As an additional string to my yoga bow I have started making Mala beads. If you are not sure what these are, they are Yogic meditation beads. They have 108 beads with a guru bead at the centre, with the number 108 said to hold spiritual significance (I'll write a separate blog post about that soon).
I am making them initially for myself and also as gifts for friends, but eventually I'd like to make my offering available for purchase probably on Etsy. Mala beads can really beautiful aesthetically but can also be a really effective tool to help you with meditation (again another post...).
As I'm making these Mala's, which are hand knotted between each bead. I've noticed a couple of things about myself. Firstly my perfectionist tendencies which I normally work quite hard to keep quelled as I think it can be a waste of time!
But as I'm making these beads and tying these knots, if the knot I've tied isn't 100% perfect I've been undoing them...I just can't leave it be. Which is good in terms of me making a quality product if I intend to sell them, as I believe if you want to share something with anybody, especially if you intend there to be a monetary exchange, it should be the best it can be.
However sometimes these knots take a while to undo, and I have to work at them with my little crochet hook. I just keep working at it, and changing my angle and perspective, and then trying again. It might even take 5-10 minutes. But then all of a sudden... I feel a tiny little give, a smidgen of space and then whoosh! The knot unravels! The process can be really frustrating, but ultimately satisfying.
And it reminded me of Yoga practice. Both asana (physical) and meditation. In asana, sometimes you feel like you are making no "progress" in a pose, but you keep at it, you keep moving to your edge, and holding it, and breathing and finding steadiness "Sthira Sukham". And then one day...you start to feel that little pinhole of space and you edge it and whoosh, just like the knot in the mala, the asana opens up to you. It may even take years.
For example, when I did my first hand stand: I just couldn't do it. Couldn't do it as a kid; couldn't do it now. I went to class and did my home practice and diligently practiced other asanas, and did the prep work for handstand. But Nada. It eluded me.
Then one day, I was actually at home resting in bed as I had a bit of a cold. I had the urge try a handstand so I got out of bed, went over to the wall and I suddenly kicked up and I was in a handstand! If I wasn't upside down concentrating very hard I would have fallen down in shock!
Same with meditation. Sometimes you may sit and sit and sit and feel like nothing is happening....but just keep going. One day you will see the space and move right into it. The knot will open and there you will be - right in the middle of the space that you thought never even existed.
"There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in". - Leonard Cohen
This Chakra is said to be located above the crown of the head, so is also referred to as the Crown Chakra.
This Chakra is said to be either the colour violet, or a pure white light as all the colours of the 7 lower Chakras converge. The element is thought – which is apt as Sahasrara is connected into the head, and is said to be primarily associated with the pituitary gland, and secondarily to the pineal gland and the hypothalamus in the brain.
The visual symbol is a thousand petalled lotus, with the number 1000 being symbolic of infinity.
Sahasrara is said to be…
If it is underactive you may experience feelings of depression and/or apathy, scepticism and/or sarcasm, and maybe a feeling that you can’t meditate and be “spiritual”. It may also manifest as a feeling of lack or purpose, that everything in life is just meaningless and chaotic.
If it is overactive you may feel a disconnection with earthly and physical matters and be too caught up in your head, with an obsessive relationship to spirituality. You may have feelings of superiority to others, be judgemental and critical.
However, if your Sahasrara is nice and balanced…
You will likely have a strong and deep sense of spirituality and “interconnectedness”, access to higher states of consciousness, increased understanding, and liberation from limited thinking and ego attachments. You will find spiritual practices such meditation easy to do and will feel balanced and integrated.
The theory is that through our practice of physical yoga (asanas), along with our breath exercises (pranayama) and meditation we have got our prana (energy, life-force) moving in the right direction, which is broadly speaking, upwards.
It passes through each of the 7 main Chakras, located along the spine, which are now fully open, balanced and in harmony and we receive the fullest fruit of our yogic path – union, harmony and integration.
That all sounds super easy right? I wish I could tell you that it was, and that just a few classes with me or another teacher would sort your Chakras right out! But it is a journey, perhaps a life long one…and as we all know it’s the journey that really matters, rather than the destination!
“Go inside and listen to your inner voice. Every question has an answer. Your soul is full of wisdom and knows the way.” Yogi Bhajan
Number 6: Ajna Chakra - the third eye, located at the spot between the eyebrows - is said to be where the individual and cosmic egos merge. It is the element of light, where we have moved beyond the gross elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether connected to the lower Chakras.
It is the highest feminine Chakra so it represents intuitive (and possibly psychic...) gifts as well as deep, feminine wisdom. It is also said to be associated with the Pineal Gland and the release of melatonin.
Ajna means “To Perceive” so this Chakra is connected to intuition, consciousness, insight, memory and imagination. It is about seeing beyond what is merely presented before us. It is connection to the voice of our soul and allows us to see the “unseen” and have a greater perception of our reality in order to understand our purpose in life.
“Going through life without intuition is like driving a car without side and rear view mirrors. All you can see is ahead”. Yogi Bhajan
If this Chakra is underactive, we may have poor physical vision, memory, dream recall and imagination. We may also have difficulty visualising and imagining the future.
If our Ajna is overactive we can experience too much imagination which may manifest as nightmares, obsessions and delusions. Perhaps an overindulgence in fantasy and losing touch with reality.
An extreme imbalance can also cause physical symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, sinus problems, insomnia, difficulty concentrating and poor memory.
When the Third Eye is balanced you see clearly. You make decisions with a sense of neutrality, meaning you are concerned, but not attached, to any single outcome. Highly focused, you can make the distinction between reality and dreams (or imagination).
In this weeks class we have been chanting the word “OM” which is the Bija Mantra for this Chakra. We have also been applying gentle pressure to the Third Eye area by touching it to the floor/blocks in Childs Pose, and our thumbs with our hands in prayer position (Anjali Mudra). We have also been working on relaxing the face so the energy, in theory, can travel unimpeded up to this important spot between the eyebrows.
Although we have been focussing on, and perhaps activating, the Chakras over the past few weeks, it is an ongoing process and these classes are just the first step to increasing your awareness of each of these energy centres. Through regular practice of Yoga asana, meditation, pranayama and other techniques such as chanting we endeavour to holistically start to bring openness to all of the Chakras. But it doesn’t happen overnight.
Also, maybe in the process we are feeling healthier, toning and strengthening our bodies and increasing our flexibility. Possibly experiencing more peace of mind and a sense of calm. That's all good stuff right?!
And if you haven't been able to make it to class, perhaps see if you can find 5 minutes to practice at home - a few rounds of cat/cow, downward facing dog, and childs pose is always a good place to start.
And/or try a simple meditation - find a comfortable place to sit, don't be too fussed about finding a "yogic" position, make your priority that you can sit comfortably and your spine is long. Set a timer on your phone for 5 mins. Close your eyes and start to notice your breath, just observe it coming and going. See if you can notice the pause that exists naturally between the inhale and exhale - there is a brief moment where everything just feels calm and quiet. Keep breathing naturally and keep noticing the pause, try not to hold the breath, just allow it to flow. If you find that you've been distracted by a thought - don't worry, just let it go and come back to your breath and the observation of the gap. I like to think of this technique as a natural meditation within your breath that it always there...just return to it.
“Practice and all is coming” Sri K Pattabhi Jois
So we’ve arrived at Chakra No 5, the Throat – with its obvious location at the base of the neck, and the colour Blue.
This Sanskrit name Vishuddha means “pure”, “clear”, “virtuous", and is sometimes translated as meaning purification/cleansing.
The element is Ether or Space, so it hosts the elements of the lower 4 Chakras – earth, water, fire and air.
It is linked to communication and the use of the voice and the theory is that once the lower Chakras have been balanced, this leads to clear verbal expression of:
Stability – Manipura (Earth)
Creativity – Swadhistana (Water)
Wilfulness – Manipura (Fire)
Love – Anahata (Air)
Prana – our life force - can flow freely through the throat and the expression of the inner self can find balance.
This all sounds great but is an ideal case scenario, and as we know from our exploration of the previous 4 Chakras, they are not always open, or open in sequential order.
If your Throat Chakra is underactive this can manifest as a fear of speaking, difficulty in expressing your thoughts, shyness and being timid, social anxiety, inhibited creativity and inconsistency in your speech and actions.
If it is overactive it can make a person critical and judgmental, shrill, loud and domineering - individuals who talk over, yell and shout at others and just don’t listen. They just talk too much and I’m sure we’ve all met someone like this before right?! They may also have a tendency to spit out hurtful words and just don’t know when to stop in an argument.
A balanced Throat Chakra finds a person able to express themselves clearly, honestly and with confidence. You will have a clear speaking voice and aren’t afraid to talk. You have balanced and calm thoughts which you express as appropriate. As well as being able to speak up, you are also able to listen to others and their unique voice.
Blockages in the energy flow through the Throat Chakra can present themselves physically as problems with the Thyroid gland, throat, jaw and mouth. Think of a time perhaps when you have had to “swallow” your feelings – you can feel a huge lump in your throat and it can physically hurt. Continual suppression of your voice, and thereby your emotions, can lead to tension that mutates into a physical issue.
We can bring openness to our throats and activate this Chakra through singing, chanting and humming – so thereby releasing any tension that may be there due to an imbalance, whatever the original cause may be.
We can also bring openness to this Chakra through using yoga asana (poses) that open the area such as this Fish Pose – where we take the head back and free the Throat.
Next post we move up to the more “Spiritual” Chakras and arrive at the Third Eye – Ajna – linked to intuition and super consciousness.
Anahata is a Sanskrit word that translates as "Unstruck Sound", so sound that is made without any two things striking, meaning the sound of the heart, which throbs, beats or vibrates with the very pulse of life.
This Chakra is symbolic of unconditional love, compassion and joy and becoming love itself. I also like to see this Chakra as being not just love that we give to others – romantic love, love for our family and friends, and kindness and compassion in general to other beings - but also being open to receive love which for some can be a harder thing to do...it can feel more comfortable at times to just keep giving!
This Chakra is said to be the bridge between the lower, human Chakras – Muladhara (earth, basic needs and being rooted), Swadhistana (water, fertile creativity, sexual and self expression), and Manipura (“Fire in the belly”, outward energy, confidence, career); and the higher Chakras of spirituality and intuition which we will come to over the next few weeks.
The Chakra point is said to be located at the heart centre (rather than the actual location of the heart to the left), the colour is Green and the Bija Mantra is “YAM”. The element is air which like love, is within and all around us.
The air element can be observed as having a connection to the air mechanism connected to the heart – the lungs. So, interestingly, underactive heart Chakra is sometimes linked to breathing problems such as Asthma. But for now, lets focus more on the emotional connections:
An underactive heart Chakra can manifest as loneliness, shyness, being overly critical towards yourself and others, holding grudges, inability to give or receive freely, suspicion and fear, especially in friendships and romantic relationships.
An overactive heart Chakra can present itself as loving indiscriminately, lack of proper boundaries in friendships and intimate relationships, tolerating too much from others, and co-dependency.
If your Anahata is opened and balanced, you will naturally feel love and compassion for others and allow people to be who they are, instead of attempting to mould them to your expectations. A person with an open Heart Chakra is altruistic and respects others. People around them will notice an easy going peace about the person, no matter what else may be going on in the room.
We can cultivate a heart centred quality of awareness in all of our asanas, but especially through practicing backbends, which stimulate this heart opening. Physically, back bends strengthen the back, and are stimulating so can sometimes give you a strong “rush” afterwards and be quite freeing. However, some people find that backbends make them uncomfortable emotionally so shy away from the feelings that backbends can trigger.
From a physical perspective, my experience personally and through teaching is that if you are tight in the back of the body – yes I’m talking about you pesky hamstrings – you generally find back-bending somewhat easy, and vice versa.
Depending on the type of backbend, they can be very strong so you need to go easy, especially if you have any weakness or sensitivity in the lower back. However, with continued, controlled practice they will help to build strength.
1) Bridge pose - Setu Bandhasana. A good, basic backbend that most people can manage and one day might lead to number 3...
2) Bow pose - Dhanusrasana. This is strong, but if you are able to get into it without straining your back (or your breath...) it feels pretty damn amazing!
3) Upward Facing Bow - Urdhva Dhanurasana. This is clearly not for the faint "hearted" but if you have the physical strength and the flexibility in the back and the shoulders, this will truly make you feel alive! If not, just stick with number 1!
Next we arrive at the Throat Chakra – using our voice to express the element of sound, through chanting and throat opening poses.
We started our journey in Muladhara chakra at the base of the spine, to root and earth by establishing grounding in our yoga asanas, and awareness of our pelvis, legs and feet. Then we travelled up to Swadhistana, a couple of inches under the navel – water. Creativity and moving emotions which we awakened with flowing movements in our practice.
Now we arrive at Chakra 3:
Manipura - “The city of Jewels” (Mani, “gems”; Pura “town”).
This Chakra is located at the Solar Plexus – and its element is Fire. So this Chakra is all about outward energy – power and heat manifesting as confidence and self-awareness.
It is traditionally masculine and relates to personal power – going out into the world after establishing our grounding at Muladhara, then finding our sexual and self-expression at Swadhistana…now we go out and get s**t done with the aid of Manipura!
On a physical level Manipura Chakra is connected to the digestive system and the adrenals, so controls our energy balance. It fans and regulates the “digestive fire” (known as Agni) and it makes an important contribution to a stable and healthy constitution. It is also connected to the abdominal muscles.
If your Manipura is in balance you have good confidence and self-esteem, you are courageous and assertive without being forceful, and have a sense of openness. You are going out into the world to follow your dreams, finding your career or vocation, and meeting people and socialising.
If it is underactive you may fade from action, avoid making decisions, question yourself, and be timid and shy.
If you have too much energy through your Manipura you might just possibly have anger issues (too much fire), be domineering, excessively competitive, insensitive, and arrogant. Now I’m sure that doesn’t apply to ANY of you lovely yogis of course! But you have probably met someone throughout your life that meets that description. And they probably need to get their raging selves to a Yoga class pronto (but please don’t give them my number!).
The colour of this Chakra is Yellow and there are also mantras known as “Bija” associated with each of the Chakras and this one is “RAM”. Mantras are said to hold a special sound vibration and this can help with your Chakra awareness/awakening.
Good asanas for awakening this Chakra are core strengtheners such as Navasana (boat pose) - fire up those abs and build strength! and twists to stimulate your digestion and your Agni.
Next Chakra is Anahata - the heart...
In my last post we made an enquiry into the root Chakra – Muladhara, which was earthy and grounding.
Next we arrive at Chakra No 2 – Swadhistana, the Sacral Chakra.
The natural progression of the energy moving up through the Chakra system is that after it makes it through Muladhara – basic human needs such as food and housing - it comes to Swadhistana.
This Chakra is roughly located 1-2 inches below the navel centre and on a physical level it is concerned with pleasure, sexuality, and is connected to the reproductive organs. So it is all about creativity…both biologically and artistically!
It is the water element so just like the free flowing nature of water, it’s always changeable and definitely not static like Muladahara (Earth) is.
It’s about emotions too – emotion = Energy in motion.
It’s connected to Lunar energy – see the Swadhistana symbol and the crescent moon at the base so traditionally feminine energy.
Another way to think of it could be the fluctuations of the female hormones throughout a month – the physical and emotional changes that happen throughout the menstrual cycle - and indeed a large proportion of her life.
If your Swadhistana is low/blocked there may be a loss of creativity, low sexual energy, dullness and depression. There may also be attachment issues, guilt, timidity, emotional volatility, hypersensitivity, and trust issues. It can also manifest as being disconnected and cold.
If it is overactive a person might be too caught up in pleasure (e.g. sex, eating, drinking, drugs…) and/or be needy and emotionally dependant on others.
That all sounds like a barrel of laughs right?!
However, if it is balanced and the energy is flowing as it should you will experience vitality, wellness, be open to pleasure and joy, emotionally free, and also be able to express yourself creatively.
The water element is also connected to dance so think about watching a belly dancer…freedom of this Chakra in action! There is something so enchanting and freeing about inhibited movement. So just try and dance like no-one is watching...remember to close your curtains first though :)
Regardless of whether your Swadhistana might be identified as being under or over active, we can cultivate energy flow into this watery Chakra through our yoga practice. It is connected to the sacrum and the hips so yoga asanas that open the hips are beneficial, as are flowing movements.
Next week we arrive at Manipura Chakra at the solar plexus – fire-y sun energy...hot hot hot!
Yogis believe that energy channels run through the body and these are called Nadis. There are said to be 72,000 of these within each human body! These Nadis move the energy through the body with the intention of ultimately moving the energy upwards and through the energy junctions located in the spine or “Chakras”. The word Chakra means “wheel” and these chakras are said to be spinning wheels of energy.
There are 7 chakras starting at the base of the spine, moving up through the spine, with the 7th and final chakra being located at the crown of the head – if the energy makes it up here you are very spiritual and may even achieve enlightenment!
One of the intentions of our yoga practice is to firstly start to enable energy to flow freely through the body. There may be blocks in the nadis, in which case the energy can’t move as it should. Think of it like a fine electrical wire with a kink in it – the electricity can’t flow freely. Reminds me of ALL my Apple chargers…!
So our yoga practice starts to straighten out the kinks and the energy starts to flow in the proper direction. It will arrive at the first chakra - Muladhara, the root.
Muladhara is located at the base of the spine. The colour is red – interestingly the chakra colours are the same as the colours of the rainbow – and the element is earth. So this chakra is concerned with basic human needs – food, shelter, livelihood, and security and is the raw, static energy of life. It is said to form the border between human and animal consciousness and linked to the unconscious mind.
If Muladhara chakra is out of balance perhaps because of life circumstance beyond your control such as illness, worrying about having a job, paying bills, or where you can live, you will feel very un-rooted. This makes it hard to focus on anything else – I think we’ve probably all been at that place at one point or another in our lives, or maybe you are currently experiencing this feeling. At the other end of the spectrum if this chakra is overactive you may become impatient, and over materialistic and too rooted – heavy and stagnant.
If your Muladhara is balanced and open you feel grounded and at ease.
We can cultivate and establish a sense of Muladhara through our yoga practice despite what is happening externally. This chakra is connected physically to the pelvis, legs and feet – so yoga asanas that ground us are beneficial, such as mountain pose (Tadasana).
These type of poses do feel very earthy so can actually also be quite cooling. I like to compare it to when an animal such as an elephant or pig bathes in mud to cool off.
In my Yoga classes in London we have been exploring this chakra for the past week of classes as we start a 7 week journey through the chakra system. This week we move onto Swadhistana - water. If you are based in North London join me for a class!
I teach yoga in open classes to mixed ability students, and I also teach 2 classes a week at a disability rehabilitation centre. In these classes, my students have a range of physical disabilities that include wheelchair users, degenerative conditions, and blind/visually impaired people.
Obviously, what I can teach in an open class with people who generally have good mobility is vastly different. But the same intention I try apply to all of my teaching, with all of my students. And that is:
What is the essence of the pose?
So let's use Tree Pose for example (Vrksasana).
In an open class, peoples ability to "execute" this pose can differ. Some people find it easy to stand on one leg, but others struggle with their balance. As I teach, I often see students trying to get into the deepest expression of a pose, often at the expense of their stability/alignment.
So I encourage them to think about the "essence" of this posture - which is to be stable and rooted, but also flexible - if you resist any wobbles, you are more likely to fall.
To do this you need to ground, but also to lift, elongating torso, relaxing shoulders, finding broadness in the collar bones. All of this comes *before* trying to lift the arms overhead, or get the foot higher up the leg.
The supporting leg is the "trunk"; crown of the head, or finger tips if arms are raised, are the "branches" searching for the sun.
This is the essence of the posture.
I also teach a modified version of this to my students that have disabilities. We practice this seated. We start by becoming grounded, then we lift one foot away from the floor. We connect with all our rooting techniques, then hands come to prayer at heart centre, then maybe we lift one arm or both (depending on what movement they have available). They may be sitting down, but it's still a Tree pose!
I like to apply this idea of finding the essence of each asana during my teaching, but also my own practice. It's easy to get carried away, and want to move into the deepest expression of a pose...this is where the ego normally starts to appear :) There is often a yearning to "nail" it, which is effectively a projecting into the future, rather than being fully present in the moment.
If we are compromising our awareness of the essence, pull it back - a low steady tree is better than a high wobbly one!
Whatever you do just keep (or start!) practicing. My experience of teaching people with disabilities has taught me that that yoga is for all. Some of us may have physical limitations, some severe, but there is often a version of something that can be done. Even if it just sitting consciously, and taking a big, deep breath. Yoga is always there, within us. We just need to remember it.
The days are finally starting to lengthen as we head towards Spring! I'm excited at the prospect of longer and (hopefully!) warmer days! As a Spring baby, it's my favourite time of year! As I plan for my first workshop of the year on March 17th which is all about balance, and related to the Spring Equinox which falls on March 21st, my thoughts move to what this actually means.
Feeling balanced is what most of us are seeking, Getting the right mix of activity and rest, work and play. Not feeling heavy and lethargic; not feeling anxious and unsettled.
Depending on what type of person you and what your default setting is, you can use Yoga and its practices to help bring balance to your life. If you have a tendency to find it difficult to sit still you are probably drawn to dynamic yoga practice, moving quickly and sweating. If you have a tendency towards being quieter and more inward (like me..) this can swing toward inertia, and you may find it difficult to find the energy to get going and are probably drawn towards less dynamic yoga practice.
However, it is probably the opposite which may bring you more benefit. So if you normally practice vinyasa style yoga, try yin - where you hold the postures for longer to move deeply into the muscles and fascia of the body. You won't sweat but you will get a deep stretch and also work into the parasympathetic nervous system to sooth the entire system. If you normally favour slower yoga, try an ashtanga or vinyasa flow class. Get the blood and breath moving, get warm and shake it up to move away lethargy!
An excellent Pranayama which can benefit to everybody is Nadi Shodhana - alternate nostril breathing. This brings balance to the left and right breathing channels. The breath moves through 90 minute cycles where either the left or right nostril is breathing more dominantly, with around a 90 second pause between cycles when the breath is equal. When the left nostril is active, you are in a calmer, creative, more introspective state; when the right side is active you are in a more outgoing, outwardly energised disposition. By using the practice of Nadi Shodhana, you force the breath into balance. Try it here.
Yoga is a box filled with tools - to fire you up, calm you down, motivate you mentally, or bring you peace. Keep moving, and use this arsenal of gifts to help bring balance to your life. Move into Spring with energy and balance, peace and love.