Thursday, April 6, 2017

5 Awesome Benefits of Meditation

By Vibhu Krishna, 200 hour yoga teacher training student

We all know that meditation is beneficial to us. But how exactly does it affect our everyday lives? Here are our five favorite benefits of meditation, although we suspect it touches us in more ways than science can currently prove.
1. Improve your relationships Meditation changes our brains and behavior in many ways that positively impacts our relationship skills. It can improve our ability to respond appropriately to difficult situations, such as during a disagreement with our partner. The practice also improves empathy - the ability to understand another person's state of mind, without getting lost in their "stuff" or losing awareness of our own emotions. It also makes us better communicators, able to see a situation clearly and not get lost in our own "stuff."

2. Boost your brain Scientists have known for some time that meditation increases the volume of grey matter in regions of the brain associated with memory and emotion, resulting in improved learning and empathy. Meditation has also been correlated with improved focus and attention. And now research indicates that long-term meditators appear to have even more gyrification, or folding, in the cerebral cortex, making your ability to process information even speedier—which effectively means you’ll be able to memorize and recall the Sanskrit name of one-legged pigeon pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana) with ease! 3. Jumpstart your mood Got the blues? Meditation may be useful for alleviating depressive symptoms according to research at Johns Hopkins University. The decrease of symptoms observed in meditators with mild depression matched improvements commonly associated with antidepressant medication. Meditation is also a proven stress-buster and can even induce positive thoughts. And you don’t have to meditate two hours a day for the rest of your life to reap these benefits. Research shows significant stress reduction with just 25 minutes of meditation a day over three days.
4. Fight Disease In a five-year study, Harvard psychiatrists found that meditation can switch on genes associated with improved immune function. It can also switch off pro-inflammatory genes which causes quicker recovery from the physical trauma of stress. Your heart also benefits from meditation via decreased blood pressure and the potential prevention of cardiac disease. Finally, meditation can bring relief from symptoms to those suffering from many illnesses, including fibromyalgia, HIV, asthma, arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease.
5. Live longer Each time your cells divide, the protective ends of their chromosomes—known as telomeres—shorten. The shortening of telomeres is a natural occurrence that accompanies aging. Over time, however, it eventually leads to an inability of the cell to divide, which has been associated with disease onset. Telomerase, sometimes referred to as the immortality enzyme, helps maintain the ends of chromosomes after cell division, thus keeping the cell alive longer. In a pilot study at the University of California at Los Angeles, meditation caused a 43% increase in telomerase activity, proving that a calm state of mind can counter the effects of cellular aging.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Why I Do Yoga

By Stephanie Given, Zuna Yoga 200 hour yoga teacher training graduate

My first hatha vinyasa yoga class, I was there merely for the physical benefits. I walked a few blocks from my apartment to a local yoga studio and entered a class that was scheduled to last an hour and fifteen minutes, not knowing that Mary, the instructor, always pushed the class past two hours—a fact that I would later respect and, eventually, miss horribly. That entire class, I remember thinking “When the heck is this going to end?!” and “How can there be more poses?!” and “Kapalbhati? Breath of fire? What is that?” Quite frankly, it wasn’t what I felt during that yoga class that made me want to come back for more. Rather, it was what I experienced after the class that had me hooked. I remember the serenity of my walk home and really feeling the brisk air, sleeping soundly throughout that entire night and feeling less anxious than usual the following day. I returned to class every Thursday until the studio shut down.

For a while after that, I jumped around to other yoga studios, attending mostly fast and hot “heated hour of power vinyasa” classes during which I barely had a minute to relax let alone breathe. I would leave having experienced a great workout, which I craved, but I missed the feeling of tranquility and presence that I gained from Mary’s class. It took some time before I found a studio with a practice that satisfied what my mind and body craved— a balance of breathwork, core strengthening postures, and a beautiful savasana.

The more yoga classes I attended, the more I naturally began to take yoga off the mat into my life, physically as well as emotionally. I could feel myself becoming calmer, smiling more, and being more present and mindful during everyday activities. As I tried to explain this to friends and family, they asked why, which made me want to know, too. I began to research and write papers about the effects that yoga had on all aspects of your life for my college courses.

The reason has everything to do with breath.

In yogic terms, pranayama, the fourth limb of Patanjali's Sutra, is defined as the practice of voluntary control of breath and refers to the inhalation, retention, and exhalation of breath. “Prana” translates to “vital force,” and “ayama” translates to “expansion.” Coming together, “pranayama”  means “expansion of vital force.” In other words, it's controlled breathing, simple and powerful. And it has the power to change and sculpt your life.

In western terms, controlled breathing directly affects your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Your body reacts to psychological stress—whether actual stress or perceived stress—in the same way it does life-threatening physical stress. This means that the daily hassles that we all encounter, like running late for yoga class, being behind at work, or finding that your children have drawn all over your walls at home, create tension and friction in your body in the same way as a grizzly bear running after you. In response to stress, the sympathetic nervous system increases your heart rate, elevates blood flow, and shuts off function to major organ systems, including your immune, endocrine, digestive, and reproductive organs. Imagine the impact that has on your entire body over time. No wonder most people in the western world are suffering from stress-related disease.

The opposing parasympathetic nervous system incites the rest and digest mechanisms of the body. It reduces blood pressure and slows down heart rate after stressful events. It redirects blood flow to the parts of the body that are not used for survival tools, like the digestive and reproductive organs and the endocrine and lymphatic systems. With this increased circulation, you are able to more efficiently extract nutrients from food and better eliminate toxins.

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems balance one another like a seesaw —when one goes up, the other goes down. A consistent yoga practice with controlled breathing and pranayama establishes and maintains parasympathetic dominance. That means you minimize the body’s tendency to activate the sympathetic nervous system and thereby avoid the resulting cascade of negative consequences. In particular, research has shown that 30 minutes of controlled and focused breathwork, three times a week, under the instruction of a yoga teacher followed by a 10-minute savasana, can have significant improvement on a person’s overall wellbeing by increasing the parasympathetic nervous system response, which lessens the stress response and increases peaceful alertness  (Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research, vol. 8, no. 5). Ample research shows how yoga alleviates unmanaged stress, a leading factor in anxiety, obesity, depression, and insomnia. All of these beautiful effects arise from attention to your breath!
Regular practice of controlled breathing strengthens the nervous system so that the mind becomes calm and capable of concentration and taking you one step closer to your true self. Focusing on your breath can literally and completely change your life. And you can practice this at any time. As you breathe in, feel and envision your breath flowing through your nostrils, down through your chest and to your pelvic floor for a count of five. Then slowly exhale your breath through your abdomen and chest and out through your nose for another count of five. Repeat this a few times and you’ll feel your entire body begin to relax. That’s the parasympathetic nervous system doing its thing. (When progressing beyond a beginner pranayama practice, it’s imperative that you work with a trained yoga or meditation instructor.)

When you learn to slow your breath and relax in difficult postures on the mat, you can train yourself to do the same in difficult situations off the mat. No magic. Just the science of the breath. It will make you healthier, calmer, and more present in your daily life—during rush hour, a stressful day at work, your child having a tantrum. You have the power to relax your entire body, not with a glass of wine but by becoming aware of the vital energy you already possess.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

How Yoga Helps You Change Your Habits

By Jenny Ní Ruiséil, 200 hour Bali yoga teacher training graduate

The relationship between our mind, our energy and our actions has always been an area of particular interest to me. It wasn’t until I read about the samskaras in T.K.V. Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga during my yoga teacher training that I found the explanation for something that for so long I’d failed to fully understand.

What Are Samskaras?

The Sanskrit term refers to the conditioning of the mind to act or direct itself in a certain way on a regular basis. It also refers to those paths or patterns along which these thoughts or behaviors travel. It’s similar in concept to the neuroscientific understanding model of how our thoughts and behaviors, whether positive or negative, become more deeply engrained in neural pathways in our brain with each repetition. The meaning of samskara is reflected in the very word itself, with “sam” meaning “well thought out” or “to accomplish” while “kara” means “the action undertaken.”

We must first practice awareness and understanding of self before we can change self. By understanding our individual habitual expenditure of energy, recognizing our tendencies and bringing awareness to behaviors that are not desired or that go against our greatest good, we can slowly and gradually learn to redirect our prana, or our life force, where it needs to go. This process is a lot easier said than done. Awareness is the first step toward achieving this balance.

Encouraging new behavioral patterns and discarding old ones enlists the use of purusha, the all-seeing force of energy within us; a higher consciousness which witnesses our actions from a distance and observes possibilities and potential directions without engaging. Purusha’s powers of observation are best when the mind is clear, and as such it’s vital that we obtain clarity before attempting to redirect or encourage samskaras along an alternate route.  

Why Yoga?

It’s through yoga that we cultivate the mental ability to become aware of and change our samskaras. Yoga and meditation aid with the reconditioning of the mind to repeatedly redirect itself away from the harmful patterns to which it’s accustomed. Yoga also helps encourage the positive flow of energy away from limiting or restrictive tendencies. This is why we find our practice of yoga to be so effective in dealing with mental or emotional struggles. Yoga literally helps create the space necessary to form pathways out of negative cycles.

We must remain attentive and aware as we determine which route we take. Where the mind goes, energy follows. The goal is to consciously redirect our prana towards positive and fulfilling actions until they become habitual. When this is done continually and with conviction, we call it a samskara.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Vayus And Your Yoga Practice

Image Copyright: Payless Images

By Stephanie Given, Zuna Yoga 200 hour yoga teacher training graduate

“To change something we must alter the energy which creates it.” —David Frawley, author of Yoga and Ayurveda: Self-Healing and Self-Realization

When I first began to practice yoga, what motivated me to come back for more was the happy-go-lucky, full-of-energy, floating-out-of-the-room feeling I experienced after each class. I would literally count down the hours until I could get my next yoga fix.

As my practice deepened, that same yogi stoned feeling was no longer present after every class and I couldn’t understand why. Sometimes it seemed like a switch was flicked partway through class and I would leave feeling angry, sad, or depleted. I struggled to comprehend how yoga could make me feel this way and I’d usually tell myself that it was because the pace was too fast or too slow, that I was off balance, that the music was wrong, or that the person next to me was too close or too smelly or breathing too loudly.

Of course it was none of these! I learned during yoga teacher training that how we feel at the end of class is largely a function of the sequencing of the class. The structure and focus of a class will elicit different emotions depending on which vayus are being activated. The word “vayu” translates to “wind,” commonly referred to as currents or functions, and in the yogic tradition there are five separate vayus which govern all activities, from the overt to the subtle, throughout the body. This includes everything from nerve impulses to physical and mental digestion.

Although the vayus work together as a whole, each vayu also administers to its own specific body parts and functions. During the physical practice of yoga, ideally you’re igniting all five vayus, or energy sources, including prana, apana, udana, samana and vyana.  When a class is heavily focused on a single type of pose that ignites a particular vayu, such as twists or forwards folds, or when certain vayu-stimulating postures are held for a lengthy amount of time, emotions or memories will begin to arise. When all vayus are balanced and working to their fullest potential, optimal health is created and we’re motivated to achieve our true and higher purpose in life.

Prana vayu is translated as “forward moving air” and is the vital energy that moves inwards towards the center of the body. Prana vayu governs everything that we take in from our environment, including food, water, air, and sensory stimuli, and it increases energy and motivation. Back bending postures create an explosion of prana energy. If you’re starting your day with a morning yoga practice, it’s not a bad idea to hold bow pose (dhanurasana) or bridge pose (setu bandha sarvangasana) for a few extra breaths.

Apana vayu translates to “air that moves away” and moves energy downwards and outwards. It helps eliminate anything that is no longer needed by the body, including mental and physical toxins. It also governs the reproductive organs. Poses that ignite apana vayu also support your immune system and keep you grounded. Forward folds, such as pyramid pose (parsvottanasana) and seated forward bend (paschimottanasana), stimulate apana vayu. It may be better to end your day rather than begin it with a forward folding practice as an overly grounding practice can make a person feel depleted of energy.
Udana vayu translates to “upward moving air” and opens energy channels in the throat and neck to allow self-expression and speech. It helps to provide positive mental energy, determination and strength. Have something on your mind that you want to express? Light up udana by welcoming more poses into your practice that direct energy to the head and throat, such as shoulder stand (sarvangasana), wheel (urdhva dhanurasna), or headstand (sirsasana).
Samana vayu translates to “balancing air” and moves in a turning motion from the navel to the heart. Samana vayu is ignited in twists such as revolved half-moon pose (parivrtta ardha chandrasana), revolved side angle pose (parivrtta parsvakonasana) or a seated twist (marichyasana III). It aids digestion, whether physical or emotional, and gives us balance, concentration and discrimination. A practice heavily focused on twists can lead to deep introspection. It can also be quite provocative and cleansing.
The final vayu is vyana vayu, which translates to “outward moving air” and moves from the center of the body out to the periphery. It governs the circulation of everything, from food in the body to thoughts in the mind. It gives us coordination, mental balance and concentration and provides us the energy to move forward into whatever we want to set as intentions for our hearts and minds. Standing and balance poses, such as mountain pose (tadasana), tree pose (vriksasana) and warrior two (virabhadrasana II), activate vyana.
Learning about each individual vayu helped me realize that I have far more control over my mental and physical state following yoga than I’d realized. There are many ways yoga opens and mends the many layers inside myself. Although I can’t control the sequencing in an instructed yoga class, I can create my own at-home practice to include what I feel I’m lacking or need on any particular day. Some days I need to ground myself. Some days I need to fly. I can now recognize that the beauty of yoga doesn't lie solely in that happy-go-lucky feeling.