The yamas are especially important to follow this time of year. Here’s how to put them into practice.
Across the United States, this week marks the official beginning of the holiday season. We usher in the festivities with decorations, shopping, gift-giving, parties, and family gatherings. Along with the usual seasonal fanfare is the unwelcome stress of holiday traffic, busy malls and shopping streets and facing unprocessed familial tension.
This time of year can also bring up loneliness, when feelings of loss surface and many are left to confront wounded relationships. If this is the case, it can be tempting to draw inward and retreat into the unhealthy inner worlds of depression and grief. While the holiday season is meant to be celebratory, the truth of the matter is that the holidays can be a lot to handle.
See also 5 Ways to Use Your Yoga Practice to Help You Deal With Trauma
While I’m a yogi every day of the year, it’s times of heightened stress that I fall back on my practice to support me. When I’m standing in long lines or stuck in traffic, I choose to breathe instead of fuming with impatience. When my Instagram becomes inundated with Black Friday “deals” encouraging me to buy more, I focus on compassion, kindness, and forgiveness instead of letting the seeds of consumerism and bitterness into my heart.
It’s often during the busiest times of years that we place ourselves last and routines of self-care fall by the wayside. During the holiday season, the best way to navigate the murky territory of identity, emotion, and stress is to maintain a regular practice, both on and off the mat. And a great place to start is to study the yamas—the social restraints that ask yogis to avoid violence, lying, stealing, wasting energy, and possessiveness. (The five niyamas, or self-disciplines, ask us to embrace cleanliness and contentment, purify ourselves through heat, continually study and observe our habits, and surrender to something greater than ourselves. And I’ll talk about how to put those into practice next week!)
Yoga is so powerful because it is more than just a physical practice. Yoga is effective because of the inner transformation that happens when you practice—and studying and practicing the yamas can help fast-track that work.
Whether you are a seasoned practitioner or brand-new to the practice, diving into the practical application of the yamas will give you an anchor of peace during this holiday season.
See also The Practical Guide to Mindfulness We Need this Holiday Season
How to Put the Yamas to Practice This Holiday Season
Practice: If you don’t already have a seated meditation practice, I invite you to cultivate one by sitting for as little as 5 minutes a day. Spend a few minutes each day practicing loving-kindness meditation: Start by sending love, peace, joy, and forgiveness to yourself. Then, extend your heart and send those same blessings to a friend or family member. Finally, extend the same feelings to all beings—human and non-human—all over the world and all through the universe. Once you get established in the practice of loving-kindness meditation you can do it anywhere. As you’re on the way to that holiday gathering, practice generating loving-kindness towards yourself and everyone who’ll be there. As you wait in long line at department stores, generate loving-kindness towards yourself and all other shoppers and employees.
Practice: It can be tempting to put on a happy face and say you’re “fine” this time of year—even when you’re not. However, doing this creates emotional distance between you and the world. Try being honest in an authentic way. If you’re having a bad day and someone asks you how you’re doing, tell the truth. Be brave enough to say that you’re having a bad day, and then see what happens. After all, truthfulness opens the door for honest connection. You might be surprised to find compassionate responses as you share your vulnerability with the world.
Definition: Non-Stealing, Non-Appropriation
Practice: It can be so easy to feel jealous of others’ happiness. It sometimes feels like there’s a limited amount of happiness in the world and when others are happy, it can seem like they “stole” our happiness. Yet jealousy is vicious cycle that leads to a dead end. To help curb that state of mind, practice sympathetic joy: Choose someone you love like a child and celebrate their happiness. Then, expand your heart and see everyone in your town happy. Finally, hold in your heart the person who brings up your jealousy the most and freely send that person the happiness, success, and joy that you desire. Then, bring your mind back to your heart and feel the freedom.
Definition: Sexual Continence
Practice: This yama is often translated as celibacy. There is, however, more to this than abstinence. Only renunciant yogis who have taken vows of celibacy should think about maintaining abstinence as their commitment to Brahmacharya. For most yogis, it may be best to think about Brahmacharya as an act of valuing and honoring the committed relationships in your life. If you’re in a committed relationship, take on gratitude as a daily practice and express it in actions. Starting today, think of at least one thing that you are grateful for about your partner and thank that person for it. Commit to expressing your gratitude every day throughout the entire holiday season (and perhaps beyond!). If you’re not in a committed relationship, turn your sense of honor inward and think of one thing that you are grateful for about yourself each day. Then, look in the mirror and thank yourself for that.
Practice: The last of the yamas means non-greed, non-covetousness, and non-attachment. Think about how all of these traits can be “up” during this gift-giving season. It’s easy to feel disappointed when a friend or family member doesn’t seem as appreciative of a gift as you’d like them to be. Perhaps someone even returns an gift you spent hours choosing for them. If you truly put Aparigraha to work in your heart, you will practice letting go of your judgements around how someone reacts to your gift. Remember, true acts of giving are not performative and need no celebration or public praise. A big part of this yama involves releasing your attachment to a particular outcome when giving and receiving gifts.
About the Author
Kino MacGregor is a Miami native and the founder of Omstars, the world’s first yoga TV network. (For a free month, click here. With over 1 million followers on Instagram and over 500,000 subscribers on YouTube and Facebook, Kino’s message of spiritual strength reaches people all over the world. Sought after as an expert in yoga worldwide, Kino is an international yoga teacher, inspirational speaker, author of four books, producer of six Ashtanga Yoga DVDs, writer, vlogger, world traveler, and co-founder of Miami Life Center. Learn more at www.kinoyoga.com.
A 5-Minute Meditation To Relieve Financial Stress
If you’re feeling tension in your body from the financial stresses in your life, this guided meditation will help.
Yoga teacher Claire Mark shares this 5-minute meditation centered around calming and softening the body when there are times of financial stress. In times of fear, we often have negative thoughts. This meditation will help you replace those thoughts with positive ones.
See also Stand in Your Own Power with this 8-Minute Guided Meditation
Reduce Pain and Discomfort with These Poses for the Pelvis
Pain and discomfort can be gone with these therapeutic asana sequences from pelvic-floor expert and yoga teacher Leslie Howard.
If you are plagued by pain or discomfort down there, these exploratory tools and yoga sequences (no, were not talking Kegels) can help you either tone or release tension. You won’t believe the benefits—from better sex to walking through the world with more freedom.
As girls, we are exposed to relentless conditioning. We will be told to walk, sit, stand, move, and behave in ways that are appropriate, sexy, ladylike, and motherly. We will even be told which bathroom to use. By adulthood, each of us will carry these ways of being women throughout our body, but we will feel them particularly in the pelvic region, the part of our bodies most deeply associated with our gender. The pelvic region becomes
a complex, multilayered storage unit—I call it the original 1-800-MINI-STORAGE—the place where we store the things we can’t let go of but don’t want to deal with right now.
This can lead to health issues that are both emotional and physical in nature. We need to explore and liberate this terrain and take charge of ourselves—openly acknowledge and understand our issues—and skillfully tune in to the healing power of our own bodies. I believe it’s time to liberate your pelvis.
See also Discover the Connection Between Your Head and Pelvis
Every Pelvis Has a Story
“Every pelvis has a story” is what I tell my students. My story is this: In 2005, I had already been a yoga teacher for 20 years, so I thought I knew the anatomy and mechanics of “down there” fairly well. But around that time, I began to experience pain and discomfort in this nether region. And then as I worked to figure out why, I realized that much of my knowledge about the pelvic area was abstract, generic, and derived mostly from anatomy books. I didn’t understand the specifics—the muscles housed within it and that entire region’s relationship to the rest of my body, mind, and life history.
I began experimenting with yoga poses and breathing practices to familiarize myself with, and ultimately explore, the many layers of trauma, held emotion, and pain that lay hidden between my hip bones. The more I understood how the intricacies of my pelvis intersected with personal history, cultural conditioning, sexism, anatomy, and symptoms of ill health, the more I began to see how my pelvis was tied to my general well-being—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It turned out that my pelvic floor muscles were way too tight, but I had no idea why or how that had happened. My exploration turned into an investigation of the factors that shaped me, such as my postural, sexual, and medical histories; my struggles with body image; and the influence of relationships, family, advertising, media, and movies. Bringing the story of my pelvis to light became a key component of my evolution as a human being. From there, I eventually developed a yoga protocol that formed the cornerstone of the pelvic-floor workshops I now teach around the world.
Many people with pelvic issues attend my workshops after having tried a number of different approaches to deal with them, often consulting first with their general practitioner, then a gynecologist, then a urologist. They may have tried Kegels, other muscle-building exercises, or even antidepressants. Some have reached a point where they are considering surgery. Let’s look at this scenario: A woman in her mid-40s starts feeling pain during intercourse. Her doctor recommends using more lubricant, but that doesn’t help. She visits a gynecologist who can’t diagnose a reason for her painful intercourse. She starts to read about the issue on the Internet, which offers exercises that may solve the problem. She does the exercises but they don’t help. She starts to wonder if her symptoms are psychosomatic and seeks a psychotherapist . . . The list goes on.
See also Why Balancing Your Pelvis Is Key to Good Posture
Each of the approaches above (allopathic medicine, exercise, counseling) has its merits. But for many women, yoga is the last resort. I’ve worked as a pelvic-floor yoga teacher for over 12 years, so I say this with absolute certainty: Yoga should be the first resort. Here’s why. Practicing yoga cultivates self-awareness and sensitivity toward your body; it isn’t just another set of exercises you do. Yoga fosters subtle observation and awareness of your body’s mechanics and energetics. It gives you experiential insight into the unique form and shape of your individual embodiment. It allows you to understand what is happening as it is happening, and it gives you the tools to adjust your practice to constantly fluctuating conditions, moment by moment. It is one thing to have a general conceptual understanding of the anatomy of muscles; it’s something else to be able to locate, sense, and work with the individual muscles in your own body.
Body awareness is key to properly diagnosing ailments. No doctor in the world will be able to tell you what it’s like for you to feel pain or tension or relief or any other sensation; this is information only you can access. This type of insight is critical to making a proper diagnosis. Yoga combines external conceptual knowledge with the internal experiential understanding that only you can access. Yoga is empowering. It empowers you to take an active role in your own healing rather than handing over responsibility to a doctor or someone else. It encourages and supports you to see for yourself. After all, it is your body, and you should not blindly give up control. You hold primary authority over your body, and you need to exercise that authority by exploring, observing, and learning about yourself. Yoga helps you shed your self-imposed states and empowers you to emerge, to mature, and to take responsibility for yourself.
Is Your Pelvic Floor Hypertonic or Hypotonic?
These are two conditions that can cause a fair amount of pelvic pain and discomfort. To assess if you are dealing with either, here are some informal diagnostic tools.
See also Not ALL Hips Need Opening: 3 Moves for Hip Stability
A little sitting-bone massage is an ideal way to develop greater awareness of this area. In any seated position, lean onto your left buttock so that the right sitting bone is easily accessible (you can also do this lying on your side). With one hand, find the tip of your right ischial tuberosity, a.k.a. sitting bone. Using the sitting bone as your landmark, begin to massage the muscles just on the inner edge of the sitting bone, toward the vulva. Massage a little toward the front and a little toward the back. Are there are any tender or tight spots in the corridor between your vulva and the bone? Is there any pain? Take note of the density of the muscle around the bone. Is it firm, hard, squishy, tense? Does the area have any “give”? Continue for one full minute.
Now sit back on both sitting bones and observe the difference between the right and the left sides.
• Has anything changed as a result of releasing muscular tension on one side?
• Does the right sitting bone feel lower on the seat? Is there a sense of more space around the bone?
Now take a few deep breaths and shift your attention to breathing sensations.
• Does the right side of your body feel more spacious as you inhale?
Repeat on the left side and notice any differences.
Where you notice tightness and soreness is where you might be hypertonic.
Basic symptoms of a hypertonic Pelvic floor
• Pelvic pain
• Urge incontinence: strong immediate feelings of needing to urinate, without leakage
Basic symptoms of a hypotonic Pelvic floor
• Stress incontinence: leakage that often happens without any forewarning
See also A Pelvic Floor Sequence for an Easier Labor + Delivery
Both a hypertonic and hypotonic pelvic floor can often be effectively remedied with yoga.
Yoga provides a complex and nuanced set of tools you can fine-tune to address your specific circumstances in a noninvasive, holistic way. As you practice the poses on the following pages, I encourage you to pay attention to the specific energy each of them carries. Poses are often experienced as calming, invigorating, focusing, heating, cooling, and so on. When you understand the energy of different poses and how they affect you, you can use this knowledge to energize, balance, and calm your life; to challenge yourself; to cultivate greater sensitivity and compassion; or to simply enjoy a richer and much more complex range of sensations and emotions.
Some of the poses in the sequences build strength and help you find and contract muscles. Some lengthen muscles, while others soften muscles. Some focus on the breath. I have separated the poses into two categories to address hypertonicity and hypotonicity. The poses are presented from easiest to more challenging, but not in a specific sequence for a particular symptom. Hopefully you have done some exploration and you know whether you need to do the poses for a hypertonic or hypotonic pelvic floor. Remember, if you are a combination of both hyper- and hypotonic, you need to address the tight muscles first. Getting chronically tight muscles to let go can sometimes happen rather quickly or in some cases may take up to a year (that is how long it took mine to let go).
See also Soften Your Middle for a Stronger Core
Practicing alone and in a quiet space can open you up to continual inquiry: What am I feeling? How is my breath? Where do I feel movement created by the breath in each pose? Remember that some yoga postures are more difficult to maintain than others. Be patient with yourself. If you are feeling tired after practicing some of the more challenging postures, switch to practicing supported Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose) or supported Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose) for 10 minutes. With practice, you should find it easier and more relaxing to assume and maintain all of these postures. The heart of practicing yoga postures is to train your nervous system to be calmer, even in a physically challenging pose. Your breath will always let you know if you are doing too much.
Hypertonic Pelvic-Floor Sequence
After a week, gradually add these poses
See also Understanding Your Sacroiliac Joint
Hypotonic Pelvic-Floor Sequence
After a week, gradually add these poses
See also Understanding Your Tailbone
About the Author
Teacher and writer Leslie Howard is an internationally acclaimed yoga educator who pioneered the growing field of yoga for pelvic health. Sonima.com named her one of the top 50 yoga instructors in the United States. University of California–San Francisco medical studies have scientifically demonstrated the effectiveness of Leslie’s techniques for improving women’s pelvic health. Learn more at lesliehowardyoga.com. Model Lenore Kitani is an Iyengar Yoga teacher and physical therapist in Boulder, Colorado.
3 Important Poses for Perimenopausal Women
Many women find that their once fast-paced and aggressive yoga practice mellows into longer-held, sustained poses.
Technically, menopause lasts only 24 hours—it’s the day 12 months after your final period, Brizendine says. But the transition leading up to that significant day can last 10 years. The perimenopause passage usually happens sometime between the ages of 42 and 55, when you go from normal menses to none at all. During this stage, you experience an erratic cycling of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone that can lead to insomnia, hot flashes, fatigue, PMS, depression, irritability, anxiety, and low libido. “You’d gotten used to your menstrual cycle, and all of a sudden your hormone chemistry changes dramatically,” Brizendine explains.
See also How Yoga Calms Anxiety Holistically
Adapting Your Practice for Perimenopause
Studies show that conscious breathing is a great option for managing perimenopausal symptoms. Simple pranayama with a five-second inhalation and five-second exhalation for 15 minutes twice a day can cut hot flashes by 44 percent, according to a study in Menopause, the journal of the North American Menopause Society. And this is a time to pay close attention to your physical and emotional states and see how your practice affects them. Inversions can relieve stress and insomnia; twists can relieve fatigue and depression; forward bends help ease irritability and anxiety. Many women find that their practice, once aggressive and fast-paced, mellows into one of longer-held, sustained poses.
“Perimenopause can take you into physical and emotional upheaval,” says physician and yoga teacher Sara Gottfried, our model here. Her perimenopause started after the birth of her second child, at age 38. “I have mood swings, and my night sweats worsen with my Ashtanga practice, so I do a more Ana-Forrest-meets-Angela-Farmer style of yoga.” Her center of gravity has changed, and she enjoys arm balances and inversions more now. “My practice is informed by my hormones and emotional context. In my 20s and most of my 30s, I was flexible and on task. Now I focus on survival and regulating my mood, so that I don’t rage at my family. I prevent rage with forward bends and inversions. I prevent depression with backbends and pranayama.”
3 Yoga Poses for Perimenopausal Women
About the Author
Nora Isaacs, a former editor at Yoga Journal, is the author of Women in Overdrive: Find Balance and Overcome Burnout at Any Age. Learn more about her writing and editing work at noraisaacs.com.
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