Like setting the foundation (See: Set the Foundations (Yoga Teacher Training) – Part 1), this is part of the first principle because it is also extremely important. For me, I think of this as more about ‘opening your heart’. When you practice yoga, your chest/ heart centre should be open.
As a child, I was a severe asthmatic and before being medicated I recall multiple times hunched over gasping for breath and my primary PE teacher yelling at me ‘walk it off with your hands on the back of your head’. Why did he tell me to put my hands on the back of my head you may ask? Well its simple, this simple action opened my chest up and in turn opened up the lungs allowing me to breathe easily. So what was happening when I was hunching over then? I was actually compressing my lungs, making it harder for them to expand with deep breaths which resulted in me taking shallow, inadequate breaths.
Why is this so important now-a-days?
I have just established that when we hunch over, we are compressing our lungs. So now let’s take a moment to think about all of the activities that we do every day (and sometimes for long periods of time) that close our chest and therefore compress our lungs- sitting at a desk all day, typing on a computer, or not sitting in the correct chair are all examples of ways that we close our chest every day.
Physically, opening to grace creates more space and naturally brings you toward a more optimal alignment. Opening your heart centre can make you feel taller, lift the heart, open the throat, and melt away tension.
So, what does this mean when applied to your yoga practice?
Of course, open to grace means so much more than just opening your heart space physically as described above and like all yoga practices it also has mental, emotional and spiritual benefits… just think about what the world would be like if everyone walked around with their heart emotionally open all of the time.
What does this mean when applied to other aspects of your life?
“The boy and his heart had become friends, and neither was capable now of betraying the other.” – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
In English we have so many sayings referring to our hearts- open your heart, listen to your heart, follow your heart, speak from the heart, have a big heart, etc. It is so true that when our hearts are open and we listen and follow our hearts that we will find success and happiness. When you speak from the heart you will not only speak your truth but you will be mindful of those who are listening and will refrain from saying hurtful things. When we have a big heart we are said to be someone who is kind, caring and loving. When you listen to and follow your heart, you can never be led astray. And finally, when you open your heart you are open to receiving all of life’s lessons.
If becoming friends with your heart means opening up your heart to others, listening to yourself and following its advice on what you need, speaking your truth while being mindful of others, and being kind, caring and loving; then the world would be a better place if everyone became friends with their heart and opened their heart more often, wouldn’t you agree?
In order to sustain any type of growth or success, one must have an open heart and a solid foundation from which to build. Whether it’s a new creative pursuit, a new personal goal, or in your yoga practice, a good understanding of the fundamental elements and an open heart will help you establish a foundation that allows you to thrive.
When you live with an open heart, unexpected joyful things happen. – Unknown.
Yoga Teacher Training (YTT) is about opening your heart and sharing something that is special to you with others so that they too can feel as good as you do when you practice yoga. While my YTT was Hatha yoga, during our training one of my amazing teachers, Amanda taught us about the Anusara Yoga’s Universal Principles of Alignment:
I’m not going to pretend that I am now an expert on this topic but I thought that the first principle would be a great place to start as it kind of sums up my yoga journey to become a teacher of yoga- learning how to safely and correctly teach yoga and opening my heart and sharing something that is special to me with others.
Set the foundations
This is part of the first principle because it is most important. Everything else builds from it. Beginning your Hatha yoga practice by building a strong, flexible, and solid foundation is essential. Like any structure- think buildings, bridges, yoga is built from the foundation up and the foundation is rooted firmly to the ground. If you look at an asana the foundation of the pose which is touching the floor affects everything else. Yoga poses either start their foundations in the feet or hands (or, in other words, from the ground up).
If your foot is placed even slightly out of alignment, it translates up to your knee, pelvis, back, and so on. If your hand is turned out or the finger tips are lifted, your wrist, elbow, shoulder and neck may experience unnecessary strain. Therefore, it is essential to begin by building your feet as your solid roots to build upward. If your feet/ hands are fully connected to the earth, they will move energy up correctly through your ankles/wrists, knees/elbows, hips/shoulders and spine, preventing unnecessary injuries and allowing you to practice and master more advanced asanas successfully.
In yoga, you build a firm and level foundation by focusing on your foundations (whether they be your hands or feet), and from it a strong, spacious, and elegant pose will rise. To create a firm foundation, use the strength of your legs or arms to send strong roots into the earth; make the foundation level by contacting the floor evenly with your feet or hands. Building awareness in the feet/hands in each and every pose may sound tedious, and yes, it can take years of practice, but it’s well worth the effort. When building a house, having a solid foundation will determine the viability of the rest of the structure as it goes up, so too will having a solid foundation in your yoga practice ensure that the rest of your body is well supported and protected.
According to my 3rd surgeon, balance and shape of your feet are determined by the shapes of the bones in your feet, the structure of the ligaments that hold the bones together, and the muscles that move and position the bones. Though research I found out that the bones and the structure of the ligaments are hereditary, but you do have the power to change the strength, flexibility, and coordination of your foot muscles. Since doing yoga regularly, I have made significant changes to the shape and balance of my feet- my right toes have spread and my foot is slightly wider. This has allowed me to gain better balance and compensate for the irreparable damage that my foot and ankle have endured.
So what’s the life lesson?
Life is a journey and it’s up to you to set the foundation; to know when to pursue and when to let go. It’s up to you to look after your mind and body through meditation, exercise and healthy eating before you get sick, not just treat it when it is sick. It’s up to you to make choices that will serve you instead of hinder. It’s up to you to monitor and control your thoughts, feelings and actions. It is up to you to love yourself first and foremost so that others can also love you. Change is inevitable but when you set the foundations right, you are anchored and can brave the ‘stormy of high seas’ of life.
Whether you are setting the foundation in a yoga class or in your daily life, it is imperative to get the fundamentals right. Please come back tomorrow for the second part of this 2 part blog. I hope you have enjoyed reading my blogs so far.
Dedicated to Marina, Amanda, Tatijana, Jessica, Julia, Katelyn and Laura. Thank you for sharing some of my most profound and life changing yoga moments with me, Xx
For those of us who practice yoga, isn’t it often difficult to explain how transformative a yoga practice can be?
As mentioned a previous post “Transform your Mind, Body and Spirit” yoga provides many physical, mental and spiritual benefits, such as improved balance, strength and flexibility, it can increase your happiness, focus and self-esteem, and can provide inner strength, benefit your relationships and connect you with guidance. However, there are also many wonderful life lessons to learn through yoga.
Today I wanted to talk about 8 of the 10 most important life lessons that yoga has taught me.
To love and honour my body.
Dear Body, “I love you. I accept you. I see you. I promise to cherish you all the days of my life.”- Unknown
Today we are bombarded with images of perfection through social media and advertising, and it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking we should look a certain way. However the more I practice yoga, the more I appreciate my body for the way it moves, rather than the way it looks. I am thankful for its strength and flexibility, and for the way it functions. I am grateful for good health and the ability to be able to walk again. I now honour the physical temple that houses me by nourishing it with healthy foods, using positive thoughts and self-talk, listening to my body’s needs, through sunshine, movement and exercise and finally by treating it with dignity and love.
2. To be patient.
Our patience will achieve more than our force- Edmund Burke
In today’s society, we do not really have to be patient. If we want to buy something, we can order it online and have it delivered the same day. Yoga has taught me that good things come to those who wait. More challenging poses seemed elusive when I first started yoga, but with regular practice and perseverance and without force, I have been able to learn poses that once seemed impossible.
3. To not compare myself to others.
The only person you should try to be better than, is the person you were yesterday- Matty Mullins
I’m not going to lie, this was a hard one but I can honestly say that I do not compare myself to other people when I take yoga classes anymore. Believe me I used to feel very inadequate, especially in more difficult classes. Dealing and managing a long-term injury is always difficult. In the beginning I would find myself looking around, wishing my body was injury free or that I was able to get into that pose or look like that instead of the way I looked in the pose (usually awkward and uncomfortable). For a long time I have been able to focus on my practice and movement without being distracted by watching other people. However in the beginning of my Yoga Teacher Training I did find myself somehow getting distracted by the strength and flexibility of my peers and teachers but instead of wishing that I looked like that in this moment, I was inspired by their dedication and practice and refrained from feeling jealousy. I looked at what they were doing and endeavoured to improve my yoga practice so that I could be a better yogini than I was the day before. Thanks for the inspiration Amanda, Tatijana, Jessica, Julia, Katelyn and Laura.
4. Let go of things that no longer serve you
Respect yourself enough to walk away from ANYTHING that no longer serves you, grows you, or makes you HAPPY! – Robert Tew
It is natural for things to come in and out of our lives and when things that we have wanted in life come our way, we sometimes hold on so tightly for fear that we will lose it. Other times we may cling on to unhelpful thoughts or feelings. It’s normal to want to hold onto behaviors, thoughts or feelings, objects, or even people but when they no longer serve us, that is when this ‘holding on’ can become unhealthy and sometimes harmful. At times, our minds can make us believe we need these belongings, situations, thoughts, feelings or relationships, and out of this fear we desperately hold on to them.
By letting go of these things that no longer serve us, a powerful lesson is reinforced- the lesson to trust when it’s time to let some things go. This has been one of the hardest lessons for me, especially to let go of thoughts and feelings, and one that I am still struggling with now.
5. Slow down.
Slow down, happiness is trying to catch you- Clarissa Garay
I lived (and still do to some extent) my life in the fast lane. For those who know anything about doshas- I am a pretty typical Pitta. I speak quickly, walk quickly, think quickly and make decisions (most of the time) quite quickly. I am adventurous and am always planning my next adventure. I am also observant and I process information I gather accurately.
So when I noticed in my yoga classes that people who move slowly are incredibly strong and have good alignment, I too wanted to implement this into my practice. I started focusing on slowing down and not rushing to get to the end of the pose (or to finish a challenging pose).
I have learnt that growth occurs when we take our time and push through a challenge instead of rushing through it without reaping any of the rewards. I also started taking the entire breath for each movement and have noticed a change in my practice. This has also helped me outside of yoga. I am able to stop and smell the roses, instead of running from place to place (although I must admit my work life is still chaotic- and probably always will, I have made a conscious effort to bring balance to my work and private life). I now allow myself time to relax without feeling that I must always be doing something and for this I am a happier person.
Before I started yoga, I had little awareness of my breath. Breathing exercises are a huge part of any yoga practice, and they can be a very useful tool in our daily lives, too. As I learned to breathe in yoga, I started to become more aware of my breath outside of my practice and began to utilise these techniques in my daily life. I am now able to notice how my breath changes when I am nervous, and how I can focus on deepening and slowing down my breath to help myself relax. Focusing on my breath is one of the easiest things I can control, and I can do it anywhere at any time.
7. Be present.
Realise deeply that the present moment is all you ever have- Eckhart Tolle.
For the longest time, I could not articulate to other people why I loved yoga- but then I had a teacher talk about being present, and it clicked for me. When I am on my mat, I am only thinking about what I am doing and nothing else. Each pose requires focus and concentration that forces me to be present. This is not easy for me outside of yoga. As an extremely organised planner, I usually get consumed about something in the future- usually my next travel adventure. Being present is still a challenge for me, but I am much more aware of my ability to get caught up in future events and am able to bring myself back to the present moment. This has helped me better manage my stress and realise I can plan for the future but cannot control it.
8. I am strong and I can achieve more than I think
I am stronger than I think I am- Thomas Merton.
My accident and subsequent injuries spanning from 2010-2011 forced me to step outside my comfort zone and to have the courage to take massive action. Being forced to have to learn how to walk again made me a true believer that I can achieve more than I ever thought I ever could. I am strong. I am capable. I am determined. And so are you!
Stay tuned for my next 2 posts entitled “Set the Foundations & Open your heart (Yoga Teacher Training)” where the other 2 life lessons that need a blog unto themselves will be explored.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge that the life lessons that I mentioned above do not happen after one class, but if you stick with it, you might just find yoga will change your life in many beautiful ways!