Thursday, April 2, 2020

Tips on Teaching Live Online Yoga

by Patrice Priya Wagner

I've been researching how to teach yoga on Zoom so my class for people with multiple sclerosis can continue with real-time teaching while we're sheltering in place due to COVID-19. The first thing I did was take an online tutorial to learn the basic tech parts—YouTube has quite a few that walk you through the steps. Then I looked for tips on how to adjust my instruction when teaching through a screen and found helpful posts on Accessible Yoga's Community Facebook page.

In particular, I was curious about how to create a sense of community among students and how to encourage awareness of the body, breath, and mind when teaching online. I wanted the sessions to maintain the closeness that the students had already developed during real-life classes. As I read through comments such as, "Touch and intimacy CAN happen online," I wondered how teachers were able to witness something like intimacy through Zoom. So, I reached out to a few instructors and here are some nuggets of useful information from them.

Michael Borden, a teacher at the San Francisco Integral Yoga Institute who has transitioned to offering his class on Zoom, recently posted on Accessible Yoga's Community Facebook page that he agreed with Kate Lynch's comment, "Touch and intimacy CAN happen online." I asked Michael to explain how touch and intimacy could manifest in a class where no participant is physically in the same room as another.

Michael replied, "For me, the 'intimacy' manifests itself online in seeing/hearing the students and feeling their energy, and sending energy to them. I attempted to convey instructions primarily by my voice, so students could 'go within,' and trusted that the teachings would come through."

"Both my regular class students and those I didn't know expressed gratitude afterwards to have a place to practice and join in community. Not the same as an in-person class; but it's what is available in the present reality."

I was encouraged to hear that students could get a sense of community even though miles apart and that an instructor's voice alone could be powerful enough to get students to go within.

Next I contacted Kate Lynch, a yoga teacher and meditation coach in Brooklyn, New York, to inquire about her online comment, "Touch and intimacy CAN happen online." I asked her how she became aware of this happening online. Did students give feedback that points to it?

She answered, "Reach your hand across to your opposite shoulder. Squeeze. When it's ready, let your hand move up a little towards just behind your ear. Then down towards your outer shoulder. Open your jaw and sigh. Bring your other hand across to the other shoulder. Give yourself a firm hug. Breathe into your upper back. With those instructions we can use self-massage and embodied movement to create a high-touch experience for ourselves."

It became clear to me that physical closeness wouldn't be needed for me to include gentle touch in an online yoga class. Since most of my students live by themselves and are sheltering-in-place alone, self-massage might be appreciated right now when getting a hug from a friend is out of the question!

Another comment Kate had posted was, "My students are comforted by seeing each other. They CAN move and breathe together." So I asked how she was aware of this happening—do students give her feedback that points to it?

Kate replied that her students gave her feedback that, "They are comforted by seeing each other (and me) in this new way: kids, pets, mess and all. The circumstances have forced me to let down some of the boundaries I have had in the past. I've never been aloof or polished anyway; authenticity is essential to me. It feels important to show up in my vulnerability, for students to know that I'm not always coping either and show how much I lean on the practice right now. It's not all love and light."

It was important for me to hear that when a teacher showed her vulnerability the students were comforted by it during this time of crisis. As an instructor who usually tries not to show vulnerability, I'm going to change that behavior from what I've learned from Kate!

Kate continued, "During class, I invite students to leave the video on and suggest gallery mode, so that it feels more like being in the space together. I encourage them to unmute as we chant together, not worrying about how it sounds but just making a joyful noise together! I mute their audio during the asana portion so they can tune in to my voice more easily. I sit, I lead, and I watch. I try to offer specific verbal encouragement, rather than general or reflexive platitudes like good job. I use their names. If I see body language I interpret as confusion or suffering, I respond to that—to normalize the collective experience of confusion and suffering. I lead them back to breath, and inner wisdom. I cue breath for a few namaskars so that they are actually breathing in unison."

"On Zoom, I'm getting away from demonstrating at all, so that I can sit, look, and attune to the students in their little rectangles. Rather than turning everyone's video off, I invite them to allow me into their space so I can support them during the practice. Then I talk them through a simple practice, offering variations depending on what I see."

I liked what I had heard from Michael and Kate, and after taking a few deep breaths I realized I felt ready to make the transition to teaching on Zoom. I'm ready to adjust my teaching methods to the format of communicating through a screen, allowing my vulnerability to show a little, and using my voice more than demonstration to lead students through a class of poses, breathwork, guided relaxation, and meditation.

Thanks to Michael Borden and Kate Lynch (see HealthyHappyYoga.com) for all their help.



Patrice Priya Wagner, RYT 500, C-IAYT, teaches yoga to people with disabilities and offers meditation workshops in Oakland, California, and has been published in New Mobility Magazine, Works and Conversations, Artweek, and Kitchen Sink. She is Managing Editor of the Accessible Yoga Blog and a founding member of the Accessible Yoga Board of Directors.   


This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog and co-author of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Path of Yoga to Deal with Viral Infections and Stress


by Ram Rao

A single strand of ribonucleic acid virus (COVID-19) changed the landscape of the world and brought it down to its knees. And people all over the world are grappling with the numerous changes and shifting priorities. No one is happy. Fear, worry, anger, rage, and depression have encapsulated mankind like never before. Everyone’s looking for the magic pill and everyone is seeking answers. But you actually do not need to wait for the magic pill. There are numerous natural interventions that provide resistance against all kinds of viral infections and may keep you safe.

Let me confess though that I am a bit skeptical of all the articles that discuss the benefits of an asana practice for dealing with the viral infection and chronic stress associated with it. True, there are manifold benefits from an asana practice and if you follow them, you may have done an excellent job of improving your health status (weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, stress level, etc.). But asana alone is not a panacea for infections and viral illnesses.

You may be practicing asanas daily but you are not immune from health issues if you continue exploding with emotional outbursts, eat an imbalanced diet, and lead a sedentary lifestyle. You will be susceptible to all sorts of health issues and that includes infection as well. To address the yogic path to deal with the virus and virus-associated health challenges, let me present some excerpts drawn from my ‘soon-to-be published’ book called Good Living Practices.

When we define ourselves as ‘human’ it includes (1) a physical body, (2) a mental body, and (3) an emotional body. While these three facets appear as independent entities, such a limiting belief is the root cause of suffering and disease according to the Yoga/Ayurveda traditions. Instead, if we believe that we are a combination of body, mind, and emotions, and work to achieve oneness of these three entities, we will be on a course toward a long, healthy, purposeful, and extraordinary life. Thus, in an era filled with wars, natural calamities, and infections, it is imperative that we keep the body, mind, and emotions in sync, functioning as one unit, and act in that manner to achieve optimal health and wellness. So what does this look alike in the present scenario where we are besieged with an unknown deadly virus? I will describe here the tools for optimal health and living that keep the body, mind, and emotions in sync.

Physical Body. Good physical practices include mindful eating, physical exercise, and regular tuning of the body to nurture one’s physical health. The principles of good physical practices can be found in three of the eight limbs of Yoga philosophy: the Yamas (moral injunctions), Niyamas (moral observances), and Pratyahara (managing the senses). Let me just say that combining good physical practices with a daily practice of asana will nourish all the organs and body systems and help to gain strength and may improve immunity. People who incorporate these practices are more stable physically and likely to feel energetic, empowered, and positive about their direction in life.

Mental Body. Good mental practices are about strengthening brain structure and function, and this is achieved through good quality sleep, mental training, and selfless service. According to Yoga/Ayurveda, inculcating and putting into practice the principles of Yama (moral injunctions), Niyama (moral observances), Asana (poses), Pratyahara (management of senses), Pranayama (breath practice), Dharana (focus), Dhyana (meditation), and Karma yoga (selfless-action or selfless service) will lower the risk of acute and chronic health problems, reduce stress, improve sleep and mood, enhance mental clarity, and help an individual to make wise decisions. A clear mind is not affected by stress and produces a healthy body, thus creating a greater connection with one's own pure, essential nature.

Emotional Body. We carry with us an enormous amount of emotional baggage which weighs us down and clouds our perception and awareness. According to Yoga/Ayurveda wisdom, failure to detach from the negativity may lead to mental illnesses and make us more susceptible to infections, illness, and chronic physical conditions. Being on the yoga path means to cultivate good emotions and harmonious thoughts to reduce mental conflict and promote a fully functional life. This involves using suitable tools to perceive, understand, and express emotions and to be aware of life’s daily dramas and act effortlessly to experience complete peace and joy. A steady and regular practice of Pratyahara (management of senses), Pranayama (breath practice), Dharana (focus), Dhyana (meditation), and Karma yoga (selfless-action or selfless service) is a key to manage and overcome any emotional disturbance.

I am not wrong when I say that every human wishes to experience less stress, feel more energy and joy, sleep better, and put all the virus talk on the back burner. But to do this effectively, you need to keep the body, mind, and emotions in sync and this balanced approach as described above is a pathway to optimal health and wellness.

For more on the principles of Ashtanga Yoga (8 limbs), see the following articles:

  1. Yama: The First Branch of Yoga: Yamas and Yama Drama: Considering the First Branch of Yoga
  2. Niyama: The Second Branch of Yoga: Niyamas
  3. Asana:The Third Branch of Yoga: Asana
  4. Pranayama: The Fourth Branch of Yoga: Pranayama and Friday Q&A: Recommended Pranayama Practices
  5. Pratyahara: The Fifth Branch of Yoga: Pratyahara and Building Bridges
  6. Samyama: Samyama: The Trinity of Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi and Friday Q&A: What is Meditation?

Rammohan (Ram) Rao comes from a family of Ayurvedic practitioners and Vedic teachers in India tracing back to the illustrious Vedic-acharya Rishi Kaundinya (although Ram admits he cannot do the Eka pada or Dwi pada Kaundinyasana). With a doctorate in Neuroscience, Ram was a Research Associate Professor at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. He focused on various aspects of age-associated neurodegenerative diseases with emphasis on Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, Ram completed the academic training at the California College of Ayurveda (CCA) and received his certification as Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist. He has been a faculty member of the California College of Ayurveda and teaches in their Nevada City location. Ram is also a dedicated Hatha yoga practitioner and is a Registered Yoga Teacher from Yoga Alliance USA. In his spare time he offers consultations in YAMP techniques (Yoga, Ayurveda, Meditation & Pranayama). Ram has published several articles in major Yoga/Ayurveda magazines and has been a featured speaker in several national and international meetings and symposia. He is a member of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) and is on the Research Board of the Association of Ayurvedic Professionals of North America (AAPNA).


This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.


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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

On Gratitude During Uncertain Times: Six Offerings

Wood Gatherers in the Snow by Vincent van Gogh
by Kathleen Kraft

How do we take time out to feel grateful amidst the global tumult resulting from COVID-19? It has touched every aspect of our lives. We are in a state of collective shock; it’s hard not to be consumed by what is or is not going to happen in the near or distant future.

But, if we can stop and pause every day, there are still many, many things to be grateful for, and feeling grateful is a great balm for the mind. A bleak outlook can be mollified by the contentment—albeit sometimes fleeting—that gratitude brings.

Here are six short practices that I’ve found helpful in staying centered and grateful at this difficult moment in time:

1. Breath Practice. While lying down or seated I put my hands on my belly and close my eyes. On my inhale I say to myself, “I am grateful for my in-breath.” On my exhale I say to myself, “I am grateful for my out-breath.” I repeat this 4-6 times. Then, with my hands still on my belly, I observe the rise and fall of my breath until I feel ready to transition back into my day.

2. Gratitude Object. I have a little Native American rattle that is used for gratitude practice, but any small object that you care about is a good substitute. You might consider something that makes noise, like a small bell or a beaded necklace, as the sound the object makes can deepen your experience of your expression.

Find a comfortable seat. Take the object and place it in your palm, and then cover it with your other hand. Close your eyes and just hold the object, noticing the feel of it in your hands. Next, think of one thing you’re grateful for as you turn the object around in your hands. Then, think of one person you are grateful for as you turn it. If you like, you can alternate back and forth between the thing and the person as you turn the object. Then sit back, place the object in your lap and spend a few minutes being with your breath.

3. Bedtime Practice. Place your gratitude object on your bedside table. Look at it before you go to sleep and when you wake up.

4. Mantras. In Sanskrit, dhanya vad means I am grateful. While doing a mundane task, say doing the dishes or vacuuming, say to yourself “I am grateful for this simple activity.” Sometimes I chant om during house work to experience our connection to each other and the grounding effect om offers. You might also sing a song of gratitude or praise.

5. If You’re Unwell. If you are sick or have physical pain, lie down and place your hands on your belly or alongside your body, and bring your awareness to one place in your body where you are experiencing less pain or no pain. Breathe naturally and express either silently or out loud your gratitude for this place in your body that is free of pain. Be with this experience as long as you like.

6. Gratitude Toward Others. Tell someone in your life that you are grateful for them. Be specific and tell them what you love about them.

In closing, I offer you this gratitude poem from the 8th century:

My daily affairs are quite ordinary;
but I'm in total harmony with them.
I don't hold onto anything, don't reject anything;
nowhere an obstacle or conflict.
Who cares about wealth and honor?
Even the poorest thing shines.
My miraculous power and spiritual activity;
drawing water and carrying wood.

—Layman P'ang


Kathleen Kraft is a yoga teacher, writer, poet, and freelance editor. Her chapbook of poems Fairview Road was published by Finishing Line Press, and her work has appeared in many journals, including Five Points, Sugar House Review, Gargoyle, and The Satirist. She works at Yoga International; you can find her articles here. And you can find more information about her at kathleenyoga.com.

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog and co-author of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being.

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Monday, March 30, 2020

Appreciation

Morning by Edvard Munch
by Jivana Heyman

As I woke up this morning and regained consciousness from the blissful ignorance of sleep, I noticed myself going through a rapid series of extreme thoughts and emotions. My first thought was about the pandemic: a thought that felt more like a punch in the gut. Fear of the unknown and of untold suffering for people all over the world, as well for me and those I hold dear. The feeling came so fast, filling me with a sense of dread, worry, and fear.

Then, in the next moment, a very different thought came. As I lay in bed, I noticed how comfortable and warm I was. I was overcome by a feeling of coziness and comfort. I was filled with a sense of appreciation that flooded my body. I felt so lucky to have this warm bed, a safe place to sleep, and a roof over my head. A small smile came over my face.

That was all in the first minute of being awake! It’s no wonder I’ve been so tired the last few weeks. This emotional journey has been exhausting, and I’m still mostly affected at a distance. I can only imagine the physical suffering of those who are ill, and the pain of their family and friends. I think of the bravery of frontline healthcare workers, and of the physical and emotional stress they’re experiencing.

But then I returned to the feeling of my warm bed. And I remembered a powerful meditation I once read by Thich Nhat Hanh, which he called, “The Un-Headache Meditation.” In this meditation, he asks us to pause and recognize those moments when we are not in pain and not suffering, the times we don’t have a headache.

He asks us to appreciate those moments of feeling okay. What a gift to stop and appreciate the things that I used to take for granted: going out for dinner, giving hugs, and teaching yoga in person. Also, an opportunity to appreciate the things I still have: my warm bed, homemade granola, and lots of buds on the plants in my garden getting ready to bloom.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s personal example of practicing peace in the face of the Vietnam War can be a guide for us all in this challenging moment. He experienced the pain and suffering of his country and used those experiences to share a message of internal and external peace. He taught us how to find peace in ourselves, even when the world was painful and challenging. He said, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.

In the face of darkness and fear, it feels like bravery to smile, especially if it allows me to smile at my husband or someone on the street as I try to avoid them. It’s not spiritual bypassing to try to focus on the little things that bring me joy or peace. Meditation feels especially hard for me right now. It feels like wallowing in the worry, but I know meditation is creating space for other thoughts to come. Space to acknowledge those moments when I don’t have a headache or when I don’t have fear, and then I can choose to smile.

Lifting myself up in this way is a big part of my practice. Living in quarantine with my family, I can feel those moments when my frustration and my impatience arises, and how I tend to take my feelings out on the people around me. Yoga practices give me a space to process my feelings. That is an essential service to myself and those around me, and it allows me to be of service in other ways—mostly because I’m not giving someone else a headache! When there is spaciousness, when I can bring my mind back to the safety of a warm bed, then I can offer support to my family, friends, students, and community. When I allow myself to smile, I can share the peace and also the pain of this journey. The smile becomes a gateway to sharing myself with the world.


This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog and co-author of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being.

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Friday, March 27, 2020

Don't Panic: Thinking Clearly in Times of Difficulty

Calm Sea by Gustave Courbet
by Nina Zolotow

By now most of us are well aware of all the effects that stress can have on our bodies. For example, here are just some of the health problems that chronic stress can cause: heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), insomnia and/or fatigue, digestive disorders, headaches, chronic anxiety or depression, and weakened immune system.

But what about the effect that stress has on our minds?

Perhaps you’ve noticed that when you’re particularly stressed out, your mind races. That’s because your stress response prompts you to rapidly assess your current situation, considering possible outcomes and solutions. Then, when you’re more relaxed and feeling safe, your thoughts slow down, so your mind is quieter. But what’s even more important than the effects of stress on the speed of your thoughts is that stress affects the types of thoughts that you are having and the actions that you are considering. This is called your thought-behavior repertoire.

I learned from psychologist Dan Libby, who is the founder of Veterans Yoga, that when we’re in stress mode (flight or fight state) our thought-behavior repertoire narrows, becoming limited to fight or flight strategies, including defend, avoid, retaliate, and escape.

On the other hand, when we are calmer, our thought-behavior repertoire expands to include a much wider range of possibilities than just fight of flight strategies, including more compassionate and altruistic alternatives like “How can I help?” and “What can I do to live in line with my values and goals?

Here is how Dan Libby described it:

"The basic gist is that regulating our autonomic nervous system, which really means activating the more newly evolved part of the parasympathetic nervous system via the vagus nerve, allows for an expansion of your thought-behavior repertoire. Instead of having a limited, narrow, tunnel-vision, like we do when our sympathetic nervous system is dominant, we have more cognitive and behavioral options available to navigate our world."

In the presentation of Dan's where I learned about stress and its effects our thought-behavior repertoire, he was talking about veterans with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). But even someone who isn’t a war veteran can relate to problems that are created by high-stress thinking because we’ve all been in high-stress situations and we know how stress can make us do things in the moment that we’re not so happy about later. 

In some cases, high-stress thinking is appropriate. For example, for a soldier, a very high level of stress response is appropriate in an actual battle because a soldier needs to be narrowly focused on defending, avoiding, retaliating, and escaping. But that same level is not appropriate while you’re stuck in a traffic jam, working at the office, taking care of young children, or trying to figure out how to “shelter in place” during a pandemic. At times like these, we want to be able to consider alternatives other than defend, avoid, retaliate, and escape. In his post Teaching Yoga During a Pandemic, Jivana said about the novel coronavirus pandemic:

“The challenge here is to think of others and not just our own needs, which is the definition of karma yoga. We can consider our reaction to this challenging moment as an opportunity to practice yoga in action: to act with the benefit of others in mind.”

Obviously, this applies not only to the pandemic but also to all our actions in the everyday world. That’s why using yoga to reduce your stress levels is so valuable for helping you think more clearly during times of difficulty. When you practice yoga stress management techniques, you are, as Dan Libby described it, “activating the more newly evolved part of the parasympathetic nervous system via the vagus nerve” and in this more optimum state, you have “more cognitive and behavioral options available to navigate our world.” In other words, your thoughts and behavior possibilities expand to allow you to consider altruistic actions and how you can live in line with your basic values and goals.

In my recent post Stress Management for When You’re Stressed, I listed six different yoga tools you can use to reduce your stress. All of these techniques work in different ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest side of your nervous system) via the vagus nerve. So to practice yoga for thinking clearly, you can use any of those tools that you personally find the most effective or that you simply like the best.

In an emergency, if you notice your thoughts are racing and are focused only on flight or fight strategies, I suggest you try practicing simple breath awareness because that’s easy to do anywhere and everywhere, even standing up in a public place. All you have to do is observe your breath without changing it. And even a few minutes of practice can help center you or head off a spike in your stress levels. (See A Balm for the Soul: Practicing Simple Breath Awareness for details about how to practice breath awareness.) You could also try consciously lengthening your exhalation while allowing your inhalation to come naturally. (See Calming Breath Practices We Recommend for information on exhalation lengthening.)

Then, after you deal with your emergency, head on home and spend at least 20 minutes doing your favorite yoga for stress management poses or practices and consider doing this every day for a while. Practicing yoga for stress management regularly will help lower your baseline stress levels, so when you do experience another spike in stress levels, you might be able to keep your cool and avoid high-stress thinking.


This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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Thursday, March 26, 2020

Corona Coping: Collective Care to Help Unemployed Yoga Teachers

Kerri Kelly and Jivana Heyman

by Patrice Priya Wagner

Last week in an online interview, I listened to Jivana Heyman, Accessible Yoga's Executive Director, speak with Kerri Kelly, yoga teacher and "organizer and advocate for what yoga should look like" (her words). Kelly is the founder of CTZNWELL, an emerging movement to mobilize people into a powerful force for wellbeing for all. She spent seven years as Executive Director of the non-profit Off the Mat, Into the World and is currently on faculty. In response to Jivana's varied questions, Kelly replied with some answers that I had expected and others that caught me by surprise. I found the part of the discussion on political organizing in the yoga community very informative and decided to briefly summarize it for you today.

Kelly spoke about the importance of community care, especially within marginalized groups, and the act of showing up for the needs of others. She described ways to organize a neighborhood block, so everyone has necessities, such as groceries, during a challenging time like the one we're experiencing. Jivana followed with the question, "What would that look like in the yoga community?"

Kelly replied, "What does it look like to look beyond our individual circumstances to fight for policies that look out for others?" My ears perked up, knowing that most yoga teachers don't have an institutional safety net but work as contractors—and are likely not working at all right now due to studios closing to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus.

I'm aware that Reclamation Ventures has a grant program that Nicole Cardoza put in place that provides funds to assist instructors in need of support. But there aren't many organizations doing this important work.

Kelly continued, "There is an opportunity for us to aggregate the very abundant resource that is this community. We have very wealthy wellness brands worth $4.7 trillion globally." Jivana added "most of which is made off the backs of yoga teachers."

According to Kelly, we need to ask the corporations to contribute to a fund that fills the gap for contract yoga employees who are suffering now because there is no safety net. "That would be very effective and powerful thing for us to do as a yoga community."

She asked, "How are these corporations taking care of their people? Is there paid leave? What are their policies?"

I wondered if the yoga community would be able to ask corporations to step in and supplement the income for unemployed yoga teachers. We aren't politically organized in a way that would make this easy to do, but perhaps we can get organized—and make for one very positive outcome of the COVID-19 world experience.

If you're interested in finding out more on how to organize politically, you can hear Kelly's ideas in depth on the full interview.


Patrice Priya Wagner, RYT 500, C-IAYT, teaches yoga to people with disabilities and offers meditation workshops in Oakland, California, and has been published in New Mobility Magazine, Works and Conversations, Artweek, and Kitchen Sink. She is Managing Editor of the Accessible Yoga Blog and a founding member of the Accessible Yoga Board of Directors.   



This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog and co-author of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being.

° FOLLOW Accessible Yoga on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and YouTube

° REGISTER here for our next conference. 


° DONATE here to help us bring yoga to people who don't have access or have been underserved, such as people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, children with special needs, and anyone who doesn't feel comfortable in a regular yoga class.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Waking the Witness for Guidance in these Challenging Times: Core Qualities of Yoga, Part 9

This post is part of a series that explores a variety of core qualities and suggested practices to consider for inclusion in your classes and private sessions (whether on a mat, in a chair, or a combination of both).

by Beth Gibbs

The koshas are a multi-dimensional model of the human organism found in Indian texts composed around the 6th century BCE. They are described as five interrelated, interdependent layers, bodies, or sheaths that are common to each of us. They are:

  • PhysicalAnnamayakosha; the body
  • Breath/EnergyPranamayakosha; breath and energy in all of its forms (nadis, chakras, etc.)
  • Psycho/EmotionalManomayakosha; the everyday mind with its thoughts and emotions
  • WitnessVijnanamayakosha; witnessing, wisdom consciousness
  • Bliss BodyAnandamayakosha; the natural state of all humans. 

Bliss is what brings us the most joy. Bliss has the power to take us out of ourselves and deliver us to a place of deep contentment, and wholeness. It may be through religion, spirituality, a passionate hobby, joy in nature, or a deep connection to what gives our lives meaning.

The first known mention of the koshas is found in the Taittiriya Upanishad, a Vedanta text that predates Patanjali's Yoga Sutras by about 1,000 years. The source referenced here is, The Upanishads, a translation by Eknath Easwaran, pages 251–256.

Each one of the five layers plays an important role in helping us live our best lives. However, I’ve chosen to focus on the quality of witnessing because the Witness (Vijnanamayakosha) is the lamp that illuminates all aspects and all five layersof ourselves; personality and shadow, the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly, for understanding, acceptance, and integration. When we are able to witness our physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, habits, and behaviors without judgment, we can consciously choose to make changes, keep the status quo with full knowledge of the consequences, or find acceptance if change is not possible. In his professional Yoga Therapist Training Manual, Joseph Le Page says:

“At the level of the everyday mind, the actor is caught inside their own drama and often cannot see beyond it. At the wisdom level, we are able to step out of that personal conditioning and look beyond the roles we play to see the larger picture of who we truly are.”

Waking the Witness becomes especially important to anyone who has ever dealt with difficulty - and who hasn’t! This is important because no matter who we are, where we live, or what our current condition or situation is, our ability to witness enables us to respond in a wise and balanced manner to the ups and downs of our human experience. This is true whether it’s a situation with our physical body, our energy, or our mind and emotions.

The thinking mind tends to judge, compare, and contrast what it observes. The Witness, however, will observe and accept what it finds without judgment. Witnessing is the key to finding clarity, contentment, and resilience in our complicated world. For example, I once held the belief that asking for help is a sign of weakness. In my life this belief often co-existed with feeling angry, stressed, and overwhelmed with responsibility. When I reached my breaking point and engaged the quality of witnessing, I was able to trace that belief to its source‑to watching my mom, my Aunt Lucy, and my favorite cousin Ella, seemingly do it all. I watched them take on responsibility for family life, work outside the home, community involvement, and church projects.

The key word here, as you may have guessed, is "seemingly." I am sure they could have used help, but I never heard or saw them ask for it. Why? I can guess. It might be that strong Black woman stereotype, or the line from the Helen Reddy song, “I am woman, hear me roar,” independent streak that many of us carry. I’ll never know for sure. My mom, aunt and cousin have all passed, and I can’t ask them. I was left dealing with a lingering and possibly unhealthy aversion to being dependent upon or obligated to others. 

The witnessing process helped me understand where that belief came from and how it was manifesting in mental and physical discomfort. I was able to take mindful steps to transform it. I learned to think clearly about asking for help, and can now ask for and accept help with gratitude. I no longer believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness (well, most of the time‑it’s a process for me).

Here is a practice for waking the Witness. Try it for yourself first and then with students in your classes.

Practice: Awareness of Sensation

Sensation can be defined as an impression, perception, or feeling in the body such as tingling, pulsing, heaviness, firmness, tightness, ease, stretch, a change of temperature, or connection with a surface. Because the body speaks with sensation and is accessible through our five senses, awareness of sensation is an effective starting point to engage the quality of witnessing.

1. Beginning. Take a posture you can comfortably hold for three to five minutes. Consider Mountain Pose (Tadasana) standing or seated, Simple Seated Pose (Sukhasana), or Relaxation Pose (Savasana)—as long as you remain awake. As you move awareness through the body, notice sense, and feel any sensations that are present. If you catch yourself judging what you find, witness that.

2. Lower Body. Take a moment to experience the toes, the bottoms of the feet, tops of the feet, the ankles, and the heels. 
Begin to draw your awareness into the lower legs, noticing the shins, and the calves.
Explore the knees, the area above and below the kneecaps and the backs of the knees.
Draw awareness to the thighs, tops of the thighs, the sides, and backs of the thighs.
Bring awareness to the pelvis. Explore the place where the legs meet the hips.

3. Torso. Bring awareness to the lower abdomen, the area below the navel. Sense this area from the pubic bone to the sacrum. 
Explore the low back.
Move awareness to the solar plexus, the area where the ribs meet in front of the body. Become aware of your middle torso from the solar plexus to the mid-back.
Explore the entire area of the chest, heart, and lungs. Explore the upper back and the area between the shoulder blades.

4. Upper Body. Sense the shoulders and collarbones.
Become aware of the arms relaxing along the sides of the body or in the lap.
Take a moment to pay focused attention to the palms of the hands.
Allow awareness to travel up the arms, through the shoulders, and into the neck and throat.
Begin to explore the head, the back of the head, the top of the head, the forehead, the area around the eyes, the ears, jaw, the inside of the mouth, and the chin.

5. Finish. Allow awareness to become global, encompassing the whole of the lower body, torso, and upper body.
As you witness the whole of the body, notice any sensations that stand out to you in this moment.
Witness, and explore your experience without judgment.
When you feel a sense of completion, begin to slowly move the fingers and toes. Stretch in any way that is comfortable as you return to full awareness.
Feel free to journal or draw picture of your experience.

With practice we can engage the quality of witnessing, bring clear, focused attention to what we find to accept and integrate all aspects of ourselves, pleasant and not so pleasant. Working with the Witness helps us move through our lives with clarity, contentment, and resilience.

Elizabeth (Beth) Gibbs, MA, C-IAYT, is a certified yoga therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapists and is a guest faculty member of the Kripalu School of Integrative Yoga Therapy. Her masters’ degree in Yoga Therapy and Mind/Body Health is from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She is the author of Ogi Bogi, The Elephant Yogi, a therapeutic yoga book for children. For more information please visit her website at: bethgibbs.com


This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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