• Hinduphobia in Yoga World

    “If you’re trying to ‘social justice’ yoga without addressing, acknowledging, or disrupting the Christian/Western onto- epistemological hegemonic framework of social justice, you’re literally, actually advancing colonization.” – Indu Viswanathan

    Hinduphobia manifests itself in many ways and, unfortunately, it is also common in the yoga world. Whether conscious or subconscious, this is very disturbing to practicing Hindus across the world. The selective pick and choose from Dharma and the call for social justice to reform dharma that suits the western lens is ever prevalent in yoga in the West and has once again come up during the Covid crisis.

    As a person who practices and believes in Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy, “All life is yoga,” a Dharma practitioner from birth, a student of Ashtanga yoga, an Indian currently residing in the US, and a mother of a 5-month old, the erasure of my ancestral history through Hinduphobia distresses me and the millions like me. The idea that my daughter would hear the same colonial distortion that we have been force-fed is extremely unsettling. That is why I am compelled to speak up every time I see it.

    Speaking of the second-wave Covid situation in India, there is no denying the mismanagement by the central state government. However, the way this has been covered in North America and Europe is with a neo-colonial gaze. India was in very bad shape during the second wave and just starting to recover. The reason it got to this state is a lot more nuanced and not as single-pointed as it has been shown in western media.

    As though our collective trauma right now isn’t enough, our pain is now showcased by the Western Media sharing our sacred death rituals and cremation photographs captioned crudely as “Stunning.” This is sensationalism and bias at its best. Shown below the example referenced.

    Instead of the Western Yoga Industry calling out the Western Media for showing our “exotic” crematoriums, some (mostly white) yoga teachers have been sharing these very images for their own fundraisers and classes without realizing that they are perpetuating distress porn that harms people of Indian descent, both within India and in the global Indian diaspora. The western gaze still looks at the funeral pyre as a barbaric ritual while leering at our tragedy. Anyone practicing Dharma knows that these Indic rites are sacred to Hindus and have a deep personal meaning. In India, both life and death are sacred. Sharing these images shows a complete lack of respect for the dead and is extremely dehumanizing. It shows a complete disconnect to life. Calls for help showcasing these images stem from the common troupe of white saviorism and do not serve the path to true equality.

    Most Western yoga teachers have not commented on how the Biden administration withheld the raw material necessary for vaccine manufacturing in India and only released these materials after the NSA intervened The Western Yoga Industry that benefits from India’s knowledge stayed completely silent instead of calling out their own governments’ faults.

    Worse, when Hindus have protested and spoken out on social media about this we have been labeled as Hindutva, a word that is being used negatively against Hindus instead of having a scholarly data-driven debate on the issue at hand. That’s that, and people move on. But, this label is problematic because Western scholars, who rely heavily on colonial-era scholarship, are quoted in pop culture for anything Hindu and then cry Hindutva whenever Hindu scholars confront or critique their work. Western yoga teachers and scholars appear to do everything in their power to maintain colonial privilege and weaponize Hindutva to attack their Hindu critics and hide their shortcomings. These very Indologists’ scholarships are used to further propagate colonial narrative and destroy the Dharma back home. This same pattern of crying Hindutva when Hindus protest the Western yoga world’s treatment of Hindus during the Covid crisis is evident.

    Cry Hindutva can be seen when practicing Hindus say that casteism isn’t Hindu, that Brahmanical Patriarchy isn’t Hindu and Sanskrit is not elitist. If Hindus talk about it and defend it, Western social justice warriors and yoga teachers just cry Hindutva. The neo-colonial narrative prevalent in most Western discussion about Covid in India focuses on the Indian government’s mishandling and uses the above terms that are not native to the land. This is virtue signaling in the guise of help. This is telling us, “you don’t know how oppressed you are from time immemorial, hence, your past thousand years of colonization is totally justifiable.” This is the same argument that the British used to “civilize” our “heathen culture.” This is also the same argument used by our very own brown Babus and MemSahibs, who are the elite reminiscent of the continued British education system leaving us mentally colonized to this day. This is a complete erasure of who we are.

    This erasure is observed over and over again and it hurts. For example, in a popular yoga conference, any voice that questioned the presenter’s apparent Hinduphobia was shut down. The organizers conveniently hid behind people appearing of “South Asian” descent.

    If you’re trying to ‘social justice’ yoga without addressing, acknowledging, or disrupting the Christian/Western onto- epistemological hegemonic framework of social justice, you’re literally, actually advancing colonization. – Indu Viswanathan

    The deafening silence and complete lack of awareness of the erasure of Hindus is another major issue the dharma practitioners have. Western yoga teachers hardly ever acknowledge the atrocities that have been committed on Hindus. One of the biggest Genocides and Exodus in history, the 1971 Bengali Hindu Genocide where 2-3 million people were killed, a hundred thousand women raped, and 10 million Bengalis fled, just for practicing Dharma. This is hardly common knowledge in the Western Yoga Space. This was systemically whitewashed and gaslighted to have zero media coverage in India and elsewhere.

    See this video to find out more about the “Bengali Hindu Genocide” (NOTE: This video cannot be embedded in the post click the video title to watch it directly on YouTube.)

    What can Western yoga teachers and students do?

    • Western Yoga must start looking beyond Western Anglophone Media and focus on center Indigenous Dharmic voices by honoring Yoga Stewards.
    • Follow Kaya Mindlin, Shivani Hawkins, Indu Viswanathan and Hindus for Decolonization Facebook Group who are actively working towards decolonizing the yoga space.
    • Speak out when you see Beer yoga, Goat yoga, Bible compatible yoga and the likes to preserve the sanctity of the practice.
    • Educate yourself about the atrocities faced by dharmic folks.
    • Call out Yoga journals and influencers who try to alienate Yoga from its Dharmic roots.
    • Come forward and give back to the land that you benefited so much from in its time of need.

    https://www.artofliving.org/in-en/projects/corona-relief-work 

    https://covid.giveindia.org/

    https://shivgangajhabua.org/campaigns/covid-19-support/ 

    https://tinyurl.com/HelpIndiaBreath 

    Please use discretion while donating. India has the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act 2010 (FCRA) to ensure foreign funding does not affect the internal security of the country. NGOs who have indulged in forceful religious conversions, incited communal tensions and embezzled funds are no longer approved.

    I hope, through this, at least some indigenous voices are understood. I wish, this critique will act as a small step in encouraging the Western yoga space to begin its introspection of its unconscious bias. I dream of the day this neo-colonial gaze ceases to exist. And as a practitioner of Hindu Dharma, I pray for the Light to encompass the Darkness, always.

    Reference:

    1. https://shaktitva.org/blog/2021/6/21/yoga-in-america-eating-the-hindu
    2. https://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2021/04/23/covid-cremations-india-jba-lon-orig.cnn
    3. https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/americans-first-us-defends-export-ban-on-covid-vaccine-raw-materials-to-india-2420686
    4. https://www.academia.edu/40082617/Cry_Hindutva_How_Rhetoric_Trumps_Intellect_in_South_Asian_Studies?fbclid=IwAR18YV-Qg9sT9-OqOaHR9gTMNyzkC1b54I6Khp4YX5v5BUUNR404LejWaqQ
    5. https://www.facebook.com/induv37/posts/10157748399821196
    6. https://jhiblog.org/2018/05/30/what-did-europeans-contribute-to-the-caste-system-in-india/?fbclid=IwAR2lOixmS4KlwL8S3Oy-s8rzyY-GE7aGisTwHr6_YpiakY4RkIcaZq2Oj0w
    7. https://indalt.com/do-brahmin-lives-matter/?fbclid=IwAR0KacmrjmA2E5PjFkC48eeuPO3S7zkcMjUKMgETKsn_qOrb3xZDbulYehQ
    8. https://www.huffpost.com/archive/in/entry/caste-covid-19-india-coronavirus-lockdown_in_5ee4ade3c5b61387f005e8d8
    9. https://www.academia.edu/30937643/Jews_and_Hindus_in_Indology
    10. https://browngirlmagazine.com/2019/03/how-a-popular-decolonizing-yoga-summit-became-a-colonizing-one/?fbclid=IwAR0nyDowL9RQDyHIfA7JJtP-ZKHFeK_BmOXOFk3x0a-B7isImpNb7MKcX_Q
    11. http://swatantramag.com/hindu-genocide/
    12. https://www.asian-voice.com/Opinion/Columnists/Kapil-Dudakia/Bengali-Hindu-Genocide-of-1971 

    By Sushma Kondapally

    Sushma is an Indian Hindu, currently living in the US. She moved to the US at the age of 21. Having practiced yoga from early on in life, her exposure to yoga in the US and the associated Hinduphobia came as a shocker. Now, as a mother of a young child and understanding how detrimental the effects of Hinduphobia on Hindu children in America can be, she is speaking up.

    Photo by Marlon Trottmann from Pexels

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  • Mantra Chanting as a Tool to Help Calm Anxiety

    Mantras are sacred words or phrases with a specific meaning and vibrational power. They come from an ancient tradition of using sacred sounds to shine light on aspects of ourselves and of life that we wish to heal, transform, manifest or understand deeper.

    In our busy world, it’s easy to feel anxious. We’re constantly bombarded with information everywhere we turn, and although technology is a wonderful tool, it also carries its burdens. It seems in a world where we’re “so connected,” many of us feel isolated, anxious and alone. This is when chanting mantras can help.

    As a sufferer from ongoing anxiety, I came to mantras 18 years ago through the paths of Yoga and Sufism. At the time, mantra chanting became a tool to help me detach from external distractions and calm down. It was an easy-to-use technique I could employ at any time to transform anxious thoughts and return to myself no matter what was going on around me. In this space, I felt more joyful, trusting, and more connected to life’s possibilities. Understandingly, I was hooked, and since then I’ve chanted mantras almost daily!

    So what, you may be asking, are mantras?

    Mantras are sacred words or phrases with a specific meaning and vibrational power. They come from an ancient tradition of using sacred sounds to shine light on aspects of ourselves and of life that we wish to heal, transform, manifest or understand deeper.

    The word Mantra is Sanskrit and is made of two parts:

    Man – mind
    Tra – vehicle/instrument

    When put together, Mantra becomes an instrument to help cross over the fluctuations of the mind. It’s a tool we can use to help us overcome the busyness of our thoughts, emotions, impulses, desires and tendencies. By chanting mantra, we pierce through these distractions and come to rest in the stillness of Being, in our true nature. There is freedom and transformative power in this.

    And how exactly does mantra chanting help us with anxiety?

    Chanting involves repetition. As we recite our mantra over and over again, our concentration on our experience of the mantra increases, whilst at the same time decreasing our focus on the triggers of our anxiety. Nervous feelings, worried thoughts about potential future scenarios, or the replay of past situations in our head – they all decrease as we give ourselves over to the mantra.

    In this way, mantra chanting helps us focus our mind, connect to our body, and it brings us into awareness of the present moment. This is a place where anxiety doesn’t exist.

    What are some tips we can use to chant mantra?

    When we chant, we can focus on different sensations and ideas in order to strengthen our alignment with the mantra and through this reduce anxious feelings:

    1. The meaning – Every mantra has a specific meaning we wish to align with. So we can hold this meaning in our mind as we recite the mantra to help us align with it.

    2. The vibrations – We can tune into the vibrations resonating through our body from the fundamental frequencies created in our vocal cords. Some mantras even encourage us to focus on feeling the vibratory sensations in different parts related to the different parts of the mantra.

    3. The pronunciation – As we chant, we can tune into the way we vocalise and pronounce each element of the mantra. Feeling it inside our mouth and concentrating on the specific pronunciation.

    4. Breath – Focusing on anchoring our breath in our pelvis can help ground us whilst chanting. This also serves to bring us back into an embodied state and out of an anxious one.

    5. Sound – We can focus on the sound coming out of us as we chant. And if we’re in a group, we can concentrate on our individual voice, blending into that of the group until it sounds as though we’re one voice chanting.

    6. Love – Mantra chanting is a form of Bhakti or Devotional Yoga. When we chant, we get to give all of ourselves – all of our thoughts, emotions, and our current energetic state – into the mantra. I think about it as bowing before the altar of my own heart and chanting intentionally, from this space.

    How to choose a mantra to chant?

    What I love about mantras is that they are so diverse. There exists a mantra for almost every aspect of the human experience you can think of. From helping us move through fear, to allow more abundance into our life, from connecting to our inner strength to deepening our self-confidence, mantras to me are like little friends we can call upon whenever we need support.

    When searching for a new mantra, I recommend finding one whose meaning or energy resonates with you. For instance, sometimes I look for a mantra that can help me with a specific issue I’m facing, and then I begin chanting it daily for a number of weeks. Other times my voice coaching clients, and online course students, present mantras to me in our live sessions whose vibe simply speaks to me. In these situations, I often find myself unconsciously chanting the mantra after our session, and I feel like the mantra has chosen me. So then I begin chanting it for a few weeks and I observe what unfolds in my life through this practice.

    There are many ways you can find new mantras to chant, from books to blog posts, from YouTube videos to listening to mantra music on streaming sites like Apple Music and Spotify. I have many of the mantras I’ve personally worked with online for you to listen to under my name Kirbanu, and there are many other mantra musicians whose interpretations of classic mantras deeply inspire. As someone who suffers anxiety, what I appreciate in listening to mantra music, is that the music itself has an added soothing effect upon me in addition to the actual mantra.

    If you’re unsure, you can begin by chanting a classic mantra like Om, Hare Om, or Om Shanti. Regardless of your choice, try chanting the mantra for a short time, like 5-minutes per day, to start with. From there you can build up to longer if you wish to. And the best part is that by doing this, over time you’ll have an entire range of mantras that you can go to, whenever you need them. And this for me is their magic. Mantras are vibrational medicine we can use at any time to regulate and heal ourselves. They offer us healing, support and insight for any situation, and they teach us to live a conscious life.

    By Kirbanu

    Kirbanu is an Australian-born, German-based mantra singer, voice empowerment coach, and yoga teacher. Her qualifications are in science, life coaching, and yoga, along with 15 years of experience as a professional singer and musician. Her unique body of work uses sound, therapeutic techniques, and the voice as tools for transformation and profound healing. Kirbanu came to sacred chanting through Sufism. Initiated into the lineage of Hazrat Inyat Khan in 2006, she lived with her teachers in America and New Zealand for 3 years, learning about the power of sound and mantra as a spiritual practice and developing herself through chanting. Her mantra practice has since been deeply guided by the works of Thomas Ashley-Farrand and Krishna Das. To date Kirbanu has performed over 600 concerts, and given over 100 workshops and masterclasses, in the last 7 years across Europe and Australasia including Festival appearances at: 2020 Berlin Digital Yoga Conference (DE), 2019 Yoga Vidya Music Festival
    (DE), 2019 Darmstadt Yoga Festival (DE) 2019 Summer of Love (CH), 2017 Maifeld Derby (D), 2017 Adelaide Fringe (AU), 2017 Perth Fringe World (AU) and 2016 Blue Balls (CH).

    Website: https://kirbanu.com
    Social Media: https://instagram.com/kirbanu
    Music on: Spotify, i-Tunes, Apple Music @kirbanu

    Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels

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  • What is Depression and How Can Yoga Help?

    Is depression centered in the brain? The “broken brain” or “chemical imbalance” model is too simplistic. As you can already assess, there are multi-layered processes in both body and mind that factor in the development of depressive symptoms.

    Depression is a prevalent mental health condition worldwide and is the leading cause of disability in adults under the age of 45. The mechanisms underlying depression remain poorly understood even though stress and its correlates contribute to multiple aspects of the phenomenology of depression. Based on an emerging picture of how stress and mood are regulated within the nervous system, we can understand depression as a complex response to extreme stress. Exposure to chronic stress, whether physical or psychological in nature, has cumulative effects on the body and mind.

    The demands of “modern” life – requiring us to be constantly on the go, propelled by caffeine and perfectionism—seem to elicit a chronic over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA). As we saw in the anxiety article, a chronically activated sympathetic response will eventually lead to a complete shutdown of the body mediated by the dorsal vagal parasympathetic branch – leading to symptoms of major depressive disorder (MDD):

    a) depressed mood or loss of pleasure (anhedonia)
    b) feelings of guilt or worthlessness because of negative interpretations of the immobility response which comes in conflict with societal demands.
    c) cognitive slowing, further eroding self-confidence and self-worth.
    d) changes in sleep, which increase inflammatory influences in the brain.
    e) changes in appetite, which may lead to eating inflammatory foods and interfering in the modulation of the nervous system.
    f) potential suicidal ideations if the weight of the self-judgment becomes unbearable and hopelessness ensues.

    Ongoing arousal of the SNS/HPAA has both physical and psychological consequences. Psychosocial stress can activate peripheral and neural inflammation, which is exaggerated in individuals with MDD. Individuals experiencing depression have higher circulating levels of proinflammatory cytokines. High levels of these cytokines are associated with fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, and altered sleep. Symptoms of depression seem to emerge as cytokines activate neural pathways that influence the basal ganglia, an area of the brain involved in motivation and motor activities. This could explain the low motivation and motor movement inhibition associated with depression.

    Other brain regions involved in the control of mood, including components of the PFC and limbic system are also affected by these inflammatory pathways, which is leading researchers to hypothesize that the release of stress hormones (corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and cortisol) are a major factor in depression. Psychiatrists are experimenting with anti-inflammatory medications in patients who do not respond to common antidepressants – anecdotally with great success.

    Is depression centered in the brain? The “broken brain” or “chemical imbalance” model is too simplistic. As you can already assess, there are multi-layered processes in both body and mind that factor in the development of depressive symptoms. They involve multiple organ systems and a variety of hormones and neurotransmitters. However, emerging evidence implicates dysfunction in a circuit including cortical areas and limbic areas that regulates mood, learning, and memory processes. Research suggests that symptoms of depression may result from dysfunctional asymmetry of activity between the left frontal lobe (causing decreased positive affect) and the right frontal lobe (causing emotional lability, difficulty with emotional information processing, and decreased arousal). This is particularly true in individuals who experienced childhood abuse and developmental trauma that impaired the proper development of these emotion-modulation areas. This development occurs after birth in the dyadic interactions between infant and caregivers.

    A key individual factor in the effect of stress may be the degree to which an individual perceives the stress to be significant and to what degree the individual thinks she/he has control over the situation. Anything that helps an individual experience a sense of mastery over their internal experience and external world will help reduce depression. Paraphrasing Indu Arora, yoga is not a feel-good practice. Yoga is a practice that requires self-study, svadyaya, and consistent practice, abhyasa while cultivating qualities of non-judgment, self-compassion, and lovingkindness. The bad news is that quick fixes (demanded by a “rapid results” culture) do not exist. The good news is that healing is possible through effort mediated by santosha, or contentment for patient improvement.

    We begin by reducing the stress response that ultimately leads to depression. So, in addition to the outline on the eight (8) limbs of yoga outlined in the anxiety section of this 3-part blog post series, the following considerations should be taken for people experiencing depression:

    1. Goal: Establish the observer, a capacity to witness and deconstruct phenomenological experience rather than identify with it. Slowly increase sympathetic arousal through movement and deeper inhales. Expand the capacity to tolerate the potential “distress” of higher arousal states by shifting frequently between movement and restful phases – which will invite the natural rhythm of the nervous system.

    2. Attitude: Support motivation to practice by highlighting mastery of the foundational aspects of yoga. Facilitate continuity of effort by offering simpler, step-by-step practices that provide an experience of gradual change.

    3. Strategies: Begin slowly and gradually increase activity to break up inertia. Use mainly brahmana practices that emphasize dynamic movement coordinated with breath. Titrate entry into more energizing poses by starting with supine poses and move slowly to standing or balancing poses.

    4. Asana: Categories that are helpful: extensions, laterals, gentle backbends, and twists followed by a long savasana to help increase cardiovascular capacity, “digest” the sympathetic arousal that emerges, and integrate the balance of sympathetic/parasympathetic arousal. Savasana with rhythmic breathing has been shown in research to relieve depression.

    5. Bandhas/Chakras: Uddyana bandha is particularly important to awaken the dorsal vagus nerve (which is subdiaphragmatic and enervates digestive organs), activate the 3rd chakra (willpower, determination, self-awareness), build the energetic “fire” (agni) that supports transformation and the digestion and assimilation of food and psychological states.

    6. Pranayama: Focus on ujjai which is warming and centering; increase length of inhales with short holds after inhale to build energy and stamina; create heat with bhastrika.

    7. Meditation: Concentrate awareness at the navel center with the seed mantra for that region, RAM, to build courage and positive self-identity. Learn the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra to dissolve fear and darkness.

    Current research supports the idea that various yoga interventions can help participants improve self-reported perceptions of stress and well-being. Little research, however, exists on physiological or neurological mechanisms that could mediate the positive effects of yoga on mood and symptoms of psychological depression. Below is a summary of some potential explanations for yoga’s benefits:

    • Yoga may influence the inflammatory processes involved in depression by influence on the vagus, the 10th cranial nerve. Efferent (brain-to-body) vagal nerve fibers, via the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, exert anti-inflammatory actions. Thus, because inflammation is implicated as contributing to depressive symptoms, activation of the vagal anti-inflammatory pathway could be an important mechanism by which yoga practice could decrease symptoms of depression.

    • The yoga components of slow breathing, relaxation practices, mindfulness of sensations in the body, and physical postures may influence drive on brain pathways to the limbic and cortical areas involved in mood regulation, influencing parasympathetic outflow.

    • Rhythmic breathing practices have been shown to affect heart-rate-variability (HRV) and decrease blood pressure. In addition, slow breathing patterns that stimulate the vagus, have been shown to increase levels of prolactin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which are often depleted in depression.

    • There have been few studies investigating the effects of yoga on brain chemistry; however, practicing the physical postures of yoga has been shown to increase levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter in the brain that can have anti-depressant and anxiolytic effects.

    • The repetitive practice of yoga, over enough weeks, may provide a sense of accomplishment, positively reinforcing healthy coping and self-mastery, as well as increasing positive self-regard and identity.

    • Another way yoga may help is the focus on bringing attention to present-moment thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in a non-judgmental way, helping to decrease self-criticism and increasing the experience of thoughts, feelings, and sensations as transient and not permanent events.

    • Researchers have also hypothesized that yoga may have a positive impact on related autonomic functioning and in reducing hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activation. Change in these pathways interrupts the underlying stress physiology and decreases inflammation.

    • Exercise, as well as meditation, also influences the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal responsiveness and leads to adaptions in endocrine secretion of substances such as cortisol and adrenocorticotropic hormones.

    This is part 3 of a 3-part series. Subsequent blogs will deconstruct anxiety and depression as well as outline how yoga has been proven by research to help with these conditions. Inge Sengelmann is a licensed clinical social worker and certified ParaYoga teacher who specializes in disorders of extreme stress and is committed to anti-oppression practices and decolonizing mental health.

    By Inge Sengelmann

    Inge Sengelmann, LCSW, SEP, RYT is a licensed psychotherapist and certified ParaYoga teacher who promotes a practice of embodied psychology and spirituality. Visit her website at www.embodyyourlife.org.

    Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

    Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash.

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  • Refraction Is Not Division: Pride, Diversity & Discernment

    Our work as yoga practitioners is to remember that refraction is not division and that how we show up in this lifetime is not who we are, but one of many projections. I am not red or purple, I am light.

    As a publicly Queer and non-binary person, June is the busiest month of my year, and I don’t mean socially. In fact, June is quite possibly the least social month of my year, because when I say that it’s the busiest, I mean it’s the busiest professionally. Whenever Pride month rolls around, my inbox is suddenly flooded with invitations from organizations, many of which have never reached out to me before, asking me to teach a class, sit on a panel, train their staff, be interviewed on their podcast–the list goes on. I’ve heard about similar patterns others experience whenever their heritage months come around.

    When these opportunities are not degrading and pay equitably, I usually accept. I know that what I have to share, and even more particularly, that which I’ve gleaned through lived experience, is valuable. The invitation to share those experiences as teachings is affirming. Queer and Trans people have so much to offer this world, so much perspective to share, much of which integrates so easily with the teachings of yoga. I choose to share of myself in these offered moments, vulnerably and honestly, because I believe it has the potential to benefit everyone, regardless of gender or sexuality.

    I think it’s perhaps a fact of duality that our diversity is what gives each of us our individual purpose, identity, and sense of self. Just like our bodies, made of hundreds of parts, billions of cells, all serving the whole through their various differentiated functions, it’s precisely because we are different that we make up a greater body, the spiritual union of all, the dharma. The fact of our union is not proven by uniformity or ability to assimilate, it’s proven by our differences. Sameness is unrecognizable if difference doesn’t exist–they rely on one another to have any meaning at all.

    Imagine looking at a splash of color on a painting, asking yourself, “Is that a deep red or warm purple?” You might look at the rest of the painting for reference–if you’re able to spot a color that you identify as red, you might use that as a reference point, a neutral point of comparison, to determine your approximation of an answer. Our perception, in the visual sense and the more nuanced sense, is literally colored by context. The presence of red, the knowledge of what it looks like, is what allows you to see where it is absent. But there is also more than a binary–more than red and non-red. You need more than one reference point in order to start discerning the other colors from one another. Differentiating red from non-red is not enough to experience the spectrum, and we, as beings, are the products of one infinite light shining through a prism, refracting us into a never-ending rainbow of appearances, identities, and experiences.

    Our work as yoga practitioners is to remember that refraction is not division and that how we show up in this lifetime is not who we are, but one of many projections. I am not red or purple, I am light. And/but, I am light having a red experience (or purple, or green, or blue, etc.). Both can be true. Both are important. How can we ever fully realize our true nature, if we don’t have reference points that allow us to clearly discern our human nature? And how do we get to know our human nature, how we show up in this life individually, if not through relationships?

    Sexuality and gender are two distinct facets of our human experience. Like all of our facets, there’s as much diversity in these identities and experiences as there are people to embody them. While we may encounter others with similar experiences, no two experiences of gender or sexual or romantic attraction are exactly the same. What I’ve realized from having thousands of conversations about gender and sexuality in all types of settings is that each time I listen to someone else share their experience, I learn at least as much about myself as I learn about them. I now see the same in any conversation I engage in around any facet of identity–race, religion, class, body size, ability, and all of the other ways we label ourselves.

    Sometimes, when I talk about being Queer or non-binary, I’m met with an uncomfortable response. I think that often, people’s discomfort with my identities stems not from them having to reckon with my existence, but with their own. Not from their uncertainty about my experience of gender, which has no real bearing on them, but from the glimmer of uncertainty that is sparked within them when I invite them to see me, and in doing so, to see themselves in relationship to me. To see themselves in relation to a new point of reference.

    The easy–and dangerous–way out of that discomfort is to bypass it, to project it onto the other person, to deny their existence or wholeness. This is exemplified in the extreme by the fact that the LGBTQ+ “panic” defense is still legal in 35 U.S. states as of the time of this writing. It’s exemplified by the overwhelming slew of anti-trans legislation currently moving through state governments. It’s exemplified in every system of oppression we have built and continue to build. It’s exemplified anytime we hear someone share their experience and approach it with denial or defensiveness instead of curiosity and self-inquiry. To fear or deny someone else’s wholeness is really to fear or deny your own. To avoid someone else’s truth is to avoid your own. This is not how any of us reach liberation, whether worldly or spiritual, and it demonstrates why yoga and social justice are inextricable.

    What if we released the fear of our own wholeness long enough to meet our self-uncertainty and move through it instead of around it? What if, instead of taking our fear out on others, we each took on our individual responsibility, and inquired with it? What if we saw each and every vulnerable offering of experience and expression of truth as a gift, a point of reference that can help us know ourselves, as well as one another? Maybe even to know ourselves well enough to start discerning what is human nature, subject to duality and temporality, and what is true nature, infinite, timeless, and unrefracted? Every relationship is an opportunity for svadhyaya.

    This is why my calendar fills up every June, when society decides it’s the month to platform Queer voices. I know I benefit when I open myself to all kinds of relationships, including with people I’ve never met and never will meet. It’s part of my yoga practice, and I see value in offering myself as a point of reference for others’ self-study. I have witnessed the expansion of minds and the depth of self-inquiry that can evolve from relationships, even and especially those that challenge you. I wish that for others. I wish that for you.

    Ultimately, while I hope that the reflections above are useful to you in your practice, this is also a call to action for the yoga community at large. Representation matters year-round. My value as a Queer, Trans teacher is not higher in June (unless, of course, you are trying to package and sell me for your own profit because this month my identities are #trending. And, for the record, I have written for OmStars before, at other times of the year–this is not intended as a meta-critique). Do you know what I would really love to do during Pride month? Rest. Love on my Queer and Trans family. Engage with my personal practice and my art-making and dedicate it all to my Queer & Trans ancestors. Replenish myself before moving into the next 11 months, which I will inevitably spend trying to fight for and build a world where Queer, Trans, and other marginalized folks have access to even a scrap of the platform that is suddenly offered up every June 1st. I’m not saying we shouldn’t recognize heritage months–you can still invite me to teach a Pride class in June. But before you hit ‘send’ on that email, please stop and consider: are you still planning to book me when my response reads, “Yes, but let’s do it in July”?

    No matter the date, we have no meaning without each other. And as yoga practitioners, I think we even long for each other. To experience liberation in our oneness. If this is our aim–if yoga is our practice–we need to honor and attend to our differences as part of our regular, ongoing practice. We need to cultivate non-exploitative relationships for mutual benefit. All of these labels we take on are constructs, yes–none of them are the truth of who we are. But that doesn’t mean they’re not important or valuable. Because if who we are, our truest nature, is undifferentiated oneness, then noticing and acknowledging our differences and temporality is the only way to see what remains when all of that is stripped away.

    By M Camellia

    M Camellia is an East-Coast-based, fat, queer, non-binary yoga teacher and self-love advocate, called to create profoundly accessible spaces for self-inquiry and the inward journey by integrating mindfulness and adaptive movement practices with the spirit of social justice. They believe that the goal of yoga, as of life, is collective liberation and in turn challenge contemporary yogis to dismantle the systems and beliefs that hold us all back. In addition to teaching group and private yoga classes, M offers workshops that explore queer identity and body image, leads adaptive yoga teacher trainings, helps coordinate trainings internationally for Accessible Yoga, champions diversity and inclusion in the yoga industry as a member of the Yoga & Body Image Coalition leadership team, and serves leading industry groups as an expert advisor on diversity and accessibility.

    Featured photo by Blueboy Photographer, @blueboyphotoco on Instagram

    Profile photo by Cinthya Zuniga, @cinlife on Instagram

  • What is Anxiety and How Can Yoga Help?

    All fears eventually lead to abhinivesha – the fear of death and the will to continue to exist. This is considered one of the five kleshas, or obstacles to attaining the state of yoga. The eight limbs of yoga are designed to eradicate the obstacles to this union with the eternal and entering nonduality.

    Anxiety, one of the most-commonly reported mental health disorders in the general community, is the body’s natural response to stress. It is the mobilization of metabolic energy towards necessary action, dominated by the autonomic nervous system’s sympathetic response – the body’s innate accelerator. Chronic anxiety is the inability of the autonomic nervous system to flow between sympathetic arousal and parasympathetic calm. A conditioned feedback loop has been established that keeps the system in chronic activation.

    When the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated, our heart rate and respiration accelerate, blood flow moves from the skin and visceral organs to muscles in the extremities, and pupils dilate to take in more of the environment. Under threat, this part of the nervous system is responsible for activating fight and flight responses necessary for survival. Under normal conditions, when there is no threat to life, it makes energy available so we can stay alert and meet the demands of daily life, engage in recreation and vigorous play or exercise, and for sexual activity.

    In a nervous system that is operating optimally, if sympathetic activity reaches a certain threshold, the parasympathetic nervous system (PPNS) response engages, slowing things down and returning blood flow to the viscera to support digestion and organ function. This intrinsic balance creates heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of the variability in the heartbeat in relationship to the breath (on inhale, heart rate increases, on exhale, heart rate decreases). High HRV is associated with better physical and mental health. Low HRV is the opposite—a marker of poor health and mental health.

    In anxiety disorders – from generalized anxiety to panic disorders to posttraumatic stress or PTSD – the nervous system has lost this reciprocal relationship between SNS and PPNS and has become sympathetic dominant. It is as if a car’s engine was constantly revving, burning up fuel unnecessarily, and eventually overheating and melting down the system. The associated constriction in the blood vessels creates tension in the body and in the mind, and eventually generates inflammation and impairs immune function. A chronic cascade of stress hormones activated by the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal axis further creates endocrine disturbances.

    On a psychological level, this physiological state sends warning signals to the brain, which through a process coined “neuroception,” begins to interpret danger and threat – even when there is none. The body is responding to a scary movie playing on the screen of your mind, replaying the painful past or anticipating disaster in a yet-to-occur future.

    This vicious loop of hypervigilance and hyperarousal generate distorted or intrusive thoughts or images, emotions of intense fear, anger, and mistrust, further impairing our self-perception and our ability to relate to others and seek support and regulation in social engagement. It is important to note that these are automatic responses that have been conditioned by overwhelming life experiences. Over time, the responses – a panic attack or “flashbacks,” for example – become disconnected from their origin creating a sense of helplessness. Yoga’s self-study and witnessing practices help us gradually uncover the patterns so we can have the choice to change them.

    Eventually, because of the body’s innate intelligence, the system will shut down all activity by engaging in a high parasympathetic response leading to immobility, numbness, dissociation, lethargy, apathy, impaired digestion, pain, and other symptoms we have come to equate with depression (more on this in the next installment focusing on depression). Chronic stress can enhance susceptibility to inflammation. Increases in inflammatory markers, such as CRP and IL-6, are associated with decreased parasympathetic nervous activity and are reflected in low HRV. In extreme cases, some people may develop autoimmune disorders or medical syndromes.

    The experience of anxiety, as with every other human experience, may be different in each individual and uniquely sourced in their embodied lived experience. In other words, anything from early experiences of trauma (including pre-natal experiences and the ancestral trauma of oppression) to the chronic stress of living in a world that does not value rest and overvalues performance and achievement, can create this internal demand for SNS energy that is not needed in the present moment.

    Include in this category are the stress and trauma of living in a culture of patriarchy and white male supremacy. Socio-economic status, class, gender identification, and racial or ethnic background all impact how safe or unsafe we feel in the world because of systems that privilege some and marginalize others. If you are a woman, person of color, gender non-conforming, differently-abled, or not neurotypical, chronic anxiety might be a more common experience. There are significantly more stressors to which the nervous system must respond, explicitly or implicitly, if you live in these intersections. Undoubtedly, socioeconomic stressors, cultural definitions of health and illness, lack of social support, and the general social environment influence the stress load. These disparities were made abundantly clear by the COVID pandemic in the way it affected people of color.

    Yoga also explains that we experience fear because we are disconnected from our eternal essential nature, and therefore fear that we will lose our existence if we die. All fears eventually lead to abhinivesha – the fear of death and the will to continue to exist. This is considered one of the five kleshas, or obstacles to attaining the state of yoga. The eight limbs of yoga are designed to eradicate the obstacles to this union with the eternal and entering nonduality. In yoga philosophy, anxiety also would be considered an excess of rajas, one of the primordial forces of creation responsible for activity. So, let us see what yoga offers as solutions to anxiety.

    1. The yamas invite us to approach life with honesty, generosity, non-stealing, moderation, non-attachment, and an attitude of non-harming. As we make a lifestyle choice to live by these principles, we might begin by lowering the high demands of perfectionism, by being truthful about our limitations, and by eliminating harmful negative self-judgments. We can moderate stimulants, whether caffeine or drugs, as well as excessive negative mental stimulation that robs us of peace.

    2. The niyamas teach us to engage in self-study, to investigate what is helpful and unhelpful in our quest to reduce internal suffering. They also teach us to surrender to a higher spiritual force which can be both a source of strength as well as nourishment. The niyama of santosha, or contentment, teaches us to cultivate this quality of appreciation for the simplest of things, like our breath. We begin to think of the wellbeing of others and not just ourselves, invigorating selfless action.

    3. Western yoga has become synonymous with asana or physical postures. Asana categories that can help reduce anxiety/rajas include extensions, forward bends, twists, inversions, and backbends on the abdomen – with the goal of purifying the body and igniting the digestive powers that will help us process metabolic energy and psychic disturbances. Perform these poses by slowing down the movements and finding stillness and stability, anchoring the mind in the present moment. Mulabandha and uddyana bandha or the pelvic and abdominal locks can help us get grounded and centered. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali specify that the perfection of the pose is accomplished when we find sthiram and sukham, stability and ease. It is not about excessive effort and wasting precious energy or prana. Then we can contemplate the infinite and move beyond our limited sense of self. The most important asanas are the seated meditation poses when the soul and the mind take a seat in the body.

    4. Pranayama, the expansion of prana by cultivating sensitivity to the subtle breath, can also help us anchor the mind so it is not scattered. Where mind goes, energy flows. Ujjai breath with focus in the throat can stabilize mind and prana. Sama vritti, equal inhale and exhale can center us and increase HRV. Longer exhales further engage the calming parasympathetic response. Alternate nostril breathing or nadi shodhana will further increase a sense of balance by bringing the right and left hemispheres of the brain into equanimity.

    5. Pratyahara – or the withdrawal of the senses, begins to draw the restless mind away from the external world, the past or the future (which only live in our imagination) and brings it into the present moment. This can be accomplished throughout the practice of asana by coordinating the attention of the mind with the movement of the body and the cycle of the breath. Or it can be further enhanced in a long restful savasana or yoga nidra practice.

    6. Samyama encompasses the remaining three limbs of yoga: prana dharana, dhyana and samadhi. These three steps are what we would consider as meditation. Meditation, according to sage Patanjili, is the step that dissolves the obstacles, eliminates suffering, invites transformation, and introduces us to the eternal light of our inner teacher, Ishvara, a special Purusha, the primordial source of all spiritual traditions and of all creation, pure Consciousness. It is therefore the most important, albeit the least utilized of all the limbs of yoga. Dharana is the concentration of prana in a particular location, maybe with a particular mantra or Sanskrit sound. Dhyana is the penultimate state when mind merges or dissolves in the light of prana and the sound of mantra, entering an abiding sense of calm. These steps then lead to the final step of Samadhi, where observer, the object of observation, and the act of observing merge. Samadhi is more the by-product of the previous steps than a step itself. How samyama can help with mental distress is that it progressively helps us identify with Purusha/Ishvara, the observer of experience, the witness – creating a distance between the distress of anxiety in all its forms (sensations, emotions, thoughts, and images), and our real or essential self that is untouched by experience. Again, sage Patanjali states that when Purusha is established, we cease to be affected by the world of duality. Over time, we are more identified with Awareness, the Witness of experience, and less identified with our likes and dislikes, our limited self-perception, our past traumas, or our future fears. This distance gives us the choice to move awareness to the present moment and toward more helpful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—thereby increasing self-control and reducing impulsivity and compulsivity.

    Modern neuroscience research is beginning to quantify the benefits of yoga and has identified that even short interventions of moderate yoga practice:

    a) increase the production of GABA in the brain, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that induces calm.
    b) Increase heart-rate variability (HRV) by re-patterning the breath from rapid and shallow to smooth, un-interrupted and even.
    c) Increase vagal tone, a measure of health in the PPNS response.
    d) Reduced activation of the HPA axis.

    According to reviews of the research, if yoga does produce an anxiolytic and antidepressant effect, the exact causal mechanism is likely to be complex, affecting multiple body systems. Yoga may best be delivered as a complete intervention, and if different aspects are delivered separately, such a reductionist approach may result in loss of efficacy or effectiveness. As such, yoga practices also should be delivered skillfully by experienced practitioners who can adapt the interventions for various age groups and abilities, as well as address any emerging psychological or emotional presentations.

    This is part 2 of a 3-part series. Subsequent blogs will deconstruct anxiety and depression as well as outline how yoga has been proven by research to help with these conditions. Inge Sengelmann is a licensed clinical social worker and certified ParaYoga teacher who specializes in disorders of extreme stress and is committed to anti-oppression practices and decolonizing mental health. 

    By Inge Sengelmann

    Inge Sengelmann, LCSW, SEP, RYT is a licensed psychotherapist and certified ParaYoga teacher who promotes a practice of embodied psychology and spirituality. Visit her website at www.embodyyourlife.org.

    Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash

    Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash.

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  • Decolonizing and Demystifying Anxiety and Depression

    Yoga is not a feel-good practice; it is a practice of self-accountability. It asks us to be responsible for our inner experience and learn to divorce it from the outside world (vi-yoga). It further propels us to grow rather than to remain stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking (vikalpas) and behaving (vasanas).

    The past year has been a reckoning for most of us as we faced:

    1. A life-threatening global pandemic, lockdown, and quarantine
    2. Global economic meltdown because of businesses shutting
    3. A rapidly worsening climate crisis that puts all life on the planet in peril
    4. A tipping point in the collective awareness of the ravages of racial oppression, white supremacy, and colonialism
    5. An ever-widening political divide that put the US on the brink of civil war
    6. The growth of extremism, conspiracy theories, and fringe cult groups unable to deal with these realities, perhaps as a form of counterphobia

    There is plenty to be anxious and depressed about, and data shows that anxiety and depression rates skyrocketed early in the pandemic lockdown. To top it off, the SARS-CoV-2 (or Coronavirus 19) also seems to have neurological and psychiatric impacts on those who have been infected, with 1 in 5 people who have had COVID meeting criteria for a mental health disorder after the infection. Given these facts, I propose that we cannot center problems in the individual without addressing also the social, cultural, economic, and political realities that influence people’s fears and hopelessness. Healing must happen in community.

    The year 2020 has challenged many of us to question in what unconscious ways colonialism, white supremacy and white privilege have shaped us personally and professionally. Asked to write a blog on yoga for anxiety and depression, I struggled to identify a context that felt satisfying. Finally, I understood that I wanted to bring a new perspective to these very real and disabling, but also all too common human experiences.

    Disease, according to Yoga Sutra 1:30, is one of nine obstacles that obstruct progress on our path to experiencing the state of yoga. The yoga tradition understands disease as a misalignment with the rhythms of nature. We are increasingly out of harmony with the natural universe. After industrialization, even less so. The planet’s rhythms and our individual circadian rhythms are out of sync. Conditioned by a white supremacist culture that tells us our worth is dependent on performance, achievement, and amassing material wealth, we resist rest. The brain then sends us signals that something has gone awry, and we become anxious and depressed.

    Anxiety and depression are not new phenomena. They have affected humans through millennia because they are natural responses to an over-taxed nervous system. In a way, they are both a warning, and an attempt to re-regulate the human organism when it has become dangerously imbalanced due to extreme stressors. Anxiety is the mobilization of metabolic energy towards necessary action, and depression is a demand that the system rest, so it goes into shutdown for energy conservation. These processes will be explained further in subsequent blogs detailing the neurophysiological and psychological or cognitive components of these experiences.

    Unfortunately, 20th century psychiatry, to categorize these phenomenological experiences as mental illnesses, began to reify these constructs and give them a life of their own—so we are no longer human beings having a transitory experience, but we become defined by our anxieties or our depressions. For many, their diagnoses begin to define their identities. Instead of seeking more complex explanations and taking corrective lifestyle actions, we look for a simple external agent (i.e., medications) to rapidly fix our distress. Our locus of control is outside of us, rather than within us. The yoga path, on the other hand, asks us to do self-study (svadyaya) and to engage in practice (sadhana) to shift states of consciousness and overcome the causes of suffering (kleshas).

    Yoga is not a feel-good practice; it is a practice of self-accountability. It asks us to be responsible for our inner experience and learn to divorce it from the outside world (vi-yoga). It further propels us to grow rather than to remain stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking (vikalpas) and behaving (vasanas).

    Another disservice of modern psychiatry has been the simplification of solutions, so people (including some physicians) now commonly believe that depression is “a serotonin imbalance” to be rapidly resolved by a selective- serotonin-reuptake-inhibitor that will flood your brain with “feel good” neurotransmitters. But if that were the case, wouldn’t psychotropic medications have reduced the incidence and prevalence of anxiety and depression, and put a dent in the number of suicides recorded annually? Instead, what we are seeing are skyrocketing rates of all of these issues, especially in the more industrialized nations. And health and mental health professionals are bracing for a post-COVID wave of all of these “diseases” including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Clearly, our angst is a lot more complex than this simple neurotransmitter.

    Medications are fine as an adjunctive support, especially during times of extreme stress, but they will not “cure” the underlying causes and conditions that led to our “disordered” thinking, feeling, and behaving. They work best as a short-term salve to help us do the necessary work of change. In fact, most research done to get drugs approved is short term, and the bulk of the data shows that antidepressants, for example, only work better than placebo in cases of very severe depression. And many of these medications have undesirable effects and are difficult to withdraw from. Some Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), for example, have FDA black-box warnings about the potential increase in suicidality in certain age groups. Education on the pros and cons is imperative before agreeing to introduce psychotropic medications.

    The reality is that we are complex, multi-faceted beings whose unique and individual experiences require multi-faceted solutions. To decolonize therapy, we must humanize our experiences and bring back ancestral ways of healing in community by creating “communities of care.” We must de-mystify our experiences and put them in the context of social, cultural, economic, and political experiences and not “broken brains.” We must acknowledge the role of current and transgenerational, individual, and collective traumas. We must acknowledge all the ways that racist, sexist, fatphobic, transphobic, ableist, and capitalist ideologies impact individuals and communities – increasing anxiety and depression rates due to realistic fears and hopelessness regarding change. We must bring healing  (the process of ecoming whole) to the center of treatment.

    Decolonization is now used to talk about restorative justice through cultural, psychological, and economic freedom. Racial equality and eliminating wage disparities, for example, would do more for reducing depression and anxiety in certain groups than psychotherapy and anti-depressants. Decolonizing therapy means empowering individuals rather than making them dependent on a medical infrastructure designed to profit from illness. It means offering solutions that work for people within their cultural contest, even if they are not “evidence-based.” And finally, it means we must establish systems and institutions that understand dis-ease as just that: an attempt of the body and psyche to return to ease, flow, and coherence.

    This is part 1 of a 3-part series. Subsequent blogs will deconstruct anxiety and depression as well as outline how yoga has been proven by research to help with these conditions. Inge Sengelmann is a licensed clinical social worker and certified ParaYoga teacher who specializes in disorders of extreme stress and is committed to anti-oppression practices and decolonizing mental health.

    By Inge Sengelmann

    Inge Sengelmann, LCSW, SEP, RYT is a licensed psychotherapist and certified ParaYoga teacher who promotes a practice of embodied psychology and spirituality. Visit her website at www.embodyyourlife.org.

    Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash.

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  • Dharma

    If we really want to discover which path we are to take on this mysterious journey, it is better we begin by letting go of any preconceptions about our route, illusions about our travel companions, and expectations about our destination. Once we do that, we should simply start walking and try to feel whether this is the right or wrong path for us.

    As I prepare myself to write this blog entry, I cannot help but think of Krishna’s words to Arjuna when the brave warrior is despairing before battle: “You have the right to work but never to the fruit of your work”.

    Dharma is a big word, maybe too big for us to understand its profound implications in just one lecture, a one-week seminar, or even in one lifetime. Most of us earthlings spend our lives trying to figure out what we are doing on this spinning rock– at least those of us who are curious enough to venture beyond the realm of the senses. And the answer always seems too vague, too unattainable, or maybe too simple for our relentless thirst for fame and adventure.

    If we really want to discover which path we are to take on this mysterious journey, it is better we begin by letting go of any preconceptions about our route, illusions about our travel companions, and expectations about our destination. Once we do that, we should simply start walking and try to feel whether this is the right or wrong path for us. This can only be accomplished by stepping out of our comfort zone, which means bidding farewell to big brother Logic and his sister Memory who have been influencing our decisions since time immemorial.

    Fearful as it may seem, there may be no other way to understand the ways of Dharma but by trusting our intuition. At this point, some may argue that their intuition is desperately in need of a good tune-up, but even those should not despair as the Eternal One has graciously arranged the stars, lines of the palm, and other elements in nature as pages in the book of Creation, where avid magic readers can dexterously decipher the original purpose of our trip to planet Earth.

    Once the path is known, the wise words of the Gita can lead us into an aspect of the journey which is infinite times more important than the type of path we are walking on. The Gita’s words present a direct challenge to the highest thoughts of the lower mind, defying the ego to dissolve into the inscrutable mist of destiny.

    We are allowed any action without reservation but not what comes out of that action. This means living the eternal present without room for dreams, hopes, or expectations, simply hopping from one moment to the next, always unaware, always expectant, always starting afresh. Could we detain the inexorable flow of time and decay if we decided to remain in one moment at all times? Is that part of Krishna’s message? Just by posing these questions I am already jumping ahead and demanding the fruit of work. It seems awareness is key, full awareness at all times.

    Knowing your Dharma can definitely alleviate a confused and confusing mind; of this, I have no doubt. However, following Krishna’s message of living life as it comes may as well help us uncover our ultimate purpose, for one who flows without reservations will eventually be taken to that place where he is most valuable, to himself and to the rest of creation. Becoming a flow-er (or a flower for that matter) appears to me as a sure, unmistakable way of fulfilling the totality of our personal agenda without forgetting any of the debts we have contracted during previous visits and the promises we have undertaken for this one.

    Does this sound like too big a leap of faith? Let’s then return to the battlefield and listen to Krishna’s words of encouragement to the warrior that lives behind our physical heart: “It does not become you to yield to this weakness. Arise with a brave heart and destroy the enemy”.

    By Jesus Caballero

    Jesus Caballero is dedicated to the teachings of Yoga, Vedanta and Ayurveda, Jesus Caballero has been involved in the art of healing and inner development for over 15 years. He is a certified Ayurvedic Practitioner from the renowned Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico, certified yoga teacher, and Pancha Karma Practitioner, as well as a national certified massage therapist, mindfulness and meditation instructor, and reiki master. His seminars and workshops are a fun and thorough journey along the integral science of Ayurveda and its multiple benefits and applications for a healthy, happy, and conscious lifestyle.

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  • Vashisthasana (Side Plank Pose): The Fine Balance of Life

    The one-arm balance of side plank pose is symbolic of Sage Vashistha’s teachings which encourage spiritual growth while fulfilling our day-to-day duties and responsibilities. The one-arm balance is the balance one needs to strive for while being part of the world and also being aware of self and the cosmos.

    Vashisthasana, also known as side plank pose, is a demanding posture that requires balance while strengthening all major muscle groups. To do the posture, balance on one arm with the rest of the body straight and the feet flexed sideways.

    This asana draws inspiration from the teachings of Sage Vashistha, who was a teacher to Lord Rama. Lord Rama, an avatar of Vishnu, was born to show humanity the path to righteousness. Born as a human, Lord Rama experienced the challenges of life like all other beings and traveled to far-off places as a young prince.

    A stage came to him when he was overwhelmed with the conflicts and dilemmas of life. He was disillusioned as a prince and deeply saddened by what he saw and experienced. His father, King Dashratha, understood his son’s state of mind and requested Sage Vashistha to become Lord Rama’s teacher and guide him back on his life path.

    The world had lost its luster for Lord Rama, the young prince, and he shared his disillusionment with the sage. Sage Vashistha reassured Rama that his state of sorrow and disillusionment would lead him to the path of spirituality if he would be kind to himself.

    In his discourse, Sage Vashistha introduced Lord Rama to the state of “Jeevanmukta,” a liberated soul living amidst life’s duties. Sage Vashistha elucidates on the state of “Jeevanmukta,” stating that a “Jeevanmukta” is an individual who lives in the world fulfilling their duties towards work and family. They use their talents to the best of their ability to cater to the world around them. They’re aware of the divinity that lies within. Therefore a “Jeevanmukta” is able to strike a balance by being in this world but not being of this world, and this is liberating for the individual.

    Sage Vashistha tells Lord Rama the parable of the crow and the coconut. The moment the crow lands on the coconut tree, a coconut drops off the tree. No one can know if the coconut fell off the tree because the crow alights on the tree or it was the right time for the ripe coconut to fall.

    Sage Vashistha thus says that we should only perform our actions and apply our thoughts in the most balanced way, knowing very well that the outcome is not for us to decide. As long as one is in touch with one’s inner self, which is beyond our actions and our thoughts, one will always be able to strike a balance in all aspects of life without being bothered about the outcomes.

    During several discourses between Lord Rama and Sage Vashistha, the great sage reiterates the truth that true balance of life means fulfilling our duties as a part of the social fabric in the most balanced way. A balanced way to do things is to not be anxious about the outcome. We need to perform all our actions with the intent that it will bring a positive change in someone’s life and lead our lives with such hope while remaining detached from the outcomes of our actions.

    The one-arm balance of side plank pose is symbolic of Sage Vashistha’s teachings which encourage spiritual growth while fulfilling our day-to-day duties and responsibilities. The one-arm balance is the balance one needs to strive for while being part of the world and also being aware of self and the cosmos.

    By Ankur Tunaak

    Ankur Tunaak has been an Ashtanga yoga practitioner for over a decade, studied with Shree M. Vishwanath who was one of the first students and nephew of Shree Pathabhi Jois. Also, an alumnus of Bihar School Of Yoga, one of four premier Yogic Studies Institutions in India. Ankur is a storyteller and photographer, currently teaching yoga in New Delhi, India.

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  • Conscious Changes with Yoga

    Yoga is the reconciliation of polarities and a deep understanding of our inherent wholeness.
    As we cultivate a personal practice, no part of us gets left behind. A re-membering of the fragmented versions of ourselves is initiated.

    I get on my mat to sort myself out…

    In
    Every
    Single
    Way.

    Interoception. Have you heard of it?

    According to Psychology Today, interoceptive awareness is the awareness of inner states and fluctuations; the process of receiving, accessing, and appraising our internal climate. Often these internal processes are relatively automatic and unconscious (i.e. they can continue without conscious effort, like breathing, heart rate variability, etc.). The more we practice yoga and embodied awareness, the more we can engage with the process and become active agents in our own everyday experience.

    In other words, we can consciously re-program our system through intentional practices of yoga. Wanna know how? Simple (and not so simple):

    Notice the breath, the respiratory system.

    How do you feel when your breath is fast and shallow? How do you feel when your breath is slow and steady?

    Notice how the pace of the breath impacts our felt experience. Faster, shallower breathing correlates with a hyperaroused sympathetic nervous system (i.e. fight or flight).

    Slow steady breathing correlates with the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).

    As we begin to consciously slow down the breath, we begin to signal to the nervous system that calm is possible and that we can be peaceful while confronting challenge. This awareness places us as a co-pilot in our operating system, one that can assess, regulate, and impact our perceptions, actions, and ultimately our beliefs of what is possible.

    Rewire the Nervous System (Neuroplasticity).

    The basis of neuroplasticity is that “neurons that fire together wire together.” That is, new neural pathways are being built all the time.

    What we place our attention to becomes stronger. What we don’t pay attention to gets pruned away. Use it or lose it.

    How does this apply to yoga?

    Simple, when we focus on the breath and how particular actions, poses, and challenges impact our nervous system, we can consciously re-direct our attention into the processes that we can manage: our thoughts, our physiological responses including tension, breath rate, and eventually our posture.

    Another way to say this is: notice when you confront a challenge …

    • How does your body respond?
    • Where do you feel it?
    • Do you notice tension building up?
    • Do you notice particular thought loops or patterns arise?
    • How does your breath differ in times of difficulty vs. ease?

    If we are to consciously work with the concepts put forth by neuroplasticity, we would purposefully attenuate to the present challenging experience. For example, instead of unconsciously flooding the body with tension, old thought patterns, and quickening the breath, notice the opportunity to reprogram and rewire a new pathway, a signal of ease, autonomy, clear headedness, and deepening of the breath.

    If we shift our response to challenge and expand our perception of reality beyond the automatic, unconscious looping mind, we can dramatically alter the state of ease or dis-ease in our body. Felt experience pierces the rigidity of the mind.

    Acceptance and Integration.

    Yoga is the reconciliation of polarities and a deep understanding of our inherent wholeness.

    As we cultivate a personal practice, no part of us gets left behind. A re-membering of the fragmented versions of ourselves is initiated. We take all of our experiences and harness them; we learn to not ignore, deny, or harbor on them.

    Thus an integration of dichotomy is possible (our present/ future selves; the seen/ unseen; etc.) and we can situate ourselves in this generous present moment. Our embodiment becomes richer in the present, it is not stuck in the past. As this happens, we bolster and infuse vitality into every source of power we have access to. That is, we fine tune how we listen, how we perceive, how we move, and become so tuned in, so aware that slowly, day by day, we begin to feel, know, and engage in ways that are highly integrated, creative, and free.

    By Marie Belle Perez Rivera

    Marie Belle Pérez Rivera, PhD, is an educator, artist, community leader, and practitioner of yoga and mindfulness. She currently resides in Washington, DC and travels and teaches yoga, mindfulness, and critical thinking throughout the United States, Caribbean, Latin America, Spain, and Bali. Marie Belle has focused much of her professional and academic career on the roles that psychology, culture, and empowerment play in health, resilience, quality of life, and emotional well-being. She considers herself an anthropologist of movement: delving deeply into the heart and roots of classical yoga and meditation practice while also keeping a panoramic perspective that includes academic research in science, astrology, nutrition, and personal experience. Find out more about her on her website.

    Image by Bhikku Amitha from Pixabay

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  • Why practice? Yoga and Your Mental Health

    Yoga’s first principle is embodiment, and research shows that the practice of yoga tones the vagus nerve, which is implicated in numerous bodily functions and mediates the relaxation response. Through practice, we become intimately familiar with the functioning of our body, breath, and mind.

    Never has our practice of yoga become so imperative. As we enter the second year of a global pandemic and the number of deaths from COVID-19 reaches almost half a million people in the US alone, some of us may be feeling the weight of stress and isolation as a new wave of dread, anxiety, grief, depression, or a gnawing sense of impending doom. Yoga may seem like a luxury not worth indulging in, or we may lack the energy to contemplate a yoga practice. Meditation, as helpful as science says it is, may be elusive to our confused and distracted minds.

    We want certainty. We want to imagine an end to this endless state of unpredictability. But consider the news lately: the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and socio-political unrest, the threat domestic terrorism and police brutality, an ever-worsening climate crisis, and the undermining of democracy and equity worldwide. The battleground of our emotions, whether we want it or not, is the body. Words may fail us. As our distress remains unprocessed, undigested, and unexpressed, it manifests as insomnia, aches and pains, variable energy and vitality, and lowered immunity. We become irritable and depressed, further isolating from already diminished connections.

    Yoga’s first principle is embodiment, and research shows that the practice of yoga tones the vagus nerve, which is implicated in numerous bodily functions and mediates the relaxation response. Through practice, we become intimately familiar with the functioning of our body, breath, and mind. This wisdom enables us to self-regulate our autonomic nervous system, calm our mind, and build flexibility in our thinking, feeling, and behaviors. Yoga is not about touching your toes, you see. It’s about touching your soul through time-tested practices. Grounded in the eternal and unchanging part of us, we become less fearful, more joyful, and increasingly capable of achieving our highest goals.

    But where do we begin? First, understand that the “royal” path of yoga requires discipline, self-study, and surrender to a process of transformation with patience and faith. Through the practice of the various “limbs” of yoga, we become established in our essential nature – a state reflected in a mind that is calm, luminous, and undisturbed by the changing conditions of the external world. Who doesn’t want to feel peaceful and calm? The trick is to want that state badly enough that we are willing to engage in the practices that will help us reach that state.

    The yoga tradition is more about the mind than it is about the body. Its inherent goal is optimal mental health through the purification of mental afflictions that block our perception of our true nature. But we need the body because it is the vehicle of consciousness. It is through the body, its brain, and nervous system that we perceive and interpret the world. Hence, we practice yamas (restraints), niyamas (observances or attitudes), asana (physical posture), pranayama (mastery of our breath/energy), pratyahara (withdrawing the senses inward), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) in order to reach the various levels of samadhi (spiritual absorption). These are outlined in chapter 2 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as the steps to purify body and mind so we can experience oneness with the Absolute Reality.

    We begin where we are. Simplicity is key to mastery. We make a start by understanding that a yogic lifestyle requires a commitment to non-violence, truthfulness, non-possessiveness, non-stealing, and effort to constrain our less constructive urges. These are the yamas. Non-violence and truthfulness mean that you practice within your limits and don’t demand too much of yourself, causing you to become overwhelmed and give up before you begin. Trust that every small change you make leads to big transformation. As my teacher, Yogarupa Rod Stryker likes to say, “change is the hardest yoga.” So we muster up the courage to investigate what the practice of yoga might mean to us personally.

    The niyamas invite us into a life of cleanliness and purity of body and mind, contentment and gratitude as a mental attitude, disciplined effort, self-study through inquiry, and trustful surrender to Ishvara, the inner light or guiding principle of Pure Consciousness within us.

    Your yoga practice may include certain purification routines in the morning, such as scraping your tongue of impurities, washing your body, wearing clean clothes, and eating more fresh than processed foods. Self-study may mean a daily inventory of helpful and unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; a gratitude list to cultivate an attitude of contentment; and pausing to drop beyond our stressful thoughts into a higher mind for intuitive guidance.

    Patanjali makes it clear that asana is not the acrobatics of standing on your hands or twisting yourself into a pretzel. In fact, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika clearly states that there are 15 major poses of which several are seated meditation poses and one is savasana, the restful corpse pose. The way to master the pose, according to Patanjali, is to attain an easeful steadiness (sthiram, sukham) or stability and comfort. To “perfect” the pose requires the loosening of tension caused by too much effort, and then allowing the mind to become absorbed in contemplation of the “infinite.” For the purpose of the remaining limbs that lead to meditation, find a pose that allows you to sit comfortably for several minutes.

    Pratyahara means that you commit to leave the distractions of the world – and the mind’s attachment to compulsive thinking – for long enough that you can focus on your breath with one-pointedness. If mind becomes distracted or pulled away from the focus of inner attention, keep turning the mind inward.

    Here is a pranayama breath awareness practice to release tension and constriction in the autonomic nervous system: diaphragmatic abdominal breathing. You can do this lying down or seated, as long as your posture is erect, and your chest and ribs are not collapsing into the abdomen. Begin to breathe evenly in and out with most of the movement in the abdomen. The chest is relatively still as the abdomen expands on inhale and softens on exhale. Gradually invite the breath to become smooth, continuous, and uninterrupted. As your nervous system receives the message to relax, your diaphragm (a very large, dome-shaped muscle below the ribcage) will soften and release any tension or constriction. Be aware that you may feel your body twitch, and emotions that have been constricted there may arise. Allow any heat, shaking/trembling, sweating or tears to happen. These are just the processes the body uses to release stress hormones. Awareness remains steady and undisturbed. Continue to witness the release of tension in body and mind until you experience a completion marked by a renewed sense of clarity and calm vitality.

    You can continue the same practice with prana dharana, a concentration of the lifeforce riding on the breath, feeling the abdomen filled with this golden stream of life energy. As the mind becomes increasingly absorbed in this light, you move into dhyana, or meditation on this object: energy in the abdomen. If you slip into a state of oneness, where you dissolve into this golden light, you’ve gotten a glimpse into samadhi, which is merging with the object of your meditation.

    If you wish to extend your practice and do some self-study, you could consider journaling about your experience. What was distracting you? What helped you ease into a deeper state of relaxation? How has your physical, mental, and emotional state changed as a result of your practice? Is there something I need to do about the thoughts that were distracting me? If they were negative thoughts, can I contemplate some opposite ideas? Cultivate an attitude of curiosity, non-judgment and compassionate witness as your higher awareness investigates the processes of your conditioned mind and personality, remembering that your essential, deepest and truest self is pure, unconditioned Consciousness.

    Other helpful activities to contemplate as part of your mental health practice of yoga:

    Slow down and feel your body – your body is the container of your experience and the radar signaling you are stressed. Simple awareness of the body’s sensations of constriction may allow them to let go. Become aware of the polarities of constriction and expansion, fear and bliss, beauty and horror – and move awareness between the two until something changes.

    Ask for help – our conditioned minds can be a minefield, especially during these trying times that have heightened our awareness of personal, collective, and ancestral traumas. Don’t struggle alone. Reach out to a trusted teacher or therapist and share your struggles – with practice or with life. Feeling our feelings in the safety of a caring witness is an important way to “digest” the stress hormones released in the body and the mental impressions in the mind.

    Create a sangha – We are social beings designed to be in community. Find or create a trusted community of like-minded souls with whom you can share experiences as well as helpful resources. Notice how your body and breath respond when you are feeling safe in community. Any groups with shared interests are helpful, whether they are social, professional or spiritual. Remember the strength and resilience of your community.

    Lift your spirits – by reading inspirational literature and/or the scriptures of your spiritual tradition. Listen to helpful podcasts by luminaries in various traditions. Watch documentaries or comedies – whatever your wise mind tells you will be helpful in the moment. Expand your consciousness by listening to experiences beyond your own. Seek to understand those different than you. Remember that you are not alone. All of humanity is in the same boat and there are many helpers to guide us.

    Play! – it’s important to find opportunities for rest and recreation to help reset your nervous system as well as find joy in the midst of turmoil. By making time for healthy pleasure, especially with others, we tap into the joy that is ever present in our hearts. This is a good way to balance (not avoid) the states of grief or depression that are stimulated by current conditions.

    Fantasize! – our bodies respond to the thoughts and images we hold in our minds. It’s like being in a movie theater, but the screen is in our mind. So let your imagination run wild and experience the shifts in your nervous system as you visualize yourself on a remote beach, diving deep in the ocean, or skiing down a mountain. Again, this is not about avoidance, but rather it is providing respite to an over-burdened nervous system.

    Grounding and Orienting – the more present we can be in the current moment, the easier it will be to reset our nervous system to a helpful balance. Most of our distress is caused by stressful thoughts about the past or the future, both of which are not real in the present moment. Orienting to safety and grounding in our bodies through the 5 senses, feeling the stability and strength of bones and muscles, can help us become calmer.

    Focus on what you can control – there may not be a lot you can control in your community and the world, but you can establish certain predictable patterns in your life, such as regular and healthy meals, meditation moments, nighttime rituals to prepare for an early night’s sleep, scheduling exercise as well as social connection time, even if it’s electronically.

     

    By Inge Sengelmann

    Inge Sengelmann, LCSW, SEP, RYT is a licensed psychotherapist and certified ParaYoga teacher who promotes a practice of embodied psychology and spirituality. Visit her website at www.embodyyourlife.org.

    Photo by Sage Friedman on Unsplash

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