I am excited to announce that I will be collaborating with a few awesome ladies this winter to present a 6-week virtual program that will assist all participants with achieving their wellness goals as we enter the new year!
2020 has been rather stressful and a more unpredictable year than most. That is why we are excited to support you with the offering of holistic tools and classes such as yoga therapy, cosmic readings, meditation and more as we journey forward into a better state of well-being during these confusing times. The program will run from December 14, 2020 to January 23, 2021.
Quite a few aspiring yogis ask me about how to start a practice usually assuming that yoga is about building physical strength and flexibility in order to achieve dope handstands and pretzel folds – no thanks to social media. Sure, those are pretty decent perks that may come with a consistent practice but not really the point of yogic philosophy. I was first introduced to yoga online through the style of Ashtanga. Like some others, this is a very physically demanding style of yoga; one still close to my heart, that has been very helpful to me in some ways. Yet, for the longest I could not figure out why I kept hitting a peak in my practice. It wasn’t until attending teacher training that I realized, for me, this style of yoga was only addressing part of what I came to understand as hatha yoga.
Basically, our energies are comprised of a combination of both yin and yang qualities. Yang describing the masculine and penetrative forces within us that encourage assertive action. Yin describing the feminine and receptive forces that lean toward more nurturing or restorative action. It is a simple yet complex interconnectedness that lives within and all around us in nature in a delicate balance. When there is too much or not enough of either quality, imbalance occurs which shows up as disorder and dis-ease. Hatha describes a practice that acknowledges both types of energy – in the physical, mental, and spiritual realms – in order to keep or restore balance.
Now, imagine only engaging in a routine that is primarily yang promoting – pulling, lifting, pushing, squeezing, forcing. Testing strength and perspective with inversions. Bending and extending with fluid motion. Connecting and building movement on top of movement. Sounds pretty cool, right? However, when I think about the B.K.S. Iyengar quote, “The pose starts when you want to leave it,” it hit differently when I considered how challenging it is for some us to just be still with ourselves for extended periods of time. Society in Western culture has a history of conditioning it’s citizens to embrace “grind culture” as a means to an easier life somewhere down the road, training us to drive ourselves beyond our pains and emotional woes with attempts to bury them with external gratification. Yet, by the time many of us “arrive” – if we ever do – we’re often too burnt out to even remember how to relax and enjoy life. Being in the body becomes a struggle, one equipped with a variety of psychosomatic and spiritual baggage.
Yin yoga, however, is about sitting with the Self. It requires the practitioner to learn which positions are challenging for the mind-body to relax into. Then, learn to approach that Self with the compassion necessary to keep sitting until it grants permission to release those holding patterns in the muscles and fascia tissues. It is primarily designed to build and balance the “chi” or electric energy that flows through the organs and associated channels mapped throughout our bodies, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. This is not to take anything away from other styles of yoga as they all have an important place in the yoga world. Yoga is about balance after all. Some are similar and others quite different from one another with what they address and how. However, let’s get in to a few poses one could begin a yin practice with:
(Variation 1 & 2)
The pose stretches the toes and stimulates six of the energy meridians that start or end in the feet. These are the kidney, urinary bladder, liver, spleen, stomach and gallbladder meridians. Do not sit all the way back on the heels if it strains the knees (variation 2). If there the stretch feels very intense due to tightness in the toes or ankles, do not stay in the pose long. After adding this pose to my regular practice, I’ve noticed my feet feel stronger and I am generally more in control of my body while walking or moving around on my feet. And, naturally, the more often I do it, the longer I am able to stay in the pose.
(With and without props)
This pose can help improve hip rotation! It can, also, bring relief for pregnant mothers (until the 3rd trimester) and folks who live with high blood pressure and asthma. Be careful not to strain the knees in this position. Option to bring the foot of the front leg closer to the groin or use props to bolster the knee for support. Whether my day-to-day has me sitting or standing on my feet for long periods, this pose has acted as a great release or activation for the parts of my legs that I sometimes forget.
(Variations 1, 2, & 3)
This is pose is great for opening up the chest, top of the thighs and even the ankles somewhat. The perfect counter-position for a commonly hunched back. Whether the hands are supporting the low back, resting on the back of the ankles or planted on the foundation behind you, the ideal is to send the hips forward and the chest upward. If taking the option that allows the head to fall back, it can stretch the platysma muscle in the front of the neck as well. However, if you experience any neck issues, you may want to keep the chin towards the chest. It, also, serves to be careful if you have any back injuries or mobility limitations. Practicing this pose regularly has drawn my attention to how much I slouch in my posture and has activated me to seek release through backbend postures more often.
(Variations 1 & 2 with props)
Just as it sounds, the yogi is to curve herself in the shape of a banana. This pose opens up the entire side body, including the obliques around the stomach and the intercostals between the ribs. Option to go as deep into the stretch as the yogi desires. Arms can be raised overhead for a high stretch up the side of the body. Additional support may be needed for that variation such as a bolster or blanket under the arms. The legs may be crossed as well for an added lower stretch down the hip. Be mindful of any joint pain or tingling in the body.
(Without props, with blanket, with bolster)
This is one of my favorite poses! Its benefits range from a gentle spine stretch and massaging of the digestive organs to being psychologically therapeutic for those, like myself, who live with anxiety or deal with heavy stress. It’s a simple pose that can be done with or without the extra support of props such as a blanket under the knees or a bolster to straddle. I include this pose in almost every practice as a break within a flow or as a staple restorative posture. I’d, also, like to note that some bodies are built so that the hips may not come down as low as usually seen. So long as the knees are drawn into the chest and the hips are sitting back towards the heels, you are properly in the pose!
Yoga is truly for everybody. Anyone can start a practice as soon as right now. Simply make the time and create the space. Do not worry about the props you may not have. Just work with what you’ve got and all you really need is you! Have fun exploring these postures and which variations feel good or needed for your body. Feel free to comment on any of my platforms your experiences with these poses. For videos on a guided practice, please tune in and subscribe to the Brittney Shawnee’ YouTube channel.
Thousands of years ago, Chinese medicine practitioners had enough insight to develop the understanding we could not simply be composed of flesh and bone alone. Instead, they regarded the human body as a microcosm of Universe and, therefore, the state of our overall health and well-being is subjected to same Universal laws with harmony and balance being the ultimate goal.
Like the macrocosm of existence, the body is capable of sustaining itself through the carrying out of various cycles and activities that operate in an interconnected flow, vitalized by what is referred to as “qi” or “chi”. This is the energy that flows through and connects all forms of life as the animating force that ignites us beyond pure mechanical functioning and bodily existence.
Over time, it came to be understood that this life force energy flows in specific patterns called channels of meridians, each making their way through certain body parts and organ systems. When these pathways are obstructed due to injury, illness or stress, we face associated physiological and psychological ailments. When blocked for long periods, these issues are considered chronic. It is believed that working through these blockages via “alternative” therapies and practices, such as acupuncture, herbalism, massage and yoga, can help the flow of our energy to run smoothly and bring us back into balance.
The concept of balance in Traditional Chinese Medicine stems from Taoism. This ancient philosophy is founded on the principle that the Universe operates in an inherent flow and in order for one to live a whole and effortless life, they must live in the Tao, or The Way. The Tao, however, is just as indescribable as the complexity of Universe itself and, therefore, is physical as well as non-physical – much like the mind-body. In each case exists dual complimentary forces visible throughout nature. These forces are called yin and yang. Yin describes more feminine qualities (cold, receptive, dark) whereas yang describes more masculine qualities (heat, forceful, light).
TCM also acknowledges that there are five fundamental elements of nature that interact with each other within the principle of yin and yang and categorize our organs, systems and structures. The elements are fire, wood, earth, water and metal. Fire represents our physical warmth , creativity and feelings such as passion and happiness; associated with the small intestines and heart organ. Wood represents our ability to regenerate and restore as well as feelings of anger or contentment; associated with the liver and gallbladder organs. Earth is regarded as the measure of our connected-ness and ability to receive and digest; associated with the stomach and spleen organ and feelings of compassion . Water represents stillness and the physical moisture necessary to lubricate our systems for proper functioning; associated with the kidneys and bladder organs and feelings of fear. Metal represents the minerals we produce and need for structure; associated with the lungs and large intestine (air element in Western culture).
In a generative (yin) cycle, Wood feeds Fire, Fire creates Earth, Earth bears Metal, Metal collects Water, and Water nourishes Wood. In a degenerative (yang) relationship, one element is being destroyed by another: Wood penetrates Earth, Earth absorbs Water, Water puts out Fire, Fire melts Metal, and Metal chops Wood.
It’s important not to perceive one process as good or bad as both construction and destruction serve the overall purpose of harmony in health and in nature. For instance, destruction is necessary in order for the food to be broken down for digestion and nourishment. Rather, it is best to avoid overwhelming extremes for excessive periods of time. Imbalance can be caused in the case of overproduction as well. For example, the overproduction of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is responsible for the condition known as Gigantism, a disorder of excessive growth during childhood that lead to a variety of other health issues.
In conclusion, TCM focuses on the maintenance of the flow of vital life force energy in the body, mind and in connection with all living beings. Surrender and accordance with natural cycles will allow for an effortless balance resulting in overall harmony and satisfaction. The approach is prevention of disease and disorder opposed to only treatment of symptoms. A complete path to wholeness.
I am a member of a Facebook group dedicated to black women who practice yoga. A community space in which we get to share our collectively unique thoughts, opinions and experiences of our demographic living in a society that primarily markets this South Asian practice to thin white women. And while our cultural experiences are similar, it’s is a mixed bag of personalities.
Obvious from the posts and comments, we do not agree on everything and, naturally, are on different spiritual paths and/or parts of our paths. A woman shared a photo from Yoga Journal that depicted Pasasana which is translated as Noose Pose. Anyone familiar with Black American history knows that the sheer sight of a noose or sound of the term can be quite triggering for Blacks. Heavily affiliated with the terrorist practice of lynching, nooses tend to be perceived as quite negative by the Black community, even in a neutral context. I am no different.
When I initially came across the pose, I felt triggered. I immediately asked myself, “What the hell is this?!” My feels jumped suddenly into anxiety mode as the images in my brain teleported me to the days of my grand- and great-grandparents (because Jim Crow and lynching picnics were not that far back in time). However, using my yogi skills, I stilled myself long enough to breath and gander at the posed question: “Did ya’ll know there is a yoga pose called noose pose? What is your immediate reaction when hearing that? How would you feel if a teacher used that word to describe this pose in a class? I’ve attached a photo of the pose for reference.” And just like the group itself, the answers were mixed.
A few responses were, “Should definitely update the name. It is insensitive.”, “Folks just make up poses and put asana at the end …pass.”, and “I completely agree that using the name is not mindful of trauma informed teaching.”. Others were more like, “…No, it’s never triggered me as I’ve always been taught the Sanskrit names …”, and “I personally wouldn’t care. To me thats like being offended at the word cotton.” This was my response:
“As yoga is a practice that reveals ourselves to us, I think triggers like this (while not [likely] the original intent for the pose) are meant to guide us into diving into those traumas so we can heal and learn to experience things as they actually are in the context they come.
I’d be mindful of the audience and my approach but I wouln’t let my trauma of black history stop me from teaching it ever. I see a way it can be done significantly and purposefully. So long as I could tell the instructor was on a similar page, I could respect it being taught in a class I was taking.”
To elaborate, I would likely implement my personally understanding of these negative feelings into a very specific type of class geared towards this trauma in the Black community. Even in my own practice, I can imagine the nooses that hung our ancestors from trees like strange fruit; swinging and burning in the wind. Then I imagine myself as that noose but hugging them lovingly and holding up their spiritual bodies. Not burning, but the memory of them being carried in my being in strength and courage. Understanding that they are forever with me in my work as a yogi – internally and externally.
I truly believe in the stance that I posed wholeheartedly. I’m sure that my view will not be accepted by everyone but it is my truth and I’d like to hope that anyone attracted to a class of mine will be receptive or at least neutral. It is, also, my hope that all yoga teachers – while practicing mindfulness and sensitivity – will not shy away from challenging their students and themselves to address their pains as much as they support their peace. In fact, I see these focuses as going hand-in-hand.
During September full moon in Pisces, I so happened to be with some yoga mates on a retreat in the woods. The energy was great and having nothing but clean well water alongside delicious homegrown vegetarian meals placed me in a very pleasant and clear state of mind – the clearest I had experienced in quite some time. On the final evening of the trip, a few of us stayed outside late around a fire pit to share in each others’ company a while longer when I noticed one person having a hard time fully relaxing into the moment which was apparent for most of the trip. In my efforts to extend a hand and grant this person space to bask in the coolness of the moment, I did this thing I tend to do and started intuitively reading into the individual. There was resistance but the point was eventually grasped as I made my positive intentions clear. Next thing I know, others were asking me to read them, too. I felt overwhelmed by what I was getting myself into but something in me was up for the challenge and I couldn’t stop myself.
The next person I began to read, although requested it, was even more resistant. Thankfully, there was another intuitive woman in the group who contributed to the conversation in a very significant way. I felt like I had some much needed help. The back and forth, although productive, was draining and got into some pretty personal topics. Perhaps, however, it was the vibes from the moon or something else that lead to the shift in my confidence but I remained persistent in getting the message across. Just before the night officially ended, it felt like I had done a good deed …until the next day. I woke up with “the morning after” feeling of awkwardness. Thinking I might have said too much to these people and about their own lives no less, I tried to go about the day as normal as I could pretend to be. However, I could not ignore that one of the persons I had read the previous evening was not their usual vibrant self. I could feel a nerve was struck and I started to feel regret. Should I have done better at shutting myself up? Could I have said some things differently?
In the world of yoga, there are two very thought provoking concepts that are approached differently even depending on what type of yoga one practices: satya and ahimsa. Standing alone, they are easy enough to digest. Tell the truth and do no harm. Simple enough right? Here’s the plot twist: what happens when the truth causes harm?
As an Aries born of a Capricorn woman and married to a Leo man, one can imagine that there are no shortages of hard-truth daggers being thrown at any given moment in my world. It gets rough at times. I’m mostly used to it and find at least some appreciation for it even when it stings. However, as a mindfulness practitioner, I must remember that what works for me does not apply to all and what applies in one moment may not apply in the next. As I grow, I never want to hurt people but to promote awareness and make room for positive change. For this reason, I’ve made a great deal of effort in softening my honest nature with compassion. A big part of this work is learning to recognize the listener for which I have found there are four types: the Hit Me’s, the Be Gentles, the Meet Me in the Middles and the Let’s Argues.
The “Hit Me” Type
The first type is the one that let’s you tell like it is, raw and uncut. They expect the worst so they are not so caught off guard and are adverse to “sugar-coating” as it feels like a downplay to what they can handle emotionally. Even if they get defensive along the way and visible change is slow, they eventually digest the message and appreciate the forwardness.
The “Be Gentle” Type
The second type is all about the feels. Sensibilities lean more towards the delicate side and language and tone are especially important. As you read into them, they are likely reading into every word spoken. When triggered, reactions are extreme. They may be the ones who exhibit self-deprecating behavior when hit too hard with a message or may shut down completely. It is best to discuss more personal matters in a private setting with this type. Avoid sarcasm.
The “Meet Me in the Middle” Type
The third type is a blend of the first two. In my experience, they tend to be the most receptive because they don’t dwell in either extreme. Even if they disagree with the message, they are more likely to hear one out respectfully to at least gather further insight into an outside experience of themselves. They appreciate forwardness but do not take well to unnecessarily abrasive language or tones. They may not require a completely private setting but being surrounded by people they trust is important. Limited sarcasm advised.
The “Let’s Argue” Type
The last type describes the ones who debate for sport. Regardless of your helpful intention or their willful solicitation, they will argue you down. They want to challenge you to support your claim well. It’s wise to be prepared for deflection with this type. They have strong minds and will go to some length to justify their viewpoint. Even those on the opposing side of logic will attempt to find a way to be right or at least confuse you which they may still take as a win. If they choose to be receptive, they will eventually hear you out. You may need to employ some skillful psychological strategy with these guys.
Something else to remember about these types – and this is very important, okay? Most of us are any one or a combination of these types at some point or another. Life is a roller coaster. Sometimes we’re receptive, understanding and willing. Other times we’re sensitive, argumentative and closed-off. There are topics that make us feel more triggered than others and depending on current life events, we could be more short-fused. I’m thankful that all the people I read that night seemed to later appreciate the messages delivered. I think we even became a bit closer because of it. Still, it was a risk I had to take with a certain level of delicacy and consciousness.
It’s also important to note that in spite of the truth we are so certain of from our own experience, there is a possibility that it is not the entire truth. Even after objective observation with the best of intentions we are inevitably biased, judgmental and sometimes hasty. Our brains work this way to make processing easier but we must keep human error in mind and not forget that silence can be a good choice as well. This is where ego can get out of the way to make room for ahimsa if your intention values non-harming over truth. This is for each of us to decide.
I am approaching week nine of my personal yoga flow journey. It turns out keeping up with posting is just as much of a challenge as keeping up with a daily flow practice. I also accidentally skipped an important transitional pose in Part Three of this series. So let’s recap.
I began with downward dog, child’s pose, and frog pose. These asanas get the blood flowing and awaken joints. It’s preparatory for more complicated asanas.
From frog pose, I roll back onto my feet and sink into garland pose or malasana. This a grounding pose and that not only opens the hips but, with hand clasped at the chest, opens the heart for the practice.
Next, I place my hands on the floor and push myself onto my feet for a forward fold. Sometimes my feet are close together or hip distance. These details are always important as your practice should reflect what feels right for you. The should have been the focus of my week three post.
Once on my feet, I bend my knees into my armpits – or as close as possible – tighten my abs and firmly plant my hands into the mat/floor with spread fingers before me and lift my curled body into crow pose or bakasana. This pose is a test of balance, concentration and upper body strength.
Next, I lower one leg to the ground and flexing the other hip and extending the leg straight back. Whichever side my foot is landed, I plant my fingers into the floor and twist my body and extended leg the opposite direction while the other fingertips reaches toward the ceiling . This is half moon or ardha chandrasana. Like most balance asanas, it tests focus. It also increases hip strength.
I then lower the extend leg and arm to the floor, extend the planted leg back into the air behind me and push myself back into three-legged downward dog or eka pada adho mukha svanasana.
The foot of the extended leg then falls to the floor behind the body and takes on the support as the other leg straights and the arm on the side of the supporting leg raises overhead. This pose is called wild thing or camatkarana. This also engages the side body and helps with upper body flexibility. It is also helpful in reminding the Self how to let go and open up.
Continue to let the body fall back and plant both hands and feet onto the flow in wheel pose. This pose requires some back flexibility and upper body strength. It also requires trust in yourself for without it, strength is beside the point. Remember to breath!
Lift on leg straight into the air as far as you can. Do not force this movement. Go slow. With repetition, the thigh and low ab muscles will strengthen as will your confidence.
Remember that your practice is your own and this will more than likely not play out the exact same way each time. Go with your gut and find your flow.
Yoga has been a significant part of my self-improvement. As explained in my What “Yogi Life” Really Means post, it is more than just exercise. Each asana has revealed something to me about myself in multiple aspects.
This week, my Inner Self chose crow pose or bakasana as the next addition to my yoga sequence. I struggled so much when I attempted to conquer this pose for the very first time. I had what felt like zero strength to achieve it. Although I still would not say I’ve mastered it, I certainly see my growth over time as I can now hold it for roughly 10 seconds.
I do not practice this pose as much as I should and it has been noticeable in my yoga practice and my spiritual life. My upper body strength is something I’ve always wrestled with as is trusting myself entirely. This pose requires both upper body strength and a enough self-trust to shift my entire body weight onto my hands with my forehead hanging in a way that it could potentially catch a mishap. Given my more recent personal struggles (that I will not dive in to in this post), I say the Universe/Higher Self is trying to tell me something, eh?