Category Archives: Pranayama

THE GIFT OF STILLNESS…

“In an age of speed, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.” Pico Iyer, (The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere)

Sometimes when I teach, I see students who crave to close their eyes while practicing postures and movements which require their eyes to be open and gently focused. They are trying hard to relax in what they are doing. Then when I ask them to pause, close their eyes and bring their attention within, those same people crave to open their eyes, as they feel overwhelmed by the tumultuous train of their thoughts. Other times, when I teach long held restorative poses, I see people who really struggle to become still. Sometimes, they don’t even realise that parts of their body are still fidgeting. Their nervous system is trying to recalibrate. Often, these are the students who lead a very busy lifestyle, multi-tasking in the office and at home, glancing at their smart phone every two minutes to see if something new has come up, if they have missed out on something…. At night, they often find it difficult to go to sleep or they wake up in the middle of the night with a head full of thoughts and anxiety. And I remember that a while back, I too was experiencing this, and I could easily fall back into the old pattern if I don’t pay attention…

In this day and age when we are constantly asked to perform and achieve as fast as we can, this can be incredibly depleting on all levels. In addition to have less and less time to do things, marketers and advertisers are always finding more ways to bombard us with unwanted information and images to sell their products. We are constantly encouraged to turn our focus outwardly and to increasingly rely on the use of ‘’time-saving’’ digital devices to manage our lives (online banking, online shopping, online dating, social medias etc.). And in the process, we may lose contact with ourselves…

Have you ever wondered how many hours in a day do you spend looking at your digital devices? And how did you spend your time on before all that smart technology existed ? I am not complaining about the speed of IT progress here, but rather that it is taking far too much space and time from us all… And some of us don’t even realise it, notably the younger generations who grew up immersed in that technology.

A few weeks ago, I attended a training with my teacher Rod Stryker , when he pointed out how the increased time spent looking at our smart phones impacts on our ability to daydream (different to mind-wandering) [1] which is an important function of our brain, stimulating intellectual and creative ability. Professor Jerome L. Singer [2] has researched and produced evidence suggesting that daydreaming (theta brainwaves), imagination, and fantasy are essential elements of a healthy, satisfying mental life. Before the age of digital devices, we allowed ourselves to daydream more frequently and on regular basis. Now, whenever we have a rare moment with nothing to do, most of us tend to look at our phones… By being constantly stimulated in the wrong way, our brains become overactive and in a state of hyper vigilance (hi-beta brainwaves). In the long run, it becomes more difficult to think clearly, and our memory/retention power decreases. If the brain was compared to a hard disk, an IT consultant would say it is time for a good disc clean-up and defragmentation…

When we consider the above, it is not surprising it is so difficult to become still. For those of us who live fast, work and play hard, the key here is in the ‘’balancing act’’ : finding time and space to cultivate the art of pausing what we are doing to become still. In his ‘Art of Stillness’ Ted Talk, travel writer Pico Iyer(3) reflects on the incredible insight that comes from taking time for stillness, also leading to more emotional intelligence :  “In an age of speed, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.

So what can we do to become more at ease with stillness ?
It might not be easy at first, as it will take time to ‘’rewire the brain’’ to form new neural pathways and become more at ease with stillness. So here are a few ideas on how to create and explore stillness in our lives :

Where to start : Here and now. Slowly but surely, take small steps that fit into your life style, so you can make consistent progress which lasts, in your own time.

What next :
G.I.V.E  Y.O.U.R.S.E.L.F  A  B.R.E.A.K and do some ‘’internet detox’ on regular basis. Create time and space when you don’t look at your phone/TV/ computer, for an hour, a day, a weekend, a few days etc… In the evening, stay away from TV or electronic devices at least 2 hours before going to bed (as pixels stimulate your brain activity and might keep you awake). Instead, try and read a good book, listen/play some soothing music, or write in your diary..

Take a walk in nature : take the time to pause, notice and feel within and around you.

Practice mindful breathing : Several times during the day, take a moment to reconnect with your breath : Pause what you are doing and pay attention to your breathing. Hands resting onto your belly, take long, slow mindful breaths, feeling your abdomen expand as you inhale and relax as you exhale. Repeat to yourself, like a mantra, a positive affirmation such as: ‘’I inhale deep calm and peace, I exhale any stress and tension.‘

Go to a Yin or Restorative Yoga class : Long held supported postures with mindful breathing and body awareness, help release deep seated tension. Yoga practices such as Yin and Restorative Yoga activate the para-sympathetic nervous system, and literally help us ‘’re-boot’’ on a physiological, mental and energetic level, increasing our vagal tone(4) hence the ability to ‘’rest and digest’’. By aligning the physical and mental, the practitioner creates the optimum conditions to activate the natural healing process of the body, in harmony with nature.

Attend a Yoga and Meditation class : A fine sequence of asanas and Pranayama prepares the body to become still and sit in a comfortable position. Meditation gives the opportunity to observe the process of our thoughts and emotions and let them pass, without getting ‘’caught in the story’’, the ability to choose our thoughts more purposefully and find more lasting calm and peace within.

Try Yoga Nidra : Often underrated, the profound practice of Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep with a slight trace of awareness) is an ancient and life-changing approach to complete relaxation. It has been studied in clinical settings and has been found to treat various afflictions ranging from sleeping disorders to chronic pain, anxiety, and even low self-esteem. Neuro scientists say that Yoga Nidra helps access the brain rhythms (theta and delta brainwaves) that signals the deepest rest. By cultivating stillness and effortlessness, a more subtle awareness unfold, soothing the mind and body down to the cellular level. Yoga Nidra is also a way to build up Ojas, the ‘vital nectar’, the essential energy of the body, which will strengthen immunity and vitality.

What to expect : At first, it might be challenging to change any agitating, distracting habits which no longer serve you. So, please be patient with yourself : as you become more used to creating ‘’pockets’’ of stillness in your life, you will find it increasingly enjoyable. With consistent practice, it will soon become like having a shower in the morning and you will look forward to those moments of peace and quiet which allow you to check in with yourself. You might even surprise yourself feeling a new sense of joy and satisfaction for the most simplest things. And at best, it might even become contagious to those around you…


[1] There is a distinction between day-dreaming and mind-wandering, where you think of things other than the task you are doing, and daydreaming when, for example, you are on a train doing nothing and detach yourself from the world around you.

[2] Jerome L. Singer’s research produced evidence suggesting that daydreaming, imagination, and fantasy are essential elements of a healthy, satisfying mental life. He is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the Yale School of Medicine. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the New York Academy of Sciences. Singer is to be considered "the father of daydreaming" and he "has laid the foundations for virtually all current investigations of the costs and benefits of daydreaming and mind wandering" https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00626/full

[3] Pico Iyer has spent more than 30 years tracking movement and stillness — and the way criss-crossing cultures have changed the world, our imagination and all our relationships. In twelve books, covering everything from Revolutionary Cuba to the XIVth Dalai Lama, Islamic mysticism to our lives in airports, Pico Iyer has worked to chronicle the accelerating changes in our outer world, which sometimes make steadiness and rootedness in our inner world more urgent than ever. In his TED Book, The Art of Stillness, he draws upon travels from North Korea to Iran to remind us how to remain focused and sane in an age of frenzied distraction. As he writes in the book, "Almost everybody I know has this sense of overdosing on information and getting dizzy living at post-human speeds ... All of us instinctively feel that something inside us is crying out for more spaciousness and stillness to offset the exhilarations of this movement and the fun and diversion of the modern world." https://www.ted.com/talks/pico_iyer_the_art_of_stillness

[4] Vagal tone (Wikipedia definition) : Vagal tone refers to activity of the vagus nerve, an important component of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. This division of the nervous system is not under conscious control and is largely responsible for regulation of the body at rest. Vagal activity results in diverse pleiotropic effects, including: lowered heart rate, changes in vasodilation/constriction, and glandular activity in the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. Because the vagus nerve is importantly involved in heart rate regulation through its action on pacemakers in the heart, vagal tone is easily assessed by heart rate. In this context, tone specifically refers to the continual nature of baseline parasympathetic action that the vagus nerve exerts. While vagal input is continual, the degree of stimulation it exerts is regulated by a balance of inputs from both divisions of the autonomic nervous system and reflects the general level of parasympathetic activity. Vagal tone is typically considered in the context of heart function, but also has utility in assessing emotional regulation and other processes that alter, or are altered by parasympathetic activity.

KAPHA SEASON : Time to boost the inner-fire and refuel the energy

According to Ayurveda, at this time of the year when winter brings colder and wetter days, we move from the Vata to the Kapha season. Condensing the Earth and Water elements, the Kapha dosha* is a rather “sticky”, cold and muddy combination… so how does this affect us ?

In our northern hemisphere, from late winter till spring, the cold temperatures and humid weather influence our “inner-atmosphere”, creating more dampness in the body, disturbing our energy levels, our moods, our digestive and immune systems.
When Kapha soars up and gets out of balance, the body is likely to create more mucus, making the body more susceptible to colds and coughs, respiratory disorder, congestion, and sluggish digestion. On the mood level, it can also translate by stagnation, sluggishness, feeling less inspired, less spontaneous, a difficulty to “get going” and complete the tasks we set for ourselves.

When in balance, Kapha is the principle of stabilizing, grounding energy, it governs growth in the body and mind. It is concerned with structure, stability, lubrication, and fluid balance. So what can we do to make the most of the season and balance Kapha in our body ?

If you haven’t got a very active lifestyle already, it is a good idea to practice some kind of “yang” activities which stimulate the cardio-vascular system, increase the blood circulation and boost the metabolism. These can range from power walking, running, dancing, martial arts or some form of flowing Hatha / vinyasa yoga, encouraging dynamic asanas, including gentle warming Pranayama techniques such as the Ujjayi breath (also known as “ocean breath”), or kapalabhati (“skull shining breath”), stimulating the physical or digestive fire (Jathara Agni).

As we look after the body, it is just as important to soothe and balance the nervous system, so that we cultivate inner-calm, feel replenished and nourished inside. This can be achieved by practicing Yin activities such as Yin and  restorative yoga.

As we get our inner fire going, it is also crucial to create more “fuel”, also known in Ayurveda as “Ojas” (‘the sap of  life energy’’, one of the three vital essences which generates and maintains physical vitality, mental clarity, and overall health). In order to build Ojas, a very effective Abhyanga massage can easily be practiced from home. Amongst its numerous benefits, this self-pampering technique helps nourish the entire body, lubricate the joints, increase circulation, improve sleep and calm nerves. Another wonderful way to increase Ojas is to regularly practice Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation with a slight trace of awareness), deeply calming for the mind and the nervous system.

During the Kapha season, it is also a good idea to pay attention to what we eat, reducing sugar and eating warm, nourishing food. Depending on which dosha is prevailing in one’s body constitution, some of us can really benefit by adding warming spices to broths, soups and stews, such as ginger, turmeric, cayenne pepper. As a winter warmer and good alternative to coffee, you can also try a DELICIOUS TUMERIC LATTE which is a great alternative to coffee. So here are a few ideas to think about and see what works best for you during the Kapha season. Enjoy !

Dosha* : literally means ‘’that which tends to go out of balance’’. According to Ayurveda, the doshas are three bodily Bioelements that make up one’s constitution : Pitta, Vata and Kapha. They are highly unstable and always fluctuating in the body.

RELAXATION AS THE ANTIDOTE…

When the days become shorter and colder, our body tells us to slow down, go to bed earlier, make our lifestyle a bit more nurturing. However, as the holiday season approaches, I find that life often gets busier and more frantic…
According to Ayurveda, autumn is the Vata Dosha season. What does this mean?  Vata literally means “wind”-a mix of air and Ether/space; Dosha means that which tends to go out of balance. The signs of excess Vata are anxiety, fear, spaciness and exhaustion. There are a number of things we can do to reduce Vata, and feel more grounded and nurtured:
First of all, look after our diet and eat warm, grounding food with plenty of root vegetables (take a look at my Hearty beetroot and bramley apple soup recipe).
Second, look after your joints by massaging the body with warm organic, untoasted sesame oil, before having a shower or a bath.  It gives a warm nurturing feeling and instant wellbeing.
Finally, and most importantly, slow down your practice: even if you are keen on Yang types of activities or yoga which requires stamina and muscle power (power yoga, hot yoga, vinyasa yoga etc.), it is important to allow time for more Yin (gentle, calming) practices such as Restorative Yoga, Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation with a slight trace of awareness), Pranayama and Meditation.

Regardless of the time of the year, fast pace modern life, multi-tasking, too much time spent on electronic devices, often triggers stress, fatigue and anxiety, even more so in a busy capital city like London. Stress is a very natural and necessary process which in small doses, helps us to keep motivated, pro-active, and eager to achieve something. Stress can also be a life saver when we are presented with a life threatening /dangerous situation. The mind alerts the body that danger is present and as a result, the adrenal glands, located above the kidneys starts secreting “stress hormones”, which act upon the autonomic nervous system , and prepare the body for the “fight or flight response”. The heart beats faster, increasing the blood pressure, the mind becomes more alert. The muscle tension is increased, ready for “spring/ explosive action”.
However, when stress becomes too much and too often, the mind becomes confused and starts triggering the “fight or flight” physiological response, even though there is no dangerous situation as such. As a result, the adrenal glands become depleted, affecting notably the kidney chi (the pranic energy/ vital force in the kidneys). In Chinese medicine, the kidneys are considered amongst the most important organs as their health reflects on the smooth running of other vital organs, the cardio-vascular and digestive systems, and also the joints and the bones. “Bad stress” also affects the metabolism, and the ratio of good/bad cholesterol in the body. It creates physical and mental tension, often leading to poor posture and shallow breathing, and also affects the quality of sleep. In time, this can lead to a state of chronic fatigue, anxiety, and can act as an “activator” to all kinds of dormant medical conditions.

Relaxation is the antidote. A good way to start is by introducing “Relaxation snacks”, so that on a daily basis you get some kind of quality time for yourself, whether it means to spend time in silence to walk in a park, read a book, paint or play music. Something which fits into your lifestyle and that you will easily keep up with. The next step to reduce stress and build reservoirs of energy is to practice Yoga, especially Restorative and Yin Yoga, which both focuses on holding postures for a longer period of time, often using props (bolsters, blankets, bricks and blocks,etc.) . This allows the body to safely open and release stress and tension. It creates space in the body and the mind, so that our innate natural healing process can occur. As stated by Judith Hanson Lasater, renowned ‘Relax & Renew’ yoga teacher and therapist: “We work very hard in our lives, and while we may sleep, we rarely take time to rest. Restorative yoga poses help us learn to relax and rest deeply and completely. During deep relaxation, all the organ systems of the body are benefited, and a few of the measurable results of deep relaxation are the reduction of blood pressure, serum triglycerides and blood sugar levels in the blood, the increase of the “good cholesterol” levels, as well as improvement in digestion, fertility, elimination, the reduction of muscle tension, insomnia and generalized fatigue.”

So, see how you can start bringing more relaxation into your life and let it work its magic… In time and with consistency, notice how it makes you feel, how it impacts your life in general, and how you carry this into the world… how it reflects on your surroundings and your relationship with those around you.

THE BREATH : A GATEWAY TO A HEALTHIER AND HAPPIER LIFE…

We all breathe but how many of us actually do so correctly and with attention?
Fast paced modern life, bad posture, emotional disorders, smoking, etc. usually lead to uneven use of the respiratory muscles and often below our natural capacity. As breathing affects our heart rate and our central nervous system, the way we breathe impacts directly on the way we feel inside.

Before I discovered Yoga, I used to be a typical shallow breather… My chest and throat felt tight, I used to feel stressed and anxious all the time, and my immune system was also on the “not so good” side…. When I started to get panic attacks and insomnia, a friend recommended that I try Yoga. Within weeks of attending a weekly Yoga class at my local health club, I started to feel better on every level. I even started to do a short self-practice at home whenever I could. Most importantly, I soon started to feel inspired again and even found a new sense of direction in my life. It was the beginning of a life long journey, which eventually led me to become a teacher in order to share with others what I have learned from the beautiful tradition of Yoga.

Because we are born with the automatic gift of breath, most of us don’t think about it or may be assume that it is beyond our active control. Yet, as described by BKS Iyengar in Light on Pranayama, the respiratory system is a gateway to purify the body, the mind and the intellect. Breathing can be made more efficient by changing its rate, depth and quality. As a matter of fact, the lung capacity of athletes, mountain climbers and yogis is far greater than the ordinary man, allowing them to perform better, beyond the usual limits. Better breathing means a better and healthier life.

From a more therapeutic point of view, learning to improve our breathing patterns can considerably help those suffering from insomnia, stress, anxiety, depression and also help manage heart disease. Once balanced breathing has been established, subtle changes can take place in the body such as improved posture, digestion, sleep and an overall growing sense of wellbeing. By slowing down our breath, we learn to become more at ease with ourselves and feel more relaxed. With regular and consistent practice, we become more mindful and more aware of our “vasana” (behavioural tendencies) . In the context of a Yoga class, the key to this is the right combination of Asana (postures) and Pranayama.

“Prana” means life force and “Yama” means to enhance, to expand. Hence, Pranayama is the practice of breathing techniques that enhance our vitality and concentration skills. Pranayama helps us move energy in the body, clear blockage in the nadis (subtle energy channels, also known as meridians in Chinese medicine), expels toxins from the blood and rids the lungs of stale air. In the yogic tradition, the breath is considered as the vehicle of Prana, a bridge between the body and the mind: as the practice of asana removes the obstructions which affect the flow of Prana, Pranayama regulates the flow of Prana through the body and the mind. The careful sequencing of Asana, Pranayama and Meditation have a calming effect on the physiological and nervous system. As a result of the right pranic balance, the mind quietens and the highest aspects of the mind (creativity, intuition, memory, compassion, forgiveness) are brought forward.

As we change the way energy flows within, the way we view the world starts to change and also impacts on the world around us (how we relate to others, and as a result the way others will relate to us and so on…). In Fire of Love: Teaching the Essence of Yoga, Aadil Palkhivala writes that “breath is our way to exchange atoms between us, that is why we are all connected with each other”. Using the breath to calm the “waves” of the mind is the ultimate goal of yoga (“Yoga Citta Vrtti Nirodhah” – Yoga Sutra 2 – Book one / Samadhi Pada). In the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, the world is considered as a reflection of the mind. Therefore, if we remove the filters from the mind, we understand ourselves and those around us better and see the world with more clarity and discernment.

So as you embark on your Yogic path, remember to let your practice be guided by your breath, enjoy every single bit of it ,let it inspire you and reveal the treasure within you. Most importantly, remain playful and enjoy the journey all along. Namaste !

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