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The rigorous poses of Ashtanga Yoga have helped my mental health so much during the pandemic



I don’t know how I would have made it through the pandemic and my transition to living in New York City without Ashtanga Yoga. I moved to NYC from Hong Kong in January, two months before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. During the 18 months of the immigration process, I was on a wave of emotions – from frustration to anger to sadness. I decided to devote myself to Ashtanga Yoga, which I had encountered during a trip to Mysore, India, the birthplace of the practice. The practice has so far given me such emotional stability.

Ashtanga can be an intimidating practice. For one, it’s quite physical and athletic, especially when compared to hatha yoga (which is the type of yoga that probably comes to mind when you hear the word “yoga”

;). The Primary Series, which I have been practicing for eight months, is the basis of the Ashtanga Method. It consists of a variety of asanas (postures) that are performed standing, sitting and turning as well as in backbends and inversions. When I started practicing it, I was frustrated. I couldn’t touch my toes and balance myself in sitting poses like Ubhaya Padangustasana (or Double Toe Hold, which you can see here).

Also, halfway through class, I would feel tired. The exercise takes approximately 90 minutes, which is longer than any non-heated yoga class and a long time to practice a series of challenging poses.

Despite – or maybe because of – how physically demanding Ashtanga can be, I loved it. I am drawn to its graceful fluidity and the use of the Tristhana method combining Asanas, Ujjayi Pranayama (Breath) and drishti (focused look). When I synchronize every movement with deep breathing, I am immersed in moving meditation. When I hold a pose for five breaths or more, just looking at a single point keeps my mind focused. “When you practice the Primary Series, you will first feel the changes on the physical plane,” said R. Saraswathi Jois, 78, daughter of the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, an Indian teacher who popularized the Ashtanga practice founded the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in 1948, SELF tells. “But when you breathe and look right, your mind becomes sharper, more controlled, and more focused.”

The traditional way of practicing Ashtanga is the Mysore style, in which a group practices with each person at their own pace and with an instructor to help people along the way, rather than leading the class through a sequence. But during the pandemic, I practiced alone in my apartment. This consistent practice is what I need to make progress both physically and mentally.

Doing the practice can be daunting, especially because living in New York City means an inevitable hustle and bustle around me at all times. But the exercise helps me slow down, disconnect from the chaos and pace of the city, and finally keep my mind from racing thoughts, which allows me to look deeper and more calmly into myself. It’s also what gets me out of bed and onto my mat before sunrise. This practice helps me master self-discipline and the ability to persevere.

Practicing the same sequence six days a week may sound boring, but it’s not for me. Whenever I get on the mat, I encounter new challenges. Sometimes I cannot put my foot firmly on the floor in standing poses like Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (hand-to-big-toe pose), which makes me feel unbalanced when fighting the trembling base leg. In other cases, I cannot touch my toes in Janu Shirshasana (head-to-knee posture) because I feel uncomfortable in my knees or have a tight hamstring. When my body moves into an unfamiliar posture and goes deeper into it, I accept the discomfort and try not to run away from it. The way I face challenges on my yoga mat helps me think about how my body and mind will respond to a perceived challenge in life.


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