DAY 34 : Detox Practice (and a certain amount of scepticism)

 

Today’s practice was a Yoga With Adriene detox practice.

“Yoga” and “detox” are two words that often go hand in hand. There’s a lot of stuff out there about how certain yoga poses can put just the right pressure on internal organs to help detox the body. So-called detox diets are basically nonsense (see, for example, Ben Goldacre over at Bad Science and the Angry Chef), and although I’m no expert, I’m going to say that the same is probably true of so-called detoxifying yoga poses (as is set out in this article from the Guardian, for example). It would seem logical that certain poses, twists for example, could have a beneficial effect on digestion but I can’t really see any logic in them assisting in the expulsion of toxins.

So, why this practice? Partly because I wanted to build up a bit of a sweat, and partly because I love any practice that involves a lot of twisting. As per yesterday’s decision, I did this practice first thing in the morning and my spine really thanked me for it. On the detox theme, something I’ve heard a lot is that twists “rinse” the spine. I’ve never really been sure what that means, so I Googled “what does rinsing the spine mean?” (seriously, what did we do before the age of search engines?). Apparently, we should think of our spine as a washcloth. Twisting poses rinse off the spine and create space for fresh oxygenated blood to flow up and down the spinal column, which rehydrates, detoxifies and renews the spine. You can’t see, but I’m pulling a sceptical face right now. I’m sure that twists can do all sorts of good things for the spine, many of which I’ve experienced myself, such as releasing and stretching tight muscles and increasing range of motion. It might also make sense that they can improve blood flow, as much as any physical exercise can. Rinsing and detoxifying, though? That, I’m not so sure about.

Mentally, this practice was exactly what I needed today. I woke up feeling a bit anxious and stressed, although I’m not sure why, and a strong, heat-building practice was just what I needed to ground and calm myself. Poses that require physical strength, such as the elbow-to-knee twists from high lunge, often also require mental strength, and so can serve as a reminder that that mental strength is there and available when I need it. Sometimes, that gets forgotten.

Today’s practice was, for me, a good example of the very personal nature of a yoga practice. Everyone will take something different from their practice, and what may work for some people may not work for others. I’m never going to be able to force myself to believe something that my logical mind is resisting, in this case the detoxifying properties of certain poses. That doesn’t mean, however, that I can’t benefit from practices that have detoxification as their primary aim. It seems to me that it’s a question of taking responsibility for my own practice and what I get out of it, rather than simply taking someone else’s word for what the benefits should be. So, while I didn’t feel any less free of toxins, and my spine didn’t feel any more rehydrated than it had before, I did feel that I had been able to combine both mental and physical strength to create a beneficial practice, and that for me made for a successful half hour on the mat.

 

Yoga Sutras : Thoughts on Ahimsa

I’m coming to the end of my week on the first yama, ahimsa, and throughout the week I’ve been thinking about various aspects of that concept. In many ways, the concept of non-violence, both physical and non-physical, is something that just makes sense. Our lives are almost certainly going to be better if we treat ourselves and others with respect. There are some aspects, however, that for me required a little more thought.

The first is whether and how eating meat is compatible with ahimsa. Bryant’s book on the Yoga Sutras, and the sources it cites, are pretty clear that “a vegetarian diet is nonnegotiable for yogis”. This is also the view generally shared by various internet sources that I’ve looked at. The reasons for this are pretty obvious – that meat is the result of violence done to animals, and so is entirely antipathetic to a concept of non-violence. I was a vegetarian for about six months, around ten years ago. Why did I stop? Because I like eating meat. There’s no less selfless or more worthy answer than that, really. Do I want to stop eating meat now? No, not really. I guess the question then is whether I’m being a massive hypocrite by on the one hand trying to incorporate this concept of ahimsa into my yoga practice and my life, and on the other hand continuing to eat meat. I suppose my gut feeling is that yes, I would be, but it’s human nature to not want to have to give up something you enjoy. Having said that, I do know that there is such a thing as making sacrifices in service of the bigger picture. I think I could quite easily cut down the amount of meat that I eat (that makes it sound like I gorge on the stuff – I don’t), which is perhaps the first step, and I can then think about whether I want to take it further. (Am I putting off making a decision here? Probably, but did I mention that I like eating meat?)

The second aspect of ahimsa that I’ve been thinking about is karma. Bryant states, in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras, that “any involvement in violent acts of any kind requires that the perpetrator be subjected to the same violence at some future time as karmic consequence.” Now I don’t believe that there’s some kind of all-encompassing universal law of karma that causes our bad thoughts and actions to circle back round to us (at least, I’ve seen no evidence of such a law, and I do like to base my beliefs on evidence). That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t consequences to how we treat ourselves and others. If we get into the habit of treating ourselves badly, then we’re more likely to do so again and again – self-criticism is a very difficult habit to break. If we treat others badly, or with less respect than we should do, then they are surely more likely to treat us with disrespect in return. This might not come within some spiritual definition of karma, but it’s still important to recognise that our actions have consequences.

Finally, I’ve been thinking about how ahimsa fits in with things like moral and political opposition and resistance. This seems particularly relevant today, in a divided world that feels full of hatred and division. Ahimsa surely can’t mean that we simply accept what is happening rather than fight for what we believe in? I don’t think it can. The basis of so many of the divisions in the world is violence and harm in the widest sense, whether physical or verbal, including things like discrimination, refusal to help those in need, or the taking of political action that actively worsens the situation of people who are already struggling. Opposing and resisting these measures can’t be contrary to a principle of non-violence, so I think it then comes down to what form that opposition and resistance takes. Gandhi, perhaps the most famous proponent of non-violent resistance, practised ahimsa, calling it “the way to truth”. Resistance and opposition based on truth (not lies, mendaciousness or FAKE NEWS!) and non-violence must be entirely in line with the principle. A key problem, it seems to me, is that it may be difficult to maintain opposition on that basis when what is being opposed and resisted has no qualms in basing its position on lies, using, or at least advocating, violence, and actively encouraging divisions and disrespect. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, though. In Michelle Obama’s words, “when they go low, we go high”.

Well, this first week on the yamas and niyamas has certainly been informative, and I think it’s helped me to deepen my understanding of my practice. Looking into the philosophy and theory that underpins yoga is also helping me to really tailor my practice to my own personal thoughts and beliefs, rather than just taking on board what a particular instructor might be saying. The next seven days focuses on satya, or truthfulness. Given that I’m a terrible liar, and so don’t tend to bother, you’d think this might be a pretty easy one, but I’m sure there’s a lot more to it than the name might suggest.

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DAY 33 : Feel Good Flow and thoughts on Morning Yoga

Today’s practice was a Yoga With Adriene flow which I chose pretty much purely because my house was so cold and Adriene had filmed this particular practice on a beach. Perhaps I thought I could suck some of the warmth through my laptop screen. However I may have chosen it, though, it was a great practice and exactly what I needed today – relatively short and incorporating both flow/strength elements and some awesome twists.

I usually practice mid to late afternoon, but due to today’s plans this ended up being an early morning practice. It got me thinking about how the time of day can affect what I take from a practice. Physically, my body tends to be pretty stiff in the mornings, so I generally won’t be able to go as deep into some poses as I would later in the day. On the other hand, certain twists and stretches are perfect for waking the body up. Mentally, my mind is generally much more of a blank slate first thing in the morning. As soon as I get started on my day, I’m thinking about multiple things at once and when I practice later in the day, I come to the mat in the context of that mental chatter. I found it really beneficial to take some time to focus and just be present before kickstarting the day. It basically felt like a way to pull myself together physically, mentally and emotionally so that I could start the day from a place of calm, focus and (in keeping with this week’s theme) respect. I think I was able to carry that through most of the rest of the day, even the moments I had to spend nodding and smiling (and gritting my teeth) through some eye-rolling at my dislike of looking at my own wedding photos. (Pro tip: if someone does say that, don’t assume it’s an overreaction – they might genuinely find looking at those photos difficult and so feel somewhat annoyed and belittled at said eye-rolling. Just saying.)

It seems that early morning yoga can work pretty well for me, so why don’t I do it more often? My initial thought was “oh, it’s probably because I’m lazy”, but when I actually thought about it (rather than just going for the easy answer which is nearly always a self-criticism), I realised that a more likely answer is that I don’t think I can take time for myself until I’ve done a sufficient amount of work or enough chores to justify it. Taking that time to do yoga first thing feels indulgent, whilst doing it later in the day turns it into some sort of reward for having had a productive day. It’s essentially an extension of the fact that I instinctively see taking time purely to do something I want to do as selfish. I know on an objective level that I need to take time to do those things, but when it comes to it I always feel a bit guilty in doing so.

I guess this again feeds into the notion of respect that is one of my focuses this week. Taking time purely for myself, without feeling selfish or guilty, is a form of self-respect. If I do take that time, then I’m more likely to be able to treat others and the world in general with respect. I won’t resent external demands on my time, because I will have accepted that time for myself is just as important. That all sounds perfectly simple, but that mindset of selfishness and guilt is a difficult one to get out of. Perhaps what I need to do is challenge myself by shifting some of my practices to first thing in the morning. Working on changing my thought patterns alone would probably help, but I think to really start to shift that ingrained mindset I need to change my actions as well as my thoughts.

As for today’s practice, as the name suggested, I really was feeling good by the end of it. The house was still cold, though.

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DAYS 31 AND 32 : Strength, Focus and Acceptance

As per my last post, what I’m really trying to focus on at the moment on the mat is respect for myself, my body and its limits. This was really challenged by yesterday’s practice, which was a Yoga With Adriene practice for strength and focus. I’ve come to accept that there will be some days when my mind and body just don’t click, and practising is something of a struggle. (While it’d be great to hit some sort of zen perfection every time I get on the mat, that’s not exactly real life.) Yesterday was one of those days. My mind was chattering like mad and my body seemed to be resisting every even vaguely strengthening pose. Still, I tried to accept that that’s how things were going to be and respect the fact that perhaps I wasn’t going to get as deep into a high lunge as usual, or it might be a bit trickier to bring my knee to my elbow in plank. It was difficult, of course, but constantly bringing myself back to a mindset where I don’t engage with negative thoughts, even if I can’t stop them altogether, helped to keep the level of frustration relatively low.

Bearing how I felt during yesterday’s practice in mind, today I did a much gentler practice from Ekhart Yoga with Esther Ekhart. The aim of the practice was to accept and work with tiredness, and it caught my eye because of the reference to focusing on respect in each pose. This practice started with a seated meditation, then moved through a sequence of gentle poses and stretches (including Pigeon, still one of my favourites!) before ending in an extended Savasana. My body and mind definitely appreciated slowing things down a bit.

Throughout the practice, Esther referred to shifting our awareness so that we are less engaged with the body, but simply see it as a part of ourselves. This is something that yoga in general is really helping me to do, but it was nice to have some specific reminders. If anything I tend to overengage with my body, to the extent that certain unpleasant or uncomfortable physical sensations (I say physical, sometimes I wonder whether they actually start off in my mind rather than my body) can take over. My mind then latches onto those sensations to such an extent that they can set off some sort of anxiety spiral unless I take active steps to stop it. Trying to focus on that attitude of respect really helps here, because it’s more difficult for negative thoughts to pop up when the position from which I’m approaching each pose is one of acceptance and respect.

Off the mat, I’ve been trying to make my inner monologue a bit nicer, as it has a tendency to be kind of mean and bitchy, mostly towards me. It’s amazing how much less exhausting life is when you’re not constantly criticising yourself in your own head. I think I’m generally quite nice to other people (I’m certainly nice to them than I am to myself, but then I think that might be true of a lot of people), but I have been trying to consciously think about how I’m interacting with people. As with so much in life, really focusing on the every day things that we take for granted, such as how we speak to people, can make us realise that there actually are changes we can make, however small, to improve our own quality of life and the effect that we have on others’.

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DAY 30 : Ahimsa (non-violence/harming) Day 1

This was my first day of Ekhart Yoga’s ten class programme on the yamas and niyamas for beginners with Sandra Carson. Each class focuses on one yama/niyama, and my intention is to work on one per week, so in all the programme will take ten weeks.

The five yamas form the first of the eight limbs of yoga, and the five niyamas the second. “Yama” is defined by Bryant as “abstention” and “niyama” as “observance. The first yama is ahimsa, which translates as non-violence or non-harming. The commentators that Bryant cites identify this as the most important yama, which is at the root of all the others. Those commentators, or the parts of their commentaries that Bryant cites, and indeed Bryant himself, focus very much on non-violence in the context of our relationship with the wider world and its inhabitants. A yogi should not cause physical harm, nor should harm be caused through harsh treatment or words or the incitement of fear.

There is, however, no mention of something which was a more central focus of today’s practice, which was non-violence towards ourselves. I don’t mean so much in terms of physical harm (although that would obviously come within ahimsa), rather in terms of harmful and negative self-talk. It was repeatedly mentioned during YWA’s Revolution that we can’t be our optimal selves in the world at large unless we’re treating ourselves with kindness and respect. If we’re constantly beating ourselves up, then we’re not in the best frame of mind to serve either ourselves or others. On that basis, practising ahimsa that focuses only on our relationship with others and not on our relationship with ourselves is surely somewhat one-sided.

A theme throughout the practice was “moving with respect”. On the yoga mat, respecting our body and the limits of our flexibility on any given day are key elements of practising that non-violence in the context of our relationship with ourselves. If we do not have that respect, then we criticise and judge and focus on perceived imperfections, either in how we hold a particular pose or in our body itself. I say “we” here, but obviously I can’t speak for every yoga practitioner. Personally, I find that cultivating that mindset of respect and acceptance starts to shift the direction of my thoughts from their standard negative, critical track.

Physically, this practice wasn’t hugely challenging, but I don’t think every practice has to be. I did miss a common feature of Adriene’s practices, in that she will often incorporate one or more pauses in Child’s Pose to allow the effects of the practice so far to sink in, so I paused this video halfway through for a few moments. I also very much appreciated the relatively long and meditative Savasana at the end.

The aim for the rest of the week is to take this concept of ahimsa and try to apply it both on the mat, in terms of cultivating respect while I practice, and off the mat, in terms of how I talk to and treat myself and how I interact with others. There are also various aspects of ahimsa which I think require a little more thought. Does practising ahimsa absolutely require at the least a vegetarian lifestyle (as Bryant and the commentators he cites insist)? Just how much do I instinctively disagree with the apparent karmic aspects of the concept? How do we reconcile practising ahimsa with taking the required strong stand against the ever-more prevalent hatred and intolerance in the world? I hope to have some vaguely articulate thoughts on these questions over the course of the next seven days.

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DAY 29 : Sometimes, a little goes a long way…

Yesterday’s was a short and simple practice. I was tired and headachey (giving up sugar has ruined my alcohol tolerance, more on that in an upcoming post) and to be honest was quite close to just skipping practice altogether. But, remembering the discipline that was one of the focuses of YWA’s Revolution, I got on the mat and was glad that I did.

Adriene said at some point during Revolution that showing up for yourself every day can be so much more beneficial than doing fewer, longer, practices (or something to that effect, anyway). I am finding that now that I take this time for myself each day, I’m much more productive during the rest of the day, almost as if I don’t resent having to do necessary but unexciting things because I know that I’ve carved out some time which is purely for myself. I’ve always tried to do things like read every day, but they’ve always been fitted in around all those necessary things. Deciding each morning when I’m going to do yoga and then blocking out that time in my schedule feels very different, in that I’m actively drawing a line around a particular period of time and identifying it as “me time”. Having that as part of my routine, I feel more able and willing to get everything else done.

I’ve also decided where I’m going to go next in terms of my practice. Ekhart Yoga has a ten class programme on the Yamas and Niyamas, which are the first two limbs of the Eight Limbs of Yoga from the Yoga Sutras. My plan is to take one class per week, do that class a couple of times and then supplement with other practices while focusing on and reading about the relevant sutra/s. I’m hoping that this will enable me to develop both my practice and my knowledge of the underlying philosophy. I’m particularly looking forward to getting into the latter in more depth. I’m a sceptic at heart, but I think there is a lot to be gained from yoga without having to blindly buy into the more spiritual side of it. Anyway, that starts with the next practice and take me through the next ten weeks. I’m excited to see where I’ll be at the end of that time, but must keep reminding myself that the journey is the reward!

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DAY 28 : Trying out Kundalini

Continuing my exploration of different types of yoga, next on the agenda was a kundalini-inspired practice, also from Ekhart Yoga. I spent some time doing Kundalini Yoga quite a few years ago with some Maya Fiennes DVDs, although I never really thought too much about the philosophy behind it or how and why it differs from other forms of yoga. And it is (in my spectacularly limited experience) very different.

According to Yoga Journal, Kundalini Yoga is “an uplifting blend of spiritual and physical practices [incorporating] movement, dynamic breathing techniques, meditation, and the chanting of mantras …. The goal is to build physical vitality and increase consciousness.” Kundalini itself is apparently an energy force that lies dormant at the base of the spine, which is released during the yoga practice. (That bit’s going in the “for further research and experimentation” pile.)

This practice started with chanting a mantra (“Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo” which means “I call upon Divine Wisdom”). I’ll admit to chanting that a little more quietly than perhaps I should have done to get maximum benefit out of it, as I wasn’t alone in the house and felt a little silly doing it. The practice then consisted essentially of sets of often fast repetitive movements coordinated with the breath and with specific breathing techniques, interspersed with periods of slower breathing and stillness. Breath of fire (passive inhales, short strong exhales) was used a lot and keeping the movement and breath coordinated was occasionally difficult, but I guess that’s something that becomes easier with practice.

The practice did feel more disjointed than say a Hatha Yoga practice, as there wasn’t really any flow between moves (“poses” doesn’t feel quite right given the centrality of movement), but that didn’t seem to matter. While I might be sceptical about the whole coiled kundalini energy thing, at least for the time being, I did notice a massive shift in both my energy levels and the nature of the energy I was feeling both during and after the practice. The movements and breath created a pretty intense heat that felt different to that created in for example a vinyasa flow, and I occasionally felt a bit lightheaded, although not in a bad way (if that makes any sense at all). It was certainly an interesting experience.

The outcome of all this is that Kundalini is something that I’d like to incorporate into my regular practice. At the same time, I don’t want to start confusing myself by trying to juggle lots of different styles of yoga, particularly if at the same time as practising I want to go into the philosophy in a bit more depth. What I’m thinking of doing is drawing up a plan for the next few weeks (say four or six) which is largely focused on the Hatha/Vinyasa style that I’m more used to, with some Yin and Kundalini mixed in. What I really don’t want to do is just go back to doing yoga every day without some larger idea as to where I want the practice to take me. In the meantime, today’s practice calls – a nice gentle one for a Sunday afternoon, I think!

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