In the beginning there was no yoga, only pain – widespread, quit-school-and-move-home-to-live-with-my-parents pain. It was 1999 and I was 20. For six months I laid very still in bed, only rising to see the endless stream of doctors who told me I was fine and privately asked my mother if I was faking.
Although I eventually left my parents' home, the undiagnosed pain stayed for the next 11 years. It changed somewhat, migrating through my body, making its rounds from my back to my knees, feet, arms, and neck. I continued to see specialists, waiting months and years to see rheumatologists, internists, neurologists, physiatrists, and infectious disease experts who could find nothing wrong. On the recommendation of these specialists, I saw a number of psychologists to address this mysterious illness which, according to the specialists, was of mind, not of body. I spent six months on Prozac before taking myself off it.
I paid tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket to see chiropractors, physiotherapists, massage therapists, naturopaths, osteopaths, acupuncturists, and energy healers. I drank the foulest tasting Chinese medicinal herbs after simmering them for hours on the stove. I slathered creams and ointments on all my aches, bought and swallowed whatever cocktail of supplements was suggested to me. I went vegetarian, then vegan, then gluten-free; I tried the elimination diet, the alkaline diet, and the candida diet. I dropped several pants sizes, resulting in my internist's expert opinion that I had "a low pain threshold, which should be remedied by gaining 10 pounds".
When yoga was first suggested to me I would like to write that the clouds parted and faint harp-strumming could be heard, but such was not the case. Instead, I dismissed the idea, thinking, "I'm in no shape for yoga". But after months of lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and hating the world, it was clear that time and rest weren't helping.
I signed up for my first yoga class in 2000. At first it was only clear that yoga didn't make things worse. However, as my interest in yoga grew and my asana practice developed, things began to shift in my body. I found I could tailor my practice, making it energizing to lift depression and fatigue, or relaxing to soothe anxiety and insomnia. I also noticed that a regular practice kept pain levels manageable. If I went too long between sessions, pain levels shot up and down, but if I practiced every day or two, my pain evened out. Through the lens of yoga and mindfulness, I began to see my body differently; rather than something to be silenced, I could work with the messages my body was giving me.
By 2010, getting on my mat each morning was as automatic as brushing my teeth. It was part of my routine, and going without was enough to put an entire day off-kilter. In the 11 years since the onset of my pain I hadn't stopped looking for a diagnosis, but my yoga practice had lessened the urgency. I was still in daily pain, but with yoga the pain was manageable. Thanks to yoga I was living life, rather than surviving it. By 2010, I had travelled to more than 30 countries, lived and worked on three continents, completed a PhD in Linguistics, married my best friend, and together we had brought a healthy baby boy into the world.
Finally, in 2010, I was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease. For those who aren't familiar with Lyme disease, it's a bacterial infection resulting from the bite of certain species of ticks. These ticks are parasites that feed on animals such as deer, rodents, and birds. If they've fed on an infected host they'll carry that infection to their next host. Humans who contract Lyme disease typically develop a high fever and flu-like symptoms within a few days of being bitten. Treatment during this acute phase is a short course of antibiotics. Left untreated, the infection will progress to chronic Lyme disease. In its chronic phase the bacteria invade any number of the body's systems, and the disease can present as arthritic pains, neurological dysfunctions, and cardiac arrhythmias, among other things, making it difficult to diagnose. At this stage the complexity of the treatment increases, while odds of a full recovery decrease. (An upcoming post will provide information on how to protect yourself from tick bites and what to do if bitten.)
Since beginning treatment I've made steady gains and reduced my pain by about 90%. Meanwhile, yoga continues to support me through the challenges of my illness and recovery. My practice is flexible; it changes and adapts to provide me with what I need, whether that is a deeply restful restorative practice, a cleansing pranayama practice, or a good ol' sweat-and-stretch in the hot room.
Buddhism teaches that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Through yoga, I have learned to live with pain, and I have accessed tools to minimize, if not avoid, suffering. Tools as simple as a deep breath, as available as reaching for my toes, and as profound as the principle of ahimsa (non-harming), these have been my medicine, my therapy, and my guide throughout.
Lime Disease Awareness Month Event:
Fri. May 24, 7-9:30pm, The Rama Lotus Yoga Centre, 342 Gladstone Ave., Ottawa, FREE
Join the Capital Region Lyme Disease Support Group in marking National Lyme Disease Awareness Month at this free info session and movie screening. The info session will be led by Ottawa Naturopath, Dr. Marie Matheson ND, followed by a screening of the award-winning documentary "Under Our Skin".
Ayurveda, the sister science of yoga recommends following a mono diet of Kitchari which is rice and mung beans for a week to reset your digestion and cleanse.
Kitchari is considered a balancing, easily digested, and easy-to-prepare dish. The small but nutritionally powerful lentil is packed with fiber, magnesium and other minerals, and B vitamins like folate, great for promoting cardiovascular health and detoxification. If you make your kitchari with brown rice, you'll get more fiber and nutrients. The flavour in spices alerts our taste buds to prepare for digestion by initiating the flow of digestive juices, which tends to improve overall digestion.
1 cup basmati rice (wash in cold water until the water comes clean)
1 cup split yellow mung dal beans (washed, or soaked overnight, and then the water discarded and the pulses rinsed); stronger digestions can accommodate whole gene mung beans
1tsp of turmeric powder
1tsp of cumin seeds
1" pieced of ginger, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic
1 pinch of ground coriander
1 tbsp of ghee or coconut oil
2-4 cups boiled water
Heat up the ghee or oil in a pot and add the cumin and ginger. Fry for a minute on medium heat until the seeds pop. Add turmeric, coriander, rice and mung dal, stir until all is coated with the oil, then add 4-6 cups boiling water cook until water is absorbed (about 20 minutes). Option to add vegetables when adding the rice and beans.
A student recently asked me about the throat chakra. At first all the usual information came to mind, the color blue, the element of sound, communication. Anyone can read about these in a book, but how can we apply this knowledge about the throat chakra to our daily lives? How can we make use of this very powerful Chakra?
I brought these questions into my meditation and this is what showed up. We are social animals. We need community, companionship and family. But each of us is contained in our bodies, and consciousness with unique experiences, so community is not possible unless we are willing to share and open up. If we don't open up at least a little then we remain isolated. The throat chakra is our primary means to share our selves with the people in our lives and the world at large. Every voice needs to be heard.
Fear is toxic to the throat chakra, suppressing and quieting the energies of communication. This fear stems from the fear of rejection or judgment; that our inner experiences won't be accepted if shared. This was a huge hurdle for me, as I was getting ready to step forward as a Yoga teacher. Growing up as a very sensitive kid I was painfully shy, too shy to speak up for myself. I was so shy that I couldn't read out loud in school. I was so worried about making a mistake that I could barely speak. Never mind public speaking.
When I had the realization that it was my dharma to teach Yoga, that I needed to stand up in front of a group and speak…out loud… for 90 or more minutes, this fear came up strongly. Also at this time I felt ready to step out of the spiritual closet and let people in on some of the realizations that brought ease and excitement to my life.
This opened me to a very vulnerable place. Even though it was very scary, I knew it was important for my growth and forward movement. My first teaching experience was in front of 40 fellow students during my 20-minute practicum in Hatha Yoga Teacher Training and again I found I could barely talk. The fear kept me from speaking loudly and projecting my voice. Technically my teaching was strongbut that didn't matter if no one could hear me. As hard as it was for me to project my voice and be heard I knew it was important. Something that has been with me my whole life, watching over me, was telling me that I needed to do this. So I felt the fear and choose to do it anyway, and did it again and again until it started to feel more normal and more comfortable. Until I found myself on the other side of the fear, no longer ruled by it, and confidently able to speak up in public in groups small and large.
This is where we come to the power of vulnerability. I believe that we are everything, every person, place and thing. We are the totality of spirit. Fear acts as a barrier. Separating us from the width and breadth of who we really are. In order to connect with everything, we need to allow everything. Drop the judgments and the fear of being judged. Then we can truly open to all that we are, becoming vulnerable in the process. The fact is that not everyone is going to like what you say. In fact some people might be downright hostile about it. When we stop trying to please everyone and instead speak from the heart knowing not everyone will accept it, we can let go of the fear. Self-acceptance is key here.
It's very important to become present to how you are using the energies of the throat chakra. The energy of communication can be used to hurt, judge or put down. It can also be used to uplift, teach and love. How are you using your voice?
We are all in this together, as one. To be one, we need to connect. To connect, we need to open and become vulnerable and speak loudly from our hearts. Even and especially if its not part of the norm or what's already accepted and common.
It's time to stop hiding. It's time to open the throat chakra, to speak, and to put yourself out there. Every experience is valid, needed and necessary if we are to evolve, connect and move forward as one.
Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word meaning non-violence. It's definition is abstention from violent acts in word, deed and thought toward any living thing. It is living from the heart center, the heart center of love, compassion and understanding. It is an expression of love for all things created by the one creator. It is a true way of being.
A yogini/ yogi lives selflessly and is always taking action for the greater good of all human kind. She/he looks upon creation with loving eyes and understands that we are but one light. In Kundalini yoga we speak of a sutra for the Aquarian age that says: "Recognize the other person is you". In other words, when we look upon the creations of this world they are but mirrors of our own inner light.
"A true follower of ahimsa loves his opponent." – B.K.S. Iyengar
Seeing the light in every living being can be difficult especially when someone does you wrong. A true yogini/yogi can see through the transgressions of others and recognize that the act, words or thoughts are not that person but a reflection of their mind state, that in their true essence the transgressor is light and love. In loving the transgressor we do not accept the violence but still love the person.
Violence occurs when we live in fear and hold onto the samsakaras (patterns) of the mind. A yogini/yogi disciplines herself/himself to move beyond the mind and into the heart. In this way she/he can see beyond transgressions and still see the light within every living thing. In this way she/he can forgive and let go.
When one walks the Earth in a state of ahimsa and love one can shed light onto the dark corners of the Earth.
Ahimsa in Practice
How can you the practitioner bring ahimsa forth into the world? You can start by observing your own negative thoughts towards yourself and others. Do you ever notice how you can be your own worst critic? A strong ahimsa practice is taking care of yourself; emotionally, physically and psychologically.
If ahimsa is practicing non-violence and its kin is love then spreading good deeds to the world around you is actively living this sutra. By doing simple gestures like smiling to a stranger, giving a hug, giving appreciation, opening a door, you create a space of giving which helps the world around you feel good. When you actively take action and help others you help erase some of the suffering in the world and replace it with hope and gentleness. When you help others, you help reduce fear and when fear is reduced so is violence and peace comes forth.
Together we can work towards peace.
The video below shows a young man who spent a day doing 22 random acts of kindness touching the world around him.
I sat in front of the yoga class, getting ready to teach and I noticed that the entire class of 22 students, were all women. I have noticed this before. Even when men do come they are a small minority in the yoga class. Why is this? I love yoga, I believe in its ability to transform bodies, hearts and minds and I am a man. Granted, by the definition of most of society, not the manliest man. I couldn't care less about sports, I nurture and love my children and wife, I don't believe the way to solve problems is with force, I am a stay at home, homeschooling dad who teaches yoga. Maybe I have it wrong? Maybe I should be drinking beer while watching sports and doing my best to increase the size of my pectorals. However, I just have no interest in that kind of behaviour. It seems like a waste of my time. Whereas yoga feels like time well spent, it feels productive. So why are the manly men staying away from yoga class? I'm not sure. Maybe its because they are afraid of not being able to conquer the practice right from the start or looking silly in front of other people. Maybe they are so wrapped up in the ego that they can't let go and enjoy. Maybe they are out of touch with their feminine side? Yes gentlemen you have a masculine and a feminine side. When these two sides are out of balance, well just take a look at the state of the world. That's what happens when we are out of balance. So what does the feminine side have to offer? Emotion, heart and feeling. Feelings like compassion, nurturing, caring and the desire to work things out in a non-violent way. It's hard wired in most women because they need those qualities to take care of their children. We wouldn't have survived as a species without those feminine qualities. It sure looks to me like we could use more caring and compassion in our world if we are going to continue to survive. So gentlemen I suggest you come out to a yoga class, get in touch with your heart. The benefits will be more ease and lightness in your life; more connection and depth in your relationships (especially with women); functioning at your highest level with a more balanced outlook; and the ability to deal with and not get side tracked by negative emotions like anger, sadness and competition. Now of course, not every man is macho and not every women is in touch with the feminine but if both sexes could balance both sides the world would be in a much better place and we would see more men in yoga classes.
We are alive to learn and grow. Stagnation kills creativity and joy and is just plain boring. Your yoga practice should change to reflect where you are in your life today. I invite you take a moment and reflect on your yoga practice over the past year. Signs that your yoga practice might not be serving you include:
Just as you don't stay in the first grade forever, you also need to advance in your practice. Yoga should nurture your needs at the moment. For example, if you are overwhelmed and crazy busy going to a class that will put stress on your adrenals is probably not wise choice even if it may feel like it. Remember that we may gravitate towards what is familiar but not necessarily healthy. A more grounding class and meditation would help you find more balance.
Factors to consider when reflecting on the quality and needs of your practice are:
The time of year: We are approaching winter which is a time for reflection. Like the bear who hibernates, this season invites us to slow down and maybe use our practice to relax and repair our bodies and minds for the new year ahead.
The state of your health: Feeling amazing? Go ahead do the challenging class. Feeling exhausted or in pain try a more gentle approach. This may mean changing your usual style and trying a different class. You body and mind will thank you!
The need for mental clarity: Feel like you are moving through life on auto-pilot? Cleanse your subconscious mind with meditation. It doesn't have to be long. You can see benefits in as little as 11 minutes a day.
Your commitments: Whether personal or business related sometimes life happens and we need to give priority to other things. This might be hard if you are attached to your practice but remember that yoga is not just on the mat. Maybe when needed your physical practice is a few sun salutations and some of your favorite poses or a meditation first thing in the morning. Your real yoga then becomes practicing Ahimsa by not harming yourself by taking on too much and compassion by helping others. Or maybe you practice Santosha by being content with where you are. Remember the 8 limbs of yoga include more than Asana.
I hope this has got you thinking. If you have any question about what kind of class would benefit you please don't hesitate to contact myself or ask your yoga instructor.
Take care of yourself! Seek growth, inspiration and vitality. Happy journey!
In the last few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about silence, or the lack of music in yoga classes. As I've been practicing yoga without music more often now, it has given me a lot of opportunity to reflect on this experience. In the past I have always enjoyed both silence and music in yoga for different reasons. But now I wonder if the use of music in class is really just a distraction?
The second of Patanjali's yoga sutras is "Yoga chitta vritti nirodhah" frequently translated as "Yoga is the stilling of the thought waves of the mind". In this context, when I am looking to still my mind and reflect on what comes up for me in present moment awareness, I am discovering that silence is super effective. As a teacher and as a student I am seeing that silence has the ability to bring us closer to the ‘edge' on the yoga mat. The edge being that place of slight (or not so slight!) discomfort where we are confronted with our hidden selves and the process of transformation can begin. So despite the discomfort we want to move towards that edge, not away from it. Beautiful music can certainly ease discomfort in challenging postures and give your mind a focus away from your direct experience.
I've discovered that Savasana (corpse pose) is exquisite in silence. I have been flitting delightfully in that delicate space of almost being asleep, almost dreaming. And when savasana ends I come out feeling so much more refreshed. Karoline has also noticed that the students in her Bikram classes stay longer in savasana when there is no music in the room. It is providing a deeper experience.
As a yoga teacher I realize I have almost hidden behind music/sound in order to ease the experience of the students in confronting themselves. I also noticed that in silence I am much more attuned with the students in the room; more deeply aware of their experience. And the sounds of bodies moving, and lungs breathing can set the stage for concentration instead. If we are just doing exercise or stretching, music might play a more significant, welcomed role in keeping us entertained or engaged. It can elicit great emotions and send you off into all kinds of pleasant (or not pleasant) thought patterns. It can calm you down or get you fired up.
I am not against music at all. It does have benefit, and can really lift up the room at times, and can certainly help us move through tough moments (especially in Kundalini yoga, where we are doing the same motions for what seem like eternity!). Effective Mantra music when done in the right naad is also a great expedient to the focused mind, although it is still an outside stimulant.
On a related note: For some time now, I have been really interested in the subtle and largely unconscious effects of music and lyrics on human consciousness. I have read much research about it over the years, and encountered enough information to make me very cautious about what I listen to on a regular basis, and certainly when in a suggestible state, like yoga and meditation. Dr. Emoto, in his book "Messages from the Water" beautifully displayed the effects of music on water. And since our bodies are approx. 70% water I took notice. Studies on plants, and mice have also shown similar findings, largely that certain types of music are really not beneficial or health affirming at all. In a vibration based universe is it any wonder?
And it's not just the musical style or genres that affect us the lyrics do as well. It was not a surprise to me when about 9 years ago, the American Psychological Association released results of a series of experiments they did showing that violent lyrics increased aggression related thoughts and emotions. Later studies showed that lyrics with sexual suggestions led to teens engaging in sexual behaviour much earlier on in their lives. I learned that background music with lyrics negatively affects workplace concentration, but without lyrics it can be productive. What surprised me the most was the power of words to positively or negatively affect behaviour, mood and thinking (called priming). Lyrics in music are words embedded with the beat or cadence of instruments, often listened to repeatedly, and are likely much more effective at priming than written or spoken words are. In fact a study at Kansas State University showed that after listening to the Star Spangled Banner people become more close-minded and prejudiced, but those listening to children's songs displayed more empathy and acceptance towards others. It makes me wonder if some of the ills of society are routed in our musical choices. Have you ever woke up in the middle of the night and heard a song repeating in your head? Your subconscious is eating that stuff up and effecting your thought patterns and your personality. Hopefully you wake up with positive mantra music in your head and not lyrics with themes of dystopia.
In any context I think we ought to be careful what we subject our subconscious minds to, but especially when doing yoga and meditation. Music is still an option in yoga practice of course, but if we are truly interested in the act of yoking the body, mind, spirit I think silence plays a significant role in that achievement. Hence why it becomes an edge for so many of us.
My recent experiences have shown me that the silence has provided a deeper, much more meditative, moving experience for me. Funny enough when I've tried to extend that practice out into my life, it's been more challenging. I've been reminded of my level of discomfort just being alone in my car without music playing. Driving in silence is a big discomfort for my mind. So as always yoga culminates off my mat, and into my life.
How much time do you spend in true silence? Where you are not reading, not speaking, not focused on outside stimulus? And what are you listening to in your yoga practice? Is it the sound of your breath, a mantra or Jay-Z?
How do you know when you are in the perfect yoga pose? Is it the way it looks? Maybe the alignment has to be just so. Who is the authority that can tell you when you have arrived at the perfect pose? Is it a yoga master or Guru? Does it take years of hard work and dedicated practice to arrive there?
In truth, I don't know ‘the' answer. I can only share what I believe and why I believe it, so please take anything I say with a grain of salt and always trust your heart above all else. I don't think any yoga postures exist in a finished, defined or immutable form. Each pose is unique because each of us is unique. The pose doesn't exist outside somewhere on a poster or video, they exist inside of us in the moment as we practice. Of course there are many ‘experts' out there who are more than willing to share a bunch of ‘shoulds' and ‘suppose tos'. Some of these ideas are shared with the intention of keeping us safe. Others are shared with the idea of being ‘authentic' or ‘real teachings' from this school or that lineage. For me Yoga is about freedom. That means rigorous self-study in the moment, every moment. The key here is presence. In order for my practice to be free I have to give up frame works, mental constructs and specialty judgments. Then the practice loses definition and becomes about the experience of what happens in the postures and transitions from moment to moment. It becomes about exploration and possibility (freedom). Within this inner inquiry is the possibility to really know ourselves, to watch our reactions, beliefs, and world view and to question these. Most of these beliefs are programmed through our interactions with family, educational institutes, work, peers and don't reflect our conscious desire to be the masters of our own lives. Unless we are fully present our unconscious patterns, habits and addictions make most of our decisions for us. This is what it means to be a slave to ignorance. Yoga is offering us the opportunity to be free by seeing our own unconsciousness and presenting us with the opportunity for change. As we can't transform the things we are not aware of.
So how do we practice safely within this freedom? Sometimes we need to learn the rules in order to see where to break them. There are many great yoga postures already discovered and we can save a lot of time and work by studying what is already out there. At the same time there are many great yoga postures yet to be discovered. However there are no asanas that will help, heal or be safe for everyone. Deep forward folds could be damaging for someone with a spinal disc hernia, but for someone experiencing back pain due to tight hamstrings they could be very healing.
Within each of us we have our own movement master. It is the wisdom of the body. There is an incredible intelligence there, maintaining a mind-boggling number of simultaneous processes to keep us in balance. The wisdom of your body will always keep you safe; all you have to do is listen. The language your body speaks is sensation. In order for us to really feel what's happening in the body with full present awareness, we have to tame the mind. With a quiet mind and present awareness the body will guide us, with great precision and safety, through our practice. This underscores the importance of a dedicated meditation practice.
So the next time you practice any movement get fully present and instead of thinking about the alignment, feel it and let yourself be guided by those feelings. Be free to explore, have fun and discover. Empower yourself to be the guide and the explorer as you look within. All answers are there and they always have been.
A few years ago when my web-master Mike asked me if I wanted a blog for the Rama Lotus website, I quickly said NO(!). I'm too private to share my inner thoughts with the whole world! And I still feel the same… but there's a strong undercurrent saying that I am ready to leap into the possibility of something new for myself. I practice yoga off the mat way more than on the mat. (Not that I'm not on a mat everyday, but there are way more hours in a day where we are not on a mat that are loaded with potential for reflection and awareness.) So, blogging is currently a fear-based activity for me, and that's why I am here voicing it. As I really believe that by bringing awareness to our fears and transcending them, we transform ourselves and everything around us is positively affected. Yes, I could be described as an idealist. I truly believe with full conviction, that as we open to our true natures, and embrace and accept both the light and the dark in us, that we will find the integration of our whole humanity. In doing so we find our true selves and our inner power and the whole world changes in reflection of this. It's lofty, I know. But it's the ultimate reason that the Rama Lotus Yoga Centre has come into my hands as one of its primary caretakers: to change the world.
All that to say: Welcome to the Rama Lotus Yoga Centre Blog! This will be the inner musings of Abe (my husband, business partner and best friend) and myself (Tera), maybe the details about cool workshops we believe in, other fun things that we may feel called to introduce, and lots of guest bloggers too. Here we go...