Is there such a thing as Accessible Yoga?

What is NOT accessible yoga?

accessible yoga

Do we all have to look the same?

You know the story. You’ve hurt your back and a friend says “you should do yoga!” And then you go with your friend to their favourite weekly yoga flow class. You put down 20€ and hope for the best. It’s fast, sweaty, the music’s hip, everyone’s dressed in the latest yoga fashion trend and almost everyone looks like a ‘yoga journal’ or ‘sein’ cover model. You find yourself struggling to keep up. You try your best, but somehow your body just won’t let you contort itself into those poses. The next day, your back hurts more than it did before, along with your wrists. And you swear you’re never trying yoga again.

Okay, it’s perhaps an exaggerated stereotype of what an accessible yoga class is NOT. But it does represent a rather broad view of what contemporary westernized capitalized yoga is all about. One of the problems is that most western people (both lovers and haters of yoga) believe that yoga is only that which is written above. I am not the first to say #notallyoga. But like all #notall hashtags, it tries to absolve the writer of responsibility that we should all be taking. Yoga is a 5000 year old practice stemming from South Asia. By believing that yoga is only that one thing that has been exploited by sporty opportunistic Californians erases its history and invisibilizes the decolonial work done by contemporary yogis such as nisha ahuja and Be Scofield. As yoga practitioners in a western world, we should all be working towards decolonizing our practice, promoting the diversity of yoga styles (eg; restorative) and practices (yoga nidra, pranayama, bhakti, etc.), and making yoga more accessible to everyone. Cultural appropriation does not make yoga classes at all comfortable or accessible to people who experience racism. Nor do expensive fees to lower-income folks, body-image and ‘healthy-living’ marketing campaigns to people who look different than what the mainstream expects healthy yogis to look like, nor to those with dis/abilities (physical or mental). Yes, I say “we,” but it means “I” and perhaps you too. What can I do as a non-South Asian yoga practitioner who teaches classes?

What IS accessible yoga?

I don’t have all the answers to this. But I have some ideas and would be happy to hear from you about what you feel that means. At English Yoga Berlin, we strive to offer accessible yoga classes. But we recognize that there are many things we cannot offer as well, and our studio is not accessible to just ‘everyone.’ Our Kreuzberg yoga studio is up one flight of stairs – this does not allow those who cannot take the stairs to even attend our classes. We also do not provide sign-language interpretation or any other language that we ourselves do not know (Greek, Spanish, German and English). We run our small back house yoga studio in a city with people from all over the world, with many different languages, and with a lower-income average than most bigger European cities. Our regular rates are significantly lower than bigger studios in Berlin, and we offer our classes in simple English, making it more economically and linguistically-accessible to newcomers. Pinelopi‘s injury conscious and gentle Hatha Yoga classes are especially suitable for participants who suffer from chronic pain. Juli‘s community yoga classes have at their focus the creation of an intentional space for people who feel marginalized or excluded in mainstream yoga classes, eg. queer and trans* folks, abundant bodied, bpoc. As well as an additional sliding-scale reduction for lower- / no-income folks who make Berlin their home (this reduction is not for tourists). Both of us include a 15-20 minute guided relaxation, based on yoga nidra techniques, at the end of all of our classes. Yoga Nidra is a proven method to help reduce stress, insomnia and anxiety. These are just some of the ways that I try to counter the dominant culture’s exploitation of yoga. But it’s a continual learning process and there are many more strategies that I continue to learn about and adopt through reading articles and discussing with others. There are other yoga practitioners who I’ve met in my Berlin community and in other places, who are also exploring various strategies. This movement is growing. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts on it, and appreciate links to articles and other yoga spaces! Thank you.

 

Returning to the Definition of Drishti

A Return to a Drishti Definition

Almost 5 years ago, we wrote a 2-part blog about what Drishti is and its meditative benefits. From it’s Sanskrit meaning, coming to a Drishti definition in English is complicated. But as we wrote in our blogs, we can put it simply as “the gaze” or “where one’s eyes rest.” Once again, I’d like to return to the topic, but this time from a practical point of view, both in a yoga class and outside of it.

Drishti is about focus

Drishti Definition

Drishti Definition

In an asana yoga class, your teacher may ask to use your Drishti point to keep you balanced and focused. In balancing poses, we can use this point as a focus point, a point that does not move, to help steady our inner ear – where our sense of balance is located. For those of us who feel queasy in bumpy traffic or on boats, we know that staring at the horizon line can help us to overcome motion sickness. Using this focal point in an asana class encourages our bodies to find a posture in that helps us feel steady. In this sense, Drishti is a very tangible and useful anatomical tool. Where your gaze rests is a pretty good indicator of the line your neck and spine are following.

When we turn our focus towards our navels, in Cat/Cow or in Downward Dog, for instance, we are turning our focus inwards, towards ourselves. And when we look out over our finger tips in twists or Warrior poses, we keep our central line from ourselves outwards towards a blurry outside world. It helps you to quiet the mind, increases concentration and relaxation, and allows your attention to flow into whatever you are focusing it on, yourself and your connection / support to the world. It helps us to not look around and get distracted by the other people practicing in the room, which for some of us can turn to negative thoughts if we compare ourselves and how we do the postures, or worry if we are doing them “right.”

 

Another important subtlety in the concept of Drishti is in the different ways of gazing. This is a variation on the practice of detachment but specifically, a Drishti can be described as ´soft´, ´pointed´, ´wide´, ´gentle´, etc. Again, there are very practical reasons for this. Even though Patanjali never gazed at a computer screen, he could imagine what hours of single distance, harsh gazing can do to your eyes. Varied distances of Drishti, as well as varying degrees of hardness or staring in the postures, helps to exercise the optical nerves and reduce the strain that can produce tension headaches.

Early yogis and yoginis realized that the quality with which you observe something radiates through your body. Your body naturally becomes more tense and rigid, or soft and relaxed, depending on how you are looking at something. A soft Drishti promotes internal reflection, relaxation, meditation. A harder one pushes the focus externally. In our contemporary world, we often find our attention being pulled in multiple directions at once, our eyes have no time to rest on anything. A regular yoga practice can help train us to focus ourselves, but only when we take it outside of the yoga studio, do we feel the real benefits. A Drishti point can to calm our thoughts, reduce chatter and anxiety, allow our breath to flow freely, and give us something to dream about other than who posted what on Facebook.

So, the next time you find your eyes wandering, watch your mind and body, and see if you can notice how your Drishti affects you, notice how you feel when you let your eyes rest on something that you don’t normally allow them – give some attention to that plant on your windowsill, follow the path of a beetle in the sand, notice what the squirrels are doing in the tree in your yard. And next time you practice yoga, play with your gaze point and see how it affects your practice and your life.

One of our main goals in our Kreuzberg Berlin yoga classes is to educate people about the benefits of our practice. We believe that by making yourself more centered and focused you are better equipped to make an impact in the world around you. For more info about our Hatha Yoga in Berlin or Vinyasa Yoga, check out our yoga in English schedule.

Yoga is Not Dance

As a yoga teacher I often hear from students, “I like yoga, but I’m not good at it.” What I understand from this is that they feel they’re expected to do the poses ‘correctly’ in order to be ‘good at yoga.’ But yoga is not dance. As yoga practitioners, we’re not performing for an audience, but we do yoga in order to feel more ease in our bodies, more calm in the mind. We practice yoga for ourselves and nobody else. True, our practice can extend to others by helping us see how we can help our communities. But the practice of yoga is not a show.

“Yoga is not a competition”

The media tells us something different. Yoga competitions are springing up all over the world. The covers of Yoga Journal and Sein show us mostly white, mostly slim, mostly cis-female flexible yogis demonstrating their fanciest poses. Yoga teachers tell us; “there is no right or wrong way to do yoga,” and “yoga is not a competition,” and “everyone has a different body.” But I’ve also heard yoga teachers say that their students are not doing the poses ‘correctly.’ In a yoga class, the teacher will offer corrections with the primary goal of preventing the practitioner from injuring themselves in the pose. But sometimes, subconscious biases causes a teacher to ‘correct’ a student’s pose so that it looks like the textbook or covermodel version, pressing a student to go beyond their own limits, and throwing them out of awareness of their own body. This can not only lead to physical injury, but can also inadvertently cause a student to feel as if they’re ‘not good at yoga.’ As a teacher, I’m always looking to find that balance to gently encourage students to find their limits and go further if they feel like it that day, or retreat from it if they need to. Sometimes this means I do not do corrections at all, especially for those new to yoga. I like to let new practitioners find their own way of doing the poses. Though I myself really like the feeling of an experienced teacher’s gentle guiding hand encouraging my shoulder blades to release down my back, so I don’t want to do away with it altogether. Maybe we even need to move away from a terminology that refers to something as a ‘correction’ and instead call these gentle encouragements something else? What would work for you? Assistance? Encouragements? Guidance?

At English Yoga Berlin, we have consent cards at the fronts of each mat with YES on one side and NO on the other, that lets the teacher know if a participant would like to be touched or not. Participants are invited to turn it over at any point in the class.

Yoga is not Dance

A regular practice of yoga can be good for dancers to balance the stresses they put on their bodies. But it can also be good for those of us who put our bodies through stress in other ways – doing manual labour such as caring for small children, cleaning or construction work, or doing immobile work without a break such as sitting at a computer desk for 8 hours every day or driving a truck for 36 hours. Human bodies need to move, we need to strengthen and limber up our bodies to create more ease in our everyday lives, to recuperate from our daily stresses. This is how a regular practice of yoga benefits us. I can understand how yoga is popular amongst dancers. But when people who have never had dance training come to yoga, and they see a dancer at the front of the room, or amongst them in the practice space, it may cause feelings of inadequacy. How can we, as yoga teachers, and how can we, as experienced yoga practitioners, make room for those new to yoga to feel comfortable?

At English Yoga Berlin, we also have a sign with guidelines as to how we would appreciate everyone act in the space. As the yoga space is for everyone, we hope to provide a space where everyone can feel comfortable. For us, this means that we respect others’ practice by not showing off, flaunting our privilege, wearing strong perfume or chatting in the practice room. Is there anything else that would help you feel more comfortable?

Safer Space

English Yoga Berlin – Safer Space Guidelines


 

Juli offers Community Yoga classes at English Yoga Berlin, with an emphasis on creating a space for those who feel marginalized by mainstream yoga classes: sliding scale prices for no- / low-income earners. Juli teaches Vinyasa Flow Yoga and Restorative Yoga and is currently enrolled in the Svastha Yoga Therapy advanced teacher training program and has completed the first two modules, yoga for injuries and illnesses of the body.

The Neutral Spine

We often hear these words “the neutral spine” as a cue in yoga classes.

But they don’t often come with a clear explanation of what that means or why it’s important. Sometimes a yoga teacher tells us to “tuck our tails under,” which for some people helps to lengthen the lower back, but for others just emphasizes an already rounded lumbar spine. All of our bodies are differently shaped, so a “neutral spine” is different for every person.

neutral spine

Spine Foto by Katie Cowden

So what is it exactly?

A neutral spine is like a spring that can absorb impact as we walk, stretch, strengthen, and generally move about. Like shock absorbers on a car. Anyone with classical dance training has been told to keep their backs straight as a rod, but this removes this spring in our step and our body’s ability to accommodate impact. I often see former dancers come to my yoga classes with chronic lower-back pain or slipped discs. A neutral spine has curves, and generally forms two S-shapes; one at the bottom at the lumbar spine and one at the top at the cervical spine. Long hours of sitting at a desk with a rounded lower back and chin jutting forward can affect longterm impact upon our body’s built-in shock absorber.

Why is it important?

When we take the double-S form of a neutral spine, it helps to keep not only our spines healthy, but other parts of our bodies too. It reduces impact and helps nutrients and oxygen flow where they need to. It also reduces the likelihood of pinching nerves that extend from in-between the vertebrae into the arms and legs. Pain or numbness in the arms or legs can occur when a disc bulges or slips backwards into the spinal canal and presses against nerves that extend outwards. These most often occur at the lower spine, but over the last 15 years with the popularity of the laptop, tablet and smartphone hunching posture, we are seeing many more people with pinched nerves in the neck and upper back. These can often be quite dangerous, because surgery is required to push the disc back or remove the inflammation. Physiotherapy and a regular yoga practice can help, but most people do not take enough time for that. Orthopedists recommend practicing yoga, pilates or physiotherapy 2 or 3 times a week over a minimum of a year in order to heal from a slipped or bulging disc.

How do I know if my spine is neutral?

There are many cues that yoga teachers give to help participants find their own neutral spine position. “Extend the tailbone down.” “Zip up the belly button.” “Lift the heart.” “Pull the shoulder blades together.” “Lengthen the neck.” etc. But only you know when you’ve reached it. You will breathe more freely because your chest is at its most open. Lower back pain may dissipate because the pressure gets lifted as the lumbar spine lengthens. Your balance could improve is one-legged poses, you might feel stronger in warrior poses. One way to test and get to know where your neutral spine is, is to do the rod test. You can get a friend to help you.

  • First, you can try it in tabletop pose.
  • Ask your friend to place the rod against and in line with your spine.
  • Touch the tip of your tailbone and the flat part of the back of your head to the rod.
  • Engage your abdominal muscles so that your belly is not drooping.
  • You should feel long on both the front and back sides of your torso.
  • There should be a gap between your lumbar spine (lower back) and the rod.
  • Now that you’ve got the hang of it in tabletop pose, try it standing!

Juli offers Community Yoga classes at English Yoga Berlin, with an emphasis on creating a space for those who feel marginalized by mainstream yoga classes: sliding scale prices for no- / low-income earners. Juli is currently enrolled in the Svastha Yoga Therapy advanced teacher training program and has completed the first two modules, yoga for injuries and illnesses of the body.

Myths about Weight-loss and Yoga

It was quite unexpected one day when I tried to open an article about body positive yoga and was then slapped with a popup for a weight loss ad. Like a slap in the face, I presumed I was going into friendly territory, and then was shamed for it.

“You would look so much better if…”

I proceeded to communicate with the manager of the web-platform (not the same person who wrote the article), to explain to them how these ads are detrimental. He refused to acknowledge my point of view, explaining to me why my feelings were invalid, and his were correct (a clear case of mansplaining). I think I know when I feel shamed. And when a weight-loss ad pops up while I’m trying to read an article about powerful abundantly-bodied yogis, this is exactly what “fat-shaming” is about. And sometimes it’s not so obvious to those doing it: “The shaming may be performed under the guise of helping the person who is overweight/obese realize they need to lose weight or they will die, become ill, and/or never succeed in life or relationships.” I should not have to be reminded of the so-called beauty standards outlined by mainstream media when I’m trying to find solidarity in connecting to my body with positivity. The term “weight-loss” is grammatically “negative” in and of itself. But I don’t want to dwell on semantics. Body Positivity is about connecting to one’s own body the way it is right now, loving it, owning it; whether that body fits mainstream standards of ability, size, skin colour, gender, or not. Body Positivity is about disregarding the propaganda that capitalism wants to sell us through whatever new trend of the day is, and just being present and accepting our bodies for what they are. In my opinion, the hottest people are the ones who are able to do that, they shine from the inside – they glow with bliss and love of their own bodies. It’s powerful and inspiring.

unhealthy weight-loss

Unhealthy weight-loss

“Body positivity and the wish to lose weight go hand-in-hand…”

Obviously this guy knows nothing about body positivity, nor has any experience about the wish to lose weight. As a female-socialized person who never fit into any beauty norms, I can attest to the experience that I never felt less at home in my body than when I wished to lose weight, nor did I feel any more positive about my body than when I did actually lose weight. Now, at the heaviest I am in my life, I feel the most at home, the most happy. I look in the mirror, and I say “look at that hottie!” About 8 years ago I was on a strict diet that was supposed to alleviate the painful symptoms I had from endometriosis. I lost a lot of weight very quickly, I was 20 kilos less than I am now – in the so-called BMI ‘normal’ weight range, even though my ribs were sticking out. But my immune system got depleted and I kept getting sick. And the symptoms continued to perpetuate. According to the BMI, today I would be classified as ‘obese.’ But I have no desire to lose ‘weight.’ The mass my body has is mostly composed of thick muscle and strong bones. Yeah, I have some fat around my middle, I enjoy a few beers now and then. But according to my doctor, I am very healthy for my age. And I don’t lose connection to my breath while I’m both demonstrating as well as talking through the approximately 30 chaturungas in my yoga classes, as well as practice handstand, and forearm stand regularly. I hardly ever get sick these days. I’m flexible, strong, commute by bicycle and move easily in my own body. If I lost weight, I’d lose muscle and strength.  The BMI is a load of bollocks.

forearm stand to scorpion

Moving up to Scorpion pose

Look at these athletes, how strong they are… I’m sure some of them would be classified as obese. If you slapped them with a weight-loss ad, they’d scoff in your face! I don’t think that losing weight should be a goal for anyone. Especially when it means that some people can take this concept to the extreme and develop eating disorders. I can get behind the idea of being healthy, but at cost to whom? And what’s in it for someone who runs some random web platform to tell others what they should or should not do with their own bodies?

“You should eat healthy…”

The manager of the website went on to explain to me that many of their “readers have a long history of health related issues where many of them are related to unhealthy diets and eating habits.” Firstly, I don’t know how he could know this, he’s judging his readers based on analytics and statistics from what they click on. Just because someone falls prey to the latest weight-loss trend does not mean they have ‘unhealthy diets’ or are even ‘overweight.’ Both of these concepts are based on culturally-constructed marketing concepts sold to us by multi-million dollar companies. Secondly, even using the term ‘healthy’ for food is ridiculous. How can something that is dead be ‘healthy’? Okay, sometimes people eat food that is not dead, but most of us will eat dead and / or processed plants or animals. ‘Healthy‘ refers to an organic material, plant or animal, that is alive and thriving. When we eat, our bodies take nutrients from what we consume, not ‘health.’ One could say that “Kale is nutritious” because it contains a lot of nutrients that human bodies need to remain healthy. But so does a bag of chips and a glass of beer! I just found out about this trend in Berlin called BierYoga, I’m all for it! Why not bring together two things you’re passionate about? I’ve heard some German yogis say that they will never drink beer because it gives them a thick belly. As the old school yogis proudly display their beer bellies, these westerners fall prey to capitalist vanity. I myself don’t see the point of such restrictions, and want to enjoy my life with a few beers now and then. And I will rock my belly in a bikini, despite your jealous sneers. Yes, I do think that fat-shaming comes from a place of jealousy over the fact that this ample-bodied person allows themselves to indulge in the enjoyment of eating and drinking, and the one watching their waistline places themselves in a prison of calorie-counting and latest diet fads. Who’s the one with the ‘unhealthy’ eating habits here? It’s not so easy to say, is it?

“Emotional over-eating is the cause of obesity …”

Some people, no matter how careful they are with what they eat are still unhealthy, and those who just eat whatever they want whenever they want are very healthy, like myself. Emotional over-eating is not the problem. And I would even venture to say that emotional over-eating may stem from the very thing you keep pushing at people. Mainstream beauty ideals tend to alienate more people than they include. Weight-loss ads just create more eating disorders than they help people get healthier. Contemporary western society is so food-obsessed that we’ve lost track of what food can do for us as social human beings and how we can connect to each other. People are constantly counting calories, worrying about whether what’s in their food is GMO or contains this preservative or that salt, or whether something is deemed as organic or fits in with the latest hipster trend and makes them look cool. I fear that people don’t enjoy their food anymore, that it’s become a status symbol, something to post on Facebook. I’ve heard people say “at our age, we have to leave more on our plates” when ordering at restaurants. So… what happens to the food on your plate? It gets tossed in the garbage. This just emphasizes your status as a wealthy person who can afford to order a lot of food, and then not eat it, because you’re ‘trying to keep slim.’ This makes me so angry when I see food go to waste. Food should *not* be a status symbol. In most places of the world, people eat what they can get their hands on. They cherish the food that they have available to them, because there IS nothing else. I grew up with food as a social tradition. We would gather around a feast. Food was important to keeping our culture thriving, and over-eating was a sign of respect. And we would never, ever leave food on our plates. If we couldn’t eat it all, we would put it away as leftovers for the next day, because there was a time when my family remembered having very little or nothing to eat and they didn’t want to go through that again. In South Korea, over-eating is one of the most popular things to marvel at – it has become a kind of sporty entertainment! And here in the west, we’re ‘counting calories.’ Except for the lower-income people who don’t have access to fresh produce. Could these so-called ‘food deserts‘ be the cause of obesity in the United States? These are also often in places where city folk don’t venture to go, there are no yoga studios in a lot of these lower-income regions, no soccer fields, no cooking classes. People are struggling for survival in a society that deems them under class, they don’t have time to count calories or the money to buy better food.

“Obesity IS the cause of many illnesses our society is suffering…”

The capitalist machine has invented a fear of ‘fatness’ to sell us overly-priced food and weight-loss regimes. The capitalist machine has also invented fast food, deep fryers and over-sweetened our cereal, so that they can feed the machine, shower us with images of what we should look like and sell us back weight-loss regimes. It’s a well-thought out campaign to keep profits high and consumers feeling shitty about how they look. This is the reason why weight-loss ads earn money for web platforms like this one I went to. The manager claimed that he would like to represent diversity, but he wants to keep the website going. Yup, weight-loss ads sell, and diversity makes you no income, because it is revolutionary and counters capitalistic devices. I’m not going to disagree that a lot of excess fat in the body contributes to heart disease and limited mobility. But people get heart disease who are slimmer as well, and limited mobility can be caused be a lot of different reasons. When I was attending the first module of the yoga therapy teacher training program, the teacher, who’s also a practicing orthopedist, asked us if anyone knew what the main reason for bad knees was. A fellow student piped up, believing that obesity was the cause. He shook his head, ‘no,’ and said that’s one of the most common misconceptions. Yes, people who carry around extra weight, like myself, stress their knees more than smaller people. But that can actually create more strength in the knees, because of the pressure on the bones. Time and again, with every illness in the body, he kept referring to “too much sitting” as the most common cause of illness in our society.

Advertisers feign interest in people’s health in order to make more money for themselves. They don’t actually care about the health of other people. If they did, they’d stop shoving images of plastic unattainable bodies at us, fast food and weight-loss campaigns. If you really want to help people get more healthy, you’d actually go into lower-income communities and open up community kitchens with affordable nutritious food, cooking classes, economically-accessible exercise programs and community events that get people interacting with each other and moving around. Reduce the workweek, so people spend less time sitting at desks. Provide everyday office activities that everyone would enjoy – going for a walk or lunchtime yoga. Weight-loss ads only benefit those who are selling the ads, nobody else. Body Positivity is about enjoying yourself, your body, how it is now. My interpretation of mindful eating is rather than a selfish and vain approach of ‘watching what you eat’, to enjoy and be thankful for what I have to eat, and to recognize the connection between all of us on the planet through food.

Juli teaches Community Yoga classes in Berlin, with a focus of creating space for those who feel marginalized by mainstream yoga, offering classes both in German and English. Juli offers two weekly Vinyasa Flow yoga classes at our English yoga Kreuzberg studio

Tips for starting your personal meditation practice

meditatorOne way to describe meditation is that it is to experience what is happening, like we’re watching a film, rather than like we’re the protagonists. To witness with detachment. And then, behind the stream of impressions, you discover the one that is witnessing. It’s like coming home.

There’s very many meditation techniques, from all parts of the world and times of history. One of the most popular is to just sit quietly following the free-flow of breath. Although some meditations use movement, many of the best meditation practices for beginners rely on sitting completely still.

Today, with phone apps like Headspace, endless amount of guided meditations in YouTube, audio files, books, etc., it is not too difficult go get into meditation. These learning and practicing aids are good and useful, but there’s no substitute for the direct guidance of a teacher, and the inspiring energy of a group of meditators sitting around you.

Once you choose a method, and maybe a class or a group of friends to meet regularly with, you may want to set a few minutes of each day to “come to yourself”. Having a daily (or semi-daily) meditation practice, as short as five minutes, will simply change your life. You’ll be wondering how you lived so long without it.

Here’s some things to consider if you want to try it out at home. Think of it as an adventure, an exploration of the inner landscape. Each day, you sit for a few minutes to go into another dimension for a little tour.

  • Find a suitable space, away from disturbance or too much activity. Make yourself a little corner for you and your meditation.
  • Find a suitable time. The best time can only be determined by you. Maybe link your meditation practice with another activity that you must perform each day (do it either before or after that activity).
  • Set a timer, so you don’t have to think about it, but also so that you meditate just the amount of time you decide.
  • Do it on a fairly empty stomach.
  • Do it without caffeine or sugar highs.
  • Consider your pose. If you sit on a chair, don’t lean against the backrest and have your feet flat on the floor. However you sit, have a straight back and, most importantly, be comfortable. When your body distracts you often from the meditation, then you know is time to review your pose.
  • Remain still. The stillness of the mind is easier achieved and maintained when we don’t move the body. The simple act of being still (not acting) activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • Set an intention to be there. Just a decision that you will be engaged in the meditation; for example, that you will be present (if you tend to daydream) or alert (if you tend to doze-off). Make it positive.
  • Come to the meditation without expectations. But if you do have expectations, then be aware of them and how they influence you.
  • Keep a journal. It is a great tool to chart your journey and keep your meditation in perspective. Don’t use it to analyze, evaluate or judge your meditation, simply note your experiences and insights.
  • If you ever combine your meditation with other yoga practices, do them in this order: yoga poses, breathing exercises, relaxation, meditation.
  • Breathing exercises, specially Nadi Shodana, are an excellent complement to meditation and will give you a deeper experience if you practice them before.
  • When you end the meditation, move slowly and mindfully.  But don’t try to hold on to the meditative state.  Just be natural and engage life fully. 

At English Yoga Berlin we host Tantric meditation courses.  Stay tuned for the next one, or send us an email to find-out more.  All of our Hatha Yoga, Vinyasa Flow and Tantra Yoga classes include the meditative deep relaxation Yoga Nidra, or a similar guided relaxation.  See our schedule for details.

Deep Yoga for Deep Tension: Yoga Nidra Explained

Yoga in English, Kreuzberg BerlinDepending on where you are from or how far you are in your own personal yoga practice, you may not yet be familiar with Yoga Nidra. But with all the stress going on in the world, and more specifically, in our everyday lives, finding ways to relieve deep tension in our bodies and minds is becoming increasingly important. At our English Yoga studio in Kreuzberg, what unites us as a collective is that we end every class no matter which style of yoga (Hatha Yoga, Vinyasa Flow and Tantric Yoga) with a guided relaxation using techniques inspired by Yoga Nidra. We also have an audio collection of recorded relaxations here on our website!

Yoga Nidra is the practice of conscious deep sleep.  It is a specific yoga in and of itself where we learn how to relax deeply by practicing pratyahara, or detachment, with the eventual goal of attaining a state of inner peace. When we practice Yoga Nidra we enter a state of very deep relaxation in which we travel through the layers of our conscious, subconscious and unconscious minds.

3 Types of Tensions
When you think about your life, you may think that there are a million kinds of tensions around every corner, just waiting to cause you stress. But the tensions that people experience could be divided into three basic categories:

  • Muscular
  • Emotional
  • Physical

Muscular tensions arise from the body itself, the nervous system and through endocrine imbalance. Emotional tensions arise from the duality of emotions such as love/hate, joy/sadness, success/failure, which we are not able to express freely. This inability to express our emotions means that they become repressed and get deeply rooted in our unconscious. Mental tension arises from excessive mental activity. The monkey mind can be a whirlpool of fantasies, confusions, and oscillations of thoughts which when uncontrolled can become a source of real discomfort and pain.

Techniques
Some of the techniques used in order to cleanse these tensions include the rotation of consciousness, concentration on different sounds, opposite sensations, rapid imagery and visualization. Through the practice of yoga Nidra the practitioner undergoes a cleansing of mental, emotional, and physical tensions.

focus is a technique used in yoga nidra

Rotation of Consciousness
The rotation of consciousness involves taking the practitioner’s awareness to different parts of the body. It is said that wherever we center our attention it becomes the place where we also center our energy. Bringing ones awareness to each part of the body increases the energy in that part and allows the participant to identify and relax tensions there.

Auditory Focus
Often in our Yoga Nidra class we concentrate on different sounds. This technique helps the students to withdraw from the other senses (vision, taste, feeling, smells) and only leave one channel, the auditory one, open. The idea is that the participant stays aware of the directions coming from the instructor, but practices detachment from all other stimuli. This focus can increase a feeling of inner peace because when the mind is not getting overwhelmed with input, it is less likely to create intense mental fluctuations and more likely to be calm.

Opposite Sensations
Students are asked to focus on experiencing opposite sensations in Yoga Nidra. For example heaviness/lightness, sadness/elation, cold/warm. As previously said, emotional tension arises from the duality of emotions. By asking the student to temporarily experience emotions that they are not presently feeling, and then to experience the opposite emotion, this technique is used to neutralize emotions. This often allows the practitioner to go into a deeper state of relaxation, one that lies beyond the limitations of their emotional world.

lucid dreaming often occurs with yoga nidra practiceRapid Imagery
Rapid imagery involves a number of different things being named in quick succession and the student being asked to visualize each of them, then let them go so that they can move on to the next one. Because the mind tends to wander on its own and create its own fluctuations, this practice can help regulate this activity. For example when the image “waves breaking on a deserted beach” is given, then one could start thinking of the last time they were on the beach. They then think of who they were with, the emotions this caused and then start analyzing that past situation. But before this can happen in Yoga Nidra practice, the next image is given, considered and then asked to be released. It is a method of learning how to guide the mind so that we can learn to visualize and to release images that produce subconscious reactions. This, taken into our everyday life, can decrease our levels of stress and help us to achieve a more consistent sense of wellbeing.

 

The Shatkarma: Yogic Cleansing Methods

 

Yoga is more than just yoga poses. In the classical tradition there are eight aspects of yoga, of which the first are cleansing processes: methods to remove toxins and sluggishness from the body’s organs. In sanskrit, this branch of yoga is called Shatkarma (Shat = six and Karma = processes) and, as its name implies, they are six in number. In anticipation of our Spring Cleaning Workshop, we bring you a brief description of each of the Shatkarma.

shatkarma_FB_Ad

1) Neti: Jala Neti, the process of rinsing the nose with salt water, is very popular today. It is widely recommended by doctors, and you can find Neti pots in most large pharmacies and grocery stores. Another variation, Sutra Neti, uses a waxed string for the same purpose.

2) Dhauti: This is the collective name of several methods used to cleanse the entire gastrointestinal tract, from the mouth to the anus. Some of these techniques also cleanse the respiratory system and remove bacteria from the eyes, nose and ears. One of the most important of these methods is Shankhaprakshalana, the intestinal cleanse.

3) Nauli: A powerful practice  where one massages all the internal organs, stimulating the digestion, balancing the endocrine system, increasing enenergy and activating the body’s natural detoxifying mechanisms.

4) Basti: A technique for washing and strenghtening the colon. It removes excess bacteria, stool and gas from the lower intestines.

5) Kapalbhati: This is both a Shatkarma and a Pranayama (breathing technique). Kapal means Cranium or Forehead and Bhati means Light or Splendour. Kapalbhati is translated as “Frontal Brain Cleaning” and is a technique for invigorating the whole brain. This is achieved through a physiological connection between the breath and the cerebrospinal fluid.

6) Trataka: Steadily gazing on one point. It relieves eye ailments, making the eyes clear and bright. It also improves a whole range of physiological and mental functions. Used in the treatment of insomnia, depression and anxiety, Trataka improves the memory and concentration. In our classes, we practice Trataka on a candle flame, but virtually anything can be used as the object of concentration.

The Shatkarma are simple enough to practice, and there is a wealth of information on the internet, both in English and in German, but most of these practices should definitely not be attempted without the guidance of a qualified teacher. We at English Yoga Berlin have been teaching these methods at regular two-day workshops where you can learn the most important methods from each group.

Yoga for Jaw and Neck Tension: Finding and Relaxing your Atlanto-occipital Joint

jaw tension

jaw tension

The atlanto-occipital joint is the joint at the very top of the cervical vertebrae: where the spine meets the skull. The very top vertebrae on the spine is called the atlas, and the two little curved, kidney-shaped bones that it meets at the skull are called the occipital condyles: hence the name, atlanto-occipital joint. It’s between your ears, at the back of your head—the spot where your head balances on your spine. Here is a cool 3D picture to give you a visual.

This is the joint that you use to nod your head (like you’re saying ”yes”). It’s connected to the upper back, to the shoulders, to the jaw and to the arms. So, if this joint is restricted, it can cause all kinds of chaos: headaches, shoulder ache, jaw ache, poor posture and overall difficulty balancing and moving freely. If you spend a lot of time looking at a computer screen, you probably have some rigidity in this joint. Equally, if you grind your teeth or have jaw or shoulder pain, you should probably learn to relax your atlanto-occipital joint—it will help! Conversely, when this joint is relaxed and stable, you will hold your head properly and your posture will be ”up” and ”open”.

Like with all bodywork, the first step is awareness. This joint is a very fine and subtle one. To find it, you need to gently explore, with small movements, the spot where your spine meets your skull. You can try making small circles with your head—imagine drawing little circles on the wall with your nose. You can also try making figure of eights (infinity symbols). Make sure you release your jaw and tongue intentionally as you do this. And, most important: these movements should feel good. They’re helping you bring fluidity and space to an area that is probably very tight. Just doing these movements for 5 or 10 minutes every day will help you bring awareness to the area, and that will begin to change your posture and habitual movements. Here is a cool video that shows you some ways to gain awareness of your atlanto-occipital joint.

As your awareness of the joint builds, you can start to build ”softening” it into your yoga practice. Every time you catch yourself glaring, setting your jaw, wrinkling your forehead—you’re probably contracting your atlanto-occipital joint, too. Make those little head movements a part of settling into every static pose, and release your jaw and tongue whenever you can remember to! Particularly good asana for feeling the state of the atlanto-occipital joint are Standing Forward Bend (Uttasana—please keep your knees a bit bent, especially for those of you with disc issues!) and Downward Facing Dog (keep that head loose!).

March 1st: Embodied Kundalini for the Glands Workshop

This 2.5hr yoga workshop is a great opportunity to get to know your own body in a different way, learn some Kundalini techniques and give your endocrine system a supportive boost as the Springtime arrives! Poet, dancer and bodyworker Laressa Dickey will use embodied anatomy techniques from BMC (Body Mind Centering) to guide participants through a non-dogmatic, highly personal exploration of what Kundalini Yoga can offer for the glands. For more information, click here.

English Yoga, 10997 KreuzbergWhen?  Saturday, March 1st, from 11h until 13h30

Where? English Yoga Berlin’s Kreuzberg yoga studio, Goerlitzerstr 39 (map here)

How much? sliding scale, 15 to 30euro

The workshop is limited to 10 participants; please get in touch if you would like to reserve a space.