Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

The 8 Limbs of Yoga

What is Yoga?

Yoga is a spiritual and physical practice that was created over 3,000 years ago in India. Yoga, meaning “union”, is intended to connect the mind to the body.

There are many different types of yoga. The physical practice is called Hatha Yoga, “ha” meaning sun and “tha” meaning moon, and its purpose is to unite opposites and stretch the body in all directions.  The physical practice was invented specifically so that yogis could sit comfortably erect in meditation without too many pins and needles in their bodies.

Hatha Yoga is what we think of when we refer to yoga in the West, however, as you will read below, yoga is much more than just the physical practice where we contort, strengthen, and stretch our bodies.

Wait a minute… What if I am not interested in a spiritual path? Can I still practice yoga?

Of course you can! The spiritual path of yoga is not for everyone. The beauty of yoga is that the philosophy can be adapted to fit your personal beliefs.

Even if you practice yoga just for the health benefits, or the amazing workout of asana, you can still call yourself a yogi. Likely what will happen is that even if you practice only asana and nothing else, you will find yourself able to deal with stress much better than before, which will improve your quality of life.

The 8 Limbs of Yoga

The asanas are just one part of yoga. There are, in fact, 8 limbs to yoga, which represent the intention of our yoga practice. These 8 limbs were written out in the Yoga Sutras by the sage Patanjali around 300 BCE.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali explained that the purpose of yoga is to calm the mind so that we can elevate our conscious awareness. He laid out an 8 fold path.

The 8 limbs of Yoga are:

Yamas (the restraints)                     Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal)
Niyamas (ethical observances)     Dharana (concentration)
Asana (postures)                              Dhyana (meditation)
Pranayama (breathing)                 Samadhi (higher consciousness)

The 8 limbs are meant to be a series of progressive stages where we begin to explore our ability to live in a state of Samadhi.

Samadhi, meaning bliss, refers to living our lives in a state of equanimity, where no matter what the circumstances are we can be content. The place of contentment comes through the journey of the other 7 limbs where we learn non-attachment to the fruits of our labor; giving, working, and loving just for the sake of doing the right thing.

But the 8 limbs does not start at the finish line, of course.

The “10 Commandments” of Yoga

The first two limbs of yoga are the Yamas and the Niyamas, which together make up the “10 Commandments of Yoga”. The Yamas are the restraints that Patanjali suggested allowed us to live a more selfless life. The Niyamas are the ethical observances that he recommended we adopt to live more healthfully and consciously.

The 5 Yamas are:

  • Ahimsa – Non-Harming
  • Satya – Truthfulness
  • Asteya – Non-Stealing
  • Brahmacharya – Control
  • Aparigraha – Non-Greed

The 5 Niyamas are:

  • Saucha – Cleanliness
  • Santosha – Contentment
  • Tapas – Heat/Passion
  • Svadhyaya – Self-Study
  • Ishvarapranidhana – Surrender to God, or surrender to the powers greater than yourself, or simply, surrender to that which is.

Asana

Asana means “seat”. In the Yoga Sutras, the word asana was used to represent the seat upon which a yogi sat to meditate. Asana includes the physical postures we associate with the word “yoga” in the West.

Part of the Niyamas is tapas, or heat. Asana is meant to purify the body using the heat that we build as we practice the athletic aspects of yoga. Yogis treat their body as a temple, and asana is the method by which that temple is maintained.

Pranayama

The second sutra in the Yoga Sutra states that yoga is a practice by which we still the mind. Pranayama is the breath work that yogis use to calm the mind.

There are dozens of breathing practices used by yogis, each of which have a different purpose. Some of the breath work stimulates the body to prepare it for intense labor, and some of the breath work is calming and relaxing. Some are meant to warm the body, and some are meant to cool the body. Others relax certain areas that commonly hold tension. There are even breathing techniques that intend to bring yogis to higher levels of conscious awareness.

As different as they are, all of the pranayama techniques have purpose along the 8 limbs of yoga.

Pratyahara

Pratyahara means withdrawal of the senses. Why would we want to withdraw from the senses?, you might as. Withdrawal from the senses allows the mind to begin to look inwardly so that the next limb of yoga can be achieved.

Dharana

Pratyahara withdraws the distractions of the senses from the mind so that the mind can reach Dharana, which means concentration. The Sutras claim that with single-pointed awareness, the yogi can move to the next stage of the 8 limbs. Are you beginning to see how the limbs are intended to be followed in a sequence?

Dhyana

Dhyana translates to meditation. Remember that asana was created so that the yogi could sit comfortably in meditation. Through purifying the heart with the yamas and the niyamas; keeping the body strong and relaxed through asana; stilling the mind through pranayama; withdrawing from the senses with pratyahara; finding concentration with dharana; the yogi finally comes to a place where the mind can be quiet enough to sit in meditation.

Samadhi: Why We Meditate

Yogis meditate to reach Samadhi, bliss. Through meditation, yogis can begin to explore the intentions behind their actions. With this kind of svadhyaya (self-study), equanimity can be achieved.

As previously mentioned, the path of yoga is a path to live without attachment to the fruits of our labor. To live for the sake of living. To give for the sake of giving. To love for the sake of loving.

When we live from a place where we are not attached, inner peace is achieved. By not being attached to the results of our actions, there is no place in our hearts for greed, jealousy, resentment, anger, or heartache. When we peel away those negative emotions, we find our true nature, which is love.

More importantly, through non-attachment, yogis are content (santosha) regardless of the circumstance. Does that mean they are never sad? Of course not. What it means is that even though yogis might be sad, we are aware that “this too shall pass”.

Nothing is constant except change. Yogis understand that the ups and downs of life are all fleeting moments. True happiness, true contentment, true satisfaction can only come from within.

Yoga is a path to enlightenment, and yogis believe that enlightenment is living without attachment to action, equanimity.

To Practice or Not to Practice

Remember, you do not have to be on a spiritual journey to practice yoga, but I am sharing this with you because most people do not know that there is more to yoga than just the physical practice.

Please feel free to continue practicing asana or meditation, or only the limbs suit your needs. Regardless of how many limbs you practice, you will reap rewards!

Namaste,

~Amber

Namaste

Have you ever wondered what the word “namaste” means? Yoga teachers use it all the time, but not everyone knows its meaning.

Namaste is a traditional greeting used in India. It is often accompanied by a bow with the hands at the heart in Anjali mudra (prayer position). Anjali mudra is a sign of respect across Asia.

In India, it is not necessary to say “namaste”, as the bow with the hands at the heart means the same thing.

Namaste is a Sanskrit word that literally translates to “I bow to you”. To bow is to acknowledge respect to the person in front of you.

But namaste means more than that to yoga practitioners.

What’s love got to do with it?

That the hands are placed at the heart chakra gives a deeper meaning to the phrase namaste. The heart chakra is where the ancient yogis believed love flowed.

Have you ever felt warmth in your chest after hugging someone? Yogis would say that is love flowing in your heart chakra.

Namaste can also be translated to something along the lines of “the divine spirit in me honors the divine spirit within you”.

In yoga, and in many of the world’s greatest philosophies–or all for that matter–love is a state of being. Love and happiness are our natural state, and everything else is an obstacle to that natural state of being.

By saying namaste to someone, we are also honoring that natural, divine state. When we honor that divine state, we honor the similarities we have as humans.

The below image explains it very well: “Namaste – I honor the place in you in which the entire universe dwells. I honor the place in you which is of love, of truth, of light and of peace. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are one.”

What can namaste do for you?

Understanding the deeper meaning behind the custom is a start to realizing that yoga is not just about the postures. There is a rich philosophy behind yoga.

As a yoga teacher, I wish for everyone to find that true state of love and happiness if that is their desire. That is why I teach, that is why I blog, and that is why I post positive affirmations on Facebook and Twitter.

With that in mind, I say to you, “Namaste”.

“There is no way to happiness – happiness is the way.”  ~Thich Nhat Hanh

With love,

~Amber

 

Get A Little Uncomfortable

Progress does not promise itself to be easy. Growth is not necessarily comfortable. In fact, sometimes we have to get uncomfortable if we want things to change.

Most great religions claim something to the effect of ask and ye shall receive. But in order for the things that you want to come into your life, room must be made; ergo, a change must occur.

What is your reaction to change? Do you freak out? If so you are not alone, because most people react this way.

Maybe a better reaction would be for us to ride the wave of change and see where it takes us. We must stay aware and be honest of the emotions that come along with scary change, but we should not resist them.

On the Mat, Off the Mat

Yoga teaches us to stay open to possibility. The asana practice does not promise to be comfortable. In fact, if your practice is vigorous, it is often painful at times. Those are just called growing pains.

What is important to pay attention to is our reactions to the pain, because that is often going to be similar to our reactions to change when it presents itself in our lives.

The physical asana practice of yoga is a metaphor for spiritual growth. How we react on the mat is often how we react in life.

The incredible thing about yoga, in my opinion, is that we can grow spiritually and emotionally while maintaining physical health, strength and flexibility through asana.

All yoga asks us to do in order to grow is to remain aware of our reactions to the events that occur in life. Stay present, stay open, stay loving, and everything will work out in the end.

What happens in between asking for what you want and receiving it is a journey. To lose the individual moments of the journey would be a terrible waste of time.

Time is the medium through which life occurs. It is life’s canvas; so it is best not to waste time if we can help it.

Practice Makes Perfect

Since the theme of this week’s blog is discomfort, I will share with you a pose I find terribly uncomfortable. I do it anyway, but it is murder on my coccyx (tailbone).

This pose is called Navasana, or Boat Pose. Full Boat Pose, or Paripurna Navasana, is when the legs are extended, but the pose can also be practiced with the shins parallel to the ground.


If this posture looks like a terrible idea, do not fret. There are modifications, like all yoga poses.

  1. To come into Navasana, begin in a seated position with the knees into the chest.
  2. Place the hands behind the hamstrings, and pull the knees into the chest. Rock back onto your sitting bones. Pull your lower abs in deeply and straighten the spine. The abdominals are pulled in tightly to the spine.
  3. Try balancing yourself on your sitting bones with your feet, or at least your heals off the ground. If that feels ok, challenge yourself to lift your shins parallel to the ground. Squeeze your inner thighs together, keep the spine straight, the abs pulled in tightly, and keep the thighs close to the abdomen.
  4. The next krama, or stage, would be to remove the hands from the hamstrings, and float the arms parallel to the ground. The shoulders blades slightly hug together, and the shoulder joints reach downward toward the hips. The palms remain open. The fingers are active.
  5. The next krama would be to straighten the legs with the feet flexed, kicking through the heels. Continue to breath.

Modifications:

  1. The hands can be placed on the floor by the hips.
  2. The hands can remain behind the hamstrings at all times until the arms can float parallel to the ground.
  3. Keep the knees bent.

Tips:

  1. If it is really painful on your tailbone, as it is on mine, try folding a towel a few times and sitting on it when performing Navasana.
  2. Even though this pose is very challenging to the abdominals to the point where you could be shaking, try to smile through it. Smiling really helps get people through difficult postures.

Benefits:

  1. This posture strengthens the abdominals, the hip flexors, and muscles along the spine.
  2. Navasana improves digestion and helps to relieve stress.
  3. This posture also stimulates the kidneys, the thyroid gland, and the intestines.

Hard Work Reaps Great Rewards

Remember, strong abdominals make for a healthy spine, good posture, and healthy internal organs. Even though this posture is difficult and can be uncomfortable, all of your hard work will bring great rewards.

With discomfort can come great benefit to our minds, our bodies and our lives. It is ok to be a little uncomfortable, a little off-balance, or off-kilter, as long as we stay aware of what we are experiencing.

When the great religions of the world said something to the effect of “ask and ye shall receive”, they never promised the receiving part would come easy. 🙂

Love,

~Amber

The Giving of Thanks

How was your Thanksgiving? I hope it was full of love, laughter and gratitude.

Have you ever wondered why gratitude makes you feel so good? Well, the emotion of gratitude releases levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. These are chemicals that make you feel good.

Not everyone has a healthy relationship with their relatives. For some, holidays are stressful and toxic.

But even if your Thanksgiving was not full of love or laughter, if it is at the very least it was filled with gratitude, then the holiday should make you feel good physically.

More importantly, giving thanks makes other people feel good. They will in turn hopefully give thanks to others, setting off a chain reaction of positive vibes.

So, try it today. Try paying forward some positive energy and see if it makes you feel good inside. It surely will help others feel good.

Posture: Matsyasana

For this week’s posture, I would like to discuss Matsyasana, Fish Posture.

Matsyasana, Fish Posture

Matsyasana can be performed with effort or restoratively. It is also a heart opener.

As the name suggests, heart openers pull your shoulders toward the backside (posterior side) of your body allowing for the muscles of the chest to open. This posture also opens the intercostals.

When the chest muscles are opened, the back muscles contract, so this posture activates the trapezius muscles, latissimus dorsi, the rhomboids and the posterior deltoids. When the legs are extended straight forward, the quadriceps are also engaged.

 The Practice

To practice Matsyasana with effort, begin on your back with your legs extended. Then follow these steps.

  1. Tuck your tailbone under to broaden the sacrum and lengthen the lumbar spine.
  2. Flex your feet and activate your quadriceps
  3. Place your hands under your sitting bones.
  4. Draw your shoulders away from your ears, lengthening thorough the cervical spine.
  5. Press into your elbows to lift your chest up. Imagine a string is attached to your heart center pulling your chest upwards. Continue to press into your elbows. There is very little weight on the crown of your head.

To practice Matsyasana restoratively, place a block at your shoulder blades (not in your low back) and one block underneath the back of the head (optional). Let go of effort.

You can also place your feet in Supta Baddha Konasana, Bound Angle Pose, by letting the soles of the feet touch and the knees fall out to either side of the mat. Try to relax, breathe, and release tension.

You could even try practicing gratitude here with your heart open, a metaphorical posture showing your willingness to give.

Benefits

  • Fish posture helps relieve anxiety and stress.
  • This posture increases your ability to take a fuller longer breath by opening the intercostals muscles and the chest muscles (pectoralis major).
  • This posture also can help improve posture by opening the shoulders.

Happy Heart Opening!

Love,

~Amber

Remedies for Sore Muscles

Yoga Mala

On Sunday, I did a Yoga Mala, which is 108 sun salutations done in a row. This particular Yoga Mala was a fundraiser I did for lung cancer research. My grandfather died in August of lung cancer. Yogis call a fundraising Yoga Mala a Yogathon, like a marathon.

In today’s post, I am sharing pictures from the Yogathon. Also, below is an explanation of a sun salutation and why we perform 108, as well as remedies to combat muscle soreness from overexertion.

My Yogathon temporary tattoo on my hand. 🙂

My sign dedicating my 108 sun salutations to my grandfather.

Sun Salutation – Surya Namaskar

A sun salutation is a sequence of 9 breaths. In Sanskrit, a sun salutation is called Surya Namaskar.

There are many variations of sun salutations, but below is the sequence we practiced 108 times in our Yogathon.

Surya Namaskar A

  1. 
Inhale – Urdhva Hastasana (Upraised Hand Posture)
  2. Exhala – Uttanasana (Intense Stretch/Forward Fold)
  3. Inhale – Ardha Uttanasana (Half Intense Stretch/Half Forward Fold)
  4. Exhala – Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Posture)
  5. Inhale – Urdhva Mukha Savasana (Upward Facing Dog)
  6. Exhale – Adho Mukha Savasana (Downward Facing Dog)
  7. Inhale – Ardha Uttanasana (Half Intense Stretch/Half Forward Fold)
  8. Exhale – Uttanasana (Intense Stretch/Forward Fold)
  9. Inhale – Urdhva Hastasana (Upraised Hand Posture)

The Sacred 108

108 sun salutations sounds like a lot of work. Yes, it is really hard as it sounds. It took about 2 hours and 30 minutes to complete a Yoga Mala with this sequence.

A lot of people ask why we perform 108 sun salutations. The number 108 is a sacred number in yoga and in Hinduism. There are many explanations as to why this is.

The simplest explanation is that Hindu prayer beads have 108 beads strung together, along with one guru bead. The prayer beads are used to say a mantra 108 times, very similar to Catholic rosary beads.

Combating Muscle Soreness

It should go without saying that performing 108 sun salutations will cause overexertion of the muscles. There are several tricks I recommend to people when they have overly exerted their muscles.

The first trick I recommend is to eat potassium rich foods after the work out or practice, Some common potassium rich foods are bananas, tomato sauce, avocados, most legumes, and coconut water. Muscles cramp up when they lack potassium, so feeding the muscles potassium will prevent muscle cramping and fatigue.

Anyone who has ever worked out too hard, shoveled snow, or performed any other form of manual labor is familiar with muscle soreness and stiffness a day or two after the exertion. This muscle soreness is caused by a build up of lactic acid in the muscles.

The first way I recommend combating muscle soreness is to do some light working out. Warming the muscles back up with keep the muscles from feeling stiff, and movement will work the lactic acid out of the muscles.

Another trick is to take a warm bath in Epsom salts. Epsom salts have long been used as a remedy for sore, achy muscles.

The final recommendation I have is to use a tennis ball or a myofascial release foam roller to massage out the lactic acid in the aching muscles.

Some may have seen a myofascial release foam roller in the gym. It is a cylinder-shaped dense foam apparatus that is used to iron out muscle soreness. Personally, I massage my shoulders and arms with a tennis ball, and use a foam roller on my back and lower body to relieve muscle soreness.

I used all of these tricks on Sunday after the Yogathon to ease my sore muscles. The next time you have muscle soreness or stiffness due to muscle fatigue, see if these remedies work for you.

Love,

~Amber

P.S. My fundraising for lung cancer research continues through December 31, 2011. If you would like to make a donation, please click here. Thank you for your consideration to help fund research and to raise awareness for the number one killing cancer in America. Remember, not everyone who gets lung cancer is a smoker, but lung cancer research is the most underfunded cancer in the country because of that stigma.

Stay Open to Possibility

I have written before that other people’s opinions of your are none of your business. In a similar fashion, the opinion that you hold of someone else speaks more about you than about that person.

Judgment is a dangerous thing. Once you pass judgment on someone or something, your opinion tends to be set. Yes, sometimes opinions change, but for the most part, they stay the same for a long time.

Think of your life as a house with a million rooms of possibilities and options. Judgment is a locked door. So, once you have passed judgment, then being open to possibility is not an option.

Amazing things happen in your life when you stay open to possibility. Opportunities that you never saw before present themselves to you. Also, the you are able to evolve to higher levels of awareness.

I highly recommend trying to avoid holding on to judgment. Remember, the mind will judge and critique as part of its nature. That is a survival instinct.

But, the soul is greater than the body and the mind. The mind is a tool; your soul is the real you. Let your mind act as a tool, but let your soul supersede the mind’s decisions.

For instance, next time you find yourself judging someone, try to just notice the judgment you have passed. That judgment is a direct reflection of the way your mind is thinking, not a reflection of that individual.

God bless,

~Amber

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” -Carl Jung

Passing judgment means “Case Closed”.

Work Hard; Play Hard

I took this weekend off, for the most part. I only took one yoga class and I only taught one yoga class. For me, that’s taking off.

Right now I am at a point in my life where I work very long hours during the week. I do this all because I love teaching yoga.

It is very tiring to have such long days. I am fulfilled, but I sure am out of energy by the end of the day.

So this weekend I gave myself the luxury of relaxing and enjoying life to the fullest. It was my way of celebrating my hard work.

I spent time with wonderful people, and I enjoyed myself completely.

My point is that life is meant to be enjoyed. It is not always about work, and it is not always about your spiritual growth.

Life is also not about other people’s expectations of you, and neither is it about your expectations of yourself. Life is for living, not for expecting.

We should be witness to what is happening in life and try to maximize our enjoyment of it. If we are not enjoying ourselves, what is the point of working so hard?

This weekend, I was reminded of this: work hard, play hard. That does not mean play irresponsibly, of course, but it does mean have fun and enjoy yourself when you are able.

Peace,

~Amber

“Fun is good.” -Dr. Seuss