra that holds a lot of significance, you might try “jai ma.” Repeating the phrase either aloud or silently, while holding its meaning in your mind, may be an effective way to reboot your brain and get re-centered. And this attention-shifting is important whether you’re having a rough day, or whether you just want to express your gratitude to the universe, and to the power and importance of change. 

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.

  • Posted on March 5th, 2014 Alice G. Walton 1 comment

    The Language of Yoga: Tantra

    One thing’s for sure about tantra: Its history is as complicated as its philosophy. Though there’s a lot of beauty to it, the tradition has picked up some not-so-positive connotations along the way. Many people equate “sex” or “weird sexual practice” with the word. But, says Coby Kozlowski, a teacher at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Life, but this isn’t totally accurate, as there are lots of different philosophies within the tradition. “The word itself has a vast history and can be thought of in many ways,” she says. “So often when we hear the word tantra, we think ‘sex.’ But tantra is a much more diverse and rich part of the evolution of yoga and is both a school of thought and body of practices. Within each school of thought there are diverse belief systems and today it stands as a path for many spiritual seekers.”

    The word tantra itself is translated as to weave, or loom, since the root “‘tan’ means to ‘stretch or expand,’” says Kozlowski. The suffix “tra” generally translates as tool or instrument, making tantra an instrument by which to weave. “We are given the gift of embodiment, and have the opportunity to dance with all that life has to offer and weave into the infinite tapestry—a constant and never ending loom, which is always expanding into more.”

    So why do we think of tantra as being so much about sex? Danny Arguetty, also a Kripalu teacher and student of Douglas Brooks, points out that tantra incorporates many different philosophies which diverged into three separate approaches over time. One of the arms became increasingly sexual in nature, but tantra as a whole got stuck with this connotation. “The Tantra involves a vast array of thoughts, philosophies, and schools which are often thought of as representing either a right handed, left handed, or centric approach,” says Arguetty. “The left handed practices used sexual practices of varying degrees – from benign to sadistic – and are the reason the Tantra still has negative associations in India.”

    But the associations just deepened as tantra moved to the U.S. “As yoga migrated to the West,” he says, “small groups of practitioners discovered the approach of left handed schools in turning sexual intercourse into a practice of raising energy, honoring pleasure by delaying and then having a more powerful orgasm, and feeling the dance of the feminine and masculine energies (Shiva and Shakti). With the help of these teachings and the Kama Sutras, neotantra (sometimes called California Tantra) was born, popularized, and created the association of Tantra as sexual practices. While many other Tantric schools do not deny physical intimacy as a conduit for rich exploration, they are also invested in infusing passion, increased energy, and pleasure into broader facets of life.”

    So that’s how it got its sexual and, in some circles, its negative connotations. But as both teachers point out, there’s a much richer way to think about tantra and incorporate the idea into our lives. Kozlowski says, “if you keep the more original definition in mind, tantra is about building upon and integrating past experience – good and bad – into the self. Tantra Yoga then becomes an opportunity to surf the different flavors of life such as grief, sadness, sorrow, passion, lightness, peace and recognize that tantra is not about escaping or disassociating from life but rather a rich relationship with all the different flavors that life has to offer.”

    How often have terrible situations in life – a job loss, a divorce, or some other form of rejection – later turned out to be turning points for something better? Keeping in mind the fact that the really painful things that happen to us are often, eventually, ways of inviting in better things is important. Of course, sometimes a bad situation is just a bad situation, and not always a door to something great. But even these times can be opportunities to learn to at least sit with the lousy stuff, and know that it too shall pass – and we’ll be the better for it. Oftentimes it seems like it’s the kindest, most soulful, and most giving people who have been through the most difficult situations in their lives. And that seems to be more than just coincidence.

    “Each moment becomes an opportunity to find a deeper and more intimate connection and an opportunity to delve into the intelligence and luminosity around us and in us,” says Kozlowski. “Rather than trying to reach a peak experience of enlightenment, we can both weave and bind to this moment and feel the evolutionary impulse of desire that expands us into the more.”

    What has been your experience with tantra, in any of its forms? Please comment below. 

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.

  • Posted on January 28th, 2014 Alice G. Walton No comments

    The Language of Yoga: Prana

    Most of us have heard the word “prana” somewhere along the road: Yoga teachers might mention it in reference to a person’s energy or their breath – or both. In fact, prana has elements of both energy and breath, as the two are intimately linked. Classically, it’s thought of as being the life-force that sustains us all, the energy that’s present in all forms of matter. Whether you think of prana as a physical entity within our bodies, or more generally as a metaphor to describe the underlying energy in everything – perhaps even in the universe itself – is up to you. Defining prana is difficult – feeling it is much simpler.

    Prana comes from the prefix “pra,” and the root word, “an,” which means to breathe. The word translates as “to breathe forth,” or often even more simply, “life.” Jillian Pransky, director of Restorative Therapeutic Yoga teacher training for YogaWorks, and a founding Director of Bright Spirit Yoga Trainings, says that the concept goes back thousands of years, to the ancient writings known as the Vedas. Pransky describes prana as being “the sum total of energy that is manifest in the universe; the ‘universal life force.’ In western science, the atom, of which matter and all life are comprised, is 99.999% empty space. From the yogic perspective, this space is not really empty but is filled with creative potential, the universal energy, Prana.”

    It can be hard for Westerners to wrap our minds around prana being a physical entity, as it’s understood in Eastern thought. Researching it will lead you to wildly disparate fields: from yogic philosophy to psychology to molecular biology to particle physics. Pransky points out that though it may not be quantifiable – now – this doesn’t mean it won’t one day be. “While not measurable by western scientific instruments,” she says, “yogis and most Eastern spiritual practices, agree that there is an energy, a life force, that, just like the breath – it is both within us, keeping us alive, and around us, pervading the environment and all of creation. Yogis believe that  ’energy’ – also known as prana – is the universal life force that makes all our bodies systems work, our mental and emotional systems produce activity, and fully sustains our actual ‘aliveness.’”

    Pransky says in her classes she sometimes has students do various exercises in which they rub their hands together very fast and then place them close together, but not touching. “They notice,” she says, “that when their eyes were closed they experience a sensation of heat, vibration, or energy. Some say it feels like they are pulling apart taffy; there is a magnetic force between their hands; a cushion between their hands; a heavy liquid barrier. Definitely something tangible is there. This is energy. Your prana. This is the part of you that walks in to a room before you do. This is the part of you that enters another persons space before your bodies touch.”

    Prana, as Pransky points out, is also intimately linked to the breath, which she says is “both a major source of prana and serves as a vehicle for regulating the flow of prana throughout the body. For this reason the science of the breath is called pranayama, or the channeling or harnessing of prana.” Pranayama is the fourth limb of yoga, and allows us, at least to some degree, to control the mind. As many people have pointed out, it’s a lot easier to control the gross form (the breath) than the subtle one (the mind) – hence the study of pranayama.

    Finally, there’s another, really fascinating way to look at prana: The ancient Yoga-Vāsishtha describes prana as the “vibratory power” that underlies everything, animate and inanimate alike. Sri Swami Satchidananda in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras also describes it as the “basic vibration which always exists whether it is manifesting or not. It is never-ending…. We say that animate objects move while inanimate ones do not, because it appears that way to our eyes. We can’t see any motion in a stone, but that does not mean it is motionless. We need not go to the scriptures; the scientists themselves have proven that.” Indeed physics tells us that matter is made up of tiny vibrating particles – and even what appears to be empty space isn’t really empty at all.

    Perhaps prana is simply another way of expressing the idea that there’s more to us than meets the eye – more to our bodies, minds, and even the “empty” space that makes up everything. In physics, it’s called string theory. In psychology, it’s known as gestalt, borne out by the phrase, “the whole is other than the sum of the parts.” What that other is and why it occurs is anybody’s guess. Though science can’t quite explain it all just yet, yogis were talking about the underlying vibration of things thousands of years ago and learning how to direct it. Most of us can feel that energy in ourselves if we look inward, and in the person sitting next to us if we look outward. And perhaps right now, that’s all we need to know.

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.

  • Posted on January 22nd, 2014 Alice G. Walton No comments

    The Language of Yoga: Mantra

    Mantra is a central part of yoga practice for a lot of people today, and it’s certainly one of the oldest. Like other forms of meditation, mantra serves as a way to focus the mind and to bring attention back to a particular point when it wanders off – in this case, to a repeated syllable or phrase. YogaGlo teacher Kia Miller, who devotes much of her practice and teachings to mantra, says that in millennia past, a guru would have given his student a mantra – it would never be spoken aloud and it would be with him for life. Now, of course, it’s a completely personal choice, and you can settle on whatever speaks to you most strongly. “Mantra is very personal,” she says. “When you find a mantra that resonates with you, enjoy it.”

    The word originally comes from the Sanskrit root “man,” which means “to think,” and “tra,” which indicates instrumentality. So Mantra means “an instrument for thought” or more specifically, “thought expressed by sound.” Miller points out that “Mantras in their truest forms were said to literally come from the mouths of those who have reached an enlightened state… They were spoken by people in deep states of awakened consciousness.” Some mantras were passed down, preserved over time, and are still used today. There are of course many contemporary ones as well – and you can always invent your own, depending on what you wish it to convey. “There are all different types,” says Miller. “Mantras that heal, protect, activate, or help us move through blocks.”

    So how does mantra actually work? There are several different levels at which repeated words can affect us. The first, says Miller, is the “pure level of the sound vibration. The ancient yogis understood that everything in the universe is vibrating; mantra is our way to vibrate with the universe.” One of the simplest and most common mantras is “om.” It’s said to be the first or primordial sound of the universe, and repeating the syllable can help us feel connected to its infiniteness.

    Miller also stresses the psychological levels at which mantras may work: “There’s the level of intention,” she says, “since the words hold certain meaning… They express the truth of the intention.” In other words, just repeating an intention can help it take hold in your mind, and make it a reality in your life. Mantra may also work to “re-pattern” the brain, says Miller, as the repetition seems to affect certain aspects of brain function through the endocrine (hormone) system.

    Finally, mantra can be a powerful way to shift your attention. “People have always used mantra as a way to concentrate – mantras can be used externally (spoken aloud) or internally (silently).” The highest form, she says, is ajapa japa, in which mantra has been practiced enough that it becomes a constant state. Over time, the mantra becomes completely effortless and reflexive. “It’s as if the inner ‘radio station’ in your head is now the mantra,” says Miller, “instead of the anxiety jargon that’s so often going around in our heads. Mantra can become so ingrained that it’s just what’s playing.”

    Miller hits on the important point that all of our thoughts and ruminations – all those things we repeat in our heads all day long – have the exact same power over us that mantra does. Except that most of our go-to thought patterns are incredibly negative, and often fear-based, rather than affirming. “In a sense,” says Miller, “we’re always playing mantras in our heads. ‘Oh, I’m too fat.’ That’s a classic one. What are the mantras that you’re repeating?” Letting go of the refrains in your head that are not serving you well, and are in fact just leading to more anxiety and worry, is a pretty good reason to experiment with mantras. If you’re going to have something playing in your head, it may as well be something positive. And the ultimate goal might also be for those words to arise without you even asking them to, and before those negative thought cycles even have a chance to surface.

    “I think when we start to get conscious of it, and work with and rewrite our inner language, then we can reverse that inner loop of thinking,” says Miller. “Then it gets very personal, and very powerful.”

    As far as how to integrate it into your practice/s, that’s totally up to you. Some people might start the day with mantra, and then move into asana, or vice versa. Or you might practice mindfulness meditation in the morning and mantra at night. Miller says she often starts with a mantra first thing in the morning, since it’s a perfect way for her to jump into the day. “Like today,” she tells me, “I woke up even earlier than usual, and found that one particular mantra was just calling me out of bed. And it worked – I got out of my nice warm bed – that’s how powerful it was!”

    Have you tried mantra meditation? What has your experience been like? 

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.

  • Posted on December 3rd, 2013 Alice G. Walton 2 comments

    The Language of Yoga: Drishti

    Drishti comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “gaze” or “view.” Many think of it as describing the position and placement of your eyes during an asana practice. This is certainly part of it: Focusing your gaze can help focus attention, since your mind tends to follow your eyes (e.g., if your eyes wander over to the person on the mat in front of you, suddenly that’s what you’re concentrating on). But YogaGlo’s David Harshada Wagner, who teaches meditation, yoga, and “no bullshit spirituality,” points out that as with most yogic concepts, there’s volumes more to the meaning of drishti than just eye placement. Your gaze is also your vision in a larger sense: It pertains not just to what we see on the mat, but also what we see in the world as we move through it.

    “Drishti is one of my favorite Sanskrit words,” he says, “and one that is often misunderstood. Or, at the least, I find us is often under-understood. With the prevalence of asana practice in the last 20-30 years, a yoga student often only hears the term drishti in the context of the placement of ones vision during the performance of a physical yoga practice. Along with awareness of breath and the gross placement of limbs and spine, the yogi can also refine practice by paying attention to where he or she looks.”

    So that’s the classic definition. But Wagner points out that how and where we look guides us through life in a much larger sense, because our minds follow what our eyes do. “One of my hobbies is precision police-style motorcycle riding,” he says. “We learn to maneuver giant 750 pound police Harleys through seemingly impossible obstacle courses and avoid accidents in part by having control over our drishti. The huge bike follows wherever you put your eyes. This is true for life too, and the ancient yogis knew this.”

    Going even a step further, drishti is about how we see the world as we navigate it. Our vision – both of ourselves and what we choose to set our sights on in the grander scheme – is all drishti. “In the Sanskrit texts, drishti refers not just to our gross vision, but to our overall vision of the universe,” says Wagner. “Drishti, in this sense, means our understanding, our outlook, our way of seeing.” He says that long before drishti referred to the placement of the gaze in asana practice, the term, first mentioned in the Yoga Vasishta, described one’s relationship with the universe.

    “Here’s my favorite verse: ya drishti sa srishti,” says Wagner. “Here drishti is juxtaposed with the equally cool word srishti. Srishti means creation, or more literally, emission – that which flows forth. In this context it means the universe, our more specifically one’s universe.” So, he says, you could translate the term as meaning, “As your vision, so is your universe. Or: The world is as you see it. Or: As is your understanding, so is the world that you create.

    This is such a universal concept, one that’s been written about in some form by sages, scientists, poets, and philosophers. Just as our minds follow our eyes on the mat, our lives become very much how we view the world when we’re off it. If your gaze is focused mainly on problems, then that’s what your mind will also settle on. And this can actually be a disadvantage, because although it’s important to be honest about things that need fixing, focusing on them solely can make it hard to change them. For example, if you’re dealing with depression, focusing too much on the feelings of depression and the fact that you’re depressed will only amplify the feeling – discovering the right array of tools to treat or manage it, and spending your energies on those, is much more effective. And even if you don’t yet have the tools to fix the problems, just bringing to mind that they can be fixed is essential.

    “It’s an absolutely brilliant, life-affirming, life-changing, life-saving teaching,” says Wagner. “Anyone who walks sincerely on the path of yoga will tell you that one of the big transformations is our outlook and understanding. We get a new prescription for our life-glasses. So, whether we’re doing an arm-balance, or riding a motorcycle, or creating a life full of love and wisdom, a conscious drishti is an essential ingredient.”

    What are you focused on? If you’ve been spending too much time staring at the negative things, how can you refocus?

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.

  • Posted on November 18th, 2013 Alice G. Walton 1 comment


    The Language of Yoga: Shiva & Shakti

    On a lot of people’s minds these days is this thing called balance, which for many of us is not so easy to come by. Making changes to our lives and our selves takes a lot of work, time, practice, failed attempts, redirects, and, hopefully, eventual victories. And what draws a lot of people to yoga is that it helps us break down the old ways of thinking and doing that don’t serve us very well any more – and this is what helps pave the way for the more productive stuff. Funnily, this two-part process is beautifully represented in the ancient concepts of Shiva and Shakti. Even if learning about folklore and deities doesn’t normally strike your fancy, paying attention to these two is worth it, since they embody the ideas of psychological change and growth in an almost-scientific way.

    Jeff Migdow, MD, the former director of the Kripalu Yoga teacher training program, and current director of Prana Yoga teacher trainings in New York City, says that it’s almost impossible to think of Shiva and Shakti as separate entities, since they’re like two sides of a coin. “Shiva is the embodiment of the destructive/transformative aspect in the universe,” says Migdow. “He is a male energy or deity, one of the most revered in Hinduism due to his transformative nature. It is said the Void that exists before the physical universe is created is the essence of Shiva. He is said to be the father of yoga.”

    So Shiva is about destruction – but destruction in a good way, since he breaks down the old to create space for the new. The root of shiva or siva, is si, which can translate as auspicious, so Shiva is known as the “auspicious,” “good,” or “benevolent one.” Migdow adds that since Shiva is responsible for clearing out the old, “his name is a key word in Sanskrit chanting and prayers. One chants to Shiva to destroy the parts of our ego which lead to thoughts and actions which create pain and suffering in our lives, obstacles that keep us from true love and joy. Focusing on Shiva helps us experience our true selves in the present moment.”

    Shakti, the “wife” of Shiva, represents a feminine form of energy. The word comes from the root shak, which means “to be able.” Says Migdow, “Shakti is from a Sanskrit word which is the energy that fills the universe, specifically the active fiery feminine energy. On a more personal level, it is the name of the aspect of the divine mother, the feminine energy of the universe, who is Shiva’s consort, or female aspect.” If Shiva represents the void, he says, then out of this emptiness comes “the essence of all life, the feminine energy, or Shakti.”

    The two entities are bound together, both in the folklore and in practice – thinking about how they relate to one another can be helpful, as we try to “undo” old patterns of behavior and lay down new ones, literally forming new tracks of connections between brain cells. “In ancient times statues and drawings depicting Shakti always were with Shiva,” says Migdow. “Half of the statue was male Shiva, the other half female Shakti. They are said to dance together for eternity and their dance creates the physical universe and then destroys it. Focusing on the word or essence of Shakti helps purify these aspects of ourselves leading to healthier body, balanced emotions and mental clarity.”

    Bringing the concepts to mind every now and then – or regularly, in a daily practice – is important for those of us who are trying to break down old ways and bring in new ones. When it comes to choosing a practice, you can settle on whichever method you find works best for you. Some may chant the words Shiva or Shakti, depending on what energies you want to conjure up. Migdow says that if you want “to access both transformation of destructive patterns and replace them with heartfelt vitality and joy, you can chant them together as was done in ancient times…’shiva shakti, shiva shakti, shiva shakti…..’ The more you can feel this in your heart and emotions, the more it will occur.” Or you may choose to meditate on them silently, just bringing to mind the concepts of Shiva and Shakti, and the fact that transformation is something people have been trying to do – and doing successfully – for a long time. And the fact that yoga in all its forms – asana, meditation, mindfulness, mantras – can go a long way in helping us get there.

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.

  • Posted on November 12th, 2013 Alice G. Walton No comments

    The Language of Yoga: Mindfulness

    Of all the yoga terms making their ways into pop culture these days, mindfulness may be one of the most common. Some high-profile people have been vocal about integrating it into their daily routines, and big companies are offering mindfulness training to employees. There’s no doubt that all of this is a good thing, since our lives are becoming increasingly disjointed, and that constant frenzied feeling can make it hard to slow down enough to just sit with yourself. Practicing mindfulness can help us be more present in a huge number of ways, from actually tasting our food to being able to attend to our own internal processes to letting go of those “bad” thoughts when we can’t seem to get them out of our heads.

    Jon Kabat Zinn, who developed the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program at University of Massachusetts, has famously described mindfulness as paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, and in a nonjudgmental way. This sounds simple, but it’s actually quite difficult for many people. It’s so easy to be so “in your head” that you forget to pay attention to what you’re your doing. The classic example is sitting down for a hot cup of tea: Because your brain is going to a million different places, the next thing you know, the tea is gone and you can’t remember having drunk it. One thing that mindfulness does is teach us to purposefully pay attention to what we’re doing so that we actually experience life in the present.

    Traci Childress, who teaches at the Children’s Community School in Philadelphia, PA, describes mindfulness as helping us “train our minds to be more present – and more able to return to this moment. We are inundated with distractions and opportunities every day – it is so easy to multitask. Mindfulness practice helps us to return to the moment when we find ourselves spinning off.” And because we think of the constantly buzzing part of ourselves as a productive one (even though in many ways, it’s the opposite), the habit can be hard to break.

    The other important part of mindfulness is that it allows us to see thoughts as just thoughts, rather than as defining aspects of who we are. Sometimes we attach so much meaning to our thoughts that it’s difficult to see them as just random events in our heads – but the reality is that they can leave just as quickly, provided that we approach them with curiosity and non-judgment, and actually allow them to.

    And, of course, part of the beauty of mindfulness training is that it’s been shown in scientific research to quiet the stress areas of the brain, and to deactivate the brain networks responsible for mind-wandering. Therapeutically, it’s used in lots of areas. “Mindfulness is invaluable on all fronts,” says Childress, “as one sees in the research on the benefits of mindfulness to help children focus in school, to support veterans with PTSD, even to support trauma survivors. It is an accessible, portable practice that has real effects on the capacity of the brain to heal and the nervous system to calm down.”

    Mindfulness is also extremely helpful as a tool for people in therapy, and is often used alongside cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) in a combination called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). This is because mindfulness asks people to introspect into their own behavior and thought patterns with curiosity, rather than with anxiety or judgment. Many people are afraid to “go there” when it comes to looking into ourselves, since we’re often afraid of what we’ll find when we do. But mindfulness teaches us to evaluate and acknowledge these thought patterns – which are often laid down early in childhood – in a different, more “objective” way, which makes learning newer and more productive patterns (the goal of CBT) much easier and more effective.

    “In a culture that spends millions of dollars on drugs to do this,” adds Childress, “I think mindfulness has the real potential to transform our relationship to health, and healing and to empower us with tools that are readily accessible.”

    And there’s value not only in learning mindfulness for ourselves, but also teaching it to the next generation, so that our kids grow up with the tools to deal with the stresses of daily life, and be more patient with their peers. “The practices lay real groundwork for the development of empathy and compassion,” says Childress. “When children learn to notice their own reactions, responses, and to breathe through them, they are more able to notice the reactions of those around them, and to become engaged and compassionate citizens, who are less reactive and more thoughtful in response to each moment.”

    Childress teaches a meditation in which she encourages kids to imagine themselves as grounded rocks, around which water flows. “’The water is like your thoughts.’ I say, ‘They come, and they go, but you are still there, softly settled into the sand. Just be there. Feel the support of the ground, the motion of the water. Just breathe.’ This advice is a great way to start out, for children or adults. Another way is to view your thoughts as no more substantial than clouds passing by. You can observe them as they go by, acknowledge them, and let them go. Just think, “Hmm. That was interesting. A thought popped into my head there. It’s worth paying attention to and acknowledging – but it doesn’t define me.” You can inquisite into how it makes you feel, but know that it’s not who you are. And then, with some practice, you’ll see that it will just pass.

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.

  • Posted on November 5th, 2013 Alice G. Walton 1 comment

    The Language of Yoga: Chitta Vritti

    Chitta vritti is a term that practically everybody is familiar with – if not in theory, definitely in practice. Its more colloquial translation is usually “mind chatter,” or “monkey mind,” which as you might guess, refers to the tendency of our minds to flit about from one thought to the next. Usually, mind chatter involves a string of worry thoughts, often about the self, whether they’re warranted or not. The amazing thing is that chitta vritti is not at all new. We think of our lives as more complicated and distracting than ever before, and they may be, but people have had trouble reining in their minds for ages. And to combat the unpleasantness of mind chatter, one of the central aims of yoga is to “tame” the monkey mind, so we can get to what’s behind it – a quieter, calmer kind of consciousness.

    Chitta, or citta, comes from the root “cit,” to be conscious, and “vritti” generally translates “whirl” or “fluctuation” in any area. But when it comes to chitta vritti as a yogic term, the translation is usually something along the lines of “mind fluctuations,” “mind chatter,” or “monkey mind.” The big goal of yoga is to quiet these fluctuations, which can cause us so much stress and pain. In fact Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras, wrote that, “Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations in consciousness.” Training in yoga in the larger sense – namely, concentration, attention, and meditation – can help stop these fluctuations and quiet the chatter, so that you can get in touch with a truer sense of self, and a more peaceful, watchful sort of awareness.

    What’s also interesting is that meditation has been shown to work not only through the millennia that humans have been practicing it, but how it works has also been observed through brain imaging studies over just the last few years. Clara Moisello, PhD, a neuroscience researcher at the City College of New York, points out that “Studies on meditation and mindfulness have reported a number of positive effects in long term meditators, ranging from structural changes (increase in cortical thickness in frontal areas, increased gray matter density, etc.) to functional changes” – that is, changes in how the brain actually functions.

    For example, meditation has been shown to reduce activity in the areas of the brain that appear to be responsible for mind-wandering, which is closely related to mind chatter. The default mode network (DMN) is a brain network that’s active when we’re not thinking about anything in particular, but when our minds are just sort of drifting from thought to thought. As Moisello says, these regions are also responsible for “self-referential processing” – that is, all the “me” thoughts we have throughout the day, which don’t really get us anywhere, and which can feel incessant and intrusive. The fact that experienced meditators – and, amazingly, people just starting out with meditation training – can reduce activity in this network at will, and quiet their own brains on cue, is exactly the overarching goal of yoga.

    (Here’s a beautiful image showing the difference between mind-wandering and being focused on the present moment.)

    And as Sri Swami Satchidananda says in his translation of the Sutras, it’s not easy in the beginning – retraining your brain is a practice that takes a lot of repetition. So when you’re just starting out with meditation or mindfulness training, it’s important to remember that it’s not the act of sitting quietly that’s the practice – it’s the act of bringing your mind back to concentration – again and again and again. And just like a muscle, it’s a skill that will strengthen over time. “This very practice itself is called concentration,” he says. “[T]he mind running, your brining it back; its running, your brining it back. You are taming a monkey. Once it’s tamed, it will just listen to you. You will be able to say, ‘Okay, sit there quietly.’ And it will.”

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.

  • Posted on October 29th, 2013 Alice G. Walton 3 comments

    The Language of Yoga: Yoga Nidra

    Of the famous nappers throughout history, Albert Einstein was among the most brilliant and the most prolific. As the story goes, he’d come up with answers to major mathematical problems during his naps. Many people have probably experienced this Einstein phenomenon in some (perhaps smaller-scale) way: You wake up from a nap or from the night having solved some kind of puzzle, big or small, that’s been weighing on you in your life or work. It’s in that “in-between” state – in between sleep and wake – where the answers to problems can lie, or at least, where our brains have the space and the silence to address them.

    Glenn Black, who’s taught for over 30 years at Omega Institute and was featured in the much-discussed The New York Times article “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” is a big fan of the state of consciousness known as yoga nidra, which is often translated as “yogic sleep.” Though it does overlap with sleep in some ways, there’s a fundamental difference – in yoga nidra, consciousness is still there. So it might actually be more accurate to describe yoga nidra as a very deep meditation, during which most of “you” falls away, but your consciousness remains.

    “As a body worker, I know that, ages ago, we’d put our hands on where we were injured,” says Black. “It’s the practice of trying to recover from our lives. When our ancestors were doing fight-or-flight, we had a lot more time to recover. In this day and age, we have little or no time to recover. Yoga nidra helps people deal with stress. Without stress reduction to eliminate tension on a cellular level, we’re going to cause illness – physical and mental.”

    And it’s true: An hour of yoga nidra can make you feel as refreshed as if you’ve slept for hours. But there’s another purpose, says Black, and this one can be even more affective. Yoga nidra lets you get so deep into a meditative state, that your thinking mind – all the mind chatter, all your convictions, worries and self-criticisms – falls away, and what you’re left with is just pure consciousness.

    “After you’ve eliminated body and mind as obstacles from pure awareness,” says Black, “you just have consciousness – you can call it the observer or witness consciousness. You can get much clearer idea of what reality is; it’s not covered up by mind stuff, prejudice, etc.  You can be in condition where you can observe anything. You find this vast space or ocean. This is what the mind is – but we’re so cluttered. It’s kind of like a real ocean, where there are seas of plastic floating all around, accumulating.” Clear out all the man-made debris, he says, and you get back to the real thing.

    To experience yoga nidra, it can be helpful, at least at first, to take a class and have the teacher guide you through it. Or, you can find a guided recording online – Sri Swami Satyananda is perhaps best known for outlining all the phases of yoga nidra, and for making recordings to help guide people through them.

    The response Black hears from students in his yoga nidra classes is intense, and enticing. “The feedback I get from many of students is this: they say they heard the first two words of the class and then nothing until the end of the class, when I say ‘Get up.’” But in between, they’ve been in total conscious awareness, and experienced things it’s hard to imagine with regular awareness: “I will lead people to imagine being out in the space between galaxies,” says Black. “At same time, you can go the other way, to experience the space between photons. In our normal condition, the mind has certain boundaries… But in yoga nidra, the mind is capable of experiencing all of this.”

    Sri Dharma Mittra, who teaches yoga nidra classes at his New York City studio agrees that the practice can be an amazing way to “detox” from your stressful life. “Nowadays, especially in big cities,” he says, “teaming with activity and distractions and with everyone always pulled in so many directions with so many things to do, we end up expending great amounts of energy just to live. As a result, our bodies yearn for rest and rehabilitation. Also, due to this constant churning, we lose control over the mind and this causes us some additional discomfort. Yoga Nidra or Psychic Sleep is the perfect remedy for these conditions.”

    Mittra also talked about how interesting he thought it would be to start a separate studio for yoga nidra, where people could go to rejuvenate during their workday. And, if it took off, he could imagine little yoga nidra studios popping up all over cities. It’s a fascinating idea – that instead of going for an afternoon caffeine pick-me-up at the local coffee shop, we could go rejuvenate by doing the opposite – by powering down as a way to quickly regain energy.

    Black ends by pointing out again that part of the beauty of yoga nidra is that it lets us access that deep part of our minds that is beyond thoughts, memories, and beliefs about the self. He recommends everyone try it out, if you have the chance. “Thinking really gets in the way of meditation,” he says. “The mind is being observed through this witness; you’re not really thinking, you’re just aware. It’s not an easy state… But it’s totally essential to go there.”

    Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.