The second limb of Patanjali's Eight Limbs of Yoga is Niyama. (Read Part 1, an introduction to the 8 Limbs and all about the Yamas here.) With this second layer, we dig a little deeper into ourselves.
The Niyamas are similar to the Yamas, but they're more personal. The word Niyama breaks down to Ni + Yama, and depending on your favorite translations, Ni can be in, into, within, back, down. I like to think of the Niyamas as the ME version of the yamas.
Like the Yamas, there are 5 Niyamas: Saucha = cleanliness or purification, Santosha = contentment, Tapas = internal fire, discipline, drive, or motivation, Svadhyaya = self-study or study of texts, and Isvara Pranidhana = surrender to the divine, or letting go of what you can't control. We can practice the Niyamas both on and off our mats, and like everything in life, some will come easier than others.
As a yoga teacher I always shower before I teach (and practice) so I'm clean for my students, but I'm terrible about dropping an occasional F-Bomb; I curse like a sailor. Language is one area in which I'm really working on saucha. I've learned to practice gratitude when I'm in a funk to find contentment, santosha, and constantly remind myself that I am exactly where I'm supposed to be. Each month I do a goal-setting check-in with one of my friends, Sheri Matthews, and we set reachable short and long-term goals; those sessions keep my tapas going! I'm constantly practicing svadhyaya, noticing what thoughts come up for me, reactions before they become actions, how my daily schedule and eating habits affect my energy level. And while isvara pranidhana is the hardest one for me to practice, I try to remind myself that the only person I can control is myself and that after I've done what I can do, I have to let go.
How do you practice the Niyamas?! Find your own versions with this Niyama Flow!
One of the first emails I send to my yoga teacher trainees before they join me for a training includes the question “What is yoga to you?” The common translation of yoga is “union,” or “to yoke.” Some people will tell you yoga is a union of body, mind, and spirit, others will tell you it’s a religion. For every 10 people you ask, you’ll get 10 different answers. I find yoga to be such a personal practice that I struggle defining it one way. For me yoga is a way of life; it’s self-discovery, exercise, therapy, meditation, and medicine. It’s a spiritual practice that connects me to something greater; it’s a physical practice that grounds me and makes me appreciate the strength and power of my body; it’s both challenging and fun. Yoga is what I turn to when I feel like my life is going to shit and it’s how I celebrate beautiful highs and magical moments. My yoga practice varies from day to day.
Yoga has been around for more than 5,000 years, but ancient yoga looked quite a bit different from what most people consider yoga today. Yoga’s goal throughout the years has been to answer life’s tough questions – Who am I? What is my purpose? How do I connect to something greater? - and it’s evolved greatly through time and location as our lifestyles have evolved. I find it totally normal and expected that we practice yoga in a very different way than our yogi ancestors did. Because most of us lead relatively sedentary lifestyles (working on computers, driving to get where we need to go), it makes sense that we are drawn to the physical aspect of yoga, the postures or asanas. But as most of us discover when we start to delve a bit deeper, yoga is much more than just poses.
One of my favorite sessions of teacher training (each time I discover something new for my own life and practice), is our discussion of The Eight Limbs of Yoga. Patanjali, the “father of yoga” and one of the leading sages associated with yoga, defined these guidelines for living in the Yoga Sutras as follows:Yama. Yama is often explained as restraint or control, and there are 5 Yamas that can be characterized as ways of controlling yourself or behaving in relation to the outside world. They are: Ahimsa = non-violence; Satya = truthfulness; Asteya = non-stealing; Bramacharya = self control over physical impulses of excess; and Aparigraha = non-hoarding.
I’m adding a series of classes to my YouTube channel that explores each of these limbs, or layers of yoga, in detail through a guided practice. Follow along each week, leave comments and thoughts, and find your own connections and examples in your life. This week we dig into the Yamas!
I have big things planned for Floating Yoga School for the rest of this year and next year! I just secured a bunch of dates for retreats and teacher trainings around the world, and I can't wait to share them with you.
See below for the full schedule, and message me for more details!
You know those days when you wake up thinking about everything you need to get done but can’t find the energy to drag yourself out of bed? Or maybe you’re up but the coffee’s just not working fast enough. In our world of to-do lists and endless projects, those days are all too familiar and they’re the reason I designed this 5 minute Get Up & Go yoga flow for my friends at Sweaty Betty.
The next time you need an instant boost of energy or a little break from your day, instead of stressed-out social media scrolling, try taking some deep breaths and practice these energizing and empowering poses. Your body and mind will thank you.
Follow along with the below photos or watch the video. Feel free to take it at your own pace or modify the poses to make them fit your body and what you need today. Most days I do the flow twice – moving slowly the first time and faster the second – for an extra pep in my step.
Come to a standing position and notice how you feel. Acknowledge your energy level, any physical aches or pains, and where your mind wants to go. Turn your attention to your breath. Take slow, steady inhales and exhales through your nose.
Inhale and reach your arms over your head. Exhale, interlace your fingers and stretch your arms as far as you can up and out to your right. Imagine stretching taller as you inhale, and reach further to the side as you exhale.
Inhale come back to center and exhale repeat to the other side. Feel the sides of your body grow long, and notice how your ribs expand in all directions with each breath in.
When I was planning my road trip, I made sure that Santa Fe was on my list of stops so I could spend a day with my Reiki teacher, Sharna Langlais. She's a wealth of knowledge, a humble and beautiful soul, and an incredibly gifted healer.
Before I met Sharna, I had heard a lot about Reiki and experienced it a bit in yoga classes. There were moments in my life when I felt someone's energy, whether good or bad, and couldn't explain the gut feeling I had. I believed in something greater, a universal spirit or energy flowing through all living beings, but wasn't sure about "channeling" energy for healing.
And maybe it's cliche, but there's a saying "when the student is ready the teacher will appear" and that certainly felt true for me. I was going through big life changes, and preparing for even more when a friend suggested I reach out to Sharna as a potential teacher. I instantly felt a connection, and completed my level 1 and 2 certifications and attunements with her earlier this spring. Every time I talk with Sharna I gain new nuggets of wisdom, and I know I'll continue to learn from her.
Sharna and I sat down and filmed a 65 minute discussion on Reiki, energy, healing, lifestyle, and more. The condensed version is below, but if you have the time definitely check out the full interview. She explains things way more eloquently than I can. :)
So...what is Reiki?
"Reiki is a form of energy medicine, energy healing. It's a Japanese methodology that's existed for centuries in Japan. The word Rei-ki is actually two words in Japanese. [Rei] means god, goddess, universe, spirit, our connection to a higher plane, and Ki or chi is life force. So Reiki is that universally directed life force energy that comes through all of us. It's a form of hands-on healing touch in which we take that energy, direct it through our bodies, and put our hands on other people to help clear blockages."
To book a session, or learn more, go to Sharna's website - SeekSparkShine.
This may seem totally counterintuitive for a yoga teacher to say but I’ve found the secret for keeping my sometimes-problematic-back from flaring up. And it’s not yoga. In fact it’s less yoga, and more pilates.
Don’t get me wrong, yoga is definitely great for back issues. With a consistent and smart yoga practice you can improve flexibility and strengthen muscles in all the right places. Depending on what your back is like, and how physically active you are, you might find that a gentle restorative practice alleviates pressure and slowly opens you up. Or try hatha or yin to get more stretching and strengthening without overdoing it. I also love a super hot class when I’m just feeling tight (using lots of props and modifications).
But if you’re anything like me, sometimes you push it a little too hard in yoga. Especially in vinyasa or power classes that include creative and dynamic flows and transitions. And I’m not saying all vinyasa or power classes are no good, but you may find yourself transitioning without engaging your core, moving from open hip to closed hip poses, and going too deep into poses, especially backbends (they feel sooo good in the moment, and sooo bad the next morning). All that can wreck havoc on your already sensitive back.
I learned the hard way. During my yoga teacher training I was practicing a ton of vinyasa yoga. I was getting into a lot of advanced variations of poses and loved to push myself. I took a mini retreat in LA with my teacher training class and we took classes with some of the best: Steven Earth, Bryan Kest, and Andrea Marcum. I noticed on the last day that my back wasn’t feeling great - I couldn’t engage my core enough to step from downdog to a low lunge, something normally super easy for me. Two days later I had to call in sick to work because I could barely walk.
I slowly got my mobility back. Heat pads and rest definitely helped. A year later I threw my back into spasm when I was adjusting a student in a backbend. It was worse than the previous year; I literally couldn’t walk for 3 days, straightening my low back and putting weight on my legs shot pain up my spine and caused loud, terrifying sounds to come from my mouth. I had to be carried to the bathroom and crawled around the house until I could get a doctor’s appointment. Western medicine prescribed muscle relaxers and anti-inflammatories. Beau Casey of Chiropractique gave me an adjustment, and prescribed ice and pilates when the spasms stopped (thank you, Beau!).
My personal preference is to go as natural as possible when treating an injury or illness, and to find out the root cause so I can avoid or change my habits, so I super appreciated Dr. Casey’s advice. He’s also a former dancer and understood where my flexible back came from, and what core muscle strength was lacking in my body. He practiced pilates and knew that the systematic movements would strengthen my back and core, and help protect me from future injuries. In fact, pilates was first started as rehabilitation for injured patients in hospital beds by Joseph Pilates in England, and became popular with dancers when Pilates moved to New York in the 1920s. So it makes sense.
Since then I’ve tried (sometimes more successfully than others) to go to a pilates class at least once a week. I feel the best when I do pilates 2 – 3 times per week and yoga 2 – 3 times, and then either paddleboard, bike, hike, or swim for a little cardio.
And when I practice yoga, I check my ego at the door and do a more mellow, gentle flow if my back is feeling a bit sketchy.
Below is a 5 minute stretch sequence I like to do condensed into 15 seconds. A few of my favorite back-stretching poses are:
Psoas Release - supine with feet apart and knees together
Happy Baby – Ananda Balasana
Squat - Malasana
Ragdoll – Wide Leg Uttanasana
Pigeon or Reclined Pigeon
Cobbler’s Pose - Baddha Konasana
Child’s Pose (embryo) – Balasana
Bridge Pose Rolls Downs
Seated Rolls Downs and Roll Ups
So my advice is this: do your yoga, but watch your back!
It's been a week since I hit the road, leaving sunny San Diego for a month-long, roundabout trip to South Florida. It's been the perfect way to unwind from the stress of the last few years, see some of the most incredible and iconic parts of the United States, and reset my intentions and goals.
So far I've learned (or been reminded of) the following:
- A week goes by very quickly. I'm already a little sad that a month will be here before I know it, and I'm definitely working on savoring each moment.
- Camping in temperatures below 40 degrees is mildly insane. Once your fingers and toes are numb it's hard to warm up again. Hot showers help (thank you, Housekeeping Camp).
- Sitting too long can flare up your sensitive low back. I'm stretching whenever I can, taking yoga classes along the way, and making sure I'm not sitting with one leg up (which also happens to be my favorite way to sit).
- Don't spend too much time on your phone reading maps or researching the next destination. You might miss an entire town with one quick look down. I'm sorry I missed you, Peach Springs, Arizona (aka Cars' Radiator Springs).
- And speaking of maps, Google Maps is smart, but it's worth spending extra time off-roading or taking the scenic route if you really want to see the sights. And if you're driving past the Hoover Dam, DON'T follow Google Maps because you won't see anything!
- San Diego has spoiled me, especially when it comes to yoga, pilates, and coffee. Who knew it'd be so hard to find a good class and a place to grab some coffee and do a little work? I'm not against Starbucks, but I'd rather support local businesses. And I just can't understand studios that only offer one or two classes per day at really random times (yes, like I said, I've been spoiled).
Three more weeks to go! I'm posting photos along the way via Instagram & Facebook, and have some super fun stops coming up, including community classes in Santa Fe and Taos next week. Stay tuned :)
The end of teacher training is always a bittersweet time for me. Graduation day comes and I feel like a proud parent, teary-eyed and nostalgic about how far my students have come (our first day together feels like just yesterday!), excited to be able to catch up on Netflix again (mostly kidding), and so excited and eager to see where they’ll go.
As a new teacher you might feel a sense of relief that you’re getting your weekends back, you might feel a little lost as to where to go next, you might feel a mix of emotions, or you might feel nothing at all (I guess we wore you out, huh?). All of those feelings are valid, and in light of them, I share some parting words of wisdom to my teacher trainees and any other new teachers out there:
1. Keep practicing. Practice teaching, practice yoga, and remember that your yoga practice isn’t necessarily all physical. I have weeks where I practice asana daily, either on my own or in a public class, and I have weeks where my yoga is a mindful walk, a quiet moment with my phone off, or turning on loud music and dancing my heart out.
I’ve had people give me advice about how as a teacher I shouldn’t let go of my own practice. And while I completely agree, they never asked me what my practice was like; they judged for themselves and projected their ideals onto me. When I wanted to yell “you don’t know anything about my life, a$$hole!” I held my tongue, took a deep breath, tried to understand why I was annoyed when they were trying to help, and smiled and thanked them for their advice. So sometimes my practice is not letting my inner angry mean girl freak out at people (hey, no one’s perfect!). And I would argue that this practice is more important for me than picking up the latest trendy creative sequencing to get into headstand, or the theming of a Valentine’s Day class.
Don’t let society’s standards of what a yoga teacher’s practice should look like make you feel like you have to master handstand or meditate in lotus an hour every day. You’re a better yoga teacher by being mindful, compassionate, and present than by bending into a pretzel. Only you know how to get yourself into that state of mind.
2. Things will continue to change and evolve in your life. Find people who support you through those changes, and change out the people who don’t. Nothing is forever. You’ve probably noticed some shifts in your life since you started your teacher training, and will continue to notice them as time goes on. Change can be scary, uncomfortable, throw you off your game, or make you feel like you’re going crazy (or all of the above). Change can also be really awesome because it means you’re growing, you’re moving onto better things, and that you won’t experience the same year 90 times in a row and call it a life.
It helps to have supportive people around you, and a place where you can be yourself. Find your people (or person), a home studio that feels right, and don’t be afraid to change those as needed. When you’re honest and true to yourself you attract people who resonate with that truth. The people who matter don’t care how you’ve changed, and the people who care don’t really matter. And if nothing else, know that your teacher training family is there for you, even if you haven’t spoken to them in years.
3. Be authentic, and let that authenticity transfer into your teaching. Don’t try to be your favorite teacher. It’s great to borrow sequencing or cues that you like, but try to make them your own. If you learn something new and want to teach it, teach yourself, and teach from that place. Be honest about what you don’t know - no one can know it all, and no one likes a know-it-all.
Teach the kind of class you’d want to take and what comes naturally to you. Know that you will never be able to please everyone, and that’s totally fine. Do you, and the right students will find you.
4. Take care of yourself. This one feeds into all the others, but it’s a super hard one for me so I’ll reiterate it on its own. You may have been drawn to teaching because taking care of others comes effortlessly to you. You will lead classes and people will come to you for advice as a leader. They’ll ask about poses, and about life. They’ll share and cry, and you will be there for them. And it will probably feel really good to help them.
There may be a moment (or a few years, if you’re anything like me) that you realize you’re putting everyone else before yourself. You’re helping others reach their goals and feel better about themselves, while you’re still stuck in the same rut you’ve been in for so long. Don’t forget to help yourself. Take some of the advice you give, and give yourself a break from always being “on.”
5. Keep learning. I like to consider a 200 hour teacher training a buffet where you can only fill your plate once so you take a little bit of everything. Now is your chance to go back to the stuff you liked on the first pass and really dig in (go back for seconds and thirds; fill 3 plates!). Read, read, read (you can never read enough). Take workshops. Take classes from teachers you like. Take classes from teachers you don’t like. Take class from yourself. Research questions you don’t know the answers to. Work with people you don’t know. Learn a completely new style of yoga.
Figure out what makes you tick, and what ticks you off. Ultimately this practice is a self-study (svadyaya for the bonus points). We are each our own best teachers, and there’s ALWAYS more to learn.
Helen's Adventures as a Traveling Yogi
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