Thursday, January 28, 2010

Yoga for your Dosha

I recently put together a workshop and compiled some advice on Yoga practices for different Ayurvedic types, and I thought I'd post them here.

Without going into too much detail, Yoga and Ayurveda are sister-art/sciences that are deeply connected to one another. Yoga is the spiritual path, while Ayurveda is therapy- and lifestyle-oriented. The Ayurvedic "doshas", Vata, Pitta and Kapha describe three different energy types, and everyone's basic nature, or prakriti, is made up of a composition of the three. Usually people have a dominant Dosha, or two Doshas share dominance (although in rare cases there are people who have even amounts of all 3). In addition, the equilibrium of the doshas, or vikruti , will fluctuate throughout your life, and can be made balanced or imbalanced by factors in your lifestyle, diet, environment, and physical habits, as well as by age, season and even time of day.

Cue: Yoga and your dosha. Since any regular activity in your life can either help to balance your dosha or cause imbalances, so will your Yoga practice. So, Ayurvedic theorsists provide us with some guidelines on what type of asana practice works for which Doshas. [At this point, if you don't know what your Dosha is, head over to google and search for "dosha quiz" and take one of the many online dosha assessments. As a starting point, there is a simple 12-question quiz on Deepak Chopra's site. Also, see lower down in the post for tips on assessing your dosha.]

Got your Dosha yet? Good. If you have multiple doshas, I've put a few tips below to help you begin to sort through things.

Advice for VATA

People of Vata nature or with Vata imbalance are most complimented by a yoga practice that is grounding, calming, and slightly warming. This practice will help to balance out Vata's tendency towards anxiety, insecurity and spaceyness. In addition, since imbalances in Vata mostly manifest in the large intestine and lower back (2nd chakra) as well as joint pain, people of Vata nature can benefit from poses that strengthen the lower back and work the lower abdomen.
Best Asanas for Vata: All standing poses, especially Warrior II and Uttanasana, Paschimottanasa, Balasana, Dhanurasana, Padmasana.
Asanas to Avoid: Avoid over-stimulation through many fast repetitions of sun salutations or similar sequences. In addition, because Vatas tend to have prominent joints, use padding on asanas that put pressure on your joints such as shalabasana, salamba sarvangasana and halasana.

Advice for PITTA

People of Pitta nature are most complimented by an asana practice that is calming and cooling. Pittas tend to be naturally assertive and driven, so when practicing asana they should focus on keeping a steady breath and keeping softness in tense areas such as the shoulders and face. Furthermore, pittas are prone to imbalances in the small intestine (3rd chakra), so practicing backbends that stretch out the solar plexus area can be very beneficial.
Best Asanas for Pitta: Ustrasana, Bhujangasana, Dhanurasana.
Asanas to Avoid: Avoid over-stimulation through many fast repetitions of sun salutations or similar sequences, which can generate excessive heat. In addition, Pittas should avoid holding inversions such as headstand for prolonged periods, as they generate a lot of heat in the head and the belly.

Advice for Kapha

People of Kapha nature are most complimented by a heating, stimulating practice. Kaphas tend to be slower-moving and are prone to congestion in the lungs, so a fast and hot practice is the best tool for bringing Kapha back into balance.
Best Asanas for Kapha: Ustrasana, Salamba Setu Bandhasana (to open up the chest and help prevent congestion), repetitions of Surya Namaskara A and B.
Asanas to Avoid: Almost all asanas are good for Kaphas, but since their weakest areas tend to be kidneys and lungs, avoid prolonged holding of poses that place pressure on the lower abdomen, like Dhanurasana.

Advice if You have More than One Dosha

If you have a combination dosha, it may be tricky to navigate the advice above. For example, if you are Pitta-Kapha, you are supposed to avoid heat on the one hand, but generate it on the other? For dual dosha types, I can make a few recommendations, although obviously nothing substitutes for an actual ayurvedic/yoga consultation!

Firstly, try to determine if you have a dominant dosha. Sometimes you can do this by taking a different dosha quiz - if you took a long quiz, try taking a shorter one and see if you get a clear majority. Secondly, you can analyze your results and see if your physical (as opposed to temperamental) attributes fall more into one category than another - this might help guide your physical practice. Thirdly, take the quiz with an "adviser" - a spouse/partner, sibling or parent who can give you objective answers to some of the questions - you'd be surprised at the difference sometimes!!

If you still have a tie, you will need to do some self-study to find what is right for you. Going back to our Pitta-Kapha example, you may find that in the mornings you have lots of fiery energy typical of Pitta - so then a morning practice should be slow and calming. Or you may find that at this particular time in your life, your Kapha is dominating, and you can compensate with a more stimulating practice. This is also the case if you are one of the rare people who is a balance of all 3 doshas - you will need some careful self-examination to determine which dosha applies to which of your physical and personality attributes.

Learning about your Dosha is not the end of the journey - it's just the beginning!! The balance of the 3 elements in your life will fluctuate with the years, seasons, even the time of the day. But Ayurveda gives us some handy tips for how to keep those elements in balance and get in touch with your unique "dosha pattern" and your true nature. :)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

On Generosity, and how (not to) help in Haiti

A friend of mine posted this link on FB the other day and I wanted to comment on it. It is an article about how good intentions can fall short of the mark in humanitarian situations, why sending food and clothes isn't as helpful as it's intended to be, and why you shouldn't just show up in Port-au-Prince to help.

I think as yogis and yoginis, we are particularly likely to want to reach out in tragic situations, to be proactive, to DO something that we feel can alleviate the suffering we see. The article points out, however, that donating old clothing, food or medicines is not really an effective way to help people on the ground.

As someone who has worked in a humanitarian emergency - on a much smaller scale! here in East Timor in 2006 - this article rings true to me. In emergency situations, the most critical priorities become meeting basic needs: shelter, water, food, and sanitation. With no home to go back to, no place to wash or change, people don't need much clothing. They certainly don't need items like cup-of-soup, or tinned goods - if your house collapsed, how many of you would have a can opener in your back pocket? What people need are what we call basic food and non-food items: buckets, tarpaulins, blankets, bed-nets, clean water, soap, food supplements (usually bags of nutrient enriched flour) and basic cooking items. In addition, they need technical teams to clear rubble, erect temporary shelters, dig and pump out latrines, bring running water, administer medicines and coordinate basic services.

In any case, as the article points out, despite the honest, pure and good intentions of most material donations, the best way to really help in Haiti is to contribute financially to an established NGO. It may not feel as personal - but after all, this is not about us.

Which brings me to muse on generosity. The article highlights a trend in in-kind donations - the giving away of unwanted items of clothing, many of which may be inappropriate for the context (I mean, thong panties and stilettos? seriously?), and even of expired food and medicines (for crying out loud!!). No matter how good our intentions may be, giving away that which we do not need falls short of the mark of true generosity. Even more confusing, doing it in order to alleviate our OWN sense of helplessness and suffering crosses that murky line of attachment to the results of our actions.

The mere fact that we HAVE (and we all do!) closets of clothes that we no longer need, piles of shoes that we no longer wear and tins of expired food lining the shelves of store-rooms is a symptom of the deeper dis-ease of our society. Our over-consumption and materialism is the very antithesis of true generosity, our worship of riches and fear of poverty is the hallmark of our attachment to transient things.

In his inspiring book "Buddha is as Buddha Does", Lama Surya Das notes that generosity is the first paramita, or teaching of the Buddha, and in a sense, is the key to all others. True generosity, he says, "means breaking through the self-oriented attitude that we're making a sacrifice or that we're martyring ourselves", and rising above self-centeredness to live a compassionate life. "True generosity", he says, "is giving everything you have to every moment, and is the way of nonattachment."

Generosity is not as simple as just "giving" or "giving away". Lama Surya Das comments: "True generosity does not involve mindlessly handing over everything to anyone who asks." 'Generous' things done lazily, mindlessly or fearfully can end up doing harm, even though the person was trying to be helpful. "The parent who gives his spoiled child every toy the child wants may be showing more laziness than generosity," he gives as an example, "and ends up spoiling the child."

Obviously none of us are Buddhas yet (do you think Buddha would have a blog?). The struggle with non-attachment to the results of our actions is a daily one, two steps forward, one step back. But by being mindful about our urges to consume as well as to give, and by making sure our generosity is well-placed and is effective, we can make a good start down the path of untangling this complex web. So, if you want to give, give well. If your yoga studio is collecting donations for Haiti, encourage them to look deeper into how to help most effectively. Generosity means taking responsibility for our actions, and making them with mindfulness and wisdom.

On a lighter note, if Buddha did have a blog, what do you think it would be called? ;)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

This is your real Yoga...

Brenda over at Grounding Thru the Sit Bones posted this inspiring post. In it, she says:

"Your real Yoga is how you live your life."

YES!! This is such a succinct reminder of the PURPOSE of it all - Yoga is not teaching us how to bend, stretch, or stand on our heads. Yoga is teaching us how to LIVE.

One of my TT teachers said these words (more or less) that I will never forget: "My mat is like my battlefield, where I prepare myself for the world. Because if I can come to my mat every day and do battle with myself, with my body and my ego, if I can do that and still keep a steady breath, what in the world can I not do?"

Your real Yoga is in the real world. None of the ancient texts talk about asana (not that it isn't fabulous!), they talk about living life - mindfully, ethically, patiently, compassionately.

I am always trying to find ways of throwing this idea into my classes, to remind my students that it's not about the poses, or whether your nose touches your knees, or what the person on the next mat is doing! It's the way we deal with everyday situations - traffic jams, noisy kids, spilled coffee, cranky spouses, aging parents, power-outages, that makes our Yoga.

Even on the mat, the real Yoga is how we deal with what comes up - our emotions, frustrations, and challenges as we practice. At some point, we ALL experience feelings of insecurity (OMG I can't do that pose but so and so can), feelings of superiority (OMG, I am so better at this pose than so and so is), feelings of frustration, anxiety, inadequacy, strength, weakness, tears and laughter as we peel back our layers and practice the humbling discipline of asana. As Eco Yogini recently blogged in this post, these feelings can leave us drained and "unyogic" if we let them run away with us. But we have to remember to treat ourselves with the same loving kindness as we treat others around us! To acknowledge our feelings, but not let them take control of us! To, as my teacher said, confront ourselves, and then come back to the breath.

Meditation (my 'challenge' for this year - so far not going so well I'm afraid - but it will get better!!) is the same. It's not about whether you can sit still, or for how long. It's not about having a "perfect", empty, calm mind. If you can sit through a meditation session and still show patience and loving-kindness to that butterfly brain... That is Yoga.


Friday, January 15, 2010

The Yoga of Dumbo

Yoga is about transformation. In yoga philosophy, the five Niyamas, or "self-restrictions", teach us how we can prepare ourselves to receive this transformation, to become the change in our lives. By cleansing our bodies and our environment (saucha), we get rid of what is unhealthy, making space for positive growth. By accepting ourselves as we are and feeling gratitude for all our blessings (santosha), we are able to appreciate even the smallest transformations in our lives as a gift. By being disciplined and putting in effort (tapas), we transform wasted energy into the fire of transformation. By studying ourselves (svadhyaya), we strip away the ego and allow the True Self to emerge.

The final Niyama is "Ishvarapranidhana", or "devotion to God". It is a concept that I have struggled with many times, not being, or ever having been, of any religious creed. So for those of you who may also struggle to untangle the same sticky philosophical threads, I offer you the story of Dumbo. Yes, Dumbo. The baby elephant with the enormous ears.

Dumbo is a social outcast. Ridiculed by the circus where he was born, he is taunted and turned into a clown. His mother tries to protect him from a judgemental mob, and is imprisoned as a mad elephant. His circus makes him an object of ridicule, forcing him to fall from a high platform into a vat of pie filling. But then, Dumbo is given a magic feather and told it will make him fly. Desperate to change his situation, not out of ego but in order to get his mother released, Dumbo takes a leap of faith and flaps his ears. And sure enough, he flies! The next night he takes his magic feather to his act, but at the last minute he loses it. As he plummets down, Dumbo finds out that the feather has no magic at all, and, finally believing in himself, he opens his ears and soars through the air, amazing and delighting the audience of thousands.

The feather never had any magic powers - it was the power of Dumbo's belief that allowed him to break through the barriers in his mind and perform miracles.

Ishvarapranidhana, therefore, teaches us that if we believe in transformation, it can happen. If we set our minds to change our situation, we can overcome obstacles that seemed insurmountable! If we truly believe in ourselves, we will create our happiness. And most of all, if we put all our efforts together, we can inspire others to also witness the unforgettable moments of magic in the world, the glorious liberation of transformation, when barriers are destroyed and miracles happen - the moment when an elephant flies. :)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Detox Sequence

As I mentioned in my last post, here is the Detox sequence, which we workshopped over about 2 hours. I have also included a few things that we didn't do in the workshop, like Neti and Udiyana Kriya, for maximum detox benefit. Lots and lots of twists which are excellent for digestive health! The sequencing is Ashtanga-based, as that's what I am trained in.

Breathe deeply, focus on that 3rd Chakra, and enjoy! Remember, we are talking about assimilation here - taking in from the world what you need, getting rid of what you don't, and thereby making space for new changes to grow from within.

Kriyas & Pranayama
• Jala Neti Kriya (cleaning sinuses with water)
• Simha Kriya (lion's breath)
• Udiyana Kriya (only if on an empty stomach!!) 3-5 times
• Kaphalabati (bellows breath) 3 rounds of 5 for beginners
• Nadi Shodana (nadi balancing pranayama - alternate nostril breathing)

Warm Up Asanas

  • Pavanmuktasana (wind releasing pose), each leg, then both legs
  • Baharadvaja's twist (kneeling with knees to one side)
  • Cat & Cow with leg lifts and twist (bend the knee, grasp ankle with opposite hand and twist back to centre)
  • Sun Salutations A & B
  • Utanasana, gently swinging from side to side with the breath

Standing Asanas
  • Utthita Trikonasana (triangle pose) and Parvritta Trikonasana (reverse triangle pose) - variation: hand on the sacrum, focus on lengthening the spine and twisting
  • Uthitta Parsvakonasana (extended angle pose) and Parvritta Parsvakonasana (reverse angle pose) - variations according to level, i.e. low lunge with a twist, high lunge with a twist, high lunge with arm extended forward
  • Prasarita Padottonasana (wide legged fwd bend) with twist - arms under shoulders, walk one arm to centre and extend the other up, then switch
  • Parsvottonasana focusing on pulling the lower belly in to make space for the forward bend
  • Rest in child's pose, then come up to Adho Muka Svanasana (downward facing dog - you can also add a twist here by grasping the back of one shin with opposite hand) and come back to Tadasana
  • Ardha Badda Padmottanasana - variation: cross one leg over opposite knee and bend into a hip opener, if possible place both hands on the ground and work the lower belly in.
  • Ardha Chandrasana & Parvritta Ardha Chandrasana - using the back foot against the wall for balance (half moon and reverse half moon pose)
Seated Asanas
  • Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) + variations: add a twist by bringing opposite hand to foot, spice it up by lifting the foot and reaching the free hand out behind you!) + Purvottanasana (table-top pose/upward plank pose) as a counter pose for the lower back
  • Janu Sirsasana (nose towards the knee stretch) with emphasis on twisting the torso over the extended leg and lengthening the spine
  • "Seated gate pose" - from Janu Sirsasana, bring the body back to neutral centre. If your left leg is extended, reach your left arm out and try to place the left elbow on the ground inside the leg. If that feels good, reach the right arm up and over and stretch there for a few breaths. Eventually you can clasp the left foot with both hands and look up, bringing the torso into a deep twist.
  • Ardha Matseyndrasana (half lord of the fishes twist)
  • Marichyasana C without binding, and then binding with or without the help of a strap

Finishing poses
  • Ardha Setu Bhanda Sarvangasana (bridge pose) (for some students Camel Pose is also a good 3rd-chakra backbend!)
  • Salamba Sarvangasana (shoulder stand), Halasana (plough) & Matsyasana (fish)
  • Supine spinal twists (any variation)
  • Savasana

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Diet for a Yogic Planet

Today I did a little workshop on "Detox Yoga" (if anyone is interested in the sequence, let me know and I will post it) and after our asana practice we talked about food and eating habits from a yogic perspective. I thought I would share the information I compiled (from various different sources, mostly my TT manual). Enjoy, and remember: we are what we eat!

The Yogic diet
  • In general: Eat Vegetarian, Sattvic & Pranic foods (emphasis on light, energetic foods that grow in sunlight, such as fruits and nuts. Eat naturally sweet foods, and use limited amounts of salty, spicy or bitter ingredients as condiments).
  • Yogis emphasize regular meals of moderate quantities (as a rule of thumb, your stomach should be 1/2 full of food, 1/4 full of liquid, and 1/4 empty after a meal). Eat your main meal at midday when the digestion is at its peak, and keep your evening meal small and light.

Yoga Good Foods:
  • Clean water (lots and lots of it!)
  • Fruit, vegetables, whole grains
  • Beans in moderate quantities
  • Nuts & seeds
  • Plant-based, natural oils and spreads
  • Dairy products (free range) especially milk, yoghurt and cottage cheese
  • Natural sugars
  • Sweet spices (ginger, cinammon, cardamom, fennel, cumin, coriander, turmeric, mint, basil...)
  • Herbal teas and fruit juices

Yoga Foods to Reduce or avoid:
  • Meat, fish and eggs
  • Artificial, processed or canned (except natural fruit) food
  • Animal fats and oils
  • All meat & dairy products from factory farms
  • Excess garlic & onions
  • Fried foods
  • White sugar and white flour
  • Artificial sweeteners and condiments
  • Artificial beverages or juices
  • Alcohol, tobacco or other stimulants
  • Overcooked or over-processed foods

It's not just what we eat that is important, but also how we eat. So here are a few Mindful eating habits:
  • Eat at regular times, but only eat if you are hungry.
  • Eat only what you need, give unwanted food to others or return it to the Earth.
  • Prepare food or seek food prepared with love and consciousness.
  • Give thanks or feel gratitude before a meal. Recognize all the human efforts and resources that it took to get this food to your table.
  • Eat slowly and quietly. Practice chewing fully and savouring each bite.
  • Keep only peaceful or positive emotions at your table to improve harmony and digestion – don’t eat when you are angry and don’t let negative discussions or arguments ruin your meals.
  • Share the gift of food generously and often.
  • Keep your mouth and teeth clean.
  • Make changes gradually – don’t diet or binge.
  • Eat to live, don’t live to eat. :)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"Living Buddha jailed"

A few days ago I caught this story on the BBC: "Tibetan 'Living Buddha' jailed by China".

I have to say, this news fills me with a deep well of sadness, maybe more so because I had been feeling buoyed by the new year. As someone who was raised to be tolerant of all religions, accept all cultures and embrace diversity, it's hard for me to imagine how it must feel to be persecuted for wanting to express your identity.

The charges against Phurbu Tsering Rinpoche, a 54-year old ethnic Tibetan monk, were "possession of ammunition and embezzlement". Now, I like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but my alarm bells go off when I look at this statement. The charges seem, well, random. They don't connect somehow. They just feel fabricated - a federal offense topped off my a moral one. Whose twisted creativity, whose base power-trip is this monk caught in?

His arrest came last year after "more than 80 nuns [..] held a demonstration against an official campaign to impose "patriotic re-education" on their convents, in which they were required to denounce Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama." This is the part that really hurts my heart - the attempt at re-writing the spiritual truth of an entire people, the suppression of the most basic freedoms to choose for yourself your heart's truth, your satya, your framework for living.

It astounds me that religious persecution is alive and well in 2010. It disheartens me that these news stories are footnotes in the world news, that here we go about our days while elsewhere, people live in fear and are silenced by oppression.

I wonder what Phurbu Tsering Rinpoche would advise me and my aching heart? I wonder what he will face during his 8-year sentence? I think I may light a candle for him tonight - maybe some of you will join me, and then he will not be so alone.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Branching out in 2010: I'm on the web!

Happy new year everyone!

New Year is a time for big reflections, and there has been a lot going on in my busy brain. More about that in a later post.

I'm starting off 2010 with a big leap - expanding my Yoga teaching to private classes and Yoga therapy. It's something I've been considering for some time, but now that my 9-5 job has ended and I am a free agent, I'm giving it a go!

Living in a small town, I'm expecting most things to roll by word of mouth. But, since I am a big geek ( :D ), I also spent some time this week creating a website! So, I'm pleased to link to it here and would love any feedback positive or negative:

If anyone is interested, I downloaded the template from a Creative Commons site called Free Templates and the site is being hosted for free by These amazing people are sharing their creativity and services for free so they deserve some kudos and would love it if you check out their pages.

Do any of you have websites? Have the experiences been good for you? What have you learned about being online?

Namaste, joy and hope!