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Tag: practice

UPDATE: COVID-19 GUIDELINES at the SHALA

Dear practitioners,

Your health and safety is of utmost importance yo us. In order to stop/limit the spread of Covid-19 and other seasonal flu we follow guidelines issued by Folkhälsomyndigheten. Our shala remains open for practice until further notice but we kindly ask you to be extra careful and practice saucha/cleanliness (and common sense) when you come to class! We on our side make sure the premises are being cleaned more often and that surfaces that are being touched by many, such as door handles, are sanitized regularly.

We kindly ask you not to come to the shala if you’re sick or even if you have any mild symptoms of flu. We also ask people belonging to risk groups to stay at home for the time being. We will broadcast a few of our classes online for those of you practicing at home and will keep everyone up to date of any changes of our schedule/opening hours.

Please respect follow the following guidelines when you come to the shala:

– Shower before you come to practice

– Wash your hands frequently. Use hand sanitizer (available at the shala)

– Avoid touching your face, nose, eyes

– Bring YOUR OWN yoga mat, avoid using the “rental” mats

– Bring a sweat towel

– Take your mat home and clean it after every practice

– Wash your practice clothes and mat towel after each practice

– Don’t leave rugs or mat towels at the shala. Take home and wash!

– Avoid using props or blankets at the shala (we will clean them)

– Keep extra space between the mats – at least 1 meter

– Be ok with not receiving any physical adjustments

– Stay at home if you’re feeling sick (you should never practice with fever or sore throat anyway)

We ask you all to kindly cooperate so that we don’t have to close or risk spreading any virus. Please remember that in times of insecurity and stress it is of vital importance to keep up good health routines to keep our immune system strong. We encourage all of you to keep up your regular practice, whether in the shala or at home despite the difficult situation. We are here for you and if you need support or have questions about your practice please don’t hesitate to send us a message. Keeping in touch with a community is important in times where we are more and more isolated from each other.

Stay safe and healthy!

Reflections on being a teacher

Over the past few years I’ve come to reflect more and more on what it means to be a teacher; what responsibilities the role brings and how to create a healthy and stable relationship to the people who come to class. The often daily contact creates a connection where I end up being far more than an asana instructor. I become a listener, a mentor, someone to share happy and sad news with and a shoulder to lean on. This closeness brings with it a vulnerability which is beautiful but which needs to be handled with care. It is important for the teacher to be sensitive and responsive to each student in order to create and hold a safe space for their practice. I therefore need to continuously ask myself how to assist the students for their individual benefit and not in order to satisfy my own ego. How can I help each individual grow without creating a situation of dependence? How can I help empower the students in their practice and personal development? How can I be a support to them whilst still keeping my integrity and energy levels intact?

Every student/person I meet is unique with their background, personality, body and thought patterns. I have to listen, observe free of judgement and then reflect on how to best meet each particular person depending on their specific needs. Some students will need more support than others, be it physical or psychological, and this will also vary over certain periods of time. My role as a teacher is to share my experience and help guide the student on his/her journey.  But I can only pass on what I’ve learnt so far. We are all students of yoga, I the teacher included. To continue to teach I therefore need to (and want to) keep learning and educating myself through my personal practice and with the help of other teachers.

As the teacher I’m there to facilitate the student’s practice and to help them understand their own body (and mind). I’m also there to motivate and inspire, but not to push or force (instead I sometimes have to hold back a student who is too motivated for his/her “own good”). My role isn’t to force the student into postures (or anything else for that matter) or to make strong adjustments.  Sometimes, I of course have to use some strength to help but most of the time oral ques or a light touch in the right direction is sufficient. It is the student’s own practice that is their best teacher. Through exploration we gain experience and learn to know ourselves better. My role is to help the student find that inner connection and to listen inwards.

It always saddens me to hear when people have suffered injury or abuse on either a physical or psychological level in yoga (or elsewhere). To me the practice has always been a form of healing that has allowed me to become stronger and healthier and it continues to help me in various ways. This is what I would like to convey and pass on to my students. To avoid creating a setting where there’s a perceived need to perform for acknowledgement – whether from the teacher or from the student’s own ego – I believe it is important to have an open dialogue climate in the shala. It should be a safe space; a trauma informed practice environment where there’s mutual trust and equal rights/responsibilities between student and teacher.

We start our yoga practice with asana and pranayama – two of the 8 limbs in Ashtanga yoga – as they are the most accessible and easiest tools to work with. They also give tangible results relatively quickly. But asana practice alone will not bring enlightenment – although it may most likely teach us a lesson or two about ourselves. Physical postures and breathing can help us become healthier as we learn to be more aware of and listen to the body’s signals. When we become increasingly present – rather than being only “in the head” aiming at future goals (more asanas for example…) – we can practice more mindfully, which allows for sensing and reflecting upon how we act/react. We can start to question our behavior and why we tend to do things in specific ways. Why do we push ourselves or why we are afraid and hold back? Do we practice asanas to collect them rather than to improve our health? Can we learn to act without being attached to a certain result? Do we always need to achieve something? What happens if we don’t?

When we begin to free up old tensions and change old behavioural patterns we may encounter resistance and this can hurt; physically in terms of soreness or aching; mentally it may hurt to let go or to acknowledge difficult feelings/thoughts. Change is often met with resistance. It’s rarely a comfortable process. The support of a teacher who has “walked the walk” may be comforting and make the process somewhat easier. Though sometimes, even under the best of circumstances, we accidentally end up getting injured. An injury, although it may be instructive and one can learn a lot from it, it is not something that should be accepted as a general part of the practice. I don’t believe that you need to “break something” in order to rebuild it “better or stronger”. There’s no quick fix to create physical or mental stability – the practice needs to be done slowly and repeatedly over a long period of time to give space for change to happen gradually. This is not a process that can or should be rushed either by the practitioner or the teacher.

Depending on what phase of life we’re in or on the mood or energy of the day there also needs to be flexibility for how and what we practice. It is not my role as the teacher to judge something to be right or wrong – this to me would be counterproductive and make the practice too rigid. I can only share my experience and give advice on the most suitable method for each situation and then it is up to the student to choose whether to take it onboard or not. Practice is never the same from one day to the other. Asanas come and go and we sometimes need to do less postures depending on age, health, stress levels, the amount of sleep we’ve had and other commitments in life. To allow for modification, adaptation and to be flexible and responsive to daily fluctuations is essential. As a teacher I need and want to be responsive to this both in my own practice and to the students’. One of yoga’s most important principles is ahimsa – non harming – on both a physical and mental level. To hold the room for the students to feel safe to not perform or to push, to be themselves and to be vulnerable without fearing is my most important task.

Teaching is something I honour and respect deeply. Every day I’m grateful for each and every student that walks through the doors at the shala. The individuals who come to practice inspire me and help me develop on many levels and my hope is to help and inspire them just as much on their respective paths. My aim is for our relationship to be equal, based on mutual trust and respect. That we learn from each other, appreciate each other and don’t take each other for granted. Each student’s journey is unique, everyone needs to make their own experiences.  My role is to empower the student while walking next to them on their path for as long as they need me and can make use of my advice. To all the practitioners who choose to come and practice under my guidance I’d like to convey my sincere and humble thanks for the time we get to spend together on our respective journeys.

* Isabella Nitschke is the Director of Ashtanga Yoga Malmö and an authorised Ashtanga Yoga teacher

Yoga and fear – how regular practice may empower and make you more stress-resilient

The other day whilst going through some old files on my computer I found a text that I wrote exactly five years ago in March 2014. Somehow  it ended up unpublished and forgotten. But rereading it I realise its content is still very valid and that’s why I decided to share.

Having devoted much of the past eight years of my own yoga practice and my teaching to study end explore how yoga affects our nervous system and the state of our mental health, this post gives a small testimony how yoga with its different components of posture, breath, sound and behavioural practices can help us increase our resistance stress-resilience (fear is also stress). Yoga teaches us how to self-regulate and this helps us be more in control of emotions and stressful situations which in turn may lead us to feel more empowered  in our daily lives. In the end it is not about the postures but about what goes on when we learn them, when we breathe and practice to stay present in the moment however difficult that may be. Please continue reading below and keep checking this page for upcoming posts on the theme.

March 14th 2014

I used to be afraid of everything. When I was a kid I refused to participate in gymnastics during PE lessons – even a back roll (chakrasana to us Ashtanga yogis) was out of the question. Let’s not even talk about hand stand… The first time in my life I ever kicked up against a wall I was 33 years old. I had been convinced that my shoulders would never support me or that I would crash down on my head.  Of course that was just my imagination.

Despite being very anxious when younger – fearing I would damage my clothes if climbing a tree or fall when running and thereby make my mother angry with me – I was always very active, as long as I felt that I was in control. I played a lot of sports such as basked ball, did martial arts, got involved in fitness training, eventually became a spinning instructor and did a lot of long distance running. I travelled overseas, often alone, and never reflected much upon the dangers of doing this on my own.

Fear is often irrational and what makes one person freak out doesn’t even bother another one. Practicing Ashtanga yoga has been the key for me to face many of my fears. By going through challenges on the yoga mat my practice empowers me daily and teaches me many important lessons about how my mind works.

Moving and breathing in and out of asanas on the mat has not only made me stronger physically or allowed me to understand/be closer to my body. It also continuously teaches me to go a little further out of my comfort zone every day. Because it is only on the edge of the comfort zone where change and development happens. Step by step the practice tricks me into learning more and more difficult things, slowly adapting the body and mind progressively. With repetition and dedication, the posture that seemed absolutely impossible a few weeks, months or years before suddenly is accessible.  Like this the boundaries for what is possible are pushed a little further every day.

In my yoga practice I’ve had to (and still do) face my fears every day. And I do it because I’ve learnt that every small victory on the yoga mat shows me that I am much stronger than my mind tells me. The phrase “Yes, I can” – although it feels like a cliché – becomes a mantra that grows stronger with every hurdle passed. In the end it’s not about mastering the postures, but the result that comes with achieving something that used to be “impossible”.  If I can do the “impossible” on the mat the same should be possible off the mat – in daily life. And that’s where the real empowerment of yoga practice lies.

Teaching Ashtanga yoga as rehabilitation from PTSD, stress and depression in Rwanda 2011

I bend so I don’t break

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photo (c) Barbara Süß

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article about yoga and osteoporosis/osteopenia after having been diagnosed with a rather severe degree of weak bones in the lumbar spine and hips myself. The article received a lot of response and I still get messages from women and men around the globe who express their appreciation or who have questions about how to continue practising yoga after having received the diagnose. Recently there has been a new wave of emails coming in so I thought it might be a good idea to repost the article. You can find the article “Yoga and Osteoporosis/Osteopenia – the hidden disease” by following the link.

The response rate (I haven’t published all the comments that arrived as some were  quite personal) shows me that there is still very little written on this topic. Often information available is negative and suggests one should stop practising yoga and in particular more physically demanding practices such as Ashtanga yoga. For sure one needs to be more vigilant and mindful when practising with osteopenia AND one needs to practice with the guidance of an experienced teacher. But quitting yoga altogether I don’t agree with. Of course it depends on the individual, but I believe most people would benefit from continuing their practice at some level. The practice will over time transform the body from brittle to stronger and suppler. Also, strong muscles not only support the bones but their sheer weight assists in stimulating the creation of more bone mass. The natural resistance training in yoga practice, where one gets to support the own body weight in different asanas also helps build bone strength.

I only speak from personal experience. Since the publication of the article I have gone from being diagnosed with a severe level of osteopenia to reversing the condition in my lumbar spine and my wrists to normal with only the hips remaining osteopenic. I do not take any medication since 18 months and have never felt stronger. My back bending is deeper than ever and I can really feel how the practice is contributing to the healing of my body. Before taking up yoga practice I also suffered a lot from stress which led to depression and anxiety disorders, but yoga helps me ground and be more stable and the back bending has definitely assisted in preventing me from having relapses of deep depression. Bending backwards feels very nurturing as it both strengthens the back muscles and the whole core (if done correctly) as well as stimulates the nervous system and keeps my mood up.  Arm balances have also proved very beneficial but I need to be very careful because of the risk of falling – and so it scares me a bit.

But, yoga practice and specifically back bending  is not something that has come easy for me – a runner and cyclist of 15-20 years. My body was very stiff both front and back and it took time to open up. It was when learning how to back bend that I first discovered I had osteopenia as I suffered several broken ribs when trying to open the front of my body (I also wasn’t very mindful back then and I really learnt a lesson the hard way…something I do NOT recommend!!). My abs and ribcage were super tight from rounding the upper body in cycling and the iliopsoas was very tight from running and from mental stress at work.

Through daily yoga practice and by giving up running and cycling almost entirely, my body has gradually become both more supple and much stronger. Both body and mind have gone from rigid and stressed to more flexible, grounded and calm. The practice supports me at all levels and without it I am sure my state of health would look very different. I do need to practice very mindfully and I take care not to fall. Many things are very scary to do as I know that a small mistake could have dire consequences. And so there are many things that I may never be able to do at all or without assistance. But the practice is not about performance or how many asanas I do. It’s about the healing and nurturing it does and without the practice both my body and mind would surely break.

How to improve your focus

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(c) Barbara Süss

For someone who is used to practising alone or maybe new to the Mysore style practice, coming to practice in a yoga shala – or for that matter THE shala at the KPJAYI in Mysore – may be a challenge in staying focused. Space is very limited with mats lined up very close to each other; one is surrounded by individuals with inspiring (and sometimes intimidating) practices; the energy of moving and breathing bodies is strong and vibrating; and if that is not nerveracking enough the watching eye of “the Boss” is surveying the whole room including you! So it may take a while before one adjusts to the new practice climate. However, just as difficult it may be to switch from practice in solitude to practice in a packed shala (or to start practising in the first place) one will experience withdrawal symptoms and adjustment difficulties upon return to the solitary practice at home. Both ways of practice may thus pose a real challenge to keeping one’s focus but both are also very beneficial.

So how do we keep our focus? In one of his conferences last month (January 2016), Sharathji spoke about the purpose of dristhi (focus points for the eyes) in our practice. There are nine different dristhi, but 80% of the time we use nasgara dristhi (gazing at the tip of the nose). Also when we cannot do the intended dristhi for some reason, we use nasgara dristhi. In the beginning, when we are not comfortable in an asana, dristhi may be difficult. But with time, when we’ve become more accustomed to each asana dristhi will be easier to apply.

Practised consistently over time, dristhi will help deepen our focus and help us turn our attention inwards. In asana practice dristhi is one tool to keep the mind focused. The use of the breath and the asana itself are other tools. These are part of the Tristhana method of Ashtanga yoga. Outside of the physical practice Sharath recommends doing Japa to calm the mind. Japa is the conscious repetition (while using a mala) of a mantra that is given to you by your Guru.

The purpose of yoga practice is to calm the mind, to keep it from engaging with and getting lost in external as well as internal distractions. A consistent and dedicated practice, using the tools of dristhi, breath and asana, will help us become more present and aware of the tricks that our mind tries to play on us. Through being more conscious we may attain deeper levels of practice and only then, we can experience something different than we usually do. It is not easy but by becoming more focused in our physical practice we may also become less prone to distractions in our daily life and thus become more grounded, less neurotic (maybe) and hopefully much happier 🙂 !

The Nine Drishti
1 – Tip of the nose – Nasagra Drishti
2 – Up to space – Urdva Drishti
3 – Third Eye – Brumadya Drishti
4 – Tip of the middle finger – Hastagra Drishti
5 – Tip of the thumb – Angushta Drishti
6 – Right Side – Parshva Drishti
7 – Left Side – Parshva Drishti
8 – Navel – Nabi Drishti
9 – Tip of the big toe – Padagra Drishti

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