Tag Archives: chakras

Finding your foundation

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barefoot-87879_1280Let’s be honest….we all have times when we feel unsteady, unsure of ourselves, lacking in confidence and direction.  We can feel unsafe, insecure, as if a puff of wind could blow us away. We could feel this way for a variety of reasons – perhaps we have moved to a new area, moved on from a relationship, lost our job, or our sense of purpose.  We may be facing a challenge which feels too overwhelming.  Our emotions may be all over the place.

When we are in one of these times, we need to get in touch with our most basic instinct, that of survival. We all have this instinct, we share it with every sentient being on the planet. Sometimes it may get lost in a whirl of emotional turmoil, but it will resurface when we take time to let the dust settle. And we can take steps to strengthen our foundation, our sense of who we are, and of where we belong.

In yoga philosophy, our base chakra, mooladhara, is the key to our foundation, our survival instinct, and is our connection to the earth. We can tune into it when we spend time outdoors in nature, walking or practising yoga (perhaps barefoot on the grass or the beach when the weather warms up!). Gardeners have a particularly strong connection to the earth, which can be extremely healing in times of distress – growing and nurturing plants is now widely used as therapy, with patient volunteer groups attached to some clinics and medical practices.  Growing and cooking your own food could be a wonderful way to strengthen mooladhara, and could be practised in a small way if you have no garden – even adding a few fresh herbs from a pot on a sunny windowsill can have a dramatic effect on both the taste of your food and your emotional wellbeing.

When we moved house, we inherited two huge rhubarb plants, and I remember that it was in pulling that rhubarb and baking it into a cake in our new kitchen with my son (then 4) that the feeling of ‘being at home’, of belonging, started to set in. Even before many of the boxes were unpacked.

So in times where life unsettles us, making us unsure of our footing, it is our foundation we look to, our foundation we strengthen. In our yoga, we focus on grounding our standing posture through our feet in tadasana, through the weight of our pelvis in sitting, through the back of the body when relaxing in savasana. Lying down on the front of the body in makarasana we inhale and exhale with the earth, letting go into the earth on the exhale and drawing strength in on our inhalation. We let gravity ease our posture and the aches which our emotional unease can often exacerbate so much. We let our tension and worries drop away, down into the earth, and we start to feel strong again….in as many breaths and as many tiny steps as it takes.

Alison x

Take a break and align yourself!

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As a yoga teacher, I obviously aim for all my students to go away from a class feeling better, more relaxed, stretched yet relaxed. However, it always warms my heart when someone tells me that they are practicing at home, and feeling the benefits of their practice in their daily lives. Taking our yoga off the mat and into every part of our day is an amazing way to improve our lives and boost our wellbeing, so I advocate taking ‘minibreaks’ of just 5 or 10 minutes whenever you can through the day, which will ultimately increase your productivity as well as making you feel amazing! During these brief pauses, you may like to take your awareness to your breath, to your surroundings, or, as in the practice below, to your posture….

So, how long have you sat at your desk without a break? It’s so easy to get caught up in our work and stay in position for hours at a time, and only realise once we move how stiff and uncomfortable we have become!

So, if you’re in need of a break, maybe change position as you read this and then try the visualisation to help improve your posture – and your energy, creativity and productivity as well!

So, if you’re sitting (un)comfortably, let’s begin!

Did you know that as your body stiffens up, you are blocking the free flow of energy around it? In yoga we think of the spine as housing the main energy centres of the body, whirling around and distributing energy all around the body (you can learn more about this in my upcoming workshop here). If you don’t warm to that image, you can just think of the central nervous system and all the nerves emanating from the spinal cord to convey their messages to the body as a whole.

So, if we hunch ourselves up and restrict that flow, not only are we setting ourselves up for a variety of aches and pains – think backache, neck and shoulder tension and pain, headaches – we are also limiting ourselves in other ways. We might find that we keep pushing on to get through our workload, but that it’s getting harder and harder to think straight. That our ideas are starting to dry up. That we are never ever going to finish and will have to work late into the evening…..aaaargh!

This is exactly the time to stop and have a break. It might seem counterintuitive, the idea that stopping will help us get things done more quickly, but I’ve found exactly that, time and time again. And our posture itself can sometimes be to blame.

So, right now, stop and think about how you are sitting. Are your feet flat on the floor, or do you have your legs crossed? What part of your body is making contact with the seat? (Yes, I know it’s likely to be your bottom, but how is the weight distributed – central or to one side? Are you sitting on your tailbone or your sitting bones? Bet you can guess which ones you are meant to sit on!) How is your spine feeling? What about your shoulders? Your neck and your head?

Now, to adjust your position, place your feet flat on the floor and rest your weight on to your sitting bones (those two pointy bones in your buttocks – it can help to physically move the buttocks out of the way a bit with your hands!) Try to make the weight even between them as much as you can. If you can, adjust your seat height or use a cushion so that your hips are level with, or higher than, your knees, to ensure a good balance through the pelvis. Feel the spine lifting up from the pelvis, letting it lengthen, and then roll the shoulders back and down, letting the points of the shoulder blades slide down either side of the spine. Let your arms relax, maybe resting your hands gently in your lap, or letting them hang down by your sides. Now for your neck and head – let the neck lengthen and the head lift effortlessly…imagine your head is like a balloon, really light and free, and the spine is like the string – no tension at all. Now, just before you float away (you are meant to be working, after all!), think about the end of your string going down into a weight (like the weights you get on a helium balloon to hold them down). This weight corresponds to your points of contact with the seat and floor – your feet and sitting bones. Let your weight really drop down through them, letting gravity ease out your tensions and allowing your upper body to find more space.

Pause and observe your breath in this position for a while, letting any tension fall away with your outbreath.

And, when you feel better, and more refreshed, you can return to your work with a clearer head, and letting your energy flow freely – watch out, world!

Alison x

The power of speech

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throat chakra, communication, yoga, meditation, mantra

The words we use, the language and tone of our voices when we communicate with others is so important. We have all at some time in our lives said something we  later regret, whether saying something to hurt in a moment of anger, or being unable to resist the temptation to indulge in some juicy gossip. And the power of those words to cause harm may be so much more than we thought. They can never be taken back. Once the energy of those words is in the world, their damage is done and may continue for many years.

As Robert Browning writes so presciently in ‘A Lover’s Quarrel’, what we say may not necessarily reflect our true feelings, and yet can still cause untold damage:

Not from the heart beneath –
‘ Twas a bubble born of breath
Neither sneer nor vaunt
Nor reproach nor taunt.
See a word, how it severeth!
Oh, power of life and death
In the tongue, as the Preacher saith!

Some of our speech may be empty of true meaning, as empty as a bubble and disconnected from the truth of our hearts.  Our throat chakra, Vishuddhi, is situated between Anahata, the heart chakra, and Ajna, lying in the brain.  When we are focused and centred in our true selves, our speech will reflect the wisdom of both the head and the heart.  Yoga encourages us to adopt right speech, tasting our words before we speak them, assessing whether they are kind, whether they are true, whether they are necessary.  How much of what we say is completely unnecessary?!  The quality of truthfulness, satya, is one of the five yamas of Raja yoga.  This quality is not only about our speech, but also about living our life honestly and decently, in line with our own spiritual values.

I recently came across a prayer to the Divine Mother, in the excellent book Living the Practice: Collected Writings on the Transformative Potential of Yoga by Swami Radhananda, which begins:

May all my speech and idle talk be mantra 

A mantra is a word or phrase which is repeated in yoga and meditation practice and which connects us to our spirit.  The thought of all our speech being mantra is inspiring.  Could we really elevate our every word to the level of mantra, using our speech to connect us with our spirit, and that of those we are talking to, rather than disconnecting as we so often do in our everyday speech?  When we gossip about others, we are creating the illusion of  ‘them and us’, looking for differences between individuals, and creating separation.  When we speak unkindly, when we criticise others, we are using the power of our speech to disconnect from the person we are talking to, rather than building a connection from our heart to theirs.  By consciously improving the quality of our speech, by connecting what comes out of our mouths with our hearts, our minds and our inner spirit, we  begin to live truthfully and to honour the oneness of ourselves with everybody else.

Changing the way we speak can be so hard. Like any habit, gossip or criticism can take a  long time to weed out.  But perhaps a good way to start is to choose just one aspect you’d like to change, from raising your voice to gossiping about a neighbour  or acquaintance you don’t like.  Once we become conscious of the need for change, of how our behaviour is creating separation, both between ourselves and someone else, and between our actions and our true spirit or motivation, we can continue to take small steps in the right direction.  We will at times get it wrong, and revert back to our old ways,  but we keep on trying, until  it  becomes easier and easier.  Until, one day, you notice that you really are more conscious in your interactions with others, that your speech really is like mantra, and totally aligned with your inner values.

 

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The symbol of the lotus

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lotus-587335_1280Back in the summer, I visited Kew Gardens for the first time.  One of the -very many- fascinating things I learned there was that the lotus flower, although in appearance quite similar to the water lily (which is a much more common sight here in England!), is in fact closely related to the plane tree, which grows to up to 50 metres high!

An aquatic perennial with large showy flowers, the sacred lotus has long been considered a close relative of water lilies. However, lotus flowers differ markedly from those of water lilies, most notably through the obconical (ice-cream cone-shaped) receptacle in the centre, into which numerous free carpels are sunken. Recent molecular research has shown that the closest living relatives of the sacred lotus are the plane trees (Platanus spp., Platanaceae) and members of the protea family (Proteaceae). Their isolated phylogenetic position indicates that both Nelumboand Platanus may be living fossils (the only survivors of an ancient and formerly much more diverse group).

                  ~  http://www.kew.org/plants-fungi/Nelumbo-nucifera.htm

The lotus flower is held as a sacred symbol by yogis, as well as by  Buddhists and Hindus.  Its rhizomes grow from the mud at the bottom of a lake and rise up above the surface of the water, so that its stalks may be as much as 1 or 2 metres tall.  In yoga, each chakra is symbolized by a lotus flower, of different colours and with different numbers of petals for each chakra.  For Sahasrara, the crown chakra, the lotus is said to have thousand petals, although this may also be interpreted as meaning an infinite number (Swami Satyananda Saraswati, ‘Kundalini Tantra’ (1984), p 189). 

The symbol of the lotus flower is highly relevant to those of us working through our chakras.  Just as the seed germinates in the mud at the bottom of the lake, we begin in the dark, and in the earth of our base chakra (Mooladhara).  We then strive to ascend through the different chakras, through our energy system, developing and growing along the way, just as the stalk of the lotus ascends through the water, until we reach the air above the water, coming into the light of the sun, and into our true potential in the higher energy centres.  The element of the air is found at the heart centre, Anahata, and this is where we first start to really change as a result of our yoga and meditation practice.  Anahata is the centre of our energy system, and acts as a transitional point between the lower chakras (Mooladhara, Swadisthana and Manipura) and the higher chakras (Vishuddhi, Ajna, Bindu and Sahasrara).  At the heart we find it easier to truly commit to our yoga practice, and as Swami Radhananda says,
‘If you really set your heart on your higher goal in life, your commitment can lift you out of the merry-go-round of the first three Cakras’ 
Swami Radhananda (2010) ‘Living the Practice’
And so we reach up to the light through our yoga practice, just as the lotus flower reaches up to the surface of the water, and finally blooms in all its beauty.  If we persevere and commit to our practice, it will lift us up to our true potential. 

 

A place of peace and stillness

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Recently, a student asked me what  are the benefits of meditation. I answered truthfully, from my own experience, but felt afterwards that my answer had perhaps been inadequate in conveying all that meditation means to me.

The answer I gave was that meditation helps me to attain a calmer, steadier state of mind, and that a regular meditation practice helps me to carry these benefits over into the rest of my day.  All true, but there is so much more.

When I first established a daily practice, many years ago, I found that over time I became less reactive to the events of my life, dealing more calmly with the unexpected, and becoming more resistant to the ups and downs that we all experience. I found a new equanimity, calming the attachments (raga) and aversions (dwesha) to which we are all so prone. The ceaseless chatter of my mind was stilled, first in formal meditation  and subsequently in my wider life.  I found a deep and pervasive stillness and peace within myself, and a clarity of mind that would be impossible without taking the time to stop and simply be.  I developed a more tangible awareness of my chakras and began to truly experience the subtle movement of energy around my body. In truth, I became a different person.

But over the years, it became harder to maintain such an intense daily practice.  Long working days, marriage and parenting made it difficult, if not impossible, to find an hour a day to meditate, as well as another hour for asana practice. At first, I found that with missing the occasional day, I was able to maintain the benefits. But of course, with motherhood, I rarely had time to sit in formal meditation. I continued to chant, and to practice mindfulness, but it wasn’t entirely the same.  My sitting would get interrupted, and I learned to deal with the interruptions in a mindful way, but my practice wasn’t so profound.  Over time, that inner peace started to become more and more elusive.

I missed my daily practice dreadfully.  Whilst I loved my new life, the challenges that parenting sometimes presented would have been so much easier to deal with from that calm, centred place within.  And finally, it became essential for me to renew my commitment to my yoga, and to my meditation, in order to regain my full self.  Going back to a daily practice has been a revelation,  all over again.  I have been reminded of the healing and nurturing that can happen in deep meditation.  In meditation, in the stillness, I become fully aware of the work I  need to do on a physical and an emotional level;  I become aware of specific Safety Energy Locks (SELs) that are in need of some attention.  So as well as providing me with a tremendous sense of space and peace, my meditation practice also informs my asana practice and my Jin Shin Jyutsu practice too.  So much valuable information which would be hidden in the hubbub of daily life, but which makes itself heard in the silence of meditation.  Once again, I find an increased equanimity and a capacity to deal more calmly with the challenges of my daily life.  Once again, my intuition is enhanced.  So whilst I stand by the belief that something is better than nothing when it comes to yoga, and empathise fully with anyone who, like me,  has found their practice gradually squeezed out by other commitments, there does come a time when we all have to find a way to move our practice  forwards again, and to fully commit to that.

Moving into stillness

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When we are busy and rushing around all the time, it can be too hard to simply be still.  Some of us are never still unless we are asleep.  This difficulty can put people off taking up yoga or meditation.  They would prefer to do some high-impact, high-speed exercise than to risk being unable to find the stillness which is buried deep within them.

And so when someone starts yoga, they need to learn to ease into that stillness.  Nobody can move from fast to still that easily.  We have built up a momentum in our lives which will take time to slow down.  So for most of us it won’t work if we rush in from our hectic day, sit or lie down and attempt to empty our minds.  It will take a bit more effort than that, a bit more preparation.  We make our slowing down a gradual and enjoyable process.

In class, we will generally start with some faster, rhythmic movements, which help us to initiate that process of listening to our bodies, co-ordinating our breath with our movements, and easing out any stiffness and tension.  Then the movements will slow down, moving into gentler, flowing sequences and a series of stretches and asanas.  Asanas may be held or we may flow in and out of them.  We are approaching that stillness in our bodies now, and moving towards a clear, calm mind.  Our physical practice can, in itself,  be a form of meditation.  One of the main reasons I chose to train in Dru yoga was because of the meditative, inward focus of the Energy Block Release sequences and the flowing postures.  Each part of the movement can be performed with awareness of different chakras (energy centres), with awareness of our breath, and of our state of mind.  Often we will pause at the end of a sequence to close our eyes and really tune into the effects we are experiencing from the movements.  The stillness follows naturally from the movement, without being an effort.

Only after this part of the class do we move on to meditation, pranayama or yoga nidra (deep relaxation).  The mental stillness follows naturally from moving and resting the physical body. Once the stillness is truly established, we may then – and only then – find an awareness of the subtle movement of energy in the body.  So just as movement naturally leads to stillness, so stillness will lead us into a deeper awareness and experience of our inner selves.

 

Opening the heart

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heart-1213481_1280Many times in my previous posts, I’ve written about the need for us to stay with our difficult emotions, rather than to run away and hide from them.  When we run away, or try to ignore our more challenging feelings, we make them even bigger than they really are.  If we take respite in our usual mental processes, making ourselves right and the whole world wrong, the effort of holding on so tightly to our own beliefs can be literally exhausting.  If we run away and pretend  everything is fine, those same feelings will usually surface again the next time we feel pushed and squeezed by the circumstances of our lives.

Sometimes our feelings are just so huge that they cannot be ignored, and we cannot run away.  At these times, we find that very shaky, insecure being we actually are behind the solid walls we like to create –  the persona we like to present to the world.  We become more truly ourselves.  It takes real courage to face this part of ourselves head on.  But if you imagine that all your dammed-up emotions are like a fortress, then a crisis can be quite liberating – although it certainly won’t feel like it at the time.

When everything feels wrong, when we cannot feel good about ourselves, it’s time to allow what seems like a disaster to open us up, to soften us and to chip away at those fortress walls.  As Pema Chodron writes, in ‘When Things Fall  Apart’,

“It’ s a kind of testing, the kind of testing that spiritual warriors need in order to awaken their hearts.”

We find the softness deep in our hearts.  We start to dissolve the barriers we have built up over the years. We learn to truly experience our own suffering, both large and small, and so develop more empathy for the trials of others.  We begin to tune in to the true quality of our heart chakra, Anahata.  We find compassion for others as well as for ourselves.  We develop maitri, or loving-kindness. We welcome the opportunities we encounter to grow – embracing our disappointments, our sadness, our anger.  The good news is we don’t need to go out of our way to find these opportunities – we will all find that plenty come our way!