Katha Upanishad: The Secret of Death

When the five senses are stilled, and so is the mind, and even intellect does not stir, they call it the highest state. This state, the steady control of the senses, is considered to be yoga - Kaṭha Upaniṣad (6.10-11)

I’ve just completed a course on the history of yoga, which proclaimed that the word ‘yoga’ was first recorded in the Katha Upanishad (estimated 300 BCE).

In 2007, I made a short animation called ‘The Secret of Death’ based on the Katha Upanishad for my final year of Illustration with Animation degree. Katha Upanishad is said to be challenging to translate, as it contains many difficult and unique terms that are not clear. This short animation is a very simplified adaptation of the tale between a boy named Naciketas and Yama, the God of Death.

It’s made using shadow puppets and stop motion techniques. I remember making many puppets and background pieces, and spending lots of time in the dark moving them frame by frame. It was a frustrating but a meditative experience.  

I managed to get a lovely sitar player called Wasif Mullick to make the music and a friend called Tom Heron to narrate the story. My partner, Laurie Gibbs also helped too. After graduating, I did a bit of illustrating work but I mainly focused on teaching yoga. I do miss the creative aspects…maybe I will do something like this again.

I hope you enjoy watching!

Katha Upanishad

Tibetan Breathing Technique: Simple Alternative Nostril Breathing

‘Your breathing should flow gracefully, like a river, like a water snake crossing the water, and not like a chain of rugged mountains or the gallop of a horse. To master our breath is to be in control of our bodies and minds. Each time we find ourselves dispersed and find it difficult to gain control of ourselves by different means, the method of watching the breath should always be used’  - Thich Nhat Hanh

Yogic Breathing techniques

I wanted to share this brilliant breathing technique that I learnt from one of my yoga teachers some time ago. I’m not sure if it’s a classical Tibetan breathing technique, as I’ve never come across this anywhere else but it’s a great introduction to alternative nostril breathing or Nadi Shodhana.  

Nadi Shodhana means ‘purifying the channels’ and balances the pranic energies by controlling the airflow through the nostrils. This technique is excellent for beginners as it’s simple and easy to follow. Similar to Anuloma Ujjayi (another simple alternative nostril breathing), this technique is excellent for beginners as it’s simple and easy to follow. You don’t even need to be able to do Ujjayi pranayama or know how to hold Vishnu mudra, a hand gesture used in alternative nostril breathing.

If you are new to pranayama (yogic breathing techniques), it’s worth reading my previous posts on breathing technique and seated postures. To gain the most benefit from pranayama it’s best to be taught in person by an experienced teacher. 

Preparation: ways of opening and balancing nostrils

If you have a slight congestion, especially just on one side of the nostrils, you may want to try using the following techniques:

-       Lying on the side of the body: If your left nostril is blocked lie on right side and vice versa.

-       Practicing Padadhirasana, the breath balancing pose (see picture below).

Breath balancing pose

Sit tall in Vajrasana or a comfortable seated position that supports the spine. Cross the arms in front of the chest, placing the hands under the opposite armpits with the thumbs pointing upward. Close your eyes and start to focus on the breath. Allow your breathing to be smooth, deep and rhythmical. Practice for 5 – 10 minutes before pranayama.

If you’re still congested try visualisation techniques instead. With this breathing technique, you could even do the arm movements but omit holding the nose down.

Method

  1. Sit comfortably with the spine tall (use cushion or chair if necessary)
  2. Connect with your breath and begin to slow down your breathing
  3. Raise your right arm up as you inhale through both nostrils, as you exhale block the right nostril and breathe out through the left. On your next inhale, raise your left arm up and when you exhale block the left nostril and breathe out through the right (this completes a full round). Continue like this for 6 - 12 rounds.
  4. Sit and observe the effects of your practice.

If you feel dizzy or unwell during the practice, stop and bring your breathing back to a normal. If you have a regular pranayama practice, you can alter breathing ratio and slowly introduce breath retention.

Practice advice

This breathing technique can be practiced before or after the asana session.

Relax your shoulders, face and neck and try to keep an upright spine. Avoid pressing too hard on your nose and be delicate with the use of your hand. Gradually lengthen and deepen your breathing. Take your time to practice slowly and try to feel the effect of the pranayama.

Benefits

The immediate effects of pranayama can be subtle but with regular practice, you will notice that your mind is clearer and your concentration will improve. It’s said to be great for reducing stress and overall you will feel more balanced and energised. Pranayama is used for dharana (concentration) and preparation for dhyana (meditation).

I have personally practiced pranayama over the years and have noticed a massive improvement in my mental and physical wellbeing. I found that I am more grounded, centred and relaxed.

Meditation Practice

‘Most of the trouble of the world comes because people have not learnt just to sit quietly’ 

- The French philosopher Pascal

Meditation Practice and the balancing nature of regularly doing meditation

Meditation practice is an essential part of yoga practice. And yet, yogis are often accused of just preparing to practice meditation without actually doing it! We tend to be very good at practicing asana and pranayama but quite often skip meditation altogether. When we actually do practice, it tends to be for a short time either at the beginning or end of the session.

Classical yoga is the ‘practice of settling the mind’ and we achieve this by following the whole of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Dhyana is the 7th limbs of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, and it’s often translated as meditation, reflection and profound contemplation. The root of the word ‘meditation’ is similar to medical or medicate and the word implies a sense of ‘attending to’ or ‘paying attention’.

In 2014 I took an 8 month BWY meditation module with Kay Baxter, it was refreshing and enlightening to focus purely on the practice of mediation. Kay is one of the senior British Wheel of Yoga teachers and specialises in meditation. We met once every month to practice meditation all day, we also did little bit of asana, singing, listening to music, breathing and relaxation techniques but the main focus was on meditation.

Don’t get me wrong, especially at the beginning, it was really challenging to simply sit and feel. It was fascinating to see how easily I got distracted and lost in my mind.  Having Kay’s expert and gentle guidance was invaluable. Kay would often remind us to ‘let go of doing, achieving or competing and observe and feel’.  She also always allowed time to discuss and share our experience within the group, and it was really interesting to hear other people’s views. From regularly practicing meditation, I learnt so much about myself. As Kay wisely said:

‘In this deeper, stiller place you can discover many things. You will uncover your own truths. Truths that are universal, but that you experience and appreciate in your own individual way according to your life and understanding. An opening is created, a space where the deep intelligence may rise up and insight descend such that we can begin to know. Knowledge that is not information gleaned from books, but that carries with it a deep feeling connection, such that there may be a sense of coming into alignment with something that is clear and true’.

I strongly believe that we would all benefit from doing regular practice of meditation. It allows valuable time and space to reflect on our actions, thoughts and feelings, and be more conscious and attentive. As Swami Rama says:

‘We are taught how to move and behave in the external world, but we are never taught how to be still and examine what is within ourselves. At the same time, learning to be still and calm should not be made a ceremony or a part of any religion: It is a universal requirement of the human body’

Meditation practice has been around for centuries and with some guidance, it is accessible and available for everyone.


If you are interested in starting meditation, come along to Kay Baxter’s Wednesday morning meditation from 10 – 11am at the Bristol Yoga Space studio in central Bristol.  Kay’s class is structured in a way that it is accessible and enjoyable for everyone including beginners. Don’t worry if you cannot sit comfortably on the floor. We have chairs and props to make sitting more accessible.

I’m really excited to welcome her in the studio! It’s fantastic to be able to learn meditation weekly. I’m certainly going to be there :)

Kay will also be running series of Meditation workshops from May 2017.

Yoga For Your Back

I thought I would write about yoga for healthy backs because I recently hurt my back and had to modify my personal practice. Yes, yoga teachers sometimes do get ill and injured! In my opinion this can actually improve our teaching because we can understand what it is like and how to deal with it from a first-hand experience.

Injuries can be frustrating and stressful but it can also be an excellent time to reflect and get to know ourselves better.  After all, one of the most important elements of yoga practice is self-understanding. Illness and injuries are common part of living and now that we are all living longer, we are bound to encounter problems from time to time. 

In yoga, what is important is not necessarily whether you can do the pose well (or even at all) but how we deal with the challenges that we face.  Try to take a moment to question, do you try and force yourself into a difficult pose without paying attention and listening to your body? Does your practice benefit and reflect where you are at the moment?

Whilst you are injured, it is really important that you are sensitive and aware of the body so that you can adapt the practice creatively. Try to avoid doing strong poses or sequence. This is not the time to challenge yourself. Instead try to practice in a gentle, mindful way.  Think of how we would act if your looking after those we love that are in pain. 

Whilst there are many different types of back problems, I thought I would try and provide a general tips and guidelines for practice. These are the movements and postures that I found particularly beneficial.  If any of the poses or movements hurt, try modifying and if it’s still painful you can skip it altogether. Remember less is more. Doing a regular short gentle mindful movement is much more helpful for recovery. Make sure to consciously breathe through the whole practice. This will help you to relax and recover more quickly. Most of the practice is done on the floor to avoid compression and remove the pressure of gravity on the spine.

1. Semi supine pos

Yoga for your back Pose

Try experimenting different ways of lying that feels best for your back.  Start by connecting with your breath and encouraging your whole body to relax completely.

2. Wind Releasing Pose and variations

Yoga for your back pose

If it doesn’t hurt your back, try moving very gently in a circle, side to side or forward and back movement .

3. Supine mountain pose with arm raise

Yoga full stretch pose

Lie with your feet flexed and your legs engaged as if you are standing with your arms by your side. Slowly extend your arms over head. Try to get your arms and hands to touch the floor above your head. Repeat this movement slowly with your breath. Inhale, raise your arms and exhale release your arms back to the original position.

Once you have repeated the arm rise, try holding the pose with your arm extended overhead and point and flex your feet several times. Use of a block is optional.

4. Pelvic tilts

Pelvic tilt yoga pose

In this exercise, you are gently moving from anterior to posterior pelvic tilt. Inhale arch your back slightly and tilt your hips forwards. Exhale gently pull your belly in and flatten your back. Move with your slow deep breathing.

To strengthen your belly, hold in the posterior tilt position with the abdomen drawn in for several breaths and release. Repeat the hold few times.

After the exercise, try to find a neutral alignment for your spine and relax completely.

5. Supine twist (dynamic and static)

Supine Twist Yoga Pose

Start from semi supine pose and slowly release into the twist on an exhalation.  On an inhalation, return back to centre. Repeat on the other side. Once you have completed several rounds, hold the twist for several breaths on each side. 

6. Supine cobbler pose

Yoga pose

In this dynamic variation of the lying cobbler pose, we will be moving our legs in and out slowly with your deep smooth breath.  Exhale bring the knee into wards one another and feet down on the floor. On your inhale return to the original position. Repeat this several times.

When your ready hold cobbler pose for several breaths. If it’s a strain to hold this position, try using yoga blocks underneath the legs or use a yoga belt to support your hips.

7. Full relaxation pose

modified relaxation pose

To make the final pose even more relaxing use folded up blanket underneath your legs and optionally use eye pillow and another blanket to cover yourself. Try and make yourself really comfortable so that you can relax fully. Feel free to use semi supine pose instead.

Developing a Home Yoga Practice Part II

In the ‘Developing a Home Yoga Practice part I’, I explored the benefits and importance of having a regular home yoga practice. In this second part, I will cover information and advice on how to start your home practice.

Benefits of home practice

There are many benefits from regular home practice. Over time, you will gain flexibility and strength not just physically but mentally. You will feel more relaxed and confident in your practice and your ability to concentrate will vastly improve. Overall you will feel more balanced and aware of yourself.

One key advantage of home practice is that you become less reliant on other people and you can practice any time you want. You don’t need to find a suitable class every time you want to practice and you can tailor the practice to suit your needs. As your practice develops, you will gain the skills to become your own yoga teacher and learn to look after yourself better.

Yoga Tools for Practice

Yoga Tools

Hopefully, by now you are wondering how you can start practicing yoga at home. In order to get started, it seems obvious but you need to get some yoga equipment like yoga mat and blocks. It’s not a must but you can also buy other useful yoga tools like eye pillow, yoga straps, bricks and bolsters. These tools can make your practice more enjoyable and they can easily be found on online yoga stores. If you don’t want to start spending money, you can use household items instead. For example, a scarf instead of a yoga belt. See my blog post on restorative practice for more ideas.

Place & Time

Ideally, you want to find a practice area that is clean, airy and quiet – preferably a place away from distraction.  If you have particularly busy house, you might consider practicing early in the morning before everyone gets up. Our muscles tend to be tighter in the morning so it might feel more challenging to begin with but your body will adjust in time. In fact, traditionally yoga is practiced very early in the morning and it is a wonderful time to practice. It will wake you up and you will feel great for the rest of the day. However if this time really doesn’t suit you, try different times of the day like after work or just before going to bed. It’s best to experiment and see what works for you.

Personally I tend to do my practice at the same time every day. Doing your practice at the same time makes it easier to create a regular routine. If you cannot do a regular time and find it difficult to stick to your practice, try making appointment with yourself. You could try writing it down in the diary or note it down on the calendar so that you keep this time free and mark it as something important that you have agreed to do. After all, you wouldn’t forget or decide not to turn up to an important meeting with some one.

How to begin

An ancient text, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali[1] has the following advice on practice,

The practice of yoga will be firmly rooted when it is maintained consistently and with dedication over a long period - Yoga Sutra verse 1.14 (A Shearer translation)

To begin with, it’s best to try and do short regular practice - try doing couple of basic postures and sequences that you know well. At this stage, the most important thing is to establish the routine of doing yoga. It’s better to do 20 minutes everyday than to do an hour and a half practice once in a blue moon. You can then gradually increase the practice length over time. For inspiration, I recommend that you continue to attend your group classes regularly and take a look at yoga books and website for more ideas. It is said that there are over 840,000 yoga poses [2] available. Having this many choices can be great but it can also be confusing. Try not to do everything at once and take time to learn each posture well.

Coming up with a balanced yoga sequence can be challenging and it can be hard to know which postures to do and when to do them. Try to notice the effect of each of the asanas so that you can begin to know what postures work well together. Yoga sequencing can be likened to cooking. First of all, it’s important to learn the basics. You can begin by following a recipe (or other people’s sequences) and once you have learnt the basics, you can begin to experiment and come up with your own unique flavours and practice.

As a general rule, you want to try and have a definitive start, middle and end to your session. This will help to create a rounded practice. Try to spend at least couple of minutes settling and connecting to your breath. Do some warming up movements to limber the body especially before doing advanced postures like strong backbends or inversions. Towards the end of the practice, wind down by doing some more calming and relaxing postures. Make sure you always rest in Savasana at the end of your practice.

Keeping a practice journal can be beneficial. You can see your progress easily and it will encourage you to learn names of the poses and breathing techniques. This doesn’t have to be long. It could be just couple of sentences. If writing something doesn’t work for you, try recording a journal on your phone. Encourage yourself to reflect on how the practice made you feel. Note down things like how your body felt, the qualities of your breathing and how the mind reacted during your practice. Write down what worked and what didn’t and your energy levels during and after the practice.

Practice Tips

Instilling a regular practice can be very challenging so try and persevere.  It’s normal to have setbacks so try not to be too hard on yourself. Stay sensitive and notice small changes. Most of all enjoy your practice.

Finally, there are other creative ways of brining yoga practice throughout the day. You can practice simple breathing techniques like Full Yogic Breathing whilst you’re walking down the street or do Tadasana (Mountain Pose) when you’re waiting for a bus. You could also do few simple stretches at work.

I will leave you with a quote from K Pattabhi Jois, a renowned Indian Yoga teacher who developed Ashtanga Yoga, said ‘Practice and all is coming’.

Footnote

1. The Yoga sutra was written around 200 AD is considered to be one of the most authoritative texts on yoga

2. The Gheranda Samhita is a classic text of Hatha yoga. The text states that there are 84 basic poses but it also claims thatShiva taught 8,400,000 different asanas. Some people argue that they are infinite poses because people have infinite imagination and abilities to move the body. https://www.quora.com/How-many-yoga-poses-exist

Developing a Home Yoga Practice Part I

‘Home practice explores the exquisite relationships between the body, the breath and life itself. The whole reason for doing yoga is to enjoy this relationship, the natural intimacy with life itself’

 – Mark Whitwell, an internationally renowned yoga teacher 

Home Yoga Practice

Developing a consistent home yoga practice is one of the most rewarding and important activities for serious yogis but it can also be one of the hardest things to achieve. A regular practice requires motivation, creativity, discipline and confidence – all qualities that are really worthwhile to try and develop.

I’ve met dedicated students that attend taught group yoga classes almost every day and yet find it a real struggle to get on their yoga mat alone at home. This is important to remedy as it’s within a regular home practice that we truly discover and connect to ourselves. As Tara Frazer in her book ‘Yoga for You’ says, ‘Although you will learn a great deal from a teacher, you will experience most of yoga’s benefits by practicing alone. This is because, ultimately, yoga is a process of self-realisation and you are the best expert on yourself’.

No matter how excellent your yoga teacher is, they will never be able to feel and connect to yourself like you can. Instead of relying on other people, you can begin to look after yourself.

When we know ourselves better we are in a much better position to take care of our minds and bodies. One of the greatest benefits from my own practice is the ability to really listen and adapt my practice to suit my changing needs. I believe this is an essential point as no matter how strong or flexible you become, if you are unable to modify your practice when you have injuries or at challenging times then it’s severely limited. In fact, it’s during these times that our yoga practice should help and support us.

The yoga practice then becomes a therapeutic transformative activity for the individual. Gary Kraftsow, a senior viniyoga teacher said ‘...Yoga lies in the adaption of the practice to the individual, not in the adaptation of the individual to the practice’.  When designing a balanced personal practice, Krafsow says to respect our individual situations and requirements and take into account constitution, place, gender, time, age, capacities, aspirations and activities.

It is easy to ignore our personal needs and circumstances and set unrealistic aims and goals in our practice. Yoga is not something we accomplish but it is a life long development. You will naturally find that your practice will continuously grow and change.

Over time my own practice has changed to be more self-reflective and contemplative. It is now much less about achieving certain postures or complying with rigid ideals. I do my home practice to try and achieve greater harmony and balance within myself. I believe these important changes have come from my continuous personal practice.

In the next part of this blog, I will give tips and advice on starting a home practice.

Restorative Yoga Postures

I caught a particularly bad cold earlier in the year and had to adapt my personal yoga practice. I didn’t have the energy to do my regular asanas so I chose to do restorative postures instead. I thought I would write about the benefits of poses that I used to help.

I believe that it’s really important to be able to modify our practice to suit our changing needs. My personal practice enables me to connect and reflect on what’s going on within my life.  It’s imperative that we learn to listen to our body and adapt our practice as much as necessary.

In restorative postures, it’s much nicer to use props but if you don’t have any, you can always use alternative things that you can find in your home.  For example, you could use couple of pillows instead of a yoga bolster and a scarf or belt to replace yoga strap. Eye pillows are wonderful for restorative practice but if you don’t have one, you could use eye masks or cover your eyes with a small towel. Get creative and use whatever that works for you. Just make sure that you are supported and really comfortable. Here are some recommended restorative postures:

Supported Supine Bound Angle Pose

This is a great heart and hip opening pose, especially beneficial for relieving some symptoms of a cold.

 Props: Bolster, yoga straps or blocks and eye pillow

Cobbler yoga pose

Supported Child Pose

When you’ve got a cold, it can be difficult to do forward bends but this is a lovely calming and relaxing one to do.

Props: Bolster, cushion, blanket 

Yoga Child Pose

Legs up the wall pose

Similar to forward bends, inverted postures can be challenging postures to practice when your feeling under the weather but you can practice this pose easily.  It is also said to be a great pose to encourage you to get a good night’s sleep. The trick to getting close to the wall is to start by sitting very close sideways and flipping your legs 90 degrees. If your buttocks are still far away, use your elbows to nudge yourself closer.

 Prop: a wall or a chair, bolster

Yoga legs up the wall pose

Practicing points

  • Stay in the pose from 5 – 10 minutes
  • Feel and decide for yourself how much props to use
  • Relax and enjoy