Q.

Since I’ve started practicing intermediate series I’ve had trouble falling asleep. I also wake up in the middle of the night and have a hard time falling back to sleep. Do you have any tips?

A:

The intermediate series is a stimulating and dynamic practice. It is not uncommon for students to experience many changes in their lives as the postures begin to weave themselves into the subtle body. Before we go into this, let’s look at the primary series and go from there.

The Primary Series is called ‘Yoga Chikitsa’ or yoga therapy. The focus is on detoxing the physical body. First, the postures work to ‘wring’ the internal organs. Correct foot and heel position, binding etc is crucial. The wringing action squeezes stagnant blood and toxins from the muscles/organs. The vinyasa between postures provides fresh blood to those same areas and as the body moves, internal heat is cultivated. Next, steady rhythmic breathing is what keeps the heat sustained and supported; the vehicle for detoxification. This breathing induces a calming and meditative effect on the mind and pratyahara (sense withdrawal) is possible. When we combine all of these actions simultaneously we experience Yoga. Detoxification is happening on mind AND body.

It is common for practitioners to experience flu like symptoms as the purification process takes place. This is one of the reasons daily practice is important. The impulse will be to rest however unless there is fever, practice daily (5-6 days, moon days off) so toxins can be thoroughly removed. This does not mean that you will never get sick or that the body remains in a perfectly cleansed state. We are constantly taking in toxins either through food/water, our environment or even the way in which we think/speak to ourselves and others. It simply means that we are in a certain state of balance. As a friend and teacher once said ‘Between life and death there is illness and recovery’. Our purpose in life is to find a place that is balanced for as long as possible.

Intermediate series is called ‘Nadi Shodhana’. Now that the physical body is (more or less) purified, we begin to work on the subtle body, the Nadi system. Some explain this as ‘purification of the nervous system’ but it’s more subtle than this. The subtle body is made up of chakras, pranic streams known as vayus (5 pranas) and nadis, the passageways in which the life force (prana) can move freely and evenly. These passageways are clogged and unbalanced in most people. They must be purified before a practitioner is able to experience higher and more subtle states of Yoga.

student-question2

Throughout the intermediate series the postures bend and twist the spine, the largest nerve channel in the body, creating a ‘Nerve Cleansing’ effect. This precise work on the spine will create a stimulating effect on the subtle body which can show up in several ways. For some this includes difficulty sleeping, peaks and valleys in energy level and heightened emotional response/reactivity…for starters. Where you stop in the intermediate series will change how you experience the day to day, moment to moment.

Here’s what I love about the Ashtanga method. It requires you to take care of yourself. Seriously. Not some times, not part-time, all the time. Late nights, partying, drinking, drugs and gossiping, even once in awhile, will create more devastation to the body, mind and spirit once this cleansing process has begun. Be respectful of this powerful system. Move through your day intelligently, with awareness and Ahimsa. Rest to let the practice work in a beneficial way. Without proper rest, there will be problems both physical and psychological.

Here are some suggestions for getting the rest that you need.

1) Make sure you practice the entire finishing sequence without shortcuts or time constraints.

Many students rush through the finishing part of the practice either because they have not allowed enough time or they consider it a ‘cool down’. The finishing sequence is very important and crucial for the entire practice and in your daily life. The finishing sequence neutralizes the physical and subtle body, nervous and other systems etc. Bringing everything to balance, this is where most physical pain (especially back pain) can be alleviated. This provides a subtle protection as you go out into the world.

In fact, this is where the truly ancient and essential postures are practiced. For example, Sirsasana and Sarvangasana are considered the king and queen of all asanas. Their benefits include purifying the blood, lungs, heart, stomach, digestive system and strengthening Amrita Bindu. Each asana in finishing has many benefits. See ‘Yoga Mala’ by Sri K Pattabhi Jois for further information Sarvangasana pg 111 &112 and Sirsasana pg 119-123.

I recommend 50 breaths in Sarvangasana and Sirsasana and 15 breaths in all the other postures. Consider this another practice and allow yourself 30 minutes for finishing.

2) Keep all electronics out of the bedroom.

Viewing a brightly lit screen can create insomnia. They have a direct alerting effect and a melatonin-suppressing effect as well. Get an old fashioned alarm clock and keep the phones, iPads and computers outside of the bedroom.

3) Spend the last hour or so before bed, getting ready for bed – the hours for sleep are meant to be healing. Prepare for this by creating rituals that support the process.

  • Go to bed early (before 10pm)
  • No internet surfing at least an hour before bed.
  • 10 minute light meditation is helpful.

4) Some Ayurvedic tips:

  • Take an oil bath or shower with almond or coconut oil (depending on your Ayurvedic constitution) before bed.
  • Drink warm milk with cinnamon and honey. I prefer to flash pasteurize raw milk myself.
  • Ghee on the soles of the feet, temples and top of the head works like a sleeping pill : )
  • Banyan Botanicals ‘Tranquil Mind’ is great for calming the mind without leaving you feeling lethargic or mentally constipated.

5) Diet tips:

  • Use sugar moderately. This can be challenging for an Ashtangi. We tend to reach for sugar as an immediate energy boost. The crash later, weakened immune system and lowered energy levels will inevitably effect practice, day-to-day job and activities. Generally speaking, not worth it. Instead try fruits, (though not past 4pm as this ferments in the stomach turning into vata, gas, flatulence) dates, sweet potato mash. Sweet foods that are nourishing and soothing to the soul.
  • No caffeine past noon. While Sharath Jois is a well known advocate of coffee, ‘No coffee, No prana’, he’s referring to South Indian coffee which is a much lighter version mixed with chicory, milk and sugar. It is not the keep you up for three days version we have here in the west. Use moderately, no problem.
  • Eat more whole foods and less processed foods, fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Cook for yourself more. Eat out less. Restaurants exist by making a profit, not healing you. The more you eat out, the more likely you will be eating frozen, processed, GMO foods and other additives and preservatives. Shopping and cooking for yourself will ensure you are eating what you want/need. You will feel better and your savings account will too.
  • Khichadi is delicious, easy to make and nourishing for the soul. Here’s a great recipe

Hopefully this will provide some helpful tips. Moving through the daily practice without completely driving yourself (and others) crazy is possible, enjoy!

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Rhythms

2013 was the year I watched my father die slowly and painfully. I watched as his limbs refused his commands, ignoring 70 years of habit. His tongue laid in his mouth, useless and resigned. His eyes frantically searched for reason and logic; eventually resting, finding neither. What had his limbs/organs/nervous system experienced that they could betray him with such vengeance? He was angry and unmanageable on good days. I kept hoping/expecting a revelation or surrender where kindness would emerge but that didn’t happen – until the very end. Then forgiveness, sorrow and regret filled everything, everywhere. It was a tsunami that washed away ancestral heads and hearts. He doesn’t live here anymore. I do, and the world is a different place.

Much of the world I occupy is spent in a Mysore yoga room, practicing and teaching. Every year I travel to the city of Mysore itself. The spaces between are filled with resting and rebalance. For a few hours every morning I move through a room filled with bodies moving to their own beat and breath. As I move, I hear sounds of life and death. Life; the top of the inhale/laughter/possibility/expansion. Death; base of the exhale/doubt/fear/contraction. I often imagine moving through the room without vision to guide me. What do I hear? What does it feel like? What is happening? As I listen I better understand the mental and psychological experiences of those around me.

As human beings, we tend to maintain a strong, almost desperate clutch on our habits and reality. I observe this daily in students, and in my own personal practice. We hold on to our ideas, preferences and opinions in varying forms: ‘I want more/less’, ‘I want/don’t want’, ‘I won’t/can’t’, ‘Its too easy/hard’, etc. Eventually, through elegance and bravery, breath and bandha we’re able to safely move through or relax back to transcend these obstacles and meet potential. Death of the limiting ideas of who we are and what we’re capable of. And life, the realization that we are beyond ALL of that. Life begins again, fresh and new but with a more spacious and potent understanding of who we are.

Guruji said ‘Ashtanga Yoga is breathing practice, the rest is just bending.’

Guruji said ‘Ashtanga Yoga is breathing practice, the rest is just bending.’ Sri K Pattabhi Jois was deadly practical in presenting this method to us. All is revealed in the breath.

2013 was the year I married a great man. I wore soft yellow and he wore green chucks. We were at our most joyful/playful. It was a day of deep love, mutual respect and support. Everything was hyper-alive. And the rhythms of life and death continue.