28 Days of Yoga immersion – I learnt what yoga really means

From Feb 10 2019 to Mar 10 2019, I attended the 200hr yoga teacher-training course at The Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanvantri Ashram at Neyyar Dam, Kerela, India.

The drive from Thiruvananthapuram airport snakes through narrow village roads to reach the ashram in about an hour. The ashram is perched on a small plateau on the foothills of Southern Western Ghats, flanked by a beautiful lake set against the backdrop of herb-laden mountain range. The nearest village (qualified by the presence of a restaurant) is left 10kms behind. Inside, people practice a simple life – dressed in clothes picked solely for the purpose of utility, sit on the floors, walk while stopping by to enjoy a blooming lotus, a playful cat or chasing sunsets. You hear incredible stories of people who have travelled from across the world to press a reset button in their worldly life and practice yoga.

There was a mystical energy in the place, part created by the environment and part by the people, which made the grilling 16hr day, 6 days a week, manageable. Our days began sharp at 5:20am with a communal bell, squeezing in 4.5hr of yoga, 3hr lectures of Vedanta Philosophy, Bhagvad Gita and Anatomy, 1hr of meditation, 1hr of chanting, 1hr of service, 1hr eating 2 meals a day and miscellaneous time to finish everyday homework till it was lights off at 10:30pm. To call it intense would be an understatement. On day 1 we were told that this experience would ‘change’ us and I was curious to learn how.

As we neared week 3, I found myself adapting to the ashram lifestyle. Sitting cross-legged for 8hrs everyday was becoming manageable, I felt comfortable with two meals a day, I could tame my thoughts for a couple of seconds during meditation, I got into headstand from crow the other day, I was learning a lot about yoga philosophy and postures… But unfortunately none of this qualified as ‘change’ but felt merely as signs of progress, till I was pushed, while getting out of the airport bus after landing back in Bangalore city from the ashram.

I felt like an alien who has come to the city after spending years in the jungle. I felt a sharp aversion to the craziness at the airport, the bags, the crowd, the lights. I wanted to rush back and find a calm place. I longed for simplicity. That’s when I knew something deep had changed inside me. After getting back home, I decided to pen down my thoughts for anyone who was curious about the path of yoga or was on his/her own journey.

What I learnt – The Why, How and What of Yoga

Why should we do Yoga and what is the purpose?

Our mind is our apex center. It has the power to make decisions and orchestrates the nerve signals and muscle movements to take necessary action. It decides if we should succumb and reach out to that cheese oozing pizza. It decides if we have enough time to overtake the truck ahead in a fast lane highway. Every second, the mind is getting signals from the billions of cells in our body on rate of metabolism, infections, pH levels etc. Every second, the mind is bombarded with sensory perceptions of the outside world through our 5 senses. The mind is constantly preoccupied and working very hard, splitting all the inputs into tiny tasks and defining a conscious / subconscious / unconscious response.

What if we could harness all this mental power and focus it on one point, one problem, one project! You might solve world hunger! The true purpose of yoga is to achieve that control on the mind.

Asana based yoga, uses body as a tool to rein in our breath and then mind. On the last day of the course, we did 2hr of meditative asanas, i.e. holding asanas for upto 5min with deep breathing and closed eyes. After the class, instead of being tired, I felt a strange sensation of peace. So strong that I just wanted to focus on something deep within me. I didn’t care about rushing for the last meal of the day. I didn’t crave for checking my phone. I wanted to be in the moment.

Yoga is the silencing of the modifications of the mind

How to do yoga the right way:

  • Start with Savasana to relax body and mind. Don’t jump into it. Even if you do yoga in the morning, start with 5min of Savasana (complete relaxation, corpse pose) because you never know what the dreams or checking that phone did to you.
  • Learn correct breathing. Correct yogic breathing goes like this: Inhale, abdomen out, expand your chest, expand your shoulder to bring air fully to the bottom of the lungs. Exhale, abdomen in, chest relaxed, shoulder relaxed and let all the air out from the lungs. Know the breathing routine to get into the pose and breathe rhythmically when in the pose.
  • Feel the pose. Focusing on how the pose is stretching your muscles and which organs are getting activated, will help to get deeper into the pose or to hold it longer or to do the pose with eyes closed. Just consciously bringing your attention to the body part will fire the nerves and bring amplified benefits to that part.
Breathe, Focus and feel the pose

What asana to do and where to begin?

  • Check your alignment. Take a picture of you standing straight sideways and notice how you are hunched forward or backward (in an ideal posture, you can draw a straight line through your ear, shoulder , hip, knee and ankle joints). Focus on asanas that counter the bad posture and correct the stance. Adopt right posture for sitting, standing and walking.
  • Do a full spinal workout. There is a Chinese saying that says, you are as young as the flexibility of your spine. If the nerves in and around the spine aren’t supple enough and unable to send the signals / nutrients across the body enough, than no matter what you eat or do, you will be prone to diseases and pains. An adult spine is a set of 26 vertebra divided into 4 sections, that can allow movement forward, backward, twists and lateral. Focus on all for a complete daily practice. Sun Salutation is a great all spinal workout that can be added as a warmup with 5 rounds or a full 60min workout with 108 rounds!
  • Pick up a challenging pose. Build strength, flexibility, balance AND endurance. There are 8.4M yoga asanas out there. Leave alone mastering them, even the account of these asanas is not mentioned anywhere. Based on our  practice we tend to gravitate towards one type. We are afraid of building strength or holding poses for longer thinking that it’s not “our” style of yoga. But in the end, it is all one yoga with one aim. Our muscles need all four actions, so challenge yourself and challenge them!

You are born with every breath.
So Breathe. Breathe consciously and breathe fully.
To be a better, stronger, calmer and more focused version of yourself…

Forming new sleep routines

IT’S NOT EASY TO BUILD A ROUTINE. IT’S DEFINITELY NOT EASY TO FORM NEW ROUTINES.

Last week, I experimented waking up at 4:30am. Everyday I would set my alarm for 4:30am, but when the time came, I would just turn it off and go back to bed.

Now, I am a pretty determined person and have routine of sleeping at 10:30pm and waking up at 5:30am every damn day. So, then why was this so difficult for me? Every morning I would reflect back on what happened and why despite my best efforts I still couldn’t get myself out of the bed, three reasons came to my mind:

  1. Not having a strong purpose: I realized that I didn’t have a strong reason to get up at 4:30am, expect that I thought it will give me more time to meditate along with my exercises. I didn’t make a schedule of what exactly I would do with the additional 60min and honestly wasn’t fully convinced. I hoped that if I can get up it would be a good but it’s OK if I don’t. No one can wake up early with this attitude! In our half-conscious half-subconscious state when the alarm goes off, its very easy for the subconscious mind to convince the body to take the sheet up and snuggle in the bed
  2. Not setting an intention: When I would go to bed, I did not told myself that I wanted to get up at 4:30am. I would setup the alarm and hope for the best. Now I have definitely seen myself waking up onetime, even without alarms, without enough sleep. That happened because just before sleeping I told myself I NEED to get up at certain time. It works! The subconscious mind is powerful and trustworthy if you set an honest intention
  3. Too Big a change without regulating the sleep cycle: I was hoping to get by with 6 hrs of sleep. Sleep at 10:30pm and get up at 4:30am. I know Buddhists monks do it so then why can’t I, right? But that is not how it works. I was extra busy last week, slept at 10:30 / 11. No way I can get up an hour earlier! It would have been easier to start small. 15min ahead, 30min ahead and then 60min ahead..

Next week experiment: Get up at 5:00am

 

Water – my best travel buddy

I am at the airport right now, on my way to Switzerland to attend a friend’s wedding. It’s 9am here and the food shops are starting to open, but I am starving. So I pick up a croissant from Starbucks and rush to my gate.

I get on the flight at 9:30, wait for 1.5hrs before the in-flight food service commences. I pick the vegetable pasta option, served with a side of hot bread and chocolate cake. It’s delicious and I gulp it down. But an hour later I start feeling heavy in my stomach.

This is usually my tale with airport food and post meal uneasiness. It’s really hard sometimes to find fresh and fulfilling options. But after multiple travels I have found my remedy. AISLE SEATS and a BIG BOTTLE OF WATER.

Weather control in the flight makes them dehydrating, coupled with carb loaded food can really take a toll on the stomach. Sometimes the food is unavoidable. But if you can keep drinking lots of water throughout the flight (300ml every 30min), than it really helps calm the stomach and keep you fresh.

Try it!

Cheers to Traveling heathy!

An unexpected match: Cabbage & Quinoa

As I was walking home from office today, I started thinking about what should I cook for dinner tonight.

My thought process: So, I have one whole cabbage in my fridge. I don’t think there is any other vegetable left. I am leaving for Switzerland tomorrow, which means I have to pack tonight and have no spare time to go buy vegetables and the last thing I want to do is waste any vegetable. That means – lets get creative in the kitchen!

After a couple of web searches, I stumbled upon this recipe of cabbage and quinoa, modified it a bit and just slowly went through the cooking process to get to this surprisingly delicious meal! It is going to be my go-to under 15min Wholesome dinner recipe!

Recipe:

Prep Time: 5min, Cooking time: 10min | Makes 4 bowls

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup quinoa, washed and drained
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tbsp chopped garlic
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 1 whole cabbage, finely cut length wise
  • 1 red chilli, chopped
  • 10-20 almonds, halved
  • 1 can / 1 cup of boiled chickpeas
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric powder
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 tsp salt (more as needed)

Process

  • Prep Quinoa: In a deep pan, add 1 tbsp oil, garlic and tomato paste. Stir it for a minute and add water. Once the water gets to a gentle boil, add quinoa and cover pan with the lid on medium flame. Let it cook for 10-15min till all the water has evaporated. Turn off the flame and leave the pan covered for another 5min. Quinoa should be nice and fluffy now!
  • Prep the mix: In the second pan, add 1 tbsp oil and the chillis. Add almonds and stir till they are golden. Add turmeric and cabbage with some salt. Cook cabbage till it is mildly wilted.  Add chickpeas and mix it all together for another 2min and turn off the heat
  • Mix it all up: add quinoa to the cabbage, mix it up, add lemon juice and mix it up again, before taking a huge first bite into your mouth 🙂

 

Cheers to Unexpected discoveries!

Stand up Strong

After a long time, I opened my yoga book “Light on Yoga” yesterday and instead of going over the details of tricky inversions poses, I flipped to the very first asana, Tadasana, the Mountain Pose. Its the first basic pose in the book, but the writer took five steps to describe the art of standing up strong, straight and unmoved.

  1. You start with Standing erect with the feet together, the heels and big toes touching each other, rest the heads of metatarsals on the floor and stretch all the toes flat on the floor.
  2. Tighten the knees and pull the knee-caps up, contract the hips and pull up the muscles at the back of the thighs.
  3. Keep the stomach in, chest forward, spine stretched up and the neck straight.
  4. Do not bear the weight of the body either on the heels or the toes, but distribute it evenly on both of them.
  5. Ideally in Tadasana, the arms are stretched out over the head, but for the sake of convenience, one can place them by the side of the thighs.

As I finished reading, I realized how bad my standing pose is usually.

These days, I don’t spend more than 30 minutes standing up. I am usually sitting, walking, sleeping or just moving around, but when I do stand I end up standing lousily (in my head its stylish and flattering) with weight set on one leg, and the other leg slightly ahead at an angle. It looks good in pictures and I feel relaxed with on leg resting. But unintuitively, the effects it has on my body are absolutely contrary. Not distributing weight across the feet of the ground, not standing straight with the hips tightened, abdomen pulled in and chest forward, puts excess pressure on the spinal cord, causing heaviness in the head, fatigue and knee problems. Come to think of it, I can not  stand straight in my current usual pose for more than 5-10min and have to sit down.

Since reading that chapter, I have started to follow a five step approach to fix my stance, whenever I can remember it. Point the toes straight ahead, distribute body weight equally on toes and heels, tighten the thighs, pull in the abdomen and straighten the chest. You have to play around with the movement in the beginning till you can feel the balance and lightness in the head. But once you do, you will feel more alert and in connection with the entire body, head to toe.

Cheers To..Learning back the art of standing straight as we did when we first stood up as a kid.

Namaste!