Odds are good you’ve heard of Yoga Nidra. Maybe you’ve attended a class, read a book on the subject or even downloaded a Yoga Nidra app! But in case you haven’t, let’s explain what Yoga Nidra is, what it can do for you, and how it can form an important part of your practice.
Yoga Nidra is often translated as ‘Yogic Sleep’, though I have also seen it branded as a ‘Yogi Siesta’ (that was in Koh Phangan, as island regulars will be unsurprised to hear) and as a ‘guided nap’ (thanks to Michelle Desch for that one!).
While there are many variations on Yoga Nidra floating around the internet (including mine below), there is a ‘classic’ format. You start with a ‘body scan’, rotating the awareness through various points in the body in a specific order. This is often interspersed with instructions to stay awake which in my experience is not always effective!
After the body scan, there is usually a guided meditation, visualisation, or a specific breathing exercise. More traditional methods often use single images or words in seemingly random order, while more ‘modern’ variations may use more of a ‘journey’ structure. I personally like to conclude the body scan by travelling into the body, exploring various levels of the structure, from gross (skin) to subtle (the heart).
I have known people to use Yoga Nidra to fall asleep at night and, frankly, it works. Many people will fall asleep during the body scan no matter how hard they try not to. And for people who, like me, struggle or have struggled with insomnia and sleeplessness, there is actually a twofold benefit. Firstly, it is often effective in inducing sleep. Secondly, even if you don’t fall asleep you are reaching a very deep state of relaxation. The brainwave activity observed in Yoga Nidra closely matches the theta brainwave state of deep sleep, so even if you continue to have trouble sleeping, the practice of Yoga Nidra may be almost as refreshing as sleep itself.1
In fact, because you get the brainwave activity and physical relaxation of sleep packaged together with full awareness (assuming you've reached a stage where you're able to stay awake, anyway) you enter a really beautiful state where you are totally physically and mentally relaxed but also focused and receptive. This is a great state in which to set sankalpas, or intentions for yourself and your practice.
Yoga Nidra is also a great stress-relief practice. It is usually practiced lying down, but there is no reason not to practice sitting comfortably in a chair. So if you have a busy office job and feel uncomfortable doing an asana practice at work, you have a handy stress-relief option that you can do at your desk. Though I’d recommend going outside and finding a seat or somewhere to lie down in nature if at all possible.
I’m particularly a fan of Yoga Nidra’s proven track record of effectiveness. To quote the International Journal of Yoga, “Yogic relaxation therapy (Yoga Nidra) has been effectively prescribed in conjunction with other medical and yogic procedures in the management of severe psychosomatic diseases, including cancer, bronchial asthma, colitis, peptic ulcer and menstrual irregularities.”2
Why not just meditate more?
I’m a big fan of simplicity in practice and, frankly, time spent practicing Yoga Nidra is time spent neither doing asana nor meditating. But there are two reasons I think you should seriously think about making space for Yoga Nidra in your practice.
Firstly, Yoga Nidra is what I call a ‘freebie’. No matter how much you have your meditation seat dialled in, there is a significant effort involved in setting up and sitting still. But with Yoga Nidra, you’re literally as relaxed as you can possibly be. It not only doesn’t take effort to perform Yoga Nidra (once you have found a recording you like, anyway) but it’s so relaxing you end up ahead of the game on energy expended. After all, if you turn out to have been too tired to practice, you just fall asleep. There’s no way to lose!
The second reason I encourage you to try out Yoga Nidra is that we try so hard with many of our spiritual practice. And this tapas, this discipline is a wonderful thing. But sometimes we get so caught up in trying and doing that we forget the truth; that meditation is really about not trying and not doing. And Yoga Nidra, in which we often slide in and out of consciousness, in and out of control, in which the deepest relaxation comes on the cusp of complete not-doing, is a wonderful tool to take the trying out of our practice, at least for a while.
If you want to try Yoga Nidra today, I recommend one of three approaches;
If you want more information on Yoga Nidra or want any further guidance then as ever feel free to let us know. And if the practice really speaks to you, then feel free to share it with friends, as it is super-accessible even to non-Yoga practicioners and it is proven to be effective for so many of the sleep and anxiety issues that are all-too-common these days.
I often wonder at the synchronicities of this existence. In particular, when a group of people come together at a specific time, the space that everyone co-creates often throws up a theme, a particular quality of Life that seems to fit with those exact people. As a teacher who offers group workshops in Yoga, Acro Yoga, and Thai Massage, and who spent three months at the Hariharalaya Yoga and Meditation Retreat Centre watching retreat group after retreat group come through, I’ve seen the phenomenon more times than I can count.
So when I recently co-taught an Acro Yoga Progressive Playshop with the awesome Nicolas Sibani, part of me was waiting curiously to see what theme would emerge.
First, a quick tangent. Acro Yoga progressive classes are one of my favourite ways to teach. Like with Yoga asana, there are some key physical alignment principles and foundational skills that help beginners in Acro Yoga to build their skills smoothly, easily and safely. These include:
All of these key principles support each other. In a progressive class series with the same group, you can build these skills collectively and systematically. Even beginners can achieve a vast amount of success, and build the foundations for good habits through the rest of their Acro lives.
But in a way, the contained group and the physical principles simply provide a structure, a backdrop against which the Yoga of Relationship has a chance to play. You see, Acro is a particularly potent kind of Relationship Yoga. As we physically lift each other off the ground, or work to keep each other safe, we are immediately provided with a bright and shiny mirror. Do we have issues with trusting others? How do we feel about supporting others? Are we able to communicate our needs and boundaries? We might know someone for years through casual conversation and never be confronted with these deeper issues of relationship. Through the practice of Acro Yoga you can get there in about 30 seconds.
At the Koh Phangan Progressive Playshop, I was interested to note that, for the most part, the group did not have to deal with fear of trusting others (which is often a common theme). Nor was communication a major issue. Rather, the theme that came up was self-trust and empowerment. Students shared about noticing negative self-talk in their heads - “You can’t do this/You’re not strong enough/You’re not able to keep yourself safe.” Sometimes this manifested as a block to learning a skill. “I can feel that my body is strong and flexible enough to do this - but I’ve just convinced myself that I can’t do it,” one student lamented. More often, students had the repeated experience of negative self-talk, immediately followed by success at the skill they had been doubting.
Acro Yoga is a particularly good practice for achieving six impossible things before breakfast. When I entered my Acro Yoga Teacher Training I was convinced that I could never fly a hand-to-hand (a handstand on someone else’s hands), never having done gymnastics as a child. Even as we learned skills and principles to train for a hand-to-hand, my mental soundtrack went thus: “These are good skills to train anyway, but you won’t actually do a hand-to-hand.” Less than a week later, I was flying my first hand-to-hand. My brain was so surprised to find me doing something I had been 100% sure was impossible, that for about ten seconds it completely shut down. No mental chatter, no thoughts at all. I was in a state of accidental samadhi!
It is powerful: to repeatedly think, “I can’t do that,” and then a few seconds later to successfully do it, over and over again through the course of just one afternoon. After a few times, some deep part of you starts to realise that just because you are convinced you can’t do something, that doesn’t mean that it’s true. You might even start to wonder what other self-limiting assumptions you might be holding on to.
Growth moves in a spiral, not a straight line. This particular group at this particular time threw up the theme of self-empowerment. In their next Acro experience, those same people might discover that self-empowerment is less active for them, but they’re dealing with stuff about fear, or communication, or self-care.
Whenever you practice the Yoga of Relationship, there is something to discover. But what I love about Acro Yoga is that we don’t have to make those discoveries sitting in a therapist’s office, or reading a dry textbook. They happen while we’re laughing, upside down with our friends.
As a Yoga teacher, one of the most common conversations I have with my students is about a home practice - or, often, the lack of one! For many of us, myself included, building the habit of a daily personal Yoga practice is incredibly hard to do. And yet it can also be the single best thing we can do for ourselves in our lives. Practicing Yoga on our own can allow for a depth of stillness that is impossible to attain in a class where we are required to constantly focus externally on hearing our teacher’s voice. It can allow us to build a practice that is perfectly tailored for the needs of our body, mind and spirit in a way we will never get in a group class that is necessarily an average of the practices that mostly work for most people. It builds willpower, intuition, self love and self determination that are all phenomenally applicable to the rest of our lives.
So why, for many of us, is this habit so elusive? There can be a sense of mystery about it. You know how good Yoga is for you. Mostly, you enjoy yourself while doing it. You definitely love the way you feel at the end of your practice. If you count up the wasted or dead time during the day, you know that you certainly have the time available for at least a short practice. You set an earnest intention that you will carve out the time to practice Yoga every day. And yet, somehow, day after day slips by with no Yoga.
There is a mass of literature out there on strategies to build good habits. Different strategies will work for different people. Yet I believe that, before diving into this or that recommendation about “set your alarm half an hour earlier,” “track your progress on a calendar,” “make a public commitment” - it is important to begin with the acknowledgement of the context we’re working with. For many of us, taking responsibility and initiative to care for ourselves and intuitively respond to our needs is a fundamental skill we’re never taught to develop. In fact, it’s a fundamental skill that is often actively drilled out of us.
Imagine a small child whose intuitive understanding on waking up in the morning is that they need to run around and be active, ideally in a natural environment, in order to burn off their excess energy. Instead they are expected to climb aboard a school bus that stops near their house at 5:50am every morning, and sit down in a desk, perhaps in a room without a view, and pay attention and stay still for most of the day. If the child follows her intuition about what her body needs, perhaps by getting up and moving around or even skipping class, she will be disciplined and perhaps diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and given medication.
Imagine a teenager with a passion for the arts and creative expression. His family wants him to be a doctor and forbids him to spend time on his interests, but rather to study chemistry and mathematics. If he follows his heart, his loved ones speak disapprovingly and try to make him feel guilty.
There are so many ways in which, right from the start of life, we are taught to be obedient to external influences, to be passive and reactive rather than intuitive and self-directed. When we grow up, we may end up in highly structured working environments and surrounded by cultural and social messages from marketing and advertising that forcefully try to shape our choices about what to do with our energy and time.
Nothing about this journey of life prepares us to build a home practice. There is no teacher, parent, or boss keeping track of whether you take time for yourself in the morning or evening to practice Yoga. There is no marketing convincing us to be still and listen to our hearts about what we truly need (because if we did, we’d be far less likely to buy their products!) For many of us, not only is there no social support for a home practice, there is active social pressure against it.
Realising this, we can be far more compassionate and realistic about the challenges of developing this habit. We don’t need to beat ourselves up about finding it challenging, or assume that we must be particularly weak-willed, scatty people because we are find it difficult. Instead, we can courageously muster our energy and determination, recognise that this will be a long campaign and will perhaps require us to labouriously build up a self-determination muscle that has been atrophying since kindergarten or before. We can seek support and we can expect to need to try different strategies.
One strategy that really worked for me was making a commitment to myself to simply roll out my Yoga mat every day and stand on it for one minute. If I then rolled it back up again, that was still ok; I would have fulfilled the commitment. Mostly though, standing on the mat was a great prompt to feel how much I actually needed Yoga!
Most people will benefit from setting themselves a firm daily commitment that is much smaller and easier than their first impulse. Don’t go from zero, to expecting a two hour practice every morning, and then get caught in a boom bust cycle of burnout and self blame. Commit to five minutes a day. If that works for a week, you can increase the time by five minutes a week.
You might need to think through strategies about the night before. What do you need to do to get good sleep, so that you will wake up early and energetic enough to practice? Are there cues in your physical space that will help to support a sense of ritual about the practice?
Some people benefit from private Yoga consultations with a teacher to develop a personalised Yoga routine; other people love to use audio or video resources as a stepping stone to a fully intuitive practice.
Honestly though, I think that most of us are smart and creative enough to find the time that we need in the day, and the strategies to build a habit - if we can simply recognise two things:
1. The value of a home practice
2. The difficulty of building the habit and realistic expectations about the effort that will be required for it
Meditate and reflect on the benefit of your practice. After you have practiced, take the time to notice how you feel and how your day might be different. Allow this to build your motivation. And then also reflect on the challenge of what you are trying to accomplish by building this habit. Don’t assume it to be an easy, light commitment. Resolve to be compassionate with the ebbs and flows of your practice, recognising that almost everyone will find it hard to have a regular practice right away - and also resolve to be determined, and find ways to come back to your practice when it has faltered.
I believe that with enough motivation and realism about the scope of the challenge, everyone is resourceful and creative enough to welcome Yoga into their daily lives. And this practice of Self-love can be an empowering expression of our freedom and self-determination.
I was only six, but the memory is still very clear. There was a pretty blonde girl about my age in the television advertisement, with elaborately blow dried curls. She was surrounded by smiling friends, and unboxing some kind of plastic princess castle.
Because I was young, my train of thought was simple and direct. I wasn’t fitting in at school, with my strange accent and my archaic diction from inhaling hundreds of old-fashioned British childrens’ books. But the girl in this ad was happy, with lots of friends. There must be something about her that I didn’t have. Perhaps it was the princess castle; more likely it was her appearance, which the camera framing emphasized. The glossy perfection of her hair; her button nose; her stylish clothes - all of it was clearly better than what I had.
Thus began my long journey of self consciousness and judgement about my body. Growing up in the United States, I was exposed to countless more messages from media and peers that the way I looked was the most important thing about me. Over time, enough of those messages sunk in that they dramatically changed the way my consciousness worked. Most of the time, some part of my brain was thinking about how I looked: a kind of self-objectification. I had a long internal list of flaws - the pimples on my face; what I perceived as excess fat on my thighs, my waist, my upper arms; excess body hair; a too-big nose; a too-small mouth; sallow skin. This list of flaws was endless. And I was often engaged in some kind of internal mental dialogue about them, tracking them, observing them in the mirror, worrying about how to change them, fantasizing about how much better my life would be if I could eliminate them.
But I didn’t realise the level of my brainwashing until I went to my first Yoga class. I spent an hour and a half following the teachers’ cues to focus my awareness on my breath, and on the effects of different movements on the feeling inside my body. When I walked out I felt like my body was glowing. I felt free. And - on a more subtle level - I felt like I was inside my body.
I didn’t know exactly what was going on or why it felt so good, but I knew that I wanted more Yoga. I kept on going to Yoga classes, trying to understand the source of that good feeling. And what I started to realise was that at some point during my life, the home base of my conscious awareness had become divorced from my body.
I was often thinking about how I looked. Whether I was pretty, whether I was too fat, trying to guess how people were perceiving me. Rather than experiencing my body and mind from the inside - as a subject - I was continually objectifying myself. Over time, all of those judgements had become so habitual and automatic, that it was as if I lived outside of myself: a disembodied floating head, watching my body move through space and making nasty remarks.
But during a Yoga practice, I was continually making the effort to feel my body from the inside. To feel the structure of my bones, the experience of the breath, the sensation of muscles contracting or relaxing. Over time I even learned to feel more subtle internal sensations: the beating of the heart, pulsing of digestive organs, and something often referred to as “energy” - the internal sensation of the life force of the body.
I had stumbled on a wonderful secret of self-healing: there are so many layers of sensations in the body that, if you focus on them, they flood the awareness and there is no bandwidth left for self-criticism.
As I got the hang of it, I began to more purposefully un-brainwash myself. I started avoiding situations that would cue me to switch into outside-observer mode. I avoided looking at fashion magazines or advertisements with glamourous Photoshopped women in them. I removed all my mirrors except the one in my bathroom and tried to limit how often I looked in it. I even avoided yoga studios with big mirrors.
And over a couple of years, something miraculous happened. My center of consciousness moved back inside my body.
Instead of most of my energy and awareness focussing on judgements about how my body looked, I spent most of my time being aware of how my body felt.
This is tremendously more relaxing than being subjected to a nasty internal soundtrack. But it’s also more healthy and energising. My body had always been sending me signals about what I needed to be vital - hunger for particular nutrients, surges of energy wanting physical movement, a need for rest, a small cramp in a particular muscle that needed shaking out. Now that I was back inside myself, I was able to feel those signals. Life flowed.
These days the landscape inside my head is unimaginable to the person I was fifteen years ago. I can go days or weeks without a self-critical thought about the appearance of my body. I feel comfortable without makeup. I feel the inside of my body - a continual background awareness of heart beating, blood flowing, breath moving. As simple as those things might sound, I also know these are states that some people never experience.
When I teach a Yoga class, I usually try to teach in a way that the me of fifteen years ago would have found helpful. I avoid using spaces with big mirrors, or when there is a mirror, I face students away from it. I focus most of my cues on feeling sensations inside the body and often encourage students to close their eyes to help them feel more vividly. I avoid talking about the external appearance of bodies.
And I try to remember how sacred - and revolutionary - this kind of space can be for someone. How much a life can start to change, once a person gets a taste of what it’s like to put their head back on their shoulders.
A few days ago, I broke my birthday bowl. It was a beautiful handmade tea bowl with glazed colours like sand and the sky just after sunrise. It was early in the morning, in a bungalow in Thailand, and I had sleepily bumped into something and dropped it.
The smashing sound was very loud and in the next moments a few things happened. First I swore, loudly. And then, as I stood there looking at the pieces I found myself remembering so many things about my journey with Tea.
The tea bowl had been given to me on my birthday two years ago while I was staying at the Tea Sage Hut. The Tea Sage Hut is a Zen center in Taiwan dedicated to the Way of Tea: drinking Tea as a form of meditation and as a way to connect with the wisdom of the Tea plant.
It was an emotional birthday. I had recently made the decision to quit my job in Australia, pack up all my things, put a tumultuous relationship on hold, and travel the world for an indefinite amount of time. When planning the dates for my trip I hadn’t considered the fact that my birthday would happen just a week after starting to travel. Nor had I anticipated how lonely I would feel on my birthday morning, waking up in a strange country having abandoned everything familiar in my life.
Wu De, the teacher and founder of the centre, noticed me crying in the morning and gave me a hug. Later that day, a student at the Hut made me a birthday cake and the residents presented me with the drinking bowl and a packet of red tea. Then Wu De served us all some 1960’s aged puerh tea. I had been drinking tea for more than ten years, but it was the first time I connected with how deep and transformative a tea ceremony could be. As I went to bed I felt a surge of energy - as if all the loneliness and anxiety from earlier in the day had been alchemised into hope and inspiration.
I used my birthday bowl every single day during my travels. I explored Taiwan; northern Thailand; the southern islands of Koh Phangan, Koh Samui, and Koh Mak; Goa and Maharashtra; Laos; Cambodia; Bali; Umbria and Rome and every time I moved I carefully wrapped the tea bowl in layers of clothes inside my suitcase. It was like a little emblem of confidence; holding it in the morning brought back memories of overcoming fear and doubt - and accepting love and support from fellow travellers.
But as I stood there in that quiet moment after sound of the bowl smashing, my memories travelled back further - all the way to my first encounter with Tea.
It was more than ten years ago that my dad took me to my first Chinese tea house, in Georgetown in Washington DC. We didn’t have a very good relationship at the time. Our family had gone through divorce and a lot of conflict. And although my dad and I both wanted to rebuild our connection, sometimes it felt as though we were both shouting from other sides of a high windy bridge, and our words were getting blown away.
He was visiting DC for a few days, and he took me out to this place. There were low wooden tables, each with a tiny tea pot and kettle resting over a candle. It felt so peaceful, and one of the owners sat with us and patiently showed us the right way to make the tea. She seemed in no rush to do anything else.
The tea house had a little shop with teapots, cups, tea, and a few books, including Kakuzo Okakura’s “The Book of Tea”. My dad saw me engrossed, and then he gave me a very meaningful gift.
I had just graduated university and didn’t have much savings, and although I was fascinated by tea culture I probably wouldn’t have valued myself enough to invest in the right tools to explore it. My dad helped me pick out a beautiful clay tea pot with a calligraphy poem stamped on the side, and a few bags of high quality tea. And then he said something I remembered for the rest of my life:
“This tea pot is beautiful, but it was made to be used. When you use something a lot, eventually it might get broken. That’s OK. It’s part of the expectation of the life of this tea pot. It’s still better to use it.”
Maybe there was a spirit floating in that peaceful tea house that inspired my dad to say just the right words. I had grown up as quite a clumsy child, often distracted, and my dad had a hot temper and often ended up yelling at me for dropping something and breaking it. Sometimes I felt guilty just stepping into the kitchen, as if anticipating the smash that hadn’t happened yet. If he hadn’t said that, I think I probably would have kept the tea pot as “too good to be used,” a knick knack that ended up collecting dust on display.
Instead, I used that tea pot every day. I had just started a yoga and meditation practice, and I was amazed by the subtlety of the tea, and how meditation and awareness could help me tune in to more and more layers of flavour and aroma. I was particularly charmed by the “sniffing cup” - a small cylindrical cup which was meant to have tea quickly poured in and out, then held to the nose to enjoy the fragrance. I found something so lovely about a culture that valued that fleeting moment of fragrance, enough to dedicate a specialised implement to it. I ended up buying more tea pots, and more tea ware, but I kept that first tea pot across years and thousands of miles. It hasn’t broken - yet.
As I looked at the fragments of birthday bowl scattered across the floor, I heard my dad’s words echoing as clearly as if he’d just spoken them.
I was struck again by how well he had described an important part of the Way of Tea: an appreciation of things that are fleeting, that will pass, end, break. Drinking tea is a beautiful moment in time; you appreciate it, and then it passes. Using tea ware means that it inevitably breaks. And in fact there are whole art forms in tea culture of re-purposing broken tea ware. There is the Japanese art of kintsugi, or repairing broken cups with gold. At the Tea Sage Hut, they use broken tea pots as bonsai pots in the garden or as decorations for the chashi, or tea stage.
I’ve kept the fragments of my birthday bowl, although I haven’t decided what to do with them yet. It smashed into too many pieces to be repaired kintsugi style. I felt sad when I broke it, but I also felt a sense of peace. I’m glad I used it every day, and I’m glad it lasted as long as it did. Every time I collected my bag at a new airport, I would feel suspense, wondering whether it had survived the trip - and relief when I unpacked it.
Everything in life is a precious gift, passed on to us to use and love - even though that means it will probably break at some point. Sometimes what has broken can be repaired, sometimes not. It’s part of what you expect when you use something. And it’s still better than leaving it, “too good to use,” to collect dust on a shelf.
Everything will break eventually. Our hearts, our prized possessions, our bodies. Everything breaks. Except the gift itself.
We do not share the same time, all the creatures and things of this world. Butterflies fluttering around a thousand year old tree know this. People who kneel in deserts to collect fossil sea shells know this. Children, who fit an adult’s month into a day of intricate games, know this.
But even the different layers of the same human do not share the same time. We have quick flickering minds like lightning, blood like a river, muscle fibers like plants growing in soil, bones like rocks, and souls like space. And this is where a problem comes in.
It’s an identification problem, and an organisational problem. We, as modern humans, start to identify ourselves with our fast fizzy minds, and think that’s the time stream it’s appropriate for us to swim in. Then that makes us expect that having an idea should be all that’s necessary to change.
I taught a Yoga workshop once, and a woman came in with a pile of books. She had read all of these complicated books about advanced Yoga philosophy, and she started talking about them to me in a torrent of words. She thought that by intellectually grasping the concepts in the books, she had been practising Yoga.
But this is not how a practice works. A practice is about seeding and growing an idea slowly through all the strata of Time and Self. Our minds can zip away and circle the earth ten times before the rest of us has even started to embody an idea. The very simplest concept - like “Pay attention to the breath” or “Feel gratitude” - will start to bore the hell out of our minds about the same time that it is sinking roots into the very shallowest layers of our bodies. If we make the mistake of identifying with our minds, we will toss away every practice before truly understanding it. Gym memberships unused in February; relationships abandoned when a well-intentioned attempt to mend the damage of years doesn’t bear fruit in a few weeks; still-shiny yoga mats rolled in a corner; all testify to our problem with time.
So, we must practice through the boredom. We must practice what our puffed-up egos believe we’ve already mastered. And we must humbly relinquish the notion that thinking about that practice is worth more than the weight of a feather. It takes a nanosecond to have a thought. It takes days to make more blood, weeks to grow more muscle, months for our osteoblast cells to lay down more bone. Seven years for every cell in the body to be replaced.
Let your minds fly, my friends, my loves. Let your ideas glow like a soap bubble or sunlight on a crashing wave. But build your practice into your bones
I felt both rebellious and confused when I learned about Ayurveda during my first Yoga teacher training in 2005. I knew it was an ancient tradition of healing that had been used for thousands of years, and that was interesting to me. Ayurveda used a system of five elements to understand the world: Ether, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth - and that also made intuitive sense. I could feel those elements inside myself and in the world around me. But my problems came when I tried to understand the theory of Doshas.
It seemed that in order to follow an Ayurvedic lifestyle, you first had to identify yourself as one of the three “Dosha” or constitutional types: Vata (Air/Ether), Pitta (Fire/Water), or Kapha (Water/Earth). “Dosha” literally translates as “the source of disease or imbalance.” You could then choose food and lifestyle practices appropriate to your type. That sounded promising, but for the life of me I couldn’t manage to figure out what Dosha type I was. There were all these little quizzes out there, in books or magazine articles. Sometimes I would take a quiz and it would come out Pitta, sometimes Vata, sometimes Kapha. And often my quiz results would come out one way, but I would identify more strongly with the health problems associated with a different dosha.
The situation got worse when I looked at the health recommendations. My quiz results were confusing, but I thought it was likely that I was some combination of Pitta and Vata dosha. According to the books that meant I shouldn’t do handstands, headstands, eat chili or chocolate, or exercise excessively - basically, all the fun stuff, as far as I was concerned.
I tried to research information sources on Ayurveda for a legalistic loophole that would help me to justify my fiery curry and headstand habit. But all of the guidelines seemed random and arbitrary. The bulk of the information available seemed focused on detailed charts about food combining rules, like not eating melon together with plums. The long lists of do’s and don’ts for the three dosha types usually didn’t have explanations. I couldn’t imagine implementing the advice into my everyday life. How was I supposed to memorise all those random-seeming food combination rules? Every time I went to a restaurant, did I need to pull out one of the encyclopedic charts in 6-pt font and try to work out which of the menu items was acceptable?
So I gave up on trying to understand Ayurveda, and I kept on practicing headstands. But there was always a little part of me that wondered what I was missing.
Eleven years later, I participated in the ThaiVedic Holistic Yoga Therapy teacher training, led by Kimmana Nichols. I learned a lot - much more than I could hope to put in one blog post. One of the recurring themes, though, was that Ayurveda’s not for lazy people. (More here). And I realised the reason that all of those dosha quizzes had left me so confused. The quizzes - and I - made a lazy assumption about identity.
I don’t know if I can blame it on “Western culture,” but I personally grew up in a society that put a lot of emphasis on ego and individual identity. We see ourselves as these Lone Rangers, captains of our own ships, with an identity that is fixed and that doesn’t essentially change over our lives. That naturally leads to a distorted interpretation of Ayurvedic theory, where we seek to give ourselves a label - “I’m Pitta, I’m fiery and energetic” and then yearn for a rule book to follow to fix whatever problems might come up in our lives. Lazy thinking.
But to truly understand Ayurveda requires us to set aside these assumptions about identity. Every person has a combination of all three of the doshas inside them. I’m not a “Pitta person.” I’m a person with a lot of Pitta dosha in my constitutional type at birth, who then had a whole cascading series of life experiences of loss, trauma, attachment, joy, and sorrow. Who “I” am and the state of my being/health at a given moment is not a constant formula. It is a gestalt - a unified combination of the body I inherited, the weather around me, life choices I make, my stage of life, the state of my relationships. During the course of my childhood and early adulthood, I had a lot of Vata-aggravating experiences and environments - and, to a lesser extent, Kapha-aggravating experiences. So despite my Pitta-rich constutition, often my health problems and current imbalances were indeed associated with the other doshas. No wonder I had been so confused as a baby Yoga teacher!
One thing I loved about the ThaiVedic training was that during the course of a whole month on Ayurvedic theory, we barely talked about any of the complicated food combining rules that had given me such a headache. “That’s really more specialised advice for people with specific digestive problems,” Kimmana said. “If you stay in balance and build up good digestive fire, you don’t need to worry so much about food combining.”
Instead, the ThaiVedic system focusses on understanding the qualities of the three doshas, and what is required to balance them if they are in excess. The priority is on philosophy and attitude before nit-picky rules. For example, Kimmana’s most important advice for driven, competitive people with an excess of Pitta and in danger of burn out, is not to stop eating chili. Rather, he advises to spend time every day connecting with Nature and simply receiving its beauty, as a way to balance the Pitta-specific delusion of separation and needing to do everything on your own.
Once you really understand these principles and qualities, you have a wonderful tool to help you flow harmoniously with life and prevent health imbalances before they get too serious. I have a lot of Pitta dosha in my constitution. But I can usually get away with all of the “fun stuff” - handstands, backbends, chili and chocolate - especially if I’m careful to practice handstands more often in the morning, the Kapha time of day, or balance chili with other cooling foods.
But sometimes I notice the early signs of Pitta excess, like feeling hot and irritable or itchy rashes. I’m able to adjust my Yoga practice to include more watery, soothing elements, avoid the foods I know are particularly aggravating, and feel better almost immediately - rather than allowing a minor imbalance to grow into something more serious. Other times - such as during winter after a period of physical inactivity - I might notice the sluggishness and mucous associated with an excess of Kapha in my system. And in those circumstances the handstands and chili are actually helpful. No squinting at charts, just an intuitive and harmonious dance with life.
I am currently living in a small wooden hut in Laos. Before this I was in a guest house for nine days, before that, a slightly larger wooden hut in Cambodia, before that a tent, before that a small hotel room. The list goes on. And as I have gone from living in a house to increasingly more temporary spaces I have had to let many things go.
My whole life now fits into my baggage allowance. (With the exception of a few boxes at my parents’ house.) And before leaving this hut at 5am tomorrow morning, I will do a fresh cull, paring off a few more borderline essentials to make way for new belongings, or just to make my bags a little lighter.
But there are a few things I hold onto, a few relics from years gone by. I have a blindfold from an Ashtanga Yoga class with Andreas Bothner. I have incense from an ashram in Kerala. I have my Aeropress for making coffee. And I have a few things which come with me whether I want them to or not: Scars, tattoos, the metal plate in my forearm. Until yesterday, there was one more item on that list. My tongue piercing.
After all, it takes up no space. I don’t have to carry it per se. It has always just been there in my mouth, along for the ride. I pierced my tongue ten years ago at a Blue Banana store in Birmingham, England. They had a special offer on for £10 piercings and my girlfriend at the time had hers done the week before. So I thought, “Why not?” and there has been a piece of metal or plastic through my tongue ever since.
There have been benefits. Children are usually entertained by it when I stick out my tongue at them. There’s a sort of community aspect, in that those of us with pierced tongues tend to notice each other, like a secret handshake. Perhaps the most interesting part of having my tongue pierced has been to do with the mostly-hidden nature of the piercing itself. I’ve noticed that people, especially people of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, often have a strong opinions on people with tattoos and piercings. But with mine, they form an opinion of me as a person first. Then when they find out about the piercing, they are forced to re-evaluate either their perception of me, or of tattoos in general. Several times I’ve been told in these situations, “I thought you were such a nice young man!” and have had the valuable opportunity to point out that a few grams of titanium does not change that fact.
Many people have urged me to remove my piercing. Employers found it unprofessional. My parents thought I would influence my sisters and also found it ‘icky’. And, more recently, many of my Thai Massage teachers pointed out that it sits on the most important energetic channel in the body (Sen Sumana for those who are interested in these things!) and that piercings on that channel create energetic blockages. Keeping the piercing therefore became both an act of defiance as well as a statement of identity: “I choose to have this piercing. It is a part of me and I decide whether I want it or not!”
But I feel I’m at a stage in my life where I am not interested in defining myself by my appearance, nor by my opposition to other peoples’ ideas. And while I’m not convinced by the idea of a piercing blocking an energetic channel, I can certainly see that holding onto something which no longer has a powerful meaning for me is a block of some kind.
With all that said, removing this piercing is really an exercise in letting go. Of recognising that practicing non-attachment is not just about throwing away things you don’t want, but also of getting rid of things you do want, if it is no longer for a particular and compelling reason. These little mementos are like anchors to specific times in our past. I can remember getting this piercing, showing my mother (to her horror!), getting the specific bar I have kept in for most of the past five years. And I have a sentimental attachment to all of those memories. But I feel the anchor is no longer necessary.
The hole will heal in around twenty-four to forty-eight hours and then this will be irrevocable. Even if I re-pierce my tongue it will never be in quite the same place or connect me to the same memories. I realise only as I’m writing this that even if you find this post a little over-blown, this is one of the most intimate items I have ever left behind me.
I wrote the above about a week ago. Since then my tongue has healed as predicted. It’s odd to have the shape of your mouth feel completely different, but while I occasionally notice the absence of my tongue piercing I can’t say it bothers me. As an aside, I am also now taking a break from coffee so maybe the Aeropress I mentioned before will be the next thing I leave behind me.
Removing my tongue piercing hasn’t brought me any particular new clarity in my life. I’m certainly no closer to any kind of enlightenment. But I do feel it was a good exercise in letting go of that which no longer serves me. And no matter how good I get at downsizing my baggage, I feel like that’s always a good lesson to come back to.
I recently participated in a wonderful ThaiVedic holistic Yoga therapy training in Bali led by Kimmana Nichols. His system is based on the principles and worldview of Ayurveda, the illustrious 5,000 year old Indian healing system and sister science to Yoga. Yoga and Ayurveda are about slightly different things: while the purpose of Yoga is to unite one’s awareness with all that is and find freedom, the purpose of Ayurveda is to preserve and extend life. But historically, the two systems have danced closely together. A Yoga practitioner was likely to follow an Ayurvedic lifestyle, because it’s easier to focus on your Yoga practice when you’re healthy and energetic. And the Ayurvedic system uses many Yoga practices - physical asana, pranayama, and meditation alike - as part of its health recommendations.
My time at the Thai Vedic training was an action-packed month featuring Yoga therapy, Thai massage, meditation, mantra, Ayurvedic philosophy and diagnostics, nutrition, acupressure, aromatherapy, moxibustion, and a holistic framework to fit them all together. But my main takeaway from the month was that Ayurveda is not for lazy people.
I don’t mean physically lazy couch potatoes. I mean mentally lazy. You see, following an Ayurvedic lifestyle requires you to be present - with yourself, and with your environment. There are very few hard-and-fast rules in Ayurveda. Often with health or lifestyle suggestions we want the opposite - we want an excuse not to think. “Fat is bad, right? OK, I’ll stop eating any fat.” “Sugar is bad, right? OK, I’ll cut out all simple and complex carbohydrates alike.” “Exercise is good, right? OK, I’ll join a boot camp and exercise as much as I can until my body is a sea of lactic acid (or I have an injury).” “Vegetables are good, right? OK, I’ll eat only raw salads.” “Green smoothies are good, right? OK, I’ll have one for breakfast every day and pack it full of kale and spirulina.”
Even though following these extreme regimens can require immense physical effort and sacrifice, somehow that can seem easier than being present in the moment and thinking in a holistic way. And then when the effort proves to be too much and we collapse or suffer the health consequences of extremism, that can provide a good excuse for thinking it’s all too hard.
However, within Ayurveda almost nothing - types of food, exercise practises, lifestyle practices - is considered to be good or bad in and of itself. For a person with an excess of Kapha dosha, a bit of sweet tasting food is likely to aggravate an existing imbalance - but the same food could be quite helpful for a person with an excess of Vata dosha. The exact same exercise might be beneficial for a person’s health, or aggravating, depending on the time of day it’s performed and for how long.
Ayurveda is a lifestyle practise for people who are willing to take a nuanced view of the world, and to put energy into understanding themselves and their environments. It does demand you to think for yourself rather than turn your brain off and follow a program. But the payoff is a deeper understanding of yourself, vibrant health, and an ability to flow in a loving dance with life rather than trying to resist or control it.
I’ve noticed many Acro Yoga communities becoming more about the Acro, and much less about the Yoga - and that makes me a bit sad. What I see is the increasing prevalence of a mentality from the rest of our stressful lives in this Western society: a focus on achieving, and accumulating, tricks. An acrobatic circus performance usually follows this pattern: Windup....trick...applause. Windup...trick...applause. And in Acro Yoga jams and workshops this can lead to a similar focus on nailing a ‘trick’ - a new skill or a new washing machine sequence. But whereas a professional circus act practises a trick until it is polished and smooth, in amateur play time it sometimes seems like people only focus on the trick until they can just barely wobble through it. Then it’s on to the next trick.
It’s not like this attitude is wrong or bad. I love circus acrobatics. I’ve been to many circus workshops, and I know well the glee and exhilaration of achieving a new trick. But if that’s the only space you hang out in, there’s so much you miss. Acro Yoga is a combination of acrobatics, yoga, and Thai massage, supporting divine play. And for me, acrobatics and Thai massage are the legs holding up Yoga, or union - rather than acrobatic skill being the ultimate goal.
There are so many other delicious, yummy, profound parts of the practice to explore beyond nailing a new trick.
Acro as Yoga Asana
You can use the poses in the same way as yoga asanas - to discover the alignment of our true natures. Practise the same slow flow with your partner over and over again, each time using less and less muscular effort as you move with increasing grace and equilibirum. I have been practising the same Sun Salutations for fifteen years in my yoga practice and I don’t get bored, because I am developing deeper and deeper awareness inside the same framework. With awareness and relaxation, Star and Reverse Star can change from being acrobatic poses, into becoming therapeutic poses that provide a massage for the flyer’s trapezius muscles. And a base can learn to isolate and build increasingly fine awareness of the different muscles around the hips, knees, and ankles - even learning to use basing as self therapy.
Just like with yoga asana, you can explore working with the breath in Acro - practising the same washing machine over and over that the physical movements become easy and both partners are able to flow with the breath in the same way that you would during a vinyasa yoga practice.
Acro Yoga as the Yoga of Relationship
Acro Yoga is an incredible field in which to practise relating to other people. My communication skills have improved so much since starting Acro - an incredible skill for the rest of my life! I had one beautiful acro partner, Irene Ais, who never used the words “I” or “You” when discussing a problem. She only said “We.” So, for example, when discussing a fall out of Maha Catherine’s wheel, she would say, “We need to find a way to get more weight into our arms during the transition to Reverse Star” rather than “I think your arms were out of alignment.” The way she communicated made me feel so supported and helped us both stay constructive - truly, the Yoga of words.
As a more experienced practitioner, I love learning the combination of body language, tone of voice, and choice of words to most effectively support and coach a nervous beginner. I might have practised Bird pose thousands and thousands of times, but every time I get a new beginner into it, it’s a new pose - and a new psychology. With some people it’s about finding the right emotional tone for them to let go of their fear. Other people need a particular kind of verbal cue to understand their body positioning. With people who know yoga I might talk about starting in Tadasana; with athletes I might talk about a pushup preparation. This practice is about getting out of your own head and understanding what your partner needs.
And then of course, there is the incredible world of acro therapeutics and Thai massage - learning to use human body weight to heal, and how to hold space so that you can share your own meditative state with your friend.
Acro Yoga as Creative Play Time
There are so many silly and profound games you can make up when you start playing Acro with your friends! Sometimes when we become adults, the scope of the ways that we connect with each other become so limited - and so verbal. Try these:
And there is so much more - the only limit is your imagination and your willingness to be present with yourself and your partner in the moment.
Some people are Olympic gymnasts or professional Cirque du Soleil performers, and perhaps for them it makes sense to adopt a gung ho attitude toward the accumulation of tricks. But to the rest of us I ask the question, what are we really in it for? My practice of Acro Yoga is a profound example of the Yoga of Relationship - it helps me get better at embodying love, connecting to myself and others, and expressing the joy of this precious existence. But of course, if I can work in a few tricks along the way, all the better!