Walk Slowly

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Walk Slowly

It only takes a reminder to breathe,
a moment to be still, and just like that,
something in me settles, softens, makes
space for imperfection. The harsh voice
of judgment drops to a whisper and I
remember again that life isn’t a relay
race; that we will all cross the finish
line; that waking up to life is what we
were born for. As many times as I
forget, catch myself charging forward
without even knowing where I’m going,
that many times I can make the choice
to stop, to breathe, and be, and walk
slowly into the mystery.
-Danna Faulds

This is a poem I like to read in my classes, especially during savasana. It reminds me of an assignment I had in yoga therapy training when I was asked to differentiate between “holding space” and “making something happen”. This question resulted in a lot of contemplation for me…

Have you ever had a situation where you thought something should or would be a certain way and you get caught up in making it happen that way? It could be anything – a project, a relationship, a yoga pose, and looking back you realize the whole process was a fight upstream, one-sided, and sometimes resulted in an undesirable outcome. When we try to make something happen we might force the situation or rush the process, and once caught up in the momentum, we fail to be present and miss what is actually happening around us.

How do we prevent this from happening? It’s about presence: slowing down our way of being enough so that there is space to recognize what is happening in the present moment (in our minds, in our bodies, and in our environment). It is about cultivating a state of mindfulness in our thoughts, actions and interactions. Take for example, in class, when we slow down our movements and transitions, and move into postures without the need to rush, push or control, then we can discern the right amount effort and stretch that serves us in the moment. When we rush or force our poses to make them be a certain way, we run the risk of doing ourselves harm.

It’s also about recognizing our attachment to outcome or expectations. Expectations set up our minds for rigidity and narrowed focus; it sets us up for hurried behaviour, and disappointment. Expectations leave us with no room to enjoy the process or see alternate paths and possibilities, and leave us unable to recognize when the experience is going completely in a different direction than imagined. We might expect that we should be able to do a yoga pose as far as the person next to us in class even though our body is telling us otherwise, but force ourselves to do it, and to what end… injury?

A red-flag word to be aware of is “should”. Whenever you hear yourself saying something “should” be a certain way, then you are caught up in an agenda, expectation and making something happen. Even the most well-intended plan can turn upside down and take on a life of its own. Imagine, as a yoga therapist, I expect my client, whom I’ve been working with for some time, should be ready to move onto the next level, but even though the signs are not there that she’s ready, I challenge her to a new level anyways. Not only could she fail, but it could also take her backwards in her progress. Charging ahead, despite the good intention of the plan (to help the client grow and improve), will not change reality that she’s not ready. By pausing, and acknowledging what is really happening for my client I  actually serve her (and myself) better.

At a deeper level, “making something happen” can also be about feeling vulnerable without the safety of a well-defined plan. Some of us are planners, and outlining how things should go in our minds gives us a sense of security and makes us feel like we are preventing disaster. However, there comes a time in our training and maturity in life where we need to lessen our grip a little – we need to trust ourselves to make good decisions within the moment. As a teacher, over the years, I have come to realize that having a class plan is helpful, and sometimes I use it, but the majority of the time this class plan gets adapted as I teach from the needs of the students who show up that day (and I always find these are the best classes in the end). Accepting the uncertainty of the next moment can be scary, but it’s the way we grow.

Slowing ourselves down, and being present or mindful helps us see clearly both in what is actually happening around us and how we are relating to the experience at hand. In this way we are holding space, and we can catch ourselves when we enter these controlling, “make it happen” moments. We then have the opportunity to shake ourselves free of our expectations, projected agendas, and sometimes even challenge our insecurities and fears. It’s as the poem says, “make the choice to stop, breathe, and be, and walk slowly into the mystery”.

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Yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind…

Have you ever done a yoga class and somewhere along the way you realize (maybe at the end during savasana) that you feel more calm, connected with your body, and relaxed compared to when you first arrived. You might also notice the busy mind chatter has dulled and there is some distance between you and your reflexive thoughts. If yes, then you’ll understand what I mean when I say yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind, and by this very nature, you’ve experienced entering into a deeper level of awareness through the experience of yoga. One could even say you’ve dropped into a “meditative state”.

There are a couple aspects of yoga that assist in the process of experiencing this calm, more peaceful state. When you move your body and get the muscles warmed, stretched, and the circulation flowing, this eases tension and pain, resulting in less distracting sensations to attend to. It’s also the mindfulness aspect – paying attention to sensation in body and breath, from moment to moment. This keeps the mind anchored to the present moment, which stills the mind chatter.

When we drop into this more meditative-like state in the mind, we are not actually stopping thoughts from occurring. Rather we enter a different state of awareness where the thoughts feel more distant – we are less attached to them and their meaning.  A nice parallel is to imagine the reflexive thoughts of the mind to be like waves on the surface of the ocean. When we are swimming on the surface, the waves push us around, lifting us to their peaks and dropping us into their valleys. When we are connected and calm, we can drop into that deeper water space where everything is still and peaceful… And in this place, we are able to see the thoughts for what they are – surface waves.

I have always found the transcendence into this calmer level of awareness easier to access by doing a little yoga first. In fact one could say the very purpose of physical yoga is to ready oneself for meditation. So the next time you are on your mat, soak up the stillness you’ve created within – lay still and linger in this experience. This short few minutes will leave you feeling focused, connected, and calm.

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A Meditation to Still the Mind

This easy meditation uses repetition of linguistic sound to bring focus and stillness to the mind. All you need to do is choose a word or phrase that does not hold any strong association or memory for you. For example you could use a sanskrit term such as Sat Nam (meaning truth is my identity) or So Hum (meaning, “I am that”, where “that” refers to all of creation). You could also use a familiar word like “gratitude” or “peaceful”, but make sure the word you choose doesn’t conjure up strong memory associations which could pull you away from the task.

The task is simple – find a quiet comfortable place to sit and set your timer (5 to 10 minutes to start with). Close your eyes and take a couple full breaths to settle in, then begin repeating your word inwardly to yourself. Continue to repeat your word at the pace that is comfortable for you and focus your mind on hearing the sound of the word. If you notice the repetition of saying the word slows down, let this happen. As you notice thoughts pop up in your mind, let them come and go and continue to focus on repeating your word.

Over time you might notice that your mind starts to feel a little more detached and calm, and you may be able to drop behind the word sound to a place of quiet stillness in your mind, much like finding the calm, deep waters below the surface waves in an ocean. If and when this happens you can let your task of repeating your word drift off and you can rest in this place of relaxed awareness. Let thoughts ripple on the surface without intruding the quiet peace within.  Continue this until your timer goes off. Come back feeling connected, calm and focused.

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Belly Breathing to Relax You

130122-022Feeling stressed or anxious? Here’s something to try
Breath work (known as pranayama in yoga) is a very effective way to reduce stress and anxiety, and calm a turbulent mind. Conscious breathing works by stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), and by helping your sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight) to become more flexible. This flexibility is essential to turning off the stress response when it’s not needed.

Here’s a simple, effective practice to get these results:
Lay on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor (or put a pillow under your knees). Rest your hands on your belly, just beneath your front ribs. As you breathe in and out through your nose (lips together but jaw relaxed) attempt to fill your belly into your hands and then gently relax your belly down as you exhale. As you practice this belly-filling breath, count how many seconds it takes for your inhale and how many seconds for your exhale. After a few breaths, see if you can get your exhales to last a little bit longer than your inhales… the hope is to gradually slow your breath, with extra emphasis on slowing the exhales.

Set a timer for 5 minutes to start, or just breath for as long as you need, in order to feel more calm and peaceful. The more often you practice, the more results you’ll feel. Remember to also practice patience and be gentle and kind with yourself. One conscious breath at a time.

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A Modified Sun Salutation (video)

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Ask any yoga teacher about their background in learning flow (vinyasa) yoga and they will likely refer to the sun salutations as where it started. For many of us, the sun salutation (whether it be the traditional hatha sun salutation or the ashtanga based variation of Surya Namaskar A), was our first experience of sequenced movement linked with breath. Consequently a lot of the vinyasa based classes utilize moves from the sun salutations as the backbone from which other sequences branch from. However, in the context of all things taught in yoga, I personally consider sun salutations to be one of the more advanced things to learn, and biomechanically it has some risks for some individuals and the novice student.

In consideration of Surya Namaskar A (as it is the more popular of the sun salutations in flow classes these days), a major concern is the repetition of forward bends, with straight legs, from standing. When you consider that at least 50% of us strain to touch our toes due to tight posterior leg muscles, it lends that many of us compensate forward bending by flexing the spine (thoracic, lumbar, and sacrum regions), and too much of this can lead to injury in the ligaments and discs of the spine.

Another strong consideration of safety in Surya Namaskar A is the transition from plank to four-limbed staff pose and then into upward facing dog. Transitioning between these postures requires a great amount of core and scapular/shoulder stability strength. For many of us moving from plank to upward facing dog without adequate shoulder strength could result in straining of the rotator cuff. Also upward facing dog imposes a great deal of lumbar extension and makes it harder to access the core stability strength required to stabilize through the lumbar spine – another potential risk zone for injury.

Jump backs and forward hops in the transition from standing bend to downward dog and back is another advanced piece to Surya Namaskar A that many people would struggle to do safely, if at all. The dynamic nature of this move requires a tremendous amount of stability control through the core muscles, shoulders, and arms. As well, the movement of hopping feet forward to hands is anatomically awkward to some individuals for reasons such as hip and knee inflexibility or abdominal and chest girth. So if you are new to sun salutations, it’s comforting to know these jumps are totally optional and easily modified.

In the video below I demonstrate how to modify Surya Namaskar A to reduce the risks mentioned above. For example you will see I bend my knees in and out of the forward bends, step backs instead of jump backs, slower pacing with the breath sequencing, plank lowering from the knees instead of the toes, and the use of the lower cobra pose instead of upward facing dog.

Please note – having modified some of the risk zones of the original sun salutation, still does not make this a beginner sequence. The truth of the matter is that it’s not just about your experience level in yoga that makes this modified version applicable. Some of us, no matter our years of experience with yoga, may not be comfortable doing the full version (consider old injuries, arthritis, unique anatomies), while others may be physically fit from prior athletic training and have no difficulty doing the full version right away. So whether you are new to yoga, a seasoned yogi, or just needing a gradual start, this video demonstrates a safer, more accessible version to try. (This modified sequence also serves as a nice way to warm up into the full version).

 

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An Essay on Acceptance

WELCOME TO-2I recently taught a class with with a theme of acceptance. This is not a new theme to me (nor the yoga industry), but one I like to revisit because I’ve always found the topic to be quite transformative. Acceptance is a precondition for growth and healing and thanks to a lovely student of mine I have had a couple of new realizations on this topic.

You never know what will show up during a mindful yoga practice, and sometimes you will come across difficult realizations. Deep in a pose, you suddenly realize something about yourself, or something about your life that you do not like. It could be an imperfection in the way you move and feel, an awareness of a strained relationship, an internal unrest about something in your life, or the surfacing of deep and painful emotion. Contemplating acceptance around such difficult realizations, doesn’t mean we have to like or agree with it, and it is not the same as surrender or sacrifice (nor is it about resignation or giving up). Rather, it’s about acknowledging reality as it is right now. Acceptance is an allowing, not about shutting things out, and our yoga becomes a practice of seeing things as they are difficult or not.

To fully embody this understanding, consider the opposite. When we don’t accept difficult realizations that bubble up, then we avoid, we tense, we resist, we force – essentially we don’t see clearly, and therefore delude reality. A deluded reality eventually catches up with us, prolonging the inevitable of what we must face. A deluded reality is also not a solid foundation from which to work from. How can we ever truly change without a solid base? Like points on a map, when a destination is known, how can you find your way without knowing where you are right now?

That student of mine that brought this all forward for me had come to the realization during one of my classes that she had a toxic relationship in her life and years of not accepting it was taking a toll on her on well being.  Realizing and accepting the nature of this relationship meant she could move forward and change the nature of it.  Without this acknowledgment it would be impossible to set the boundaries and expectations necessary for positive change.

Applying the practice of acceptance in relation to growth and healing is palatable with those things in our life where there is possibility of change, but what about those things in our life which hold no possibility of change, those things outside our control? There are times when the awareness itself is unacceptable… the untimely loss of a loved one comes to mind. In these moments, sometimes all we can do is accept the unacceptable. Within these moments, acknowledgement of “what is” allows a new way of being to emerge – not necessarily unscarred or liberated, but just new.

“Grieve. so that you can be free to feel something else”.  (Nayyira Waheed)

Whether it is on or off our mats, when we are bearing our authentic selves, our heaviest emotions, and acknowledging our messy, imperfect bits, it can be hard, but no one said this would be an essay on easy. The question becomes, with whatever is showing up for you, can you greet it with eyes wide open and with no expectation to be liked? Within this lies the difference to true healing and change: that solid foundation of seeing clearly and all that it has to offer.

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On the Other Side of Fear

170121-026-2Jump back a couple years ago and this was me doing Ustrasana, camel pose. Due to a long standing neck injury, and subsequent weakness, the neck extension in camel pose was most frightening for me. I was convinced my neck would never be able to extend that way, and if I did try, I would suffer for days with neck pain. So for a very long time I did my modified camel pose with head lifted and neck protected (and that was okay).

But one day I decided to test my neck and extend it backwards a little. Surprisingly it didn’t hurt, and interestingly, it felt freeing and exciting. Within one week of practice I was embracing camel pose in its full form, and I couldn’t get enough. I wondered, “Why did I wait so long?”170121-033-2

This is often the question we ask ourselves once we’ve taken the leap and felt the success… but as they say hindsight is 20/20. The truth is that there is often that unrelenting voice of fear in the background, “What if I fail?”, “What if I’m not good enough?”, or in yoga, “What if I hurt myself?”

The fear of failure is something many of us struggle with. And, sometimes these fears are grounded in good concern, such as when our actions could jeopardize the security, health, and safety of ourselves and others (so, we reason, treading the waters cautiously is a wise choice). However, just as often, our fears are more irrational – based on old, untrue, or unknown beliefs, and it is simply the fear of the unknown that holds us back.

Being on the other side of my camel-pose fear, I’ve become more aware of how time changes things and that what was once true doesn’t mean that it will always be true. I’ve opened my mind (and body) to experimenting with old limitations and beliefs of what I can do physically. I recently created a list of edgy poses I want to work on, and I’m finding the process of challenging my fears getting easier.

I find myself using these successes on the mat as safe ways to stretch my risk-taking muscles and challenge my beliefs about myself, my abilities, and what I can accomplish in life off the mat – each success or failure, a step in building my personal confidence that I am able, that I will be okay, and that I am resilient. I am learning more and more about my conditioned fears based on past experiences and how untrue they can sometimes be for future experiences. I am learning sometimes that I have to push my comfort zone in order to move forward in my personal goals and achievements.

I know this idea of taking risks and pushing past our fears is not a new concept for most of us, but I do marvel in how often we can be aware of this concept, and yet be relatively unaware of that which we are avoiding in our own lives. So if this resonates with you, take a moment and pause to consider, what in your own yoga practice or life scares you a little? What are you avoiding and what stories are you telling yourself about this fear? Is it time to challenge these beliefs… is it time to take the leap?

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Self Compassion, the Sister of Mindfulness

studio-interior-3In teaching yoga, I am often cueing my students to tune into their inner landscape and become more aware of their thoughts, sensations, and emotions during class. This is mindfulness, and as practitioners of yoga we have this rich opportunity, through our bodies, to become more mindful of the flow of thoughts, sensations, and emotions within.

Looking at my thoughts has been one of the most interesting pieces to my own practice… it has revealed patterns in my thinking. I’ve come to realize that often I am caught in cycles of repeated worries, comparing, doubting and self-criticism. And in times of stress, I find myself obsessing about possible future scenarios, stuck in fear-based thinking.

I’m not proud to admit that so many self-degrading and worrisome thoughts are cycling through my mind at any given time, but essentially, this is the practice… it is through mindfulness that I can shine the light of awareness on my habits and reveal my blindspots.

I realize, however, that being mindful has taken me only so far in my progress. Mindfulness asks only that you witness the thoughts with detached awareness. This is all fine – to become aware that you have a certain thought or feeling, but to create change in times of suffering, self-compassion needs to accompany mindfulness.

So what is self compassion? In its definition, it is simply the practice of speaking to yourself and treating yourself with kindness, caring, and acceptance. Or, better yet, treating yourself in a way that you would want your loved ones to treat you.

To understand this sisterhood between mindfulness and self-compassion better, take for example when you are going through tough times and you find yourself stressed, anxious, and over-run with fear-based thoughts. We need both mindfulness and self-compassion to help ourselves ease the suffering. First we become aware of how our bodies and minds are responding to the stress. Then we take care of ourselves. Consider these points:

  • Mindfulness asks us, “What are we experiencing in this moment?” Self-compassion asks us, “What do we need now in this moment?”
  • Mindfulness is about accepting moment to moment experiences… this thought, this feeling, and so forth. Self-compassion is about accepting “the experiencer”.
  • Mindfulness says “feel your suffering with spacious awareness,” (i.e. can you make room for it, can you be with it?). Self-compassion says be kind to yourself when you suffer, and hold yourself in a loving embrace.

By breaking down this relationship between mindfulness and self-compassion, it becomes apparent to me that it is possible to be mindful and aware without compassion for oneself. And I realize this is the missing piece in my practice…which is why I suppose I find myself too often in a cycle of repeated thought pattern. Further, I am reminded that it is not so much about needing to change or fix in the moment, but to simply accept what is with loving kindness. It’s about learning to embrace our imperfections, and being more gentle with ourselves. Only then can we make room for change to happen.

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Gratitude Project to Improve your Health & Wellbeing

This holiday season I welcome you to join me on a quick and easy Gratitude Project for yourself. It only takes a few minutes of your day and research shows it is one of the easiest ways to improve your physical and psychological health.

A study done by Robert Emmons, one of the world’s leading gratitude researchers, found that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits including: stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, better sleep, higher levels of positive emotions such as optimism and happiness; they become more helpful, generous, and compassionate, and they experience less feelings of loneliness.

You might be wondering, how can something so simple be so effective? What the researchers found is that when we search for things to be grateful for, it activates the part of our brain that releases the feel-good hormone, dopamine, and it can also boost serotonin production, which helps to combat the effects of depression.

Also, gratitude can change our thinking habits. When we regularly spot the good things in our life, it makes it more likely that (even when we’re not looking for them) we see more positives. And, gratitude can help us feel more connected to others, which in turn can improve our well-being.

So if you are curious about giving this a try, here’s how you get started… For 10 days, near the end of your day, take 10 minutes to look back and reflect on all that you remember in your day and see if there is anything you feel grateful for; not what you think you “should” be grateful for, but what you really “feel” gratitude for. It can be small and simple things like the food you ate, conversations you had, or simply noticing something beautiful in your environment. List one to three things that stood out for you.

By the end of the 10 days, I’m betting you will notice it will spark something within you. You will likely be more aware during your day of making note of what is happening around you that you are grateful for… you will start to see things you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. It can shift how you look at the world and the moments in your day. And, at some point, you may begin to realize that it is within these moments that you will experience a lifetime of benefits.

Enjoy the journey and let me know how it goes!

P.S. Get you kids involved!

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Yoga for Foot and Calf Tightness

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This blog is for the person with tight calves, achilles tendons, and/or plantar fascia. If you suffer from pain, tension, or cramps in these areas this blog will provide you with some yoga moves to restore mobility and reduce your symptoms.

Start by rolling the feet (1 – 2 min/side). Press down into the ball and roll into all the tender areas. The spiky massage ball in the image below works great, but you can use any kind of firm, small ball, e.g. a tennis or lacrosse ball.

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Next take Warrior I pose. Step back into a lunge with the back foot turned out 45 degrees and the feet spaced hip distance apart. Firm the back leg to straighten the knee and press the back heel down. The front knee bends and both arms reaching overhead. Ensure that your pelvis is square to the front of your mat. Stay here for 4 breaths and repeat 2 times each side.

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161017-034Next take Downward Facing Dog. From an all four’s position, step your hands slightly forward from the line of your shoulders, spacing your hands shoulder distance apart and the fingers spread widely. Tuck your toes under and begin to lift your knees up sending your hips upwards. Then, slowly work towards straightening the legs and pressing your heels down towards the ground. Note that our focus is to feel a stretch for the lower leg, so it isn’t necessary to have the heels all the way down to the ground, only as low as it takes to feel the right amount of stretch. Once you are in a settled in position, stay for 4 or 5 breaths.

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Take a rest before this next one… Then return to down dog position and this time hook one foot behind the other ankle such that you are taking the weight through one leg, with the intention to press the one heel down towards for the floor for a deeper stretch. Pause here and breath for another 4 breaths each leg.

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Return to a kneeling position, tuck your toes under and sit upright. Here you will be resting your weight over your toes stretching the underside of the foot. Keep in mind this posture can be intense (and sometimes not possible if there is restriction in the knees), so build your tolerance gradually.

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Return to standing, for chair pose. Situate your feet hip distance apart and sit your hips back as if sitting down into an imaginary chair (watch that your knees do not bend forward past the front line of your toes). As you sit back keep your chest lifted, extend your arms forward (or overhead for a more advanced variation shown in picture 2) and then check in with your lower body. The aim is to feel grounded through all four corners of the feet and to keep the heels pressing down to the ground. Note the degree of knee bend will depend on how tight the lower leg is so work with keeping the heels down as priority over achieving a certain depth of bend. Try this pose a couple times for a length of 4 breaths.

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Lastly don’t forget to stretch your hamstrings! I’ve chosen head to knee pose in the image below since it addresses a stretch for the entire posterior kinetic chain. Although, if you suffer from any back injuries an alternative could be to lie on your back and extend a leg straight up. Enjoy a nice long stretch, a minute per side, breathing deeply and relaxing into the posture. studio-interior-2

Give this a try and let me know how it goes. I’d love to hear your comments or questions!

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