Are you practising presence? Yoga for conscious living
Imagine your mind is a garden where thoughts grow and create feelings, actions and experiences. What kind of garden are you tending? Do wildflowers grow only by chance and are companion plants strangled by weeds? Or are you consciously, meditatively, nurturing rich soil with joyful planting, watering and weeding for a healthy mind? Yoga is a way of life that tends to the garden of your mind so you can consciously live an empowering, cultivated existence.
Why live consciously?
Conscious living is freedom, bringing awareness, acceptance and positive change. Conscious living is a healing and continuous act of love. The right yogic tools and teacher as a guide help to reduce the impact of past wounds, self-defeating beliefs and unconscious childhood programs.
Samskaras: impressions in the mind
Difficulties arise when you choose to live consciously but experience adversity. Samskara (imprints from the past) and the associated vrittis (arising thought forms) can create habitual and negative patterns in response to triggers. Kleshas (afflictions in the mind) attach to the samskara patterns, creating a veil and clouding your mind. Consciously training the mind is necessary to release the grip of this repetitive cycle.
Kleshas: the afflictions
Michael de Manincor, a yoga teacher and psychologist at the Yoga Institute in Sydney and a PhD candidate on yoga for mental health, believes the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are most ideal for understanding how the mind works. Cycles of negative thinking, says Patanjali, are results of obstacles forming as manifestations of the kleshas, which are:
- Avidyã: ignorance or lack of awareness.
- Asmita: egoism.
- Raga: attachment or addiction to pleasure.
- Dvesha: aversion to pain.
- Abhinivesha: fear of death or clinging to life.
Many triggers are a source of avidyã and dvesha. A refusal to acknowledge or accept your shadow side leads to asmita, a false self, instead of identifying with the depths of truth within. A regular yoga practice leads you inwards, creating positive samskaras through residing, even momentarily, in the bliss that comes from the inner world.
Foundations for living consciously
Some 5000 years ago, Patanjali provided the foundations for conscious living. He suggested:
- A graceful attitude towards others, regardless of their circumstances.
- Breathing practices of extended exhalation.
- Enquiry into the role of the senses.
- Enquiry into the mystery of life itself as a way of calming the mind.
- The counsel of someone who has mastered similar problems.
- Enquiry into dreams and sleep to clarify your problems.
- Any interest that calms the mind.
Neti neti practice: not this, not that
I am not my thoughts and feelings. I am not my reactions. I am not my body or this experience.
Neti neti practice is self-acceptance, an act of love, and can be practised as part of conscious living. Your true identity, the “I am”, is the silent, non-judging witness of everything. When you remove identification with all that you are not, what remains is a streaming flow of love from the true self.
Evidence-based brain research into yoga
Dr Mitch Hall, PhD, wellness co-ordinator at PsychHealth and yoga teacher at the Niroga Institute in the US, reported on studies that identify how yoga can heal trauma in people’s lives. Trauma can result from physical, psychological and sexual violence or witnessing violence, life-threatening illnesses or natural disasters. Unresolved traumatic stress can interfere with a person’s ability to function, limiting the capacity to make conscious choices.
In psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk’s 2006 trauma-sensitive studies, the group practising yoga showed:
- Significant decreases in the frequency of intrusions and severity of hyperarousal symptoms.
- A 50 per cent drop in post-traumatic stress symptoms.
Furthermore, Dr Hall cites a study that found a 27 per cent increase in brain gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) (low levels are linked to depression and anxiety) in a group of experienced yoga practitioners after one hour of yoga practice, in contrast to a control group who read for an hour and showed no increase in GABA.
A regular yoga practice leads you inwards, creating positive samskaras through residing, even momentarily, in the bliss that comes from the inner world.
Dr Hall explains that when an individual is under stress, the higher cortical functions of the brain shut down and the primitive centres take over. Bruce D Perry’s Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics indicates that when human functioning has been disrupted through trauma, appropriate interventions need to be made at the lowest level of neurological organisation. Dr Hall explains that yogic practices self-regulate the stress response through mindful breathing, movement and meditation, and work directly at the level of disruption.
Yoga is a key intervention for regulating arousal and the startle response, Dr Hall explains further. Mindful yogic practices activate limbic areas in the right hemisphere that mediate awareness of body and feelings. Practising yoga means you can bring conscious choices into your thinking and actions when you are no longer in a state of hyperarousal or dissociation.
Dr Hall reminds us that the safety of the yoga teacher/student relationship is essential for this healing. The prosodic qualities of the teacher’s voice, gaze and energetic presence are essential. If you have adverse childhood experiences in your system, you might not have developed the foundation for a strong nervous system network, he explains. The transitional attachment presence of the right yoga teacher for you heals and strengthens these networks.
Why yoga poses?
The YogaSutras explains that physical symptoms are a result of kleshas in the mind and become distractions for living consciously. Yoga poses detoxify, stretch and strengthen, healing your body, mind and emotions. Mindful movement, alignment and breathing improve emotional and mental health. Tolerating and breathing through discomfort in the body during challenging asanas (postures) offer the mind a way to tolerate and breathe through mental discomfort during triggering moments. Yoga poses strengthen the witnessing self that does not identify with transitory moods, images and thoughts that trigger you.
In the trigger moment
An immediate and effective response to a trigger is to slow the exhalation. Dr Hall suggests an exhalation twice as long as the inhaling breath. This calms the bottom-up stress response in the brain and nervous system. At first, simply slow the breath; never force it.
De Manincor suggests to additionally focus on the body during a trigger response. If you notice something tightening, for instance, work on releasing it as it happens. Your asana practice can then be designed to release these physical manifestations of your samskara response.
Yoga in the moment
- Breathe with awareness then extend the exhalation.
- Perform a mental body scan. Breathe into the belly then release physical tension where discomfort arises.
- Come into alignment whether standing or sitting (see tadasana instructions).
- Develop witness consciousness. Watch how you respond compassionately without attaching to it.
- Do a silent mantra meditation such as “Om” to protect the mind from negativity. Mantra is powerful when repeated regularly.
- Practise and cultivate kindness towards the self and others at all times.
- Practise neti neti regularly.
- If someone else is experiencing a trigger moment, work on your own reactions. Breathe into your belly and extend your exhalation so you are calmer and less triggered yourself.
- Return to a regular yoga practice for healing your life.
How to practise
Approach your daily yoga practice with:
- Tapas: a burning desire for revolutionary change.
- Abhyasa: practice — a 10-minute daily mindful yoga practice is more effective than a weekly one-hour session.
- Gracefulness and gratitude for yoga and what it can do for your life.
- Ahimsa: non-violence with every breath, every movement, every thought.
- Joyfulness, so your practice uplifts you.
- Vairagya: acceptance and detachment to outcomes — trust the process.
Patanjali reminds us, “In the final analysis, we are not the masters of everything we do.”
De Manincor explains that since the veil of illusion makes you blind to your own samskaras, you can repeat habitual movement patterns during yoga practice. A professional yoga teacher can help safely shift your movement into alignment, planting positive samskaras from which to create a conscious life. One-on-one yoga is most effective and tailored to release your individual samskara patterns, although Dr Hall notes that group yoga classes create a sanga (community) who practise ahimsa together. Yoga classes can then lead communities towards non-violence in thinking and action. Whatever the form your guided yoga sessions take, home practice is essential.
May you nurture the garden of your mind and let it blossom into a place of serenity and beauty through the healing, loving art of conscious, truthful yogic living. Om shanti (peace).
A yoga practice for conscious living
This sequence is designed with ahimsa in mind. Dedicate time for deep healing to frequent your life. Practise in a quiet, uncluttered, nurturing place that frees you of inhibitions and invites surrender with each pose and breath.
Remind yourself: “Here begins my practice. Lightly lift me out of a tamasicor rajasic state and give me sattvic joy in this moment, so that each succeeding moment is lighter, freer and less bound by habitual responses. In moments I am caught up or cannot see my reactions that result from past conditioning, I am still OK, as I practise daily to live consciously and let go of striving for any particular outcome. I trust the process that moves me towards the bliss of the inner state of love.”
Begin yoga in a comfortable, seated position with a straight spine. Close your eyes and bring awareness to your breath. Place your hands on your abdomen; encourage belly breathing. Count the duration of your breath. If comfortable, gradually extend your exhalation to twice the length of your inhalation. If uncomfortable, relax and return to your normal breathing with awareness.
Mountain pose (tadasana)
Stand against a wall, big toes touching. Spread toes evenly, weight across both feet. Lift kneecaps, firm and turn thighs inwards. Move abdomen back towards the spine. Bring heels, sacrum and shoulder blades to touch the wall, checking your alignment. Bring your emotional body into alignment through this pose several times a day, especially when stressed.
Flowing bridge pose (setu bandha vinyasa)
Lie on your back, bring heels in line with sitting bones, knees bent. On inhalation, gradually lift the spine from the base slowly up, lifting arms above the head simultaneously. Link the movements, arms resting on or towards the floor as your back lifts as high as comfortable. Synchronise the breath with movement. Exhale, slowly lowering arms and spine from upper vertebrae to lower back into starting position. Repeat 6 times. Lengthen exhalation with each repetition. Incorporate ujjayi breath if you know it
Triangle pose (trikonasana)
Step right leg back one metre. Turn left foot out to 90 degrees, turn right foot towards left foot. On exhalation, turn hips to the left, abdomen back, reach out across the left side. Place your left hand on the left leg, rotate your chest and abdomen upwards, raise the right arm at shoulder height. Look forward or up if comfortable. Hold for 5 steady breaths then repeat on the other side.
Downward-facing dog (adhomukhasvanasana)
Step feet one leg-length distance from hands. Turn the heels out, straighten the legs, lift your knees up and look towards the knees. Lift your sitting bones, move the abdomen and ribs back, press into the thumb and forefinger, turn your shoulders out. Breathe slowly through the nose, extending exhalation.
Upward-facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana)
Pull your abdomen back, scoop the body into position, lifting the sternum forward, arms perpendicular to the floor, knees off the floor if comfortable. Look straight ahead or slightly up, being careful not to compress the back of neck. Draw in the lower belly.
Next, lengthen the spine back into downward-facing dog on a slow exhalation, engaging abdomen in movement. Repeat the flow between the two poses slowly with the breath, 6 times. Watch your mindset, practising ahimsa.
Cow face pose (gomukhasana)
Sitting on the floor or yoga block, bend knees, stack the right knee on top of the left, feet out at the sides. Sit evenly on sitting bones. Inhale, raise the right arm, bend your elbow, placing the palm into your back. Take the left arm to the side, rotate the arm inwardly, bend your elbow, wriggling outside of the hand up the back to hook hands together. If this is not possible, hold a strap with your hands, working the right and left fingers closer together using the strap. Lift your right elbow towards the sky, drawing the left elbow towards the floor, abdomen and ribs back. Move the front of the throat back, straighten your head. Breathe. Repeat on the other side.
Reclining twist over bolster
Sit with the side of your left hip touching the edge of the bolster, knees bent, feet swung to the right. Rest your right ankle in the arch of your left foot. Turn to face the bolster, inhale. Exhale, fold your body over the bolster, relax and rest down into the support of the prop. Turn your head to the left. Close your eyes, rest for a few minutes, repeat on the other side.
Finish the sequence with lying on your back in savasana, relaxation pose, closing your eyes. Focus your mind on the natural breath as you let go into the inner realms. Stay here for 10 minutes or longer.
A Q&A with John Ogilvie, owner and founder of Byron Yoga Centre
We sit down with John Ogilvie, owner and founder of Byron Yoga Centre, based in Byron Bay, New South Wales.
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