How Yoga Transforms My Mind, My Life

Katharine Egli Class in session at Taos Yoga Therapy with Monique Parker on Jan. 29.

Photo by Katharine Egli for The Taos News

Article by Monique Parker

To say that the practice of yoga has transformed my life would be an understatement. The truth is that it weren’t for yoga the long shadow that follows my life would never get illuminated.

You may know me or have heard my name (I own a yoga school and yoga therapy studio here in Taos). But what you don’t know is personal and close to my heart. And that is that yoga has and continues to help me understand and, more often then not, cope with the obstacles (physical, psychological, emotional, energetic—real and imagined) that trigger destructive behaviors that keep me stuck. In short, yoga saves my life—daily.

Early infant abandonment and domestic violence that included constant belittling and physical abuse left emotional and psychological scars in my mind— what are called “samskaras” (latent impressions or conditioning) in Raja Yoga.

As a result, I, like many adolescent girls, suffered from a lack of self-worth, chronic low-level depression, and negative body image. These issues persisted into adulthood, morphing into a myriad of forms: bulimia, unaccountable fear, anxiety, anger, shame, unhealthy relationships, insomnia, and high-functioning workaholism.

While not everyone who has endured a traumatic experience is scarred, everyone is shaped by our life experiences—for better or worse. These memories and experiences (samskaras) are stored in our minds, shaping our beliefs, habits, and behaviors. Thus, creating our reality.

Our conditioning afflicts our mind even if we’ve never personally experienced trauma. From a yogic perspective, our cumulative storehouse of life experiences on our subconscious and unconscious minds gives rise to a host of vrttis—thoughts and emotions such as desire, fear, negativity, greed, doubt, prejudice, sorrow, arrogance, jealousy, and self-delusion—that while are essentially part and parcel of being human, constantly give us false assumptions about ourselves and the world around us.

These false assumptions (e.g. “I am unworthy”, “so-and-so doesn’t love me”, “this situation will never change”, and “I am not fill-in-the-blank enough”) impact our health and well being on all levels: physically, emotionally, and psychologically. They reinforce our conditioning, which gives rise to similar thoughts and behaviors that contribute to our feeling “off” and somehow lacking.

Think of samskaras or latent impressions as bindweed, those invasive climbing vines that tightly wrap themselves around plants and other objects. Left uncontrolled, a single plant can spread out to 18 feet, their hardy roots penetrating a depth of 20 feet!

Your thoughts and behaviors, left unchecked, have a similar effect. Negativity, fear, contempt, envy, worry, and desire not only cover or veil our perceptions, they literally distribute more: more thoughts that keep us wanting or feeling stuck, more stress, more symptoms of dis-ease, more suffering.

Its no wonder bindweed is referred to as “Morning Glories”. For a majority of the population, upon waking in the morning, the mind is already rushing, worrying, feeling depressed for no reason, and bombarded with seemingly uncontrollable and incessant thoughts.

Luckily, these vine-like perennials bloom beautiful pink and white flowers. When the sun is out, the flowers open in the morning and close at dusk. But if the sky is overcast and gloomy, the blossoms remain closed, like the mind.

The mind is capable of rising above the clinging, suffocating qualities of delusion. Yoga, as one of the oldest tools of personal development, offers a myriad of practices, such as japa meditation (repeating a mantra or sacred words), pranayama (breathing exercises), and pratipaksha bhavanam (looking at thoughts or situation from another perspective) that weaken habits of thought and behavior and bring us closer to our best, most authentic self.

Published March 10, 2016 “Taos Woman” supplement in The Taos News

Mental Floss: The Secret of Yoga

Chanting the mantra Omnamah to steady and focus the mind

By Monique Parker, E-RYT

Every dentist on the planet advocates the use of dental floss to clean the teeth and reduce the risk of gingivitis. Yet the American Dental Association (ADA) reports that only 12% of Americans do so each day. Why so few, especially when we know that flossing is good for us?

Most everyone brushes, but doesn’t floss because it seems tedious and time-consuming even though a good flossing takes less than two minutes.  Those of us who make a habit of flossing not only have healthy gums, but also have stumbled upon a relic as old as the Vedas. And that is this: if you perform an action with regularity that is both healthy and positive, it eventually becomes habit-forming, whereas if you forget to do it, you actually miss its benefits.

What does this have to do with yoga? Everything.

Dental floss is to the teeth what mental floss is to the mind. Let me state it another way. Just as dental floss removes plaque buildup that causes cavities, mental floss cleans the debris (thoughts and emotions) that arise in the mind and which are responsible for our words and actions—most of which are compulsive.

It’s no wonder then that yoga is the oldest psychology on the planet. It’s primary aim as a methodology for self-realization is to help us get control of our thought processes so that we are not slaves to what runs through our mind on a regular basis.

If you think you are excluded, than I invite you to start paying attention to your thoughts as they arise during the day. The results may surprise you. There are millions of thoughts, and the majority of them happen involuntarily, just like breathing. All of us, no matter what age, sex, race, color, economic status, education, etc. are guilty of thoughts and feelings that are prejudice, fearful, egocentric, hurtful, and desirous.

My teacher, A.G. Mohan, is fond of saying, “Thinking is a behavior.”

Not only is thinking a behavior, it is THE behavior more than any other that effects us either for good or ill. Thinking determines how we treat ourselves. It is responsible for what comes out of our mouth, and conversely, what we put in our mouth. It is the source of our health or disease in relationships. And it is the root cause of all our happiness or unhappiness.

And yet, how do we clean the mind?

Yoga offers a tool, like dental floss, that when practiced daily leaves us feeling mentally clear, more discerning, and less reactive. I like to think of it as Jedi Warrior Mind Training: learning to harness the force within by concentrating the mind on a single object.

A mantra is a word, sound, syllable, or group of words that when recited, either aloud or silently, imposes a thought on the mind to the exclusion of other thoughts. Mantra also activates and accelerates the awakening of the divine spiritual force within. Originating from the Vedas, mantra yoga is the cornerstone of traditional yoga practice.

Mantra is Sanskrit for “mind protection”. The root “man” refers to mind, and “tra” to protection. Thus, we recite mantra to protect ourselves from our own minds.

A person who can exercise mental self-control to the point where they can consciously refrain themselves from gossiping, or saying something that may hurt someone else, or obsessing about a particular person or situation, is truly masterful. This individual has the key to peace of mind.

Here’s how to do it: Pick a word or sound that helps you relax. It could be “ma” as in “mother”—the one who is always there to support. Or it might be “amen”—so be it, or simply “Om”. I like to use “Om Namaha” which simply means “not mine” or “let go”. Every day recite your mantra…try it for just three to five minutes at first. Notice the mind’s tendency to wander. Keep bringing it back to the mantra.

During the day, if you get agitated or find yourself obsessing about something, stop and repeat the mantra. Do it in bed before you go to sleep. If you have mala or a rosary, say the mantra with each bead.

With practice the mind will quiet. In time, you will come to miss your mantra practice should you skip it. This mental floss is your prescription to experiencing the miles of peace already inside you.

*Published in The Taos News on May 10, 2012

Photos by John Fullbright

Take Back Your Mind Share

By Monique Parker, E-RYT

Like most kids growing up in the 70s and 80s, I was weaned on television and a smorgasbord of popular sitcoms. On any given night of the week my family tuned in to our favorite TV shows: The Love Boat, M.A.S.H., Happy Days, Taxi, and The Cosby Show.

Ask any American over the age of thirty-five and they will likely remember an episode from one of these sitcoms during this era. For this reason TV has left an indelible imprint on the collective consciousness, much as the Internet and cell phone apps have done over the last decade.

Although I have not watched television in over twenty-years, what enchanted me the most about it were the commercials. The clever jingles. The sixty-second storyboards. The unforgettable characters: Spuds Mckenzie and the Energizer Bunny. Wendy’s wildly popular and rhetorical question, “Where’s the Beef?” that former Vice President Walter Mondale borrowed during a 1984 democratic debate. And, of course, the humor. Specifically, the psychological effect that humor has on persuading consumers to buy.

Because of commercials, I had aspirations as a teenager of working in advertising. On Sunday mornings my mom used to cook a big breakfast, and I would use my captive audience to try out commercials I had created while my family ate together. “Pan in. Voice over,” I would say, peering at them through my finger framed camera.

I dreamt of moving to New York City where I would become a TV commercial writer. That fantasy ended when I realized that I didn’t want to sell dog food at the sixth grade comprehension level. Creative humor was one thing, but manipulating children and contributing to the illiteracy of our nation while making money for the powers that be was another thing altogether.

So instead I became a high tech copywriter in Silicon Valley and wrote about products whose technology I would never quite understand. If I thought writing at the sixth grade level was bad, this was worse. Tech writing was suffused with acronyms, annoying buzzwords, and overused jargon, such as “seamless”, “cutting edge”, and “solution”. As in TV advertising, the end goal was to capture MINDSHARE in the consumer’s psychology.

During this time I came to practice yoga, seeking relief from long hours sitting in front of the computer in a position I came to call “computerasana”. It was not uncommon for me to experience backaches, eyestrain, tight psoas muscles, poor posture, headaches, and digestive issues. Although I began studying yoga for its physical benefits, it is yoga’s contribution as a psychology that kept me committed to the discipline all these years.

Students quiet the mind in Monique Parker’s class at the AwarenessWorks Studio in El Prado, NM.

Yoga recognizes that the external world is not in our own hands. That the only thing that we can change is what happens inside of our own minds: how we think, what we say, and what we do. Most of the time we do not understand the source of our problems. But we react to them. We perpetuate them. And then we wonder why we are getting the same results.

Most of us are slaves to our own minds, and more specifically, to our senses. Advertisers recognize this. That is why they spend millions of dollars in order to dominate our psychology and congest our mind space with the presence of products and services that we don’t want or need, hence the term “mind share.”  This mass manipulation is happening on an even larger scale today with the prevalence of cell phones, the Internet, and the million and one stimuli vying for our attention.

This stimulus overload often leads to compulsive thoughts (I want more, better, different!), a chronically stressed state, and a perpetual seeking for something that will gratify us, if only for a little while.

The 5th limb of ashtanga yoga (meaning 8 limbs or eightfold path) is pratyahara, or the practice of withdrawing the senses. You don’t need to be on a yoga mat or in front of an altar to do this practice. It begins with where you put your attention.

If you suspect that you spend too much time in front of the TV, on the Internet, connected to an android phone, or in an environment that leaves you feeling depleted and agitated, than take some time to unplug. Draw your attention away from objects outside of yourself. To do this stop what you are doing, close your eyes, and watch your breath. When thoughts arise, simply allow them and re-direct your attention to your breath. Do this several times a day. This is the first step in taking back your mindshare.

*First published in The Taos News on April 19, 2012

Photos by John Fullbright