A most wonderful (eh-hem) time of year…

What a wonderful time of year! I mean the snow is falling and friends are calling after all, aren’t they? It’s December and with it comes ever-shortening days (leading up to the solstice) and the pressure to deliver – and no I don’t mean the big guy’s one-night only appearance at every stop around the world, I mean the pressure to be “on.” Whether we are two or 92, there are expectations placed upon us to perform, and that can be daunting, overwhelming and downright humbuggy even. I love this time of year, truly I do, and I, like many of us, feel the fuss and often drain that this time of year brings. So, what do we do about?

Well, that depends on you. — Not what you thought you were going to read, was it? You see, from an Ayurvedic, the sister science to yoga, perspective we each experience the world through the lense of our doshic, the three genetic constitutions which define our own beings, the world around us, and everything in it, makeup, and each of us has a unique constitution, and set of imbalances. As such it is nearly impossible for me, or anyone really, to tell the masses how to feel better when they’re feeling down, because each of us experiences “down” in different ways.

Some of us might be sad, some mad and some may seem utterly giddy, and yet really what you may be seeing is their nervous energy seeping out of every pore. *Deep breath* that’s a lot to take in. What I can say, without a shadow of a doubt in my mind is that yoga will fix it, whatever ‘it’ is to you, today. Yoga, union or to yoke, is the practice (yes, practice – it takes time and effort to master) of coming together as one. Not the oneness of sharing gifts, or even a meal with one another, but the oneness that presents itself through the practice of sitting together in complete comfort and steadiness.

Remember last week, when I wrote a little bit about sutra, thread, 2.46: sthira sukham asanam, calmness and steadiness in posture, this comfort and steadiness are needed throughout our experiences and perceptions, especially when we feel overwhelmed, so that we may respond instead of react and love rather than h*** (I don’t say/write the H-word, because it serves no purpose, except to remind us that we can and should(!) do better) and in turn create a world in which every time of year is wonderful, just because we treat each other wonderfully.
***NOTE: No matter how muddy life feels or stretched you feel, if you are feeling anything other than love for yourself today, please know that we at the Playful Yogi love you and you are not alone, please reach out to someone for help!       

Where comfort meets steadiness, we learn

I am by no means a Sanskrit, the original language of yoga, expert nor do I claim to be a scholar of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a set of texts which guide us towards living a yogic life, but through my yoga teacher training I’ve learned a little bit about one sutra, thread, in particular: sthira sukham asanam, Sutra 2.46. This yoga sutra is used to explain the concept that in yoga posture we should feel comfortable and steady, always. In yoga and in life, comfort and steadiness aren’t always an easy thing to come by. What if, though, we were to manage our expectation of these things, would they become easier to gain?

For instance, for some people standing on one foot is a very challenging thing to do, while for others it seems that those individuals could stand on one foot all day, never wobbling in the slightest. Does that mean that those people in the former category, the wobbly people, shouldn’t ever try standing one foot because they can’t do so easily, with comfort and steadiness? Of course not! Depending on what’s going on in our individual bodies at any given time, we may need more accommodations and/or more time in achieving our goal, to stand on one foot, but it’s a goal we can work towards, if we have the capacity to do so.

It’s important to remember, thought, that it is both possible to work towards a goal and never achieve that goal, and still have a very comfortable and steady yoga practice, and life. Above you read that the sutras are a series of concepts which guide us towards living a yogic life, yoga is life and life is yoga. It doesn’t matter if you can do fancy yoga poses, or even “easy” yoga poses for that matter, nor do you have to be able to meditate, or chant, or practice mudra, seal, you can live a yogic life simply by living honestly and practicing comfort and steadiness, always.

You see, math or reading might be a challenge for us, or perhaps sitting still during class is our biggest challenge, in those cases, sometimes we need more time or extra help learning how to find comfort and steadiness in those practices, but they are practices. Everything we do is an opportunity to practice being comfortable and steady, we might have an interaction with a friend, peer or an authority figure that is challenging, and our ability to stay comfortable and steady in our reaction is confronted. It’s then that we have the opportunity to choose to practice being our best selves and respond with comfort and steadiness, but it isn’t always easy to do so, and that’s the challenge.

The opposite is true, too. Maybe we easily know how to respond to, or navigate through a situation, but if we’re not awake to our response, if we respond without intention, we’re no more steady than we are in the face of a real challenge. It’s great to be relaxed in a situation, but we must also be aware to what’s going on around us. Our world isn’t one of isolation, every single one of our actions has a consequence, intended or unintended, and if we are unaware of our actions those consequences risk other people’s comfort and steadiness, even if our own comfort and steadiness remain in tact. We don’t have to be successful every time we try something, in fact, we learn more from failure than we do from success. But, for the comfort and steadiness of all, we must practice and be aware in order to continue to learn.

Health is beyond physical 

Mental Health Awareness Month; much like the other specially designed days, weeks or months throughout the year, isn’t enough. There are so many ways in which to be identified as a person with a mental health condition that we truly need to be on top of monitoring the way we feel each and every day. 

When Inside Out (2015) came out it was a huge success: Joy, Disgust, Anger, Sadness and Fear were adorable and helped little kids (big kids and grown-ups alike…) more easily name their own feels. It also contributed to the huge number of ways schools are teaching character development. Wonderful! 

Unfortunately, it may have also oversimplified how emotions affect us on a daily basis. For instance, Depression is certainly held within the category of Sadness and Anxiety within Fear, but for many people these sensations (feelings) run so deeply that merely saying that they are sad or fearful softens the reaction to these emotions. 

Last year, I read an article about teenaged girls being uniquely capable of functioning well in their lives while simultaneously being untreated for severe anxiety and/or depression. I don’t know the exact article, but I can absolutely relate; as someone with severe anxiety and depression, my therapist once advised that I tell everyone about my diagnosis immediately because I am so highly functioning that without hearing about it first-hand others would never know. 

That’s terrifying, imagine being so good at covering up your illness that no one will help you manage it and help you get better without your expressed request. And as a kiddo, if you don’t have the vocabulary to help yourself speak up about what’s going on and no one sees what you’re going through without your expressly telling them so, how long will it be before you get the help that you need? 

Plus, what we’re starting to learn about stress is that when our bodies are flooded with stress hormones they build-up a tolerance to them. Then, in order to help us understand that we need to be in a state of heightened awareness, our bodies are flooded with even more stress hormones the next time we face pressure. But, there are things we can do, Mental Health America, MHA, created a toolkit to help us recognize and understand when we, or someone we love, might need help. 

The bottom line, be there: take proactive steps to helping manage stress and ultimately mental health concerns. As we mentioned last week and the week before, yoga can help! Take deep, mindful breaths and practice poses which help to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, the anti-venom to our flight, fight or freeze response. And of course connect; mental illness is extremely isolating and it’s important that we (as those diagnosed with mental illness) seek out love and that our friends and families share love with us everyday. 

Breathe Big…

Pranayama (breath practice) is one of the Ashtanga (the Eight Limbs of Yoga) and it’s vital to our lives. As a yoga teacher, we’re required (which personally I love…) to continue our learning, and currently I’m doing that by taking an advanced training with a yoga center in my home town. It’s a lot of fun, and just like learning might be for you, it’s a lot of challenging work. I mention it because at my most recent session, one of my teachers suggested that the lungs are the central part of our being. Modern medicine (i.e. doctors and nurses) might say that the heart is the most important part of our bodies because it pumps our blood, and of course our heart is super(!) important as is our blood. 
But, what if my teacher, who read this in a book written by another teacher whom my teacher respects, is right and the lungs are the most important part of our bodies? After all, the blood’s job is to carry oxygen and carbon dioxide through the body and the heart’s job is to pump the blood. The lungs, on the other hand, are what pulls and pushes oxygen and carbon dioxide (breath) into and out of the body. Yoga tells us that breath is what gives us life. For instance, energy/life are called Prana in Yoga from India, and as I noted above, pranayama is in fact breath practice. 
So, if the word prana (energy/life) is used in order to make-up the compound word pranayama to mean breath practice wouldn’t that mean that our breath and therefore our lungs are the most important part of our body? Again, I’m not discounting the importance of the heart and blood, but I am suggesting that we give more thought to our breath on a daily basis. You see, the breath is housed as a part of our autonomic nervous system (ANS,) which means that for as long as we’re alive we will breathe whether we think about it or not. And, that’s great! The coolest thing about our breath is that not only will it work without us thinking about it at all, but we can think about it and when we do, we can change it. 
We can’t really make bigs changes our heart beat or our digestion (both are also part of the ANS) just by thinking about them, but we can make big changes to our breath just by thinking about it. Have you ever been really nervous or scared, sometimes we refer to this as anxious, and did you notice that maybe you started breathing a little faster and/or a little more shallow, meaning that you didn’t breathe into the full capacity, or depth, of your lungs? If so, that’s a part of the ANS and it happened involuntarily, or out of your awareness; when that happens, we can start thinking about our breath and telling it with our thinking (conscious) mind to slow down, and if we’re patient, after a few moments your breath will slow down and deepen. In my opinion, that is incredible and it makes me appreciate my breath even more. 
One way to practice breathing fully is to sit up tall, with a long spine (backbone,) and place one hand below your bellybutton and one hand at the top of your chest, just below your neck. Breathe in and out and feel both hands lift-up with every inhale (in-breath) and lower with every exhale (out-breath.) Do this and maybe add counting to four (1…2…3…4) for every breath in and counting to 4 for every breath out, and then after 1-2-minutes reflect (think) about how you feel. Maybe you’ll even notice that you feel differently than you did before you got started. Give it a try and, with your parents’ permission, write to us and let us know how you feel. Keep breathing!     

Because the United Nations says so, that’s why…

The UN membership has declared yoga to be such a fundamental part of societies around the world that on December 11, 2014, it declared June 21st as the internationally renowned day of practice. This past Tuesday marked the 2nd annual International Day of Yoga. Not that yoga needed the validation, let’s face it this practice has been around for thousands of years, but to have “a record 175 member states” vote to make this an official day feels pretty good.

Throughout its history, yoga has been developed and reworked to meet the needs of flower childpopulations, for instance, the first practices only minimally touched on asana (posture). In fact, the original practice was largely centered around meditation and breath work (pranayama), what little was done for the physical body was done in preparation for these more subtle aspects. But, as traditions and civilizations began to change so too did the world’s yoga practice. Today, according to the 2016 Yoga in America Study conducted by the Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, there are 36.7M yoga practitioners in the United States alone practicing different yoga formats and aspects of yoga.

Peak into a studio and you might see a dozen or more yogis practicing Vinyasa, an athletic, intention and breath-based format, or Yin, a seated practice which focuses on passive posture allowing gravity to slowly open up the practitioner’s body. What’s more is that there are growing populations of kiddo yogis with eyes closed chanting (often giggling) their way through a series of Aum (Om).

In addition to the vast age differences of yogis, both in and out of studio, there are yogis with a varying array of body shapes and sizes, from a wide range of cultures, ethnicities, religions, and individuals with gender- and sexual-identity differences. Yoga in its truest form is a place where all people are welcome. In his address to the United Nations, when petitioning for this International Day of Yoga, Hon’ble Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi said, “Yoga is an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature.”

Yoga means union: the union within yourself, the union to each other, and the union to our world. Take time today to become a part of this growing community, this union of yogis and in 362-days you’ll be ready to celebrate the third annual International Day of Yoga and in the meantime you’ll find that “holistic approach to health and well-being.”

Thank you, body for working really hard today.

To me, this may be the most powerful statement that any person will ever say to themselves and it’s how my playful yogis and I end every single yoga practice. We all (humans) start out being awesome: we’re kind, sincere and helpful and then one day, we just aren’t.  It seems to happen overnight, we love and trust unconditionally and then all of a sudden – bam, we close ourselves off to unconditional. Of course we still have the capacity to love and trust unconditionally, but we start to choose with whom we share those qualities and more often than not we don’t add ourselves to that list.

Not only that, but we likely go so far as to tear ourselves down with thoughts about what Heartwe’re not good enough at and what we’d like to ‘fix’ about ourselves. But, what if every time we had the urge to chastise ourselves based on our learned biases, we instead stopped and marveled for a moment at how truly incredible the human condition, our condition, really is?

It’s ingenious how our bodies and minds work, so much so that modern science still hasn’t completely figured it out. We are super complex machines! And like mechanical machines, negative input results in negative output in our beings as well. We move through our days, more often than not, intending to be generous with ourselves and others, but when we’re confronted with external stimuli which we perceive as an affront to our condition then, we begin to turn towards judgement and a variety of emotions which cause us harm.

Maybe we’ve been taught, yes taught – we learn from history and experience, to believe that one person’s way of living is wrong or that we’re not good enough and so when we’re confronted with signs of those “wrong-doings” we feel disgust or anger or perhaps even shame. And as we hold onto these feelings, rather than identifying their root-cause and learning a new path, we are the injured party. We are hurt, not directly by what we perceived, but by how we interpret what those actions mean to us.

As time goes on and the hurt continues we fester and eventually we act out our frustrations. Think about it, how many times can you beat yourself up before you find a way to beat someone else up? Maybe it’s not a physical manifestation, but all that negativity will eventually lead to lashing out at those around us.

The good news? Just as negativity acts like a boomerang, so too does positivity and love; what you put out you get back in return! Like you, the kiddos in our lives learn through outside stimuli and you are their biggest source of inspiration. Children learn through modeling and when you model kindness towards yourself and others they share in that kindness. So, inspire the kiddos to say, “thank you” for the goodness in life and teach them how to let go of negativity, in doing so today you make it possible for tomorrow’s world to be full of kindness, love, and acceptance.