Friday, 22 April 2011

Restorative Yoga - Postures to Soothe the Nervous System and Calm the Mind

I’m sure most of us are familiar with the fast pace of the modern world and that feeling of ‘frayed nerves’ that can arise if we don’t take some time out to nurture ourselves.
Many of us are over-stimulated, meaning our sympathetic nervous system and adrenals are in a state of ‘alert’, great when needing to run or hide from danger, not as useful if that state of ‘alert’ won’t switch itself off when we want to rest.
We might say that many of us are in a hyperactive or rajasic state. And for the mind to rest we need to be in a more peaceful or sattvic state. The regular practice of Restorative Yoga can help immensely with this.
Restorative Yoga practices calm us down when we are overly ‘hyped up’, and give us an energy boost when we are depleted or drained. In other words, they encourage another part of our nervous system to dominate for a while, the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to a state of calm.
These postures are fabulous if you’re completely exhausted and can barely contemplate doing a practice at all, and work equally well if you’re over- stimulated and need to wind down.  They’re also great for beginners and Yoga teachers alike.
The idea with Restorative Yoga is to be as completely comfortable and relaxed as possible. It takes time for the nervous system to calm down, so the postures are held for a longer period of time, typically 5 minutes or more. We make ample use of the ‘props’ available, including blankets, bolsters, eye bags, blocks, sand bags, etc. – whatever we can find that helps us to be comfortable and supported in the postures. Rather than going for maximum stretch, we are exploring deep, sustained, nurturing relaxation.
One suggestion is to dedicate at least one practice per week to Restorative Yoga. Another approach is to include a longer held Restorative Yoga posture near the end of your daily practice.
There are many Restorative Yoga postures, but today I’m going to introduce one very special one called Inverted Attitude Pose or Viparita Karani.

Although this posture is lovely and safe for most people, not all postures are suitable for everyone. So if in doubt, seek advice from a qualified Yoga teacher or trusted health professional. The key is, it should feel super comfortable and supported, as you’ll need to hold it for a while to reap the benefits. If it’s not, re-adjust or come out.
·      1 x bolster that is firm with a bit of ‘squish’ so you can relax into it (or two, firm, neatly folded blankets, folded lengthwise, can substitute).
·      1 x strap.
·      1 x eye bag.
·      1 x Yoga mat or a comfortable surface to lie on.
·      You will also need a wall to take your legs up.


1.     Place a bolster or two folded blankets a few inches away from a wall and sit on the bolster sideways so your right hip is touching the wall. Swing the right leg up and then the left until the feet are pointing up towards the ceiling. The feet can be hip-width apart for this version. Lie back on the floor so the sacrum and lower back are supported on the bolster.
2.    You may have to shuffle the buttocks closer to the wall. If the bolster is too high, new or unforgiving, use folded blankets under the hips instead. The arms can rest comfortably by your side with the palms facing up, or can be bent comfortably over your head. Place an eye bag on the eyes if it helps you relax.
3.    Stay for 5-15 minutes. To release, bend the knees and roll to the right side, resting for a few breaths before coming up to sitting.

 This is a wonderfully restorative posture that can be used to refresh and rebalance the entire system – body, nervous system and emotions. If you only have time for one Restorative Posture, this is a great choice, as it has so many benefits. 
- Viparita Karani relieves and helps prevent stagnant blood, water retention, lactic acid, varicose veins and tiredness in the legs. It is excellent after strong athletic activity or long periods of standing – for all the reasons stated above. If you have a job where you are standing for long hours, especially on hard surfaces, make sure to include this posture regularly. 
 - The benefits are similar to the full Shoulderstand, but viparita karani is much easier to hold for longer periods, and the neck is in a less intensely ‘flexed’ position, making it safer for the neck (although those with serious neck problems should read the Cautions section). 
- Digestion and appetite are improved.  Relieves constipation, hernia (not hiatal), hemorrhoids and prolapse. This is due to the inverted position, which relieves these conditions from the usual stress of gravity weighing down on them. 
- The neuro-endocrine system is balanced and under-active thyroid (hypo) can be balanced. Circulation increases to the upper part of the body, which assists with the prevention of respiratory problems such as sore throats, cough’s and cold’s. 
- Encourages relaxed, deep breathing and a calm state of mind.


 - Acute Neck Problems – practice the simple ‘Legs up the Wall Pose’ instead, where the lower back simply rests on the ground without being raised up on a bolster.  Since the hips are not raised, the neck is less flexed, making it a safer option for neck problems
- Very tight Hamstrings – will pull the pelvis back, making it hard not to slide off the bolster/blankets. Lower the height under the sacrum/hips and move them away from the wall slightly so the legs can be at more of an angle. You may need to remove the blankets entirely. Don’t hold for too long if it’s very intense, as we are trying to relax here.
- Strained Lower Back – Try moving the bolster/blankets further out from the wall so the legs are at more of an angle. Possibly substitute this pose with the simpler Legs Up The Wall Pose instead.
- Spondylolsis and Spondylolisthesis – this is a condition that concerns vertebrae misaligning or slipping, usually around L4, L5 (Lumbar 4 & 5). Avoid the full pose. You may find the simpler Legs Up The Wall Pose feels safer. 
- Hiatal Hernia – avoid because of acid reflux. 
- Menstruation – avoid the pose as it is an inversion, particularly the version with the height under the sacrum. 
- Prenatal – OK up until about 3 to 4 months, but after that the woman should not lie on her back because of pressure on the vena cava (the major vein that returns blood from the lower limbs and abdominal area, back to the heart).

For more information on Restorative Yoga, see Judith Lasater’s wonderful book: ‘Relax and Renew - Restful Yoga for Stressful Times’.

Photo of Rachel Hull taken by Haidar Ali, at Spirit Yoga, Osaka, Japan.


Wednesday, 16 February 2011

A Background History of Ayurveda

These blogs on Ayurveda are written by Rachel Hull, and also appear on

The traditional healing system of India is called Ayurveda, which is often translated as ‘The Science of Life’. In the last blog, I introduced the concept of the gunas or qualities of the mind. In this instalment, I’d like to focus on some background history of Ayurveda. 

Both Yoga and Ayurveda have been influenced by a philosophical system from India called Samkyha philosophy. The concept of the gunas sattva, rajas & tamas, for example, emerged from the Samkyha system.

Ayurveda was first recorded in the Vedas and aspects of it have been practiced in daily Indian life for thousands of years. Although first recorded in writing in the Vedas, it is said to have been around for much longer as an oral tradition. Samkhya is one of the philosophical systems from India that embraces the Vedas as the ultimate authority. Although less popular these days, especially amongst modern Yoga practitioners who tend to enjoy the non-dual concepts of Advaita Vedanta more, it’s important to understand the original influences. Obviously, as time moves on, different ideas weave their way into and influence all systems, such as modern Ayurvedic doctors being familiar with and studying more Western type of medicine alongside traditional Ayurveda.

The Vedas are humanity’s oldest known record of literature and were passed down over thousands of years in the form of hymns, first as an oral and then a written tradition. Estimated time frames for the Vedas range between 4500-2500/2000 BCE. They have a huge influence on Indian thought and Hinduism in general. Four Vedas have been handed down through the generations. The first three tend to deal with more spiritual and metaphysical concepts, while the last relates more to practical issues in people’s daily lives. In order of their inception we have:

1) Rig Veda (knowledge of praise) – This is the oldest Veda and, although Ayurveda is not mentioned, the concepts Indra, Agni and Soma are.  Indra is a deity who can be related to air, Agni is a deity related to fire; and Soma is a deity related to water, immortality and ambrosia. Soma also relates to the juice of a specific mystical plant or some say to herbal medicine in general.

2) Yajur Veda (knowledge of sacrifice) – This Veda is concerned with rituals (or yajnas) designed to keep us healthy. These yajnas are still used today by some Ayurvedic physicians, particularly for diseases that are difficult to cure by other means. The pancha pranas (or five pranas), as well as the Ayurvedic concept of dhatus (tissues), are also mentioned in the Yajur Veda.

3) Sama Veda (knowledge of chants) – This Veda deals with special sounds called mantras, which can be employed to attain good health and happiness, as well as to influence nature. Ayurvedic physicians frequently prescribe mantras for healing.

4) Atharva Veda (Atharvan’s knowledge) – This Veda is the most practical one for day-to-day life and has the fullest recordings of early Ayurvedic concepts, including herbal properties and the treatment of disease. Because the Atharva Veda contains so many Ayurvedic concepts, Ayurveda is often considered a sub-branch or upaveda of the Atharva Veda.
In time, the information relating to Ayurveda was tested by scholars and physicians (vaidyas) and arranged in a more systematic way. The roots of the system remained intact but, similar to what Patanjali did with the information on Yoga, compiling it into the Eight Paths of Ashtanga Yoga, the information was systematized. Over time, even these texts were modified and added to, but their core goes back a long way. These compilations, all written in Sanskrit, are called Ayurveda samhitas, and there are three authentic ones that are still used today.

1) Charaka Samhita – This is a collection of material said to come from the sage/physician Charaka and is the oldest of the samhitas. Thought to have been compiled in approximately 1500 BCE, this is the main text book used in Ayurvedic colleges in India today and is referred to regularly in any authentic Ayurvedic training. The Charaka Samhita deals mostly with Ayurvedic therapies, such as diet and herbs. It also deals with patient examination methods, symptoms and signs of disease, fundamental Ayurvedic principles, lifestyle routines and many other things. Charaka’s approach to medicine is mainly through herbal means and many of his concepts on healing are still very relevant today.

2) Sushruta Samhita – This is a collection of material compiled by Sushruta, which primarily emphasizes surgery and medicine and was quite sophisticated for its time.  Sushruta had a deep knowledge of human anatomy as well as marma points. Ayurvedic surgery began to decline with the emphasis on non-violence, so this branch of medicine has not developed much further.

3) Ashtanga Hridaya – This is another very detailed text on Ayurveda, which was compiled by Vaghbhata.

There are eight branches of Ayurveda, which are all inter-related. They are:

1. General Medicine
2. Psychology - including planets and spirits
3. Surgery
4. Ophthalmology and Ear, Nose and Throat disorders
5. Toxicology
6. Pediatrics
7. Rejuvenation and Geriatrics
8. Aphrodisiacs

To become an Ayurvedic Dr in India today, one must complete a BAMS, Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery, which takes 5 1/2 years, consisting of 4 ½ years of formal study plus a one year compulsory internship. Contemporary Ayurvedic training includes high-level studies in modern medicine alongside Ayurveda. Once this is successfully completed, the graduates can choose to go into general practice at this point. There is also the choice to obtain the title of MD (Dr of Medicine in Ayurveda), by a further 3 years of post-graduate study.

Other options outside of India include studying to become an Ayurvedic Lifestyle Consultant, which usually takes 2 years, and gives excellent training in Ayurvedic concepts, including the ability to give advice on diet, assess prakriti (constitution) and vikriti (imbalance), as well as training in many hands-on Ayurvedic therapies. Some schools outside of India, such as in the US, Australia, New Zealand, are offering this level of training, as well as an option to complete a further 2 years of study, making 4 years in all.  Outside of India, the names used to describe these qualifications differ depending on the country.

In the next blog, I will introduce some important Ayurvedic concepts to help make this information more practical for you, and relate it to your unique physical constitution.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Qualities of the Mind - Sattva, Rajas & Tamas

According to Ayurveda, Samkhya philosophy and Yoga, all of creation is made up of three qualities called sattva, rajas and tamas. These qualities (gunas), along with our physical constitution, influence our mental state.

Sattva creative; clear; harmonious

Rajas activity; movement

Tamas –inertia; dullness; lethargy

We each contain all of the gunas in varying degrees and they are in constant interplay with each other. Excessive rajas and tamas have a disturbing influence upon the mind, so the aim is to reduce them and increase sattva to about 70%.

The good news is that we can make choices via our diet and lifestyle, and in this way influence which guna we allow to predominate in our lives.


In Ayurveda, foods are categorised in a variety of ways. One of these ways is observing if the food has a sattvic (harmonising), rajasic (agitating) or tamasic (dulling) influence upon the mind.

SATTVA is creative, clear and manifests life. Harmony, peace, truth and love are all sattvic qualities. People who are predominantly sattvic tend to be quietly spiritual and steady in their faith, without being fanatical. They are happy, humble, content and not easily prone to anger. Their minds are alert and their perceptions are clear. They are creative, curious, inspiring and pleasant.
With sattva we know the most beneficial action to take and we take it.

SATTVIC FOODS are full of prana, easy to digest and light, such as lightly cooked organic vegetables, ripe fruit, nuts and seeds, raw honey, ginger, fennel seeds, cardamom and small amounts of ghee (clarified butter). Pure cows’ milk is considered sattvic in Ayurveda, if taken from cows raised in a peaceful environment. In cases of increased toxins including lymphatic congestion and high cholesterol (common in kapha dosha types), care must be taken in consuming dairy. In Ayurveda, milk is taken warm, not cold, as cold dairy increases phlegm. If dairy doesn’t agree with you, alternatives include rice and oat milk, which are good substitutes, although not listed as sattvic.

TO INCREASE SATTVA we need to engage in sattvic foods and activities. These could include gentle Yoga, pranayama, meditation, chi gung, tai chi – all performed in a peaceful and non-goal-oriented way - walking in a peaceful environment, and listening to relaxing and uplifting music. Another important consideration is limiting our exposure to those situations, substances and people, which we know will disturb the mind.

RAJAS: All forms of movement and activity are influenced by rajas. We need movement to get things done in life, but excessive rajas brings restlessness and hyper-activity. The mind cannot rest, resulting in fear, anxiety and agitation.

When imbalanced, rajas leads to excessive pride, competitiveness, aggression, and jealousy. People with a lot of rajas tend to value power, prestige, business and success on the material level. Impulsive actions are taken that are later regretted and which disturb the mind.
People with rajasic temperaments tend towards fanaticism. While they hold their beliefs, they hold them very strongly, trying to convert others. There is often frenetic activity and drama surrounding them. Their minds are so full that they don’t really listen to any advice they may seek.

On the positive side, we need some rajas to get things done and to set and achieve our goals.
When rajas is in excess, we know in our hearts what is the most beneficial action to take, but the mind chooses to take us elsewhere.

Excessive exercise to the point of over-exertion is rajasic and disturbing to the system, as is excessive thinking, talking, travelling, working or any kind of over-stimulation. Talking on the telephone, hours on the computer, exposing ourselves to anything violent including on screen, will all have a disturbing effect upon the mind.

RAJASIC FOODS stimulate and irritate the system. Junk foods like potato chips and chocolate bars, excessively sweet, salty, spicy or pungent foods (such as raw onions and garlic), can cause the mind to become agitated and disturbed. Most legumes and beans increase rajas slightly, creating wind; to make them easier to digest, they need to be taken with appropriate oils and spices.

TO BALANCE RAJAS means limiting our exposure to foods, people and situations that disturb our minds and increasing exposure to more sattvic foods, lifestyle and people. Anything that increases sattva will decrease rajas.
TAMAS is the way nature completes or destroys things. Although we do need some tamas to help us sleep and rest, excessive tamas dulls the mind, making us inert, lazy and depressed. Individuals with a strong tamasic nature engage in a self-destructive diet and lifestyle. They tend to eat, drink and have sex excessively (gluttonous). They likely take drugs and drink alcohol in large quantities. As the tamasic mind becomes dull, heavy and confused, the individual becomes increasingly less caring about themselves and others.
The mind becomes so dull, that they can’t articulate clearly, and need assistance to help themselves. It is unlikely that they will read an article like this, or show up to Yoga class unless dragged there by someone else.

When tamas is in excess, the individual truly needs help, as the ability to discriminate between what is beneficial or not, is weak. The mind has become so unclear, that it can no longer be relied upon to make good judgment calls.

TAMASIC FOODS are lacking in prana and do not support life. These include old and leftover food, deeply fried food, excessive meat, chicken and fish. Seafood- such as muscles, prawns, crabs and squid are all considered particularly tamasic as they are scavengers.  Eggs, hard cheeses. Alcohol and drugs are tamasic and can also have a rajasic effect. Certain herbs and spices, such as nutmeg have a dulling effect upon the mind, which is why in cases of insomnia, nutmeg is used as a traditional aid to sleep. Although nutmeg is tamasic, it is relatively less tamasic and damaging than a heavy drug.

TO BALANCE TAMAS means clearing out the cobwebs in the brain. Fresh air, peaceful yet dynamic exercise and sattvic food, lifestyle and environment will all help.

There are times when we might use a rajasic or tamasic herb or food to help achieve balance (eg: chicken soup for a fragile and weak patient, or the example I used of nutmeg), but our ultimate aim according to Ayurveda, is to become overall more sattvic.

Copyright 2011, Rachel Hull