Feeling great is reason enough to do yoga, but happily this activity also comes with myriad health benefits.1 One of these is bone health. How does yoga strengthen your bones? Yoga poses strengthen muscles. This puts stress on bones which stimulates extra calcium deposits, and enhances the action of bone-forming cells. The result is stronger denser bones.
Maintaining bone health is important for every stage of life, however the older you are the more important it is to take part in activities that keep bones strong. Both men and women experience lower bone density as they age. After 50, over 55% of people have low bone density.2 Women have the added impact of lowering estrogen levels which impact on bone density.
Standing yoga poses like Warrior One and Two strengthen the legs and hips. Upper body weight bearing poses like Downward Dog and others impact on the muscles and bones of the wrists, arms and shoulders. Back bends like Cobra and Locust pose are accessible to most and impact on the bones of the spine. An additional benefit of yoga is the balance and co-ordination that it develops. This helps prevent falls that may be the cause of fractures, especially in older adults.
Ideally we do yoga to prevent bone loss but what if you have already experienced bone density loss? Can yoga help you regain it? Yes! Studies indicate that a daily yoga practice can help regain lost bone density. One such study found that 12 minutes of yoga daily can reverse bone loss, specifically in the spine and femurs.3 Another study demonstrated that yoga can effectively build bone mineral density after menopause.4 These benefits did not require rigorous training. Both studies had participants hold ten to twelve common yoga poses for about 30 seconds each daily. This means that you can maintain or improve the health of your bones with less than 15 minutes of yoga daily.
I have personally had students with bone loss connect with me after visiting their doctors and learning their bone density had increased after starting our yoga sessions. Here is one such letter I received from a student in my mixed level hatha yoga class.
Hi Bobby, My tests have shown that my bone density has increased at an amazing rate since I started yoga. I don’t know if it is coincidence as there are other factors to consider but my results have moved from osteopenia to normal in my hip, and from osteoporosis to osteopenic in my spine. I have had 4 bone density scans in my life and this recent improvement was considered drastic! My doctor described my results as stark improvement!–Carol T, St. John’s Yoga Practitioner
Follow the pose order of the images in this post if you would like to try the poses from the case study above. Simply hold each pose for 30 seconds as you continue to take deep breaths. Pause for a few seconds after each pose before moving on to the next pose. Use blocks if needed to ensure poses are comfortable as you hold. This is a great start for a home practice. If you would like to be sure you are aligning correctly in the poses, or would enjoy the support of a yoga community, join me in one my upcoming beginner or mixed level hatha yoga classes on Monday or Tuesday evenings. Class info at www.ShaktiYoga.ca or contact me at Bobby@ShaktiYoga.ca.
Loving Kindness Meditation is an absolute must-have addition to all the Valentines Day chatter about cards, chocolate and candle light dinners. As yogis, this meditation practice is the essence of what we strive to achieve in our practice whether we are sweating through postures or sitting in contemplation. We learn to forgive, be kind, and compassionate toward ourselves. From this place of self-love, we are then able to extend this practice beyond our sphere of existence into the rest of the world.
Many studies have been done on meditation, and while all types of meditation are now known to have numerous types of positive impacts on your physical and psychological well-being, only one kind of meditation has been shown to increase the level of happiness in your life; Loving Kindness Meditation.
The Dalai Lama has written much on this topic. He admits that this is not completely a selfless practice, because we reap benefits of our own as we learn to love the world around us. He states beautifully however that if we are to be selfish then then we should be wisely selfish, practicing a philosophy of life that makes the world a better place as we make our own lives happier and more satisfying.
In addition to increasing happiness, studies also show that the positive impact of loving kindness meditation persists in the long term.(Michael A. Cohn, University of California San Francisco & Barbara L. Fredrickson, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2008). In this study, 15 months after participation in a loving-kindness meditation study, those who continued their meditation practice were found to continue to feel very positive emotions in their daily lives. Even those who had stopped meditating felt more positive than a control group that had never begun the meditation practice. What is especially significant about this is that feelings of happiness from events such as getting a great job or buying a new car dissipate rather quickly while feelings of happiness from loving kindness meditation endure.
Loving Kindness Meditation: How to do it
Sit. To begin meditating on loving-kindness, first prepare yourself to sit in a comfortable position. Choose a place where you will not be interrupted, and allow yourself to settle into a natural breath rhythm for a few minutes.
Love Yourself. Do a body awareness sweep. Smile at your feet and send love to them. Move up your body repeating this process until you have spent some time on each part of your body. Continue to do this until you feel full of this emotion, flowing completely into love, loving yourself unconditionally. Initially there can be resistance to sending love to oneself. If you experience this, you may need to spend some time identifying and releasing feelings of unworthiness, replacing them with loving acceptance. Giving the practice some time to blossom in your heart will eventually allow you to overcome any feelings of self-doubt or negativity. This may not happen immediately, but with practice, you will remove this initial hurdle and be ready to systematically develop loving-kindness towards others. This is a key part of the process. When we feel genuine love and acceptance for ourselves we open the door to an unlimited source of love and kindness that can then be effortlessly shared with the world.
Focus on someone you already love. Now cultivate the emotion of love by focusing on something, or someone, that evokes a powerful uncomplicated love response. Allow this emotion to penetrate your full experience and then slowly transition from the object or person that helped you connect with this emotion to sitting with the emotion itself in its purest form. Repeat silently “May they be healthy, live happily, and may they love others and themselves.”
Love your family and friends. The next step is to allow this love to expand to include everyone in your close circle of family and friends, one at a time, or as a group. You can mentally repeat, “May they be healthy, live happily, and may they love one another and themselves.”
Love everyone. Now expand your loving circle to include, acquaintances, strangers (This would include neutral people, the person who serves your coffee or unknown faces in far away locations, for example), again repeating, “May they be healthy, live happily, and may they love one another and themselves.”
Love the difficult to love. Next, move on to include those who have hurt you in the past, those for whom you find it difficult to feel compassion in daily life, and again repeat the loving phrase written above. This step helps us better understand why Buddha described love as being the best armor. When we love those who are unkind to us, we remove the damaging impact that their behavior has on our lives and well-being. We cannot control how other people act. We cannot always understand what motivates them to do what they do, but we can control how we respond. If we feel loving-kindness towards those who do not treat us well, we remove their power to injure us and we stop the perpetuation of this behavior and energy.
Enjoy the results. Allow yourself to sit immersed in loving-kindness for a period of time, visualize this feeling being released from your heart center to fill your whole body. Simply be with this love, sit with this love and breathe with this love.
Repeating this practice even for just a few minutes daily will allow you to cultivate these emotions more easily and in a shorter period of time.
Twenty five years ago as an undergrad in an Altered States of Consciousness course I watched in fascination as my lab partner swatted an imaginary fly from the hypnosis script I was reading. I remember thinking “This is a big deal!” Yet somehow the significance of this experience faded into the background of degree finishing and other life priorities for almost a decade. Fast forward to me lying on a straw mat in an Indian ashram listening to sounds from the other side of the earth. I am able to do this because my Guru Ji, in his thickly accented yoga nidra instruction voice, had suggested I could. This far eastern experience reignited my undergrad passion for the mystery and power of the subconscious. It was at this point that my psychology background, yoga experience, and deep belief that we are more than our conscious thoughts, began to merge. I began a decades long yoga nidra study that included personal practice, coursework, and instruction. I can honestly say that this ancient guided meditation technique more powerfully informs my yoga teaching, personal interactions, and parenting than any other yoga practice. There are so many reasons why I think everyone should try this ancient practice. Here are just five.
Get Deep and Profound Rest Yoga nidra is a state of brain wave activity that is just above deep sleep. While actual sleep can be disrupted by stressful dreams, repeated waking, teeth grinding, or tossing about, yoga nidra brings a consistent restful state. Yoga Nidra avoids such rest interruptions by bringing one to a theta brainwave sleep-like state that induces sleep-like relaxation, without fully going to sleep. Verbal guidance keeps the participant hovering just above deep sleep, or delta wave activation. The imagery used conveys a sense of safety to the deep consciousness. This allows the body to experience deep rest without the interference that some sleep experiences can bring.
2. Transform thought Patterns, and Make Emotional Shifts We often maintain patterns of thoughts, behaviors, and emotions that hold us back from complete health and wellness, even when our waking mind is aware of this fact. A good example is the new year’s resolution. It is made because we perceive the action or habit that we are hoping to change is not contributing to our happiness, yet we rarely follow through. This is because we make the commitment with our most conscious layer of mind (in upper level beta brain wave activation). The message does not make it down through all the layers of consciousness. When the whole brain and nervous system are not involved in a decision follow-through is unlikely to be successful. To explore why we can hold so tightly to unhealthy patterns, and to discover how we might unravel them, we need to “talk with” the nervous system at every level of activation. I frequently use yoga nidra to help clients release fears, and optimize physical, mental, and emotional function in a variety of situations. For example, removing anxiety about birth, or transforming a fearful situation into manageable setting. With regular practice long held physical aches can release, unwanted habits may begin to shift, and more.
3. Heal Yourself & Your Loved Ones Why we get sick is multi-faceted and complex beyond the understanding of even today’s advanced medical science. What we do know however is that anxiety and stress can cause, or significantly impair, our body’s ability to function in general. This includes both the processes that help us avoid illness, and those that aid the healing process. Yoga Nidra calms the nervous system, which turns on the body’s healing (para-sympathetic) response. This triggers increased availability of physical resources to heal imbalance, illness, and injury. The placebo effect is an incredibly well studied phenomena that proves we can potentially heal sickness by what we think. This is why all drug studies must include a placebo group. Scientists know that a large portion of any drug study group is going to get better just because they thought they would! Yoga nidra works to tap into this underutilized human super power. What we think changes our state of wellness, both emotionally and physically. And the best news is that this practice can be done by anyone. A facilitator can whisper yoga nidras into the ear of someone who is lying in a hospital bed. One could listen to a yoga nidra recording while reclining in a cushy chair.
4. Help Ease Anxiety in Children (and Adults) Did you know that children may be the most powerfully impacted by Yoga Nidra (guided relaxation) meditation? They spend more awake alert time in alpha and theta brainwave activation and so are most easily able to visualize with real-life-like clarity. This can result in powerful healing and calming responses. Imaginary friends are a good example of this. Some of my most profound responses to yoga nidras have come from elementary school children. One little girl told me recently, “You just made all the sadness in my body disappear”. As a parent I have used this technique when my children were sick or anxious to induce calm and reduce discomfort. Bedtime is a great time to use this technique. Short yoga nidra techniques can even be taught to children to use on their own in stressful situations.
5. Utilize the “Swiss Army Knife” of Wellness Tools Yoga nidra is the most versatile of yoga tools, and can be used for many purposes. Some do this practice to relax more deeply, others to heal from trauma. One day you can explore your psyche using Jungian style archetypal images, and the next prepare for an easy birth. In the same class one participant may report feeling a long held physical ache release, and another may obtain insight that allows them to make an important life decision. There are also energetic uses such as connecting with spirit guides, and loved ones who have passed. Past life regression and manifesting can also be explored with this technique. The usages of yoga nidra are limited only by your imagination and interest. Some focus on mainstream uses, others use yoga nidra to delve into a mystical exploration.
My two decades of exploring this topic have become the contents of the Shakti Yoga Nidra Teacher Training (2 Weekend Days). This training is suitable for yoga teachers, school teachers, medical professionals, social workers, and any other professional who wants add this technique to their tool kit. Also welcome is ANYONE interested in using this practice with friends, family members, or themselves, even if they have no yoga experience. Go to this link to the Shakti Yoga Nidra Teacher Training / Workshop page for more info or to register and hold your space. Contact Bobby@ShaktiYoga.ca if you have any questions.
Tis the season for some Tapas. And no I don’t mean the appetizers that we have all probably had a few too many of over the holidays. In yoga philosophy tapas is the Sanskrit word meaning self-discipline. In the yoga sutras, the ancient yoga sage Patanjali places such importance on this concept that he lists tapas as one of the three cornerstones of a yoga practice. Tapas is also granted it the status of being one of the all-important 8 limbs of Ashtanga yoga.
It has been said that the measure of one’s freedom can be determined by the measure of his self-discipline (or tapas). This never rings more true than at the beginning of the year when we are trying to free ourselves from (or to create new) habits. New Year’s Resolutions are things we know will make us happier so why do they so often fail? The answer is; tapas is uncomfortable. The literal translation of tapas is “to cook or to burn”. This an appropriate word to describe self-discipline because change requires discomfort. We must force ourselves to stay inside the fire of tapas long enough to reap the benefits, whether it is eating healthier, exercising more, or thinking positively. The ancient sages recognized that change was hard long before we knew the biology behind this peculiar fact. So, why is change so hard?
Change is hard because it doesn’t feel good. Our nervous systems are wired to maintain homeostasis (i.e. keep things the same). Throughout history our nervous systems have evolved to help us survive by essentially continuing to do the things that have kept us alive thus far. Being happy isn’t really a necessary survival skill. If what we are already doing is maintaining our existence then the nervous system is designed to keep it that way. Even though change might be beneficial it is risky. Change also requires new muscle memories, new connections from sensory nerves to brain, and new pathways to be created inside the brain. It involves changing our “hardware” and it is hard work for the body. Think about learning the typing keyboard, new dance steps, a new piece of music. Remember how great it feels when you finally master it. Our nervous system loves to do what it already knows.
Another reason change is difficult is that our brains work economically. We don’t have much space in our conscious minds to do many things at once. As soon as something becomes second nature we relegate it to the unconscious. This is why we can eventually chat as we drive a car without crashing, or plan our day as we mow the lawn without cutting off our toes. The first day we did either of these things we were probably much more focused on driving and mowing. Our unconscious (i.e. our habits, second nature skills and thought/emotion patterns) is, in fact, most of what we are. Picture your mind as a big black square with just one little dot of white. That dot of white is your conscious mind. It is no wonder new year’s resolutions are so hard to keep. They are made with that little white dot of consciousness. The black area represents the storage space for automatic behaviors and beliefs that are already hard wired into your brain and done without thought. This area does NOT get the information your consciousness sends about your resolution. The result is the curious return to self-destructive habits that your conscious mind knows to be eroding wellness.
So what does this all mean for our new year’s resolutions? Now that you know how your nervous system and neuroplasticity works you can pursue your resolution with motivated perseverance, understanding and Swadhyaya (self-study). Try the tips below:
Set a Minimum Time to be in the Fire The good news is that the neuroplasticity that initially allows us to create these self-harming habits also allows us to also create healthy ones. It just takes some tapas. Recognize that the first time you start a new behavior is the most difficult act. Each repetition of the behavior makes it progressively easier. Visualize a fast flowing stream to represent the electrical charge that flows through your neural connections when you enact a behavior. The major artery of your river is your strongest unconscious habit. You do it whether you are thinking about it or not. Now take a stick and scrape out an offshoot into the riverbank and allow some of that fast flowing water to take a new course. This is like doing a new behavior for the first time. It’s hard to make that first groove and the water begins as just a trickle. The second time is marginally easier but continues to be hard. It does get easier each time you scrape out that groove but until you have created a gouge large enough to rival the power of the original river flow it will always be easier to backslide than to continue the new behavior. This is why a 30 day challenge can be so powerful. You commit yourself to staying in the fire of tapas for 30 days. You fully expect it to be hard for 30 days but plan to do it anyway. Hopefully by the end of 30 days your new tributary has had its banks ripped wide by the power of your tapas. If it is at least equally as powerful as the old flow then you may continue the new behavior into perpetuity with the old pathway eventually disappearing completely. Simplistic though this image is, it is a pretty good visual of what happens in your brain when you start a new behavior. You simply persevere until your brain has set up a smooth neural pathway for this new behavior or thought pattern. Eventually it is easier to do the new behavior than the old. Having a partner join you may help you to motivate each other.
Talk to your Unconscious The unconscious is simply a recording that has been made and filed for ease of retrieval. It frees us from further investment of thought. It isn’t actually trying to undermine our efforts. At some point in our lives our consciousness instructed our unconscious to feel fear when a certain thing happens, to eat a certain foods when we are sad, etc. The unconscious dutifully follows these directions ad nauseam. The tricky thing is we don’t usually have access to all the layers of our minds when we are fully alert. Our unconscious listens most effectively when we speak to it while in varying states of relaxation. Repeated doses of visualizations and affirmations while experiencing different levels of brain wave activation allow us to share our desired outcomes with the unconscious. This is why the yoga practice of Yoga Nidra can make big shifts in our most basic emotional and mental beliefs (for info on the next Shakti Yoga Nidra Teacher Training go to this link). It is also the core of my birth preparation sessions, the result of which are women having calm and enjoyable birth experiences as a result of having re-trained their unconscious to believe that birth can be comfortable. People also use yoga nidra/guided meditation/hypnosis to change habits such as smoking or to release fears.
Embrace the Joy of Discomfort In essence, if enacting your resolution is making you uncomfortable then you know something BIG is happening at that new fork of that tributary in your nervous system. New neural connections are being made. Your brain is literally re-wiring! If you can get past this bout of discomfort today a whole bank of your new tributary may suddenly collapse and make way for flow. This could be the turning of the tide. As the ancient sages often wrote, “accept the pain as purification”. This is as true in the action of not saying/doing an habitual behavior as it is in your meditation and asana practice. If the action is easy it is probably not creating much change. Your daily tapas could be to do the yoga pose that you hate every day, to push yourself past that last uncomfortable minute of sitting still in meditation, or to replace an unhealthy habit with a healthy one. You will know you have reached purification when you come to love that previously hated yoga pose, when you have sat in meditation twice as long as you had intended, and you don’t even miss not doing the action you are trying to eliminate. The purification feels amazing!
If you are still unsure of the sensation of tapas try an experiment to puts your neuroplasticity into perspective by changing something in your brain that is “hard wired”. For example, I recently relocated the garbage under the kitchen sink from the left side door to the right. Putting things in the left side kitchen garbage was an unimportant action that had become buried deep in my unconscious automatic behaviors. Even though I probably opened that door a dozen times daily it took me very close to a full month before I completely stopped opening the left side door first. This was hard even though it was an activity completely unwired with emotion. Such practices are a neutral way to explore tapas before taking on more challenging emotionally wired practices like smoking, eating, or snapping at a family member when they push your buttons.
Is there nothing you want to change in your life? Great. Tapas is still a fabulous practice to explore how long it takes your brain to rewire, and to stimulate your neurons in general. Somewhere deep inside us we recognize that tapas in any form has far reaching consequences that shake us to our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual core. From the newfound knowledge gained in your neuroplasticity experiments you will be better prepared to transform your eating habits, your movement habits, your patterns of thought, your meditation or asana practice.
Can you show courage and stay in the fire until you find the blessing? Yes you can.
Wishing you a wonderful new year warmed by the fire of your tapas.
Is the Western perception of yoga a barrier for some?
The picture to the right is my beautiful mom, Marilyn, whom I called from Tokyo 20 years ago, and asked to meet me in six months at a yoga ashram that was a half-day train ride outside Mumbai. Oh….and to sign up for a yoga class in the meantime so that she would know what yoga was before enrolling in a yoga teacher training course. If you know my mom it might not surprise you that she signed up for an introduction to yoga class at the local YMCA, and was waiting for me at the airport in New Delhi that fall wearing flip flops, and carrying the tiniest backpack you have ever seen.
In her late 50’s, with an average body size and sky-high blood pressure, my mother sweated her way through 40 degree days to complete her first 200 hour Yoga Teacher training. This included a full month of 5:00 am meditation wake up calls, followed by a 2 hour asana class (physical practice), 4 hours of lecture, a second 2 hour PM asana class, and evening mantra study. While she was one of only a few “older” students, the teachers came in many ages, shapes and sizes. Many were seniors. Despite a lifetime of practicing asana they were all much more interested in talking to you about meditation and lifestyle. This ashram also ran yoga therapy clinics throughout that area and their students ranged from healthy young people to adults of every age, many with a variety of physical conditions. You could sense this in how they taught. The most beginner and the advanced student were all totally at home in the same asana class.
In the wake of a series of recent articles talking about how the West is “ruining” yoga I thought of my mom and wondered whether she would have embraced this enormous challenge had her first yoga class been a vinyasa (flow) class taught by a young, lean teacher, surrounded by students in midriff baring yoga clothing. Don’t misunderstand this to mean that I think there is anything wrong with flow yoga, stylish yoga clothing, or young/ thin teachers. I enjoy and teach flow style classes (as well as other styles), own lululemon clothing, and believe an effective teacher can be of any age or body type, including young and thin.
As a runner in my early 20’s I began studying hot yoga because it was the only thing that felt like a better work out than running. I spent many hours sweating in shorts and short tops and I would not have been interested in going to a gentle yoga class with an emphasis on breathing and meditation. I actually believe that the focus on asana (yoga poses) in the west may actually be necessary to introduce the practice to a society that has been taught to look outside oneself for answers, and values a state of being constantly busy. Indeed, I might not have become a yoga teacher/student writing a blog post on this topic if it were not for a style of yoga that many consider to be extreme. All of this stuff is good and we need to meet people wherever they are.
Possibly more important than the discussion of whether the teacher ought to be Western or Indian, or classes traditional or physical is: Are we reserving space in the yoga image that is projected in the west to include populations not represented by the “perfect” models in the often challenging poses shown in yoga magazines (which I buy, by the way). I am simply concerned that for every brave soul who has written me prefacing their inquiry about yoga classes with their age and weight, as if it might be a deal breaker, there are a dozen people who simply did not write at all because they felt they were too much, or not enough to do yoga. I am not sure the yoga image (or the practice itself) in the West is always welcoming and accessible to these people.
Those of us who are yoga teachers must look at how we promote our classes, design our websites, etc., and ask ourselves if we are being inclusive. And to go further than that, we should ask ourselves if we are offering any classes that are genuinely accessible to everyone (not that everything we teach has to be for beginners or chair yogis, of course). When someone tells me that they tried yoga and it was too hard for them I let them know that this is simply not true. They simply did not go to the right class for them. However I worry that they will never pull together the courage to try another class.
To those looking to begin a yoga class please know that yoga is for everyone.
It doesn’t matter how old you are. The type of poses, speed of practice, balance of breath work and meditation will change as you age to be what you need at that time in your life. The same pose is doing something completely different for every single person in any class.
It doesn’t matter what size or shape your body is. All poses can be done in some version by everyone.
It doesn’t matter how flexible you are. The right class for you will help you maintain the range of motion that you have, and possibly increase it if it is appropriate for you. In the end maybe your yoga class does not need to change your flexibility or body shape. Maybe where you are is good for you and your yoga class will help you feel great about that.
It doesn’t matter what religion or spirituality you practice (or don’t practice). Yoga will help you develop skills of introspection that will help you deepen your understanding of your own truth in whatever form it resonates within you.
It DOES matter that you find the right class for you. The goal of yoga is to enhance your physical, mental and emotional well-being. That is achieved differently by every person, and it changes as we evolve. If something is not working for you, don’t give up until you have tried at least 2 or 3 different teachers and/or classes. The class for you exists somewhere. Maybe you will even find it on a DVD and do it in your living room!
And, back to my mom. She returned home from her time in India and blew her doctor away with a perfect blood pressure report, despite the fact that she had not taken any of her medication in India (I am SO not recommending that anyone do yoga in lieu of medical treatment! My mother simply does what she wants and listens to no one, doctor or myself included. An occasional source of frustration for me and possibly the karmic return for my teenage years). She continues to practice yoga and teaches chair yoga. She has students are in their 80’s and 90’s! As we begin our journey into the new year I say to anyone thinking of starting a yoga practice that if my mom could do it so can you!
Happy New Year to all of you Yogis and Yogis-to-be.
The Japanese Animal Zodiac and What it Means For You
Welcome to the Year of the Cow. As each year-end nears in Japan, you begin to see images of one specific animal popping up in just about every setting imaginable; decorations, cards, advertisements. They vary from year to year and are always an animal of the Japanese zodiac. These animals are thought to be indicators of both individual personality and the nature of the year it represents. There are twelve animals, and they influence our world in twelve-year cycles. Your animal is determined by the year in which you are born. If you are in Japan and being asked what animal you are, that person is probably trying to learn more about your personality (of course, they could also be attempting to politely figure out your age without asking directly). The Japanese zodiac is Chinese in origin but has been fully adopted by the Japanese.
Maybe you don’t believe in horoscopes. That is ok because this is a just-for-fun-post. However, from a yogic perspective, there is value in anything that inspires us to pause and contemplate our personality and actions. This is the practice of swadhyaya, or turning inward to discover our true selves. Often, this means utilizing tools such as books and philosophies.
Before I tell you what animal you are, here is a cute origin story of how the animals in this zodiac were chosen. There are a number of variations on this story. I will pass along the most common version that I have been told by my Japanese friends.
One day the most important god gathered all the animals and told them that he would hold a race the next day to choose twelve animals to make up the zodiac. The order that each animal arrived at this revered god’s home in the heavens would determine their place in this cycle.
To get to the race destination, the animals had to cross a river. The cow knew this would be a challenging race. She was prudent, she planned ahead, and set out early. The rat was not a great swimmer, so asked to ride on the cow’s back (Some stories say the cat also rode on the cow but was pushed off by the rat. Other narratives have the rat lying to the cat about the day of the race causing him to miss it. Either way the cat did not make it into the zodiac because of the rat and this explains their continued rivalry to this day). Anyway, as the cow was approaching the finish line the rat jumped off his back and crossed the line first. This is how the rat became the first animal of the zodiac and the cow the second.
The tiger was the third to arrive. His early arrival was due to his great strength which enabled him to fight the currents of the river. The rabbit came in fourth, having made it across by hopping from stone to stone (and by some accounts with a little help from the dragon).
The dragon arrived in fifth place. This surprised the god who expected such a powerful creature to be first. The dragon explained that he had stopped to assist other race participants, as well as to help the people of the earth with their food and rain shortages.
The horse was the next animal to arrive, but was unaware that the snake had decided to hide in her hoof during the race. Just before reaching the finish line the snake jumped out of his hiding place and startled the horse. This gave the snake time to finish ahead of the horse and become the 6th animal of the zodiac, leaving the horse in 7th place.
The 8th, 9th, and 10th place were taken by the sheep, monkey, and rooster. They arrived together having worked together to build a raft to make it across the river safely.
The dog was next. His late arrival was also surprising as he was known to be an excellent swimmer. He explained that he had paused to enjoy bathing in the river, still landing himself in the 11th spot.
Finally, the wild boar/pig shows up. She had stopped for snacks and had then fallen asleep with a full belly. Upon waking up she rejoined the race and made it just in time for the 12th and final spot.
Each animal’s behaviour in the origin story expresses their nature to some degree. None are wholly good or bad. Each has the capacity for positive and negative expression of their characteristics. According to the Asian zodiac the personality of the animal that represents the year you were born will be reflected in your individual traits and patterns. Every twelve years your animal will come around again to influence the universal energy of that time.
In order of their placement on the zodiac, there are some general characteristics of each animal and the years that they govern. Heads up, this post is a barely-researched and superficial presentation of an ancient system that traverses a number of cultures. Mostly, I am repeating things my friends have shared with me. More research is suggested if you want to truly understand the Asian zodiac. That said, let’s enjoy contemplating our place in the world through the lens of this beautiful horoscope.
Rat (2020, 2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948 …) people are very ambitious, and will push themselves hard to meet their goals. They will work hard and are unafraid of challenge. They are charming and honest. They may easily anger but are skilled at projecting an outward show of control.
Cow/Ox (2021, 2009, 1997,1985,1973, 1961, 1949 …) people are patient and inspirational. They are stirring speakers who inspire confidence in others. Cows exhibit great mental clarity. In the origin story she literally carried the rat to greatness.
Tiger (1998, 1986, 1974, 1962, 1950 …) people have stubborn tendencies and can be regarded as selfish, cold, and unkind. Tigers are, however, sensitive underneath all of this. They are thoughtful and have great compassion for those they love. They are also known for their courage. This is much like the personality of Tigress, in Kung Fu Panda (if you haven’t seen this movie series, why are you even reading this? Watch it now.)
Rabbit (1999, 1987, 1975, 1963, 1951, 1939…) people are good at talking their way into, and out of, things. They are known for being ambitious, virtuous, and reserved. They may have a taste for the finer things in life. Their reputation for being trustworthy means they are usually greatly admired.
Dragon (2000, 1988, 1976, 1964, 1952, 1940, …) people are easily excitable, short tempered, and can be stubborn. Despite their easily angered disposition, they are sensitive, and get their feelings hurt easily. They are also known to be honest, brave, and disciplined. Dragons inspire trust in people. Recall the dragon’s compassionate behavior in the origin story. A complex personality indeed.
Snake (2001, 1989, 1977, 1965, 1953, 1941, …) people are deep thinkers who often do well financially due to their determination in pursuing their dreams. They hate to fail, and will go to great lengths to avoid doing so (recall the origin story). Snakes are often people of few words.
Horse (2002, 1990, 1978, 1966, 1954, 1942, …) people are quick thinkers who are skilled at giving compliments. They tend to be successful in their endeavors, and have capacity to make wise financial decisions. They may talk too much, be impatient, or easy to anger.
Sheep (2003, 1991, 1979, 1967, 1955, 1943, …) people are noted for their quiet elegance. They are drawn to fine arts, and are passionate about the environment, as well as their spiritual endeavors. They may also sometimes be shy, lack will power, and unconsciously take a passive role in relationships.
Monkey (2004, 1992, 1980, 1968, 1956, 1944, …) people are seen as eccentric and highly intelligent. They are good at seeing the big picture and are lucrative in financial dealings. Their inventive, think-outside-the-box insights mean they can solve even complex problems with ease. Their behaviour is often both creative and erratic.
Rooster/bird (2005, 1981, 1969, 1957, 1945, …) people are devoted to their work and enjoy being busy. They push themselves to expand their skills, sometimes to the point of taking on more than they can handle. The rooster is ambitious and always looking to go further. Not achieving a goal is very upsetting for the rooster. They are known for speaking their mind. This is sometimes refreshing and other times may be seen as speaking out of turn.
Dog (2006, 1982, 1970, 1958, 1946, …) people are loyal, honest and work hard to create positive relationships. They inspire confidence in others and are known to be great at keeping secrets. Dogs are humble and easy going, so are considered to be good friend material.
Boar/pig ( 2007, 1983, 1971, 1959, 1947, …) people have an enormous inner strength that is difficult to unseat. They are honest, humble, very affectionate, and extremely kind to those they love. While they have short tempers, they do not enjoy arguments and try to avoid them. They are stubborn, often making it challenging to convince a boar to change their opinion. In the origin story, the boar is known to have rushed past the god at the finish line, and had to eventually turn back to join the group.
What does the Asian zodiac mean for the essence of 2021? I am excited to be entering the year of the cow. What could we need more of right now than mental clarity, patience, and slow thoughtful movement forward? Like the cow, we can plan to the best of our abilities, and do what needs to be done to navigate challenging paths. We know there will be challenges, yet we aspire to inspire others to greatness along the way.
How accurate is the Japanese zodiac? That is something you will have to decide for yourself. It may well be a coincidence but I am a wild boar and my plan to have this post written two weeks ago was interrupted by a holiday of indulgences that included copious amounts of holiday napping and snacking (recall why the boar came last in the origin story?). I will also add that I regret nothing and it is unlikely you could change my mind about the value of my chosen course.
Musings Inspired by Pitru Paksha (The Hindu Period of Ancestor Worship)
My mom called me today with a camping update. She was excited to have spent the night sleeping next to the grave of an ancestor. It was a whimsical act born of a passing comment from a local that her cousin had been buried in that area a number of generations ago. Upon learning this, my mom immediately rounded up an elderly resident who had been shown the burial area by his grandfather years ago. Together they approximated the burial spot to an overgrown bramble. She felt compelled to camp as close as possible for no obvious reason.
As I thought about what might have drawn her to spend the night with a cousin who had long passed I remembered that it is now the period of Pitru Paksha (fortnight of the ancestors). A Hindu practice where ancestors are remembered, prayed to and for, consulted, and appeased. In 2020 this takes place between September 1st and 17th. This is a time to contemplate the contributions and sacrifices of those who came before us, to cultivate gratitude, and receive insight that will help us live a better life. We pray for their peace and ask for their help as we invoke their presence.
Given that I am not Hindu I suggest that you consult Hindu texts, or seek clarification from someone who is of this faith, if you are interested in learning more about this sacred time of worship. My understanding would be of a surface depth at best. I am grateful however for Pitru Paksha, and similar ancestor practices from a number of traditions, that remind me to pause and create space for those who have paved the way for my own time on this earth.
Many philosophies teach that imbalance in our internal and external worlds may be the result of an unresolved relationship with an ancestor. In the book It Didn’t Start With You,Mark Wolynn explores the many ways that family trauma may be passed on and expressed in unhealthy cycles of emotion and action. Wolynn explores genetic studies showing physiological and emotional PTSD characteristics passed on to children who were not conceived when traumatic events occurred. In addition to genetic changes, social interactions and family culture can also unwittingly pass on unresolved emotions from one generation to another.
Wolynn suggests reflecting on repeated language habits and expressions in our core language during challenging times. To look into the places in our lives where intentions are at odds with actions. Maybe our behaviours are sometimes irrational because they didn’t start with us.
Holidays such as Pitru Paksha inspire me to contemplate the lives of family members such as my late grandmother. Her first husband, at a young age, died suddenly from a massive heart attack as he was walking down the street. This left her in complete poverty with a house full of young children. Various receptive families “adopted” her children and she moved to a neighboring town to be a servant girl to “earn her keep”. No roads meant that regular (if any) contact with her young children was impossible. As a mother I feel sick and breathless when I think of what she must have endured. The unimaginable and heart piercing sorrow of dropping off sobbing children one by one to households that would probably be extending lukewarm welcomes at best given that they were all struggling with the subsistence existence that was the norm at the time. My Nan eventually met another man (my grandfather) and started a new family. I never heard her speak of this part of her first family experience.
I now sometimes wonder if Nan’s trauma may impact on my own way of interacting with my family. Whether the occasionally powerful resentfulness I felt when my husband slept through diaper changes, or missed a parenting cue was connected to Nan’s feelings of anger at being abandoned (or course in this case it could just be because sleeping through diaper changes is totally uncool in partners, am I right mommas?). OK, obviously me and Nan still have work to do on that bit. Maybe that is why I have once again chosen to spend this September meditating with my Nan and sending her love and healing. When I do, I feel as though she is sending me back love and appreciation. I sense that she is grateful and soothed by my acknowledgement of her pain. As if we have become partners in our healing experiences.
I am wondering if my mother was called by my late cousin to sleep in close proximity of her grave for such a healing session. Maybe this cousin from our past had a message to share, a gift to give, or a request to make.
With a couple more days of Pitru Paksha remaining I invite you to spend some time with your ancestors. We are at the end of a long line of genes, experiences, loves, hurts, and accumulated wisdom. In whatever setting or ritual that works for you I implore you to listen to their whispers, send them love, and ask them for direction.
It might be helpful to draw a family tree and note anything you know about each person’s life that stands out. Then close your eyes, focus on your breath, and create space for flow. This is not an intellectual process. Resist choosing a specific person. Wait for your body and heart to be touched by an ancestor, maybe someone from the family tree you drew, or possibly someone else who simply sensed that now is a time for valuable connection. Journaling your experience afterwards can help to reinforce insights and explore meaning.
I am tempted to end by saying something like “Happy Pitru Paksha” but I have no idea if people actually say things like that on Pitru Paksha so I will instead wish you a powerful and fulfilling visit with whomever answers the prayer of your soul.
When asked yesterday to write a post on yoga for self isolation I immediately began to compile a list of common yoga wellness techniques. I contemplated the use of breathing practices, asana, journaling, meditation, laughter, music, nature walks, and creative pursuits appropriate for this purpose. As I was organizing my thoughts and ranking activities by relevance, I realized that this was an impossible task. How could I possibly know what any one person in isolation needs right now? Of course, I could not. I remembered however that I do know someone who does know. So instead of creating a list of things to do (or not do) in isolation, I thought I would instead introduce you to the person with all the answers, and help you listen to them. Hint: It is you!
Yogi Tip #1: Tune In
What is needed to thrive in any situation varies from person to person (and moment to moment). Adding to this complexity is the fact that most of the time we don’t actually know what we need! The three-breath practice below is designed to help you find out.
First close your eyes, inhale a wave of breath, exhale and imagine that wave releasing your body and mind. And now begin.
Beath 1: Body Awareness Inhale and tune in to your body. Visualize your body filling with your breath and become aware of all the sensations in your body. This is a non-judgemental curious sweep. Exhale and imagine your body settling into ease.
Breath 2: Mind Awareness Inhale your breath into your mind. Imagine your brain filling with this breath. Exhale to release your brain into ease.
Breath 3: Heart Awareness Inhale to bring awareness to your heart center. Exhale to visualize this space relaxing and opening up. Ask yourself what you need right now? Maybe you want to pause and breath here for a while longer to wait for an answer or possibly you know immediately what you need. To move? To lie down? To breath fresh air? To connect with someone?
Social media is full of wrestling indignant opinions on whether we should be active or inactive right now. Don’t get caught up in the extremes. There is no right or wrong way to proceed. You are now, and will forever be, the only person who knows exactly what you need.
Yogi Tip #2: Give Permission
This tip is every bit as important as the first. Without it, your tune-in is not going to be of much use. There are a lot of different emotions being felt right now. Be kind to yourself. Does your tune-in inform you that you need to cry? Take a nap? Move? Do you need a break from your kids/partner? If so, feel it and do it (even if you just lock yourself in the bathroom to sit on your vanity counter for a few breaths). The most important thing to do when you learn exactly what you are feeling is to greet it with unconditional compassion, interest, and acceptance.
Jung wrote that the modern man lives in endless transgressions against his instincts. While we may resist certain feelings, the reality is that it is natural to feel angry, sad, lonely, happy, etc. It is also ok to notice it and to feel it. Before doing the three-breath tune-in above commit yourself to non-judgmental acceptance of whatever you discover. If you feel like napping for example, resist the urge to think, “but really I should go for a run”. In this unusual time when we are unable to welcome physical guests into our home I suggest we follow the sage words of Jellaludin Rumi, and instead practice welcoming all of our internal guests. I provide his beautiful poem, The Guest House, below to further inspire. Enjoy
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
The recent need to stay inside due to Covid-19 means that many yoga enthusiasts have had to move from studio to online classes. While it is true that online classes are not the same as the in-studio experience, they do come with some special perks of their own. If you are wondering whether an online class may be right for you, read on for some of the unexpected joys that my students have shared with me since I transferred to a live streaming option.
PJs welcome! Tired from all day at work and wish you could change into your pajamas but it is yoga night? No problem. Yoga at home has no dress code. If you are working from home you may have been in them all day anyhow!
Relieve stress. Something we need to do more than ever right now. The onslaught of news coverage, and worries about loved ones mean that our usual anxiety load is higher than usual. Yoga breathing and meditation studies repeatedly show a powerful impact on the nervous system.
No sitter? Want to introduce yoga to a family member? Online yoga is your solution. Bringing yoga into your home provides a little window into what yoga is all about for hesitant partners or friends. Kids can be put to bed before class, or join in as you move through your practice.
Stay active at home. My students are telling me that even if they are doing the same job at home, they are not moving to and from work, up and down stairs, etc. This means they may be doing significantly less moving than before. The fitbit does not lie!
Savasana followed by proximity to your bed! For my students, this is the most commonly swooned about aspect of doing yoga at home. Especially in a Canadian Winter when going home after class frequently requires one to first scrape frozen rain or snow off the windshield.
Maintain your regular schedule. For some, this alone can ease the anxiety of a sudden upheaval like many of us are experiencing right now. Another perk is that it may help you remember what day of the week it is!
Missed a class? No Problem. Each studio or teacher will have their own policies on this. If you miss a class ask your teacher if there is a link available to a recording. You may be able to do it at a more convenient time for you.
Support a local studio or teacher. Small businesses are struggling right now. While some are fortunate to be able to work from home others are not. If you are in St. John’s and find yourself in a position to support a local business check out the Guide to the Good website for an easy and efficient way to find local services via this keyword searchable platform.