Getting in the Groove: Relaxation as a Portal to Healing
How many times in a day do you have that angst-ridden feeling that you aren’t doing enough? Your check list is long, you’re being tugged in multiple directions, and you feel ungrounded and inefficient, if not outright overwhelmed. You may feel exhausted, but even so, you aren’t sleeping well. You may feel guilty that you haven’t achieved what is expected of you - that you aren’t “enough.”
Experience as a yoga teacher tells me that a high percentage of our students are also in similar states. Our North American lifestyles ensure that we are exposed to chronic high-stress conditions that manifest both in the tissues and systems of our bodies, and, by extension, in our relationships at home and at work. The conditions we find ourselves in relate to our ongoing behavioural patterns. In yoga-speak we can look to the term samskaras to understand our inborn tendencies and habits and their effects; samskaras relate to impressions, or “grooves” formed by past, usually unconscious, events and resulting actions, and through years or decades of repetition the grooves can get very deep, indeed. In order to change we need to be able to see and know our samskaras though observation and reflection, which can then lead to transformation through action.
Observation: We can’t change something that we aren’t aware of. Through our practices we teach ourselves to notice physical feelings, such as where tension flares or accumulates in our bodies. When we pay attention we notice repetitious, self-destructive thoughts and how they can hold us in their grip. We learn that we can change our physical and mental patterns and evolve positively. Bit by bit we develop the capacity to engage deeply with our senses and emotions while also finding ways to feel safe.
Reflection: When we feel particularly fearful, depressed, or spent it helps to take a moment to review what led to those feelings — what the samskara looks like. It can help to write down what comes up through your self-inquiry. For me some of my most anxious and disruptive feelings arise when I am late or can’t find something I need, so I have learned to give myself lots and lots of time in these areas so the old patterns don’t resurface.
Action: When aware of unpleasant feelings and their triggers — and how we have developed samskaras and loop through them over and over — we can see the source of our suffering and be more caring and kind toward ourselves. We can gradually make the grooves shallower and easier to disengage from. Over time we develop new beneficial samskaras that enable us to respond consciously and positively to the unavoidable ups and downs of life.
The underlying principle to begin this process is relaxation. We learn techniques, experience their effects, and develop and sustain a practice to become adept at just chilling, which is not always easy at first. Fortunately, as yogis the value of practice is known to us. Through learning from experienced teachers, engaging in continuous practice, and partaking honest self-study we see little shifts and continue on to develop our abilities further. And further. We discover that there are no barriers to our learning. At over 90 years old master cellist Pablo Casals still practiced several hours each day. When asked why — after all he had achieved and maintained world fame for many decades by then — he replied, “Because I still see some improvement.” It is the same for anyone who practices regularly.
Restorative yoga, meditation, and simple pranayama practices provide an ideal wholistic training ground for down-regulating our stress responses. As we all know, being deeply relaxed and tension-free is very pleasant, and the bonus is that it is also where true healing takes place. Because of the profound results restorative yoga and yoga nidra (yogic “sleep”) bring, they are beautiful to practice and wonderfully rewarding to teach. We show ourselves through embodied practice that we can change our states and experiences. Through perseverance and patience we start to administer daily practices to relax ourselves, taking ownership of our health and wellbeing. This may be in a well-propped restorative pose with a guided yoga nidra download, sitting in silent meditation, or fifteen minutes of chanting while walking. If our work uncovers a samskara that points to feelings of self-worth being based on being busy and productive, we can — and do — change that.
Paradoxically, the way to get more done, to get closer to that place of santosha or contentment with our lives, is to do less. A lot less.
© Jools Andrés, 2019 Jools Andrés photo
Jools Andrés teaches 35-hour Restorative Yoga Foundations certificate programs, eligible for Yoga Alliance continuing education credits. Her next programs are October 25, 26, 27, November 8, 9, 10 2019 in Vancouver, BC, and April 17, 18, 19, May 1, 2, 3, 2020 at Breathe Yoga Studio in Sorrento, BC. Please see joolsandres.com to learn more.
Affirmations as a Tool for Success
Affirmations are powerful, but they are not magic. The Fairy Godmother doesn’t appear to transform our lives with a sparkly wand whenever things are tough, as most of us know. When we want to achieve something significant, for ourselves or for others, it’s pretty certain that we will have to work hard for it — and the effort required usually turns out to be far beyond what we anticipated. Affirmations keep us focused on the outcomes we want, even when we feel exhaustion, have doubts and fears from within, or experience discouragement or resistance from others.
How do you want to go forward on your yoga path? Do you want to deepen your studies and expand your practice? Do you feel drawn toward working with specialized groups or in non-studio class formats? Once you articulate what you aspire toward, ask yourself, “What do I want to affirm?” Answer the question with a positive, time-specific statement. For example, several years ago I wanted earn RYT 500 status. My affirmations was:
“I earn 500-hour yoga teacher certification in 2014.”
(A caution: be concrete, but realistic when you set timeframes, and be prepared to adjust if needed. Things don’t always go as expected.)
Maybe you want to have a stronger relationship with a family member. An affirmation could be something like: “I establish a schedule that includes regular visits with Grandma.”
There is nothing tricky about writing such affirmations for yourself. Take a few days to jot some priorities down, then spend dedicated time to form a few simple, positive statements. Write, paint, or print them out and put them somewhere you can see them often. Look at them and read them regularly. Don’t forget this important step — affirmations only work when you are involved with them. You can always tweak when it makes sense.
Another type of affirmation is not strictly goal-related, but can be instrumental in making positive internal shifts. You may try affirming something general, such as, “I trust my intuition,” or “My work is important.” Or you may want to change an attitude such as self-righteousness or judgemental feelings toward yourself or others. An affirmation that I have said almost daily for the last three years goes like this:
“I recognize that others meet me from where they are, and that I meet others from where I am. I have compassion for both.”
Repeating this changes how I respond to snarly traffic, a slow cashier, or a cranky friend. We can teach ourselves to consciously recognize and soften our responses to things that we see as problems others bring into our lives by considering the opposing backgrounds and desires of both parties simultaneously.
Getting back to the Fairy Godmother — wishing for a magical resolution or praying for personal rescue is not the same as creating and working with an affirmation. Such half-hearted attempts absolve us of self-responsibility by side-stepping the tapas and swadyaya needed to move forward. But more than that, Isvara Pranidhana, personal devotion to the divine – however that presents itself to you – is left out of the equation. Instead, the desired outcome is swept into the nebulous “universe” with no effort, self-reflection, or follow through. (Niyamas, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, 2.1.)
Use affirmations to create structure and support, then through daily reference and repetition, you will start crossing your goals off your list – maybe because you have achieved what you wanted to, or maybe because they didn’t belong on your list after all. Affirmations have a way of clarifying and resolving what is really important in the end.
Paramhansa Yogananda’s method of using an affirmation is to first say it out loud, then whisper it, then say it internally. This sequentially brings it deeper within, turning it into a kind of focus meditation, and really sets the affirmation squarely into your awareness. (Scientific Healing Affirmations, Self-Realization Fellowship, 1958.)
Affirmations come directly from you, and their realization is created, step-by-step, from within an increasingly awake you.
No wonder they are powerful.
Taste summer in basil-laced smoothies
Who can resist the aroma of fresh basil? It is so abundant in my patio garden
right now that I’m using it in almost every meal. I have even started adding it to my fruit smoothies - a super refreshing, energizing way to start the day.
Here’s a basic recipe that’s easy to create in a vegan version. Use what you have in your fruit bowl. Banana, avocado, ground flax seed, and chia add body and lots of nutrients.
1 ½ cups milk or other liquid
½ cup of fresh berries
¼ of a juicy cantaloup or other melon
1 small banana
½ avocado (optional)
3-4 tablespoons organic hemp-based or other protein powder
2 tablespoons ground flax seed
1 tablespoon hemp hearts (optional)
1 tablespoon chia seeds (optional)
1 tablespoon peanut or other nut or seed butter
A handful of fresh basil leaves - use any variety (genovese pictured)
Use organic full-fat milk or a non-dairy milk such as hemp, almond, or cashew.
I find hemp milk strong tasting, but often include hemp hearts. For a lighter version, use part coconut water.
Local berries are all so wonderful right now. It’s hard not to obsess on strawberries. And blueberries. Oooo, and all those blackberries, too…
Use ripe pears or peaches instead of melon, if that is what you have. The avocado brings a lovely creaminess; chia adds a snappy crunch. Sunflower or pumpkin seed butter are nice alternatives to peanut butter.
Don’t be afraid to use lots of basil! I also like a handful or two of sunflower
sprouts if I have some ready.
Whiz well, sip, and savour the taste of summer.
Thank you for reading. Let me know if you try it.
Prem and Om,
Jools Andrés photo
The kleshas: overcoming “troubles” through
In The Yoga of the Bhagavad Gita Paramahansa Yogananda uses the word “troubles” as an English word that corresponds to the Sanskrit word klesha.[i] “Afflictions,” “causes of suffering,” and “obstacles to enlightenment” are also commonly used translations. However we name them internally to help ourselves understand them, theYoga Sutras of Patanjali explains the five kleshas as qualities that all spiritual seekers must come to terms with in order to find truth. (Sutras II.3 – 9.)
To overcome our “troubles” and their causes it is helpful to become aware of all five kleshas and how they can play out in our own lives.
Ignorance - avidya
Nearly all of us identify most strongly with our temporal surroundings. Our conditioning in this regard is deep and strong and can manifest in yoga practice and teaching by focusing primarily on the physical effects of asana. This can (and often does) make us hold yoga in a confined, even confused conceptual space. The distortions we form on the physical level filter through to the mental and spiritual levels and obstruct us from blossoming fully as practitioners of yoga’s eight limbs, as outlined in the Yoga Sutras, and create stubborn roadblocks on our journey toward becoming enlightened beings. This condition of ignorance is also the source of the remaining four obstacles.
Egoism – asmita
In The Essence of Yoga: Reflections on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali author Bernard Bouanchaud translates Sutra II.6 thus: “Individual ego consciousness of ‘I’ sees mental and physical activity as the source of consciousness.”[ii] It is worth reminding ourselves on an ongoing basis that seeking / receiving praise for the mastery of an asana leads us away from the true gifts of practice. Yes, keep working to build physical confidence bit by bit, and then channel that feeling of power and strength toward faithful, patient meditation practice. Over time you can and will experience samadhi, a state of blissful inner peace, which is the very opposite of ego identification and the ultimate goal of yoga. (Sutras I.1 – 4.)
Attachment – raga
As you continue on with your day or evening after reading this, pay attention and see if you can notice three or four things that you are quite attached to or attracted to as they arise. Most often these things provide pleasure or reassurance of some kind, so we tend to return to them repeatedly, sometimes even mindlessly. It could be that you are fiercely bound to the routine of your day–do you feel anxious or even paralyzed when something happens that upsets the usual course of events? You may notice a habit of consumption such as having a glass of wine, comforting yourself with a certain snack, or turning on the TV at a regular time. “Passions,” obsessions, addictions–all have a way of overtaking us and diverting us from our intentions. Once we become aware of these habitual attachments we can make progress toward keeping them in check.
Aversion - dvesah
The consequence of rejection, or any unpleasant experience, is aversion or avoidance. While it makes sense to stay away from negative or abusive people or circumstances, we can also avoid facing our own roles in our situations by projecting blame onto others. Group dynamics often provokes emotional responses that are linked to difficult childhood experiences. For me the key is to recognize that, although I may not always understand the “why” of feelings of anxiety that arise in certain situations, I can recognize that the emotions that these triggers conjure are (usually) unfounded in the present situation. If I attack, freeze, or run away I do not engage in a way that allows for expanded awareness. Yoga master Erich Schiffmann tells us, “Immerse yourself in stillness and pay attention. Allow yourself to be taught.”[iii]
Fear – abhinivesah
This klesha is often translated as “fear of death.” This may be because underlying all of our dreads is the fear of not completing what we want to do in our lifetimes. Whether it is leaving a body of creative work, helping to improve the lives of others, amassing a valuable estate, or seeing our friends and family one more time, there is always more to achieve, always something that causes us to believe that our lives are perpetually unfinished. This misconception leads us right back to ignorance and primary identification with our existence on the physical plane. Observing our thoughts and behaviours and taking positive steps to temper our responses leads us to develop consciousness of and confidence in our true, innermost selves. Our fears eventually, certainly, melt away over time as this faith grows.
Be patient with yourself as you cultivate a positive mental attitude to overcome the kleshas. Once you discover that your own personal brand of “troubles” is surmountable, you are well on your way to triumph. As expressed in Lorin Roche’s beautiful translation of The Radiance Sutras: 112 Gateways to the Yoga of Wonder & Delight, “Once you have set out on the path of intimacy with the immortal essence of life, never turn your back on it, my Shining One. Never turn away.”[iv]
Thank you for reading.
Prem and Om,
[i] The Yoga of the Bhagavad Gita, Paramahansa Yogananda; Self-Realization Fellowship, 2007, Los Angeles, CA, p. 40.
[ii] The Essence of Yoga: Reflections on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Bernard Bouanchaud; Sri Satguru Publications, 1997, Delhi, India, p. 82.
[iii] Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness, Erich Schiffmann; Pocket Books, 1996, New York, NY, p. 322.
[iv] The Radiance Sutras: 112 Gateways to the Yoga of Wonder & Delight, Lorin Roche; Sounds True, 2014, Boulder, CO, p. 171.
Written for South Okanagan Yoga Academy, August 2015 Newsletter (since edited) soyayoga.com © Julie (Jools) Andrés, August 2, 2015;
Julie (Jools) Andrés photo.
The new discipline
Due to the many yoga-related posts among my social media contacts, this has been bubbling for a few weeks. It’s about the suffering and beauty we all experience as we come around to knowing ourselves.
I had children very young and was wholly dedicated to that role, but as I neared my thirties I felt educationally, professionally, and creatively desperate.
I had no confidence, little experience in the “real world,” and urgently yearned for a sense of belonging and self-worth. These conditions led to a deep feeling of inadequacy that was expressed as fear, anger, depression, and competitiveness. Frustration and resentment sent my family life down the drain.
I plunged into full-blown anxiety disorder, which was treated with allopathic psychiatry (drugs) and the psychotherapeutic nightmare of repressed memory approaches common in the 1980s. I became dependent on wine and Ativan and other pharmaceuticals–on and off, but mostly on–for the next 25 years. But I’m jumping ahead.
On my thirty-eighth birthday I began my first degree program at Antioch University in Seattle. I studied psychology, and at the encouragement of my professors, also majored in creative writing.
I started to think I had something to offer. Very, very slowly I ventured into class discussions and writing from my heart. I wrote short stories, essays, poetry. I read voraciously. Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Joseph Campbell, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Plato, Socrates, Shakespeare. Eco-psychologists, texts of the world’s religions, and great myths. And Ken Wilber.
I couldn’t get enough of Ken Wilber. He made sense, bringing the psychology, philosophy, art, and theology I was studying into a whole. I read and re-read A Brief History of Everything; A Theory of Everything; Sex, Ecology, Spirituality; The Spectrum of Consciousness; Grace and Grit; One Taste. I practiced Aikido and zazen (Zen sitting meditation), ran 40 to 50 kilometres a week, and read more Wilber. I wanted to make sense of life. I drove myself to earn top grades and finish my degree in three years. My second marriage crashed.
More wine, more running, more Wilber.
Then one night I had a dream. I was at a conference, mulling around with learned people, feeling inadequate. I saw Ken Wilber across the room–there was no mistaking that shining head. Wow! Ken Wilber. Anxiety mounted. Thankfully, I had a big goblet of wine in my hand. Ken started walking over to me, and the closer he got the more my nervousness grew. He came right up to me and smiled. I gaped.
Then he did something totally unexpected. He unscrewed his head and handed it to me. “Here you go,” he said. “It’s all yours.” He held it out for me by a few long hairs attached to his otherwise glowing pate. At first his body was headless and I was dumbfounded. I reached over and put my hands around his offering, saying nothing.
Then he was gone, but I saw, as he assimilated back into the crowd, that he again had his head on his body and I looked down at the gift he had given me. It was an avocado pit, split slightly by a tender sprout. I knew in that instant that I had everything I needed to grow something significant.
But you know how it is. Even though you have what you need, even though you know that you have what you need, you can be very neglectful just the same. I worked as a counsellor and writer and studied various modalities of therapy. I ran and ran and ran. I still believed my sanity depended on the haze I found in wine at the end of each day.
Then I discovered Ashtanga yoga and very quickly a new addiction developed. It got me even higher than running (but I didn’t stop that). My new-found obsession took place in an acceptable setting with other equally obsessed people. Like the audio connection of feet hitting the ground and collective breathing present when running in a pack (something that drew me to racing with hundreds or thousands in various organized runs), the sound of group ujjayi breathing and Sanskrit counting was like a hit of a powerful opiate. Ekam, inhale. Dve, exhale. Eachvinyasa, right up to the last one after headstand, built to a crescendo of endorphin-pumped euphoria. I practiced the demanding series as often as I could. I was 51, so that made me ten, twenty, and even thirty years older than my fellow practitioners.
As strong and limber as my body felt, I clearly had a long way to go. Classmates progressed to Second Series and I still had trouble with jump backs. How could sucking your diaphragm up under your ribs help you do that, anyway? And I never did make it to Mysore. I felt deficient.
About three years later my teacher moved away and where I lived she was the only Ashtanga game in town. I worked at it on my own, but that didn’t have the same effect on me. I went to other classes, but nothing compared. Eventually I took a yoga teacher training course. I started teaching, and over the next couple of years my asana practice became gratifying. I sat in meditation daily. But I still thought I wanted that feeling, that high, again. So I enrolled in a ten-day teacher training course with David Swenson, the author of my home practice companionAshtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual. It was great, and David was a wonderful teacher, but something in me had shifted. I could see that the world of yoga offered much more than this practice, as beautiful and as gratifying as it can be. And I could see how Ashtanga centres around perfectionism, obsessiveness, and, often, a fierce competitiveness.
I haven’t run, self-medicated, or read Ken Wilber for years now. I practice asana most days, but it is driven by deep inquiry leading to self-trust, not by self-obsession. What has given me faith that the lessons of life bring benefits are not the arm balances but the periods of sitting in stillness. I am grateful for the discipline I acquired from Ashtanga, and for what I eventually learned about myself from the routine, the rhythm and form, the connection to breath, the imperative.
Erich Schiffmann, one of my more recent teachers and the author of Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness, says, “When the structure of discipline works it begins to dissolve. The new discipline is to listen, to dare to do as your inner guidance tells you.”
I think of the years of Ashtanga as I do the years of reading Ken Wilber. Each has given me a seed to plant. And that is just awesome.
Thank you for reading.
Prem and Om,
Galen Scorer photo courtesy SOYA
It all fits
The grey of mid-winter somehow drew me to deepen my inquiry into emotional stress and how it manifests in the body. (Not too cheerful, I know–studying depth psychology has inured me somewhat in that regard.)
I read Dr. Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction and When the Body Says No: The Hidden Cost of Stress. These groundbreaking works present an unflinching and profoundly compassionate view of human fragility and the consequences of childhood trauma and neglect. I will not be delving into these books any further here, but I encourage therapists of all persuasions to read and consider their contents. Suffice it to say that I immediately wanted to combine the principles contained therein with yoga in therapeutic practice to help those experiencing depression, anxiety and the effects of addiction. [i]
Hmmm. How could I dive deeper, I wondered. My antennae were picking up on various offerings that came into my awareness.
I considered Beyond Addiction training with Dr. Maté and kundalini yoga educators as well as Yoga for Anxiety, Anger and Depression with Judith Hanson Lasater. I carefully evaluated those and other courses and chose to attend a six-day foundational restorative yoga teacher certification training at The Path Yoga Centre in Vancouver in early March. My brother and his family were away on a holiday at the time so I stayed in their Strathcona co-op to cut down on travel time from White Rock. This also enabled me to attend a few Vijnana-based classes taught by The Path founder Swan, as well as the wonderful Lisa Montesi. There I was reacquainted with the Tensegrity Repair Series, which I had been introduced to by the gifted dancer and Vijnana teacher Sylvain Brochu on BC’s Sunshine Coast in 2010-‘11.
As we studied movement and anatomy during restorative yoga training a languishing spark of interest in Thomas Myer’s Anatomy Trains was fanned to full combustion. I had a couple of leisurely browses in nearby Banyan Books during breaks and picked up The Heart of Practice: Understanding Yoga from the Inside by Vijnana founder Orit Sen-Gupta. It is a sweet little volume, easily read and full of wisdom linking the mind and body through meditations on breath, asana, and stillness.
The Path’s Swan is a Vijnana-based teacher and yoga therapist while Nevah Eyton is a biodynamic craniosacral therapist; both have many years behind them as yoga educators and they presented seamless, highly experiential instruction that left no doubt of the effectiveness of restorative yoga. I was particularly impressed with their ability to respectfully co-teach at all times, bringing out the best in each other for their students’ enrichment.
Upon completion of the training I returned to my small digs in White Rock and removed some large furniture so I could set up a second yoga area complete with props and supplies for restorative practice. I ordered Anatomy Trains from Amazon (sorry, Banyan–it was $45 less that way) and that very week I received a DVD in the mail from my friend, yoga therapist Lyne Lantaigne from Gibsons who had been studying with Sylvain. Lo and behold, it was Gioia Irwin’s Tensegrity Repair Series. Talk about synchronicity.
I went to Home Hardware and got dowels and a block of wood and began to practice Tensegrity right away. Three months plus later I can honestly say that I now don’t want to go a day without it—I start my morning practice with the whole advanced series before asana five to six days per week. It has so many layers to explore – Anatomy Trains, vayus, eye gaze….
Oh, dear! Now I had another direction drawing me, and, just like magic, an opportunity promptly appeared. Lyne sent an email saying that she would love to see me at the annual Vijnana gathering in May. I quickly enrolled and, oh, what treasures awaited! Tensegrity practice and asana instruction with the delightful Gioia and workshops with Andrew Clement, Alix Rodriguez, Elizabeth Burr, and Elizabeth Peckham provided glimpses into the unique Vijnana approach. I saw many people I have known over the years, some well, some more distantly, and felt a welcome interdisciplinary connection through yoga. I purchased another Orit Sen-Gupta book, Vayu’s Gate.
My teaching and practice have been forever changed as a result of this weekend and the ensuing inquiry and evolution of awareness are energizing and exciting. I added more props to my Tensegrity practice—squishy, deflated balls and Therabands.
But wait! There’s more. Two weeks after the Vijnana gathering I headed up to Shuswap Lake to the South Okanagan Yoga Academy 20th Anniversary and Retreat with my good Bowen Island friend Kathy Ainscough. None other than yoga master Erich Schiffmann headlined this extraordinary event, which was organized by SOYA owners Mugs and Bob McConnell and their able team. [ii]
Erich studied directly with greats such as Dona Holleman, BKS Iyengar, TKV Desikachar, and Juddhu Krishnamurti and he is the author of one of the most influential contemporary yoga books around – Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness. Although I completed a Freedom Yoga Teacher Training Intensive with Erich in Los Angeles last summer, I was again blown away by his ability to facilitate profound relaxation, build a strong sense of self-trust, and increase conscious self-expression through asana. He lifts spirits while grounding physical practice. His ideas closely align with ancient teachings, and yet are so in tune with this and every present moment.
Back to everyday life.
I am plunging myself more and more deeply into the art of living through yoga, creating a tapestry made of the threads of knowledge gained through these teachers and teachings, interwoven with previous learning and influences, and lots of repetition and inquiry on my mat. (I guess now I should say mats, plural.)
I am doing a round of self-study of Anatomy Trains and find it really makes sense to me and helps me to holistically integrate the Tensegrity Repair Series into my practice and explore a new, exciting, slowed-down relationship with asana.
These approaches carry over into daily chores and the ongoing development of my personal and professional lives. In response to stressors, instead of becoming scared, angry, or dissociated, I more often hear “find neutral” (Nevah), “jade pillow yawning” (Gioia), and / or “what is the truth here, really?” (Erich).
It all fits together. It’s all taking me closer.
After all, yoga is unity.
Thank you for reading.
Prem and Om,
Galen Scorer photo courtesy SOYA