By Felicia M. Tomasko | photography by Andrew Purcell
Fluctuations in our moods, state of mind, and emotions are a normal part of life, particularly when trying to juggle the pressures of a full schedule. When we get busy, whether it is with holiday shopping, family obligations, pressures at work or even the fun of planning for a vacation, our body’s stress response can kick in. An overabundance of stress may lead to exhaustion and fatigue, as well as feelings of sadness or even unexplained despair.
Yoga, through breath, movement, and affirmation, provides a positive way to shift our mood. Yoga therapist, creative writer, and author of Yoga for Depression (Broadway, 2003) and the DVD LifeForce Yoga to Beat the Blues, Amy Weintraub has made it her life work to help other people experience how they may change their state of mind through practicing yoga.
Weintraub combines the three components of breath, movement, and affirmation to create an integrated practice that people can utilize anywhere: at home, while traveling, or during a break in the workday, to shift a state of mind.
Mantra, the Sanskrit word for a sound or prayer that has meaning, is the affirmation component. According to Weintraub, choosing a sound, word, or phrase that has meaning to you helps to integrate mind and body, and gives the mental chatter that makes up our thoughts a positive outlet. When we unite a posture and mantra, whether we repeat the vibration of a Sanskrit sound, English prayer, or affirmation, we solidify our intention.
The use of sound, particularly when spoken aloud, has a powerful connection to the breath. Weintraub finds that people who are new to yoga may have a shallow breath. Also, when we are under stress or when our mood is low, our breath may be more short and shallow. Speaking, chanting, or singing aloud, particularly a positive word or phrase, invigorates our breath and causes vibrations throughout our body. Weintraub explains that sound vibrates through our endocrine system as well as the subtle energy centers found in our bodies, known as the chakras. Chanting reminds us to take in an energizing deep breath and then to exhale slowly, creating a balanced state of mind.
The mood-balancing sequence Weintraub suggests includes the use of Sanskrit mantra; she also encourages people to find a sound that resonates personally. One positive affirmation Weintraub likes is “The healing energy of the universe supports me.” Remember to choose a word or phrase that is meaningful to you as you practice.
Weintraub calls the following floor sequence Flying Cow and adds some standing poses to root into the earth and stretch to the sky. Repeat the following sequence three to six times, depending on your individual capacity to practice and available time.
Since this sequence begins in a kneeling position and involves coming to the floor, place a folded blanket on top of your mat beneath your knees if you need additional support to practice the sequence comfortably.
After repeating the sequence, affirm your intention for your practice by stretching your arms up to the sky. Remind yourself why you practice with an affirmation of your choosing. “I accept the healing energy of the universe,” is one that Weintraub suggests.
Flying Cow Sequence
1. Flying Cow Upright
Come into an upright kneeling position with your knees hip-width apart. Inhale and raise your arms overhead. While stretching up to the sky smile into your heart and lift the corners of your mouth. Repeat a positive affirmation to accompany the movement, such as “I am strong and healthy.”
2. Extended Child’s Pose
As you exhale, chant the sounds “Ma Ha Ra” to activate your heart. While you are chanting, lower your forearms down to your mat and lift your hips and tailbone into the air for a transition to stretch the muscles along your spine and release the stress we tend to hold there. Pause and take an extra breath or two to enhance the stretch along your spine. Incorporate the chant and affirmation to continue to solidify your intention and enhance your practice. Then bow to the earth and slide your hips toward your heels for child’s pose.
3. Cow Stretch
Lift your body up from child’s pose with an inhalation; lift your hips and your arms to transition into a table position on your hands and knees. Allow your spine to sink to the earth as you lift your heart and slide your shoulders away from your ears. This pose helps to stretch the muscles along either side of the spine and release tension stored in the shoulders. Inhale with an affirmation on your mind, drawing your intention into your body as you take in your breath.
4. Cat to Child’s Pose
As you exhale, round your spine into cat pose (resembling the arched back of a Halloween cat) and then transition into child’s pose, sliding your hips toward your heels with your knees wide. Chant the soothing sound “Ma Ha Ya” as you surrender into yourself.
5. Downward Facing Dog to Mountain Pose
To transition, reach your arms forward of your shoulders and plant your hands on your mat with your fingers stretched wide as you exhale the soothing sound “Ma Ha Ya.” Continue into downward facing dog by curling your toes under and then begin to lift your hips and straighten your legs as much as is possible. Keep your knees bent if your hamstrings or low back feel tight. Take a couple of deep breaths here.
When you are ready to stand tall as a mountain, first bend your knees and walk your feet toward your hands. Plant the soles of your feet firmly on the earth, inhale and sweep your arms up toward the sky, carrying your intention from the earth to the sky to lift your body into mountain pose. Raise your arms overhead and repeat a positive affirmation such as “I am aligned with the healing energy of the universe.”
Exhale and draw the palms of your hands together in front of your heart in a prayer pose. Visualize something to uplift your spirits, a memory, a loved one’s face, a soothing scene. Breathe and repeat “So Ham,” which means, “I am that,” affirming your intention for balance, healing, and joy. Feel the steady, joyful connection to the earth.
Placing your palms of your hands together connects your heart and hands; metaphorically you’re asking for the energy of the universe to flow through you, to allow you to express your heart’s highest intention: joy.