February Yoga Challenge: Day 21, Do you feel the sunshine?

Autumn Forest Illustration Valery RybakouDreamstime.com

Today I had a walking meditation under blues skies and beautiful sunlight after church. Seeing the sunshine is a rare treat in Upstate New York during the winter, so I was glad I took the opportunity to go out and soak in the light. Just being outside for a half an hour in the sunshine lifted my spirits exponentially. This experience reminded me of my hardest winter in Rostov, Russia.

January 2017 was the grayest month I’ve ever endured. Rostov winters aren’t white. They are grey, windy, cloudy, and cold. Having grown up in the West my whole life, it was difficult never seeing the blue sky. At the time, I was also working through painful emotional challenges. Long story short, I had terrible seasonal depression.

During my scripture study one dank morning, it occurred to me I had the power to bring sunshine into my day in other ways. I decided to write all my daily blessings on sticky notes and put them all over the hallway mirror where I could see them every time I came home. Around that time, I also took the time to write fun daily events texts to other missionaries serving in my area.

This change in attitude made all the difference for my missionary service. The greatest change, however, was most present in my heart and mind. My thoughts were brighter because my focus was not on my pain or the sad, winter landscape. I created daily sunshine to stimulate and enhance my life.

What does this have to do with my yoga practice? I like to picture the sun salutations as a way of opening my heart to change and honoring the sun, which anchors me physically, spiritually, and mentally. Traditionally, Surya Namaskar A and B sequences represent a persons’ external and internal veneration for the sun. Hands are placed at the heart at the beginning and end of each salutation, symbolizing this reverence and connection.

One of the means of honoring the sun is through the dynamic asana sequence Surya Namaskar (better known as Sun Salutation). The Sanskrit word namaskar stems from namas, which means “to bow to” or “to adore.” (The familiar phrase we use to close our yoga classes, namastete means “you”—also comes from this root.) Each Sun Salutation begins and ends with the joined-hands mudra (gesture) touched to the heart. This placement is no accident; only the heart can know the truth.

The ancient yogis taught that each of us replicates the world at large, embodying “rivers, seas, mountains, fields…stars and planets…the sun and moon” (Shiva Samhita, II.1-3). The outer sun, they asserted, is in reality a token of our own “inner sun,” which corresponds to our subtle, or spiritual, heart. Here is the seat of consciousness and higher wisdom (jnana) and, in some traditions, the domicile of the embodied self (jivatman).

Richard Rosen, Here Comes the Sun: The Tradition of Surya Namaskar

However, sometimes we salute the sun even when we can’t see it. It is wonderful to think each person has an anchoring light within them. We don’t need to always see the sun to know it’s real, to feel its warmth, or experience its power through the earth’s rotation. I like to think all of us are beings of light, and yoga reminds us to look inward and recognize this within ourselves. 

Thank you for reading! See you tomorrow.

Sunshine Envelope via pushing the envelopes

Yoga Inspiration: Day 20, Do you do yoga at night?

Stardust Celestial by JasmineRebecca on Etsy.com

I did a bedtime yoga sequence for the first time in a while. Usually, I do this if I need to wind down after a stressful event during the day. I’ve had too many of the world’s problems on my shoulders lately. I’ve found yoga, above anything for me, helps me focus on what’s most important at the moment: breathing and anchoring my mind in the present. I can’t solve the world’s problems. I can’t change social trends on marriage, family, or religion. What I can do right now is breathe, bend, and be in the moment I have.

Thank you for reading! See you tomorrow.

Yoga Inspiration: Day 19, Do you enjoy deep stretching?

One of my favorite things to do is deep breathing and stretching. After being sick, enduring finals, finishing huge writing projects, or . . . going through monthly womanly experiences, taking the time to stretch deep into my aching body feels wonderful. It’s miraculous how much stress gets trapped in my muscles.

Today I dedicated my practice to breathing and stressing my anxiety out of my hips, legs, shoulders, and back. I wondered why stretching helps fight stress so effectively. A fun website Resilient Educator I found explains, “Stretching stimulates receptors in the nervous system that slow the production of stress hormones.” Ashley Previte explained in the article “Stretch Your Body, Stretch Your Mind” other benefits. Deep Stretching,

  • Releases hormones for mood and emotions.
  • Increases blood flow and circulation to your muscles and your brain
  • Encourages a relaxed awareness of your body and mind
  • Improves balance, flexibility, range of motion, and strength
  • Focuses your awareness to the present

Though I prefer yoga sequences that push me physically, there are times like today, after I built up too much stress, I need to really stretch it out. These kinds of sequences, for me at least, don’t follow a predestined pattern. I like to pay attention to my body and ponder which muscles need a lot of focus. (Most of my stress goes to my lower body in my hips, lower back, and legs.)

What I especially like about these yoga sequences is how fun it is to think about how I would teach this to a class. There is nothing so liberating as allowing yourself to stretch and flow according to your needs. Because, when it all comes down to it, we do yoga for ourselves, not to please or impress other people.

All in all, I had fun today and enjoyed releasing several days of tension from my body.

Thank you for reading! See you tomorrow.

Yoga Inspiration: Day 18, Do you follow any YouTube yoga teachers?

Snapshot of Adrienne from her YouTube channel

Today I give a shoutout to one of my favorite YouTube yoga teachers. After I maxed out a yoga exercise video almost ten years ago, I looked up different yoga teachers online to learn more. Money was tight, but I knew I needed extra guidance if I hoped to progress. So I went exploring and finally found Adrienne’s channel!

She is a great teacher for beginners. I often go through her videos to learn new ways to teach beginner students. We have never met, but I view her videos like an old friend’s. She helps me identify and ground into the basics. By going through her videos once a week or so, I can focus on what is most important in my yoga practice.

This is the video I did today! It was the perfect pick-me-up after several days of lethargic practice.

Adrienne has multiple monthly yoga challenges beginners, and seasoned practitioners can experience. Her latest 3-Day yoga series Breathe inspired me to conduct my month-long challenge. She’s a gentle, personal, and calming yoga teacher. I recommend her videos to anyone interested in either getting back to the basics or starting an at-home yoga practice. 

Thanks for reading! See you tomorrow.

Yoga Inspiration: Day 17, How do you meditate?

‘Girl Reading’, Charles Edward Perugini, (1870)

I made a monumental discovery today. Meditation is more than sitting on a pillow with my eyes closed while concentrating on deep breathing. Not that I don’t love doing this! But I have an eclectic mind and thrive on variety and exploration. So today, on my third day off from intensive yoga practices, I meditated on different ways I mediate off my yoga mat and pillow.

Honestly, yoga teaches how to practice mindfulness in all aspects of our life, even during activities and habits usually not associated with meditation or spiritualism. Here’s a small list I’ve made for myself.

  1. Reading Familiar Books
    • Rereading favorite books creates a safe space for the mind. The more I read a story, the better I understand its meanings and life applications.
  2. Reading New Books
    • Discovering new and wonderful books is one of my life’s joys! I believe attaining knowledge through reading is one of the most beneficial medicines we can find.
  3. Re-watching Favorite Movies
    • Much like revisiting favorite books, re-watching my favorite movies has a medicinal effect on me. Many of them remind me of the things that are most important to me.
  4. Watching Children’s Shows
    • Watching old cartoons or children’s shows brings me a lot of joy. I don’t feel myself opposing, sorting, and relabeling what I see. Nor do I have to switch on my language in my brain.
  5. Walking Outside
    • I am empathic, so going outside, breathing in fresh air, and walking is one of my favorite ways to sort and quiet my thoughts.
  6. Cleaning
    • Clean rooms are happy rooms. Clean minds are happy minds. Cleaning my space helps me simultaneously clear my mind of anxiety and turbulent thoughts.
  7. Researching and Writing
    • I love research projects! I love sharing what I learn! Research and writing taught me to FOCUS and connect my thoughts.
  8. Playing and Listening to Music
    • I’ve loved music since I was young. When I need to unwind in a very personal way, sometimes I sit and play the piano or sing. I can’t list all the times beautiful music has uplifted and enlightened me.
  9. Riding Transport
    • Riding in cars, buses, trains, or airplanes sometimes brings me wonderful enlightenment. I especially love to look out the window and ponder the scenery and people I see.

Thanks for reading! See you tomorrow.

Yoga Inspiration: Day 16, Do you let yourself rest?

Artwork by Lokia, 3daysmarch.net

For any who read my posts from the last few days, my physical practice has been on a steady decline. I had high expectations for myself, even while I am not feeling completely up to it. For several days I was going to do deep breathing exercises with longer-lasting asanas. But after doing it for one day, I knew it was not the right thing for me. Thankfully, this February yoga challenge is about understanding my limitations. For the next few days I want to focus on different aspects of my practice.

I’ve often wondered what it means to rest mindfully. People are so busy nowadays I wonder if they have forgotten how. For me, it is a matter of mindfully setting aside busy things I can do that I think I should do and being still.

I don’t need to go onto the mat today if I am not physically up to it.

I am not obligated to do extensive research if I am mentally tired.

I don’t have to walk three miles if it is 10 degrees outside and snowing to feel accomplished.

If I take the time to rest, it doesn’t mean I failed to meet my goals. It just means I’m listening to my body and adjusting what I do according to its needs.

My affirmation today is I will mindfully rest without judging or criticizing my choices.

Thank you for reading! See you tomorrow.

Yoga Inspiration: Day 15, How do you face inner conflict?

Yin Yang Yoga, by Naama Ben-Daat on Behance.com

Today I remembered why doing slow yoga sequences is so hard for me. Minutes before I laid out my mat, I passed one of the upstairs bedrooms while a show played. I had periodically watched episodes of the show and was impressed with some of the characters and ideas. (I won’t specify which show it was because I don’t think it’s necessary.) However, when I passed the room to change for yoga, a scene flashed before me that floored me emotionally. After that, my brain kept trying to sort through and process what I saw.

Doing an hour of slow breathing and posing almost killed me. The whole sequence, I felt like I was facing what I saw over and over again, trying to fix it and reassure myself of what I know is right.

Some people do softer yoga to relax and forget about things that upset them. I do intensive sequences because they help me burn through those problems. If I slow down, my thoughts become so heavy it’s self debilitating. My counselor almost five years ago called it Obsessive Compulsive Thinking. The only time I become like this is if I face situations, ideas, or people who directly oppose my spiritual or moral beliefs.

The best way to describe it is I get stuck in my thoughts trying to fix the unfixable. Though the problems I face in my head seem easy to let go from the outside, its not so simple. Those conflicts and the emotions they arouse feel very real. Sometimes they are absolutely terrifying. Renee Fabian explained this very well in her article “How to Stop Obsessive Thinking.”

Obsessive thoughts can impact both your mood and functioning. When they enter our mind, generally our first instinct is some level of discomfort, followed by attempts to banish the unwanted visions. This is human nature: When something is bad, we avoid it. The stove is hot, so we don’t touch it. Simple. But obsessive thinking is a different beast.

When we try to avoid a thought while in an obsessive state, the brain keeps reminding us about the unwanted thought so we don’t forget to stop thinking about it. It’s the same basic principle behind being told not to think about something — say a pink elephant — and our next thought becoming exactly what we are not supposed to think about.

Renee Fabian, How to Stop Obsessive Thinking

Knowing this, it is easy to imagine how I felt yesterday trying to breathe deeply and move slowly while fighting these thoughts. Luckily, I established for myself a pattern to ease myself out of this pattern of thinking. First, I RECOGNIZE I am having harmful compulsive thoughts. Second, I REVIEW the thoughts. Third, I RELABEL them. Last, I face them and mentally walk away from them. Usually I have to repeat this process many times before my thoughts settle down.

For anyone else who grapples with anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Thinking, having these kinds of thoughts is okay. What’s most important is knowing we are not our thoughts and it’s okay to struggle to calm ourselves. There is nothing wrong with us. Everyone to one degree or another faces these kinds of trials. 

Thank you for reading! See you tomorrow.

Yoga Inspiration: Day 14, Accepting and pondering emotions is part of yoga

Artwork by 9 Jedit (This is one of my favorite artists! Please check out their website and their Instagram and Grafolio accounts)

Since I didn’t do a physical practice today, I thought about what I could give to anyone who reads this post today. I settled on discussing for a short time how accepting and pondering our emotions is part of a healthy yoga practice. I know this seems like a strange thing to post on Valentine’s Day. But anything I could post about love wouldn’t be very sincere. 

Today I will be honest. Practicing yoga sometimes makes me painfully aware of the sorrows I carry. But, other times I use it as a way to relish in my joys. I believe we carry certain emotions throughout our bodies. I’ve pondered this ever since I watched “The Guru” from Avatar: The Last Airbender (2004-2008) and studied chakras for my yoga teacher training. Much of our physical healing and inspiration comes from facing difficult emotions blocking our path towards fulfillment. 

How could any of this relate to Valentine’s Day? Well, I know quite a few friends and family members who are struggling right now. Some have never married. Some are recently divorced and estranged from their children. Other’s have had spouses die. Valentine’s Day is one of the hardest holidays to go through for many people because of many unique circumstances. On the other hand, I have many many friends and family members who are newlywed, have newborn children to enjoy, or are happily able to meet those they love.

Whatever our life circumstances, it would be incredibly beneficial to breathe and accept whatever emotions we feel at this time. This is fundamental truth I’ve had to learn over many years. Until I was about twenty-five, I didn’t know how to positively face and feel my emotions. As a child, I would hold in powerful negative emotions until I broke down when t became too much to bear. Meditation, prayer, and positive friendships have definitely helped me to mature emotionally enough to confidently say it is worth it.

Above anything else, I assure anyone who reads this there can always someone who loves, cares about, and wishes you happiness. That person is you. Even if that isn’t a reality now, it can be. I think it all starts with a desire to let go and simply be who we are: and that is someone truly and sincerely wonderful

Thank you for reading! See you tomorrow.

Yoga Inspiration: Day 13, Do you take time to slow down?

“Big Sky” by 9 Jedit (This is one of my favorite artists! Please check out their website and their Instagram and Grafolio accounts)

Because my practice yesterday was so stressful, I decided to slow down and take extra care to relax. Instead of focusing on continuous movement patterned after my breathing, I stayed in each posture for 1 minute, changing when a bell rang on my phone. I also limited the sequence to only an hour, so I didn’t pressure myself to do more.

I wonder if I am an anomaly. I don’t like to be rushed, especially during tests, yet I struggle to slow down when exercising or starting new projects. It takes a lot of self-control to let myself not go all the way, to not give everything I can. But that is a lot of pressure to put on one’s self. I’ve come to terms with having a perfectionist mindset, but still expect perfection from myself, even with the smallest things.

Today’s yoga experience, as slow as it was, gave me valuable insight into how I move and relax. When I sat within each posture for 1 minute, I focused on the muscles I needed to engage but also how my body settled as I breathed deeply. Even the simplest positions could be physically challenging if I had the right mindset.

Through some studying, I discovered there is a yoga style called Iyengar Yoga which holds postures longer like this. Named after its founder B.K.S. Iyengar,”poses are held much longer than in other schools of yoga, in an effort to pay closer attention to the precise musculoskeletal alignment within each asana.”(Types of Yoga) Another yoga style, which holds postures even longer than in Iyengar, is Yin Yoga. Paulie Zink established this style in order to, “apply moderate stress to the connective tissue – the tendons, fascia and ligaments – with the aim of increasing circulation in the joints and improving flexibility.” (Types of Yoga)

Funnily enough, when my practice ended with the last bell chime, I was melancholy. The timing couldn’t be better for me to experiment with this slower, more focused sequencing. I won’t be able to do more intensive practices because of monthly menstrual issues. But I am excited rather than dismayed because I can now find a yoga style I can do freely in the future when I can’t go all out.

Thank you for reading! See you tomorrow.

Yoga Inspiration: Day 12, How do you handle smells during yoga?

Ylang Essential Oils, Illustration Daria UstiugovaDreamstime.com

I learned today how important it is for me to control how my environment smells while I do yoga. There is a funny story connected with my post title. A few hours before my yoga practice, My brother started washing the carpet on the stairs ten feet from my usual yoga space. I didn’t think too much about this until, while I was writing on the couch, I smelled the cleaner he was using. The cleaner’s smell was so powerful I could barely stomach staying in the same room. Several hours later, I moved my yoga mat into the kitchen to avoid the awful stench in the living room, only to have OTHER scents from our pantry and sink assault my poor nose. I felt slightly nauseous and struggled concentrating on the poses I was doing.

Conclusion, smells have a powerful effect on me especially when I exercise. This experience brought back many memories from my childhood, especially in the Arizona heat, where powerful smells completely ruined my concentration while playing sports in PE or participating in church activities. There was even an instance a few years ago in a yoga studio in Utah. The studio and the teachers were nice and I liked the overall feeling there. However, the incense or smells the owners of the studio used made me nauseous and a total mess for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, I never went to that studio again.

After my experience today, it got me thinking about how other people react to smells. Are there others who have a hard time practicing because of it? I do know many yoga studios use smell as a means of to help students mediate. As Ta Yoga founder Terri Kennedy once noted, “Scent denotes certain things, so we use scent to set a mood, energy, and space.” Though this is the case, there are most likely more people like me who are super sensitive to scents.

I don’t think there is necessarily a right or wrong answer on whether teachers should use incense or essential oils for their classes. What is important for me, especially as I think of how I want to teach yoga classes in the future, is trying to make a studio or class as welcoming and comfortable as possible. Sometimes that means having a candle or incense burning in or outside the room. Other times there are poor people like me who need the air as clean as possible.

One article I found that addressed this subject really well was Addressing Scent and Sensitivity in Class by Angela Pirisi. Feel free to check it out!

Thank you for reading! See you tomorrow.

Pepperment, Illustration by Daria UstiugovaDreamstime.com