As a society, we associate strength with a person who never seems rattled, always pulls it together, and doesn’t need to ask for help.
This is how we picture yogis in strong, confident poses such as warrior one and two. We see people in warrior poses and we associate their unshakable posture as them being unaffected by the struggle of their body wanting to surrender.
But, as we look at these yogis a little closer, we realize that they are not simply unaffected by struggle, but are instead choosing to listen to their bodies as the cue for when to surrender—to form a union of mind, body, and spirit as a trio for guidance in this trying posture.
As we apply this to our lives off the mat we realize that sometimes we reach a place of capability, expertise, and emotional regulation after we’ve been totally incapable, clueless, and emotionally exhausted.
Therefore, true strength is in admitting when life is knocking us down, and using our tools, our support system, and our practice to put the pieces back together.
So get into your warrior poses and pay attention to what comes up, breathe through it, accept it. Choose to find meaning in it. Ask for help if it’s needed.
Let strength in life and in your practice be in your ability to authentically gauge your limits, accept your emotions, find peace with your struggles, and stand tall knowing that even it can only be for a few minutes—it is real and it was earned, one mindful moment at a time.
The practice of the Niyama of Svadhyaya involves deep self-reflection and self-study. It is the conscious effort we can put forth to understand the depths of our being, when we live without the clouded murkiness that fogs over our true self when we become caught up in our thoughts and attachments.
So truly, the practice of this Niyama can be worked on through building and maintaining a mindfulness and meditation practice. This is why the most sacred part of the yoga class is savasana.
Savasana is a resting pose. It is the final pose of the physical practice of yoga-- sealing in the work that was done linking the body to the mind and maybe even the mind to the soul.
In savasana we lay still and focus on meditation. We try our best to place our attention on the breath instead of on wandering thoughts and personal attachments.
It is our opportunity to detach from anything that is plaguing us or occupying our thinking. Our chance to let it go. It is hard. Most of us lay in savasana constantly chasing our thoughts and reigning them back in to focus on the breath. But if you have done this successfully, even for a few brief moments, you recognize the sense of inner peace that washes over the body in that time of undisturbed inner silence.
Because our minds attach meaning and feeling to every single thing we experience, we wind up having this reality that exists in our heads, compiled with a lifetime of associations and automatic thinking patterns. We attach to our thoughts, to our experiences, to people, to possessions. We walk around in a fog of thoughts and attachments day in and day out—typically avoiding the opportunity to practice clarity until we lay down for our final resting pose of class.
So we end our physical practice of yoga by attempting to clear our minds. When we try this, when we really devote energy to it, we start to realize the typical thoughts that creep in and disrupt our inner peace. We become aware of the difference between our true self and the self that we might know better in day to day life. Our true self is the self that exists when everything else washes away. Our true self emerges when we quiet our minds and connect to our souls. We realize that all we need exists within us and that true knowledge and wisdom can be gained from looking internally instead of externally.
Practice this enough and find that you don't need to look for a sanctuary in anything but yourself. It is a profound goal to work toward, one that doesn't come easily.
So savasana is an easy place to start practicing svadhyaya, as each yoga class prompts us to spend time in quiet meditation. However, building a meditation and mindfulness practice is where the true ability to practice svadhyaya occurs. For now, if you are just beginning this process, begin to appreciate the benefits of savasana and work hard to clear your mind of thoughts during this time on your mat. Once you are comfortable here, think about looking into a more extensive and consistent meditation practice in your daily life.
There is a quote by Elizabeth Gilbert that says:
“Turn your face stubbornly to the light, and keep it there."
This is a reminder that we control our thinking. We have the opportunity to turn towards the light and away from the darkness every single day.
We alone can decide if we want to face our life with optimism or pessimism.
We wake up every morning with a clean slate and a choice to seek enlightenment in all of the incredible wonders around us and within us.
Take a rainy day for a simple example-- the event is out of our control, right?
We can't do anything about it.
Yet, people have such different inner dialogue surrounding rainy days. Some people view it as an opportunity to accept being indoors, relax, cozy up, drink some tea, or watch some movies. Other people feel like it's a total waste and just spend the day wishing it away.
Most of us probably fall into the second group. But, if we were to turn our faces stubbornly to the light, if we were to seek the beauty in that rainy day, to find happiness in what typically makes us feel depressed, then we would be much better off for it.
There is always an opportunity to turn our heads toward the light. There is always the option to seek enlightenment from the mundane or to choose optimism even when it's hard.
In yoga we learn how to pause from the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives in order to reclaim control over our thoughts, emotions and bodies. Yoga is our opportunity to turn our head toward the light. We have the power to unattach from our negative thinking, negative associations and any inclinations toward general pessimism in an effort to seek positivity instead.
After a yoga class, we begin again with a clean slate—a mind fresh from harbored thoughts or emotions.
So, if you are feeling lately that you have been turning your face away from the light, seek opportunities to practice yoga, mindfulness and meditation as an opportunity to embrace the beauty of everyday.
For February, we will focus on the intellectual dimension of holistic wellness and how mindfulness can support us in our desire to grow in this area.
As wellness reminds us that being well is not merely the absence of illness within the self, but instead, it is the presence of a flourishing, happy and growth oriented self.
When we think of this from an intellectual perspective, we might realize that at some point we might have given up on, or significantly decreased, our actions to step outside of our comfort zones and force ourselves to gain exposure to things that may allow us to expand our knowledge and interests.
So become mindful of this dimension for the month of February. February tends to be the most dreaded month of the winter season as the excitement of winter weather has dissipated and most of us are fully ready to dive head first into spring. This can lead to stagnation during this time, maybe a desire to simply sit back and wait out the month bundled up under a blanket and hoping that the groundhog won’t see his shadow, so we can be filled with excited anticipation of the next season.
This, as we know, takes us out of the present moment and our ability to enjoy what is happening right now.
So, think about these things as you focus on being mindful of your intellectual growth during this slow month of winter.
1. Start journaling
Write down your thoughts on a more regular basis. Consider observations of life that interest you and focus on journaling about these things. As you observe, maybe you read more about your topic of interest and generate ideas. These topics of interest can be different for everyone. Some people may enjoy observing and reflecting on psychology and the human connection, others might be interested in observing the complexities of nature, some people might have an interest in studying and journaling about politics, and others might be intrigued by architecture. The list goes on and on. The point is to identify what you find yourself drawn to and to spend more time observing, reading, reflecting and writing about it.
2. Participate in arts and culture activities
Again, this will vary for each person’s individual interest. But, there truly is something for everyone. Some individuals might want to see a new play or performance, others might be interested in visiting an art gallery, while some people might be more inclined to visit museums. There might even be local festivals celebrating different ethnic or cultural groups that you can attend in your area. These festivals might have food, music and history that you haven’t been exposed to before. This is yet another opportunity to step outside of your comfort zone and expand your knowledge during this time of mindful intellectual growth.
3. Socialize with new people in a unique way
Join a book club, attend a mindfulness workshop, or find a meetup in your area to ‘meet up’ with people who have interests similar to your own. These meetup groups allow people with similar interests to come together for excursions, social hours, book clubs, fitness classes, etc. Even further, think about joining a professional association for your industry or an industry you are interested in. This will allow you to gather with likeminded people who want to talk about the things that you’re passionate about. All of these options allow us to socialize with others in a way that promotes mental stimulation, learning, and growth.
4. Begin a Meditation Practice
It is easier than you think to begin a meditation practice. There are many sites online or on utube that can guide beginners through their first steps to developing a practice. First start out with five minutes then progressively lengthen as you get used to it. This will benefit you in many ways. Meditation relieves stress and releases serotonin to the brain which stimulates those happy feelings that we all crave in the winter. This can take the place of that much needed sunshine that we are missing during these long days of winter.
So, choose to use February as a month of mental rejuvenation. Be mindful of the importance that intellectual growth and stimulation has on your overall well-being. Reignite your passions by journaling, find new passions by stepping outside of your comfort zone, and meet new people who will light a spark in you to keep learning and growing.
February is the month where we might reflect on our relationships with loved ones and consider how we might be able to improve or show more love within those intimate relationships we hold dear.
With that, February’s yoga sequence focuses on heart openers. As you move through these 5 poses, think about how an open heart can allow you to let in more love, light and gratitude during this beautiful season.
1. Tadasana Mini-Backbend
Standing at the front of your mat, ground all four corners of your feet into the mat, lifting your toes and then lowering them back down. Send the energy up your legs, tightening your muscles in your calves and thighs. Ensure that your tailbone is pointing downward toward the mat, drawing your abdominal muscles in. With your hands at your side, take a deep inhale and allow your arms to rise above your head. From here, feel your pelvic bone shifting slightly forward as you lean back into this pose and open your chest, arms reaching up and slightly behind you.
From Tadasana, inhale and lift arms overhead and then exhale into uttanasana, (forward fold). Inhale, rise up halfway letting your hands find your calves or knees, and exhale return your hands to the mat in a fold. On the next inhale, gently step your feet back into a plank position. From here, exhale and let your knees come down to the mat as you tuck your elbows in toward your body and lower down to the mat completely. On the inhale, keep your elbows in towards your body as you lift your chest and come into cobra pose. Your legs are still grounding into the mat, but your upper body from your belly upward are rising off the mat.
From your camel pose, return to a kneeling position. You can then come forward onto all fours, finding a seated position and then a reclined position on your mat. Once in your reclined position, you can bring the heels of your feet as close to your body as possible. Allow your hands to press palm down into the mat as you slowly raise your hips. If you would like a little more of a heart opener here, you can touch your shoulders under your body and bring your arms to clasp hands underneath you.
4. Fish Pose
From Bridge pose, straighten your legs and lie flat onto your back. Then, come onto your forearms. If you need assistance use a small block under your thoracic spine to help elevate you. Once comfortable, allow the top of the head to hang down to the floor looking upwards. You have the option in Fish pose to keep your legs straight or come into badakanasan with the soles of your feet touching one another. Hold for five breaths in Fish Pose.
As you return to downward dog from wild thing on the left side, allow your knees to come down to the mat. From here, you may need to fold the mat under you to remove the pressure from your knees as you move into a camel pose. After you find your comfort, rise up to a kneeling position and on the inhale, let your arms rise above your head. There are different variations of camel pose. You have the option of allowing your hands to come to your lower back as you lean back, opening up your chest. If you want more of an upper body stretch, you can repeat camel by allowing your hands to come to two blocks next to your legs, or all the way down to your heels. You can allow your head to fall gently back. In this pose, ensure that your hips are still above your knees, so your upper body is the only part of you that is reclining back in this position.
After this flowing sequence, transition out of camel into child’s pose by sitting back on your heels and bending forward over your legs. You have the option of a wide-legged child pose as well. Reach forward with your fingertips, allowing your body to stretch out from all of the heart opening you integrated into your practice.
Flowing through these 5 heart openers allows us to remove the physical barriers we sometimes tend to place in front of our hearts. If you think about how often you cross your arms, position a purse in front of you, hold a book up to your chest, etc.—it becomes apparent just how uncomfortable we are with leaving our hearts open and unguarded.
Heart openers are an expression of vulnerability, which is a nice and importance place to be from time to time. This vulnerability allows us to be more reflective and open. It provides us with the space we need to give real thought and intention to what we feel most grateful for. Think about this as you move through these heart openers this month.