How to Create a Personal Altar
As yoga teachers, we ’hold space’ for our students, but what does that mean? A huge part of space holding is energetic; it is not so much about creating a safe and inspiring physical place, but more of an intent. Our intent, however, is supported by creating an inspired environment which in turn cultivates a certain bhāv. Bhāv, sometimes translated as ”mood,” is what forms the nurturing ground for the deeper experiences of yoga. It is the inner feeling state that brings a certain kind of magic to the practice of yoga. In this article, we will explore how to create a personal altar to support the magic of our practice and in our life!
Setting the Foundation
Some simple things to consider when creating a bhāv-supporting space for yourself or your students are:
- Choose or create an environment that is quiet and spacious, with good natural light.
- Keep the space clean and clutter-free.
- Clear the space energetically with sage, cedar, palo santo, or other herb of your choice (look for products from sustainable and ethical sources), and open windows to let fresh air in.
- Create a personal altar where you can place inspiring objects. Find out how below!
- Change things around periodically to avoid stagnation.
Creating a Personal Altar
An altar can work as a representation of your intention and a manifestation of your inner landscape. It is personal and can be very creative! The first step in building an altar is deciding its purpose. Close your eyes and contemplate your intention. It could be as simple as wanting to create a space that reflects the energy of your practice. Or maybe you would like to cultivate a certain quality within yourself, for example, courage, love, creativity, or gratitude. Another idea is to create an altar for somebody in your life (including yourself) that needs strength or healing. Once you connect with your intention, use your intuition to manifest it.
What to Place On Your Altar
Traditionally, altars contain objects of deliberate symbolic meaning, but can also be a collection of personal things that remind you of your true self and the best parts of your life. Many of us have sacred personal items placed throughout our home—stones, seashells, feathers, candles, photographs, etc. A personal altar is a place where you bring these items together to gather your spiritual energy and allow it to reflect back to you. Your purpose and intention may transform from day to day and week to week, let your altar evolve with it!
Whether you use your altar as a center piece for your daily practice, or simply pause for a moment before it as you brush by, it can help you reconnect with the deepest intentions for your life. An altar is a mirror of the hridaya, the inner, dynamic heart space that is the home of the Self.
“Bhāv, sometimes translated as ”mood,” is what forms the nurturing ground for the deeper experiences of yoga.”
Creating an Altar for the 5 Elements
The most basic theme for an altar is the five elements: Fire, Water, Air, Earth and Space/Spirit. These 5 Elements are the essential building blocks of everything and by honoring them, we honor the whole universe. This is how you can create a personal altar using the 5 elements:
Space envelops all the other elements and is symbolized by all of them together. It is also closely linked to Spirit, the symbolism for which is personal to each and everyone.
Sometimes bells or other sound makers symbolize the space element because sound vibrations are said to be the origin of creation. A conch shell may also symbolize space element—its sound represents the sound OM.
Symbols for Spirit can be a statue or image of a chosen deity, or anything that connects you to your higher Self. Place this symbol in the center of the altar.
Air is the subtle, mobile element that represents creativity, knowledge and the powers of the mind. It can be symbolized by natural incense, sage, palo santo, sweetgrass, flowers, feathers, or a bird image or totem, pens, paints, journal or anything that represents your creativity.
Fire is the hot and sharp element that represents all forms of transformation, digestion of life experiences, creative energy, inspiration, passion, and strong will. It is usually presented by light or a flame of some sort, usually a candle or an oil lamp.
Water signifies emotions, intuition, healing, and flow. It is often symbolized by fresh water, a chalice, cup or bowl, a mirror, sea shells, coral, milk, flower essences, elixirs, or any medicines that are helping you in your life.
Earth is associated with nature, feeling grounded, security, and material well-being. It can be symbolized by incense, flowers, foods, crystals, stones, bones, plants, sandalwood powder and paste, inspiring ancestral photos or images, photos of teachers and lineages, or land animal images.
Place all these symbols on a cloth (protects the boundaries) to create your altar.
If you are interested in learning more about the devotional side of Yoga, check out our 100-hour Bhakti Yoga & Mantra Module!
Nicolina Sandstedt, Yandara Lead Trainer
Move & Breathe With Us – Gentle Yoga Flow
Hatha Yoga utilizes the technologies of Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha, and Meditation to harmonize the Moon and Sun energies within the body. A process that ultimately enlivens the dormant potential within know as the Kundalini. With this blog, we gift you a 15-Minute gentle hatha yoga flow!
In the original Hatha Yoga, being an asana practitioner has nothing to do with impressive postures. Those may or may not come with time — a bonus to a dedicated practice. Instead, the practitioner, no matter how experienced, will show up with a beginner’s mind, knowing that there is always something new to learn. A gentle yoga flow has just as many benefits as a more physically demanding practice. The aim of every practice is to reach a place of deep balance and harmony. A truly advanced practitioner is unattached to the outcome of the practice, and always fully present to thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations. They know that there is no final asana to master. The path of yoga is endless and being a yoga student is to be deeply curious about that endless path.
Mastery of Asana
T. Krishnamacharya, known as the grandfather of modern yoga, defined mastery of asana in these terms:
- Sthira sukha is present, i.e. the practitioner applies equal amounts of strength and softness
- The breath is smooth and controlled, and totally encompasses the movement, i.e. the breath initiates and completes each movement
- The practitioner is attentive to the breath and focused on the process of the asana
- The physical form of the asana is aligned correctly and feels good to the practitioner
- These principles apply to every asana, gentle or demanding, classical or modified
Enjoy this gentle flow whenever you need a short break to reset your energy.
Join us for the base level 200hr YTT program or for the advanced 300hr YTT program and learn the principles of yoga practice! You are welcome to join a Yandara program if you plan to become a teacher, or if you simply want to deepen your own practice and understanding of yoga!
Four Keys to Peace from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.33
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is a collection of 196 aphorisms, divided into four chapters, that act as a guide on the spiritual journey. It was compiled in the early centuries CE by the Indian sage Patanjali, who synthesised and organised the ancient knowledge of Yoga.
The four chapters discuss the aims and practice of yoga, the development of yogic powers, and finally Liberation. Here we will look at sutra 1.33, which gives us four essential keys to peace of mind.
Whether on a yogic path or not, we all want to have a peaceful mind. Sutra 1.33 brings to light some of the key things that cause stress and anxiety in the mind, and gives us four essential tools to help us remain peaceful.
maitri karuna muditopeksanam sukha duhkha punyapunya visayanam bhavanatas citta prasadanam
”By cultivating feelings of friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion for those who are suffering, delight in the virtuous, and neutrality towards those who you perceive to be wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.”
In this sutra, Patanjali tells us that there are four locks and four keys in the world. Each lock is a human behaviour that can trigger a whirlwind in the mind, and each key is a way to neutralise that whirlwind.
The First Lock & Key
The first lock is friendliness and ease, and the key lies in meeting that friendliness with loving-kindness. Seems simple enough? If a stranger smiles at you in the street, you smile back at them, and harmony is cultivated. But what if it triggers a sense of comparison? You start questioning why they are so happy? And what may be wrong with your life as you are not walking around with a smile? Then the smiling stranger can create agitation in your mind. However, if you trust Patanjali’s suggestions and simply smile back at them without getting stuck in thoughts, your body receives a signal of happiness and your mind becomes calm.
The Second Lock & Key
The second lock is unhappiness or unease, and the key is found in cultivating compassion towards those who are experiencing that sadness. When someone is upset, comfort them. If they need space, let them know you are there for them when they are ready. Try to put yourself in their shoes; most of us have experienced sadness or unease at some point. Know that you don’t have to change or fix anything, let them be vulnerable and just be there for them. This will help you retain a peaceful mind.
The Third Lock & Key
The third lock/key is delight in those who are virtuous. This is simple enough when it comes to your heroes in life; but more challenging when it is closer to home. If you and a friend decide to commit to a 40-day yoga practice, and your friend sticks to it while you don’t; can you show delight towards your friend? A common response to this type of situation is to attack yourself as a looser and your friend as a show-off. Instead of letting your mind be disturbed by jealousy, imagine that your True Nature, that is One with everything and everyone, delights in your friends ability to stick to their commitment. A win for One is a win for All.
The Fourth Lock & Key
The fourth lock/key is equanimity towards those we perceive as being non-virtuous. This one always causes the most discussions in the YTT classroom. When we see someone doing something mean or hurtful, should we just look the other way? In a word, no. But does that mean we should get all up in arms, mind boiling with anger, ready to start a war? No, this is not a productive state of being, and it will not produce the most effective result. If we see someone causing harm, ideally, we speak up while maintaining a calmness of mind. This is a challenging key to find, but it is there and by using it, great changes can arise!
We Love Yoga Philosophy!
During your Yandara YTT, we explore inspiring Yoga Philosophy every day, at both the 200hr and the 300hr level. Enjoy this short video below where Yandara founder and lead trainer, Christopher Perkins, takes you through a short journey from inner Argument to inner Acceptance.
Nicolina Sandstedt, Yandara Lead Trainer
25-Minute Pranayama Practice for a Calm Mind
Pranayama, or breath practice, is a powerful tool with many benefits that is often overlooked in westernised yoga practice. The breath is a bridge between body and mind, and between the autonomic and somatic nervous systems. You don’t have to remind yourself to blink, salivate, dilate or constrict your pupils, keep your heart beating, or breathe, it just happens…it is controlled by your autonomic nervous system and adjusted according to which life situation (stressful or relaxing) you are facing. Yet, the breath can also be controlled by your will. By changing your breath pattern, you can affect the body and mind. At the end of this post, find a 25-Minute guided Pranayama practice for a calm mind.
USE PRANAYAMA TO CALM THE MIND
The autonomic nervous system is always active, either in a sympathetic or parasympathetic mode. The sympathetic mode is activated during a ”fight or flight” situation, when mental stress or physical danger is present. On the flip side, the parasympathetic mode is activated during times of reduced stress, and allows the body to ”rest and digest”.
Our breath changes depending on which part of the autonomic nervous system is active. And, vice versa, we can also affect the autonomic nervous system by changing our breath pattern. Changing the pace and length of inhalation and exhalation and adjusting the pauses between the two, can help calm stress-related disorders, and increase our focus.
Some breath techniques are calming, while others are stimulating. The ancient yogis learned this by intuition and experimentation. They called this practice Pranayama (”techniques to extend our life force”), and Patanjali included it as one of the Eight Limbs of Yoga.
BENEFITS OF PRANAYAMA
According to yogic belief, Prana (universal vital energy) is the driving force of the universe and all bodily functions. Blockages of this flow is said to cause illness, and being able to balance the flow can give us the power to balance and heal the body. Pranayama is the primary yoga technique to adjust the flow of Prana.
Modern science is just catching up to the understandings of how using the breath can help calm the mind in a world of constant impressions. Some of the additional benefits of Pranayama include:
- Decrease stress
- Improve sleep quality
- Increase mindfulness
- Reduce high blood pressure
- Improve lung function
- Enhance cognitive performance
- Reduce addictive cravings, particularly related to smoking
If you haven’t practiced Pranayama before, find a teacher to guide you! Join Yandara founder, Christopher Perkins, in the video below for a calming 25-Minute Pranayama practice.
We teach basic Pranayama techniques in all our 200hr teacher training programs, and in the 300hr advanced program we go deeper into the breath. We also offer an advanced 100hr module called Breath & Meditation a few times a year in Baja and Sweden.
Nicolina Sandstedt, Yandara Lead Trainer
Warming Yandara Chai Recipe
Nicolina Sandstedt, Yandara Lead Trainer
Leaves are falling outside and autumn days like these call for time curled up in the sofa under a cozy blanket with a warm cup of tea… Masala Chai is a traditional Indian tea, perfect for chilly days. Find our favourite warming chai tea recipe here! Chai simply means ‘tea’ and masala is a mixture of spices. Masala Chai is made by simmering the tea with spices and milk. This creates a rich and creamy warm drink that makes your whole house smell like heaven!
Masala chai is traditionally made with a full bodied black tea, but can also be made without tea leaves for a decaffeinated version.
WARMING MASALA CHAI RECIPE
The spices can be varied according to your preference:
- 2-3 cups Water
- 3-4 Black tea bags or 2-3 tbsp tea leaves
- 1 Cinnamon stick
- 8-10 Cloves
- 8-10 Green Cardamom pods
- 4-5 Black Peppercorns
- 2 Star Anise
- 1 tsp Fennel seeds
- 0.5-1 inches Fresh ginger root
- Sweetener (eg. brown sugar/maple syrup/liquorice root)
- 2 cups Milk (any milk or milk substitute that you love)
Whole spices are preferred as they can easily be strained out at the end. For a faster version, you can grind the spices and make a masala chai powder.
STEP BY STEP
- Place a saucepan with water over high heat. Add the whole spices while the water is coming to a boil, reduce the heat and let it simmer for 15 min or more. Pause and enjoy the amazing scents that fill your house.
- Throw in the tea bags (or leaves) and let simmer for another 5 min.
- Add milk and any sweetener. Increase the heat and once it comes to a boil, lower the heat again and allow it to simmer for another 5 minutes or so.
- Raise the heat to high and allow it to come to a rolling boil for about a minute.
- Pour into cups through a strainer.
If the color is not deep enough or the chai is not strong enough, feel free to add more tea bags/leaves. The color of a nice and strong cup of masala chai looks like approximately like a standard cafe latte.
Like with any drink, have fun and experiment with the recipe to find your perfect cup of Masala Chai.
Chai = Tea
Masala = a mixture of spices.
Masala Chai is made by simmering tea with spices and milk.
If you get tired of the northern autumn weather, please come join us in the bright and sunny Baja desert for a YTT program or retreat.
Three Yoga Home Practices for Autumn
Nicolina Sandstedt, Yandara Lead Trainer
In 2022, the fall equinox arrives on September 22. This marks the start of the colourful, cozy fall in the Northern Hemisphere – a perfect time to practice yoga at home. With this post, I would like to offer three simple and nourishing yoga home practices to incorporate into your routine this fall.
On the equinox, day and night are roughly equal in length. After the equinox, days become shorter as the sun continues to rise later and the night falls earlier. This trajectory ends with the winter solstice, after which days start to grow longer once again. With the change in the amount of daylight, the leaves start to shift from green to yellow, orange and red, creating the vibrant sunset of the seasons.
Ayurveda and seasonal balance
This shift has been of importance throughout the ages. In Mexico, the Mayans built a giant pyramid called Chichen Itza and on the equinoxes, it looks as if a snake made of light slithers down the pyramid’s steps. And in England, Stonehenge was built with the equinoxes and solstices in mind. In India, the traditional medicine Ayurveda is built around living in harmony with nature and the seasons. According to Ayurveda, autumn brings with it a predominance of Vata dosha and the air element. It harbors a certain mix of emptiness and movement that can leave us feeling a little lost, but it is also a time filled with possibility—a time when we can return to the quiet essence of being through nourishing yoga and meditation practice.
Balancing the shifting of the seasons with certain lifestyle choices is an Ayurvedic way to support our well-being. Considering the Ayurvedic principle that ‘like increases like and opposites balance’, the airy vata season will be less unsettling if filled with warmth, deep nourishment, time with loved ones, and a sense of stability and routine – such as consistent yoga home practice.
Three Yoga Home Practices
As yoga practitioners, we have many tools to help create stability and balance. Vata is easily aggravated by fast, mobile activities, so let’s consider a gentle, warming, grounding and strengthening yoga home practice to find balance in the fall season. Here follows 3 simple yoga routines to incorporate this season. Warm up slowly, include gentle joint mobility, and aim to keep your breath deep and fluid. *Tip: Draw these routines with stick figures and keep them in your note book.
1. Autumn Sun Salutations
Start with gentle warm up of the spine and joints, such as wrist circles, shoulder rolls, neck rolls, cat/cow, standing pelvic rolls and large, standing arm sweeps with deep breathing.
Consider the soft warm glow of the autumn sun all around you as you transition into practicing sun salutations. Move slower and breathe deeper than you do normally. Ujjayi breath will help create warmth, stability, and rhythm. Practice 6-12 rounds of any sun salutation of your choice (find a sample video of Yandara Teacher, Sarasvati, practicing a Sun Salutation on the Yandara beach here).
End your movement routine with gentle hip openers on the floor, such as ‘eye of the needle’ or ‘bound angle pose’. Finally, take a few minutes of rest in Savasana, inhale a warm glowing light, exhale feel heavier with each breath.
2. Stabilizing Mini-Vinyasa Practice
Start with gentle warm up of wrists, shoulders and neck. Come to all fours for 2 minutes of cat/cow. Then, inhale into ‘cow pose’ and exhale into child’s pose for 2 minutes. Move onto shifting between ‘cow pose’ on the inhalation and ‘downward dog’ on the exhalation, 2 minutes. Then, shift between downward dog (inhale) and plank pose (exhale) for 1 minute, followed by holding plank pose with a stable core for 1 minute. Lay down flat on your belly, hands under the shoulders, press the top of the feet and front of the pelvis into the earth. Inhale into cobra pose by sending the heart forward and up as the shoulders draw back and down, exhale as you lower back down, repeat 10 times. Come to child’s pose. Inhale, stand up on your knees, sweeping the arms to the sky, exhale return to child’s pose, placing the hands onto of the sacrum/back of hips, repeat for 1 minute. Lay on your back, knees bent, feet hip width apart. Inhale, lift the pelvis and sweep the arms over head, exhale lower back down to the floor, 1 minute. Stay in bridge pose with the hands interlaced underneath you, 1 minute. Exhale return to the floor, let the knees fall from side to side for gentle spinal rotations, 1 minute, and then hug the knees to the chest, 2 minutes.
Take a few minutes of rest in Savasana, inhale a warm glowing light, exhale feel the earth beneath you.
3. Grounding Evening Practice
Start with gentle warm up of wrists, ankles, shoulders and neck. Then sit cross legged, one hand on each knee, sit tall, then circle the heart slowly around an imagined golden pillar, clockwise for 1 minute, and then counter-clockwise for 1 minute. Come to lay on your back with the legs up the wall, option to place a cushion or a stack of blankets under the hips, stay for 5 minutes.
Slowly make your way to a comfortable seated position to begin Nadi Shodhana/Alternate Nostril Breathing. Start by taking a few rounds of deep, conscious breaths. Fold the tips of the peace fingers into the palm (Vishnu mudra). Alternately use the right thumb to close the right nostril, and the right ring finger to close the left nostril. Keeping the right nostril closed, inhale through the left nostril, deep into the belly. As you inhale, feel or see the breath traveling upward, filling the left side of the body. Pause briefly at the crown of the head. Exhale through the right nostril, feeling the breath emptying the right side of the body. Pause gently at the bottom of the exhalation, focusing the lower belly. Inhale once again through the right nostril, and exhale through the left. Continue the same pattern, pausing gently between the two parts of the breath, for 5-15 minutes. Nadi shodhana clears and purifies our subtle channels, while bringing balance to the mind-body system as a whole. When you are ready to close your practice, complete the final round of nadi shodhana with an exhalation through the left nostril. Relax the hands in your lap and take several rounds of deep, conscious breaths. Then, allow the breath to return to normal and quietly observe the effects of the practice.
““Nadi Shodhana clears and purifies our subtle channels, while bringing balance to the mind-body system as a whole.”
If you are looking to find confidence in practicing yoga at home, our 200hr YTT programs also focus on the importance of a yoga self-practice. And if you are a teacher and interested in deepening your practice, we have many advanced 300hr-level programs to support you on your path.
What is your favourite practice this season? Please share below.
A Philosophy and Guide for the Intuitive Yoga Teacher
An excerpt from the book by Craig Perkins and Amiee Hughes
Welcome to the Path.
Teachers of yoga are intuitively tapping into something mysterious and profound.
A transformational life force.
One that’s present within each and every one of us.
When we practice yoga, we gain access to a wondrous system of physical movement that transforms us in infinite ways. Yoga changes our bodies. It changes our minds. It even touches our souls.
The exciting thing is this: all the tools of yoga are at your disposal and ready for the taking.
With a deep respect for the yoga tradition, and a heartfelt intention for your work, you can bring real health and happiness to your students. You can inspire. You can change lives. You can be this teacher. In fact, you will. Because…
The path is graciously unfolding before you.
While most of us are aware of the transformative effects of yoga, do we really understand the why and how of its inner workings? New yoga teachers typically become inspired by a gifted mentor or teacher. They proceed to emulate their teacher’s style in some way, in hopes of providing a similar experience for their own students.
However, without understanding how and why these results are achieved, they often miss the subtle influences that create the beneficial experience of a yoga class. These writings will explain in western terms how yoga works, because we need to understand all aspects of yoga in order to be the best teachers we can possibly be. We are endeavoring to achieve the balance of body wisdom, awareness and sensitivity with classic alignment and queuing. We have developed this based on years of observing what is most effective in terms of safety and moving people effectively into poses that will be most beneficial for them.
Practice What You Teach: Keeping Teaching Real through the Evolution of Your Personal Practice
Practice What You Teach: Keeping Teaching Real through the Evolution of Your Personal Practice
-By Sam Jacobs
In 2015, after teaching part-time for three years, I decided to make the leap and become a full-time yoga teacher. While I loved the shift in focus of my life, by the end of that year, I was disenchanted with teaching and found myself robotically, mindlessly, offering sequences and intentions for practices that felt more like doing what I had to do to make ends meet instead of laboring with passion and love. I dropped back to part-time teaching, aiming to develop my own practice and uncover more pieces of myself that might expand the horizon of what I could offer my students. It worked. I typically did yoga five days a week, at a wide array of studios and for myself at home. I took bigger breaths. I read more about yogic philosophy. I travelled. Teaching began to feel like a privilege again. Now, I find myself with an incredible opportunity to teach-full time once more, and as I begin down this familiar road, I am trying to learn from my past mistakes.
As a full-time teacher, one of my biggest challenges is keeping things on the mat fresh and interesting not just for my students, but also for myself. Despite a principle that I (and most teachers I know) embrace: yoga is a lifestyle that embodies growth and self-care, when I lead ten to twenty classes a week, the first thing that goes out the window is taking the time to concentrate my own practice. With a packed teaching day ahead, I’ll glance at my mat rolled in the corner with a sense of reluctance; I’ll start to envy my students’ opportunities to practice and lament the circumstances that are keeping me from my own. In short, I can easily stumble into behavior that runs counter to asteya, or non-stealing. I take from myself: time and opportunity to let my passion thrive, and in turn, take from my students because the practices I lead can often become speckled with my own jealousy and desires. In order to confidently make the transition back to full-time teaching, here are some concrete strategies I have implemented, and I hope they will be of use to both part-time and full- time teachers who might resonate with challenges I have faced.
Part of My 40-Hour Work Week Includes My Own Practice
As most of us have heard in one training or another, you can only teach as far as you yourself have journeyed. I hope to lead dynamic, inspiring classes, that aspiration is realized most fully when my own practice is growing. For me, this means giving myself permission to carve time to practice. Part of my schedule now includes time to do yoga; I look at is as part of my job (and I am very lucky to teach at a studio that also considers the development of my personal practice a vital component to my teaching). The more diverse the set of practices and teachers, the better, and returning to a studio “home” that is not a place I am a teacher has been immensely beneficial. When I practice at a studio where no one knows me as a teacher, I experiment more. I don’t worry about leading by example. I have the space to find my yoga with a pure and burning curiosity. When scheduling does not permit, I practice at the studio where I teach. While I do see students alongside me on the mat who know me as a teacher, it revs up my own mental practice to stay in the moment, in my own head and my own body. And, when a day is simply too booked to take a studio class, I am finding the disciple to unfurl my mat in my apartment and hop on. Even if only for fifteen minutes first thing when I wake for a few Sun As & Bs. Because there are lessons my body and breath teach me every time that can help me to find nuggets of inspiration for the teaching day ahead.
I Honor a Day of Rest
It’s All in the Hips, Or Is It?
I won’t rehash all the unfortunate phrases said during yoga classes that lend credibility to the troupe of yoga (as practiced in Western countries) as emotionally overwrought and scientifically unsupported; a little too much heart and not enough head (if you want a primer and a laugh, find them here: https://www.doyouyoga.com/8-phrases- that-yoga- teachers-can- stop-using-now- 15627/). Hearing that I was supposed to breathe into the deliciousness of a pose and release my inner toxins kept me from coming back to the mat for what must have amounted to a thousand days. I remember enough from my pre-med undergraduate courses to know that when I go upside-down, I am not “reversing the blood flow” in my body. So, what of this emotional release that is said over and over to come from hip openers?
Before I get too analytical, a disclaimer: I believe that there are intangible, immeasurable, and simply mystic elements to an honest and authentic yoga practice. Part of yoga is faith. There’s no set of data I need to prove to me the how real it is when my mind becomes still after I’ve spent over an hour paying attention to my breath, trying with my whole heart, and releasing any attachment to the results of my efforts (yes, that’s roughly Sutra 1.12).
Now, back to the hips and that time you found yourself bawling in Sleeping Pigeon Pose after ten minutes. Okay. The hips are home to the largest ball and socket joints in the body which interact with seventeen to twenty-five different muscles depending on who you ask. Sitting for long periods of time (as many of us are want to do these days) shortens the hip-flexor muscles including the psoas, rectus femoris, and sartorius as well as the hip-rotators including the piriformis, and gemellus and obturator muscle groups. Muscles that originate from the hips attach at the pelvis, lumbar spine, sacrum, and all the way down to the femur. Tight or underdeveloped muscles can cause chronic pain, spasms, and knots, and reduce blood flow and oxygenation. Make no mistake, tightness in the hips can destabilize the spine and negatively affect core strength. From a simple mechanical perspective, regularly stretching the hips has indisputable benefits whether you are trying to maintain basic mobility or training as an elite athlete.
Now the emotional release? Western medicine is slowly wising up to the reality that the body and the mind are inextricably linked, and that manifestations in the body correlate to emotional and mental well-being. This makes sense. At their most basic level, emotions are chemical reactions that take place across the entire body, not just in the brain; an emotional experience is followed by an almost-instantaneous physical response. Existing studies on the matter do support that feelings of negativity activate muscles in the jaw and around the eyes, and people who have experienced chronic stress have shortened neck and shoulder muscles.
People also tend to understand their emotions as taking place within the physical body. When asked, research subjects associated the neck and shoulders with pride, anger, and shame. The entire body was linked with happiness and love, but unsurprisingly, the chest area near the heart was considered the most highly activated. The chest was also the repository for anxiety and fear. Like love, depression and sadness were envisioned to spread throughout the entire body, but with emphasis in the arms and legs. And the hips? There is little scientific research that correlates the storage of negative emotions and the hips. See https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/urban-survival/201505/5- ways-stress- hurts-your-body-and- what-do- about-it.
Indeed, most of the observations regarding hip openings and emotional release originate from the yoga community. See https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/emotions-in- motion. If you have experienced a breakthrough or particularly charged episode after an extensive session working into the muscles of the hips, no one is here to tell you that you are incorrectly associating the physical and mental release. The hips are large and complicated structures central to how we move.
Yoga is about the yoke that forms the connection among mind, body, and breath. Once you start diving into yourself, there is no limit to the realizations you might have and the very real emotional responses that occur. The hips as an emotional storage site is a fairly uncontroversial premise within the yoga community, but I wonder how many teachers repeat what they have been told without their own research, and how many students feel pressure to seek emotion in a space in the body where it just might not exist for them. As a yoga practitioner and teacher, I try to honor not just my own experiences, but to be as educated as possible about the experiences that may or may not be evoked in others. Not everyone’s experience with hip opening need be deeply emotional. Sometimes, it’s just really, really uncomfortable in the moment, and that perspective also needs to have room in a practice space to be enough.
I get uncomfortable when yoga teachers describe feelings and sensations that stray into the outer stratosphere of the reality of human physiology. I will not breathe through my left pinky toe, thank you. Some students love this approach and many teachers thrive on creative metaphors to make people see and feel themselves with a little more clarity and a little more heart. That’s the beauty of yoga. There is room enough to come at it from as many different angles as there are people who practice it. But the next time you are in a class, teaching or taking, perhaps give a thought to the idea that stretching the muscles of the hips might evoke an emotional response, and it might not. The science is still out. Your experience is your experience. How can you invite exploration without being prescriptive about out ever-evolving understanding of how the mind and the body work together?