5 ayurvedic tips for insomnia

Ayurveda agrees with many conventional practices for improving sleep hygiene: establish a bedtime routine; wake up and go to bed at the same time every day; avoid taking stimulants (like caffeine) or eating a large meal before bedtime; exercise vigorously earlier in the day; avoid napping and get adequate exposure to natural light.

But Ayurveda also says that one of the culprits of insomnia is excess vata. one of the three doshas, or subtle energies, that govern our bodies and minds. That’s why Ayurveda also recommends Vata-calming suggestions like these:

—Oil your body daily, especially before bed
—Soak in warm tub
—Practice breathing and relaxation more often than just before bed
—Eat a whole foods diet that emphasizes warm , cooked food with plenty of protein and ample amounts of healthy oil.
—Take herbs that calm and nourish the nervous system

Most health food stores carry natural sleep aids with nerviness—herbs that nourish the brain and nervous system, which are mildly sedating, grounding and stabilizing. Gentle and non-toxic, these herbs usually take effect after 4-6 weeks of use.

Jatamamsi (Indian valerian)

author credit: Carrie Demers on Yoga International     article link

debating philosophy

sera monestary (33)-EditThe monks at Serra Monastery gather daily in the dabbled sunlight of the courtyard to debate the finer points of philosophy and tutor the novices under their supervision. Their point of view is emphasized via a high-to-low clapping hand motion. Hence the arms in the air:)


Image location: Serra Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet
© Kate McKenna. All Rights Reserved.

the magic of eye pillows

Eye pillows have a reputation for being the new age version of snake oil: a little bit of flax, and a lot of money. Yet they may be one of our most powerful healing tools, especially when it comes to a balanced nervous system. Your vagus nerve is one of twelve cranial nerves that originates in the brain, travels down the back of the neck and into the chest and heart, and then moves down into the abdomen and digestive tract.

Light pressure on the eyeballs lowers heart rate, sometimes by quite a bit, by eliciting what’s called the oculocardiac reflex. It also stimulates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve has an extensive resume: It regulates heart rate and digestion, and it’s the primary medium through which our belly brain regulates mood. It’s the main communicator to our rest-and-digest system, which helps us to relax more deeply. It also elicits our tend-and-befriend system, enabling us to reach out and connect with others. This is a critical factor in long-term stress resilience and, research shows, in happiness.

When to use an eye pillow:
—Put one over your eyes or on your forehead when you lay down to sleep. This will help you fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep throughout the night.
—Use one at the end of your yoga practice during savasana for ultra relaxation.
—Pair it with your restorative yoga practice to deepen embodiment.
—Anytime you feel anxious, depressed, or stressed and can use a quick pick-me-up or more grounding.

author credit: Bo Forbes, Yoga Journal   article link

quieting the voice of perfection

When I was 20, I wanted to drop out of college, trade my sweater and jeans in for a sexy, glittery getup, and join Cirque du Soleil. I had excelled in hatha yoga classes for a few years and thought I had potential as a contortionist. (Oddly enough, they didn’t offer that as a major at my school.) I loved to explore the infinite possibilities of the human body and wanted to push the boundaries.

So I packed my bags and drove off to attend a summer yoga program in the Poconos. A few months of in-depth asana training, I mused, and I’ll be on my way to fame. I was shocked, when I arrived, to hear that my fellow participants aspired to study yogic scriptures, attend satsang, and learn meditation.

Meditation? I scoffed. This is a yoga institute. We’re here to chill out, eat vegetarian food, and do postures for several hours a day in exchange for chopping vegetables. These people are strange.

But soon I discovered rusty old locks in my neck, shoulders, and hips that seemed to have no keys, and saw many others who were closer to contortionism than I would ever be. I was stubborn, however, and I kept pushing until I injured myself so badly that I couldn’t do postures for a month.

Humbled by my foolish injury, I decided to slow down and see what this spiritual place had to offer me.
With no TV, private phone, or friends to keep me occupied, I began to attend lectures I wouldn’t normally have been interested in: ayurveda, the nasal wash, biofeedback, the Bhagavad Gita, pranayama, and yes, meditation. Eventually I realized I had stumbled into an ashram, and humbled by my foolish injury, I decided to slow down and see what this spiritual place had to offer me.

By the end of the summer, I had found comfort in the ashram’s peaceful atmosphere, and I had warmed up to meditation. On the advice of the spiritual teacher, I went back to school to complete my degree, armed with a host of yoga techniques I planned to incorporate into college life.

One of the most accessible techniques was kirtan, a simple form of sacred chanting that arose in India thousands of years ago. I had been studying voice, so I was eager to explore a different kind of singing. And kirtan, I soon learned, was the opposite of my classical training. Instead of standing on stage and singing scripted music for an audience, kirtan is a casual call-and-response sing-along. Everyone sits cross-legged in a circle, mostly with their eyes closed, in a quiet, joyful form of vocal meditation. The words are simple: Sita Ram, Hari Bol, Om Namah Shivaya; and the melodies are simple, too. The kirtan leader begins the songs slowly, then gradually increases the speed and volume. And instead of a piano as accompaniment, there is a unique assembly of instruments—harmonium, sitar, clavas, tablas, tampoora—to keep things lively. Improvisation is key, so the kirtans are different every time.

According to the ancient scriptures, kirtan is one of the nine limbs of bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion. And because the words we sing are Sanskrit names for God, kirtan is mantra put to music. Tradition has it that whenever students are exhausted by their practices, they can start chanting as a way to soothe their senses, stimulate their minds, and transform their emotions in a creative, spiritual way.

Back at school, my newly acquired, shoot-for-the-stars ideals—no sugar, no sex, and a two-hour regimen of yoga practice every day—began to slip away as the semester progressed. Soon I was back to my old tricks: staying up late, eating badly, breathing badly, breaking hearts (including my own). Everything I needed for a regular, fruitful meditation practice receded until I was simply sitting for 10 minutes without any asana or pranayama warm-ups, and trying (but failing) to concentrate on my mantra. Then I remembered that I could reap some of the benefits of meditation from chanting, so I decided to give it a try. And since there weren’t any live kirtans in my area, I settled for playing chanting CDs on my Walkman while trekking to class, and singing along to the stereo while I cooked my meals. I noticed that my breath began to open, my mind became more focused, and my spirits lifted, and soon I was chanting whenever I had a chance. Singing the names of God became a tape that played in my head for hours after the CDs ended. Soon I could turn it on at will to shift my mood and connect with the divine.

I had studied voice for several years, but something had always been missing. I was cursed with an infinite, inverse perfectionism complex—the more I knew about singing, the further away I felt from perfection. And as my technique improved, I felt less and less inspired by the music. In kirtan, I found a whole new voice. Most of the songs were in the key of middle C, and since I had been trained as a soprano, it was refreshing to sing in a lower range. When I forgot about technique and sang from the heart, I discovered a rich, deep soulfulness in my voice that I never knew I had. Singing, for once, was effortless.

I was cursed with an infinite, inverse perfectionism complex—the more I knew about singing, the further away I felt from perfection.
Chanting also broadened my perspective. Suddenly I remembered that my life was bigger than my latest breakup, bad mood, or bout of writer’s block. It was even bigger than my body, my ego, and my mind. As I sang the mantras, I was quieted and purified. It was like taking a happy pill. And the happiness came from a sense of expansion, of spaciousness. It helped me remember the deeper purpose of life.

Over the years I’ve used chanting to reconnect with my center—whether I’m living in a rural ashram or a bustling city; whether I’m singing with others, by myself, or just in my head. During that first summer at the Himalayan Institute, I discovered a way to tap into my own source of beauty and strength—and there was no turning back.

Today, I live at the Institute year-round and sing kirtan every week. Some days when I join the circle of singers and the music begins, I’m crabby, irreverent, reluctant to sing. I ask myself, Why am I here? I hate yoga. I am the worst kirtan leader on the planet. I open my mouth expecting to growl, but within a few phrases I’m sweetened by the mantra and the melody and I’m singing from the heart. Happiness is irresistible.

Although it usually takes some time for the whole group to get in sync, at some point everything clicks, the mood shifts, and the music flows forth like a river after a storm. We are swept up in the current and carried along. Life is good. I realize I came in feeling like a pair of crumpled pants, and now I’ve been handwashed and ironed and hung on a clothesline in the country. I am swaying in a summer breeze—I feel smooth and fresh and light. I understand what Rabbi Tirzah Firestone means when she writes, “By chanting, we strip away our outer appearances, our smaller selves, to let the light of our true nature shine forth.” Kirtan is an easy, accessible way to start doing that.

I learned that you can’t sing kirtan for an hour and resist the lure of a joyful mind, no matter how miserable you are when you begin.
Kirtan helps iron out emotions, too. Recently, I went through a period of grief and depression, and it took all of my willpower to drag myself to kirtan and sing. I began to conduct an experiment. I poured all of my negative emotions—all of my heartache and longing—into the chants, and before I knew it they were replaced by an indescribable, mysterious but palpable presence. I learned that you can’t sing kirtan for an hour and resist the lure of a joyful mind, no matter how miserable you are when you begin.

In India, kirtan is revered as an ancient form of therapy. Maybe that’s because, as Benedictine monk David Stendl-Rast explains, “When chant music stops…an audible silence reverberates through the room….The silence is not merely sound’s absence, but a mysterious presence, the immense nothingness that is our origin and our home. If we listen carefully, we discover that when all is said and done, chant inducts us into this silence that is the ground of our being.”

Every spiritual tradition offers many paths that help us get back home. Personally, my favorite is one that’s put to music.

author credit: Sharon Sexton on Yoga International   link to article

resolve to evolve

A new year’s resolution is a noteworthy concept—start off the year with a change for the better. So how did it devolve into a subconscious exercise in self-loathing? Lose 10 pounds! (Message to self: You’re fat.) Stop drinking caffeine! (You’re unhealthy.) Call Mom and Dad once a week! (You’re ungrateful.) Why not celebrate this new year by trading in your tired (and probably familiar) resolutions for a sankalpa instead?

Positive Power
A Sanskrit word, sankalpa means “will, purpose, or determination.” To make a sankalpa is to set an intention—it’s like a New Year’s resolution with a yogic twist. While a resolution often zeros in on a perceived negative aspect of ourselves (as in, “I want to lose weight, so no more chocolate chip cookies or ice cream or cheese”), a sankalpa explores what’s behind the thought or feeling (“I crave chocolate chip cookies or ice cream or cheese when I’m feeling stressed or sad. I will set an intention to become conscious of this craving and allow my feelings to arise and pass, rather than fill up on fats”).

Effort Counts
A sankalpa also praises the nobility of the effort rather than focusing on what you are doing wrong. “New Year’s resolutions leave me feeling guilty and mad at myself for not keeping them,” says Wendy McClellan, a yoga teacher in Louisville, Kentucky. So, last year, in a conscious effort to reject the resolution rut, she taught a special New Year’s Eve yoga class and encouraged students to look back and let go. Her intention, or sankalpa? To open her heart to new possibilities. “An intention has much more of a global sense than a resolution,” she says. “It helps me be softer with myself.” With a sankalpa, the self-loathing that comes from dwelling on past transgressions can begin to dissolve. In its place is an exercise in effort and surrender—create an intention and open yourself to the universe.

Look Inward
For several days, set aside time to write in a journal and meditate. Mull over your typical resolutions. How do they make you feel? Anxious? Unsettled? Incomplete? Now contemplate how you would like to feel during the coming year. Is there any way you can reframe your results-oriented resolutions into something that will make this year’s journey more joyful and worthwhile?

Re-phrase It
Create a short sentence or phrase for your sankalpa. Be careful not to set limitations based on fear. For example, instead of “May life bring me only happiness and joy this year” consider “May I be happy and open to what life brings me.”

Be Firm But Fair
Change doesn’t happen overnight. When you stray from the essence of your sankalpa, don’t berate yourself. Instead, gently remind yourself of your intention. But be firm in your resolve—it’s a good idea to incorporate your sankalpa into yoru daily routine. Use it as a mantra during Pranayama or meditation practice; post it on your computer, phone, or mirror; or simply say it to yourself quietly before going to sleep. —C.G

author credit: Catherine Guthrie, Yoga Journal   article link