Yoga Teacher Training update: Handstands and the five koshas

Guess what?

I got up into a handstand all by myself in class this week!

After proper instruction and assistance from Ida to feel confident going upside down on my hands, I was able to hop up into adho mukha vrksasana (adho = downward, mukha = face, vrksa = tree, asana = pose), or handstand, on my next try.

It felt amazing. I could have hung out upside down longer if it wasn’t for all the mucus from my impending head cold stuffing up my face yesterday.

For a moment I thought about grabbing my phone and asking a classmate to take a picture, but quickly caught myself, remembering that yoga is not about the poses, especially Instagram-worthy ones. It’s a great feeling to get into a particularly challenging pose, but that desire to document it and post it on Instagram is such a weird, Western thing. Ida, our yoga teacher training instructor and owner of MokSana, often talks about how some of the most challenging poses, like virabhadrasana (warrior III) or any forward folding seated poses, hardly get featured on a yogi’s Instagram feed. Handstands may look cool, but they’re actually way easier than you think to perform. Beginner yogis with good shoulder strength can easily get up into a handstand with proper instruction.

After four weeks of yoga, lots of pranayama (breathing) practice, meditation and learning about yogic philosophy, I’m starting to feel a major shift.

My body feels more open. I’m noticing a bit more length in my hamstrings. I’m being much gentler with myself and my body, and not beating myself up if I miss workouts and eat what my body is craving. I’ve only run a few short 5Ks in the past few weeks (mainly just to give Gus some exercise) and have only done one or two 30-minute strength workouts, but am noticeably stronger and have more definition in my core from all the yoga.

Cold and sick in the studio this week

Besides my own short home practice each morning, I’ve attended restorative yoga, foundations yoga, yin yoga and yogahour classes at MokSana. Foundations yoga is a beginner hatha yoga classes that goes through foundational yoga poses, with good alignment queues and lots of time to get your body into the position that feels best. Restorative yoga is a lovely, relaxing yoga class with supported and opening poses — perfect for anyone looking for a gentle stretch and to calm the mind. Yin yoga is also slow and relaxing, but more active in that you hold deep stretches for several minutes.

Not the best photos as they are video stills, but here’s a side-by-side of my bakana (crow) pose from 3 years ago (bottom) vs. last week. Notice where my knees are on my elbows – all core strength!

Yogahour is almost the opposite — it’s a fiery and challenging class where you move through asanas quickly, and attempt some pretty challenging poses in the process. MokSana is the only certified yogahour studio in Canada, so if your into more high-energy fitness classes, yogahour is for you. Even though it’s more fitness-based, they still keep traditional yogic elements like chanting Om at the beginning, encouraging pranayama throughout and going into savasana at the end. I was actually really sore after my first yogahour class with Ida on Wednesday last week – my triceps, hamstrings and core felt it the next day!

Love the old exposed brick in the downstairs studio at MokSana

Other interesting discoveries this week include how much breathing slow and deep and focusing on your breath and body during meditation can reduce stress and change how you react in day-to-day life. We also learned about the five koshas, which definitely resonated with me as I often find myself thinking outside of myself, if you know what I mean. Here’s a great explanation from Yoga Journal:

“A human being is described as having five sheaths, or koshas, that interpenetrate each other, encasing the soul like the layers of an onion. The outermost layer is the physical sheath, which the sages called the food sheath, not only because it is made of the food we take in from the earth but also because it will ultimately become food for other creatures. Encased by the physical sheath, interpenetrating it and transcending it are the three layers of the subtle body: the pranamaya kosha, or vital energy sheath; the manomaya kosha, or mental sheath; and the vijnanamaya kosha, or wisdom sheath. Deeper than these is the anandamaya kosha, the bliss sheath. According to the sages of yoga, any real answer to the questions “Who am I, really?” or “What is the meaning of my life?” involves looking into these sheaths, which are also called “bodies” or “selves.” To be fully empowered by who you are means that you must bring all of these sheaths online, as it were. And this takes practice. Although all your sheaths are “firing” at all times, most of us have easy, conscious access to only one or two. For instance, though you probably describe yourself largely in terms of a physical sheath— defining yourself as fat or thin, strong or weak, good looking or unattractive—you spend much more time in the mental sheath, caught up in thoughts and other forms of mental activity. Once you’ve learned to recognize how it feels to be “in” one of these sheaths rather than another, you not only have an expanded sense of self but you also have far more power over your choices and your reactions to events.”

I feel like for most of my life I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time in my manomaya kosha, or mental sheath. But since starting yoga teacher training, I’ve been able to visit the vijnanamaya kosha, or wisdom sheath, more often. Here’s more from Yoga Journal about manomaya kosha:

“If some of the thoughts in the manomaya kosha are like bubbles in the ocean, others are like tides and have a stronger hold. The deeper levels of the manomaya kosha contain the powerful mental structures formed by the beliefs, opinions, and assumptions that you’ve absorbed from your family and culture as well as from your accumulated mental patterns. Called samskaras in Sanskrit, these deep thought grooves in the mental body cause your perceptions of yourself and your life to run in certain fixed patterns. When you examine the contents of the manomaya kosha closely, you can often see these patterns, which take the form of repetitive thoughts like “This isn’t how things should be” or “I’m not good enough.” Samskaras not only color your experience but also help shape it, which is why one of the most effective practices is to notice and question the “stories” that, without conscious prompting, run through your mind over and over again.

With meditation and self reflection, I’ve been able to see that I am not my thoughts or stories. When I start to think or do something in a particular way that is more harmful than helpful, such as judging my body or reaching for wine when I’m stressed out, I can immediately see it and choose to pause and notice, and either stop the behaviour or follow through while watching myself do it knowing it’s harmful. The more I practice this–being in my vijnanamaya kosha, or wisdom body–the less I perform the behaviour.

Even though attending the studio so many hours a week is tiring, it’s also incredibly rejuvenating. Every weekend feels like I’m on a mini retreat, and each Monday I come back to work and life feeling more relaxed and more confident–which would have been been the case today as well, except I’m home sick with a nasty head cold 🙁

Which mind-bodies do you spend most of your time? How you ever watched yourself watching yourself?