Healing with Yoga from the Inside

Yoga’s Unique Approach

Why is Yoga different from other forms of exercise and how does it facilitate healing? Why do students leave Yoga feeling energized yet calm? The goal of Yoga is beyond stretching hamstrings, losing weight or building muscle mass. The sister sciences of Yoga and Ayurveda function together as an integrated wellness system. The blending of asana, pranayama and meditation creates an efficacious practice, regardless of age or physical limitations. The ancient texts teach us the three main purposes of Hatha Yoga:

  1. To purify the body
  2. To balance physical, mental and energetic aspects
  3. To engage in physical practices that lead to higher consciousness

Health Benefits of Yoga

As Yoga becomes more ubiquitous throughout the world, doctors and scientists are researching the physiological and psychological effects of Yoga. Acknowledged health benefits include:

  • Improves posture, balance and eye-hand coordination.
  • Tones the body, stretches and strengthens muscles, creating more flexibility and agility.
  • Reduces bone-thinning and the risks of osteoporosis.
  • Lubricates joints and improves range of motion.
  • Reduces stiffness, aches and pains related to inactivity.
  • Calms mind and body; promotes relaxation and regulates sleep cycles.
  • Improves concentration and focus.
  • Encourages mindful eating and a sattvic lifestyle.
  • Improves body systems, including respiration, circulation and digestion.
  • May lower blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.
  • Balances energy, hormones and boosts endurance and immunities.
  • Improves a sense of well-being and cultivates gratitude.

Asanas and their Effects

Seated meditation prepares the body for movement, balances breath and energy and focuses the mind inward and into the present moment.

Moving in and out of poses stretches the muscles, while staying in a pose is strengthening. Standing poses with longer holds build bone and muscle mass.

Spinal twists aid in release of toxins and create more flexibility in the spine.

Seated and standing forward bends and Apanasana, massage abdominal area and aid in digestion.

Back bends (chest openers) aid in respiration.

Grounding, restorative poses calm the sympathetic nervous system and activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

Yoga is a moving meditation regulated by the breath.

Yoga teachings describe the physical, subtle and causal bodies (shariras) and five sheaths (koshas) bound together by wheels of energy (chakras). The subtle body is composed of energy, mind and intellect. Prana (breath, life force) flows through energy channels (nadi). Pranayama controls breath and energy and opens the nadi to access healing throughout the body.

Moving faster between asanas builds more heat and energy (brahmana), while slower transitions lead to a gentler, more mindful practice (langhana). Body and breath awareness increase with persistent practice and each Yogi/ni learns to adjust for time of day, vitality and other considerations.

Finding Balance

According to Ayurveda and Yoga, wellness is defined as the balanced and dynamic integration between environment, body, mind and spirit. All matter is composed of five elements (earth, water, fire, air and space). The elements combine into three basic energies (doshas) – vata, pitta and kapha. Each person has a unique constitution (prakriti) composed of the doshas.

One primary goal of an Ayurvedic Yoga practice is to balance the doshas. To maintain balance and find wellness use the principle of opposites. For example, on a cool damp day, practice with more movement and standing postures to increase energy and heat. Conversely during the heat of summer, practice in the morning or evening with more grounding, restorative poses. People with a Vata constitution may benefit from a langhana practice, while those with a Kapha constitution may benefit from a brahmana practice.

The Eightfold Path

Many students come to Yoga to stretch or reduce stress, then discover the deeper teachings, including the ashtanga (eightfold) path of Yoga. Healing and transformation are experienced through a full practice embracing all eight limbs of Yoga.

  1. Yama – worldly restraints and ethical standards
    • Ahimsa – nonviolence
    • Satya – truthfulness
    • Asteya – non-stealing
    • Brahmacharya – pure way of life
    • Aparighaga – non-possessiveness
  2. Niyama – personal restraints
    • Shauca – purity, cleanliness
    • Santosha – contentment
    • Tapas – self-control, self-discipline
    • Svadhyaya – study of the scriptures, deeper meanings, philosophy
    • Ishavara pranidhana – surrender to a higher force; pure seeing
  3. Asana – physical postures; mastering the body to prepare for meditation
  4. Pranayama – control of the vital force (breath)
  5. Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses
  6. Dharana – concentration
  7. Dhyana – meditation or contemplation
  8. Samadhi – absorption in the object of meditation; complete realization

When the body is cleansed, the mind purified and the senses controlled, joyful awareness, needed to realize the inner self, also comes. 

~ Yoga Sutras


This post was written as part of a collaboration with Chinmay Yoga. Learn more about this non-profit Yoga school in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, India on their website and Facebook page. Their blog has both educational and inspirational articles about Yoga.

Ayurveda, Yoga and Hormones

Understanding the Endocrine System

Together, the endocrine and the nervous systems regulate bodily activities. Endocrine glands produce and secrete 30 hormones into the blood stream. Each hormone has a specific affect upon the body, including the functions of other glands. The immune system also plays an integral role in maintaining emotional and hormonal balance. When our hormones are balanced and our immune system is strong, we have tapped into the fountain of life (ojas) and feel vital, calm and focused.

There are seven major endocrine glands with specific functions:

  • Pituitary – in the center of the skull. The hypothalamus in the forebrain coordinates the autonomic nervous system and the pituitary gland. This portion of the brain helps the body maintain a stable and constant internal environment. The nervous system secretes neurohormones governing the secretion of pituitary hormones. In turn, the pituitary regulates the other glands as well as women’s reproductive cycles.  
  • Pineal – deep within the brain; controls sleep cycles and produces melatonin; still a bit mysterious and not fully understood.
  • Thyroid – in the throat; controls cell growth and development; maintains basal metabolic rate. The thyroid helps regulate appetite, muscle function, heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Parathyroid – also located in the throat; determines the amount of calcium and phosphate in the blood and transported to muscles and bones.
  • Thymus – located between the throat and sternum; center of the adaptive immune system; develops T-cells instrumental in attacking invasive viruses, bacteria and fungi. The thymus shrinks as we mature since most T-cells are created in our youth.
  • Adrenal – above the kidneys; balances our emotional and physical state; produces adrenaline, aldosterone and cortisol; also maintains body’s salt levels.
  • Pancreas – deep in the abdomen; controls body’s sugar level through secretion of insulin and glucagon.
  • Testes – secretes testosterone.
  • Ovaries – secretes estrogen and progesterone regulating female reproductive functions.

Out of Balance

Too little production of a specific hormone is known as hypo, while too much production is known as hyper. Both conditions affect other bodily systems. Symptoms of hormonal imbalance may include insomnia, fatigue, weight gain, mood swings, irregular monthly cycles, blood sugar imbalances, digestive issues, hair loss or arthritis. A variety of factors can lead to hormonal imbalances. The most common contributors are stress, lack of exercise, lifestyle and diet.

Today’s modern lifestyle bombards us with information overload and constant deadlines increasing stress and anxiety levels. Stress can lead to hormonal imbalance and a weakened immune system. A diet lacking essential nutrients impacts the production of hormones. Excess sugars and carbohydrates can cause the pancreas to overproduce insulin. The lymphatic system relies upon body movements to push a milky fluid containing white blood cells throughout the body. A sedentary lifestyle leads to sluggish digestion and overworks the lymphatic system.

Returning to Balance with Ayurveda and Yoga

Ayurveda

Ayurveda provides the tools and knowledge to live a more balanced lifestyle in accordance with the rhythms of nature. Daily, weekly and seasonal routines elevate our awareness of subtle changes throughout the day and from season to season. Ayurveda helps us adjust to the fluctuations throughout our lives from childhood and puberty to adulthood and finally, into the forest years.

Ayurveda’s nutritional guidelines teach us how to eat according to our constitution, taking age, sex, and state of health into account. According to Ayurveda, we are what we absorb, not simply what we eat. Eating seasonally fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, etc. according to our constitution (prakriti) helps us maintain a strong, balanced metabolism and digestive fire (agni).

Ayurvedic herbs and formulae support, balance and invigorate digestion and other body systems. Rasayanas are a special type of rejuvenating tonics that help improve bodily tissues (rasa). Rich in antioxidants, they help boost our immune system, fight destructive free radicals, promote physical strength, improve cognitive function and prevent disease. Examples include amalaki, ashwagandha and shatavari – all of which I use.

Moment is a flower. Mindfulness is sipping the nectar of that flower.
~ Amit Ray

Yoga

A regular Yoga practice including breath control (pranayama), meditation, poses (asanas) followed by a period of rest (savasana) not only stretches and strengthens the body, but balances hormones and calms the central nervous system.

Pranayama supplies more oxygen to every cell in the body. Slow, full, even, deep breathing slows the emotional response produced by the hypothalamus and helps balance the endocrine system. The result is a calm, soothing state of mind and body.

A balancing method of breath control is alternate nasal breathing (nadi shodhana). I have practiced this every morning for 10 years. When I started the practice, I couldn’t believe how calm, yet energized I felt. That feeling has become the new norm. To practice nadi shodhana, sit comfortably, spine erect. Exhale completely, then press the right nostril with the thumb and inhale through the left nostril. Retaining the breath, close the left nostril with the ring finger and exhale through the right. Repeat this process, inhaling through the right nostril and exhaling through the left to complete one cycle. Alternate side to side and repeat up to 10 times. Complete the practice by finishing with an exhale on the left side.

According to Yogapedia, benefits of nadhi shodhana includes:

  • Calms the mind
  • Improves focus
  • Alleviates stress
  • Promotes mental clarity
  • Prepares the mind for meditation

Meditation, restorative poses and savasana all serve to activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) while allowing the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) to rest. SNS prepares the body for action. When activated, the body produces more adrenaline and cortisol, accelerating the heart rate, raising blood pressure, constricting blood vessels and slowing or stopping digestion. PNS calms the body and conserves energy; it slows the heart rate, increases intestinal activity, supports optimal digestion and relaxes muscles.

Asanas may improve endocrine gland functionality by increasing blood flow and activating the muscles around each gland.

  • Twists massage and stimulate kidneys, liver and pancreas.
  • Gentle inversions may increase blood flow to the brain, improving brain function as well as communication between the hypothalamus and pituitary gland.
  • Poses that activate neck muscles, stimulate the thyroid and parathyroid.
  • Chest openers stimulate the thymus.
  • Core strengthening poses activate the pancreas.
  • Poses that stretch the groin, inner thighs and hips stimulate the reproductive glands.
  • Prone back bends strengthen the muscles along the spine and massage the adrenal glands.

Yoga has been called a “fountain of youth” because it brings health and vitality, but this is a misnomer. The search for a fountain of youth, whether through magic, drugs, or techniques, indicates a resistance to the aging process. I prefer to call yoga a “fountain of life.” Aging is inevitable. Yoga allows you to approach it awarely as a transformative process that can bring growth and new depths with maturation. Resisting aging is actually resisting transformation and growth. Paradoxically, the resistance to aging, which includes holding on to old, inappropriate ways of living, exacerbates the very aging process you fear.

~ Joel Kramer from 365 Daily Meditations by Julie Rappaport

Moving Meditation

Meditation is a practice of focusing the mind – on an object, thought or activity. Meditation is often practiced seated or reclined with eyes closed in a quiet, calm setting. However, meditation can also be done while moving and in almost any setting.

Yoga itself can be experienced as a moving meditation. Yoga sessions begin with breath and body awareness and mindful meditation.  The body scan is a powerful and healing form of meditation, focusing slowly and without judgement on every part of the body. Body awareness naturally leads to breath awareness – observing and feeling the body move in unison with the breath. Focus shifts from the outer world to the inner realm with each breath and corresponding subtle movement.  Pranayama encompasses numerous methods to control the rhythm of the breath. Pranayama both energizes and calms body and mind.  Through meditation and pranayama, practioners gain the ability to be fully present in the moment, increase self-awareness, and achieve mental clarity and emotional calm. Yoga practioners move with the rhythm of their breath and heartbeat, expanding and extending on the inhale, and contracting and drawing inward on the exhale. Lingering in each pose, mind and body are one.

From Yogapedia:

Moving meditation is a meditative state – a shift of consciousness – while doing simple movements. It is a way of calming the mind and creating awareness.

Moving meditations include: walking meditation (including walking a labyrinth), forest bathing, tai chi, qigong, dance and even bringing mindfulness into daily tasks.

Walking Meditation

In addition to Yoga, I relish my walking meditations. A couple of years ago, I took Mindful-Based Stress Reduction training. My favorite session was the spring evening we practiced walking meditation around The Good Shepherd Center. I spent my time with just a couple of trees, focusing deeply from the base to the branches overhead and from the surface bark to the sap inside. Then I walked in expanding circles on the front lawn. I returned twice this year with my dog Sammie. We paused to feel the air, and the warmth of the sun. Sammie and I often walk in unison – she sniffs as I feel the ground beneath my feet. School was out for recess and the laughter of the children was a pleasant song to my ears.

Sabino Canyon on the winter solstice

On the early morning of the winter solstice, I walked alone in Sabino Canyon outside Tuscon, Arizona. The sun rose over peak after peak as I descended towards the valley floor. Every twist and turn was magical and glimmering. Time stood still as I breathed in the cold, crisp high desert air. Icy cold in the dark shadows, then basking in the warm sun, I savored every moment of my four-mile walk.

Walking meditation comes easily to me and is more enjoyable with each passing day. Learn more about walking meditation from Jack Kornfield.

Forest Bathing

Last spring, I went Forest Bathing at UW Arboretum with four dear friends. Our guide set the tone with a beginning meditation underneath a grand tree. The parks and forests of Puget Sound are my home. I spent a very long, peaceful seated meditation on the forest floor, experiencing the moist carpet beneath my body. I envisioned layer upon layer beneath the surface, supporting me and all of the living beings above ground.

Forest Bathing (shinrin-yoku) began in the early 1980’s. The premise is simple – spending time in the lush green forests is good for us.

The key to unlocking the power of the forest is in the five senses. Let nature enter through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet. Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees. Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches. Smell the fragrance of the forest and breathe in the natural aromatherapy of phytoncides. Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths. Place your hands on the trunk of a tree. Dip your fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground. Drink in the flavor of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm. This is your sixth sense, a state of mind. Now you have connected with nature. You have crossed the bridge to happiness.

~ Dr. Qing Li, author of Forest Bathing

Walking the Labyrinth

This September, I walked the Redsun Labyrinth in Victor, Montana with my friend, Janet. Surrounded by the Bitteroot Mountains 40 miles south of Missoula, the setting is spectacular. It is 108’ in diameter, making it one of the largest in the U.S. Walking a labyrinth is a different experience than walking along a stream or in a forest. At the beginning, I often feel lost and anxious but then begin to trust the pattern and yield to the walking meditation. As Eve Hogan wrote,  Labyrinths invite our intuitive, pattern-seeking, symbolic mind to come forth.

Redsun Labyrinth

Tonight, I will celebrate New Years’ Eve and the end of another decade at St. Mark’s Cathedral walking the labyrinth with family and friends visiting from near and far.  

Many paths are possible; whichever path is sincerely traveled leads to inner peace.

~ Bhagavad Gita 4.11

Healing with Sound

Living in accordance with Ayurveda and Yoga, we strive to live in harmony with our environment.  Part of living a balanced life and maintaining wellness, includes the balanced use of our senses. Each sense corresponds to an element, a sense organ and an organ of action.

Element Sense Organ Sense Organ of Action
Ether (Akash) Ear Sound Vocal Cords
Air (Vayu) Skin Touch Hands
Fire (Teja) Eyes Sight Feet
Water (Aap) Tongue Taste Genito-Urinary Tract
Earth (Prithvi) Nose Smell Anus

The 5 senses are pathways to healing:

  • Sound healing includes mantras, chants, music, calming sounds of nature or simply silence.
  • Healing touch includes massage, an embrace from a loved one, acupuncture and acupressure, and the application of ointments, salves and medicated oils.
  • Healing can occur through visual art, gazing at the soft glow of a candle, beautiful and peaceful settings in nature and the face of a loved one.
  • Eating a balanced diet, including all six tastes helps us maintain health, vitality and vibrancy. A nutritious meal shared with loved ones in a pleasant setting leaves us feeling nourished and satisfied.
  • Aromatherapy, pleasant smells or even the memory of a smell are all healing.

Sound Within and All Around

According to ancient Vedic teachings, the cosmos and everything in it consists of sound vibrations or nada.   There are two types of nada: ahata – external sound perceived by the body/mind, and anahata – internal sound perceived by the heart chakra.

All living beings as well as water, earth, rocks, stars vibrate to a unique frequency.  Our prakriti (constitution) and vikriti (current condition) determine the rhythm of our heartbeat, breath and energy. An Ayurvedic tool to discover our internal rhythm is through pulse diagnosis. Oxygenated blood circulates through our arteries to nourish each cell of our physical body. The rhythm of our heartbeat not only depends upon our constitution, but also upon our state of health, age, time of day, season and other considerations.

  • People with a Vata constitution have a fast, thin and irregular pulse that can disappear with pressure. It is most evident using the index finger.
  • People with a Pitta constitution have a strong and forceful pulse most evident in the middle finger.
  • People with a Kapha constitution have a deep, slow and wavy pulse most evident in the ring finger.

In and Out of Sync

Have you “pulled an all-nighter” or travelled long distances through various time zones? Living outside of our normal frequency is fine now and then, but over extended periods of time, can leave us feeling weak and depleted. Our internal clock no longer lets us know the right time to eat or sleep. Our digestion and other metabolic systems may also fall “out of sync”. Our unique frequency is greatly influenced by external rhythms, pulses and beats. Modern society is full of overlapping, conflicting sounds, including traffic, computers, microwaves, industrial sounds and my favorite – multiple TV’s in restaurants! Have you noticed your heartbeat accelerate when you attend a loud concert or while driving in fast traffic? When our natural rhythm is out of sync for a prolonged period of time, we become imbalanced and eventually may become ill. 

Conversely, our heartbeat and breath become calmer during meditation, Yoga, massage, gazing at the ocean or walking in a forest.

Sound Healing

Sound healing can return our vibratory patterns to their natural state.  The use of sound as a healing therapy has existed for centuries all around the world.  Nada Yoga, meaning “union through sound” is the ancient Vedic science of inner transformation through sound vibrations, tone and resonance. It helps raise one’s awareness of the chakras and energizes them.

Each chakra is associated with a mantra and a keynote. A mantra is a word or sound (seed or bija) repeated silently to aid in meditation and promote healing. Used during Yoga, mantra focuses the mind and sets an intention for practice. Om, the mantra associated with the crown chakra is often chanted at the close of Yoga practice.

Music, mantra, chants, kirtan, singing bowls and sound baths are sound healing options to explore at Yoga studios and wellness centers. 

Music for your Dosha

Music affects moods and our health. The ragas of Indian classical music are attuned to different times of the day or different seasons to harmonize the listener with the rhythms of nature. The Ayurvedic healing principle of opposites can be applied to our choice in music. In her book, Absolute Beauty, Pratima Raichur describes music to balance each dosha:

  • People with a Vata constitution find balance with calm, slow, soft music with low tones and easy rhythms.
  • People with a Pitta constitution find balance with soothing, mellow music with medium tones and a moderate tempo.
  • People with a Kapha constitution find balance with high energy music with a fast beat and higher tones.

What type of music do you enjoy? Does a certain type of music make you uncomfortable?

Kirtan

Kirtan is a group recitation of chants led by a wallah and accompanied by musicians, usually including a harmonium player.  There is no obligation to sing and participants need not be concerned about their ability to carry a tune. Attending a Kirtan is different than passively listening to music, even if you choose not to actively participate.  Singing together creates a sense of community and joy. The room vibrates with energy. Kirtan has become so popular that well-known leaders travel the country and fill large halls. I attended one Kirtan with an audience of nearly 1,000, while smaller studios may include 15 – 25 people. In more intimate venues, people may stretch or move with the music. After attending Kirtan, I feel energized and uplifted.

Tibetan Singing Bowls

Singing Bowls and Sound Baths

Tibetan singing bowls are metal bowls, usually made of combinations of bronze, copper, gold, nickel, silver zinc, tin and iron.  Crystal singing bowls are made of quartz crystal, making them highly resonant. Both types of bowls produce tones by striking a mallet either on the side of the bowl or rubbing the mallet around the outside of the bowl. Bowls are tuned to the notes of the chakra and may be played one at a time.  Played together, the bowls vibrate with one another to create a sound like no other. The vibrations are not only heard, but are felt throughout the body. Sound Bath aids in meditation, harmonizing chakras, balancing the nervous system and can activate self-healing.

Sound Bath – illustration by Laura Kraft

I have attended four Sound Baths – each with their own unique and profound experience. I was very exhausted at my first Sound Bath, so it served primarily as a deep relaxation. My second Sound Bath was at dawn on New Year’s Day in a church. I meditated and set my intention for the year.

Last January I attended a Sound Bath and Yin Yoga practice at a wellness center. I lost track of time and space. In Yin Yoga, poses are held longer than in a typical practice. The Sound Bath took my mind off the time spent in the poses. I have had reoccurring pain in my left knee over the years. I left that night feeling no pain in my knee. And my knee has felt fine ever since!

This is my birthday month, so I treated myself to two wellness events – another Sound Bath and a Yoga practice with Tibetan Singing Bowls during a long savasana.  At the Sound Bath, I settled onto my mat at the back of the room with a bolster and a blanket. At first, I simply relaxed. Then in a flash, I experienced a tragic and painful personal event from 40 years ago. One that I had tucked deep into the recesses of my body and memory. Although I felt a wave of emotional pain at first, this time I released what I had been holding. I walked away, realizing I had been through a truly healing experience.

Last night, I attended a very mindful and gentle Yoga practice followed by Tibetan Singing Bowls. I felt each bowl resonate throughout my body, but they felt lighter and subtler than the crystal bowls. I plan to continue attending Sound Baths this year. Sound healing is the good path to follow at this point in my life.


Bathe deeply in the ocean of sound

     Vibrating within you, now as always,

Resonating softly,

Permeating the space of the heart.

The ear that is tuned by rapt listening

Learns to hear the song of creation.

First like a hand bell,

Then subtler, like a flute,

Subtler still as a stringed instrument,

Eventually as the buzz of a bee.

Entering this current of sound,

The Listening One

Forgets the external world, becomes

Absorbed into internal sound,

Then absorbed in vastness,

Like the song of the stars as they shine.

The Radiance Sutras

~ Lorin Roche, PhD

Pursuing Happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

~ Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

Grand Canyon, 2019
Photo by Heidi L. Mair

Have you wondered why happiness is an intrinsic right, written in our Declaration of Independence? Have modern Americans realized their right to pursue happiness both individually and on a societal level? And where did this concept originate? Is gazing at the Grand Canyon happiness, joy or a fleeting moment of pleasure? What is the difference between happiness and wellness?

According to Planet Happiness:

Happiness is a feeling and a sense of satisfaction in life, a sense of worthiness and connection. Happiness is grounded in well-being in all the dimensions of life: community and social support, culture, education, economy, environment, government, health, time balance and work.

The Philosophy of Happiness

Many American revolutionary leaders studied works of Enlightenment thinkers and classical philosophers. The concept of happiness (eudaimonia or good spirit) and well-being were articulated by the ancient Greeks and Romans.  The concept of eudaimonia comes from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, his great treatise on ethics.

According to Aristotle, the highest aim of human existence is eudaimonia – to flourish, be happy and attain a sense of well-being. Eudaimonia is an ongoing process to discover our true nature and thus, live as we are inherently meant to live. A virtuous life requires diligence (persistent practice) to develop and actualize our core values and strengths, life’s passion and goals. This process of self-discovery includes observation and contemplation. Once we know our true nature, we are motivated to develop our strengths through study and practice. Eventually, we pursue our life’s passion, true purpose and meaning. Living a virtuous life naturally leads to right actions and ultimately, happiness.

Snake River, 2019
Photo by Heidi L. Mair

A common misperception is that monetary gain, traveling to beautiful places, and fulfilling our “bucket list” lead to happiness. However, the more money a person makes and the more material wealth we accumulate, the higher are our expectations of “the good life”. We may experience joy or even ecstasy, but the experience does not necessarily lead to a lifetime of happiness and well-being.

Positive Psychology

Many of us believe that negative events (failing a test, breaking up with our first love, or not fitting in with a clique) lead to long-term depression. Humans are resilient and tend to return to a relatively stable level of happiness (hedonic adaptation), despite bumps in the road. Positive Psychology has developed the concept of happiness set point. Positive Psychology is concerned with what leads to lasting changes in happiness levels. This emerging field of psychology affirms what Aristotle wrote over 2,000 years ago. We should strive for happiness (eudaimonia) over pleasure (hedonia).


Happiness is a quality of the soul…. not a function of one’s material circumstances. ~Aristotle

Gratitude for a new day

Learning How to Find Happiness

We can pursue happiness just as we can improve our golf swing, change our diet or learn to play the violin. This is not to say that any of these are easy to accomplish! The Happiness Alliance describes four ways to become happier:

  • Feelings matter – suppressing feelings of sadness or anger also lessens our ability to feel happy. Allow yourself to open up to your feelings.
  • Practice gratitude, generosity and mindfulness.
  • Connect deeply to mother nature; extend your love of all things living to your own body and health.
  • Connect to your community. Choose compassion.

Your Mind and Happiness

Recent studies in neuroscience confirm that positive thoughts and actions “rewire” our brains and improve our sense of well-being and happiness. An important step in this process is to allow good experiences to fully sink into our consciousness. Dwell on the positive experiences of your life and less on the negative.

As Dr. Rick Hanson states, “neurons that fire together, wire together” and “passing mental states become lasting mental traits.” Dr. Hanson developed twelve pillars of wellbeing: self-caring, mindfulness, learning, vitality, gratitude, confidence, calm, motivation, intimacy, courage, aspiration and service. Watch Dr. Hanson’s informative, and easy-to-understand Ted Talk and check out his website to learn more.

Egg toss with friends and family

Break Free with Play

Use play as a creative form of self-care and a tool on your path towards happiness. Let your inner child guide you to find your core strengths and passions. Remember what you enjoyed as a child and bring it into your adult life – no matter your current age. Whether you enjoy a group activity or a more solitary pursuit, you will feel enlivened and rejuvenated. Playing allows you the freedom to find flow, or the creative zone. Play challenges us to grow, uses the mind and body, balances our energy, lowers stress, builds self-confidence and increases our health-span.

Do you want to find out if you are on your way to happiness? Take the Happiness Index Questionnaire and view your results.


“happiness is determined more by one’s state of mind than by external events.”
~Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness

Thanks to Laura Puskas for meeting with me to discuss play, creativity and happiness.

Set your Intention

Along Boulder Creek – photo by Heidi Mair

A New Beginning

The New Year is a great time to reevaluate habits and lifestyle choices, seek renewal and make positive changes for the future. Many people hope to improve their health and well-being by making resolutions and setting goals. Some examples include: I plan to practice Yoga at least 3 times a week. I plan to hike every weekend. I will try that new diet that worked for my friends. Goals and resolutions are fine but may quickly fall by the wayside due to a lack of motivation. This may derive from the fact that New Year’s resolutions are directly related to the ego and will. They rarely arise from one’s true, authentic heart-centered self.

At the beginning of Yoga class, teachers often guide students to set an intention (sankalpa) or dedicate their practice to someone or something. What does it mean to set an intention? And what is the difference between a resolution, an intention and a dedication?

Dedication

Dedication is a conscious decision to send positive thoughts and energy to someone or something. A good place to begin is with someone that you are grateful to know. If your mind wanders, return your thoughts to the object of your dedication. This simple shift takes the attention away from one’s self (worrying about perfect poses) and into a place of compassion. If you are experiencing challenges, illness or loss, dedicate your practice to your own well-being and self-care. Sometimes, I tell a loved one that I have dedicated my practice to them. They do not always understand on an intellectual level, but are touched, nevertheless.

Sankalpa

According to Yogapedia, Sankalpa is a Sanskrit term that refers to a heartfelt desire, a solemn vow, an intention, or a resolve to do something. It is similar to a resolution, except that it comes from a deeper place within and tends to be an affirmation. Sankalpa can be articulated as one word, a quotation, poem, prayer or simply a feeling.

Photo by Heidi Mair.

Yoga cultivates sankalpa for self-realization, while Ayurveda cultivates sankalpa for healing. Self-realization and healing are intertwined like the roots of a grand tree – as we gain self-awareness, we open ourselves to the process of healing.

And as we heal, we become more self-aware. Be kind to yourself. If your mind draws a blank one day, do not worry. The more you practice intention, the easier it will become… just as the Yoga asanas become more familiar with each class. The process of setting an intention increases body, mind and breath awareness and helps the Yoga practioner be fully present in each moment. Ask yourself – Why are you practicing Yoga? Why did you choose to come to class today? As you practice Yoga with intention, think of the poses and their effect. Do you want to move in a slower, more mindful manner or choose to build energy?

Sankalpa also cultivates gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, calmness, openness, strength and peacefulness. Ideally, our Yoga practice connects individual consciousness to the larger world. Setting an intention helps guide us along the journey of self-discovery, live our lives with authenticity and share our true nature with both family and the wider community.

To help my students (and me) feel the relationship between intention and affirmation, I recently shared Louise Hay’s Heart Thought Affirmation cards in several classes. I found this fostered a more powerful experience than simply describing and defining sankalpa. Each student randomly chose a card, then read it aloud to the rest of the class (or chose their own positive word, thought or affirmation to share). Several students came to me after class to share their experience. One student told me it described exactly what she is experiencing in her life. Reading the words and articulating them, helped her see the situation with a fresh perspective.

I selected a card that read, “When I change my consciousness and forgive those I need to forgive, healing miracles occur.” The other side of the card read, “I am a magnet for miracles.” The words resonated within my mind and my heart…. especially cultivating forgiveness. This led to my intention for 2019 – find healing through forgiveness.

In Walla Walla, Washington. Photo by Thomas Mair.

May you live with intention and celebrate the uniqueness of your true, authentic self.


“Live with intention.
Walk to the edge.
Listen Hard.
Practice wellness.
Play with abandon.
Laugh.
Choose with no regret.
Appreciate your friends.
Continue to learn.
Do what you love.
Live as if this is all there is.”

Mary Anne Radmacher

‘Tis the Season to be Compassionate

Our desire to connect, to feel love and compassion often peaks during the holiday season. Many of us struggle with loss, loneliness and remorse. Others are constantly on the go, go, go. I have experienced all of the above. Over the past few years, I reduced both my expectations and social activities. My focus has been on teaching and practicing Yoga, writing this blog, sharing quiet time with my husband and dog, and easing into semi-retirement. I feel great joy in sharing the gifts of Ayurveda and Yoga with my students and you, my reader. My intention to create communities of compassion has been partially realized. Sometimes I desire a lift, a change of pace, reconnection with loved ones, and time to reflect upon the twists and turns of life. Fortunately, I get a two week break after each quarter to re-energize.

At Bodh Gaya

Last spring, I went to India with my brother Denis to visit Margaret at Tarumitra on the outskirts of Patna. About 7 yeas ago, Margaret stayed with us for 10 weeks as an ILeap fellow. A peak experience was our day trip to Bodh Gaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment underneath the Bodhi tree. As I caught two leaves, I was transported back in time and envisioned Buddha meditating for seven weeks. I barely feel capable of meditating for seven minutes!  I lingered, transfixed by the Mahabodhi Temple and people from all around the globe on various pilgrimages, experiencing that moment in time together. I will forever remember the calm feeling in the air and the light rustling of the leaves.

Several weeks ago, I attended Gary Kraftsow’s Tantric Yoga workshop focused on meditation, pranayama and a discussion of the chakras and energetics. I am still absorbing my feelings and experiences, not to mention the many notes I took. During and after the workshop, memories of my week with Seeds of Compassion and the Dalai Lama came flooding back into my consciousness. In 2008, I was a lead volunteer with Seeds of Compassion – an experience that shifted my perspective and the path of my life. Within a month, I began my studies in Ayurveda and Yoga and never turned back. Reading the Dalai Lama again not only reaffirmed my commitment to my path over the past 10 years, but provided a context for my visit to Bodh Gaya and my experiences in the recent workshop.

Collage by Heidi Lynne’ – Bodhi tree leaves & Angor Wat etching by S. Solos

As the Dalai Lama described in The Art of Happiness, positive thoughts and emotions are based upon reality. Human basic consciousness is pure and known as the “mind of Clear Light”. Through meditation and other practices, we can eliminate negative emotions and thoughts based upon ignorance, distortion and delusion.

Pursuing the path of Yoga can liberate us from clouded perceptions. Put simply, Yoga is a journey towards self-awareness and union with our true self. Yogin may use various approaches to pursue the same path. Although there is overlap, they can be categorized as follows:

  • Raja or Classical – meditation; awareness of one’s mind
  • Hatha – physical transformation
  • Jnana – path of knowledge and higher wisdom
  • Karma – action and service
  • Bhakti – devotion
  • Mantra – potent sound
  • Tantra – ritual, visualization and energy work

Negative thought and emotional patterns (samskara) arise from deep conditioning as well as personal experiences. The journey to self-awareness can be long and arduous. When we meditate and practice Yoga, our attention often fluctuates between attention and distraction. With persistent practice, we can train our minds to move from a state of distraction towards sustained attention. Gradually, practioners become more self-aware, learn to read patterns and find clarity.

Do you know that breakthrough moment, when you learn a new skill and reach a state of flow? We can experience those same breakthroughs on our path towards self-awareness.   When we reach a state of total absorption (samadhi), our consciousness is merged with the object of our attention. We may feel a sense of joy and lightness or a passionate commitment. This fosters a sense of homecoming, of living in right relationship to oneself and to our community. A commitment formed by heart and mind leads to a sense of purpose, of an intentionality in one’s life. When we are free and clear, our hearts and minds naturally cultivate compassion.

The Dalai Lama defines compassion “in terms of a state of mind that is nonviolent, non-harming, and nonaggressive. It is a mental attitude based on the wish for others to be free of their suffering and is associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility, and respect towards the other.”

It is important to stress the importance of attachment in our relationships. When one loves with attachment, there is always an underlying feeling of control and the need to receive love in return. This type of relationship is inherently unstable. Genuine compassion and love flow naturally without attachment. Human beings have an innate desire to be happy and overcome suffering. And each person has the natural right to fulfill this fundamental aspiration. Through this awareness, true compassion emerges. Love and compassion are no longer based on personal projection, ego and attachment to outcomes.

“The human heart has the extraordinary capacity to hold and transform the sorrows of life into a great stream of compassion….Let yourself feel how the beauty of every being brings you joy and how the suffering of any being makes you weep.”

~ Jack Kornfield

In gratitude to Denis Mair, Edwin Molomoo, Tarumitra, The Dalai Lama and Gary Kraftsow. 

And in memory of Meng Lang, a passionate poet, he arose from the smoldering embers of Tiananmen and gave voice to many.