Listening time: Approximately 8 minutes
Last month I spent 4.5 weeks in a small town in Mysore, India called Gokulum practicing ashtanga yoga, pranayama (breath control), and Ayurveda and ayurvedic cooking.
I was ready to move on from the quiet serene atmosphere and lifestyle of the ashram on the farm, or so I thought. I had no idea what I was getting myself into living in a city in India for a month.
On the first day I felt like a newborn baby entering a chaotic world. Motor bikes zig zagged throughout the streets, horns were honking incessantly, cows and goats were roaming the roads, exhaust smoke was making my eyes water, and there was litter on the streets which made me feel enraged.
It was an assault on the senses to say the least.
The first few days I was exhausted. My body and nervous system was not ready for the attack. While the last phase was coined purification I nicknamed this phase of the journey strong determination, because I immediately wanted to run for the hills and I knew it was going to take strong determination to not only handle my new environment, but also to show up and put effort into study and practice everyday.
Stillness within Movement
I was there to practice and study ashtanga yoga. Over the last 3 years this practice has been a big part of my life. It has been impactful in restoring lost ranges of motion, balancing hormones, increasing proprioception, magnifying awareness, building tendon and core strength, improving breathing capacity and circulation, and teaching me the very difficult art of letting go.
It's a highly physical practice and requires a lot of self-discipline as you truly have to put in the time and effort on your mat 5-6 days per week to progress as each pose is a prerequisite for the next.
While the practice can feel like one heck of a workout, the first day at the shala I was reminded, "yoga is an internal practice."
Ashtanga means eight limbs and the physical postures are just one limb. Other limbs include the yamas and niyamas (ethical standards and self discipline), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (sense withdrawal; ability to withdraw senses from external environment to be the observer), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and the final stage, samadhi (bliss/an interconnectedness with all beings and living things.)
Everyday I would wake up at 4AM for morning rituals and my personal meditation practice and then walk to the shala for practice from 6:30-8:30AM. Students jammed into the tiny shala and practiced mat to mat. Most days we practiced mysore style- you do your own individual practice linking one movement to the next with deep and steady breathing despite the fact that your muscles are trembling and you are sweating profusely. The teacher and assistants are there to help with adjustments; in yoga asana you put the body in unlikely positions. You get into every nook and cranny. You twist, bend, fold, lift, and stretch the body in every direction and although there may be initial discomfort the intention is to find the ease of being and breath in every pose. It's a lot like life, you get put in unlikely and sometimes uncomfortable positions and the true test is whether or not you can keep your cool and steadiness of breath remaining equanimous; your happiness and contentment un-phased by external circumstances.
Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Pause.
Every afternoon I would take a tuk tuk (a little cab on the back of a motor bike) through the chaos of the city to practice Pranayama (breath control). By the time I would arrive at the shala I felt anxious from the journey as we just dodged multiple head on collisions.
My teacher in India for Pranayama, B.N.S. Iyengar is an excellent example of how yoga practices promote health and longevity. He is 92 years old and going strong. He is one of the oldest yogis carrying on the teachings of Krishnamacharya (considered to be the father of modern day yoga).
He teaches multiple classes per day and teaches with an old school method that has apparently been working for decades.
He would lecture briefly, sometimes write on a chalk board and say, "you take" (aka write it down) and most of all he would say, "now you do, you practice, come on now."
One day one I found myself at the chalkboard reciting "inhale and exhale with retention is pranayama" over and over again and then he would instruct me to recite it with my eyes closed.
Over the course of a few weeks we learned a variety of breath practices. I would leave practice feeling calm, cool, and collected; un-phased by the darting motor bikes and honking horns. There was chaos going on around me but internally I learned to find stillness by creating a pause between the inhale and exhale of my breath.
Finding the Pauses Throughout the Day
Often times, a wave of fatigue would strike in the late afternoon. The practices taxed my willpower. The mid-day sun was intense and it was hot and sticky. While I love to learn new things sometimes it felt like overload since the stimulus from the environment was a lot to process alone. In the afternoons I made a strong effort to incorporate down time to relax. I must admit, I am not great at relaxing. I always feel like there is something more to do and I should be using my time more proficiently, but I routinely remind myself that if I do not pause to process then nothing gets done well, and at the end of the day that's what matters.
Pausing for Prayer
In all of it's chaos India will spiritually ground you. One of the biggest take aways was learning how to pray and making it a regular practice. Just a few minutes of prayer or even the thought of a higher power gives me so much energy. When I pray I feel like all of my cells are lighting up; no matter how tired I am cannot help but feel myself coming more and more alive as I am infiltrated with energy of a force I cannot put into words.
Stronger Mentally, Physically, and Spiritually by Week 3
Our brains and bodies are designed to adapt and grow.
Within a few weeks I felt stronger on all levels. I was no longer fatigued by my new environment and schedule. I had more energy to add in additional activities and it was in that moment I knew my nervous system had upgraded itself and I had become more resilient. The process was a bit rough in the beginning, but with persistence, recovery and patience, growth is guaranteed.
HOW TO PAUSE: THE BODY AND BRAIN NEED TO RECOVER TO GROW
One of the fastest ways to recover and let your brain and body chill out is simply to lie down on your back and breathe deeply and pause after inhale and exhalation. This helps stimulate the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the body that runs from your cervical spine all through the thorax into the gut. It's the messenger between your two brains- the one in your skull and your gut brain or enteric nervous system.
"When your ever-vigilant sympathetic nervous system revs up the fight or flight responses—pouring the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline into your body—the vagus nerve tells your body to chill out by releasing acetylcholine. Its tendrils extend to many organs, acting like fiberoptic cables that send instructions to release enzymes and proteins like prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin, which calm you down. People with a stronger vagus response may be more likely to recover more quickly after stress, injury, or illness." Source
BOTTOM LINE: The world and technology is evolving fast. Our environment and to-do lists can be a lot to process and handle. You are capable of meeting the challenges, but remember that growth is not a linear process. You must make time for recovery and create purposeful pauses along the way to reach new heights.