The Yogic Journey Towards Betterment

The Yogic Journey Towards Betterment

by Zu Anjalika Kamis Gunnulfsen

 

Evolution – it’s such a simple word, yet it has been discussed and debated over and over. Hence, what is evolution?

Scientifically, evolution refers to the gradual development of humanity. Human beings are believed to be the direct descendants of the ape, given fact that they have similar traits as the latter.

The yogic world, however, begs to differ. Evolution in the yogic context is the journey towards betterment – never perfection and definitely non-ending.  Evolution is the process of constantly moving from diversity to unity. It has been said that instead of understanding the meaning of the word ‘evolution’, it may be better to focus on the concept instead.

Let us try and understand the concept of evolution from the yogic point of view. In the ancient yogic text, evolution consists of three components, satyam, shivam and sundaram. Directly translated, satyam means truth while shivam is auspiciousness and sundaram refers to beauty. With these three intact, we are thought to be ready to complete our journey. Only then, will we attain nirvana or completeness in life.

Attaining satyam, sivam and sundaram requires lots of conscious effort; it is the one that transforms a person out of their nature. It is not something that is embraced or attained overnight. One has to be continuously conscious and be in the NOW, the very present moment consistently. In fact, the entire process of yoga revolves around the principles of consciousness.

How does a person raise their level of awareness? You may ask. Try seeing yourself from a different level; once you do this, your perspective changes and at the same time, your perception, awareness and consciousness take a shift as well. This shift is also what we call the maturity of the mind; the process of moving from the present environment to a place where one can observe diversity and from there, they begin to experience unity.

The yogic mantra speaks of two concepts; the masculine and feminine. The masculine talks about auspiciousness, while the feminine is all about energy.  These two factors are the motivational pull that governs the entire life of an individual – the inspirational guide, if you will.

While the yogic concept has been around for thousands of years, science is a growing and developing subject. Now, let us talk a little about the science of evolution.  First and foremost, we all know that science has two components; the major one is based on rational findings, and there is also a part which is intuitive.  As of now, many of the findings on evolution has been mostly rational, for example, the study of hormones, DNA, and measurement of brainwaves.

While yoga is seen as the father figure who has seen it all, science is the young adult, growing and experimenting. They are in actual fact, complimentary to each other and this is truly a blessing. Only when there is complimentary effort, will there be a full understanding how the individual and universe integrate.

As we go forward in our journey of evolution, we will come to four areas of attainment in life. The first is the attainment of security – whether personal, social or financial. The second is attainment of desires; it is the effort put in to obtain material/objects that we long for. Next, comes the attainment of the quality of consciousness where we become responsible for ourselves. Finally, we move towards the attainment of that inner freedom.

There are four stages in life. The first is studentship – this is when we develop our skills, enhance our understanding of the subject matter and work towards our aspirations for the future. Next, comes a new pattern of family and social life, where we become responsible for other people around us who are part of our family.  After which, we enter the third stage, which is retirement. Finally, in the fourth stage of life, we dedicate the virtuous qualities towards the growth of humankind and inspire others to attain inner freedom and greater wisdom. The fourth stage, however, is not the end of evolution. It is on-going and developing all the time until the cessation of our existence.  It takes lots of dedication and discipline – after all, we are inspiring others towards attaining peace of mind and growth of humankind.

Dedication of growth can take place in many forms; an example will be better awareness and a deeper understanding of yoga. The yoga instructor is the conveyor, passing on his knowledge to the students. Subsequently, the students will carry on the yoga legacy to family and friends. Similarly, this can also be observed in a family unit. While the parents’ role is to nurture and bring out the best in their offspring, the children, on the other hand, emulate positive behaviour of parents and of course, of those in the society. In such an environment, the future generation can only flourish.

These four stages have been defined as ideal life. It is up to us as to how much we wish to attain in this lifetime. Many reach the second or the third attainment and they remain there believing that it is not possible to go further.  Each one of these stages is made for us and we have to strive to get as far as can. Only then will we make a difference in our life and in the lives of others.

Here are some lifestyle tweaks that can be incorporated to attain a higher quality of life. Harmonise your body by keeping it strong and healthy. This can be achieved by practising yoga and eating a healthy diet. Harmonise your mind by practising conscious breathing, meditating and thinking good thoughts.

Experiencing good health, peace and evolution requires effort. It is not easy but living with awareness and being mindful of your daily actions will take you there.

This article was featured in YogaMail Apr-Jul 2019 issue.

Motivating the Family

Motivating the Family

by Zu Anjalika Kamis Gunnulfsen

 

A chanced encounter with a family of five in Sri Lanka a couple of months ago set me thinking; what is the fundamental basis for a family to motivate each other in the pursuit of health, happiness, positivity and success?

A little background of the family; they are in the Land of Serendipity to seek answers for leading a much happier, fulfilling, organic life, away from the current stresses that often faze us.  From Australia, they feel the way to do it is to visit a place where life is not so consumed with “outside” influences.

We live in a world where everything is constantly evolving and changing. These changes are happening at a rapid speed. Most of the time we get lost in the midst of it all.  When that happens, our lives get affected considerably, making it hard to focus, regroup and recharge, let alone be motivated.

As a mother of two, I can totally relate to this epidemic. I constantly have to juggle between being a mom and a friend, setting boundaries and motivating the kids to lead healthy and successful lives.

The time I had with myself to address this led me to a few pointers, which I know will help to be a source of motivation in leading a healthier, happier and successful life.

In everything we do, ask the question WHY.

In this instance, why is motivating the family to lead healthier and more successful life important? I’m sure we all have the answers; but different ones. For some, perhaps family history in certain ailments is a huge motivator. For others perhaps it’s knowing that leading a healthy lifestyle could easily translate to a successful one.  Afterall, it has always been said that a healthy body leads to a healthy mind; and the opposite is also true.

As parents, we know that in order to relay anything to the kids is to do it ourselves first. When you’re being a healthier, happier and successful parent, chances are your kids will follow suit. Emotions are contagious, if you are unhappy chances are your kids will be too. So make sure you are happy, successful in your own way and motivated most of the time.

I have always believed that doing chores builds character in my children. It is still an ongoing journey for me. I might sound petty, but telling kids to contribute in every little way is actually preparing them for what is to come in life.  Doing chores is not just that, it teaches kids to be gritty and responsible. Kids will also learn the value of hard work and the art of working together as a team. Collaboration happens a lot these days – at work, in sports – and what better way than to let it start from home?

Praising is a fantastic way to build self-esteem in children. However, if done incorrectly, it can also have a reverse effect. Children might feel the pressure to always score the highest or always want to be the best without immersing themselves in the whole process. What they should be praised on are their efforts throughout the journey of whatever projects they are embarking on.

Empower kids and do away with parental dictatorship. Children do better when they are part of the decision-making or even have a say in the process.

My family loves rituals; we create our own. The evening walks after dinner, the little chats we have in the afternoons after school, making food together, and sometimes just watching a good movie or just curling up on the sofa on a random day. These are the things that build “bonding” in families.

Building meaningful relationships is essential to growth and psychological wellbeing.  Make sure the family takes part in get-togethers, play dates, lunches or breakfast meet-ups.

The internet and many gadgets available these days are definitely magnificent inventions, however, they are also known as the catalyst for many problems – less focus, anxiety, hyperactivity and other social problems. Use gadgets to your advantage, not the other way around.

In conclusion, have chats from time to time with the children on ways to be healthier, happier and more successful.  Reiterate to them the importance of having a good amount of sleep. Tell them what could happen if their bodies don’t get proper rest.  Food is fuel for the body; teach them the benefits of certain foods and the dangers of others, if taken excessively.

Come up with rules that work for your own family; children actually thrive on rules; use it to your advantage, parents.

Create the importance of working out a couple of times in a week.  It does not mean joining an expensive club or calling in a personal trainer; a run in the park, a half-hour kick-ball session or cycling around the neighbourhood is sufficient.  The bottom line is to keep the body moving and sweating a little.

Teach kids about grooming; and I do not mean the primping-for-hours-in-front-of-the-mirror sort.  Grooming in this context simply means being tip-top in hygiene matters; taking care of your cleanliness, body scents, hair and nails could totally change the way you feel and see yourself. If you look presentable, you feel good about yourself and of course, when you feel good, you just want to give the best in whatever you do.

Parents, you have to walk the talk. Whatever you tell the children, you have to do the same. Kids usually learn by example; so you have to eat healthily, think positively and behave amicably – if that is what you desire your kids to be.

 

This article was featured in YogaMail Jan-Mar 2019 issue.

Positive Vibes Only

Positive Vibes Only

by Zu Anjalika Kamis Gunnulfsen

 

As life is too short to be bogged down with negativities and things that do not serve a purpose, I thrive on positive vibes. Feeling good and being positive does not come easy. While it is natural to be suspicious, jealous, angry and resentful, it is also within our capacity to be fully conscious of our feelings, thwart the negative and implement the positive. Living life happily and positively is my birthright; and I will not in any way jeopardise that.

I have always been asked how I keep happy all the time. Well, there is no shortcut to happiness but we can strive and make small changes in our daily lives to ensure we live a meaningful life. Happiness does not mean having that new shiny branded school bag or incredibly popular shoes or travelling to far away exotic destinations; it is more than that. It is really an inside job; no matter how much one has. If one is unhappy at the core, he/she will still not find any satisfaction in life.

In pursuit of positive living, let us look at ways to live life euphorically, celebrating each and every moment of our time on planet Earth. Most of the time, it does not even take a penny to realise that dream. Janet Jackson used to say in one of her songs, ‘the best things in life are free’ and she cannot be more right.

Gratitude is the key to everything. There is an expression; happiness does not make one grateful, but gratitude makes one happy. This should be the key to living. Gratitude opens doors, endows one with endless energy and hope and keeps one grounded. In short, being grateful gives a purpose to living. One way to keep gratitude in check is to start a journal.  Every night before turning in, write down ten things that made you happy that day. It can be as small as doing the laundry or picking and throwing out a branch that might cause a mishap to cyclists. Being grateful for big and little things in life helps flow positivity into our daily lives. Gratitude begets gratitude, so let’s start being grateful now.

We often overlook the single one most amazing gift of life; the BREATH. Breathing is a fundamental factor for the living; breathing can also be a wonderful tool for a positive happy living.  In yoga science, pranayama means the regulation of breath through certain techniques and exercises.  Positive breathing is a favourite amongst yogis. Most pranayama techniques consist of three parts and Positive Breathing is no different. There is inhalation (puraka), retention (kumbhaka) and exhalation (rechaka). Firstly, place your left hand on your lap. On the right hand, fold index and middle fingers in towards the palm and leave the thumb, ring finger, and pinky finger extended. Only the right nostril is used in positive breathing.  Now, bring your right hand to the left nostril; press your pinky and ring fingers against it, leaving only the thumb free. With your left nostril blocked, inhale through the right nostril for 8 counts. After the count, use your thumb to block the right nostril while the left one is still blocked and hold your breath for 6 counts. Then release your thumb (the left nostril is still blocked with the ring and pinky fingers), exhale through the right nostril for 8 more counts. This is one round of Positive Breathing. In yoga, the right nostril is associated with the masculine, active energy of the body. We stimulate these energies by breathing only through the right nostril which increases positive feelings, improves digestion and generates heat. I once read this – 20 minutes of Positive Breathing, and you are ready to face a firing squad.  Says a lot, doesn’t it?

Sadly, material possession is seen as a necessity today; they are thought to be the bridge to happiness. This is not at all true. Staying detached from worldly possessions require some work; however, the shift felt within is remarkable. Make efforts to buy less or only when necessary. When we are not in competition with anyone, we see life in a much better light. A positive living will emerge, leaving behind those remnants of the past where worldly possessions once took control.

Practice the art of giving no matter how small.  You can give your time, help the underprivileged with tuition that they cannot afford. You can also give away used clothes to the shelter or give a lift to someone waiting for public transport. You may also want to donate blood – the list is endless and most times it does not even involve money. Those who give from the heart have immense happiness. They believe they have enough to share. Givers usually walk around with a sparkle in their eyes because they know the art of giving certainly defeats that of receiving at any given time.

We are what we eat; I am sure we all have heard of that before. What we eat have a direct effect on the way we think and the way we move about our day. A healthy diet is essential to our wellbeing. Cut down on sodas, candies and processed food. Consume fresh foods, greens and don’t forget to drink more water.  Water ensure distribution of oxygen throughout the body for optimum breathing which in turn, gives an energy boost.  When you eat and drink healthily – your mind and body will thank you for that.

Transform your thoughts with meditation.  Contrary to belief, meditation does not need to be long.  A brief ten minutes daily will do heaps of good. Find a quiet spot, you may sit on the floor or chair, but sit up straight. Set your alarm next to you for ten minutes. Then close your eyes and take control of your breathing. Breathe in deep and breathe out the air as much as you comfortably can while keeping your mind clear and free from thoughts. Just concentrate on the breaths. Repeat until the alarm goes off. Meditation clears the clutter in the mind, promotes mental wellbeing, makes one sharper and of course, promotes a positive mindset.

Last but not least, the art of yoga stimulates positive thoughts. Yoga is a spiritual and ascetic discipline which uses breath control, simple meditation and implementation of specific physical postures. The first principle of yoga is the asanas. In layman’s term, asanas are postures. These postures stimulate your mind, and strengthen and stretch the muscles in the body. These actions unblocks the chakras in our bodies and help diminish negative thoughts while igniting positive ones. My favourite postures are the cow pose (bitilasana), warrior II pose (Virabhadasana) and of course, Utkata Konasana (goddess pose)!

 

This article was featured in YogaMail Oct-Dec 2018 issue.

What Has Money Got To Do With It

What Has Money Got To Do With It

by Zu Anjalika Kamis Gunnulfsen

 

Our life experience is a combination of thoughts, actions and choices.  Life sometimes can be a tad challenging than what we expect it to be.  When that happens, scaling down will be necessary to make room for only the issues that matter while keeping our sanity intact.

Improving our life means committing ourselves to living simply and in harmony; physically, emotionally and mentally.  Living at peace with others and making a pact with our environment for a more sustainable living is another part that needs to be looked into. It is also imperative to know our purpose on earth.  When that has been established, we can live according to it and get rid of all distractions that hinder us from living the life that we desire.

When it comes to living simply, a couple of things need to be re-assessed and money has got nothing to do with it.  What better time than to share these insights with your children.

Getting rid of all the stuff you do not need is a first good step towards simplicity.  Physical clutter is the by-product of mind clutter and vice-versa.  Hence, in order to lead a happier and clutter-free life, declutter.

Our physical well-being is so attached to our emotions.  Let go of all emotions that have been weighing us down.  In this way, we will be able to have clarity of mind to go about in our new pursuit of living simply and consciously.  Soon the quality of health will also improve. The expression, ‘healthy mind, healthy body’ is so apt.

No matter what denomination one practises, I have always been an advocate for speaking to the higher power.  We are so tiny in this vast universe and most of the time in need of some sort of justification for our existence. This outlet can be both calming and therapeutic.

Meditation is one of the best ways to seek internal peace and tranquillity. There is something magical about sitting in a quiet place, concentrating on your breath, and focusing on the present.

Check your day-to-day schedule and make sure it is not overloaded with appointments.  Scale down if need be; little breathers in between your hectic schedule go a long way.

To give is to live; an important message for our youths. Exhibit compassion to others; only then will our journey towards simplicity and wholesomeness come to light.

Our life in this 21st century is filled with distractions.  As parents, it will definitely be great if we can all work together to reduce as much distraction as possible; put that phone on silent mode, cut down television time and unplug that computer.  Take your children for walks or have some quiet time in the garden or at the park.  The idea is to minimise all distractions so that our brain can function better and at its maximum capacity.

Most of our feelings are ruled by subjective thoughts; seek to have objective ones.  Most of the time not having our own thoughts and perspective embroiled in certain matters lead to a higher level of thinking; that in turn, will open up the minds and make the transition to this new mode of living smoother.

Forgiving others and yourself is one of the most important steps in order to move on totally in life.  Forgiveness clears up the path of self-healing which in turn helps absorb in all the goodness that presents itself while in transition.

Spending time with those you love and value will never go out of style; it’s actually more rewarding.  So pick up that phone and make plans for playdates, dinner, lunch or coffee with those who mean heaps to you.  This life is for living so make sure it’s lived and valued mindfully every moment.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, we are all being sucked into the concept of the more things you own, the better you feel.  Attaining happiness through the pursuit of things is not sustainable and definitely untrue.  One thing is for certain, that’s the more things you own, the more emotions you hold onto.  The more the emotions, the harder to manage those feelings. The pursuit and acquiring of things should never be a benchmark for happiness.  The euphoria is definitely temporary and should not in any way be mistaken for real happiness.

When worldly possessions and feelings become imbalanced with the internal harmony, the focus is usually lost.  Ample time will be spent thinking and doing things which are not relevant to internal growth; which in turn makes life out of balance and complicated.

In this current world, everyone has thoughts that life has got to be big in order to be perceived as successful.  Sadly, that is not true at all.  Life needs to touch all the important aspects of quality living to make it even worth the journey.

It is so easy to be so overwhelmed with all the thoughts, technology and consumerism-based lifestyle we have now.  When that feeling hits us, it will be good to sit down, breathe and reflect.  Relax the mind because when it is at ease, we are able to see things in a different perspective and find the path to the great, wholesome life we have always imagined. We will be able to re-evaluate what is important, or what is just there as a distraction.

Look within ourselves and determine the areas we want to improve; all changes start with self.  Let go of all that do not serve us any purpose.  This action might have some retaliation; so being honest is the best way to go.

Parents may want to implement these simple steps for the betterment of themselves and their children:

  • Spend 10 minutes a day, practising mindfulness.
  • Unplug all gadgets when spending private time with the family; make it a habit of at least one hour daily.
  • Take a walk in the nature; do it at least once weekly.
  • Make giving a habit; once a month, drop off some food items at a charity home of your choice.
  • Stop buying things that are not needed.

Living a good life does not need to be expensive nor does it have to be huge; live simply, give ample love, show lots of empathy and connect with the higher being.  All these are available within ourselves; no money is involved, so why not start now?

 

This article was featured in YogaMail Jul-Sep 2018 issue.

Our Joy, Our State of Being

Our Joy, Our State of Being

by Zu Anjalika Kamis Gunnulfsen

 

How many times have we heard someone say, “Joy is within you; go seek it”?  I have heard it plenty of times and used to have the same questions going over in my head repeatedly. If it is indeed inside of me, how can I reveal it? How come there had been times, being or staying happy was quite a struggle? What does that even mean, that statement: Joy is within me?

We live in an era where we have been made to believe time and again that happiness depends so much on what we own or achieve.  The social and mass media, print and digital advertisements, and also the people around us create a sense of false happiness that connects us directly with physical things and emotional attachments.  That new branded school bag, expensive holidays and the cool gadgets are but a few examples.  Truth of the matter is, if we cannot be happy from within, regardless of what we own or achieve, we can never be truly joyful.

Yoga preaches and teaches the art of being joyful from within, with what is already existential from inside each and every one of us.  Finding it requires some time, not to mention with clear heart and mind.  Once it has been revealed, joy and happiness will be yours to stay, whatever the physical or outside circumstance is.

In Sanskrit, there are three words to describe levels of happiness and one or more of these levels pretty much exist in all of us.  Some are fleeting or temporary joy, while others are more substantial.

Sukha is temporary pleasure that comes when you attain something that is of fleeting nature.  It can only be felt when you are completely in your comfort zone and when things are going your way, for example, acing a test.  As easy as it comes, the feeling goes away rather quickly too when the novelty wears off, or after the next test results, which might not be as impressive as the previous one.

Santosha is contentment: the kind of feeling that you and everything you own are enough without the need to have anything extra. Those who practice Santosha are able to get back their peace of mind in a jiffy when irritation or agitation happens; all because they are contented.

Happiness that comes from the core, Mudita is the kind that sees beauty in everything, be in good or bad.  This type of happiness is sometimes referred to as spiritual joy.

So having explained the different types of joy, let’s look at ways to attain Santosha and Mudita.

Many times, we have heard the adage gratitude begets abundance.  By seeing the good in every little thing that surrounds us, we automatically get into the gratitude mode, which in turn switches on the happy feel.  It has been said gratitude heightens quality of life and it’s not at all a wonder.

One birthright bestowed to us, which has often been overlooked, is regulation of breathing, or pranayama, as it is known in yogic context.  Proper breathing is stress relieving, anxiety diminishing and also known to result in the feeling of immense happiness.  There are a couple of breathing exercises that have been used in the yoga practices. Correct breathing techniques induce muscular relaxation, mental peacefulness and encourages the free flow of prana or living force, also known as “chi”.  Two of these are Sheetali Pranayama, which is also known as cooling breath, and Sheetkari Pranayama, or hissing breath.  In Sheetali Pranayama, cool breath is drawn into the body by rolling the tongue out to form a tube and inhaling air through it.  Cool breath is known to affect brain centres associated with biological drives and temperature regulation.

On the other hand, Sheetkari Pranayama is done by hissing through the teeth.  It has the same benefits as Sheetkali, with an additional perk of keeping teeth and gums healthy.  Coincidentally, science has pretty recently put a connection between mental happiness and oral health.

Meditation has been around since antiquity in various religion and beliefs.  However, of late, science has also encouraged the use of mediation to aid in certain physical and emotional discrepancies.  In theory, meditation is a practice whereby an individual focuses her mind on a thought, object or activity to encourage the free flow of mental calm and happiness.  So, get on that comfortable chair or mat, close your eyes, breathe deeply and meditate to happiness.

In any traditional religion, chanting is used to encourage clarity in the way we view our world, those on the outside and the one within us. Chanting transmits certain frequencies, which makes us vibrate from the inside out.  When this happens, we are automatically tuned in to our own joyful feel from within.

Having mentioned all of the above, we now come to the core factor of bringing true joy into our lives.  Yoga has been around for thousands of years.  Originating from ancient India, yoga brings together a group of physical, spiritual and mental practices which aid in the total wellbeing of a person.  Yoga helps reverse the fight-or-flight tendencies into rest-and-digest mode.  When your body is relaxed, rested and free of anxiety, what is there not to be happy?

Contrary to what we hear on day-to-day basis from all around, true happiness is indeed attainable.  Fact of the matter is, no one ever needs anything to be happy.  Joy and happiness are imbedded in each and every one of us. It’s just a matter of sieving and looking deep into ourselves.

Let’s go back to how we were when we first got here – let us all remind ourselves over and over – our joy is indeed our state of being.

 

This article was featured in YogaMail Apr-Jun 2018 issue.

The Journey to the Path of Enlightenment for the Young Minds

The Journey to the Path of Enlightenment for the Young Minds

by Zu Anjalika Kamis Gunnulfsen

There are different paths and disciplines of yoga to help us realise our higher nature.

Since the beginning of time, we have always looked for fast fixes and easy ways to journey on the spiritual paths —  hoping for one without struggle; a path free of challenges that will bring us to the end quickly with no sacrifices or efforts.

What more in the current climate we live in, the young have all the information at their fingertips.  Life seems to take them to different levels where access to many teachings is vastly possible, wherever they are in the world.  However, these might cause lots of confusion and drama in their young minds.  I call it the “unorganic teachings in the paths of enlightenment.”

Young people are so involved in reaching out and being educated via the World Wide Web for what’s in and what’s not that they forget the fundamentals of the path.  A teacher should always be present for teachings as deep as this.  Without one, it is so easy for teachings to be misunderstood or misrepresented.

Traditionally, these paths were written as a guide for much meaningful living.  Having said that, let us look at the three fundamentals of the path of enlightenment.

My personal favourite is this first one: detachment from worldly things.  This is certainly not an easy feat, especially for the young – detaching oneself from material possessions.  After all, we live in a multimedia and fast-moving world where things are part of our social standings.  Kids go to school with the latest sneakers, new models of mobile phones and the list goes on.  So, how can we incorporate this “worldly-possession detachment” into our daily lives?  Truthfully, we cannot give them up altogether, however we can minimise; seek to have only what is necessary, without the need to splurge financially and ethically.

Secondly, performing good deeds, which should come naturally to all of us.  After all kindness begets kindness.  Teach our children to do a little kindness every day; something that satisfies their soul and nourishes their being.  Give a stray some water; help their exhausted parents after a whole day of work by making dinner or cleaning up afterwards.  All these constitute good deeds.  Simple as it may seem, these tiny bits of kindness each time do add meaning to your day.

It is our role as human beings to evolve and get better with time.  Provide guidance so our children can get to know themselves better.  What works and does not, within themselves; things that make them tick every single day.  Know their likes and dislikes and definitely know their strengths and weaknesses.  Be wise in their knowledge of self.  This third component of the path is imperative for all human beings.  Without getting to that level of knowledge of oneself, it is so easy to be strayed.  Living life with no purpose or intention is so similar like being in a boat without oars; hardly any destination.  Not good, especially for growing minds.

Moving forward, imagine combining the three elements we just covered with the eight limbs of yoga.  Firstly, what are the eight limbs of yoga? In short, they are the eight aspects of yoga: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.

Each aspect is indeed a guidance on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life.  Let’s understand these eight components and explore it with our children.

For a start, yama and niyama are compulsory qualities a person should adopt for spiritual development.  It is said no other components are beneficial if not performed alongside yama and niyama.  So, let us explore the all-important yama and niyama.

Well, yama is self-restraint; the control or continence of one’s actions.  In this modern world, it is so easy to be swayed, hence yama will keep one in check.  There are altogether five branches that constitute yama:  Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (moderation of the senses) and Aparigraha (non-possesiveness).

Niyama is observances and there are also 5 components: Saucha (purity or cleanliness), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (self-discipline), Svadhyaya (self-study) and Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender).

With such a comprehensive list from yama and niyama, it’s no wonder they are an integral part of the eight limbs of yoga.

Moving along, the third component of the eight limbs is postures or practices, also known as asanas.  In the yogic context, our body is a temple.  Through the practice of asana, we develop a habit of concentration and discipline.

Pranayama, or breathing practices, play an important part in our mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing.

Weaning away or disconnecting the mind from our ten sensory organs is also known as pratyahara.  Let us look at these ten sensory organs; they are broken down into two branches: the active expressions consist of eliminating, reproducing, moving, grasping and speaking. And then come our five cognitive senses and they include smelling, tasting, seeing, touching and hearing.  Imagine yourself disconnecting from these expressions and senses.  Hard? Yes.  Fulfilling and enlightening?  Most definitely!

Concentration, or dharana, is the sixth component.  So, what do we mean by concentration?  It is a fixture of the mind on something which in turn helps us in concentrating better.  Dharana is only possible if your mind is free from distractions.  Oh my, I wish I would have known this sooner.  Definitely, it would have been so helpful during my days as a student!

Meditation is known to be good for our spiritual and physical wellbeing; even more so when exposed at a tender age.  This has even been proven from the scientific standpoint.  It is known as dhyana.

The last component of the eight limbs is known as samadhi, which also means the state of superconciousness.  In samadhi, the mind becomes still and in total awareness of the present moment; in a constant state of euphoria.  I cannot think of anyone who does not want to be happy all the time.

With all these explanation of moving towards the path of enlightenment, we can all fully grasp the amazing benefits they have in our lives when practised diligently.  Take full advantage of a young age.  If started earlier, imagine all the goodness one will reap.

This amazing journey is not going to be a walk in the park, but that walk will definitely bring you to, if not closer, to the path of enlightenment.

This article was featured in YogaMail Jan-Mar 2018 issue.

Different Strokes for Yoga Folks

Different Strokes for Yoga Folks

by Zu Anjalika Kamis Gunnulfsen

“Yikes, I’ve been doing yoga for the past one year now, Anjalika. Why don’t I still get the lithe, limber body of Tara Stiles?” quipped one of my students, Rita. She is eighteen years old and an ardent fan of yoga — having discovered this ancient art while vacationing in India nearly 2 years ago.

Anyway, this is not the first time I’m faced with such questions and I very well know it is not going to be the last.

I have always had the same answer for students, friends and acquaintances with somewhat similar concerns, and usually my explanation would be at length.

Whether they are aiming for a calmer mind or eyeing the flexibility of a ballerina, yoga has a whole smorgasbord of benefits — for kids and adults alike.

At the physical level, yoga has been shown to improve one’s posture, balance and flexibility.  It also helps to strengthen the bones and increase the muscle strength; and this is truly imperative, especially in the growing years of a child.

On the health front, yoga offers tonnes of perks like decreased inflammation and improved symptoms associated with chronic health conditions, and much more —   that is also the reason one can achieve one’s fullest health potential when yoga is practised from a young age.

Of course, my personal favourite would be the mental benefits of yoga, which do wonders for our total well-being.  After all, there is indeed a saying: “to be healthy as a whole, mental wellness plays a role”. Yoga helps eliminate stress, anxiety, and also depression. In the current world situation, where stress has become part and parcel of life, yoga is indeed something that needs to be incorporated into our daily lives.

With all these being said, it is not a wonder why yoga is an essential part of many people’s lives.  The number of people taking up this beautiful art is rising from year to year and growing from strength to strength.  MAYI Yoga Academy’s Super Yoga Kids has gained so much recognition for the last 5 years, with an increased number of kids every year.  Parents everywhere have started to understand the benefits of holistic living and importance of starting young.

However, there is something all yoga enthusiasts should be aware of — yoga affects people in different ways most often than not. No two persons will have similar results from practising yoga.

Let us take the case of six-year-old twins, Felie and Felix. Both have been practising yoga for the last 8 months. When I first knew them, I could not figure out who was who.  They were very similar in many ways — active, friendly and bright. They could could not be ‘twin-ier’ than what they already were. However, these days, there is something about these two boys that sets them apart in more ways than one.  While Felix develops an amazing new flexibility, Felie develops other skills like a mental capacity that is becoming so amazing.  Previously, he had problems memorising his two times table, but now Felie breezes through it with no problem whatsoever — and he is into his five times table now!

Another example would be Trisha and Mylie, who are friends.  Both started doing yoga with the hope of having tight and taut bodies.  They both attend classes three times a week.  While Trisha is tall and lanky, Mylie is petite and voluptuous.  Two years down the road, while Trisha manages to be what she wanted, Mylie still remains the same physically, but of course with an amazing new energy and flexibility.

In terms of benefits, yoga does not have a one-size-fits-all solution. Individuals will see a variety of benefits within themselves. It is truly important to never compare ourselves with others.  We are all different in sizes, shapes, energies, and of course, as we go deeper,… genetic levels. While yoga does help to elongate and tone the muscles, a person of a round physical make should not expect to achieve a lean and lithe body in no time; or if she should even at all.

Personally, I love all the mental benefits I have reaped from yoga. Learning and memorising has become a lot easier. My mind is calmer and clearer, especially when making decisions.

Physically, I am much more flexible and my arms are way more toned than what they used to be. Many have sworn that yoga helps in the tightening of their tummy. In all honesty, my tummy is still somewhat jiggly, however, I can testify to the added core strength. These days, my posture is way better and have long said goodbye to backaches and back sores.

Just last week, I met up with a couple whom I have not met for about two years.  They picked up yoga together before getting married, for more holistic living.  They have been practising for the last 5 years. Upon meeting up, she excitedly told me about a new lease of energy she discovered within herself.  She now sleeps eight hours a day, runs a successful bakery, manages two kids under five years old, runs her home and on top of all that, sneaks in an hour of yoga routine daily — seven days a week.   He, on the other hand, enjoys his calmer mind and clearer thoughts, of which he is extremely grateful for, which is necessary when you are running an internationally-acclaimed advertising agency. Well, theirs is definitely yoga-matrimony made in heaven. Can’t ask for a better complement.

Even between my two sons, Magnus and Eirik, I can see that both benefit from yoga differently.  While my younger one, Eirik, five, becomes lots more flexible than his already-pretty-flexible self, six-year-old Magnus’ memory and mental capacity seems to be increasing well.  They both do yoga three times a week — a combination of both hatha and mind yoga.

I can go on and on about how yoga affects people differently, but my point is really not to go around comparing. Just concentrate on your own little and big evolvements.  Go deeper and seek what has indeed shifted in your emotional and physical being.

The next time you catch yourself comparing, just quietly tell yourself: “Different Strokes for Yoga Folks!”

This article was featured in YogaMail Oct-Dec 2017 issue.

The Mindful Being

The Mindful Being

by Zu Anjalika Kamis Gunnulfsen

“Mamma let’s do the flame-gazing exercise again” said my six-year-old.  He loves this ‘flame-gazing’ activity or Trataka, a technique I introduced to him two months ago.  In a nutshell, it involves staring into the flame of a candle, which in turn helps with concentration and memory.

When we think about boosting memory power for adults, eating the herb gingko biloba comes to mind.  Afterall, this herbal supplement has been around for many centuries.  For most, supplement is not an option for their children.

So while we work on ensuring our kids are equipped with good mental power, why is boosting memory ability all that important and how do we help our kids achieve this?

From birth, a child’s growing memory is the crucial part of his cognitive growth.  Parents will continue to find ways to help their kids boost their memory power.  The amazing role memory plays in our lives becomes apparent as we are who we are, mainly because of what we remember.

As a child gets older, his memory power will get stronger while the capacity increases.  If you can determine what children remember – why and when, you can certainly encourage that developmental growth.

What’s important to note is that while mind-training is good, mind relaxation is also needed for balance.  One without the other will not perform to it maximum ability.

Mind-training combined with mind relaxation has been ever present since the inception of yoga itself, couple of thousand years ago.

In this 21st century our lives are pretty much being taken over by technology.  For most of us, every waking hour is spent amongst smart phones, computers and noise that over-stimulate the minds.  We hardly find time or opportunity to relax, unwind and quieten our minds.  What is worse is that we let that same lifestyle control our children.

For the young especially, stimulating their minds positively is imperative.   It is also necessary to provide variety in order to promote constant stimulation.  Another factor to consider when arranging mind-training activities is age appropriateness.

Super memory is not a myth; it’s definitely attainable.  With all that said, let us now look into the fundamentals of the following two variations of mind-training and relaxation practices, and how the practices can help attain the best possible mental calmness and wellness capacity in our children.

Trataka

Trataka or flame-gazing is one of the most popular mind training activities in yoga.  Trataka develops concentration and memory.  Directly translated, it means concentrated gazing and that is exactly what Trataka does.

During the Trataka practice, a candle is placed about a meter away, on the eye level.  Keep focus on the flame and continue gazing at it without blinking.  It is also important to breathe normally. Gaze onto the flame until tears start running down the cheeks.  Then slowly close the eyes and relax.  Then with a slight pressure, place palms over the eyes and hold for about 30 seconds.  This cycle may be repeated few times.

Trataka is certainly a very good exercise for the eyes; known to help considerably with many eye issues. Conjunctivitis happens lots with the young; Trataka is known to keep it at bay.  Ward off and reduce astigmatism wholesomely; try Trataka!

Without a doubt, Trataka calms and relaxes the mind.  Definitely a plus for children as it presents the ability to focus more and concentrate longer without getting distracted.  With all these perks, daily stress and fatigue, eliminated.  Better sleep and peaceful nervous system will be introduced.

Manas Dharana

What is Manas Dharana?  Simply put, Manas Dharana means concentrating the mind onto one place or object. This technique calms and promotes mind receptiveness, and has a positive impact on the brains.

This exercise can be held indoors or outdoors.  With eyes closed, children are led to listen to one external sound each time; birds chirp, the rustling of paper or even footsteps outside the window.  They will also be required to breathe normally and steadily.   Focus and concentration is needed.  They will follow the direction to where the sound is heading.  Then questions relating to the sounds will be asked; example will be where the sound comes from, where it is travelling to.

In Manas Dharana, the mind is trained to concentrate on just one thing each given time; meaning focus plays a big part in this exercise.  With focus, the mind quietens down and calmness is induced; helpful for everyone especially the young.

With Manas Dharana as part of their lifestyle, children will be able to automatically switch on to this mode whenever studying or memorizing work is needed.  Concentration and focus; two words synonymous with students, can be achieved with this simple exercise.

Do also note that breath and breathing plays a vital role in these two exercises.  Breath controls the mind; oxygen will be amply supplied with each breathing, making concentration and focus lots easier.

So there you go, the two mind-training techniques in yoga.  Such simple steps, with no costs, yet resulting in huge perks.

Emphasis should really be given to Trataka and Manas Dharana as support for developing minds.

Understanding how focus and concentration can be elevated; also ways in which memories are encoded in childhood and later retrieved and used has important relations in many areas during a child’s developing years.

Afterall, Thomas Edison did say, ‘the greatest invention in the world is the mind of a child’ and he cannot be more apt!

This article was featured in YogaMail Jul-Sep 2017 issue.

Whole Me Up, Super Yoga Kids!

Whole Me Up, Super Yoga Kids!

by Zu Anjalika Kamis Gunnulfsen

 

When my boys dragged out the yoga mats, spread them out and mimicked my downward facing dog, I was elated.  So elated that I decided to look further into yoga for kids. I knew then I had read somewhere what yoga can do for growing minds.  That was 2013.

My boys were then two and three years old.  We were living in Oslo, Norway where authentic yoga is a pretty rare commodity, what more, yoga for kids.

Fast forward a year later, relocation to Kuala Lumpur and brief conversation with a friend led to many online researches to seek more information on kids’ yoga.  It was then that I found MAYI’s Super Yoga Kids Instructors certification course.

I have never looked back since.

You see, Super Yoga Kids is a total depiction of what adults’ yoga is, and more.

Let’s talk.

Super Yoga Kids (SYK) is the name given for MAYI’s yoga classes for children.

The term Super Yoga is coined from the fact that it is believed a child will emerge awe-inspiring in more aspects than one after picking up yoga at a young age.  The age we are talking about is four – yes a child can start taking up yoga at the tender age of four; even though there are remote cases of even younger kids practicing this beautiful ancient Indian art.

Now, what exactly is Super Yoga Kids?

Like (adults) yoga, children are guided through tailored asanas (poses) to safely develop balance, strength and suppleness.  At the same time, establish a better sense of physical, emotional and mental ability. Specialised teaching techniques are used to stimulate young minds while nurturing their physical and mental development. I cannot reiterate enough how positive yoga is to anyone; and for a child, it will definitely be the greatest gift ever.

The best part, in my opinion is that Super Yoga Kids helps to instill values in the young.  The current state of chaos in this world makes it an even better time to expose our young children to the right rules of conduct and standards of behaviour.

First and foremost, let’s take a look at the physical aspects of SYK; how the kids are guided in this art and what they can expect in terms of physical development.

To put it simply to a child, SYK is just a way of moving their tiny bodies gently and without much effort to improve and maintain their physicality and keep them in tip-top condition. Of course, as the young child gets older, he might be keen to know the deeper meaning of yoga and they are very much welcome to research more into this art.

With the heavy load school-going kids carry on their shoulders each day, the countless hours they spent hunched in the classroom; not to mention mental alertness that is required to follow through lessons, I can only think of one activity, a saving grace, if you will, that should be incorporated into their daily lives – YOGA.  SYK will see that their lopsided shoulders get eased-up, rectify their hunched back to a better posture and most definitely calm and sharpen their minds for better attention and absorption of what is taught in class.

To put things in perspective, let’s take a look at a typical SYK session.

In SYK, sessions usually start with awareness and energisation. It is SYK’s philosophy that children must be taught to be aware of their being and existence. This exercise reiterates the beautiful and miraculous part of themselves; their bodies.

Joint exercises or pawanmuktasana, as we call it in yoga, comes next.  In this session kids are guided through stretching, bending and rotating sequences of their joints in every part of their body; better still the places which are often neglected like the hip and toe joints.

After working and easing on the joints, they children will then go on to do Surya Namaskar or Sun Salutation. Surya Namaskar is a chain of choreographed asanas or poses to help in the clarity of mind, regulation of breaths and total body well-being.

Asanas comes right after Surya Namaskar. Asanas or poses in SYK, most often than not, are conducted in fun and interactive manner. Most asanas are given animal names so kids can act-out and mimic the given animal for each of the asanas. This creates a lot of imaginative play and teamwork; not to mention the improvement of vocabulary and word-grasps.

Since we are dealing with young, active minds and bodies, creativity plays a huge part.  Thematic asanas is big with children of SYK.  They just love to wonder their minds in fantasy, depending on what theme that day holds, while their tiny bodies move fluidly, from each asana to the next.

Yoga Nidra is a very powerful form of relaxation. It is a combination of awareness of the physical body and creative visualisation through rotation of consciousness. Children are guided through simple and short visualizations.

Breathing plays a vital role in SYK. Deep and proper breathing ensures oxygen is taken to right places so that inner cells are well oxygenized and energized to function properly.  Oxygenized cells also mean improved nervous system, better mental alertness, improved digestive system, which also acts as an immunity booster.  So common coughs and colds will be at bay; good news for parents! With all these in mind, it’s not a wonder breathing takes the center stage in yoga.

SYK’s signature Mind Training is a definite boost for children.  It works on internal factors like left-right brain hemispheres which helps in creativity and being calm, amongst others.

So, with the physical aspects of SYK explained, let us take a look as to what constitutes instilling values in SYK.

There are two parts to this; Yama and Niyama.

Yama is regaining balance in life; while Niyama is the practices that lead to wisdom and self-knowledge.  Together, they have the power to help to implement and regain values that most certainly are depleting, unfortunately, with the rise of technology and use of gadgets.

With all these conveyed to a child at a very young age, it will be amazing to see him or her develop and function as a wholesome and well-rounded individual later on in life.

Super Yoga Kids, as we call it, will not turn a child into Superman but it will definitely make the child a super human; body, mind, soul.

 

This article was featured in YogaMail Apr-Jun 2017 issue.

Developing Mindfulness in Students with Yoga

Developing Mindfulness in Students with Yoga

by Kavi Vitya

Introduction

Yoga often brings to the mind the image of someone twisted in the shape of a pretzel. Yoga is usually associated with ‘asana’ (posture) and therefore in many of the fitness centres and gyms where yoga is being taught, emphasis to given to its physical aspect. However, deeper practice of yoga is beyond that. Patanjali’s definition of yoga is “Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodhah”, which means “yoga is the removal of the fluctuations of the mind”. Chitta is mind, vritti is thought impulses and nirodhah is removal. Yoga practices can lead to mindfulness. Mindfulness means living in the moment. When you are mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Mindfulness is observing the thoughts without criticism and being compassionate to own self. Mindfulness brings long term happiness as it focuses less on unhappy thoughts and more practice on living in the present moment. It will positively affect the brain pattern to face daily life challenges without stress and anxiety. It is a simple mental training and it can be achieved with the awareness of breathing which is widely practiced in yoga.

Students encounter many issues pertaining to the mind and emotions. This often leads to them taking emotional and sometimes adverse decisions in life. Yoga classes are thus being conducted to observe the students behavioural, physical and mind changes. Through this study, I expect the students to have improved focus, reduced stress levels and enhanced decision-making ability in life by living in the present moment. Practicing Yoga would help them to be calmer and healthier not just physically but also mentally.

Yoga is well known to reduce stress and anxiety. This is due to the practice itself focusing on concentration and mindfulness which helps to keep the mind calm and centred. According to Patanjali Yoga Sutras chapter 1, the Samadhi Pada, which is the chapter on concentration shows there are five states of mind. The five states are Kshipta/disturbed, Mudha/dull, Vikshipta/distracted, Ekagra/mindfulness and Nirodhah/mastered. The ksihipta/disturbed mind is disturbed, restless, troubled, wandering. This is the least desirable of the states of mind, in which the mind is troubled. The mudha/dull mind is dull, heavy, and forgetful. It is a dull or sleepy state, somewhat like one experiences when depressed, though we are not here intending to mean only clinical depression. Then the Vikshipta/distracted mind is distracted, occasionally steady or focused. This mind can concentrate for short periods of time, and is then distracted into some attraction or aversion. Then, the mind is brought back, only to again be distracted. However, the Ekagra/mindfulness, focused, concentrated. When the mind has attained the ability to be mindfulness, the real practice of Yoga begins. It means that one can focus on tasks at hand in daily life, practicing karma yoga (the yoga of action) by being mindful of the mental process and consciously serving others. The person with a mindfulness mind just carries on with the matters at hand, undisturbed, unaffected, and uninvolved with those other stimuli. It is important to note that this is meant in a positive way, not the negative way of not attending to other people or other internal priorities. The mindfulness mind is fully present in the moment and able to attend to people, thoughts, and emotions at will. The final state of mind Nirodhah/mastered mind is highly mastered, controlled, regulated, and restrained. It is very difficult for one to capture the meaning of the Nirodhah state of mind by reading written descriptions. The real understanding of this state of mind comes only through practices of meditation and pranayama. Basically, the practice of mindfulness is based on the ancient teaching in the Patanjali sutras.

Methodology

The methodology used for this research was very simple. Research was carried out for 15 weeks where the students attended yoga classes for an hour per week. In the research I used use a qualitative method to analyse and derive data from a test beforehand to understand their level of mindfulness and an interview after the sessions completed. Every class had the following flow:

  • 5 minutes of awareness practices
  • 10 minutes of Pawanamuktasana (Joint exercises)
  • 10 minutes Sun Salutation
  • 20 minutes Yoga Asanas (poses)
  • 15 Minutes of Pranayama (Breathing)
  • Total: 1 hour practice

Result and Discussion

In total the study involved 27 students, 59.3% female and 40.7% male.  The students that did not have yoga experience is 84.6 % of the total sample. Thus majority of the research participants did not have any yoga experiences.

1 =Least stress

10=Extremely stressed

The stress level of students when I ask them to scale their stress level before and after yoga you could observe the statistics that before yoga the total percentage level 5 and above is 73% and after yoga it has reduced to 29.6%. This shows Yoga could help them to manage their stresses of life better.

 

The Results of Mindfulness Test

I prepared 2 sets of mindfulness test. One set before yoga and another one after yoga samples of questions and results are as below.

Observe the differences in the both chart before yoga mostly moderate mindfulness and after yoga they have improved.

Conclusion

Yoga did improve the students’ state of mind to be more mindful, to be aware of their thoughts and improve their decision making ability. Fifteen weeks is not sufficient to achieve mindfulness completely and to train all students but I believe it’s a good start for the students to discover about mindfulness and yoga. One of the question in the questionnaire after 15 weeks was, “Share your opinion and overall experience throughout the 15 weeks of yoga practice.” Below are some of the feedback from students:

“Yoga has really helped me with my over thinking problem and made me an active person. I’ve learned to deal with problems in a steady state of mind.”

“I’m more conscious and aware of what I’m doing after the practice of yoga.”

“It was awesome as it helps to strengthen my mind when dealing with difficulties and control my emotions.”

“It was fun and beneficial. We learn new things every week and as we practice along the weeks, we get better and better at it. Yoga is definitely helpful in relaxing and dealing with stressful situations.”

“Yoga is a good exercise to practice anytime, anywhere, especially the breathing technique and the eye exercise. Yoga is a friendly exercise. It never forces you to do more than what you are able to do. There will always be an exception I the yoga pose. Yoga made me more aware of my own body, feelings, and thoughts. Throughout the 15 weeks of yoga practice, my yoga teacher showed me and others the good values of life. I feel motivated each time she gives us advices before the class dismissed.”

“It was truly an amazing experience. It was my first time trying out yoga and I’ve never thought it could be this fun and relaxing! Our yoga instructor was amazing. She helped us with the poses and praised us when we did a good job. I’ve never in my life thought I could actually do a handstand, but I now can (well, kind of)! The breathing techniques she taught and the advice she gave on being aware of our surroundings and ourselves were really helpful too. It was a wonderful 15 weeks and I will definitely be incorporating a bit of yoga into my everyday schedule.”

“I wish to start yoga classes again as yoga is a very helpful practice that improves my daily life. Difficult moments don’t seem so stressful anymore and happiness can be obtained easily!”

“I had a great time, bonded well with my friends in yoga and I feel fresher and I don’t get cramps anymore while playing football.”

“It’s a beneficial activity to fill in your time with and it’s interesting to learn something new each session. You gain experience and new skills.”

“Overall the yoga experience is very relaxing and helps me to enhance my mindfulness.”

 

It was an amazing experience to explore and do research about yoga and mindfulness. Yoga is a beautiful practice that can help not only the students but also the teacher to learn and progress. It was a great experience for me to guide and learn at the same time. Yoga brings mindfulness and Yoga is a universal healer. OM

 

References:

Swami Veda Bharathi (2001). Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Samadhi pada. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas

James Houghton Woods (2003). The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. United States of America, USA: Dover publications Inc.

David Dapeng Chen, Linda Pauwels (2014). Perceived Benefits of Incorporating Yoga into Classroom Teaching: Assessment of the Effects of “Yoga Tools for Teachers” (4), 138-148

Mark William, Danny penman (2011). Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in Frantic World. United States of America, USA: Rodale Inc.

This article was featured in YogaMail Jan-Mar 2017 issue.

Of Pregnancy and Yoga

Of Pregnancy and Yoga

by Sumi

“Pregnancy is not a miracle, it can be endured as naturally as possible without any medical intervention or supplements”, this is what I always convey to my Pregnancy Yoga Instructor Course students.

How is this possible? Will this affect the babies and the mothers’ well-being?  These are questions frequently asked by my students.

The answer is: Natural pregnancy includes creating an environment of healthy, positive elements like healthy eating, appropriate exercise, positivity, relaxation and a good massage. A woman’s body is uniquely designed to become pregnant and to give birth.  Her body is prepared with the ability to have a safe, natural pregnancy and childbirth. Women have the stamina and strength to bring a child to this world naturally. It’s a common and natural life experience.

Healthy Eating

Healthy eating should start from pregnancy planning stages.  A proper diet rich with all types of nutrients will help in the formation of foetus from day one. Each molecule, cell, organ, bone and skin will form well with the help of nutrients from the food mothers consume. By eating healthy food, the mothers are helping the foetus grow efficiently in a natural way. Since most medicines or vitamins are made from plant-derived ingredients, why not consume them directly from the source itself?

Mothers need to eat even if they are having severe nausea during early stages of pregnancy. The reason is, the nutrients are absorbed by the foetus before the mothers throw them out. Sometimes women are exposed to a number of complications during pregnancy, like high blood pressure, high sugar level and excessive weight gain. These are caused by poor eating habits or unbalanced diet.  Eating well can keep blood pressure, blood sugar levels and weight at healthy levels.

The lack of key nutrients such as folic acid has been linked to higher rates of birth defects. It is important to eat natural, unprocessed foods as much as possible during pregnancy to avoid harmful substances. Nowadays, “chemically prepared” dietary supplements are assumed sufficient in the diet for pregnant mothers. They are claimed to be wholesome food for mothers and their babies. However, a balanced whole-food diet can more than make up for these chemical diets. Supplements can have unwanted or harmful effects. Exposure to certain chemicals in some nutrients can lead to birth defects in the baby.

Appropriate Exercise

The most suitable and recommended exercise would be yoga. Yoga asanas help wonderfully during pregnancy, labour and beyond. Yoga can help women get through their pregnancy with minimal discomfort. Yoga helps to prepare for the process of giving birth – it encourages breath and body awareness, reduces worry and teaches women to adapt to new situations. In times of pregnancy, some mothers may experience mood swings, fatigue, sickness, painful leg cramps and breathing problems.  Yoga exercises, techniques and postures can ease such conditions – ensuring a period of relief during pregnancy, followed by easier labour and smooth delivery. Attending an hour of yoga class gives a woman special time to turn her attention inwards – learning to listen to and connect with her baby. It is proven that everything the pregnant mother feels and thinks is communicated through neuro hormones to her unborn child. These gently work on the reproductive organs and pelvic floor muscles to ensure smooth pregnancy and a relatively easy childbirth. At the subtle level, these ensure optimum supply of blood and nutrients to the developing foetus. Studies have shown that women who do yoga during pregnancy are less likely to develop high blood pressure or go into premature labour.

Breathing (Pranayama)

Pranayama is beneficial because women learn how to breathe deeply and consciously relax, which will be helpful as she will face the physical demands of labour, birth and new motherhood. Learning to breathe fully is one of the first things they learn. In the ujjayi, air is slowly breathed in through the nostrils, filling the lungs as the belly is expanded, and exhaled completely until the stomach compresses. Another technique is called “Viloma”. These would help during contraction and labour. Bramhari, or humming bee breath, reduces anxiety during pregnancy and labour, bringing down the stress level.

Being Positive

Positive affirmations are statements that build a powerful internal spirit and replay throughout life as they are incorporated into the subconscious mind. Each time positive affirmations are thought, spoken or read, they reinforce positive images of the mother, the pregnancy and the baby inside. Mothers experience a lot of changes during pregnancy, many of which understandably cause stress. Prayer and meditation are all helpful.  Therefore, to have a stress- free and a smooth pregnancy, positive thinking is ideal.

Relaxation

To be able to relax is an ART”. Woman need to master this art to improve their feelings of well-being. Relaxation reduces anxiety, the effects of fatigue and tiredness, which are caused by stress. The baby will gain a more relaxed Mum and enjoy the benefits of less physical tension within the body during pregnancy. During labour, relaxation can help to reduce pain and the intensity of contractions. It will help to save energy so that women have more to use during labour. Yoga Nidra (Yogic sleep) is particularly effective during pregnancy for physical and mental relaxation as well as for childbirth preparation.

Massage

Massage helps to improve blood flow and relaxes the muscles. This can be particularly useful around the neck and shoulders, or a full-body massage when you are able to have one. This should help you to really relax. Some people enjoy foot massages during pregnancy, and even during labour. Others enjoy their back being massaged during or between contractions to help with the pain of labour. Babies in breach position can be easily assisted to normal birthing position by a proper massage.

Pregnancy is associated with nature. So it’s best if we believe in nature to plan and bring a human being into this world. Relaxation, positive thinking and deep connection to nature will nurture a healthier and happier child during pregnancy. Many women find the experience, despite the pain, extremely empowering and rewarding. But many women choose natural childbirth to feel more in touch with the birth experience and to deal with labour in a proactive manner.

 

*This article is written with references from Health Ananda, Fittamama, Natural Birth and Baby Care, and Fit Pregnancy.

This article was featured in YogaMail Oct-Dec 2016 issue.

Reaching Heights with Yoga!

Reaching Heights with Yoga!

“I’m not small! I’m fun-size!” Throughout our daily life, whether we intentionally acknowledge it or not, there are always constant reminders about our height – our placement in a queue at school, reaching for something placed in a high cabinet or shelf, buying long pants and skirts which seem to cascade to the floor (and could potentially double up as a mop!), and for those who drives, adjustment of the seat in the car when needed to drive.

Many parents are concerned about their children’s height (mainly the lack of) and have been trying all sorts of remedies, mostly old wives’ remedies, to help their children ‘grow’. In fact, some parents may have discreetly or indiscreetly suggest to their children to hang on the monkey bars in hope that gravity will work its magic and bestow them with added height of a couple more inches.

Although our biological built-up and physical attributes are gifts from our parents and ancestors, a research in Britain suggests that attaining a good height is not only about genes. Our lifestyle – the food we eat, the way we live and the way we think are also important factors to our growth as well. Other than exercises, the state of our minds is also important. Heard of the word ‘psychosomatic’? The Oxford Dictionary defined it as ‘a physical illness (or other conditions) caused or made worse by a mental factor such as stress’.

A relaxed and stress-free mind allows the body to produce the Human Growth Hormone (HGH), also known as somatotropin, easily. The growth hormone is secreted by the pituitary gland which is also the master of all glands as it controls the functioning of the other endocrine glands. This hormone stimulates growth, cell reproduction and cell regeneration in human. Hence, it is important in human development.

As we would already know, the word ‘Yoga’ is instantaneously associated with its therapeutic effects, particularly for personal physical, mental and emotional health. It integrates the psycho-physiological systems. Through the various practices of Yoga such as asana, pranayama and meditation, Yoga strengthens the body, calms the mind and nurtures the emotions these are the essentials for healthy growth. A consistent yoga routine can help to revitalise the body system, allowing it to grow healthily and make the mind calmer and balanced.

Yoga asanas which can help in promoting height are mainly poses which allow your spine to become upright and those of lengthening movement, such as:

Tadasana (Palm Tree Pose) – an ideal pose to lengthen and straighten the spine to improve posture and increase height by stretching the muscles and ligaments, enabling bones to grow longer. Tadasana also helps to develop physical and mental balance.

Chakrasana (Wheel Pose) – while increasing the elasticity of the spinal cord, this pose influences all hormonal secretions.

Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) – when performing the Trikonasana, the torso is being lengthened, giving it a refined posture.

Majari-asana (Cat Stretch Pose) – in this pose, the spine receives complete extension in both forward and backward directions, enabling the expansion of the cartilage discs in the spinal column.

Surya Namaskar – important routine for a whole body workout. Various parts of the body including the abdominal organs are stretched and compressed, warranting optimum functioning of the organs, while the spine is alternately flexed and stretched resulting in better spinal flexibility.

As mentioned earlier, being relaxed and stress-free are the best conditions for the production of HGH, and two of the most effective ways of arriving to a relaxed and stress-free mind is through the practices of deep breathing and meditation. Breathing releases the built-up stress and tensions which clouds the mind and tenses up the muscles. Deep abdominal breathing is the best to rejuvenate the whole body with oxygen, and the gentle pace throughout the breathing practice allow the body and mind to ease into a calm and relaxed state.

The physical, mental and emotional systems are interconnected, and each aspect nourishes the other. Our emotional state and mental faculty prominently influence our health and growth. A healthy mind is the key to a healthy growth. Meditation calms the mind and promotes mindfulness. Above that, the practices of meditation further integrate the body and mind to achieve goals set by the individual, and keeping the mind positive and clear of its direction leading to success.

While Yoga can help in healthy growth, the rate of growth differs from one individual to another. Other than Yoga practices, another apparent contributor of healthy growth is nutrition. Always remember to eat well and eat food which nourishes the body and mind, and be mindful when eating – put away all gadgets and switch off the television during meal times. Replace artificial flavouring with spices and herbs which are natural in origin. Natural herbs are known to nourish and nurture the body, giving it a strong and healthy foundation in which to grow.

Yoga addresses the whole person as an integrated unit. It incorporates all aspects of the person through the various practices and grants long lasting effects to the practitioners. So, practice often and with full awareness. While children are highly recommended to adopt a Yoga routine, teenagers and parents are also encouraged to include Yoga in their schedules. In fact, it will be most beneficial for the whole family to practice Yoga together. A family who practices Yoga together, grow healthily together.

This article was featured in YogaMail Apr-Jun 2016 issue.

Mindful Parenting

Mindful Parenting

Breathe in deeply. Lengthen your spine. Bend your knee. Twist to the left. Relax your muscles.

Aaahh, the common instructions which echo through every yoga studio and continue to ring in our ears till the moment we roll up our mats and return to our respective “roles” – off the mat and out of the studio, all of us are a son or daughter, a sibling, a friend, or a parent to someone.

When we were in school, there were school rules to abide by. Now, in the work field, there are work guidelines and protocols to adhere to. Yet those who embark on the amazing journey of parenthood are bravely stepping into the world where no manuals will be provided. There are no teachers to assure us that we are on the right track, no managers to remind us of deadlines, and no yoga instructors to remind us to take a deep breath in, and certainly there is no one to provide us with the to-dos when managing a household. And the most exciting part of a household is that each member has a unique and individual personality, filled with unique characters and unique needs. We are one of them too!

Being parents, how do we mind all the needs of our family members while minding ourselves too, when the bottomless list of to-dos often leaves us baffled and turns us into scatter brains?

The answer is One-pointedness.

The ancient and wise yogic text speaks extensively about one-pointedness. It stresses on the importance of being aware and mindful by concentrating on our tasks as this is one of the ingredients in the recipe for success. Now, how, you may ask?

First and foremost we need to practice mindfulness. Being mindful and aware simply means calming our thoughts enough to be aware of the present moment and of what we are doing, or rather, what we are required to do right here, right now. It is crucial to understand the most important moment is “now” – “just now” has passed, and “later” hasn’t arrived yet. So, it is essential that we focus on “now”. This awareness is then magnified when teamed with attention and positive intentions. Having said that, practicing mindfulness in this current fast-paced society can appear to be more challenging that it sounds.

Being a parent often requires one to be observant and tactful – observant to the family members’ needs and tactful when providing necessary intervention or guidance. This speaks volumes for both the working parents and the stay-at-home parents. The amount of attention garnering tasks which parents have to juggle on a daily basis deserves a standing ovation.

Now, let’s look at some of the ways which can help us to be more aware and mindful when caring for the household.

Be Consistent

In order to achieve our goals, we need to persevere and work towards continuation. Practice makes perfect. We might make mistakes or get diverted along the way. But these trials and errors are means to show us clarity. Once we learn the way it’s best we maintain consistency. This includes consistency in communication with the members of the family, especially when responding to children. Children often compare themselves with their siblings and if they notice parents providing inconsistent response to them, it may be perceived as parents having special preference for another sibling and this may cause confusion and discontentment.

Maintain Your Calm

Some would compare managing a household and raising children to entering a minefield of emotions. Truth be told, there is bound to be conflict of opinions and this needs to be met with a calm mind. Outbursts will only be met with similar outbursts and there’s no point in participating in a relay of outbursts as it will not bring any solution. When you are faced with challenging tasks or confrontations, take a moment to take a deep breath in and allow yourself some time to relax before responding. This technique allows us time to think and respond with clarity rather than impulsively.

Acceptance

Adults make mistakes too. The important thing is to acknowledge that we’ve made a mistake, followed by efforts to correct them accordingly and learn from (the mistakes), and strive to be better. This applies to our communication with the children as well. Be a brave parent who is not afraid to apologise if a mistake is made. By doing this, we are in fact showing the children that admitting to our mistake and apologising do not make us a weakling, but someone who is strong and honest in rectifying mistakes.

Rejoice with Gratitude

Being grateful for our current situation is a gratifying feeling through and through. People who experience and express gratitude will find themselves perpetually radiating inner joy. As a family, spending time pointing out things which we are grateful for allows us to have a glimpse of each individual’s point of view and priorities. It builds understanding and respect. These qualities, when shown to children will nurture their hearts.

Be In Tune

Just as we always talk about working on balancing the mind and body so they can work in sync, the formula for a harmonious family is just the same. When parents open up their eyes and ears to genuinely observe and listen to the voices of their children, they will most definitely be able to fine-tune their understanding with each other. This positive communication will undoubtedly open up each other’s hearts as well. The key is to be open to communication without judgement. Answers met with judgement and/or sarcasm will only lead to turning off of interest to communicate any further.

If ever we are unsure if we are on the right track, take a moment and have a heart to heart communication with our wise little “consultants” – our children. Only when we listen with an open heart, will we be enlightened by their purity, honesty and sincerity.

Below are ten questions which we can ask our children, and their answers will help us understand their perspective better and enable us to look deeper into ourselves, and the projection of our characters.

1. Which three words do you think best describe you?

2. Which three words do you think best describe daddy/mommy?

3. What does daddy/mommy look like when he/she is happy?

4. What does daddy/mommy look like when he/she is angry or upset?

5. When do you feel the happiest?

6. What is the most important thing to you?

7. What is the hardest thing to do as a child?

8. What is the most amazing thing that your mommy and daddy ever say to you?

9. What is the most amazing thing that your mommy and daddy ever did for you?

10. What makes your family special?

This article was featured in YogaMail Jan-Mac 2016 issue.

Encouraging Teens to Embrace Their Core Values

Encouraging Teens to Embrace Their Core Values

Growing up experiences mean different things to different people. Parents wish their children will be happy, joyful and healthy always while teachers wish their students will succeed in studies and all other undertakings. How about children? Children wish for things which are largely influenced by their lifestyle, environment and ideas projected by society and peers.

Most teens (and tweens) now live under pressure, especially with regards to their physical appearance.  The strings of picture perfect models making headlines in publications of all sorts have caused a lot of misconceptions on the idea of perfection – size zero girls, boys with washboard abs, flawless faces of perfect symmetry, etc. These are just a few examples which have already sent many youngsters to go (or considering to go) under the knife for nips and tucks. And it doesn’t help that girls are introduced to dolls with outrageously-proportionate bodies since young.

For some teens, physical appearance takes centre stage most of the time. Apart from managing their academic performances, they are often concerned about other people’s opinion about them and hence they take a lot of effort in putting the best foot forward. Yes, it is indeed an admirable trait for children to want to be better… yet the driving reasons, aims and processes need adults’ supervision.

Acceptance without Judgement

Adults, especially parents, mentors and educators have direct influence on teens and are in the position to mould them. Although teens are more likely to associate with peers, it is the mentors who play the biggest role in their lives. Teens confide in their mentors and look up to them for advice and guidance. Being ‘accepted’ as their confidant shows that there are elements of respect involved. And this respect should not be breached.

One of the tell-tale signs of a breach of respect is if/when adults start to compare their teens with others and judge their behaviours or achievements (or rather the lack of it). This is highly damaging to bonding, even between adults. How to prevent this? If ever you have the urge to compare your child with others, take three deep and calm breaths to allow time to put your thoughts together for positive communication to take place.

Activities to do together: Note at least three positive things about your child/student for the day. It could be something as simple as tidying his own room, being a good team player, etc. Have your child do the same and study the answers together. With this, you can see what the child perceives as his/her good qualities.

Understanding with Compassion

Teens may appear rash and radical at times. This is when adults need to understand that the brain goes through a massive “remodelling” during teenage years. It assimilates and interprets learning and controls the body’s movements and activities, hence its growth should not be overlooked. Being able to understand and be aware of the mind and thoughts of teens involve patience and compassion, and would often yield amazing discoveries about their ideologies.

How can adults help? Take time to listen to their ideas and thoughts, especially their views about themselves and the society. Do your best to understand the rationale behind their perspectives and brainstorm for better solutions if needed. You might just be surprised by the results!

Activities to do together: Pick a topic of mutual interest and list out your understanding about the subject. Have your child do the same. Discuss your answers so both of you can have better understanding of each other.

Advocate Self-Love and Self-Worth

Other than expressing love to others, we need to extend it to ourselves as well. Now, this is not to be mistaken with narcissism, vanity or egotism. It is within the context of minimising self-destructive thoughts or actions and being confident and comfortable in our own skin. There will be a period when teens will experience bodily changes during puberty such as facial hair growth, the change of voice, acne breakouts, etc. Though they are inevitable and are signs of hormonal development, which are in every aspect healthy and normal, teens may feel the most self-conscious during this period.

How can adults help? Be ready to offer guidance when teens come to you for advice, yet allow time and space for them to come to terms with the changes they are experiencing and not breathe down their necks.

Activities to do together: Family members can list out what they mean to each other. This way they can have an insight into what matters most for each person in the family and your teen can see what he/she means to other people.

Note: All the suggested activities are to be done without judgement when answers are revealed. Take it as an opportunity for the family members to understand each other and utilise it to strengthen the bond within the family.

Most importantly, adults will need to lead by example! Minimise (and eventually stop) comparing yourself with others either about material or immaterial things (eg: who and who has a bigger car, house, etc). Children often pick up these subtle behaviours for good or for worse. The way to live is to be happy, confident and contented with even the smallest things in life. Express your appreciation for each other and maintain positive communication!

Yoga practices:

Deep breathing exercises to provide vitality to the body and to calm surging emotions.

Meditation and visualisation practices for a healthy and confident self.

Yoga asana:

Lion Roaring Pose

Camel Pose

Warrior Pose

Bow and Arrow Pose

This article was featured in YogaMail Oct-Dec 2015 issue.

Meditation – Caring for the Teenage Minds

Meditation – Caring for the Teenage Minds

Stepping into the adolescent years is like venturing into a new territory. Growing teens are constantly subjected to increased physical, mental and emotional demands.

The increase of social networking outside the family has quickly become a test for them to prioritise their time between studies and social relationships. They are starting to get a taste of responsibility for their own decisions and judgements, their ability to discern good from bad, and the self-control to refrain from destructive peer pressures. All these seem like a whirlpool of responsibilities which have suddenly landed on their shoulders out of nowhere.

The academic standards which have become increasingly stringent add further stress onto teens who are in the midst of managing the evolving physical, mental and emotional development.  There is no denying that the education system plays an important role in the development of humanity. Yet, it is the education of the mind and heart that sustains humanity. Many of us find it challenging to discipline the mind and to manage our emotions. The world offers plenty of good things which nurture us. However, the existence of these good things will all be in vain if we are not aware of them and/or are unable to assimilate them. The constant bombardment of external stimuli have somewhat gotten us habituated to gearing our awareness to the external surrounding and cause a depletion in inner awareness. But it is only with an aware mind that the knowledge and wisdom gained from our interaction with the society and the surrounding can in turn be developed and utilised for a greater purpose.

Sports activities are unavoidable for all school-going teens. The schools’ curriculum requires all students to participate in some sort of sports throughout their school year and this can become challenging to teens whose muscles are not well developed to meet the physical demands of competitive or recreational sports, or whose minds are constantly dissipated and unable to focus on the sports and tasks at hand. The awkwardness of their performance due to uncoordinated mind and body movements may lead to embarrassment and low self-esteem.

All the issues mentioned above can be managed through the practices of Yoga. Apart from the well-known yoga asana practices, the yogic practice of mindfulness is highly important for the growing teen. Mindfulness is the ability to attend to the present moment in a calm and peaceful manner, without being judgemental of the self or the situation.

As parents and educators, it is important for us to understand that teens too are exposed to the damaging effects of stress. Teaching mindfulness to teenagers is equivalent to giving them the tool that helps them sharpen their awareness and manage their moods and emotions. Teens are learning to cope with the challenges amidst the confusion set forth by the rapid changes of physical and physiological developments and adults cannot be by their sides, constantly breathing down their necks telling them what to do or how to behave. Such actions will only lead to turning off of interest to interact and confide in adults in things that matter to them.

As puberty sets in, teens are naturally thrown into a diverse range of fluctuating emotions. They may not even be able to understand their emotions and reactions to certain situations, and are equally frustrated as their parents and mentors who need to communicate with them. Here, adults need to understand the reason to teens’ sudden outburst or seemingly irrational behaviours which are often, at this stage, labelled as being immature – understand that their brains are still growing and developing and this yet-to-be complete physical development of the brain’s development is chiefly responsible for much of the cognitive and emotional immaturity displayed.

Teaching mindfulness through meditation is the most effective way for teens to regain their calm and composure to deal with everyday stresses and to make sense of their own physical, mental and emotional development. The great sense of self awareness is most crucial for them to positively understand the self and to interact with the society. It’s essential for teens to nurture good qualities from within themselves in order for these to be carried on to adulthood where they are required to make comprehensive and sound decisions daily.

The practice of meditation has been reportedly shown to increase grey matter in the portion of the brain responsible for self-awareness and compassion, and researchers have found that mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure of the brain in such a way that it heightens learning and memory, and decreases the brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety and stress – the conditions that teens are facing incessantly. In short, meditation improves the overall psychological well-being. With this, apart from the apparent benefits for the teens, we can surely imagine that even the family dynamics would improve as the communication and relationship between the members improve.

Introducing mindfulness and meditation practices to teens demands adult’s participation as well (particularly parents and educators/mentors). It is more than enrolling teens into meditation classes and waiting for the benefits to manifest. Surely, teens who do the practices will display significant positive changes. Yet, for a long-lasting and optimal result, adults must also lead by example. If we so much as demand an ounce of calmness from our teenagers, we must first display a tonne of it. We need not paint a smile on our faces like of that on a clown’s. But we should surely demonstrate our ability to manage stress by responding and managing it appropriately where it’s due, rather than reacting to it. This applies more so when we are interacting with them. By doing so, we are showing them that emotions, stresses and anxieties ARE indeed manageable, and that we respect them as a growing adolescent who can portray their individuality in a well-mannered way.

Teens who undergo mindfulness trainings and meditation practices gradually become more attuned to themselves and society, and are more able to manage their emotions and communicate. This group of teens are like the first tile of the dominoes, which passes on this amazing aura to their peers.

Just as exercise transforms our bodies, meditation transforms our brains and mind. Ensure that your teenager gets the wholesome yoga practices!

This article was featured in YogaMail Jul-Sept 2015 issue.

Prenatal Yoga for a Healthy Mother and a Healthy Baby!

Prenatal Yoga for a Healthy Mother and a Healthy Baby!

Building the child’s health begins when the mother is carrying the child in her womb, during the pregnancy stage. Expectant mothers seek and receive abundant advices from various sources   — doctors, books, Internet and peers (other mothers). Regardless of the number of pregnancies the expectant mothers have, the main concern across the globe remains the same — the baby’s health. In order to have a healthy pregnancy, expectant mothers are always advised to eat right, stay fit and stay calm and joyful. Strenuous activities are most often instantly crossed out of their to-do list. As such, many expectant mothers are cautious about exercising during pregnancy due to concern about the effects exercising has on the baby she is carrying.

During pregnancy, the expectant mother is the provider for the baby. To be more precise, she is the only source for the foetus to depend on. When the health of the expectant mother is in tiptop condition, she provides a good condition and ‘environment’ for the foetus to grow in her as well. And in order for the expectant mother to be able to provide, she would first need to practice a healthy lifestyle. Apart from a proper diet, more and more expectant mothers have chosen pre-natal yoga as their choice of ‘exercise’ for its gentle and calming benefits.

In a nutshell, gentle and carefully crafted yoga stretches and other yoga practices such as pranayama (breathing techniques) and relaxation techniques are important practices which expectant mothers can adopt. Under a certified pre-natal yoga instructor’s guidance, specific yoga stretches can help the expectant mother to develop strength to carry the weight of her growing baby, relieve tension of specific muscle groups such as the lower and upper back, hips, etc, which have to take on a lot of stress and tension to support the blossoming womb size, improve circulation and also help in the delivery process.

Apart from the apparent importance of proper breathing to provide oxygen for the whole body system to function efficiently, breathing techniques are noted to calm the nervous system and to improve the digestive system through deep breathing, and regulate blood pressure and heart rate   — all of which are a boon for the expectant mother as these are the common conditions experienced during pregnancy. Breathing techniques can also be practiced to help to manage contraction during delivery.

Along with the yoga stretches and pranayama, relaxation techniques are also widely practiced to aid in decreasing the expectant mother’s anxieties, physical and mental stresses and fatigue, and also to help her cope with labour better and allow it to progress easily. When the expectant mother is thoroughly calm and joyful, she is allowing herself to relax and re-direct the awareness to the growth within her body.

Although many texts impart the benefits of yoga for the expectant mothers during pregnancy and labour, some researchers were intrigued about the effects they have on the foetus. Through thorough research they have found that exercising during prenatal period is beneficial for the foetus.

Linda E. May, a physiologist and anatomist at Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences, who has been heading up a series of studies on foetal heart development says, “It is my hope that these findings will show that efforts focused on improving health need to start during pregnancy rather than in childhood. Most of the focus today is on school-age children, but interventions should be focused long before that.”

A 2008 pilot study conducted by May and her collaborators at KCUMB and the Kansas City University of Medicine found that pregnant women who exercised at least 30 minutes three times a week had foetuses with lower heart rate — a sign of heart health — during the final weeks of development.

They further revealed that the foetuses’ improved cardiovascular heart control is maintained one month after pregnancy, which indicates that the mother’s efforts to stay active have long lasting effects.

In reflection of May’s researches, it would seem now that there are more reasons to exercise during pregnancy than before. If appropriate and carefully chosen exercises are practiced during pregnancy, it would give our children a healthier head start. It is always advisable to clear any doubts with your doctor regarding the exercise of your choice and to source for certified and reputable instructors to guide you through the exercise routine.

Before commencing the exercises, it is recommended to prepare the body with a gentle warm-up routine. Thereafter, the main exercises are to be practiced with awareness and thought of love and kindness to the body and self, without any strain or tension. The whole exercise routine should conclude with calm breathing practices and soothing relaxation techniques to allow joy to manifest and encompass the body and mind.

A healthy mother makes a healthy baby, and a healthy baby makes a happy family! Happy exercising!

This article was featured in YogaMail Apr-June 2015 issue.

Saucha – Physical and Mental Hygiene for our Children and Family

Saucha – Physical and Mental Hygiene for our Children and Family

Saucha resonates purity and cleanliness in many levels. In fact, it radiates purity and cleanliness in EVERY level and perspective – internal, external, physical, mental, and emotional, while encouraging respect for the self as well as for others, and not forgetting, for the nature.

The primary practice of Saucha for children (and for any individual) would be our personal hygiene both in and out of the bathroom. It begins daily when we visit the bathroom moments upon waking up in the morning – to wash our face, brush our teeth, scrap our tongue, clear our bowels, and take a refreshing shower. Then the practice continues out of the bathroom, where the bedroom, dirty laundries, dining table and utensils are cleaned after meals. And it continues well out of the house – keeping the neighbourhood clean, maintaining cleanliness in public transports and at public places, and keeping the classroom and school ground tidy.

Although all which were mentioned so far are displays of external cleanliness, another important aspect of Saucha lies in mental hygiene – cleanliness and purity of the mind. As actions spring from the mind’s intent, it is essential to instil ‘pure and clean’ thoughts in our children’s lives, and cultivate this positive and admirable characteristic from within. From this, their whole being, including their actions, vibrates with genuineness and sincerity.

Children, in every region and culture, emit the same pureness. Fundamentally, they see the world with neither prejudices nor biases. Anything and everything that surrounds them appear to them as their teachers and provides them the opportunities to learn. In time, they develop their attitudes from friends whom they socialise with, books they read, movies they watch, and information which they garner from the internet, and more importantly, from their own ability to discern all these information. The people and other learning resources that surround them could greatly influence their perspective. Mostly, if they demonstrate a bias, it stems from an influence of one or a combination of ‘teachers’ mentioned.

As their parents and mentors, adults naturally play an integral role in cultivating and nurturing the essence of mental Saucha in children. Yet, of course, we should lead by example by embracing this commendable quality through practice. Since we are all familiar with personal (physical) and environmental hygiene, let’s see how we as adults can instil and demonstrate mental hygiene.

 

De-clutter our minds…

Clearing the clutter in our minds may take some practice. So, we can give it a head start by not putting in extra clutter. Abstain from activities and thoughts which are not beneficial or those which can be detrimental to both the body and mind. Instead of gathering to gossip or talk about unproductive subjects, utilise the gathering to discuss about subjects which are positive and those which are beneficial to the self and to the community.

What’s in our minds is what we allow to enter through our senses. We can explain to our children that they may not have control over what comes into their field of senses, but they have the power to make a conscious decision to turn away rather than continue engaging. This applies in both the ‘real’ world AND the cyber world. Be socially responsible when interacting in both worlds – be vigilant when receiving information, and be thoughtful when expressing and sharing opinions and comments.

 

…and fill it with positivism.

Help our children choose activities which are educational for the body and mind. Surround ourselves and our children with people by joining hands to create a positive environment and community. Wait not for others to make the move – be the one to initiate the movement. Start by creating a harmonious home environment. Have good thoughts about our children and all family members, and maintain these good thoughts even when we are going about with our errands, be it grocery shopping, picking up our children from school, cleaning the house, or preparing meals.

Use positive words when conversing with our children and everyone else – words which build and uplift ourselves and others. Cultivate and nurture qualities which are calming yet rejuvenating for the body and mind – qualities such as kindness, thoughtfulness, truthfulness, gratitude, and so on. Let our children see life as a playground of positive learnings!

Our austerity towards the practice of Saucha can uplift our lives as it improves our personality, giving us a positive self-awareness. When we have pure and clean intentions, our whole being will naturally emit a positive vibration.

Here’s a Saucha Project for the family:

  • Work on three areas around the house and neighbourhood which need cleaning.
  • Start a Saucha Journal and put in three wonderful thoughts every morning and practice it throughout the day.
  • Say at least one wonderful comment to every person you meet!

This article was featured in YogaMail Jan-March 2015 issue.

Let’s ACE it with Yoga!

Let’s ACE It with Yoga!

Fundamentally, learning requires acquisition of new information. Our brains, the most complex part of the human body, are prepared to learn from the moment we were born. The brain requires numerous stimulations for effective learning which leads to the strengthening of long term learning abilities. Our natural inquisition that derives from our curiosity of the unusual in our surroundings is one of the driving forces of our passion for learning. And the integration of our senses reinforces these learning processes.

Let’s see how the brain develops and what happens when the brain ‘learns’

All parts of our body consist of cells, including brain. Brain cells are called neurons. The brain starts forming about three weeks after conception and by the time of birth it would have developed at least 100 billion neurons. During the first years of life, the brains of infants and toddlers undergo a magnitude of changes that can affect their learning capacity in the future. How? When we perform activities such as talking, listening, and other practices, dendrites grow out of the neurons. Like braches of a tree that grow from the trunk, dendrites can continue to grow only from a dendrite that is already there (this means that it is from something that we know prior – no branches without the tree trunk!).

New dendrites take time to grow – more accurately, it takes a lot of practice for them to grow. A contact point is formed when two dendrites grow close together and messages can be effectively transmitted across the small gaps (at the contact point) of two dendrites called the synapse. As we continue to learn, a more complex network is created. It is noted that synapses can change in number by the minute and there are strong and weak synapses. Through learning, the weak synapses will become stronger.

When we practise something the dendrites grow thicker with a fatty coating. Like a well-paved highway, thicker dendrites result in faster signals connections. The coating also helps to reduce interference. With enough practice the dendrites build a double connection resulting in faster, stronger and long lasting connections. Certainly, before the practise even begins, the new skill has to be first taught in order to build the foundation dendrites for a new topic or skill. Without these, they do not have the basis from which to grow, where they later connect and construct the dendrites for extended levels of skill and knowledge. Practise and repetition is essential. If we learn something new and do it only once or twice, the dendrite connection is very fragile and can ‘disappear’ within hours.

Now, about learning….

Often, the meaning of learning is misunderstood. Learning does not mean cramping facts and formulas and to extract them during examinations as proof of comprehension. Certainly, examinations are good methods of evaluating our understanding on the subject matter but the foundation to learning is most important.

Our brains are programmed to focus on new and unusual inputs – we, especially children, learn best when we are presented with ‘challenges’. A healthy brain yearns to learn and children learn best when they are exposed to diversified ideas, experiences and materials, and the learning process is heightened when several senses are engaged. In short, the whole learning process will be greatly enhanced when the whole body is integrated and engaged in the process – the limbs, the brains, the senses, the emotion, etc.

…And ACE-ing it!

In the Super Yoga Kids’ ACE programme, we strive to Ace it. Not acing the grades, but acing the learning process, making it enjoyable and long lasting. ACE stands to Accelerate learning abilities, Cultivate brain powers, and Enhance memory and concentration capacity.

The ACE programme prepares the whole body, mind and emotion for a wholesome and long lasting learning experience by utilising and incorporating the various functions of the body to enhance learning. It’s a fusion of the ancient techniques of Yoga with modern additions. Primarily, the programme features:

  • Natural movements and postures to strengthen and prepare a balanced body for effective learning
  • Breathing exercises that help to oxygenate the body and brain for optimum physical, mental and emotional performance
  • Relaxation techniques to calm the senses and mental system, creating pleasant inner joy and peace to delight in the learning process
  • Concentration techniques to stimulate various brain functions in aid of enhancing memory and concentration capacities; and
  • Variety of fun activities to engage and sharpen the senses

The ACE programme is a specialised extension programme born of the seven-year running Super Yoga Kids classes and is scheduled to commence in January 2015. Classes will be available for children aged 4 – 12 and are scheduled at Brickfields, Bangsar, Damansara Utama and Selayang Utama.

This article was featured in YogaMail Oct-Dec 2014 issue.

In the Menu of a Growing Child….

In the Menu of a Growing Child…

The recipe to a child’s healthy development and successful learning lies in the health and integration of the child’s mental and physical development.  This overall fitness plays a prime role in the child’s building blocks, influencing their behaviour, social and cognitive developments. Children naturally and instinctively learn from experiences. Among many valuable life lessons, these experiences teach them to care for themselves and communicate with others.

Early lessons begin in learning about the essentials, such as the daily routine of washing, dressing, and feeding themselves, and proceed to complex activities such as communicating and caring for others. The simple practice of caring for their own body builds their respect, understanding and awareness of how all parts of their body work together intrinsically for daily performances. The realisation of the different functions of the body and how they brilliantly interweave to build a full functioning system is perhaps the most cherished lesson a person can ever have.

As the developing body and mind is integrated and is fit to function, this complete unit never ceases learning. Every movement of the physical body sends a signal to the brain and every experience, big or small, is accounted for. All the experiences are stored in the ‘memory bank’ and are summoned when necessary. In order to support the body system to learn and function effectively, a strong and healthy foundation is important. Let’s look at some of the essentials that support healthy development.

Eating Right

The food that we prepare for our children plays a vital role for the development of their physical and mental health, helping to promote the growth of the brain and the body. Our children will follow healthy eating habits right up to adulthood if developed from young. Apart from building their health, good eating habits and the understanding of proper nutrition will help them to learn, be more aware and feel better about themselves. Some of the food that help improve the health of the body and brain:

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Crucial for brain and eye development, and improves cognitive functions. Can be found in flaxseed, walnuts, avocado, almond, and more.
  • Choline – A nutrient that is essential for brain development and memory function, and helps the brain communicate with the rest of the body. Can be found in spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, wheat germ, and more.
  • Antioxidant – Healthy chemicals that can clean the brain from free radicals that cause cell deterioration. It protects children’s brain from wear and tear. It is also known to enhance memory, restore motor coordination and balance. Can be found in prunes, raisins, blueberries, cranberries, and more.
  • Complex  carbohydrates – These fibre-rich whole grains are important for the brain’s functions because they fuel the brain and the body. The fibre ensures that the brain gets a steady stream of energy. Can be found in potatoes, lentils, barley, oats, and more.

Other than food, our bodies and brain needs to be properly hydrated to function optimally. Water helps to keep the brain signals going and promotes mental alertness. Dehydration is a factor of mental fatigue and it can impair the recollection of short-term and long-term memory, and decrease other cognitive functions. Water is also important to eliminate toxins from the brain and body.

Moving right

The body is designed to support autonomy. The skeletal frame holds up the body, the muscles provide mass and support movement, and the joints provide autonomy. Physical movement is an important ingredient for a child’s healthy development. It not only builds motor skills, but also offers opportunities for social and emotional growths, and builds agility, confidence, and brain power! With each movements of the body, signals are being sent to the brain seamlessly, assuring learning. An active body sends messages to the brain that stimulates synaptic growth, further strengthening brain power.

Yoga is a good avenue to support this growth. Children are constantly being exposed to Yoga poses which they playfully see as ‘challenges’ for their bodies to overcome. As the body learns and attempts these poses – be it twisting, balancing, strengthening or lengthening, or inverted, the integration of the body system is activated.

One example is the practice of the Surya Namaskar. The performance of this sequence requires the child to co-ordinate his physical movement with his breath all the while engaging the muscles, joints, and subtly massaging the major internal organs. Bear in mind that inactivity in children may lead to sedentary habits as adults. So, if your child has limited time to practice, it is recommended to at least practice the Surya Namaskar.

Resting Right

Just as food is important to fuel the body, a child’s need for rest is also important.  A child’s ability to learn is increased when he has sufficient rest. A proper rest provides opportunities for the body and brain to rejuvenate and process the day’s activities, further re-energising and fuelling the system for the day ahead.  We can witness an increase of creativity and learning capacity when the child is most relaxed. Exhausted children tend to have trouble concentrating in class.

Yoga Nidra takes centre stage when it comes to relaxation. When guided by a trained teacher, Yoga Nidra not only provide sufficient rest to children by releasing muscular, emotional and mental tensions, but can also provide subconscious learning, and instil good habits. The Yoga Nidra practice can also restore health and increase memory functions while integrating both hemispheres of the brain.

Breathing Right

Deep and proper breathing is closely linked with the performance of the brain. Shallow breathing deprives the body and brain of oxygen. Apart from improving circulation, deep breathing helps relieve stress and regulate moods, giving children an opportunity to calm down. Although our brain only makes up roughly 3% of our total body mass, it consumes more than 20% of the total oxygen used by our body. And during mental activities, it consumes even more! In other words, oxygen is like food for the brain! Children whose brain are not getting enough oxygen display signs such as poor memory, lack of concentration, and impaired sense of balance.

Interacting Right

Parents, educators and caregivers are prime contributors to children’s overall healthy development. Engaging children with various activities are valuable especially if they are appropriate and are in line with the child’s interest. Parents who engage children in their decision making and daily activities often see a display of their children’s positive social development. It strengthens the family as a unit by establishing trust, and it builds the child’s confidence. These healthy and homely experiences encourage children to transfer these pleasant experiences to their friends and social circles.

Through our efforts to focus on well-being of the child and the family, children will love the endless experience of learning about being healthy. These pleasant early childhood experiences they have in keeping their body healthy, fit and harmonious will be their building blocks of positive and healthy attitudes that will last a lifetime.

This article was featured in YogaMail July-Sept 2014 issue.

Uniting Kids: Within and Beyond

Uniting Kids: Within and Beyond

Learning to share is an important stepping stone towards unity. Sharing, one of the most important life skills, is something that children need to learn in order to experience a harmonious existence with other children. A child who loves to share, in turn, loves and understands the dynamics of working as a team. This amazing quality will then echo through the teenage and adult years.

Children are first exposed to the concept of sharing and teamwork through play with their siblings or playgroup members. They may have conflicting thoughts in the beginning, to decide whether to keep their precious toys to themselves even though it means to have to play alone, or to share the toys in order to have a playmate (at this stage, sharing would seem as though they are actually parting with their toys/belongings). As a solution, they (mostly toddlers) will opt to play with their own toys while sitting beside each other. This comfort zone is put to test when one child decides to ‘explore’ the neighbour’s toys. The reaction to this scenario varies – some may holler at the dismay of his toy/s being taken, some may calmly observe and carry on unperturbed, and some may even decide to take the other child’s toys as a trade-off. Whatever the initial results may be, children will eventually learn many concepts from the experiences of this recurring scenario – attachment, detachment, sense of ownership, sharing, empathy, teamwork and many more. The learning experience can be put into a positive light when adults are present to provide guidance and help toddlers make sense of the situation.

Promoting and creating opportunities for children to experience teamwork is important. Teamwork requires children to work harmoniously towards a shared vision. For teamwork to be effective, all members of the group must form mutual respect, understanding and appreciation towards each other’s roles. Viewed as the most important social activity, teamwork and unity requires each individual’s ability to go beyond personal gains and move towards a collective goal. As working as a team demands interpersonal interaction, it builds a child’s social and communication skills as well.

The concept of unity is not man-made. It is within us and it surrounds us.

Looking Within…

Everyone has an innate sense of unity. When observed closely, we would find that our whole body system is a testament of perfect unity. Children can be introduced to the concept of unity with the body system as an analogy. Great examples are often found in the Yoga class. When attempting a balancing pose, for example, the position of the limbs and trunk of the body, the breath and the state of mind (calm and focused) are all important points leading to the ‘success’ of the pose. Although externally it may not seem like much when the Yoga poses were performed, it actually requires mass inner coordination and bodyworks.  The same effort applies to other seemingly routine activities which may have been taken for granted all these while, such as walking, skipping and etc. In other words, the unity of the body, mind and breath is inevitable in our everyday activities.

Looking Around…

Another great analogy is the environment – flora and fauna. Take a tree for example – the roots, the trunk, the branches and the leaves all have a vital role to play. The roots draw water from the soil, the trunk provides strength to promote upward growth, the branches help to make sure the leaves are not cluttered together (so every piece of leaf has the opportunity to carry out its function), and the leaves draw sunlight and produce ‘food’. Trees provide shade and food for animals and insects, which in turn may carry the seeds and drop them elsewhere for growth.

The Stepping Stone towards Unity

As much as we (adults) would like to instil the sense of Unity in our children, it would be futile by just yelling, ‘You MUST share with your brother/sister!’ Doing so, might only give you a headache and possibly a sore throat! It could also lead to possible sibling jealousy or rivalry if one child is often asked to share just because he/she is elder. Having said that, it would be easier for us to note some of the important attributes that build unity and instil it in our children from young.

For example:

  • Introducing different playing materials to children can help to build the sense of appreciation. While doing so, explain to them what each material has helped them learn while not being judgemental of their superiority or inferiority in appearance. The appreciation of differences will then be carried into interpersonal communications – seeing each member in the society as an important person. Here, ‘timid’ children will also establish self-worth and self-appreciation.
  • The practice of turn taking is another important activity. While children wait for their turn, they learn about patience and respect. When respect is built, children are more likely to maintain harmony in a social group. Harmony is the basis in building trust. And trust is an important element in building unity.
  • Sitting in a circle for some group activities enable each member to have a clear view of each other. It allows children the companionship of others and it makes everyone in the group feel that they belong. The view of physical presence enables children to establish verbal and non-verbal communications among themselves – an important social skill.

When children learn about appreciation, trust and respect, introducing team or group work will be easier. As we all know, group activities create a huge avenue for children to learn about unity. Everyone in the group will learn to communicate and cooperate to solve problems. Above all, they will learn to share ideas and celebrate each other’s individuality.

This article was featured in YogaMail April-June 2014 issue.