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…

Strawberry smoothie!

Cant avoid the breakfast dance with a strawberry smoothie!

Breakfast is the first meal of the day, but most importantly it’s a meal we have after 12hrs of not eating just before we head to work. You need it to be light, loaded with fruits, some protein, colorful and playful to get you in the right mood.

Here is an easy formula: Mix fruits, yogurt, and a gentle sweetener together. Top with nuts!

Recipe:

Prep time: 5min | Serves 2

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup strawberries
  • 1 frozen banana
  • 1/3 cup yogurt
  • 1 tsp pumpkin seeds

Instructions:

  • Blend together the strawberries, banana and yogurt
  • Serve with toppings of pumpkin seeds

Notes:

  • Banana is a great natural sweetner. You don’t need to mix additional vanilla essence / honey if you are adding a banana to your smoothies

Chia Seed Pudding

Is it a breakfast or is it a dessert? You would still be debating as you scrape that last tiny chia seed from the bottom of your cup! Its the best dessert for breakfast! Its Chia seed pudding

Chia seeds are a staple of South America. It is said that the tribe of Tarahumara Indians, famously known for running hundreds of miles in Mexico’s deep deadly copper canyons, would have chia seeds soaked in lime juice as their energy drink! (Do read more about them and the Race of a lifetime in the book “Born to Run”)

Chia seeds are loaded with antioxidants, omega 3, fiber, iron, calcium, phosphorous – loading you with energy, good cholesterol and nutrients that are not found in everyday vegetarian diet. 

So, add chia seeds into your weekly routine with this extremely simple make ahead eye pleasing breakfast (or even dessert) recipe!

Recipe

Prep Time: 5min | Makes 1 portion

Ingredients

  • 1 cup unflavored yogurt
  • 2 Tbsp honey
  • 2 tbsp chia seeds
  • A handful of nuts (almonds, walnuts, cherries) – roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup colorful fruits – Banana, Spiced apple, Strawberries
  • 4-5 Mint leaves

Instructions

  • In one big cup, pour in unflavored yogurt. Add honey and chia seeds. Mix well so that the chia seeds are broadly distributed and not forming lumps. Its not a problem if they do, just that eating soaked isolated chia seeds are better than lumps!
  • Cover and let this sit overnight
  • In the morning, start your layering craft.
  • My Option 1: Start with a row of walnuts and cherries, then sliced bananas, then sliced strawberries then mint on top
  • My Option 2: Start with a row of toasted almonds, then add Spiced Apples!

Notes

  • This is an absolute free style recipe. Choose your own mix of fruits and nuts, play around with layering, mix as many colors you like!
  • Use transparent cup / glass / masor jar so that you can see the action!

Banana Oat Pancakes!

Make these delicious Banana Oats pancake mountain to crush those long To Do list filled mornings!

You know its going to be one of those long days, the day would start and before uyou know it you have skipped lunch. There is an unending to Do list. On those exact days, I am asking you to take out 15min – 5min to cook and 10min to eat these extremely nourishing, filling (will not cause bloating) and will keep you going!

However for those who have already started rolling there eyes on oats, I am going to be honest here. Oats are a healthy grain option – they are whole, full of fibers, vitamins and minerals, keeping you full and satisfied for a long time. But after several experiments in kitchen I have concluded and agree that it is very hard to make them taste good. 

I have experimented and tried to incorporate oats in my every day diet, but unfortunately with little success till now. They are gooey and ‘taste of health’, which people who do not lean towards healthy food know what I mean.

Oats Upma and oats Poha never turn out good; Oats Porridge loaded with nuts and peanut butter comes midway but hard to adopt for those you don’t like the taste of oats. But dont stop there if you have. Give this recipe a shot. These Banana Oats pancakes have been taste tested 20 times with 100% success – TASTE BETTER THAN REGULAR PANCAKES

Recipe

Prep time: 15min | Cooking time: 2 min / pancake | Makes 4 small pancakes

Ingredients

  • 1 cup oat flour (You can grind it fresh in your smoothie blender. Doesnt have to be very fine. Coarse tastes better)
  • 3/4 cup milk of your choice
  • 1 egg
  • 1 banana
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup coconut oil (+ 3tsp for cooking)
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg (freshly grated taste better)
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon (can only grate fresh if you have a high power blender)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla essense
  • Strawberries and/or chocolate chips for garnish! (optional)

Instructions

  • In a bowl, mix together all the dry ingredients (oat flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt, baking powder)
  • In a new (but smaller) bowl mash the Banana with forks into gooey chunks. No stress. Then carefully crack your egg, add milk, honey, coconut oil and vanilla essence. Mix it all well!
  • Pour the liquid mixture from the second bowl into the first bowl and mix well (again) till everything becomes smooth and even. Do not keep over mixing it as the baking powder will start losing its effect 😉
  • Now when you are ready to eat, In a pan add 1/4 tsp coconut oil and wait till you can feel its become hot (not too hot that oil starts burning)
  • Then pour 1/4 cup of our delicious mix, make it into a rough circle and wait till you see bubbles forming at the top and the outsides starting turning golden. Flip it over! Cook for 30sec on the other side and flip it, flying high up in the sky, straight into your pan
  • Mount two / hree of these, with fruits, nuts, honey, chocolate sauce in between! Decorate as you like
  • Eat within 10min. Best when hot

Notes:

  • Consumer within 10min. Best when hot!
  • You can pre make the mix the night before, so all you need to do on those busy days is take the mix out of teh fridge, cook for 5min (1 min to heat the pan, 2 min / pancakes *2) and 10min to eat! Give yourself that much time, esp when you know you might be skipping lunch that day 🙂
  • Banana and honey are the secret agent here!

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Ultimate tea cocktail for when you have a bad cold

Cold is natural and body’s way to letting go of the toxins that build up over the course of our lifestyles. Being down with cold once a year is totally normal and I would go to the extent of saying that it should be fully embraced. Put on those lacy pyjamas, cozy up in the bed, get a nice book and relax to let the body get rid of the toxins to recuperate.

Now, I would say that it’s not that easy to be stuck with cold and a running nose. You want to rush to pop those pills and feel better. But that would just subvert the cold inside, make you feel better in the short term and you would be down with cold again at the slightest hint of the infection.

Instead, Try this ultimate cocktail for when you have a bad cold, to make you feel better, heal your body and get rid of toxins.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups water
  • 1 inch ginger (grated)
  • 1 inch fresh turmeric (grated)
  • 2 cloves
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp honey

Instructions:

Put the water to boil along with ginger, turmeric, clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. Let it come to a nice rolling boil. Remove it from heat, strain and add lemon juice and honey. Mix it all up!

Wrap your hands around the mug, breath into the fresh condiments and take a sip. It’s so good as it combines all the things Ayurveda says you need to have when you have a cold. Take it 3-4 times a day and you would start feeling better in a couple of days!

Bend that Cord!

Its only when I was learning how to do headstands that I realized how difficult it must have been for us to learn how to stand up straight on our legs! When I am doing my headstand I can not think of anything else but my breathing, constantly focusing on my core, my legs, my eye movements, and pose correcting to make sure I don’t fall. What we don’t realize after 20+ years of standing straight is that “Tadasana” standing up is actually a balance pose and form matters.

We forget how to “consciously” stand. We forget to take note of excessive pressures we put on our lungs, stomach, hips, knees and ankles. To the extent that we don’t stop to wonder why we get tired within 5min of standing when actually with our years of practice, we should be able to stand straight for hours!

Ever wondered – why slouching, bending forward is the default position for most people? Lifting heavy bags, working on our laptops, reading, writing and reaching out towards things we like, makes our back move forward. It’s of course a little painful in the beginning but we take it as part of the Job. Soon we become used to to the pain and make it a default position. But its not the body’s default position. Our blood flow is unable to adjust to the slouch and gets clogged. Our lungs can’t function when they are constantly compressed.

We need to rebel against what we have done to our bodies. We NEED to consciously do counter poses – back bends and side bends to make the back flexible and return it to its default position. Whenever you feel like you have been sitting for too long do a counter pose. Take a deep breath, exhale and bend your back backward. Give it a sideways twist for fun! Whenever it hurts to stand for any longer, do a counter pose. Move your weight to front and back of your toes till you feel you are balancing it equally on the foot. Take a deep breath, exhale and bend you back backwards. Give it a sideways twist for fun! Inhale. Exhale.

 

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!

Mushroom on Avocado toast!

Sunday morning breakfasts are meant for hearty, filling and colorful meals, the ones whose mere thought can make you roll out of the bed and head to the kitchen. Better still if it can fulfill my three cooking filters – readily available ingredients, under 30min prep time and colorfully healthy.

One of my favorite go to is Mushroom on Avocado Toast. Its the perfect example of “sum of parts can be bigger than the whole”.

Mushroom on Avocado Toast Recipe

Makes: 4 toasts | Prep Time:

Ingredients:

  • 2 Avocados
  • ~30 button mushrooms
  • 1 tbsp Olive oil
  • 1/4 cup Grated parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper, per taste
  • 1tbsp chopper Cilantro
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1tbsp half lemon

Recipe:

  • Avocado Guacamole: Split avocados into half along the longer side and remove the big seed. Make a couple of slits and scoop avocado chunks into a bowl. Add in lemon juice, salt and red pepper flake and mix it all together. Taste and adjust spices as needed
  • Saute Mushroom: Clean mushrooms with a clean cloth and trim the end stems as needed. Cut each of them into 4-5 lengthwise pieces. In the meantime heat oil in the pan and add the mushrooms into it. Cook uncovered on medium heat as the mushroom loose water. Let it cook till most of the water evaporates. Add in salt, pepper, cheese and cilantro. Saute for 1-2 minutes and bring it off the heat.
  • Putting it all together: On lightly toasted bread, put first a layer of avocado guacamole and top it with mushrooms. Make a fold and take a BIG bite. voila!
  • Accompaniments: Have a juice / smoothie to complete the meal

Cheers to bright Sunday breakfasts!