6 Ways to take your yoga practice to the next level

Recently I've begun teaching yoga, thinking more and more about what makes yoga a special practice, what aspects separate it from a regular exercise class. When students come into the studio and take my class, I want them to have an experience, fingers crossed a good one. So much emphasis is placed on the shapes your body is "supposed" to make in yoga, but there's so much more that makes up a good practice. Below are my 6 ingredients to take your yoga practice to the next level:

  1. Settling the energy. Before you practice, it's important to begin with some ritual which represents the sacred practice you are about to embark upon, It could be an opening OM, or a special playlist. You may want to burn incense or begin with an opening chant. Yoga teachers usually help open the practice for you but if you're practicing solo, it's still important to do this. 
  2. Set an intention. Intentions help to guide your energy. It's helpful to set an intention for your practice, and it could be as simple as moving your body, or showing yourself some love, releasing tension from the body, or breathing. Whatever reason has brought you to your mat for the day, it can be nice to take time to honor that reason before you begin. 
  3. The Breath. I've heard it said that yoga is really a breathing exercise with some postures thrown into it to challenge you. When the breath is calm, the mind is calm. Our breath is crucial. Breath awareness and breath control is number one priority. If you lose control of your breath, regain control before anything else. 
  4. Body Awareness. Tuning into and connecting with your body is one of the things that makes yoga so special. Yoga means "union" and the emphasis the practice places on the union between mind and body is one of the factors that sets yoga apart from other exercises. Bringing focus to your body alignment and noticing where you need to increase tension or soften can make all the difference. 
  5. Drishti (or gaze). The mind wanders when the eyes wander. Calm the eyes to calm the mind. Focusing your drishti (or gaze) helps keep the mind calm so you can get into that meditative state. Once you've mastered the breath, master the gaze.
  6. Detach from the result. This is so hard to do when you are a beginner and see everyone else doing postures you hope to achieve one day, but beating yourself up, stressing over what you can't do, doesn't help. Have compassion for yourself and trust in the process. Believe that with steady, consistent effort, one day your physical practice will get there, and enjoy the process as much as possible. That is, after all, why we practice yoga anyways right? 

Spicy and Aromatic Chai Recipe

As you may know, I recently began teaching Ashtanga yoga. One of the studio's traditions is for the teacher to bring some good Indian, yogi chai for students to enjoy Sunday mornings after class. So, of course, I've been perfecting my recipe, trying it out on my husband, and drinking it throughout the week. It's such a lovely, comforting ritual, a full sensory experience. The warming blend of spices smells like heaven, and the warm cup in between your hands as you drink calms the mind and body. 

Interestingly, chai tea has tons of health benefits. It's an Ayurvedic drink, said to help with decreasing anxiety, improving digestion and circulation, balancing blood sugar, helping with weight loss, lowering blood pressure, and relieving PMS symptoms. The spices used have wonderful antioxidants and antibacterial properties, believed to help ward off cancer, lower inflammation, and boost the immune system. Plus, it tastes good, and makes your house smell wonderful as it's brewing!

I like to make up a big batch of the concentrate, store it in the fridge, and reheat throughout the week, adding in the milk and honey when I'm ready to drink it. Below is the recipe I've been using:

Ingredients

  • 8 cups of water
  • 8 slices of fresh ginger root
  • 50 black peppercorns (add less if your resting temperature already runs hot)
  • 30 cloves
  • 30 cardamom pods cracked open
  • 4 cinnamon sticks
  • 4 black teabags (you can find these in bulk at any supermarket)
  • raw honey to taste (I have been adding 1 spoonful/glass)

Directions

Bring the water to a boil, add in all the spices, then turn down the heat to a low simmer. Let simmer for 15 minutes before adding the black tea. After adding black tea, let simmer for another 15 minutes. If you want your tea less caffeinated, add the teabags later on, but do let the spices simmer for no less than 30 minutes. Turn the heat off and strain your mixture. When you're ready to enjoy, add in milk and honey to taste, heating until the milk has warmed. I have been using equal parts milk and tea, and 1 spoonful of honey per glass I'm making. You should play around with ratios according to taste as some like a sweeter chair, others like a spicier chai, or milkier chai. I have been using organic whole milk but almond, coconut, or soy would also make a lovely combo. Optional ingredients also include star anise, and fennel, but I haven't tried these out in my chai yet. Again, you can save the tea concentrate and then heat up throughout the week. Enjoy!

 

What your breathing patterns could reveal about you

"When we hold the breath it is an unconscious attempt to refuse or control our experience." "Unless our breathing pattern is caused by a health problem, almost always this holding of the breath represents an unconscious desire for certainty. We hold on to life, and in a sense we hold out on life. And then, of course, life holds out on us. " - Donna Farhi from "Bringing Yoga to Life"

How often do you hold your breath? I'll bet, if you observe your breathing for the next 24 hours, you'll notice that you hold your breath in response to situations, thoughts, and emotions. So often, this holding of the breath is a sign of our resistance towards the present moment. We know that breathing changes according to stress levels and emotions. When we experience unpleasant feelings our breath becomes shallow, more rapid or we simply hold the breath. When we are calm, relaxed, happy, contented, our breath becomes more relaxed, deeper and slower. It's as if we know we have the time to fully inhale and fully exhale, and so there's no rush.

By observing the breath, you can become attuned to your inner thoughts and feelings. When your breath becomes tense or erratic, it's often information that something's not right, or your thoughts have become negative. By practicing deep breathing in these moments, you can re-wire yourself to react calmly in times of stress. You can build your resilience to adversity, pressure, and stress. By gaining control of your breath, you can gain control of your emotions, still acknowledging and honoring what arises without giving it power over you. Below are 3 simple steps towards putting the power of pranayama (the practice of controlling the breath) into practice:

  1. Observe your breath. You can't change what you're not aware of, so for the next week or so, just observe your breathing pattens without even trying to change them. Just be curious about when you hold your breath, when you breath deeply, and when your breath becomes more erratic. 
  2. Take deep breaths. When you notice erratic breath, holding of the breath, shallow breathing, or even just tension in the body, consciously and mindfully take deep slow breaths in and out through the nose. Take the time to fully inhale, and fully exhale.
  3. Develop a breathwork practice. Every time you practice something, you get better at it, so developing a regular breathwork practice can be monumental in helping you to gain control over your breath. This could be as simple as consciously breathing while practicing yoga. You could even formalize your practice by setting aside 3-10 minutes on a regular basis to practice breathing techniques. For more info on specific breathing techniques check out my post on 4 breathing techniques to lower anxiety in under a minute here.

Remember, there's so much information to be gained by observing our breath, and there's so much power to be gained by learning how to control it. Happy breathing everyone. 

Metta Meditation and 5 Ways it can improve your life

Metta, translated in the Buddhist tradition as "loving-kindness" can be an amazing tool for improving happiness and reducing stress. The power of loving-kindness has been a major theme in my life for the past week, so I thought I'd share about it here, and how you can use it. There's something lovely and healing about sending loving-kindness to others. It feels good. It gets us out of our own head, out of our own story, out of our little self and connected with our big Self. It gets us connected with the part of us that knows we are not alone. It gets us connected to the part of us that is pure love, and the more we practice, the easier those parts of us are to access in the future. Below are 5 ways practicing Metta can improve your life. 

  1. As a morning meditation practice: Sit down, focus on your breath and get grounded into your body. Next, think of one person you love or the many people you love and send each one loving-kindness. Imagine sending them loving energy. Make wishes for them (e.g. may they be at peace. May they be free from suffering. May they feel loved). You can even picture this energy as a warm light, moving out towards them with every exhale. Allow the loving-kindness energy to start in your body and them move outward. At the end of your meditation I think you'll be surprised how good you feel. 
  2. When you are angry or frustrated with someone: This can help to completely transform your energy. The next time you're frustrated with someone. Stop. Take a pause. Close your eyes, and send them loving-kindness. If someone was nasty to you, chances are they're miserable themselves. Wish for them to be free from suffering, or to find happiness. If this feels to difficult, start with someone you're only mildly frustrated with (see my story below for further details).
  3. When you are criticizing or negatively judging yourself: We, more than anyone, deserve our own loving-kindness. It's difficult to share loving-kindness with others, if we don't first feel it for ourselves. The next time you find yourself feeling like a failure, or feeling like an a-hole. Stop. Take a pause. Close your eyes, maybe place a hand on your heart, and send yourself loving-kindness. Remind yourself that you're doing your best, or endeavoring something difficult. Make some wishes for yourself with every exhale (e.g. May I forgive myself. May I be at peace. May I be free from suffering. May I feel loved.)
  4. During your yoga practice: I see so many frustrated faces in yoga class. Sometimes I'm that frustrated face. When you can't get fully into a posture and you're feeling frustrated with a specific body part. Stop. Take a pause, and send yourself some loving-kindness. Thank yourself for practicing yoga, for doing something good for yourself. If you're frustrated with a body part, instead of sending that body part resentment, send it loving-kindness. Seeing a trend here?
  5. When you are injured: When you're injured, I'll bet 9 times out of 10, your thoughts are that of resentment or self-pity. It's bad enough to be in physical pain or discomfort, let alone the emotional space of self-pity or resentment. Practicing loving-kindness towards the injured part of your body can help to shift your emotional relationship to your injury. 

I've been trying to practice more loving-kindness lately. Yesterday, I was on my way home from work when the stoplight turned green and I was stuck waiting for pedestrians to cross the street before I could make a turn. Almost everyone had crossed except for one woman who was moving very slowly. I caught myself feeling annoyed, thinking to myself "Why can't she just move a little faster? Doesn't she know we're all waiting on her?". I stopped, paused, and instead practiced loving-kindness. I realized she was walking with a slight limp, probably moving as quickly as she could with her aged body. Instead of being annoyed, I wished for her to have some physical relief, for her body to move a bit better in the future, for her to feel peace, and to be free from suffering. The emotional and physical shift I felt in by body was palpable. Suddenly, instead of the negative emotions my original thought had produced, I arrived home feeling happy. I hope you give loving-kindness a try sometime this week, so you can experience how powerful it can be. 

10 Favorite Yoga Quotes

I love quotes! I also love yoga, so I thought 'why not pick out my favorite quotes about yoga and share them with you?' I hope you find at least 1 quote here that you really resonate with!

10 Favorite Yoga Quotes

  1. "You cannot do yoga. Yoga is your natural state. What you can do are yoga exercises, which may reveal to you where you are resisting your natural state." - Sharon Gannon
  2. "Come to your yoga mat to feel, not to accomplish." - Rachel Brathen
  3. "The hardness of a diamond is part of its usefulness, but its true value is in the light that shines through it." - B.K.S. Iyengar
  4. "Yoga is an internal practice. The rest is just a circus." - Sri Pattabhi Jois
  5. "By our stumbling, the world is perfected." - Yogi Bhajan
  6. "While pain may be the catalyst that brings us to yoga practice, it is joy that renews our commitment." - Donna Farhi
  7. "The success of Yoga does not lie in the ability to perform postures, but in how it positively changes the way we live our life and our relationships." - T.K.V. Desikachar
  8. "The body is your temple. Keep it pure and clean for the soul to reside in." - B.K.S. Iyengar
  9. "If I can't wear yoga pants, I'm not going." - Anonymous
  10. "The point of practicing asanas is to become sensitive, attuned, and adaptable. Whether we attain great gymnastic abilities becomes entirely inconsequential in the context of yoga as a life practice. If we become enamored with the performance of advanced postures and fix our identity on these achievements, we have simply replaced one false identity with another." - Donna Farhi

Happy Weekend!

I'm in Bali, after 1 and a half weeks of yoga yoga yoga and I have to say, it really feels like yoga gives you super powers. Just on a physical level, over time, with continued effort, my body can do things I never thought possible when I started this journey. I've become so much stronger mentally, emotionally, and physically. And so, I thought this quote so appropriate for this week. Yoga gives you superpowers! Happy Weekend!

The 5 Causes of Suffering

Fresh off of my yoga teacher training (YTT), I've been doing a lot of reflections about yoga philosophy and the yoga lifestyle. I want to start off this post by pointing out that I am in no way shape or form an expert on yoga or yoga philosophy. I'm simply relaying the information and concepts as I understand them. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (THE book that introduced yoga to the world) outlined a systematic approach to end suffering. Yoga philosophy believes there are 5 kleshas, or causes of suffering. In my work as a psychotherapist, who facilitates group therapy, I can honestly say this is good information. All of the suffering I've seen since learning about yoga philosophy fits into one if not multiple klesha categories.

The 5 causes of suffering according to the yoga sutras are as follows:

  1. Avidya- Ignorance
  2. Asmita- Identifying with the ego
  3. Raga- Attachment to pleasure
  4. Dvesa- Aversion towards pain/suffering
  5. Abhinidvesa- Fear of the unknown

Avidya- Ignorance or not seeing the true nature of things. Every time you think negatively about yourself. Every time you feel alone, or misperceive an interaction, or read too into something. Every time you wish someone would act differently than they are acting, or that the present moment would be different than it is, this is avidya. Some argue that all suffering can fall under this category. When we don't understand that life is always changing, that things we love will be lost at some point, this is avidya. When we fail to realize we are perfect, and that the undercurrent of life is love, this is avidya. The buddha said "when you realize how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky". 

Asmita- Identifying with the ego. Whenever you're in competition, embarrassed, ashamed, worried about your image, worried about how others will think of you, whenever you want to be "right" in an argument, or get revenge, this is ego. Ego does not serve us. When you have an issue with your identity, it's usually ego that's at play. When you lament over how you used to be, or how you should be, this is ego.

Raga- Attachment to pleasure. When we love something we never want to lose it. I've heard it said that everything we love will eventually lead to our suffering. Because everything changes and eventually falls away, the things we love, we will eventually lose, thus causing us suffering. This is raga. We, naturally want to cling to pleasure, attach to what makes us happy. 

Dvesa- Avoidance of suffering. I believe it was the Dalai Lama who said everything that we do is to avoid suffering. I've also heard it said that we will put more energy into avoiding suffering than we will to cling to pleasure. We don't like discomfort. Addictions are often a matter of dvesa, as drugs/alcohol or food are used as a means of numbing out the pain, distracting from the uncomfortable feelings. 

Abhinidvesa- Fear of the unknown. Our human brains HATE the unknown! We want to have things figured out, we want to solve problems. When we are in limbo, when we don't know what to expect, or what's wrong, or where we are going to live, this often causes great anxiety and suffering. Death is the ultimate unknown, and many people are afraid to die. I know I'm afraid to die. So many things are out of our control, in which case they are unknowns. So many things can only be known in the present and this is often a difficult reality to come to terms with. 

So what can you do with this information and how can it help you?

Just begin by taking pause when you feel unhappy, or when you are in a place of emotional suffering and try to identify which of these causes is behind your unhappiness. Name the cause of the suffering to yourself. There's a term in therapy "name it to tame it" meaning that simply by naming a feeling or naming what's going on internally, it tames the feeling, it calms our brains down.  Know you're not alone, and that this is actually something many others suffer from. Plan accordingly. For instance if you realize you're suffering from attachment to pleasure, it may be helpful to identify this is in fact what's going on emotionally, and then remind yourself that everything changes, or you may do some extra self-care to nurse your emotional wound. If you're interested in these concepts, check out more information on yoga philosophy here, and I hope this post helps the next time you're experiencing emotional suffering.  

 

Yoga Flow Playlist Fall/Winter 2017

With my yoga teacher training in full swing I've definitely upped the home yoga practice. Some days it's just sun salutations, but other days may include a complete Ashtanga primary series with handstand/headstand practice afterwards. I ALWAYS practice with music because music makes everything better. Looking back at Happiness | Collective's last yoga flow playlist, I realized how many new songs I have been loving for my yoga soundtrack and decided it was time to create a new Fall/Winter playlist. Let me know in the comments below which song is your favorite from this list and if you have any suggestions. Hope you enjoy:

Holocene - Bon Iver

Lay Down - Son Little

Sound & Color - Alabama Shakes

Drift - Benji Lewis

Cold Case Love - Rihanna

Answer - Phantogram

Naive - RKCB

Feel It - Portugal The Man

Electic Guest - Oh Devil ft. Devin Di Dakta

Temporary Love - The Brinks

Downtown - Majical Cloudz

Up All Night - Oliver Tank

River - Leon Bridges

 

Top 10 Reasons to Become Part of a Yoga Tribe

  1. Everyone is zenned out as fuck
  2. Vegan, Vegetarian, and Gluten-free meals are the norm, not the exception
  3. Yogis make the best lovers
  4. Birkenstocks are actually cool
  5. Green juice dates
  6. The dress code basically consists of socially acceptable pajamas
  7. You get to hang out with your friends every time you exercise
  8. You aren't judged for having body odor
  9. Your likelihood of being an asshole greatly decreases
  10. We're all just here for the savasana

Matt and I have realized that our favorite vacations involve yoga destinations. The entire yoga lifestyle is definitely our jam. Yogis seem to be the nicest people, the food is out of this world, and there's sure to be good vibes. We've met some of our best friends at yoga, and we love our yogi tribe. Hope you liked our top 10 reasons to become part of a yoga tribe. 

How to use what you have to get what you want

It's been a long week, and I'm stretched thin with work, and yoga teacher training but I wanted to write a short post on a subject that's been coming up a lot lately. The yoga teacher training process has introduced new postures to work on, and, of course, the bigger goal to be able to teach yoga at the end. One thing I love about yoga, is the process of working towards something that seems impossible, and then, one day, you're able to do it. Showing up to class, practicing the postures, putting energy towards the changes you want to see consistently is the path to your goal. I think it was Pattabhi Jois who said ashtanga was about 99% practice, because the magic happens with the consistent work. I like to think of it all as energy. The world is made up of energy. Every action gets a reaction. We spend so much time focused on the result, on what we want. We suffer when the goal seems so impossible, or overwhelming.

If you can let go of the result and just focus on the present process, on the expenditure of energy, on what step you can take today towards what you want, the journey becomes so much more enjoyable. Can you let go of your attachment to the result, and trust that as long as you're putting consistent energy towards what you want, it will happen? The more energy you put towards your goal, often, the faster you reach it, but again, it's simply about figuring out what step you can take today, what feels doable, what is within your control, and then doing it. Take the pressure off yourself with whatever it is you are hoping for, and move into action. Break up your goal into small steps. If it's yoga, often just consistent practice, and honest effort towards postures will eventually make them possible. One day, you will simply be able to do that posture you've been working towards for so long. If it's something else you're working towards, it's about breaking up your large goals into smaller, less intimidating steps, and getting to work. Want to decrease anxiety? Start a daily stress reduction exercise (e.g. meditation, breathwork, yoga). Want to write a book? Just start with the introduction, then introduce a new character or concept. Write one paragraph a day, and eventually, you will have a book. Honestly, the thought of teaching yoga at the end of this training seems impossible, but I have faith in the process, and in my own personal transformation. Use what you have to get what you want. Use energy, consistent effort, action, to get you to where you want to be. Most people feel so overwhelmed, they are defeated before they even start. Just start.