Thursday, July 30, 2015

Yogic Detoxification

Part of the 300 hours Yoga Teacher Training course


Beginning shankhaprakshalana...


Over the past four weeks, our 300 hour students have studied Ayurveda, nature cure, and holistic health, and have also cultivated increased body and self awareness.  Additionally, they undertook intensive investigation of the various cleansing techniques, the shatkarmas and kriyas, as described in yogic literature. While some of us may turn a skeptical eye towards claims such as heavy metal toxicity, it is undoubtedly true that we all encounter some toxins in daily activities as a result of industrialization and pollution.  The body can remove some of this waste on its own, but much of it remains in our systems, clogging and bogging us down. Therefore, an entire module of our 300 hours YTT course is devoted to learning and practicing a variety of cleansing techniques.

Fun with vamanadhauti, for Stefano at least

Beginning with review of the techniques learned in the 200 hours course, such as jalaneti and karnrandhradhauti, they continued with theoretical exploration of further techniques, sagely espoused by our visiting teacher from Indonesia, Stefano Notarbartolo.  He also shared his practice of nauli,  kapalabhati, and other abdominal and breathing techniques, which were to prove instrumental in the coming days. With this strong theoretical foundation provided by the Gheranda Samhita and Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the students progressed to practice of sutraneti, vamanadhauti, and even shankhaprakshalana.

Catheters for sutraneti
Trying to find the sutra
Each of these techniques aims to cleanse the internal body of mucus, filth, and other contaminants collected during daily life. Coming from a Western society in which, for example, the nose is only blown when one is ill, these practices proved surprisingly beneficial for day to day activities.  Even the basic practice of jalaneti, or nasal water cleansing, clears and opens the nasal passages remarkably and with little effort.  With this potential in mind, our students dove into the new practices, beginning with sutraneti -- nasal cleansing with string/catheter. As shown above, a sterile rubber catheter was used for this practice. The sensations experienced while inserting this into the nostril, passing it through the nasopharynx, and out the mouth are interesting to say the least, and certainly an exercise in patience and acceptance. 
Sutra successfully inserted! Time to floss
Also valuable from this is the direct experience of anitya -- impermance -- with the knowledge that the sensations, while somewhat strange, were only temporary.  Sutraneti proved even more powerful in mucus elimination than jalaneti, and breath flowed smoothly and easily afterwards, lighting up each student's face.

Glug..glug...glug... while Stefano demonstrates nauli
Stefano chugs his 1.5L very salty water...
Smiling as they oversee the purging students
Vamanadhauti, cleansing of the stomach and esophagus, was the next technique explored which, in addition to further new sensations, involves the consumption of a large quantity of saline water in order to cleanse the stomach and upper gastroesophageal tract.  Theoretical investigation of the process as well as uddhyana bandha and nauli techniques were practiced, which facilitated the cleansing experience.

After becoming aware of the body during morning meditation, and on an empty stomach, 1-2 L of saline water is rapidly imbibed to fill the stomach completely.  The urge to purge naturally arises, and vomiting of the saline-mucus mixture soon commences (aided by nauli and/or manual stimulation). 
This is actually a fairly pleasant form of vomiting, as one is doing so consciously and not involuntarily due to food poisoning or other illness.  Students reported feeling lighter, cleaner, brighter, and more energetic afterwards, though for some it may be a physically tiring practice.

Stefano provides close supervision throughout.

Shankhaprakshalana, the full intestinal wash or master cleanse, was investigated over several sessions, as were the less intense variations of lahgoo shankhaprakshalana (short intestinal wash or partial cleanse) and TTK solution (brief intestinal cleanse). Once more after meditation and on empty stomachs, students consumed saltwater -- though in smaller quantity and of lesser salinity than for vamanadhauti.  A routine of five specific asanas was then performed, followed by further saltwater intake.  This routine was repeated several times in order to flush and squeeze the saltwater throughout the entire digestive tract, fully cleansing every surface of mucus and contaminants.  After several rounds of saline-asanas-saline, students attempt to void their bowels of the accumulated fluid by gradually building up internal pressure until evacuation was achieved. 
Close tally is kept to track each student's progress

Twisting, squeezing, and compressing the abdomen
Timing varies depending on individual physiology, health, and mental/emotional state, ranging from 1.5 to 4 hours for our students, but eventually the water will be passed through the body, ferrying toxins and refuse out and leaving it fresh and new, having shed its old and sullied protective mucosal lining.  Thus, physical rest along with specific dietary limitations must be observed after performing shankhaprakshalana in order to allow the digestive tract to regenerate a new lining and resume normal function.

The staple food for the first few days after completion if khichri, a mushy porridge-type mixture of moong dal and rice mixed with a small quantity of turmeric and a generous helping of ghee (clarified butter).  This dish is a classic in Indian cuisine, and is said by Swami Shivananda to be the only meal recommended by yogis due to its simplicity and completeness.  It offers a balanced combination of easily digestible carbohydrate, protein, and fat from sattivic ingredient, which makes it agreeable and acceptable to the developing digestive system, though it is typically prepared in daily life with other spices and vegetables for a more bountiful dish. Additionally, the ghee aids the digestive tract by providing a temporary protective lining while the body regenerates.

"Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food." -- Hippocrates

After consumption solely of khichri, the diet is gradually transitioned to include other foods, beginning with boiled vegetables and thin soups.  Day by day this is expanded to include soft vegetables and dals, and eventually raw fruits and vegetables as the lining strengthens.  Careful observation of the body, including physical and mental conditions, energy levels, and digestive habits are maintained throughout to assess the condition and health of the body.  After approximately one month, regular diet may be resumed though with continued awareness and observance of dietary and digestive habits.

Freshly prepared khichri.  Bon appetite!

Students also investigated theory behind numerous other cleansing techniques, though actual practice is reserved for later studies.  However, the techniques practiced and performed during the 300 hours YTT course here have proved immensely beneficial to the health of each student, with reports of increased body awareness, lightness, digestive function, purity, and heightened sense perceptions.  With proper instruction and guidance, these techniques can all be performed safely and beneficially by nearly anyone at any time, though shankhaprakshalana just once per year. 

If you would like to learn more about these techniques or about our 300 hours Yoga Teacher Training program, please visit our website or the WLYA Facebook page for further details. May you all be happy, well, peaceful, and skillful.  Namaste!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Ashram Cuisine

All fresh, organic, non-GMO, and vegan :)

What colorful tropical fruit!
Sant Jnaneshvar said, "food itself is Brahma." The whole universe originates from, sustains on, and merges into Brahma, the ultimate truth.  All living creatures originate from, survive on, and merge into food.

At Wise Living Yoga Academy, food is prepared and served with metta, or loving-kindness, by our jolly Thai cooks. Importance is placed on making the food with intentions and thoughts that are sattivic, pure and clean. As the food, so is the mind; as the mind, so are the thoughts; as the thoughts, so are the actions; as the actions, so are our karmas; as our karmas, so is our life. Hence our meals are prepared with these feelings of happiness and sacredness.

All joy around the lunch table.

After our sunrise meditation and early morning asana routine, we are served a wonderful breakfast that changes by the day. We have delicious vegan milks, fresh tropical fruits, and homemade muesli. Occasionally even scrumptious vegan omelets or decadent tofu scramble! Depending on the season, our tables abound with various other fruits such as rich mango, watermelon, papaya, dragonfruit, and pineapple.  The plentiful farms in surrounding Doi Saket produce these fruits in abundance.  Their deep, vibrant colors and bright succulent flavors put a smile on everyone's faces.

Fresh mango, avocado, and dragonfruit!
Our Thai cooks are geniuses and create wonderful Indian-Thai fusion dishes for us. Not only do they prepare our meals wonderfully but also with such love and grace. Sometimes we have delicious pumpkin curries, red chick pea salad, papaya salad, myriad fresh vegetables, purple cabbage salad, moong sprout salad, black-eyed peas salad, chana masala, chapati, Thai classics such as pad thai and khao soi, and many others.

Mmm...Khao soi
Fresh produce from our garden! Beautiful greens and purples grown with love.

To rest during the heat of the day, we take afternoon tea -- but no caffeine! Instead, we have myriad delicious herbal teas in a rainbow of hues: ocean blue anchan (butterfly pea), bright orange bael fruit, golden ginger lemongrass, and deep sanguine rosella. They each have such exotic flavors and colors which delight the senses while simultaneously calming and soothing the mind.  All fatigue is forgotten when combined with a bounty of fresh, organic, seasonal fruits.

Rainbow on a plate.
Sumptuous dinners are served including a variety of soups such as corn, tom yum, and tomato; Indian and Thai curries including masaman and pumpkin; chana masala, sweet corn, and an extensive variety vegetable dishes and salads.  Every dish here is 100% vegan and organic with very little oil used, but heaping spoonfuls of love. Meals are also served buffet style so please help yourselves -- just remember to eat mindfully!  Additionally, each meal is also prepared in line with Ayurvedic traditions with all elements, tastes, and properties balance.  In this way we may achieve balance in life by consuming balance nutrients, three times every day.

Papaya salad, potato curry, and chickpea salad.

Our all-star chef, Panan
Consuming this wonderfully and lovingly prepared food, many students report weight normalization, improvements in skin texture and glow, healthier hair, and increase in their energy levels. This diet has proved to be a boon for overall health and well-being, truly a remarkable menu. This remarkably healthy diet compliments the holistic education, peaceful atmosphere, and wonderful people here. There could be no better name for this haven for pilgrims on the journey of life as WISE LIVING YOGA ACADEMY.

Wonderful staff

May you enjoy your meals today and remember to continue to eat -- and act -- mindfully.  Namaste!

For more information, and to see what we're currently doing at the ashram, head over to Wise Living Yoga's Facebook page for some insight into our 200, 300, and 500 hours Yoga Teacher Training here in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Sometimes we're even lucky enough to receive vegan brownies!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Yoga During Crisis

Having worked in an emergency department for several years, I have had the opportunity of seeing a wide range of humanity in a vast array of conditions, both mentally and physically.  Some people arrive in severe pain, some in only mild discomfort, some in no pain at all but with significant anxiety and psychiatric issues. The accompanying family and friends, however, often swim about in their own pools of anxiety, worry, and fear over the future. They react to the sensations arising in their bodies, sometimes becoming agitated, anxious, and unable to coherently think or speak, so deeply entrenched are they in their worry. Imagine what an emergency department would look like if not only the patients and their families were running about in anxiety and fear, but also all of the physicians, nurses, and other staff. The entire building would be in chaos and nothing would ever get done. Nobody would be able to think rationally or logically and would simply stew in the release of hormones and neurotransmitters coursing trough their bodies.

"To be capable of fancies and imaginations is common to man and beast. To be violently drawn and moved by the lusts and desires of the soul is proper to wild beasts and monsters." -- Emperor Marcus Aurelius

We all encounter obstacles throughout life at different times and in myriad manifestations.  How we react to these situations often differs, based upon our individual lives and experiences as well as our state of mind at the moment.  Our reactions are instrumental in times of challenge, difficulty, or crisis, and heavily impact both the way we perceive the encounter as well as our behaviors during and afterwards. 

Imagine you are preparing your evening meal, perhaps peeling vegetables as you wait for some water to boil. Looking to wipe your hands, you search for a towel -- only to smell something burning.  Flames burst into life from the towel accidentally placed too near the hot stove, and dark smoke begins to collect on the ceiling.

Now the question is: ought we to react or respond?

Initial reactions for many might be to jump up, make some noise, grab the flaming towel, or perhaps run out of the room calling for help. Panic, in short, is a common reaction to a fearful or threatening encounter. But would any of these actions actually help the immediate situation? Not quite so much as would taking a moment to think before acting in order to respond appropriately to the situation: by dousing the fire with water from the tap nearby.

Gut reactions are part of our inherent animal nature, and have been ingrained in us over millennia from our roots as gatherer-hunters to keep us safe from various dangers.  Humans at that time were significantly more aware and observant of their surroundings than the typical human is today.  Back then, there was complete reliance upon and involvement with nature; no cars, planes, or factories existed to create noise, pollution, and distraction, nor were there any cellphones or any of those other little tools to which our attention so frequently falls prey. These early humans relied completely upon their senses and observations of natural phenomena to survive. 

However, since those ancient times we have evolved complex brains with the capacity for logic and reasoned actions.  We have even developed the capability to give preference to reasoned responses over visceral reactions, though this ability requires practice. Cultivating awareness of emotions and sensations as they arise and pass away is integral to the development of this skill. We may practice this through meditation by repeatedly returning to the natural flow of the breath whenever the mind drifts astray.  With persistent repeated practice, we may train the mind to become more aware of the breath, and thereby more aware of both internal and external realities. 

Our reactions to external stimuli create sensations and emotions within each of us.  Imagine your favorite food; likely a feeling of joy or desire for it will arise. How delicious it is! But for someone else who does not enjoy that food, feelings of aversion or disgust might arise instead.  Thus we see that it is not any one sense object which create sensations, but our own reactions and perceptions. This process occurs for every stimulus; some reactions are pleasant, some unpleasant, and some neutral. But with awareness we realize that there are sensations occurring at all times, and all have their appropriate place.  We do not, however, react to all of these; only to the most gross and obvious do we typically take notice. But oftentimes such reactions do not serve us most beneficially in the present moment. We react thoughtlessly to fear, anger, lust, sorrow, and so many other potent emotions. We revert back to our animal nature and the biological drives associated with it: those gut instincts that impel us in an uncontrolled rush of activity. 

When the body encounters a stressful situation, the sympathetic nervous system is activated which drives us to fight or flee. Our amygdala and hypothalamus activate our pituitary gland, which in turn secretes a hormone (ACTH or adrenocorticotropic hormone) that signals our adrenal glands to release epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol.  All of these combine to effectively increase pulse and respiratory rates, inhibit digestion, dilate pupils, constrict blood vessels, and relax the bladder, to name just a few.  Additionally, this stress reaction induces glucose metabolism by the pancreas and the release of fatty acids into the bloodstream for the cortisol to metabolize, so that quick energy is available to the body. 

This is all quite useful when we encounter a truly harmful situation.  However, if this reaction is allowed to proceed in the presence of perceived threat, something that does not actually pose any harm towards us, we become unnecessarily stressed. Due to our reaction, we are suddenly filled with driving energy -- but to do what, exactly? To panic and jump around, shout, fight, run, move! But how will any of these reactions help us if there is no true threat or danger? Could we respond differently?

As medical staff, we are trained in ways to maintain cool, calm focus in the face of this potential chaos. Yoga, with its emphasis on awareness, is a powerful form of this training, allowing us to return to the present moment with awareness and equanimity. By cultivating awareness in daily life during nonthreatening situations, we are able to prepare ourselves for the stressful times.  By experiencing stillness, such as during a morning meditation session, we have a firm base upon which to stand when challenges present themselves.  When faced with such a difficulty, be it an unruly guest, a scurrying cockroach, or an unexpected outcome, we can return to our stillness and become tranquil. A wise woman once said that yoga is to stay happy and balanced in the middle of chaos.  By maintaining such a calm, balanced mind with awareness of the present moment, we can appropriately and efficiently respond to any situation.

Besides meditation and development of awareness, we can also use simple breathing techniques, called pranayamas, to refocus and calm ourselves as well as those around us.  By consciously maintaining inhalations and exhalations for the same duration, perhaps 3-4 seconds each, we begin to calm ourselves.  Subconsciously, we also tend to mimic the respirations of those around us. By taking initiative we can thus extend this calm to those nearby by continuing this conscious breath.  For more powerful effects, we can practice something called square breathing.  Each step of the breath cycle (inhale, retain, exhale, suspend) is performed for the same count, and repeated until tranqulity is reached. Beginning with just a few seconds and increasing with practice and as calm settles.  These two simpl
e breathing techniques support our meditative practices in development of awareness and involvement in the present moment. 

Additionally, we may utilize the words of ancient Yoga scriptures like the Bhagvad Gita and Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. These are works on human psychology which carry enormous power to bring a deep tranformation of the mind at the subconcious level.

When practiced appropriately, yoga provides extremely effective tools for us to use during times of crisis.  Increasing our awareness of each moment as well as the arising and passing of sensations within us, we may gradually develop this center of serenity. Utilization of various breathing techniques during crises or when fear is encountered helps us to calm ourselves and return to rational, appropriate action. It teaches us acceptance of the present moment as it is; our quandary, then, is whether to respond beneficially and productively or continue to react blindly. 

The choice is yours, every moment, every breath.