What is yoga to you?

In America alone, more than 36 million people practice yoga. From Vinyasa to Power yoga, Hatha to Iyengar yoga, Bikram to Ashtanga yoga, Jivamukti to Sivananda yoga, and Restorative to Yin yoga, we are exposed to a variety of schools of yoga in the States. However, how much do we really know what yoga is about and why we practice it?

Just by simple conversations with some of my students and people I meet, I hear just as many responses as to why they practice yoga to the number yoga poses there are:

“It makes me feel energized and wakes me up in the morning."

“It’s a good workout. I have gotten stronger with yoga.”

“I feel calmer throughout the day when I’m at work."

“I don’t get angry as often anymore. I am more patient."

“My body just feels really good after yoga!"

“I feel so relaxed after Restorative yoga - my tension just melts away."

“I’d come in with aches and pains in my body. But after yoga, these aches are gone!"

“I feel more clear-headed after yoga."

These are just some of the examples of responses I hear. 

It is great that many people feel the physical and mental benefits of yoga, but let’s take a little deeper look to the definition of yoga according to the Yoga Sutras.

yogas-citta-vrtti-nirodhah

"Yoga is the cessation of mind-fluctuations."

This is the most standardized translation of what yoga is. 

Here is another translation, my favorite one, in fact:

“Yoga is the uniting of consciousness in the heart."

Citta is the individual consciousness that exists within all of us. Vrtti is the projected modifications of this consciousness that stirs our thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. 

Nischala Joy Devi describes the meaning of “consciousness” best:

Chit is pure universal consciousness and chitta is the same consciousness individually expressed. Chit is the ocean of consciousness, vast and unlimited. At birth each of us gathers a small quantity of this vastness and encases it in the temple of our heart, as chitta, individual consciousness. Held for many years, it remains unchanged. Then, at the end of our life, it is released back into the ocean of consciousness; the recognition of oneness causes the chitta to instantaneously unite with the chit. 

Therefore, the intention and purpose of yoga is to unite our individual consciousness to the universal consciousness. That is being proven a challenge as we get drawn over and over again to the external, material world. We then start to identify and attach ourselves to the material things, titles, and projected beliefs that make us believe that we are separate from one another rather than unified because we all came from this single, vast pool of consciousness. 

Let’s take the example of a can of soda. Most of us would not associate the fluids of the soda with the vast ocean of water on Earth. However, soda water is ultimately one and the same as the ocean water, albeit being a little tainted and processed by human machines and ingredients. 

Similarly, just because we may wear different clothes, work at different jobs bearing different titles, hold different religious or political beliefs, doesn’t mean that we are not the same as one another. Within each of us is a drop of pure, pristine consciousness from the ocean of chit

yogas-citta-vrtti-nirodhah

“Yoga is the uniting of consciousness in the heart."

Ultimately, yoga is about being comfortable in our own bodies, calm in our minds, and peaceful in our spirits so that we can return to being that pure, pristine drop of water, untainted by sugar, coloring, and other agents. When we can see that we are this pristine drop of consciousness in ourselves and in others, then we understand that there is no separation in this world. And that is yoga.  

Slow is the new black

Some of you have been with me since the beginning of my teaching career a few years ago. You probably knew me as the Ashtanga/Vinyasa/Power yoga teacher who is bendy like a spider and strong as an ox. I enjoyed fast-paced classes and practices that brew up a sweat, and would get totally bored in a gentle or restorative yoga class.

Looking at me now, you see the total opposite. A few months ago, I ditched all the power/vinyasa classes I'm teaching (well, save one at a corporate location), and started teaching only Restorative Yoga or Ageless/Senior Yoga. I'm now an advocate of the S L O W movement -- slow lifestyle, slow yoga, slow eating, etc.

My personal practice and teaching philosophy have shifted ever since I discovered the beauty of S L O W I N G  D O W N. 

It was not easy to teach myself to slow down, having been a perfectionist all my life. I'd feel guilty if I were idle, because there was always something else I could do to make my practice, my teaching, my business better, faster, stronger. 

Why is it so hard for us to slow down, to give ourselves a break, to RELAX? 

To relax is something so innate, so intuitive, and yet, I find myself, among the majority of others, having trouble relaxing.

Emotional ups and downs, over-reacting, restless but exhausted, trouble sleeping, weak immune system, digestion discomforts...all of these are signs of an imbalanced nervous system whose switch is always on the FLIGHT-OR-FLIGHT (sympathetic) mode. 

After some observation and self-inquiry, I've narrowed down to two reasons - one conscious and one subconscious - why it was so hard for me to just...RELAX.



1) I didn't give myself the permission to relax or slow down. 

This was my conscious reason. Being an entrepreneur, I was afraid to slow down! There are always classes and sequences to create, tasks to complete, ideas to execute, newsletter posts to write, and social media accounts to handle. I had vague goals of my business in mind, but they were so non-specific that I couldn't clearly map out plans of attack. Ultimately, I was just running around in circles, trying anything and everything. Then there was my fast-paced personal yoga practice. I stuck to a strict 6-days a week, 2.5 hours a day of intense, vigorous yoga practice. I was almost afraid to skip out on a day because a) I might "lose" some of my flexibility, and b) I might gain weight. 

I lived under this constant fear that other "people" (and I still don't know exactly who these "people" are. Other Yoga teachers? Health/Wellness coaches? Nutritionists?) would excel further ahead of me if I didn't keep burning fuel and keep going. I kept comparing myself to other yoga teachers and nutritionists, and if they had something I didn't have (e.g., more readers, more beautiful posts and pictures, more students), I'd try to get exactly that. I wanted their success, but it never worked because I tried to achieve the success THEIR way, and not my OWN way.

And so I kept pushing and pushing, kept doing and doing. 

Guess what? It led to no good. 

In fact, the fast lifestyle brought me these: constant bloating, restless sleep, constant muscle fatigue, injuries (from ego-driving mindset in my yoga practice), skin breakouts, and mood swings. 

When I started to slow down and gave myself permission to be imperfect, however, I gained more energy, slept better, digested more smoothly, had less breakouts, and evened out my temper and mood. Furthermore, it brought me another level of clarity about myself, and ultimately, my goals, my message, and what I can authentically offer to the world through my services. Slowing down actually gave me more  S P A C E  for creativity and energy in thoughts, speech, and action.



2) My body's DIMMER switch was sticky/broken.

This was the subconscious reason why I couldn't relax. You know those nights when you are just so darn exhausted, but no matter how much you try, your brain still keeps rerunning stories from the day or tries to create new ones? What happens after is a restless night's sleep or worse, insomnia. You then wake up the next day feeling worse than the previous night, but you still have that deadline to meet, so you push your body to power through another day. Because you're meeting a deadline, you work late into the night, when you can finally tuck in again, somehow your body won't let you do that. The cycle then starts again. You see, when you live your life in chronic stress (even if it's low-level), the body gets accustomed into thinking that you need to be prepared to fight-or-flight anytime. Your body perceives stress the same way, regardless of whether it is running from the saber-tooth tiger or running to meet the deadline. The body won't let you fully rest because it thinks the tiger (project deadline) is going to jump at you anytime. It tries to hold the dimmer switch towards ON as long as possible. 

This was what happened to me. My body was so used to being in the fight-or-flight state that it's forgotten how to move into the rest-and-digest state anymore!

My dimmer switch was broken. 

(SIDE NOTE: Notice I did not say on/off switch, but a "dimmer" switch. This is because in reality, the body and brain are working very hard at night while you sleep to repair any damages in the body that have resulted from living life. Our body and brain do not just switch ON or OFF, but rather DIM at night so that there are still a little energy and activity going on for repair and maintenance.)

To recalibrate it, I had to set boundaries around my routine. I need to let my body know WHEN it is time to sleep and WHEN it is time to wake. For some time, I adhered strictly to no TV and minimal smartphone interactions up to 1.5 hours before bedtime. I'd shut off the overhead lights and used salt lamps and/or candles to create dim mood lights. I'd read light, fiction novels to shift my brain from the logical, masculine, driven mode, to a more creative, quieter, and feminine mode. I let my body know to start dimming. 

Your body LOVES routines and regulations. That's how your body knows that it is safe. When the body feels safe, then it would allow itself to rest (read: sleep). 

 

Putting it into practice

I know, I know. The practice of slowing down is easier said than done. But I challenge you to start thinking about the two points I stated above. Do they apply to you? If so, where are some areas in your life that you can insert a little breathing space?

Perhaps getting in one full, conscious inhale and long exhale upon waking, before your meeting, before you step into the house after a long day at walk, before your meals?

Perhaps shutting off your computer, TV, and phone after 8pm, and actually spend some quality time with your family?

Perhaps challenging yourself to find "good enough" rather than "perfection?"

You can also hop on over to my Instagram page to see my collection of Restorative Yoga poses, or click here for a guided meditation (great for before bed or if you just had a sh*tty day and need time for yourself!). 

How the sutras are helping me through this political chaos

Normally I don't follow the politics too closely nor do I talk about them openly unless someone asks (in which case I'd just shrug my shoulders and give a polite smile). However, as I delve deeper into the Yoga Sutras (think of it as the holy book of scriptures, the study of the human mind/psyche, the code of conduct in living, and the study of yoga practice, all combined into 196 concise lines of poetry) in my Yoga Therapy training course, I came upon one gold nugget of a sutra that I believe we can all use a little bit more of in the midst of this political chaos and the tension building up towards the election. 

Yoga Sutras I.33:

Maitri karuna muditopekshanam sukha duhka punyapunya vishayanam bhavanatas citta prashadanam
"To preserve openness of heart and calmness of mind, nurture these attitudes: kindness to those who are happy, compassion for those who are less fortunate, honor for those who embody noble qualities, equanimity to those whose actions oppose your values."
(Translation by Nishala Joy Devi)

The last phrase, in particular, is one that surfaces in my practice again and again recently: "equanimity to those whose actions oppose your values."

I thought about how to apply this particular sutra to the ups and downs of the political chaos we are in right now: the bad-mouthing, the tension, the "I'm-right-and-you're-wrong's." 

And don't for even a second think I don't criticize the "wrong party." 

I am just like the rest of you. I watch TV and listen to the radio. I hear biases, I see subjectivity. I hold my own personal beliefs of what needs to be done for this country, and disgust at those who can't seem to pierce through their own ignorance.

Example:

Just the other day my husband and I were watching a short clip of Trump's tour at a red state. I watched in disbelief as the crowds cheered on some absurd words that Trump said. 

"I can't believe how stupid and ignorant these people have to be to follow along every word that Trump says!" I said to my husband.

Yes, me, the "yogi." I said that.

He quickly turned around, looked at me, and replied (paraphrased here): "I don't think it's right to call them stupid, because you don't know where they're coming from, what obstacles they've faced and are facing. You don't understand the belief system they've been brought up in, and it is not their fault that they are surrounded with this belief system. They have fears just like we do, but their fears are different from ours, and they are responding to Trump because he speaks their language, he understands their fears and is providing solutions, albeit not the most logical ones." 

Surprised and amused at his remark, I blinked a few times before I asked: "Are you sure you've never read the Yoga Sutras? Because you literally took a particular sutra out of the book and applied it in this real-life situation. While I was sitting here retorting and blaming, you were speaking like a true yogi, with compassion, equanimity, and objectivity."

Curious enough, my husband pulls that number quite often on me. He'd pull something right out of the sutras, though he had never read them, and use them on my judgmental, self-pitying nature. 

Ever since that incident, I pay more attention to my thoughts and words regarding the political mess. Discrimination is what drove this country into separation; let's not practice that anymore. Instead, hold equanimity, space, and equal consciousness for all. We don't know the opposing party's whole story just as they don't wholly know ours. Our hurt, fear, and miscommunication have cut so deep that it will take a long, long time to bridge this gap, but it's never too late. We can start with:

Equanimity to those whose actions oppose your values.

Spring Cleansing + Rejuvenating Sequence

According to Ayurveda, springtime is also kapha season. Characteristics of kapha is heavy, damp, and cool, which lends itself to congestion and sluggishness (sound familiar?). As we move from winter to spring, excess body fat that were stored as insulation for the winter are trying to make their way out of our body. When we don't make an effort to keep our bodies fluid and moving during this crucial time of elimination, our body and mind may become bogged down due to congestion. 

When in balance, kapha symbolizes growth. To nurture this growth and renewal of our body, it is important to eliminate the old to make space for the new, just like spring-cleaning your garage or storage. 

The following sequence is designed to build strength and heat, while incorporating grounding, balancing poses as well as twists and inversions to promote lymphatic circulation. 

Here's a sneak peek of the sequence:

 

The entire sequence takes approximately 45 minutes. If pressed for time, you can reduce the number of repetitions. 

Restorative Yoga: What is it and why we need it

Just two years ago, you wouldn’t catch me going to a Restorative Yoga class nor would you catch me practicing with bolsters. I felt that it was “boring,” and “too slow." I'd fall asleep anyways, so what was the point? 

Fast forward to today, I am now a big proponent of Restorative Yoga. 

So what is Restorative Yoga and what does it do?

As the name implies, Restorative Yoga is meant to “restore” your body to a place of equilibrium. In a Restorative Yoga class, we are not particularly trying to “stretch” any muscles, but rather we allow the “opening” and “release” of the physical body, so that our mental and emotional bodies can follow suit. 

To create these effects, a myriad of props are needed: bolsters, blankets, blocks, straps, eye pillows, and sometimes even chairs. Each pose is held for at least 5-10 minutes with plenty of support from the props so that our muscles, tendons, and ligaments can release their “grips” on the joints and bones, which unfortunately constitute most of our physical state now due to chronic stress. The classes are typically held in dimmed rooms with either no music or soft, ambient music to encourage turning the senses inwards in each asana. 

In addition, Restorative Yoga is the perfect balance to the fast lifestyles we live today—from the cars we drive, the smartphone apps we use, the food we eat, to the yoga classes we attend. The more physical and fast-paced practices of Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Power, and Hot/Bikram Yoga constitute the majority of the Yoga market in the West because we can relate to them more. These styles of yoga are all great in moving the muscles and lymphatic system; they can empower people and help them feel stronger in their own bodies; they are a great combination of strength, flexibility, and balance. However, in our fast-moving lifestyles, if we only attend these classes 4-5 times a week, it can put on extra heat to our already over-taxed bodies. 

On a physical level, Restorative Yoga might look easy and relaxing. While feeling calm and relaxed is one of the main purposes of practicing Restorative, by no means is Restorative Yoga “easy.” It might seem like so on the surface, but like meditation, when we are faced with stillness, our minds can go into dark places. When we slow down, there are no more external distractions to keep us from facing our fears, unresolved traumas, and past memories. If the practitioner is ready, she would be able to process and resolve the “dark stuff” that surfaces. But if the practitioner is not ready, she might feel agitated and restless, sometimes even not knowing why she feels that way in a Restorative Class. 

Perhaps that was me two years ago. Restless, a little agitated, and using “boring” to describe the class because I was trying to grasp onto some distractions to keep my mind from going into my dark corners. My goal-driven personality aspired to achieve the perfect crow pose and handstand. I liked to whizz through asanas after asanas in my vinyasa’s to “clear out”—but really to ignore—unresolved memories and emotions. I thought that by heating up my body and sweating profusely for 2 hours everyday would help “burn” away my junk and baggages. 

Little did I realize that without recognizing what baggages I wanted to resolve, I was just burning away my physical body overtime without getting anywhere close to reaching enlightenment. 

In the past year, I have learned to slow down, and have come to appreciate the beauty of slowing down. By slowing down, I became more attentive to my inner dialogues and acknowledge them, but without being held prisoner by them. I started to figure out why I react more strongly under certain circumstances than other people might since I was able to witness the links between my childhood memories and my emotional reactions. I started to speak more truthfully, more authentically, and more from my heart. 

I’ve observed that even if you fall asleep during a pose, or even throughout the length of the class, it is a-okay. Look at it as a time of rest, while still bathed in the physical benefits of the postures. If you can stay awake throughout the class, you can use the opportunity to pay attention to each breath, each emotion, and each thought that arises. Besides, who wouldn't like to be nurtured by an abundance of bolsters and blankets that feels like a big bear hug?!

I still love the sensation of sweat, the big movements, and pushing my physical body to the edge from a Mysore practice, but now I balance that fiery, masculine aspects of the asana practice with the cooler, reflective, and feminine aspects of the Restorative practice. 

Curious? Come try out my Restorative Yoga Class on Sundays 6:15pm at the Yoga Garden SF. A great way to wind down the weekend and reboot for the week ahead! 

Stay tuned for the next post on my personal “Flow & Restore” practice that combines a mindful vinyasa flow with restorative practice.