A Case for Yoga

By Monique Parker

Yoga is being used therapeutically in conjunction with modern medicine today to aid in a variety of physical conditions and psychological problems. Research reveals that practicing yoga regularly helps to reduce high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels. Yoga can even assist in the absorption of prescription medication, so that it can work more effectively.

When the physical exercises or asanas are combined with breathing exercises or pranayama, meditation, and a proper, well-balanced diet, the body’s physiological systems stabilize. The endocrine system—the thyroid, parathyroid, and thymus glands—normalize. Assimilation and digestion improves. Respiratory rate increases. Circulation and cardiovascular efficiency improves. Generally, your energy levels are higher.

From a physical and structural perspective, yoga improves both musculoskeletal strength and flexibility. Joint range of motion increases. Muscular asymmetry rebalances. Posture improves.

Yoga also has a huge advantage in that it directly and positively affects well-being and mood stability since breath regulation and focused concentration enhances one’s ability to cope with stress. There’s also more alpha and theta brain wave activity (which occur when we are relaxed and calm). As a result, you feel more alive, peaceful, and optimistic. Even sleep improves.

Yoga for Svastha

The Sanskrit word svastha is derived from two roots, sva meaning “self”, and stha meaning “to stay”. Thus, the goal of yoga is to stay as one’s self. As a practice you show up to your exercise-pranayama-meditation in order to 1) remind yourself to stay present in the moment, and 2) bring yourself back into harmony with nature and yourself.

Whenever you invest more energy in activities, work, and other people than you get back, you operate at a deficit. This state of imbalance leads to degeneration rather than regeneration. As well, because of the constant pull of gravity, our vital pranic life force flows in only one direction causing the stagnation of chi and results in high blood pressure, slipped disks, back ache, hernia, and other health issues.

That’s where yoga comes in as a healing modality. When practiced regularly, yoga brings about balance: structurally, physiologically, and mentally.  Here are some helpful tips for incorporating this ancient science into your life, today.

Tips for Starting Yoga

Find a teacher. Get direction from an experienced and certified yoga therapist or instructor. Guidance from a qualified professional will not only help you to feel better, but also help you to avoid injury or exacerbating a pre-existing condition.

Look around you. Increase your awareness by learning to pay attention to your body and how stimuli and certain activities affect your sense of well-being. Practice unplugging from brainless, instant gratification activities: TV, Internet, boredom eating. Notice the world around you: the wind, the shape of the mountains, how the body relaxes when exposed to the warmth of the sun.

Start small. Don’t overcommit. If you do less, on a more consistent basis, your body will more quickly regenerate. As with any resolution, habits form after around 30 days. You’ll have a better chance of sticking to a routine performed daily for 20 minutes than once a week for ninety minutes.

Join a class. A structured yoga class is beneficial because of the strong social support. If you are someone who needs people—and who doesn’t?—find a class that meets several times a week. Many teachers are trained to offer modifications for participants at varying levels of experience.

Be gentle with yourself. When we practice self-acceptance versus competition, we experience life in a way that nourishes rather than promotes conflict, both internally and externally.

The best news is that every step you take to improve your health will have a noticeably positive impact on the path of yoga.

**First published in The Taos News on May 23, 2013

 

 

 

 

Greetings From India

Monique Parker with a child whose family made the pilgrimage to the Meenakshi Temple in Maduri, India.

By Monique Parker, E-RYT

I will soon return to my little adobe abode in New Mexico after having been in India for seven long weeks, studying yoga darsana (the philosophy of yoga) with my teachers, traveling with friends, enduring illness, and finally, receiving two weeks of authentic Ayurvedic treatments (yoga’s sister science of healing).

As I prepare for my journey I cannot help but think about the re-entry shock I will likely experience when I am greeted by family, students, friends—who will welcome me home as only Westerners know how: with extended handshakes, back slaps, and bear hugs.

Those who have studied yoga may offer a sacred salute that allows for touch of a different nature—of the heart. That is one of the things I will miss most about this strange and exotic land: the sincere gesture of two hands clasped together in prayer near the heart and a gently bowed head, often accompanied by the word: “Namaste”.

In India one encounters this warm salutation—from children and elderly, between friends, on sculptures and in art, in classical dance performances, even on mannequins displaying the latest fashions!

Martha Flanders with Namaskar mannequins outside of a fabric store in Pondicherry

This universal gesture of bringing the hands together in prayer is called “anjali mudra”. The word anjali means “two handfuls”—cupped hands gingerly holding something sacred within. It is one of thousands of symbolic hand gestures or “mudras” used throughout Asia.

Liz Kruger at the Delhi airport. In the background a sculpture depicting the 12 asanas of Surya Namaskar or “sun salutations”.

 

 

To express a deeper sign of veneration, one brings the prayer to the forehead so the fingertips touch the brow or “third eye”. A third form of salutation brings the palms over the “crown chakra” or head, and is considered the highest forms of reverence. When my yoga teacher, A.G. Mohan, used to study with the legendary Sri T. Krishnamacharya he would raise the anjali mudra overhead and with humility, prostrate before his teacher.

Depending on the region of the Indian subcontinent, the non-verbal gesture of anjali mudra is frequently used in conjunction with the greeting “Namaste” or “Namaskaram”, “Namaskar,” or “Namaskara”, making it both a mantra and a mudra.

Monique Parker greeting new friends in the courtyard of the Meenakshi Temple.

Each of these variations come from Vedic literature and contains within it the mantra “namah”, which means, “not mine”, as in the diminishing of one’s own identity or ego. As such, it signifies a “letting go” or “surrender”.

In addition to the mantra “namah”, the word Namaste is also comprised of the root “namas” or “to bow” and “te” meaning “you”. Thus, “I bow to you”. The valediction has become popular in the West, where it is frequently used at the beginning and at the end of yoga classes.

Yoga teachers-in-training from the Czech Republic, UK, and Australia demonstrate postures incorporating prayer position during the Svastha Yoga training in Mamallapuram, India

By itself, anjali mudra is the heart of yoga practice. Prayer hands are used throughout “Surya Namaskar” or sun salutations, and it is incorporated into many asanas, such as Samasthiti (Equal standing pose) or Vrksasana (Tree pose) as a way to bring the practitioner’s focus back to center and to maintain an inner attitude of peace.

A.G.’s Mohan’s wife, Indra Mohan, who is also my teacher, says to think of the clasped palms as a heart lotus. “Always in the water, but never wet. Go through your life like the lotus leaf that floats in the water, but is not soaked. It is possible to stay afloat and not drown in life’s problems.”

Anjali mudra can be added to our daily lives to remind us of our inner poise, to help us shorten the divide between our outer and inner existence, to continually purify the mind and speech of negative thoughts, and to acknowledge the sacredness of all living beings.

Try it yourself, either as part of your prayers or spiritual discipline. Try it the next time you do yoga. Try it when you greet your neighbor or run into someone you haven’t seen in years. If you happen to recognize me—even if we are strangers—offer a “Namaste” or “Namaskaram”, and I will happily return the gesture and opportunity to share in our humanity.

A Hindu family visiting the famed Meenakshi Temple in Madurai

Here’s how: Bring your hands together at the heart center or midline. Instead of flattening or pressing the palms together, keep the fingers and palms slightly flexed as if you are holding something delicate inside your lotus bud. Then lower your head and envision the qualities that your personal deity or representation of the Divine possesses, whether it is Christ, Buddha, Krishna, or even nature—and observe the shift that happens inside you. When the body and mind are focused in such a way, you can begin to attune to your true self.

*First published in The Taos News on January 26, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

Yoga de Chimayo: A Pilgrimage for Health

By Monique Parker, E-RYT

I was born in East Los Angeles, California in 1968 and lived in a house on East 4th Street where my grandmother was born. Both sets of my great-grand parents were Polish Russian immigrants; my family was among a handful of Caucasians in a low-income Hispanic neighborhood. We were non-practicing Judios. My grandmother used to say that we “stood out like a fly in a glass of milk”, which was something to be proud of—being a minority in a predominantly Catholic community that not only tolerated our differences, but warmly accepted us as “uno mas”.

My fondest memories were imprinted during that time: pinata birthday parties at the Jimenez home next door, walks with my grandfather to the raspada stand on the corner of 3rd and Indiana or to pick up homemade tamales from Segovia’s Market, the energy of the Spanish language rolling off our neighbors’ tongues, crowing roosters at the break of dawn, and everywhere impressionable images—carved wooden crucifixes, praying hands adorned with rosaries, porcelain angels, and of course, the tranquil and haunting gaze of Christ.

Although my family relocated to San Jose when I turned five, my grandparents remained in that house until my grandmother’s death in 1990. Every year my family would make bi-annual pilgrimages to East Los Angeles to visit my grandparents, where I rekindled my affinity for the familiar.

When I moved to Northern New Mexico eight years ago, it felt like a return to my East Los Angeles roots. The signage at the border, “Bienvenidos a Nuevo Mexico!” was music to my ears, as was the welcoming hospitality of the locals.

I have been fortunate to serve the community as an instructor of English Composition and Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico-Taos, where three years ago I co-founded a 200-hour yoga teacher certification program. This year we certified our first seven yoga teachers in accordance with Yoga Alliance, the standards board of yoga based in Washington, DC. This fulfills one of my dreams: to share this time-tested ancient wisdom for attaining physical well-being and peace of mind with villages throughout New Mexico. For those unfamiliar with yoga’s roots, yoga is a vehicle for personal change and is traditionally practiced for self-realization. Yoga is in religion, but religion is not in yoga, which makes it an ideal methodology for any faith.

Archway at El Santuario

It is by coincidence then that my firstcolumn on yogaand wellness corresponds with my first pilgrimage to the holy village of Chimayo. The primary reason: to visit Sharon Candelario’s new yoga studio, Chimayo Sacred Earth Yoga, and to meet her family, who have for generations cultivated the land and who have made significant contributions to the chapels. I had heard that over a quarter million people made the journey to visit El Santuario each year, but I had no idea the impact the little shrine, her family, and specifically, the presence of the Almighty would have on my heart.

On October 9, 2011, Candelario, who has a master’s degree in social work, became UNM-Taos’ seventh certified yoga teacher. A week later I visited with her and her family, who welcomed me into their homes and shops. Sharon escorted me around the manicured grounds and through the chapels, sharing anecdotes and history before leaving me to pray. For the first time since my childhood in East LA, I felt like I let Jesus into my heart.

Lady Gaudalupe mural on Medina Gallery

Later that evening we shared chicken tamales from Leona’s Resturante de Chimayo. It would be Leona’s last weekend after forty years of cooking for hungry visitors. Then I taught Sharon’s three children a chant and some asanas or yoga postures. Her daughter Monique, my namesake, accidently spit in my eye while I balanced her petite body overhead. Although Sharon and her husband Adam were embarrassed by our silliness, I could not help but find the incidence apropos. Like Jesus who had spit into the eye of a blind man in order to heal him, I felt as if I could see more clearly—as though I was observing not just with my eyes, but with my whole heart.

Candelario was born and raised in the placita of El Potrero, the heart of the two famous chapels: El Santuario, and El Santo Nino, which was built by her father’s grandfather Sevriano Medina. When she was a child, her grandmother Sofia spoke of Chimayo as being made of tierra bendita, or holy dirt. It was especially good for cultivating the land; her grandmother and father grew beautiful gardens of chile, of which Chimayo is equally famous. Tewa Indians once occupied the land and called Chimayo “Tesmayo”, meaning flaking stone, or sacred earth. They believed that the earth had medicinal purposes used for healing.

El Santuario de Chimayo

From a young age Candelario would greet traveling friends in search of peace or a miracle. Raised Catholic, she attended weekly mass at the chapel. This year during Lent she promised herself that she would attend mass all forty days. “I completed the forty days of Lent, and believe it or not, I worked on meditation and breathing while sitting quietly during mass,” Candelario said. When she walked into the chapel a sign overhead read: Jesus brings peace of mind and heart. It was at that moment that she realized her intention was to create a community of health in Chimayo.

“It wasn’t until I was finishing the requirements for the teacher training that it all fell together,” she said. “I was still searching for the Divine to provide a space when my father offered a property near my house that would provide a quiet getaway to teach yoga. I painted, landscaped, and prepared in the early mornings before the children awoke. That’s when the name Chimayo Sacred Earth Yoga for Peace of Heart, Mind, and Body came to me.”

The Medina Gallery, Cafe & Chili Shop

It was important that Candelario create a yoga studio where others could experience the tranquil beauty of Chimayo that she and her family knew as home. Her family owns and operates Medina’s Gallery, Cafe, & Chile Shop, where for many years they have shared the traditions of their heritage.

Sharon Candelario outside her new yoga studio in Chimayo, NM

“Yoga is a practice to quiet the mind. It is a way to set aside a special time to sit quietly and make a connection to the Divine,” she said. “Just like our beautiful chapels and shrines, you don’t need to be of any specific religion to experience God’s love. He does not discriminate between persons rich or poor, regardless of religion or faith.”

Candelario offers group classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9am and 6pm, and is available for private instruction. For more info contact Sharon at: chimayosacredearthyoga@gmail.com.

*First published in The Taos News on November 17, 2011

Photos by Peter Morley