Exploring Balance. Exploring the Sutras. As a guiding principle for teaching and practicing yoga, this topic of balance, of effort and ease, is one that repeats inside the studio and on the mat. I've been asked to unpack its meaning on and off the mat. Here's another excerpt as I'm attempting to flush out the ever elusive ...
2.46 Sthira sukham asanam: the posture is steady and comfortable." Staying grounded, energized and focused isn’t easy for any of us amid the challenges of modern life. With an understanding of the qualities of effort and ease, through yoga, you will find tools for staying present and guided from within.
Finding the balance between effort and ease is being able to weather, with grace and peace, all of the moments that make up your life. “Because Patanjali’s primary interest was in developing meditative absorption (samadhi), this sutra originally referred to the quality of a practitioner’s meditation pose, or seated posture. However, many modern yoga teachers now apply it to all the postures. While it is true that achieving steadiness and ease in a posture is the basis of a sound approach to asana practice, this sutra is also the source of valuable guidance for living in rhythm with our prana. Cultivating sthira and sukha as we move through the days and seasons of our lives establishes a foundation for fully realizing our spiritual aspirations, for accomplishing our worldly goals, and for weathering the inevitable changes and difficulties that come our way.” The key is rythym. It is essential to our vitality; it is at the core of life moment to moment. The prana(life force) is thread between mind, body and spirit. Tending to our yoga practice, creates in us, the sensitivity toward our prana, so that we begin to live more in the realm of balance toward effort and ease.
A wise man once said, "The breath is the greatest gift of all. It is the first gift we receive when we come into this world, and it is the final gift we give back when we leave." Lal Maharaj
Fortunately, breathing isn't something we think much about. Pause for a moment, receive a breath in and let it go. There is the miracle of life, flowing in all on its own. The mind communicates to the body automatically, without us even being conscious of it, to breathe. In. Out. In. Out.
Breathing is a complex and fascinating bodily function in that we are able to control it, unlike our digestion or cardiovascular systems. It’s impacted by whatever activity we’re doing at a particular moment, or by our emotional states. It’s one thing we have the ability to harness, and the effects can be incredibly healing.
We often don't breathe deeply enough as most of us are in a sustained state of stress. We hold our breath out of fear. We take shallow sips of air because we're upset over a fight with our partner or a mistake we made at work. We deprive our body of the nourishing, cleansing benefits of a full, deep breath. But if we are able to slow down and fully utilize our entire respiratory system--from diaphragm to lungs--we can allow our nervous systems a much needed break.
This ultimately guides our bodies and minds to a naturally more relaxed state, enabling us to face the daily challenges of life with ease. To breathe through the discomfort so we are able to revel in the joy. At a fundamental level, the state of our breath reflects the state of our mind. As we cultivate awareness of the breath, we begin to experience a state shift through conscious and deliberate breathing.
The human body is made from cells. Cells form organs, organs form systems. At the cellular level, we take in oxygen as we take in air, and this oxygen nourishes our cells. This nourishment is digested and metabolized, keeping what is nourishing and eliminating what is unnecessary or toxic. Or perhaps not. In yoga, this process of inhalation and exhalation, giving and receiving, is essentially referred to as prana and apana.
This breath charges every cell in your body. With each movement you are literally breathing life force, or prana, throughout. Breath is life. Receive it. Allow the fullness to reach the darkest places, the ones that haven’t moved or are perceived immovable. Be a yes for apana, the outward flow of energy. On the subtle level, apana eliminates not only physical wastes but anything undesirable or threatening to good health. It supports the immune system and helps keep the mind free of destructive forces. When apana is weak, the integrity of the mind-body complex is also weakened, and we become susceptible to illness, fear, doubt, confusion, insecurity, and loss of purpose; when it is strong and balanced, apana roots and grounds us, providing the foundation for a healthy body and a flexible positive outlook on life.
Yoga is centered around this very gift, the breath. The word “yoga” itself means to unite or integrate the body with the mind and breath. A vinyasa yoga practice, for example, synchronizes each posture, or movement, with every inhale and exhale. This awareness and attention on the breath creates steadiness and ease in the body and mind as it calms the nervous system and takes us into the flow state. Moving in the equanimous state of effortlessness makes even the most difficult poses manageable simply because you are focusing on the breath.
As we actively engage the process of breathing, expanding the abdomen and thoracic cavity, we are then able, not only to make space in our bodies and minds, but to unwind and unravel old patterns. To become undone. We actually are seeking out tension with the aim to soften, release and dissolve what is held, bound and limiting us, whether in the body or mind. Remember, the breath is a reflection of the mind, thus, where the mind goes, the body follows. This is a practice. It sounds simple, however, it is not easy. It’s why we go to the mat daily, it’s why we sit for meditation daily.
The research is very clear that breathing exercises like pranayama breathing can enhance parasympathetic tone, calm nerves, improve respiratory and cardiovascular function, decrease the effects of stress, and improve physical and mental health.
This is yoga. This is what we are doing at studios, gyms, and parks all over the world. We breathe to move, we move to sweat, we sweat our prayers, then we let it all go and trust that life giving breath and The One who breathed it into us to take care of it all. Jump into a class near you. Grab a teacher that can teach you to breathe. Give yourself permission to shift your state. Your power is in your presence. Get curious. Be all in. You were given that breath of life for a reason.
What are you going to do with it?
The Science of Breathing: https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/Breathing.html
Suggested Reading: Light on Pranayama by BKS Iyengar
Suggested Lectures: Leslie Kaminoff, founder of The Breathing Project
"Who made the world? Who made the swan, the black bear? Who made the grasshopper?
Alison Lewis | Traci Lee
What do LeBron James, the Seattle Seahawks, the US Women’s Soccer team and golf pro Annika Sorenstam all have in common? They’re all tremendous athletes, yes, but there’s something else. Give up yet? Yoga. They all practice yoga as part of their training regimens. The LA Clippers even have their very own yoga instructor on staff, the only one in the NBA. That’s how vital many top athletes and sports organizations are realizing yoga truly is to athletic performance and overall wellbeing. Whether you’re a weekend warrior, daily Crossfit devotee or like to lace up and hit the pavement to blow off steam after work every day, you too can improve your performance and longevity with a regular yoga routine.
On the mat, you are constantly working detailed alignment and functional movement. Through increased self-awareness you’re able to shift subtle stuck energy into fluid patterns, and continuously refine your body’s movement within each session. How could this not translate over to other types of body movement and physical activities? With a consistent yoga practice, you will discover increased strength, mobility, balance and focus, whether you’re an athlete or not. Below, we’ll take a closer look at the benefits you can reap from this ancient practice:
Strength: By practicing consistently, a steady series of varied yoga postures will improve muscle tone and strength. Many of the asanas (or postures) in yoga can awaken muscles that have been dormant for some time. It’s not uncommon to wake up the next day after a yoga class and feel muscle soreness. Activating these muscles on a regular basis will build lean and strong muscles as well as endurance. You are challenged to hold postures that involve supporting your own body weight, often for an extended period of time several times during a yoga routine. This has a similar muscle-building effect to lifting weights at the gym, but unlike weight lifting, yoga tones muscles all over your body in balance, whereas weight lifting involves isolating individual muscles.
Mobility: It almost goes without saying, but committing to growing and deepening your yoga practice will invariably increase your joint and muscle flexibility by leaps and bounds.This increased range of motion is desired for every endeavor, from something as simple as getting up from your chair to swinging a golf club. With yoga, you maintain fluidity of the spinal column. A strong and flexible spine allows you to enjoy the vitality of youthful upright posture and freedom of movement. It provides a perfect counterbalance and complement to many of the repetitive movements you experience in activities such as running, swimming and other sports. Put simple, fluid muscles and joints move more efficiently and recover more quickly.
Balance: How important is balance? Let’s just say you’d have a pretty tough time going about your day without it, let alone try to play a sport or compete. No matter how unsteady you think you may be, you can improve your balance with a variety of yoga postures that will transform how you carry yourself throughout your day, including challenging physical activities.
Mental focus: Yoga is a path toward stilling the mind, and while the physical benefits of yoga cannot be ignored, quite possibly the greatest benefit is the mind-body connection that it facilitates. Yoga is deceptively challenging and simultaneously rewarding. Whether you’re trying to clear your mind through meditation or hold a difficult pose, you’re challenged to bring stillness to the mind and to focus, to breathe through the discomfort. To do what you never dreamed you were capable of doing. It brings focus so you can crowd out the noise and look only at what’s right in front of you, much as a basketball player does when he’s standing at the line for a foul shot, hundreds of opponents’ fans screaming to throw him off.
As you can see, yoga is so much more than “stretching and breathing,” as is a common misconception. Beginning a yoga practice may seem daunting when you’re already dedicated to your existing workout routine. Our bodies are amazing and allow us to create the life we want, so it’s important to care for them with great intent. By learning proper alignment and mechanics through a committed yoga practice, you can carry these principles from the mat to the courts, the track, the gym and beyond. The key is a sustained and consistent practice.
1. Source: https://www.gaiam.com/blogs/discover/can-yoga-replace-strength-training/
2. Source: http://www.muscleandfitness.com/workouts/workout-tips/5-ways-yoga-can-boost-performance-athletes