Practicing Yoga: To Begin A Yin

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.

Yin and Yang Harmony by Mohamed Hassan

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:

Toe Squat

(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.

Deer 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.

Camel Pose

(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.

Bananasana

(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.

Child’s Pose

(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.

Until next time. Namaste.

Traditional Chinese Medicine at a Glance

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.

4 Listening Styles to Consider When Telling It Like It Is

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.

Namaste.

Creating a Yoga Flow: Recap Thru Week Nine

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.

Part One

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.

Part Two

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.

Part Three

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.

Part Four

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.

Part Five

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.

Part Six

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.

Part Seven

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.

Part Eight

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!

Eight Nine

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.

Happy flowing! Namaste.

Creating a Yoga Flow: Part Three

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?

Namaste!

 

Creating a Yoga Flow: Part Two

In a recap of my 2018 goals, I am creating a Vinyasa yoga flow for myself that will grow weekly with a new asana. By the end of the year, I will have a 52-pose-long flow that will be a representation of my physical and spiritual growth. I began with downward dog, child’s pose and frog pose. This entry is a bit late as life has already become quite stressful this year which is why my second week’s asana is malasana or garland pose.

Malsana is a squat pose. The knees¬†are to be separated as far as possible in this pose which stretches the adductors and lengthens the muscles around the sacrum. It’s a great asana for balancing the root chakra or Muladhara which has an effect on our level of groundedness. When accompanied with clasped hands at the chest, the heart chakra or Anahata¬†can also be engaged which can help promote overall energetic balance.

During a week such as the one that has just past, this pose helped me to stay level-headed and balanced in spite of some obstacles I have been facing lately. I believe it has contributed to my ability to remain optimist and self-aware on an external and internal level. In engaging in a grounding pose that balances my foundational chakra, my other chakras are better able to flow which will, in turn, have a positive impact on my practice.

I am still encouraging everyone to join me. It’s never too late to get started. Namaste!

Creating a Yoga Flow: Part One

Although now a highly ridiculed phrase, I’m on my “New Year New Me” game. Truthfully, every day is a good time to start enhancing ourselves and setting goals towards our ideal life. However, there’s something special about this season that seems to motivate us. Each year is like a new chapter in our lives in which we get to start fresh with new goals. Unfortunately, many of us tend to fall off the wagon within a few months, weeks, even days. Some find it scoff-worthy; you may even come across comical memes about it online. I think it’s unfair to judge the lot who strive for change even though many of us run into regular life obstacles which, frankly, don’t care about our timelines. On the other hand, some of us simply get bored or overwhelmed with all the goals we’ve set in front of us. I’m certainly guilty myself. So, for 2018, I’m taking a new approach to reaching goals by encompassing them into my yoga practice.

On January 1st, I will begin building a Vinyasa flow that will grow every week. For those new to yoga, Vinyasa is a yoga practice that uses a continuous movement from one pose to another opposed to holding a single pose for an extended period of time – although these methods can be somewhat combined. I’m beginning with 3 asanas and will add a different pose every week accompanied by meditation and a written journal in which I will explain my practice of the 8 Limbs. I will also post a video of the flow on Instagram for visual feedback. The goal is to track my progress throughout the year to see how much I improve mentally, physically and spiritually by the end of 2018. Weekly additions will hopefully ward off boredom and because I choose my own poses and because I am only adding one a week, I will reframe from getting too overwhelmed.

The initial three poses are downward dog, child’s pose and frog pose. Feel free to join me in this challenge and share your progress on social media also. Remember that yoga is more than just poses and physical fitness; it’s a lifestyle! However, it is what you make it and the possibilities are endless. Happy New Year! Namaste.