A family of postures that I am thankful for are the squats including malasana, also known as garland pose or yogi squat along with a multitude of variations including the pose pictured here, Chakra Mandala.
Squats connect us to our root, aka our feet. Experiences in life can literally knock us off our feet and shake our sense of safety and connection to self and the ground under our feet. This can come by way of traumatic or adverse experiences or gradually overtime due to repetitive motion. Repetitive motion injuries can even result from yoga, as in the case of a practice that overly emphasizes forward folding over back body activation. This off kilter stance can become habitual and unconscious but can be corrected through therapeutic experiences, such as a daily squatting practice.
When we are ungrounded, we are literally destabilized, not solid in our movement. Our mind /body/spirit pattern reveals a distrust or fear of squarely planting ourselves in our lives, in our bodies and on the earth. Injuries resulting from yoga asana which appear gradually overtime can be understood as the amplification of our distortions so that they can enter conscious awareness and thereby become workable. If we are paying attention, curious and compassionate, we can meet our injuries/distortions with responsive care and seize an opportunity for deeper healing. This may mean changing our practice (more squatting, less passive stretching) or seeking professional help via a physical therapist (who in many cases will instruct you to squat) for correction and healing. It also may mean revisiting past aversive experiences leading to imbalances in posture in gate, also perhaps with the help of a professional mental health therapist.
Squatting puts us back on top of our feet, creating a renewed sense of strength, integration and stability. If done skillfully, with attention to the feet, squats such as Chakra Mandala (pictured above) can rebalance the pelvic floor and sacrum, leaving us feeling centered, on point and powerful, supported by the earth without distortion.
Izzy Shurte is a PYR Ambassador. She teaches Bhakti Flow every Sunday at 10:30 am. Register for it here.
Shortly after the coronavirus escalated in the United States, Harvard Medical School recommended yoga and meditation to help cope with anxiety associated with the pandemic. I want to share six practices I’ve found to be helpful in quelling anxiety as well as share a bit about the yogic philosophy behind these exercises for those who wish to dig deeper. If you prefer to get right to the practice, feel free to skip ahead.
Gunas: Tomas, Rajas and Sattva
In yogic philosophy, everything you can see or touch in the physical world is composed of three interwoven strands called gunas. Tomas is the guna with a lethargic, inert or dark energy. Rajas is passion, high energy, perhaps with a scattering of chaos. Sattva is the fertile middle ground between the two, a space which promotes health, healing, learning and mindfulness.
Consider the gunas symbolized by the reflection of a full moon above a lake. Tomas has no reflection as the lake water is too muddy and dark clouds shield the moon. Rajas: skies and water are clear but a strong wind blows, rippling the lake, the reflected moonlight splinters in the water. Sattva: a full moon reflected in still waters. While Tomas shares attributes of depression, Rajas can resemble anxiety. Sattva is a place of well being and “zone of tolerance” for mental health. Depression and anxiety are an expected part of every healthy human’s existence and can exist within Sattva’s “zone” to some extent. Dancing over the line is fine, but it’s best not to dwell there.
Doshas: Vata, Pita and Kapha
Of the three body types–or doshas–in Ayurveda, Rajas aligns most closely with the Vata dosha, represented by the air element. If this air element is too much and Vata becomes unbalanced, anxiety can result. Everyone has all three doshas as part of their constitution, with the other doshas being Pita (fire element) and Kapha (earth element). No matter which dosha is most prevalent in one’s being, we all feel anxiety.
If we move this ancient philosophy into the Western model of understanding health, we can begin to see how the Rajas and Vata might trigger the sympathetic nervous system, commonly referred to as “flight, fright or freeze.” Although a necessary part of the nervous system, we only really want to “hang” here when necessary, as the body does best when the sympathetic, or “rest and digest” system, is more active.
Even before the spread of the coronavirus, I was of firm belief that we’re living in an age of anxiety. Western Civilization (which noted yogi Ghandi once said he considered “a good idea”) can be hectic and stressful. Many of us keep extremely busy schedules and sense we never have enough time to accomplish what we want. With new ways of communicating, twenty-four hour news cycles and the advent of social media, we are faced with new and sudden demands for constantly being “on.” Your next email, text or Instagram notification is always a ding away. Somewhere Pavlov’s dog is laughing. What is lost here is an undemanding, Sattva-like space that once existed between things, moments, events. Other than youth this might be the only thing I miss about the 90’s.
I consider myself fortunate for rarely feeling anxiety, however there have been several days during this pandemic when my stress has drastically spiked. It feels like trying to fly a kite while a speeding train splits through my mind and all the monkeys declare war, throwing feces everywhere. This is not my ideal way to spend a morning. (Note to self: bananas, need more bananas.)
Anyway, with those battle scars somewhat fresh I thought I’d share some practices and tips that may help with anxiety. Grounding practices focused on one’s connection to the earth may help when Rajas is too strong or Vata becomes too unbalanced. A sense of grounded connection with the earth can help those with Vata dispositions. This connection might feel especially severed now when we consider the coronavirus has come from this earth, which usually provides a sense of safety, security and sustainability. In a sense, we may feel as if the rug has been pulled from beneath our feet. Sometimes I am reminded that yoga is not all rainbows and unicorns. Earth can have her dark moments too. Perhaps an important thing to consider during all of this is having a sense that the universe still has our back.
Practice #1: Lowering the forehead
As a yoga teacher, I often say that the breath is the quickest way to calm the nervous system. However, lowering the forehead may provide even quicker access to the sympathetic nervous system. Polyvagal Theory suggests that the nervous system has a direct link to social interaction and expressions displayed on the face. The nerves of the face are the ones closest to the brain, so our reactions to external stimuli are first displayed here. If one were to become surprised or shocked, the lines on the forehead wrinkle as the brow rises. Arching eyebrows can raise the breath into the chest and trigger the sympathetic nervous system. Congruently, lowering the brow can naturally bring the breath back into the belly and foster the sympathetic nervous system. (If you are already experiencing heightened anxiety, I suggest skipping the brow raising part of the exercise below.)
Practice: Sit with calm and ease. Notice where you feel your breath and see if you can bring the energy of the breath into the space of the belly for several rounds of breath. Place a palm on your forehead (only touch your face in the safe space of your home, washing your hands before and after this practice) and gently lift the skin on the forehead in an upward direction and hold. Notice. Most likely, your breath has risen into the upper chest. Whatever else you feel here is likely the effects of the sympathetic nervous system engaged. Now pull the hand down lowering forehead flesh and notice what you notice. Most likely the breath has lowered back to the space of the belly. Whatever else you feel is likely the effect of engaging the sympathetic nervous system, where we want to spend most of our time. Spend some time breathing easily with the forehead gently pulled down.
Practice #2: Breathing into the belly
Breathing techniques and pranayamas can help with anxiety. Whenever we practice with the breath we want to make sure we can do it calmly without effort. If anxiety or frustration arises even with calming breath work, I suggest abandoning the practice and returning to a more natural breath. For some, the seat of anxiety may reside in the area of the belly (think “butterflies in the stomach”). This can lead to tight muscles of the abdomen with tension and energetic blockages in the area of the third chakra. Sympathetic nervous system responses shut off the digestive system as the body thinks it has more important and pressing things to do. Overextending our welcome in the sympathetic nervous system can ultimately lead to digestive issues.
Practice: Sit well or lay in constructive rest (knees bent and feet on mat/floor). Place your hands on your belly. Inhale naturally, allowing the belly to expand. Upon exhalation, allow the belly to slowly move back toward the spine. With your next inhalation, sense the organs of your lower torso expand and fill with vitality and new energy. As you exhale, feel a sense of relaxation and nourishment as areas of tension near the belly ease. Notice the slow, rhythmic motion of the breath as you continue to breathe, sensing as the lower organs gently massage with the breath. If you’re comfortable, extend the duration of your exhalation so that it is longer than your inhalation. As our heart rate and blood pressure rise with every inhalation, we can encourage the benefits of the sympathetic nervous system by extending our exhalations, lowering our heart rate and blood pressure.
If extending the exhalation brings anxiety or dis-ease, stay with a breath that has equal length inhalation and exhalation. Find a count that works best for you. For me, a 1-1 count seems to trigger a sense of anxiety, but start with whatever seems sustainable to you. See if you can eventually work up to a 5-5 count. If 5-5 is too much, come back to 4-4. Once you find your count, you may expand the practice by working with extending the exhalation. Anxiety is commonly linked to a fear of the future, focusing on your breath directly links you to the present moment.
Perhaps consider how you are in the present moment. Is there a roof over your head? Food in the fridge? Are you surrounded by loved ones or pets during the lockdown? If we stay in the present and have a sense of gratitude, the mind is less likely to wander the treacherous minefield of the future. Can we find a sense of contentment in the here and now? Remember, the future has yet to happen. Our possibilities remain limitless. We can only breathe in the present.
Practice #3: Make an intention
An intention for your practice that focuses on always being aware of which part of your body is in contact with the mat (which we can consider as a connection with Earth) can be beneficial for all practitioners, especially those that might be more Vata in nature. Let this intention become a tether for your practice, noticing where you are rooted to the earth during every pose. Vatas may sometimes desire a fast and active practice, perhaps “meeting themselves where they are,” hoping to exhaust themselves so they can eventually rest in savasana. Remember we wish to relax in yoga, not collapse. A slow and steady practice may be most beneficial for the Vata in all of us.
Practice #4: Grounding
Stand in mountain pose while gently squeezing a yoga block between the thighs. This may be enough. If so inclined, try a slow sun salutation (or modified one without downward dog) while keeping the block in place. Don’t worry if it feels awkward or if the block falls to the ground at any point or if the feet feel too close during downward dog. Remember it’s a practice, not a perfection. Stomping the feet while in mountain pose creates resiliency for the skeletal system (where a sense of safety generally resides) and can help the feet feel extra connected to the mat.
Practice #5: Bone meditation
Recent studies have shown that the first place in the body that reacts to stress is the bones. (Think “feeling it in the bones.”) We might think of the bones as somewhat static in nature, but when the skeletal system feels threatened, the bones react first by flooding the blood system with an enzyme that triggers the adrenal glands. Finding comfort and ease in our bones can be grounding and promote health in our entire being.
Practice: Sit with Ahdi mudra, gesture of primordial stillness, with the thumbs tucked inside gently closed fists. Rest the fists on the thighs, slightly move the elbows away from the torso, creating space under the arms and allow the shoulders to rest down. Notice where you feel the breath. Notice your “sitz” bones (the “loopy bones“ at the bottom of the pelvis). Feel their connection upon whatever you are sitting. Notice the bones of the pelvis spread wide with your inhalation, especially at the sacrum (the five fused vertebrae of the pelvis). Keep the width at the sacrum as you exhale, sensing the hip joints gently moving toward each other. Allow the breath to fill at the belly and sense the energy of the breath move in a downward direction, filling the pelvis and coating the bones of the pelvis, legs and feet, as well as all the muscles, ligaments and tendons of the lower body, bringing a sense of ease to all parts of the lower body. Notice yourself grounded from the waist down, finding stillness. Imagine yourself journeying barefooted into a wilderness area, the earth cool and supporting every step along your journey. Perhaps you find a hollowed tree and continue your meditation seated in the safety and comfort of the tree.
Practice #6: Earthing
Allow yourself the pleasure of walking barefoot in nature. Sense how the terrain feels beneath your feet. Perhaps add a walking meditation with the use of mantra. Spending time in nature can be beneficial for the immune system. If you feel uneasy about going to a public park at this time, consider your yard as a safe space and practice there. Plant a garden while barefoot.
Other calming practices include using weighted blankets across the lap while seated. Coloring, perhaps using mandalas, can help focus the mind and strengthen concentration. Humming can help tone the Vagus nerve (stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system), as can splashing cold water on the face or body. If you don’t feel comfortable humming in your house, fearing your house mate/s might think you’ve lost it, consider humming while driving.
Dan Weiseman is a PYR Ambassador who can sometimes be found doing somatic practices on river rocks or walking backward in woodlands. He’ll begin teaching a bi-weekly restorative class on Mondays in June. Visit our schedule to register!
by Dan Weiseman
These two Chinese characters signify danger and opportunity. Together, they form the word “crisis.” Crisis incites fear, which is entirely natural as the body is designed to feel fear for survival. When safety is removed however, fear often finds space to reside. We may begin to create anxiety-fueled stories about the imagined circumstances before us and how they will all unfold. Miserably, no doubt. We become frantic, pessimistic, doomsday-fiction writers. The continuous loop of fear, the stories we fool ourselves with and rising anxiety can hijack the nervous system, distracting us from life’s sweetness. While we should never feel ashamed for feeling fearful (or anything, for that matter), we must challenge ourselves to understand fear as temporary without allowing it to take root and flourish to flight.
Thanks to the inherent righteousness of cliches, we know what every cloud has. Or we may have heard that when one door closes, another opens. We’ve been told when it is always darkest.
The universe is always pecking. Can we hear it? Even now?
I believe our beloved Project Yoga Richmond has heard the pecking. I recently watched a PYR workshop with Dr. Ariele Foster and was thrilled to discover that people from around the globe were tuning in with us. Since going online, PYR has the opportunity to reach a larger audience, which could help fund or expand current outreach programs.
Other opportunities springing from this crisis need no further evidence than the planet healing all around us. Ozone holes vanishing. Himalayan mountains appearing. Fish doing backflips in Venice canals. Shortly after Virginia issued the stay at home order, the James River was as blue as I had ever seen it.
I take inspiration from the James. It keeps rolling, regardless of the day’s news. Spring still blossoms everywhere. Nature finds the opportunity to heal with our pause, almost shockingly quickly. Do we dare follow suit?
This is not to say one should feel panicked if they do not sense opportunity at this time. I don’t mean opportunity as some kind of “go-getter coffee achiever” moment bringing great financial reward and robust swashbuckling adventures in venture capitalism. We’ve had enough of that in the world and by entirely too few.
The world is united in trauma that’s heavy with grief. Perhaps now the opportunity is to feel that and move through it. Perhaps now, for some, simply maintaining is our opportunity. An opportunity to forgive ourselves for however we feel, for the ping and the pong and all the points in between. Perhaps now, in this reset, we pause and reflect like Arjuna before battle. Do our actions align with our beliefs? Can there be a deeper integrity between the two? How?
Perhaps we deepen our felt sense with our practices, re-examine our own well-being, sense of joy and compassion and reaffirm what is truly important to us. Maybe we consider our dharma: our life’s purpose?
I’ve recently begun walking backward along the trails of the James River Park. I began this practice for physical reasons. The Chinese are considered the first culture to realize that we do 99% of our actions moving forward, leading to short and tight muscles in the front of the body, and long and overstretched muscles in the back of the body (with the calves being the misnomer to this duality). I’ve made this a walking meditation as well, seeing if I could sense my feet kissing the earth, stepping with a mantra.
Initially, I hid this from people I approached on the trail. I looked back to check for puddles on the path or to sense the bend in the trail ahead and if I saw other people, I’d turn around. What would folks think? An older gent hoofing the woods backward in light drizzle? A sure sign the end times are upon us. I wasn’t in the woods to trouble people further.
By the third day of this practice, I was enjoying it so much I took 1,500 backward steps, up from 500 from the previous days. I no longer cared if anyone noticed. When I passed a woman pushing a child in a stroller, she asked, much to my delight, if I was trying to return to the past.
“I’m trying to get back to November,” I offered. When we met on the next loop around, I was walking forward again. “No longer fearful of the future, I see,” she said.
The truth is: I wasn’t. But not because I was walking forward. Walking backward had somehow helped ease my sense of fear, an almost invisible fear I hadn’t even realized was there. Perhaps it was an act of finding peace while backing blindly into the future.
Now, my fear is not that we won’t return to “normal” soon enough. It’s that we’ll fall back to our limited, problematic “normalcy” without learning or changing anything.
What can we change before we go back? Are there stories you have inherited as truths, which have never really served you, that you can abandon?
Charles Darwin’s book The Origin of the Species is probably best known for it’s “survival of the fittest” framework of human evolution. This concept dances so well with our capitalist system and society. And it is mentioned in his book…twice. Love–its role and necessity in our evolution–is mentioned 95 times.
No matter the crisis, may we always remember that at the very least, or perhaps the very most, the opportunity for love is always present.
Dan Weiseman is a PYR Ambassador who can sometimes be found doing somatic practices on river rocks or walking backward in woodlands.
by May Suri, Sophomore at Maggie Walker High School
If, two months ago, my teachers had told me that we would be out of school for the rest of the year, I would have been ecstatic. But it’s been less than two months since “coronacation” (the name all of my friends gave this extended break), and I am already starting to go stir crazy. I underestimated how difficult it would be (for even an introvert like me) to be away from friends and social interaction. This is a stressful time for all of us, and even though people in my age group aren’t affected as harshly by the virus, many of the people that we love can be impacted by it. This can cause a lot of stress, and many of my friends have turned to social media to let off steam. Although I am not against social media, I found that I have been spending too much time on it lately, and I have noticed a considerable drop in my mood if I spend 2+ hours on social media every day. We need other methods to relieve stress.
I have found that during the school year, I spend less time on my passion: yoga. I have been using this extra time to get back into yoga and volunteering/reaching out to my community. Recently, I had the amazing opportunity to film a class for PYR’s online community at Patreon, and that inspired me to start filming classes for my friends and family and uploading them onto a youtube channel. I reached out to friends through my instagram and have been doing volunteer work through facebook live for organizations such as Jacob’s Chance. What I have found through this is that people need a place to go to when they feel stressed, no matter what age. Since we are all confined to our houses, our mats can be that safe space for us. Just taking a small portion out of your day to devote to yourself can do amazing things to calm the mind and body.
I have gotten so much positive feedback from my loved ones who have taken up yoga during self-quarantine. Reducing stress comes with so many benefits, such as a strengthened immune system. Yes, yoga can actually keep you healthier! Researchers say that stress weakens the immune system, making us more susceptible to an inflammatory response to a virus. Although yoga cannot prevent you from getting the virus, it can reduce stress which can lead to a stronger and more prepared immune system.
Although I strongly believe in yoga and its positive effects, I realize that many people my age do not find it interesting. It is my goal to help spread yoga to people in middle and high school, as it has benefited me in so many ways. There are so many aspects of yoga, and now you can even find yoga workouts that get your heart rate up and calm the mind at the same time. I also find that showing a peak pose that people can work towards is a big motivator, and it encourages people to keep up their yoga practice until they can achieve the pose. Although yoga is not about the cool poses or the exercise, it can be a great way to get people involved or get middle and high schoolers started on their yoga journeys.
If you are in middle school or high school, I encourage you to try just one yoga class during quarantine. Even if it is just 10 or 20 minutes, try it and see if you like it! Even if you don’t, you can keep the yoga mindset by doing other relaxing activities away from your phone or a screen. I love Netflix, but looking at a computer all day gives me a headache! I’m not here to tell you to read a book, but do something that you love and that relaxes you every day. Play music, go on a run, cook… you can do all those activities in a yoga mindset. Be present, think about the thing in front of you, each action, each movement. We are living through a crazy time right now, but take this opportunity to look for the simple pleasures in everyday life. We all deserve peace and happiness.
I hope this post gave you some encouragement and light during this confusing time. Please reach out to me for anything, even if we have never met! I am here to support you and this wonderful community!
Sending love and light,
Project Yoga Richmond believes that yoga has the power to transform lives and, in turn, whole communities, even online. That’s why we started our Om at Home initiative.
Access pay-what-you-can classes from your beloved PYR Ambassadors in two ways:
We’re working hard to provide virtual opportunities for our community to stay connected, both outwardly with one another and inwardly with ourselves. This new territory comes with increased technology costs, just as we experienced significant income reduction after closing our studio. When you pay what you can for your virtual class, become a Patreon subscriber, make a donation or purchase a shirt, you support our Om at Home initiative and outreach programs during this disorienting season.
If you have a sec, watch this video. We’re grateful to be able to continue this outreach program for middle school students online while they shelter at home. YOU make this possible. Your practice really does have power.
Namaste and THANK YOU.
1. Mindful Breathing
Intentional breathing is one of the most accessible ways to soothe anxious and fearful thoughts. One activity you might try is counting the breath.
While you breathe in, mentally state, “I am breathing in, five.” While you breathe out mentally state, “I am breathing out, four.”
Next breath in, “I am breathing in, four.” With the breath out, “I am breathing out, four.” Continue until you reach 1.
(You can do this from 5-1, 10-1 or maybe even 20-1!)
2. Move the Body
Moving the body is a wonderful way to reduce stress and ease anxiety. You can go for a walk, take an online movement class, or my favorite lately has been dancing! My challenge for you this week is to pick a song and dance for its entirety, don’t worry about what you look like, just let your body move!
3. Sip Some Tea
Tea can be an excellent tool for drawing the mind back into the present moment. Grab your favorite cup of tea and try my one minute tea meditation to guide you at home.
4. Mindful Eating
Try slowing things down by practicing mindfulness during your meals. Eat with the TV off, keeping awareness on the flavors, textures and smells, savoring each bite.
5. Legs Up the Wall
Legs up the wall is a restorative yoga pose that you can do on the floor or on your bed. The objective is to get close to a wall while lying down on your back, so that you can swing your legs up onto the wall, resting your feet above your heart. This position helps tap into the parasympathetic nervous system, the relaxation center of your body.