Ahimsa, the first of the Yamas, translates to non-violence or non-harming, and is at first glance, obvious. It isn’t any mystery that in order to live at peace within our own conscience, and in the world, we should restrain from harming or violent behaviours. But there are more subtle layers to this Yama. Consider how we can hurt ourselves by working long hours and not taking care of our health, or how we can be violent onto ourselves in the negative, judgemental thoughts we say to ourselves many times a day. Sometimes it’s our lack of action that can be harming, such as choosing not to recycle or not following through on a promise. When considering Ahimsa in our lives we need to consider the whole picture of our actions and the impact they have both immediately and down the road.
To get started, it is helpful to consider the opposite of Ahimsa—kindness and peacefulness. So in every negative thought, attitude and interaction we have, we can ask ourselves how does this affect peacefulness in myself and others, and is it kind? For example, consider the rude driver who sweeps in and steals the parking space you’ve been patiently waiting for. Do you flip them the bird and shout obscenities? It’s tempting, but the spike in blood pressure, tension in your body, and the lingering feeling of agitation throughout your day, would argue otherwise. When we refrain from harming actions towards someone, it certainly brings benefit to the other person, but it karmically benefits you as well since how you treat others determines how much suffering you experience in the end. Even though the driver wasn’t kind to you, when you mirror the unkindness back, it has a ripple effect, surely to affect more negativity to you and others in your day.
This karmic relationship to Ahimsa can be even more significant when dealing with family or friends when you feel resentment towards them. Pause to consider how resentment develops from a history of negative interactions and how these past experiences are ultimately affecting your peacefulness today. This can be a tough pill to swallow when there is a lot of hurt… harbouring resentment towards another can come from a long history of really harmful behaviours, and it is within everyone’s right to say enough is enough, and I won’t be subjected to this behaviour anymore (that would be practicing Ahimsa onto yourself). However, often it is more subtle, and your feelings of resentment can come from a place of fear or vulnerability within yourself, and so you see each new interaction as a threat in some way, and sometimes it is just a threat to how your ego perceives yourself. So in practicing Ahimsa, whenever we feel that sense of resentment surfacing, we need to examine the situation for what it is in the moment. Are you resenting what is actually happening now or is your reaction based on a history of experiences that compounds the intensity? How do your negative thoughts towards that person affects your own inner peace in the moment? When you stop and examine the situation deeper and further, you can choose actions towards more kindness and peacefulness, by judging the moment for what it is now and not the past, and you are the one that will ultimately benefit in the end.
So whenever you recognize moments that take you out of your own peace and kindness, I encourage you to inquire a little deeper to the thoughts behind your thoughts, and the actions behind your actions. This will guide you on your choices and likely lead you to a more peaceful place of action. Practicing Ahimsa is sure to bring greater good to your relationships with others and all of nature, and ultimately, back around to yourself.
Modern yoga has many influences and interpretations, but in its origins, much of yoga’s wisdom is based off the Sanskrit manual, the Yoga Sutras, written prior to 400 CE by Sage Patanjali. It offers guidelines to have an enhanced and more fulfilled life emotionally, mentally, and physically. It outlines an eightfold path for self-transformation and realization through the practice of classical yoga.
If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while you would be familiar with some aspects of the path outlined in the Sutras such as the yoga postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), and meditation. However, you might not know much about the other steps, including the Yamas and Niyamas, which are ethical and core values to live by for a more harmonious and peaceful life (with yourself and in your relationships with others and all of nature).
The Yamas and Niyamas are not so much about strict “must do’s”, but rather a set of guidelines that when practiced encourage a more virtuous, contented, and spiritual life. The Yamas are divided into five categories and are concerned with restraining behaviours which produce suffering and difficulty, and to live more ethically. The Niyamas, also divided into five categories, are lifestyle observances to encourage behaviours that lead to greater happiness and ease.
Brahmacharya (energy moderation)
Tapas (self discipline)
Ishvara Pranidhana (self-surrender)
Online you can find many articles written on the Yamas and Niyamas since there are many ways in which we can interpret and practice these steps. Currently I’m in the process of reviewing them for my own study and I plan on sharing what I learn about each one from a practical point of view (both in class and in blogs). To get started I have a link to my first one: Ahimsa (non-violence/non-harming). If you are curious to learn more about this yoga wisdom please follow along!
Whether in yoga or simply standing and waiting, many of us have a habit of locking our knees. This is also referred to as hyperextending the knee joints, which is essentially pushing the knees back so far it reaches the end limit of the joint’s range of motion. Pushing the knee joint to this limit can place strain on the ligaments, tendons, and can also wear down the edges of the cartilage. Yet, when we lock our knees, there isn’t any pain, and in fact it feels effortless. This is because the damage to cause pain happens slowly overtime, and locking a joint actually requires less energy since there is less activation in the muscles than neutral posture – essentially we are riding on the structures of the joint to hold the position.
Locking the knees extends to a bigger picture of negatively affecting the whole body’s posture. When one area of the body is forced to an extreme, somewhere else in the body shifts to compensate to bring the balance back. When a person locks their knees in standing, this often forces the pelvis and spine to shift in posture. The image below shows two postural types that occur with locked knees: sway back posture and hyper-lordosis. Both can cause pain in the back (and neck) and eventually cause stress to the structures of the spine.
Unfortunately, locking the knees and the subsequent postural accommodations don’t just show themselves in standing still, they transfer to all our movements and activities, such as our yoga postures. Some commonly affected yoga postures are Triangle pose (Trikonasana) and the standing balance poses such as Tree (Vrksasana), and Dancer (Natarajasana) – see images below. By locking the knees in these postures, our alignment and safety is affected through the spine.
A Yoga Practice to Bring Awareness to Unlocking the Knees
Yoga provides us with a discipline from which we can learn to correct this habit and improve our posture. To bring more awareness to how we posture our knees start by practicing how you stand in Mountain Pose (Tadasana). In Mountain Pose, create a solid foundation in your feet: posture your feet straight ahead and ground evenly on all four corners of the foot. From your feet bring awareness to the posture of our knees, and if you feel them locked, practice generating a little give, or softness, to the joint (not bending, the legs still remain fairly straight). Then from the neutral knee posture notice how this affects your posture all the way up as you lift and lengthen.
Then choose a standing balance posture from which you can practice holding the knees in good posture, e.g. Tree or Warrior III (image above). As you challenge yourself on one leg you may realize that it’s not enough to feel softness at the knee joint, but also necessary to generate a sense of engagement of the posterior knee muscles to prevent the joint from pressing back.
Then practice Pyramid Pose (Parsvottanasa) with the focus on the front leg and the posture of the knee. As you enter the pose, find your base by grounding evenly and firmly through all sides of the front foot and gentle press the big toe mound into the ground. From there, feel the line of activation that travels up the back of the leg to behind the knee. You are aiming to have the front knee straight without locking, and see if you can sense the engagement in the posterior knee muscles at the same time. This pose is especially good because the posterior leg muscles are stretching, but we practice activating them in this lengthened position.
As we near spring some of my friends and yoga clients who love bike riding look forward to another season of getting outdoors. Cycling is excellent fitness; it can significantly improve cardiovascular health and develop leg strength. For those of you who ride often and enjoy longer distances, there is the concern, however, of developing tension in the back, hip, and leg muscles from the static forward leaning and hip-flexed posture. I have found yoga to be extremely helpful in bringing the body’s balance back. A routine that focuses on opening the front of the body, and especially the hip flexors, can ease this tension.
YOGA SEQUENCE TO EASE THE TENSION FROM RIDING
As a starting base to warm up the spine, complete a few rounds of Cat (top left) and Cow (top right) Pose. As you alternate between flexing and extending the spine, take note of the balance between these two motions and throughout the various segments of the spine. As you come across any area that feels restricted in the movement feel free to pause and hold the shape to deepen the experience into those areas.
2. Thigh Stretch
Next move to lying on your front (prone lying) and see if you are able to bend one knee and grab your foot to gently draw the heel towards your bum. If it is difficult to reach back and get a hold of your foot, you can use a yoga strap around your ankle to assist. It is important that when you come into the knee bend, the front of the hips don’t lift off the floor—you want to feel grounded through the front of the pelvis, especially on the side you are stretching. If you feel your front hip bones lifting off the floor, back out of the stretch a little and try engaging your abdominal muscles before bending your knee in. If this still doesn’t work, or if you feel any discomfort in your low back, you can do this thigh stretch lying on your side instead. Stay with the stretch for four slow breaths, and depending on the degree of tension you feel, consider doing each leg a second time.
3. Locust Pose
Next give Locust Pose a try. It is a great counteractive pose for riders as it strengthens the back extensor muscles (which may be over lengthened and/or weak from the forward leaning posture), and it opens the front body. In this pose you want to engage the back muscles to get a lift of both the upper and lower body, keeping in mind that the height of the lift is totally up to you based on comfort in the back. Also, as you lift the head and chest, let the arms come off the floor as well and draw the shoulder blades together (without shrugging the tops of the shoulders). The legs are lifting at the same time, aiming to get the knees just off the floor and creating a sense of lengthening in the body by stretching the legs back and reaching forward through the crown of the head. Try holding this pose for 3 – 4 slow breaths. As you develop your endurance for this posture, challenge yourself by staying a little longer and doing more repetitions. (Other back extensions such as cobra pose would be suitable here too).
For a progression from locust pose, you could build up to doing Bow Pose (right), which really opens all aspects of the front body. Keep in mind, this pose may be too aggressive for the individual with restricted range of motion in the hip flexors or anyone with a back condition compromising their spinal extension, e.g. stenosis. You should be able to do the thigh stretch and locust pose easefully before attempting this pose.
4. Puppy Pose
After the locust pose and Bow Pose, it tends to feel balancing to come back to kneeling and briefly stretch the back into the reverse motion. Often in class I’ll suggest doing another cat stretch or child’s pose.
For Puppy Pose (above), start on all four’s and walk the hands out in front for a long reach under the arms (hands shoulder with apart). You want to keep your hips stacked above the knees. Then let the head and chest relax downwards between the arms to feel the stretching under the arms, along the sides of the torso, and across the chest. Stay here for 3 – 4 slow breaths.
5. Kneeling Lunges
Onto the kneeling lunges—probably the most important aspect of this program in order to stretch the hip flexors. The kneeling lunges can be awkward and challenging when you first learn them, but well work the effort for cyclists! Keep in mind it is good to set yourself up for success by adding a little comfort and support in these poses. For instance, you can add padding under the knee on the floor and/or you could do these lunges beside a chair or bench to steady your balance.
First come into a high kneeling posture with one foot forward (image top left), and before you shift your hips forward into lunge, lengthen the low back by tilting the tail bone under (posterior pelvic tilt) and maintain this tilt as you lunge the hips forward (image top right). Make sure the front foot is far enough ahead that the knee lines up with the ankle below.
The second two lunges, from the images above, demonstrate additions to the basic lunge by reaching the outside arm overhead (image bottom left) and then revolving the body with one hand on the hip (image bottom right) to create greater lengthening down the lateral chain of muscles. On the revolved lunge, I rotate my trunk towards the front knee side and place my outside hand on a block. Instead of a block, you could reach your hand to the ground if this is comfortable for you, or for more height under the hand, you can rest your hand on the chair/bench. Stay in these lunge postures again for 3 – 4 slow breaths each.
6. Revolved Kneeling Lunge with Thigh Stretch
This posture is for those of you who are ready for a deeper release into the thigh and hip flexor. It is important that you can competently do the previous lunges before adding this one into your routine. With the revolved kneeling lunge, you reach back with the opposite hand to foot to add the knee bend while holding the lunge. In the image above, I am demonstrating with a block under my hand for some support and to lift in my posture.
7. Supine Hamstring Stretch
Finish on your back to stretch the hamstrings. In this pose I am demonstrating how you can use a yoga strap to assist the drawing in of the leg and use of the strap to dorsiflex the ankle (toes towards shin) for greater stretch into the lower leg (calf) muscles. Stay in the stretch for 3-4 slow breaths and do each leg once or twice depending on the level of tension you notice.
After completing the hamstring stretch, gently draw both knees towards the chest for a little hug, and then extend both legs out, arms at your sides to finish in Savasana, resting on the ground for however long feels good.
I hope this routine brings balance back into your body after those long rides and keeps your cycling pain free!
One of the popular classes I taught when I first opened the studio was Back Care Yoga. It was regularly well attended because back pain is so prevalent within our society—many of us will have troubles with our back at some point in our lives, and for many it can be a long battle with chronic pain and limitations. One of the reasons I took it off the class schedule was because I found myself conflicted knowing that not all back problem should be treated the same. This left me limiting the potential of some of the students (to err on the side of caution for those who’s condition demanded more restriction than others), and this left me feeling like I could do better for each participant.
Back pain can come from many sources. Within the spectrum of back problems causing pain and dysfunction, there are acute conditions and chronic conditions, which need to be managed differently. There are specific diagnoses, such as disc bulges/herniations or stenosis, which require their own understanding of movement limitations and treatment, while less-descript diagnoses may require less restriction and general reconditioning. There can also be a range of mechanical issues stemming from a variety of sources. For example, severe tightness in the surrounding muscles and fascia can impede functional movement and produce pain; or conversely, laxity and hypermobility of an area creates excessive movement, inflammation and pain. In these two conditions the treatment plan can literally be opposite—one needing more stretching the other needing more strengthening respectively.
Regardless of what is happening in your back, one thing is for certain, in all my years of working in the industry of physical therapy with people in pain, no two conditions are exactly the same, and the ‘one size fits all’ approach just doesn’t work. This is why I have decided to offer an educational workshop called Back Care Therapeutics where each participant will come away with a better understanding of their own unique condition so that he or she will better understand what is needed to improve their pain and function, but also have a clearer understanding of what they should avoid in yoga. This workshop will be offered in conjunction with a Back Care Yoga Series, which will allow for individual accommodations and pacing, and offer the participants an opportunity to practice what they have learned.
I am very excited about this new offering. Knowledge is power, and I truly believe, within every individual, she or he has the potential for healing themself, and yoga can an amazing tool to set you on this path.
Have you ever heard a yoga teacher say, “How you show up on your mat is how you show up in your life?” If you think about it, our personality, characteristics, habits and belief systems don’t just disappear when we walk into a yoga class, so likely, the way you are in life, is the way you practice yoga, and depending on what habits and characteristics show up, it can helpful or hindering to your yoga progress. Acknowledging this, and taking a step back to become more aware of how your personality shows up on your mat, is a powerful point of reflection from which you can learn and grow as an individual.
Consider these questions: Are you a very determined or disciplined person? Do you get frustrated and angry very easily? Do you need to do everything perfectly? Are you usually quite hard on yourself and always push yourself – or do you not push yourself at all? Do you avoid challenges or discomfort? Do you prefer activities that are slow moving and low energy? Are you open and expressive or are you withdrawn and quiet? These are just a few questions to get you thinking about your nature and how these characteristics affect your behaviour, preferences, and choices. Then consider how these tendencies might be showing up in your yoga practice – the style of class you choose, how you engage throughout the class, where you place your mat, and the thoughts that show up during the practice… When you begin to reflect on your patterns, it can lead to insights about how you approach and engage in life and maybe even why.
Consider this example: Sally is a high energy, physically strong person who craves challenges and likes constant stimulation. She gravitates to flow and power yoga classes with lots of movement and distraction. Sally is very motivated by extrinsic goals and competition and strives to perform poses a certain way. The teacher notices she is often over-tensing in her body and holding her breath and begins to offer her cues to provide internal reflection on these tendencies. As Sally begins to notice how her body and breath respond to her strong achieving mindset, she begins to notice connections such as feeling sore after class or over-stimulated rather than calm, and she begins to make connections about how her high-expectation thoughts for her own performance may not always benefit her improvement in yoga and overall health.
When one begins to make these connections about habits and preferences, we can use our yoga practice as a way to bring more balance into our life and begin practicing new ways of being. Because there are so many different styles of yoga and tools we can sample, it may be helpful to try the opposite of your “preferred” or “regular” style. That means slowing down and practicing gentleness if you are a go-go-go person who always pushes. Or, for those of you who are low energy and avoid new challenges, turn up the volume a bit and try crossing some boundaries.
In the case of Sally, she might choose a slow restorative or yin class, and by placing herself outside her norm, and listening to how her body and mind respond, new insights can arise. For example, she might notice feelings of impatience or agitation when staying still in longer poses or during silence. Or she might feel edgy when the poses feel too easy and there is little sensation. There is a good chance that these feelings on the mat can reveal lifelong patterns and beliefs she carries about herself and others, and with revelations such as these, she can then begin to ask herself why or where it came from. Within these questions and answers a whole universe of self-discovery can be possible.
Yoga can be a marvellous discipline from which we can learn about our habits and behaviours, and once we make these connections, and practice in a way that challenges these habits and belief systems, new patterns are eventually created. This inevitably crosses over into our daily life. Sometimes, this process happens slowly and gradually, and in other instances, it happens very quickly. Regardless, by committing to our yoga practice in this self reflective way, the result is that we are forever changed.
The winter solstice marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. It is at this point in the earth’s journey around the sun that our northern hemisphere leans furthest away from the light and the sun is lowest. This year the solstice occurs on Friday December 21st, and I personally feel drawn to reflect on this day, as I can’t help but marvel in the symbolism of it. The word “solstice,” in Latin, means “sun standing still”, and in some disciplines of yoga, the sun symbolizes the soul. So in a sense, we could say the soul stands still on the solstice.
The transition into winter and these darkest days gets me thinking about nature. Nature seems to remember what we humans have forgotten… That it is a natural process to shift into stillness and inactivity when the light is low and days are cold. It is in this rest of the winter season that all life’s energy recycles. The trees and plants retreat inwards to dormancy, animals rest and hibernate, and ponds freeze and suspend in time. All this is necessary for the rebirth of life and action in the spring. It gets me wondering about the consequences of forging through the season without this rest, as we humans seem to do. I wonder if we should take more notice of this phase in nature and let it be a cue from which we also take a break from the constant doing and accomplishing. It may be, that by taking the time to rest and reflect, we gather the energy to regenerate and renew.
Everything in the universe has cycles; when a star dies it produces the material for new stars. When a plant is eaten, the energy it stored from the sun is transferred to the new body. This life and death cycle exists everywhere around and within us. Every action, emotion, cell in our body, and breath we take alternates from coming to going; existing and then not. Without this shift into void and nothingness, where endings reside, the cycle of energy cannot continue. The Winter solstice is a powerful reminder that the universe needs both light and darkness to sustain. It is out of the darkness that flowers eventually emerge, life is born, and ideas are formed and nurtured.
This year, in the days around the solstice, I plan to use it as a time of inner reflection; to look back on my year and acknowledge what I have completed and the insights and understandings I have gained. In this pause from activity, I will take time to grieve my losses and celebrate my triumphs, and contemplate what it is I need new, and what it is I need to let go of. I figure there is so much richness and integration that can be received in this transition phase if we take the time to become still with ourselves and listen. Perhaps you’ll join me in this celebration of night as a time to rest your soul and re-fuel your inner light.
This pose embodies the spirit of a warrior and conveys readiness, stability, and courage. Warrior II pose (Virabhadrasana II) is aptly named after a fierce warrior named Virabhadra originating from Hindu mythology. The physical expression of Warrior II pose represents the focused attention and warrior strength required to prepare for battle. When we practice yoga, our mat becomes our battlefield, and our “enemy” becomes our mind. Over time, as we strengthen our bodies and our minds, we learn how to face and defeat all our challenges with focus and calm.
In Warrior II, the front hand reaches forward and represents the future; the back hand reaches behind, and represents the past. The head and body stay situated in the middle, and while our hands are reaching for both what was and what will be, our minds and bodies remain centered in the present moment. It is called “warrior”, but the pose is one of peace. When balanced and centered, in body and mind, we are not at war with ourselves… or anyone else.
Here is an infographic highlighting the benefits and alignment details of this beneficial pose.
The other day, some participants in class were wondering how they could relieve the soreness and tension that they seem to always have in the area running from their neck to their shoulders, sometimes referred to as the area the “upper traps.” This area is a common area of discomfort; it is known for its tendency to be sore after long durations of working at our computers or during times of stress as we might unconsciously clench or shrug our shoulders. When this area gets over-stressed or tightened up, it can cause neck and upper back pain, headaches, jaw pain, and dysfunctional shoulder motion and impingement. To relieve these symptoms, certain yoga postures can be a great help, but first we have to consider the two main reasons this area is so often problematic: poor posture and over clenching in this area.
The area of the upper traps is just the top portion of the large, diamond shaped muscle known as the trapezius (image below). Each section (upper, middle, and lower) serve different actions/functions. The upper fibers of the muscle help in the shrugging (elevation) action of the shoulders and serves a role in keeping the head and neck in position during our daily activities. The upper traps are often overworked when we stay in a forward flexed/forward head-jutting posture for long periods, such as when we are working at the computer or looking down at our devices for extended periods of time. Consider the basic physics of the matter… your head is like a 10 pound weight at the end of your neck. When it leans forward, those stabilizing muscles in the posterior neck are working much, much harder than when your head rests vertically in relationship to gravity. Common sense tells us to try to sit straighter and limit forward jutting of the head to minimize the discomfort on our upper trap area.
However, posture correction is not as simple as don’t poke your head forward (*). To correct it, we need to consider what’s happening below the neck and check our alignment of the whole spine. I like to think of it as working from base up, and the base is our pelvis. If your pelvis is tilted out of neutral posture, the entire length of the spine accommodates for this alignment. In sitting, it is common to tilt the pelvis posteriorly (see image below) and this takes the lumbar spine (low back region) out of its natural curvature of being slightly arched inwards into a flattened posture. When the low back arch is flattened out, our neck posture has no chance of proper correction.
This is especially significant in yoga since we sit on the ground. Sitting low often causes a posterior tilting in the pelvis because many individuals have tight hip and leg muscles (or hip and knee joint issues) which limit their ability to move their hips in deep flexion and external rotation. With these motions being limited, sitting cross-legged becomes straining, and other areas compensate to manage the posture – namely the pelvis tilts in response to the pull of these forces. This is why yoga teachers encourage placing a lift under your seat to ease the tension through the tight hip/leg muscles pulling at the pelvis. It may not be perfect but adjusting your seat surface a little higher to encourage a more neutral pelvis and low back posturing can be a huge piece in correcting your neck pain.
The thoracic (middle back) segment of the spine can be just as much of a hindrance in supporting our neck posture. Individuals tend to collapse through their mid backs in sitting, often viewed as a rounded or hunched back posture. This posture is so common because it requires very little energy to sit this way – the postural, support muscles get to take a break and the spine slumps in response to gravity. Then the neck posture compensates in response, and the upper traps get overworked to hold the head in place this way. In yoga we regularly cue to lengthen the spine in our poses. Not only is this a really important way to create space between the vertebrae of the spine (which is good to prevent collapsing and compression of the spine in poses), but it is the key to adjusting posture through the mid back. I encourage my students to feel the lift upwards coming from the top of their breast bone (the manubrium), which creates a lengthening in the thoracic spine. This simple action creates a more vertical head/neck alignment. So yes, it takes a bit of effort to sit up straight – but it’s worth it!
Outside of spinal posture, the other main reason for pain and tension in the upper traps is if you have a habit of being an over-shrugger. The upper trapezius is one the main muscles which elevates the shoulders upwards (the other being the levator scapulae). Tensing or shrugging the shoulders is one of those conditioned responses to stress for many people. A certain thought, an uncomfortable situation can result in the shrug and people don’t even realize they are constantly, habitually clenching this area, and eventually this causes stiffness and pain.
To undo the effects of over-shrugging and train yourself out of this unconscious habit, It’s not enough to stretch these muscles. Instead consider doing the opposite motion to release the tension from the shrug. The opposite motion is lowering the shoulders down, known as depression, and this is done by activating the lower fibers of the trapezius muscle, which moves the shoulder blades down the back and lowers the shoulders. Also, activating the lower portion of the trapezius sends a reciprocal signal to the upper traps to release and stretch. (To get a better sense of the muscles involved in elevating and depressing the shoulders, click here for a short video animation).
Returning to posture, in order for this technique of shoulder depression to be effective, it’s really important that our spinal posture is in check. For example if you are sitting slouched and move your shoulders downwards, the shoulders might pull forward by the chest muscles and the lower traps won’t get activated, which is required for the upper traps to release.
The way I describe the correct technique in class is to first sit or stand tall, lift through the top of the breast bone, draw shoulders slightly back, and then lower the shoulders downwards –feeling shoulder blades move slightly together and down the back towards the hips. This will create an open spacious feeling from tops of shoulders to ears. (Note, you don’t have to do this motion with all your might, just a little bit of activation in this direction is sufficient). Then this technique can be applied to more complex motions and postures, such as your yoga poses. Cobra and Warrior II are a couple of my favourites to practice this. With practice your mid back muscles will strengthen, and the new, lowered shoulder posture will become more automatic.
Anytime we are trying to create change in our bodies, it requires awareness of our habits and plenty of practice before the new way sets in. To minimize upper trap pain, take advantage of your yoga classes to learn how to adjust your posture for more lift and neutrality in the spine, and then apply the practice of activating the lower trapezius muscle to release the shoulders down during the poses. In time you will feel your shoulder rest easier and the upper trap pains disappear.
*It is important to remember that your computer and chair set up can be the source of your postural problems. For instance if your monitor is too low, your body will compensate in posture to get an adequate eye line and vision to the screen and in this case no amount of knowledge of the spine will help. It’s equally as important to adjust your workstation.
This is a heavy one – so I’m just going to jump right in… I have often posted about how Yoga provides us with a base from which we can explore the connection of the mind and body. When we practice postures, meditation, and pranayama (breathing) techniques we get direct information from the systems of our body and the relationships between these various systems. To better explain these experiences in yoga, ancient yogis devised models to describe what they were experiencing. One of my favourite models is that of the five Koshas, which first appeared in the VedicUpanishads dated around 3000 years ago.
According to the Koshas model, every one of us has five bodies, otherwise known as sheaths or layers, that make up our being. You can visualize these layers like that of an onion⸺with five progressively subtler bodies moving from the outside in. The onion layer analogy is a good visual of how these bodies are contained within one another; however, it is important to remember that these sheaths are not separate nor isolated. Rather, they are inter-penetrating and interdependent on one another, and in order to live a fully balanced, healthy life, all these layers need to be kept in good condition. If one of them is ignored or unsatisfied, there is a lack of harmony.
Here is a description of each of the five Koshas starting from the most superficial to the deepest layer:
1. The Physical Layer The outermost sheath, called Annamaya Kosha, is the most obvious and easily identified as it is comprised of the physical structures of your body⸺bones, tendons, muscles, and other dense materials. You can experience this Kosha directly. It’s your body, and you can see and feel it. This layer has structural importance as it houses all the other layers.
2. The Energy Layer The second layer is called Pranamaya Kosha, otherwise known as the energy body, which is comprised of all the physiological processes that sustain life, from breathing to digestion to the circulation of your blood. ‘Prana’, in yoga, is understood as life-force energy, and without it, our physical body layer can’t survive more than a few minutes. Prana, which is the equivalent to Chi in eastern medicine, is that which acupuncture treatment is based. In yoga we connect to this energy layer through perceiving the breath and circulation. Energy is balanced through the breath in relationship to the body and mind.
3. The Mental/Emotional Layer The third layer is called Manomaya Kosha. It is described as the psychological sheath, which includes the mind, feelings, and the processes that organize experience. Through the nervous system, this body processes input from our five senses and responds reflexively to the needs of the mind and body in its environment. Here we begin to truly understand the inter-dependent effects each layer has on then next. Imagine a person in a coma, their first and second sheath are still operating so their heart and lungs continue to function and their physical body is intact, but the person has no awareness of what’s happening and no ability to take action because the activity of Manomaya Kosha has shut down. Without the mental layer we are unaware of the first two.
4. The Higher Intelligence Layer The fourth layer is known as Vijnanamaya Kosha. It is the body of intellect and wisdom, and of conscience and will. This is the layer that is assumed to separate humans and animals. It is a higher level of awareness that underlies all the reflexive mental processes of daily living. In yoga, through mindfulness and meditation, your ability to observe your own thoughts and behaviours gets enhanced and you begin to experience the events in your life from this more objective aspect of awareness. Self study and meditation lead to clarity of judgment, greater intuitive insight, and increased willpower as your Vijnanamaya Kosha grows stronger and more balanced.
5. The Spiritual or Bliss Layer The fifth, and inner most layer is called Anandamaya Kosha. This the most subtle of the five layers which is experienced as deep contentment or bliss. For most people this sheath is underdeveloped and few are even aware that this level of consciousness exists within themselves. It is said the Anandamaya Kosha is the energetic veil bridging ordinary awareness and our higher, spiritual self. The great sages, life-time meditators, and even those who have had near death experiences, have all described this part of being where our true, inborn nature of peace and love reside. It connects us to all of universal existence. You come into this world with it.
Identifying these layers that comprise our being can aid us in learning more about our own personal existence and balance in life. Each of us has moments in our development that can enhance or impede connection to one or more of these layers. Take for example someone who sustains a traumatizing, physical injury. On the surface it affects the physical body, the Annamaya Kosha. Sometimes, the pain or mental suffering, experienced through the psychological layer, can create blocks to the awareness that flows to this physical part of yourself. Overtime the psychological block withers your connection not only to the physical structures, but also the physiological flowing and mental and emotional realization of this part of you. There lies a hole in our body/mind complex that requires reconnection, on multiple layers, to heal. This is one of the explanations for why physical pain can last beyond the healing of an injury.
The opposite can be true as well. Sometimes a newfound awareness into one layer can ignite wholeness and unity onto all the layers. In yoga when we shift into a mindful state, working from that deeper part of our consciousness (the Vijnanamaya Kosha), we can become aware of blocks in our mind-body complex. For example, in working with individuals through yoga therapy, I have witnessed how a gentle touch or stretch to a body part ignites awareness that this part was not registering in their bodily perception due to a past issue, such as an emotional trauma. In essence, experiencing a physical sensation, while being connected to your higher, intelligence layer, re-introduces the person to this part of themselves, and the re-established connection brings healing to all the layers.
There are many of individuals existing in their daily lives with healthy functioning outer sheaths (strong bodies and minds), but who are totally void of awareness to their inner sheaths. When one is disconnected to their Vijnanamaya and Anandamaya Koshas, its like leaving an empty whole in the center of their being… and these people can literally feel uncentered in their lives. When disconnected to the core sheaths, one can feel reactive to life and often feel unfocused and lost when considering their choices and goals. Personal growth and spiritual practices that connect with these deeper parts of ourselves allow us to remain fulfilled, energized and whole.
Being human is complex; as far as we know, we are the only species on earth that can experience ourselves on multidimensional planes. I liken this to the phrase, “Awareness knowing itself”, and it is through practices such as yoga that we can open this world of self study and gain better understanding of these varying layers of consciousness. The five Koshas give us a framework from which we can organize and express all these layers of our being, and in doing so, we are one step closer to enjoying the health and fulfillment of an enlightened life.
Those of you coming to my classes know I love blending and fusing movements and postures to create a desired effect. I’m not much of a traditionalist when it comes to yoga. My quest is to make yoga more accessible, relatable, and effective for all, and if that mean tweaking an old posture for something safer or just approaching something different for new outcome, I will.
Sometimes when I get experimenting I come across fun fusions. Here’s one of my latest favourites blending supported bridge pose (the restorative version) with legs ups the wall pose. It combines the benefit of improved upper back posture that you get from supported bridge pose with the relaxation/calming effects of legs up the wall pose.
The restorative version of supported bridge pose uses the bolster to help extend the mid/upper back, which helps combat the “hunching” posture in the upper back and shoulders, and opens the chest to aid in more expansive breathing. It is also an inversion, with the upper body resting lower than the legs and hips. Inversions are known to help regulate blood pressure and heart rate, and they active the “rest and digest” branch of the nervous system bringing about a relaxation/calming effect on the mind and body.
Legs up the wall pose is also a very relaxing and effective inversion pose, so combining the two poses deepens the inversion, and potentially the benefits (boosting immune functioning, reduction of stress chemicals in blood, calming of stress & anxiety symptoms, improved sleep, etc.). In addition, legs up the wall is known for reducing edema in the lower legs/feet and can relieve lower back tension.
To give this fusion pose a try, you will need a bolster (rectangular or round works), a folded blanket, and a chip foam yoga block. You could use a second blanket if you don’t have the foam block.
The next image shows the set up. The bolster is approximately a foot away from the wall, the chip foam block is laid length-wise at the head end of the block, and then you place a folded blanket over the block. The idea is to create a step off effect from the edge of the bolster that is going to create the extension into the upper/middle back.
To get into the pose sit at the end of your bolster closest to the wall and lie back with the aim to have the top of your shoulders cascading off the edge of the bolster so that the back of the shoulders rest on the blanket and your head is supported. When you lay back you should feel the edge of the bolster landing at the bottom of the shoulder blades, and you should feel a comfortable extension of the middle/upper back.
You can definitely increase or decrease the step off height at the edge of the bolster by adjusting the height of the block/blanket set up (you can remove the block underneath for a greater arch of the back, or add more blanket height for less of and arch). Remember that you should feel something interesting happening in the upper back that feels like a stretch and pressure from the bolster, but not painful. You should be able to breathe, relax and stay awhile.
Also, I am demonstrating bent legs and feet on the wall to make it more gentle, but you could go more traditional and do straight legs up the wall (in this case, you may wish to position the bolter closer to the wall). Feel free to test both and see which feels better for you.
We usually stay for 5 minutes in class, but this could be shorter or longer depending on preference and comfort. Give it a try and let me know what you think!
Perspective, space, wisdom, peace… Equanimity is the balance in life that is born of wisdom.
Equanimity is like the secret ingredient of mindfulness, it’s the core of what mindfulness is doing for us. It’s that non-reactive quality of awareness–we are connected to what is happening in the moment without projection into the future, comparison with the past, pushing away or holding on. It’s one thing to know what’s going on in the moment as it happens, but it’s another to be aware with less bias and projection. For example, we notice our back hurts (which is helpful to know), but it’s also good to notice how are we reacting and relating to the back pain. Maybe we are filled with anticipation of an imaginary future, wondering what’s it going to feel like next week and getting concerned that this back ache is never going to go away, and how will this affect an upcoming vacation in… In this example, not only are we experiencing what’s happening in the moment but we have all that additional anticipated stress and anxiety added on top. So equanimity is about creating enough space in the moment that we notice our tendencies and get a much deeper connection to what’s happening.
Equanimity does not mean we clear ourselves of all opinion and action. Rather it is simply a way of broadening our perception such that should we decide to take some action, the action is coming from a deeper understanding. When we give space to all that we are noticing without immediately reacting, we can learn. We see layers of what’s happening: thoughts, emotions and physical reactions related to any one event and all at once. Being in this state allows us to see more clearly before we choose our response. Mindfulness is the body for understanding, and equanimity is the heart through which we find wisdom.
Equanimity helps us be more resilient. When we experience stress from wanting things to go a certain way, you can feel the resistance of not wanting certain outcomes and the intense yearning of wanting others. Yet, so often our worries and attempts at controlling the outcomes are futile. Equanimity brings us the pause to recognize we are doing this and see the thoughts, emotions and physical responses in these moments. This is not to say it is a passive act or that we just give up. We can do our best by letting go of what we can’t control. When we accept this, we become less overwhelmed by all the related unpredictable and changing circumstances and can see and calmly focus on what we can control. Knowing when and what to let go gives us peace.
Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. – Lao Tzu
Lately in class, the idea of doing small acts repeatedly as a way getting us where we want, has kept popping up. In yoga, and in many aspects of our lives, we lack patience and want immediate results ⸺“We want it all, we want it now.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started on a project (healthy eating being a great example) and felt really motivated for a short period of time in the beginning only to lose my enthusiasm very soon thereafter, and I know many others struggle with this too. The truth of the matter is, success lies in consistency over time; the commitment to regular practice day in and day out. I also know, however, that sometimes I’m not able to, or want to, show up with full effort, and I’m starting to realize how the process of achievement can be more subtle and gentle, and not always linear. Much like the cycles in nature, progression in yoga and other aspects of our lives can unfold gradually with peaks and valleys depending on our internal and external rhythms.
When you think about nature and how things typically progress and come into maturation, there are natural stages. The baby doesn’t just walk, it first spends time learning to roll, then rock, then crawl, then stand⸺all building blocks of the final destination of walking. Yet as adults we expect to we should be able to jump to the end stage, and we want results fast. We seem to be programmed to rush and hurry, and when things don’t happen fast, our minds become impatient and restless. However this way of thinking and being sets us up for failure. Mirroring the natural process, we are more apt to be successful when we proceed with smaller chunks and achieve competency in stages. I have seen some of the greatest transformations in yoga from the students who chose only two or three poses that they practiced, as opposed to big routines with complexity. These smaller elements, done regularly, often add up to much bigger results.
We can also reframe how we think progress should look. Progression in nature is rarely linear, and progress is not without rest or pause in the seasons and cycles. In some forests, natural disturbances, such as forest fires, are good example of natural breaks in the path of progression. In the boreal forests for example, forest fires release valuable nutrients stored in debris on the forest floor for new growth and allow some tree species to reproduce by opening the cones to free the seeds. This pause in the growth of the forest is essential for it’s health and balance as it matures. Looking back on my progression with yoga, it was much the same. There wasn’t intense effort all the way along. Sometimes I had strong commitment and energy for my practice, and I got a lot done during these phases. Then there were slow phases, and even breaks in the practice. Sometimes the breaks were by choice, and sometimes not – illness, injury, maternity – regardless, I always returned to my practice. I realized that when I came back, I hadn’t lost everything ⸺ things came back quicker, and I progressed past where I was before. In reflection I noticed, sometimes after a break, there was a fierceness of practice that wouldn’t have happened without the time away.
There are natural cycles that happen within our own physiology, unique to each of us, that we would all benefit from understanding more. Mindfulness becomes our ally in navigating this internal rhythm. As I have mentioned in many previous blogs (Walk Slowly, If You Know Better, You Do Better, Yoga for the Brain), meditation and yoga help you develop the skill of shifting your perspective to become the observer of your own thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the body. When one adopts this shift in perspective you become more attuned to what is naturally unfolding within, and you can pick up on the cycles and patterns that come and go with your motivations, energy, and moods, throughout the day, months and years. You can learn for instance that when energy wanes and things slow down, it doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. Things are constantly changing, and coming and going. Sometimes when you are down and apathy takes a foothold on you, it’s hard to remember what it was like to be up and energized, and it’s easy to get caught in thinking these feelings and low energy will last forever. But this is never true. These thoughts, these emotions, they pass through us; they are not us. There are season and cycles within us to acknowledge and embrace as well.
I think it’s time we learn to be a bit more gentle with ourselves and remember that hurrying and putting heavy pressure on ourselves rarely works out in the long run, instead it sets us up for a crash. So I encourage you to stop feeling guilty for the lulls and the pauses. Pace yourself kindly, and welcome the irregularities of progress ⸺ both high and low. If you keep taking those small steps forward in harmony with seasons and cycles of your life, both inside and out, you are sure to see the reward.
Traditional Pigeon Pose (right) is known for how it stretches into the posterior and lateral muscles of the hip (the buttock muscles). Many people source Pigeon Pose as a remedy for sciatic pain since it can specifically stretch the Piriformis muscle, which when tight, can compress on the sciatic nerve. As effective as pigeon pose is for this, ask any yoga teacher and you will learn that many people can’t do pigeon pose comfortably or safely for reasons such as knee or ankle compression. As a popular alternative, many teachers advise trying Supine (back lying) Pigeon, sometimes known as Eye of the Needle Pose in yoga, (which also goes by Figure 4 Stretch outside of the yoga world). This pose is a popular favourite among individuals who want to feel a therapeutic stretch into the buttocks without the compression that comes with full Pigeon Pose.
As with traditional Pigeon Pose, the supine version of Pigeon has options and modifications to choose from. Depending on where you hope to focus the stretch, and other factors such as your own personal anatomy, flexibility, or comfort can can influence the version you choose. I always like to remind my students that it’s not a matter of “right or wrong”, but, rather of asking yourself, “Is this pose meeting my intention?” Once you are knowledgeable in how to modify pigeon pose, you can choose the version best suited for you.
The most common way to teach Supine Pigeon Pose is it is with the hands threading the space between the legs, as shown in these next images. You can either hold onto the back of the thigh or over top of the knee depending on your flexibility and preference.
Holding the thigh with the hands serves a purpose of anchoring the pose in place with less effort in the hips, and you can easily deepen the sensation by drawing the leg in with the hands. However, there are some limitations with this threading version because it forces the top knee to be pressed more out to the side (external rotation of the hip⸻discussed more below), and for some of us, our arm length to hip mobility ratio may restrict our ability to comfortably reach the leg. When a person is unable to bring the legs in very far and/or their arm length is insufficient to comfortably reach through the legs without strain, then I suggest these next variations.
The above images show how Supine Pigeon can be done with the foot on the wall. Here, the closer your seat is to the wall, the shorter the angle and the deeper the stretch, so I recommend starting with a 90 degree angle in the supporting leg and moving your seat closer or further from the wall depending on comfort. In the wall version, it is also really easy to highlight how the angle of the hip creates a different effect on where you feel the stretch. When we push the knee more out to the side (top left) it focuses the stretch into the lateral hip muscles and groin more which are internal/medial rotators of the hip, e.g. tensor fasciae latae and the abductors. However, if you are aiming to get deeper into the Piriformis muscle, angling the knee in towards you more (top right) will give you a better stretch on the Piriformis muscle which is one of the external/lateral rotators of the hip.It’s important to remember there is no right or wrong here…Be playful with the angle, being careful with joint pain of the hip or knee⸻ a small shift in angle will simply highlight the stretch in different muscles of the buttocks and hips.
In this next image I demonstrate a rotation slightly off to the side with the foot of the supporting leg on the wall rolled to the outer edge. This will angle the knee even more across the body, and for me, this stretch really deepens the sensation into the posterior gluteals (Piriformis).
Sometimes when you don’t have a wall and the threading version with your hands isn’t working, you could try this next version instead.
Here I am demonstrating you can hold the knee and foot of the side you are stretching. What I like about this is the opposite leg is assisting the hold lightly while the hands deepen the experience and can direct the angle based on your needs and preferences, and there is less reach required by the arms. I personally find this one very effective.
Hopefully this article on Supine Pigeon Pose gives you a better understanding of the range of options outside of traditional Pigeon Pose. I encourage you to step outside the thinking of doing a pose based on how it “should” look, and instead find a version and creative technique that works just right in your body while still supplying the stretch you need to the muscles you intend.
One of the things I love most about yoga is how it can meet our needs moment to moment. Sometimes we need energy and strength, while other times we need stretch or restoration. The fun thing is some postures can do all the above depending on how you approach them. I can think of no better pose to explore this than bridge pose. In bridge pose you can have a range of experiences depending on the variation you choose.
Generally speaking, bridge pose, in its active variation, is a strengthening and energizing posture. Just after my first baby was born, I chose bridge pose as my first strengthening pose to do. I recall how wobbly my legs felt as I attempted to lift my hips off the ground; I remember thinking to myself, “Oh man, have I ever lost a lot of strength!” From this first attempt, I continued to practice bridge daily. By the second week I was back to my regular hip lifting height and I no longer felt weakness in my legs and hips as I held the pose longer and longer. As I began to engage the pose in more of a chest opening posture, I felt my posture improve and my breath deepen, bringing more energy into my body. This experience made me truly appreciate how this pose has great strength building potential and is fantastic for beginners as it allows for you to decide how high and how long you lift for.
Below is an info-graphic showing the technique and benefits of the active variation of bridge pose. It is important to note you can start with a lower lift of the hips off of the ground than shown. Also, you can completely leave out clasping the hands under the body (resting arms on the ground). The practice of tucking the shoulders underneath the body and squeezing the shoulder blades together facilitates a lift of the chest with the pose and engages many more back muscles, making the experience deeper and more complex. When first learning it helps to start with the hip lifting aspect of the pose, and later build on this piece.
People often ask me if they should activate their abdominal muscles in bridge, and I tell them “It depends…” You can do it both ways depending on your goal of the pose and any back conditions you may have. Generally speaking, when you tighten or activate the abdominal muscles it makes the pose feel more stable in the lumbar (low back) region. If you are one of those people who has tight hip flexors muscles you may be prone to over-extending the low back, and in this case it will likely help to engage the abdominals when lifting into bridge which can essentially help ‘lock’ the low back into position and will most likely feel better if you have this condition. However, for some people, it is possible that going into more extension in the back will feel helpful, especially if they tend to be in postures which flatten out the low back a lot. So by relaxing the abdomen and really emphasizing the contraction of the gluteal and back extensor muscles they can increase the back arch and this can feel therapeutic. Often I recommend trying both ways to sense what feels better in your body to know which way to go.
These next images (below) demonstrate variations of bridge pose which provide support with props, and with this support, comes a whole different experience to the posture. Supporting bridge pose makes it passive rather than active, and therefore it is no longer a strengthening posture; instead it becomes restorative. When placing the props underneath the sacrum (the lowest portion of the spine just above the tail bone), the props create a gentle stretch into the front of the hips and a light traction of the low back. From here you can work on relaxing the support muscles of the pose and in this way we can experience the shape and stretch of the pose without the effort, allowing our bodies to rest and release tension. In addition, when using the foam block you can also experience a light acupressure sensation against the sacrum region and that can sometimes help reduce back pain.
I have had some yoga clients in class tell me they felt so relaxed in this posture, but didn’t know why. The reason is likely because supported bridge pose is also a gentle inversion and inversions have a calming effect on the body. When the lower body is elevated from the upper body, gravity’s pull of blood towards our hearts and heads toggles our nervous systems to turn off the sympathetic “flight or fight” stress response while turning on the parasympathetic “rest and digest” response. This happens in a complicated feedback loop that starts when blood pressure accumulates in the aortic arch above the heart and the carotid arteries in the neck. The final result is reduced heart rate, reduced blood pressure, a breakdown of the stress hormones in the body (cortisol and adrenaline), and a quieting of the “chatterbox” centers within the brain itself which is hugely beneficial when we are feeling stressed and anxious.
The next image below shows a fully inverted version of supported bridge pose which helps to heighten the inversion effects. It is also different in that it focuses on opening the front body more at the chest level, extending mid/upper back. For some this feels like a really big opening experience so using a height that is lower than the bolster shown in the image (e.g. a rolled blanked) might be a way to try in the beginning.
Bridge pose is full of experiences and what I have highlighted here just scratches the surface of the myriad of ways it can be altered for varying effects. Hopefully this provides you with enough information to get exploring how bridge pose can benefit you.
For a free printable of the info-graphic shown above link here: bridge pose.pdf
Maturity brings change, right? Not always. Have you ever wondered why some people seem to grow up, get better, do better with age, while others get stuck–doomed to repeat the same patterns of self sabotage and unhealthy choices? As we move through puberty, connections to our frontal brain develop, making us more rational and less egocentric. Yet beyond this, there are still those individuals who seem to get stuck, lacking self reflection and relational growth. I find it especially noticeable during reunions of past friends or family where you realize an individual hasn’t changed much at all and it’s hard to connect and maintain a relationship with them.
Outside of educational opportunities, mental illness, and brain developmental issues, I believe part of the difference comes from how much one learns the skill of self awareness, and that this is a technique can be enhanced through practices such as yoga and mindfulness training. The more we develop our skill to shift out of the default “overactive, thinking” state, (reflexive thoughts encased around personal narration and evaluation of past events and an imagined future), and drop into a present-moment awareness state (becoming the observer of what is happening within the body and outside in the environment in a non-judgemental way), the more we can take a step back and see ourselves for how we really are.
In yoga, we have the opportunity to practice being in this aware state more often than in day to day living. We are drawn into the present moment through our bodies (known as embodied mindfulness), and in this way we can witness the coming and going of our reflexive thoughts and behaviours. It is through the sensation of the postures and breath that we are focused into the state of “now.” In my experience, using the breath and the body together as a way to draw our attention into our aware state, is very effective for beginners because there is more to keep the mind occupied than, for example, traditional sitting meditation which often uses only the breath. Therefore yoga can be a very effective gateway to self awareness.
There is more to it. The nature of some yoga poses, releases blocked or repressed experiences. Our human minds are hardwired for self preservation and protection. Some things are easier to live with when pushed or packed away. The problem is our unconscious selves still know the truth of it all, and it’s been my experience that our physical bodies house this information in cellular memory. So when, we move, stretch, pressure, breathe & release parts of our body (in a non-threatening and safe manner) it can reveal memory and emotion from previous experiences. Once this is brought to the surface, and received from a non-judgemental, aware state, it’s hard to ignore its presence. The more often this happens, the more we get connected to the blind spots and repressed “stuff” we house, and deeper self-knowledge is gained.
So if you combine these two ingredients of embodied mindfulness and transparency into our body’s memory and wisdom, our lives begin to shift and change as a consequence of practicing yoga. It’s like opening the floodgates; its difficult to close once opened. My practice has lead me to a place where I can no longer be in a situation where I know better, and turn a blind eye. My body literally rebels and I am quickly in tune with the knot in my gut telling me I need to do better. This can manifest in all sorts of scenarios such as choosing boundaries for relationships that are toxic to my wellbeing, or saying sorry after I realize my actions (or lack of action to another) is unkind or dismissive. Once self awareness and connection to whole body intelligence has taken root, it is much harder taking a walk down the easy road.
I believe we are all on a journey of self understanding and mastery in our lives. Some will move mountains, others will repeat destructive patterns. We can’t deny the reality that it never works to change another person; it is their life to live, and the only thing we can do is work on ourselves and hopefully become the best version of our self. When we connect to practices such as yoga and mindfulness, it gives us a route to get there.
I was teaching a class the other day and one of the participants asked if there was a way to protect her sore wrists in class. Let me start by saying that this is not a new question, not only do I frequently address this question in class, but you’ll find numerous articles and posts on this topic. Since in yoga, there are a number of postures where we weight bear on our hands/wrists, it’s important to strategize how we should proceed.
There are a few things you can do to support yourself through the process of conditioning the wrists and hands to tolerate the weighted extension posture on them. Notice that I used the word “conditioning”… It has been my experience that the wrists will slowly build in their tolerance for the weight bearing postures with practice, so long as it is done gradually and mindfully over time.
To begin with, if you are one of those people who have tightness in your wrists, doing a few gentle range of motion ROM exercises before the weight bearing postures is a good idea. Warm up the wrists by doing some basic circles a few times in each direction, and then try these light wrist stretches:
Using your opposite hand, lightly pull the fingers back and then press them down as shown (holding briefly for 5 – 10 sec a couple times each hand). Then try bringing your palms together at the front of your chest attempting to bring the heel of the hands together as you move your hands downwards (holding in this stretch for 3 breaths).
Next, you want to think of your hands as being similar to your feet. Our feet have arches which distribute the load of pressure and shock absorb; so too can your hands. When weight bearing on them you want to feel the perimeter of the palm and the heel of the wrist connecting to the ground with a small air space under the center of the palm. Maintaining this little “arch” in your hand activates the muscles of the wrists and hands and gives some integrity of support to the structures. The fingers should also be spread wide with even pressure into each in order to distribute and balance the forces placed on the hand.
Finally, it’s good to remember to listen to your body in class. For me, when I’m doing a class where there is a fair amount of weight bearing on my hands, I do a couple downward dogs and then rest the wrists with some gentle circles in between, or I’ll go into child’s pose turning the palms up to relax the hand/wrist muscles. Also, during the class, when you feel your wrists have had enough, know that it is time to stop the weight bearing – find an alternate way to be, for example drop to your elbows during table top or down dog, or just find an alternate pose off the hands.
Give these tips a try. If you build gradually over time and pace yourself in class then your tolerance should improve with time. If you have a pre-existing wrist/hand condition you may need more specific advice and tips for using props to support your hands, and a consult with a yoga therapist would be advised.
Cobra Pose or Bhujangasana, is a posture with many benefits for the whole body. I have found no other pose that assists me more in opening my posture and balancing the stiffness in my back. If you sit all day and have stiffness/soreness in your upper or lower back, this a great posture to include in a daily practice as it stretches the entire front body and mobilizes the spine in the often neglected motion of extension.
This pose is also energizing and uplifting. It can be used to stimulate circulation, increase energy levels, and sometimes even elevate your mood. Also, because it stretches and opens the areas of the chest and abdomen it has the potential for increasing lung volume and easing digestion or menstrual discomforts.
I love that this backbend can be subtle or dramatic depending on the depth to which you take it (depending on the needs of your day or the specifics of your body and practice level). It works nicely to warm it up by moving in and out of the posture with the breath, for example inhale and lift up, exhale and lower down. Once warmed up, find your way into the posture again and pause for a hold (e.g. 3-5 breaths). Once completed, rest back down and notice how you feel. Give this a try and feel free to print this free handout highlighting the alignment tips and benefits.
|Cobra Pose Handout
In Yoga we use many different tools to steady the mind and body. Often in my classes I teach pranayama (breathing exercises) for this purpose and I recently revisited a simple but effective one know as Bhramari Breathing. If you are like me and sometimes have a really hard time settling the mind into a meditation practice, consider this pranayama technique.
The basic Bhramari breath is easy and simple, making it great for the beginner student. You breathe in and out through the nose, and on the exhales you make a low pitched hum sound (from the throat), extending your breath out as long as feels comfortable. Often equated to the sound of a buzzing of a bee, it is sometimes known as bee breath.
What makes this breathing technique so special is how the hum noise effortlessly secures your attention. In addition to the sound, the sensation of the sound vibrations in the body also latch your focus, making it less likely for the mind to dart about in thought. This makes it a very easy meditation technique for people with anxious/busy minds.
In addition the extended exhales activate the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for resting, digesting, and relaxing – essentially it has a calming effect on the nervous system. For more detail on this process have a look at a previous blog I wrote which gets into the physiology of breathing and the nervous system in Learning to Take a Deep Breath.
Here’s some step by step instructions on how to do Bhramari Breath:
Sit in a comfortable position and preferably with eyes closed
Inhale and exhale through the nose, and for the entire length of your exhalation, make a low to medium-pitched humming sound in the throat
Attempt to prolong the buzzing sound on the exhalation as long as you comfortably can
Keep the face, jaw, neck and shoulders relaxed as you practice
Do 6 – 10 rounds of this breathing and pay attention to the sound and the feeling of the vibrations in your body
Once completed, return to normal breathing and notice how you feel
For more information on this technique, have a look at a really good article by Timothy McCall, 5 Ways to Practice Bhramari, which explains variations off the basic Bhramari breath.
I recently read an article asking the question, “How has yoga changed your life? I thought this to be a very good question, here’s some thoughts about what I would say…
Let me start by saying, when I first started doing yoga, I could not have ever imagined how much yoga would change my life. Over the years of practice, yoga became a platform of learning about myself through my body, and from that, all sorts of change took place. Most notably, things in my life that were no longer “serving me” began to fall away. People, things, and habits that weren’t healthy for me have fallen away with a quite a bit of ease. The more I practice the more clear the “next right step” is to me.
The process was gradual and somewhat complex…During yoga, the movements of the body and breath bring us into contact with habitual and unconscious patterns of movement, thought, and feeling. We start to learn about the ways in which the body is conditioned―we can extend our hamstring only so far, the breath is shallow and rapid, the spine is inflexible in certain motions, and so on. Soon after recognizing our physical limits, we also notice how these limits give rise to preferences―we like postures that give us pleasure, we resist postures that cause us difficulty. However, this difficulty is not just a physical limitation but what the mind does with that limitation. For example, when an uncomfortable sensation builds in the body, the mind might become impatient or irritated, thereby affecting the way we are in the posture. We can start to see the patterns arise, the way we interpret and react to the physical experiences, in this way yoga postures become invitations into the psychological and physiological webs that form the matrix of the mindbody.
Many of these conditioned responses that imprint themselves into the mindbody are related to our past experiences and memories, often dating far back into early childhood. Yet more and more, research is showing that our memories can be highly inaccurate. The human mind has an uncanny ability to subjectively filter and interpret what it is that we remember, and our stories about ourselves can become exaggerated or distorted to protect or to fulfil ourselves in some way. Regardless, this is what we weave into our belief systems and characters, despite sometimes leaving us in unproductive or unhealthy patterns of thinking and action. And when such patterns are revealed to us in the physical movements of body and breath, a yoga pose becomes a tool of awareness, a moment to see ourselves outside of conditioned response, and an opportunity for liberation.
Ultimately this process of shedding light into the hidden corners of our embodied psychology, teaches about the way we have built up armor of protection from the stories we have told ourselves to avoid discomfort or to appease others’ opinions. Once known, these patterns begin to shift and change, and sometimes fall away completely. What remains is an undivided and authentic self. Once this door of personal truth gets opened, who you want to be and what’s important to you gets louder and more conditioned. New grooves in mindbody get created and there is really no turning back.
Much of this relates to the concept in yoga known as samskaras (latent impressions of our past actions, forming habit in mind & body). If you want to dive deeper into the concept of samskaras have a look at this article: What are Samskaras and How Do they Affect Us. Breaking free from the negative samskaras cannot happen without self awareness and self-study, and yoga’s holistic processes ripen the opportunity for this to happen.
When we spend long hours at the computer or on our other devices, we tend to sit with our heads leaned forward and our shoulders and upper backs rounded. Too much time in this posture inevitably leads to tension and sometimes soreness around the neck and upper back. If we do this day after day, structural changes in the joints and muscles can eventually develop that leave us with imbalances and even chronic pain issues such as headaches or nerve root pain from the neck.
Getting out to a class at least once a week can make a world of difference to the build up effect of tension in the upper body. Yoga is especially good because it mobilizes the spine in all directions and promotes balance and circulation in the muscles and joints. In addition, the mindfulness aspect of yoga gives us insight about our habits, such as postural tendencies or how we might chronically tense certain body parts. It really is worth the effort to make it a part of your weekly routine.
Outside of classes, we need to take care to break up our sitting posture throughout the day. I recently read a fun quote, “Your body needs movement snacks just as much as it needs food snacks.” Take these words to heart! Whether you take a walk around the block or do a few favourite stretches, these short bouts of movement can really help break up your day at the computer.
Below I’ve included a video where I lead you through a chair yoga sequence that you can do whenever you feel tension develop in the upper body. I find this short sequence really helps to generate circulation and balance in the upper body after “computering” for too long.
*If you want to skip the introduction (described in the paragraph above), go to the 45 second mark in the video.*
I recently had abdominal surgery and with that the nurses give you a host of recommendations for post op recovery and health. One of those recommendations tweaked my yoga brain. They advised me to regularly take deep breaths and cough after surgery. I found out this advice is given to help prevent individuals from getting pneumonia, a common side effect after general anesthesia and abdominal surgery. (The concern being that the pain from the surgical area prevents people from taking deep breaths and this reduces air flow into the lower lungs, sometimes causing collapsed lung tissue, which is then susceptible to the buildup of bacteria, leading to pneumonia).
I always appreciate preventative health measures, and I think it’s great that this advice is given to the patients (and for the record, I did follow all the nurse’s recommendations). However, I have to admit, I did dismiss the nurse’s description of how to take in a deep breath, as I was thinking, “I’m a yoga teacher; I teach deep breathing for a living!” Afterwards, though, it got me thinking about how complex taking a deep breath really is when you’ve had some experience teaching and practicing it.
Over the years of working with people in my classes and private yoga lessons, I’ve realized how many individuals struggle with taking in a deep breath, at least the way I interpret “deep.” Often, what I notice, is an increase air intake that lands in the upper portion of the chest/lungs, creating a vertical uplift in their posture, with very little to no expansion around the lower ribs and belly. This is how many people breathe—in the upper portion of the lungs only.
More than this, it appears some people have actually lost their ability to take in a breath into the lowest, most voluminous part of the lungs. I say “lost their ability,” because babies and animals naturally take these full, lower lung breaths. That’s how we were born to breathe. But somewhere along the way, often between the ages of 5 and 10, their breathing changes from a lower body breath to an upper body breath.
It can happen because of several things, here are couple… You go to school and you start sitting more, and sitting affects your posture, and posture affects where your breath can travel in the body. Then, somewhere along the way, perhaps you start to “suck in our gut”, maybe because we become self conscious of our stomachs or just because we feel it’s something we should do to look better. Tightening your stomachs is also associated with a bracing stance, preparing for action and safety during times of vulnerability and stress, and you do this as a response to perceived physical and/or emotional threat. Over time, this action of perpetually tightening your stomach can become unconscious and habitual. If this is the case, and for many of you it is, being advised take a “deep breath” won’t be enough. If you want to access the largest part of your lungs, it may actually require training in how to break this habit.
Breathing down into the lower portion of the lungs is best exercised through a technique called diaphragmatic breathing. (Sometimes known as abdominal or belly breathing). One of the things that helped me truly access this type of breathing was to come back to my anatomy knowledge and create a visual in my mind of the body’s main breathing muscle—the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped sheet of muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen. When you breathe in the diaphragm contracts (flattens out), pressing down towards the abdominal organs, and when you breathe out, the diaphragm relaxes back up into its dome shape inside the rib (thoracic) cavity. To visualize this a little further have a look at this quick video demonstrating the action of the diaphragm in breathing. Diaphragm movement video
In some ways the movement of the diaphragm seems counterintuitive because we often associate contraction with a rounding or bulging, but in the case of the diaphragm, it contracts into a flatter shape, and when it relaxes it rebounds back up into its dome shape. With this unique action, as the diaphragm contracts and flattens out, it essentially frees up space within the thoracic cavity. This gives the lower portion of the lungs more room to fill and it creates a vacuum from which air draws inwards easier.
Coming back to our “sucking in our guts” phenomenon, it makes sense that if you have a tight belly, then the diaphragm has a more difficult time moving downward because it is being resisted by the contracted abdominal muscles. When you relax your belly and allow it to expand as you inhale, your viscera (guts) drop slightly down and out and the diaphragm can more easily contract downward. Then, when exhalation takes place, the diaphragm begins its upward movement of relaxation aided by the natural movement of the belly as it returns toward the spine. So a relaxed abdomen is essential in taking a natural diaphragmatic or abdominal breath. (Below you will find a free handout with step by step instructions on learning to breathe this way).
There is more to this diaphragmatic breathing than just better lung volume. When we breathe with good diaphragmatic movement, the up and down action of the diaphragm stimulates blood vessels and nerves that pass through the diaphragm. One in particular is the vagus nerve, which is the main nerve of the relaxation portion of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). When the PNS is stimulated, the body produces chemical messengers and signals blood pressure receptors to promote resting, digestion, and relaxation. Studies are showing there is a feedback loop in the body that with long diaphragmatic breaths, the greater the movement of the diaphragm, which in turn increases stimulation of the PNS. In this way, simple diaphragmatic breathing is an effective tool in helping to calm and ease stress, improve digestion, and immune functioning. However, the opposite is also true. When a person is stuck in the habit of shallow, upper chest breathing, with minimal diaphragmatic movement, the body perceives this as being in a state of emergency or threat and activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight.) This results in a cascade of events such as elevated heart rate, sleeplessness, impaired digestion and impaired immune functioning. A simple change in your breathing is a gateway to better physiological and emotional health.
So if you are ever given the advice to “take a deep breath,” know that it is not just trying to get more air into your lungs. Adding diaphragmatic movement to your breathing can have all sorts of health benefits. It just takes a little practice.
Downward Facing Dog, or Adho Mukha Svanasana is one of the most commonly practiced and most iconic yoga postures around. We do this pose so often because it has so many health benefits. Below I’ve listed 6 good reasons to keep working on your Downward Dog. Also, I’ve included a free Downward Facing Dog Handout describing alignment details, benefits, and modifications.
1. Downward dog opens the backs of the legs
Most of the activities we do during the day (especially sitting) brings tension to the backs of the legs. This is why so many of us walk around with chronically overly tight hamstrings and calf muscles. Downward Facing Dog is an awesome posture for opening the backs of the legs because the stretch crosses three joint lines, thereby promoting lengthening of the posterior facia connections, and making it a really effective stretch.
2. It elongates the spine
The traction you get from planting your feet and then pushing your hands strongly into your mat is one of the best spinal elongation tools the yoga asana practice has to offer. Opening the spaces between the vertebrate helps to relieve compression on the spine and promotes circulation to the discs.
3. It opens the chest and shoulders
Most of us who sit in a chair all day have chest and shoulder muscles that are overly tight. This comes from the ‘hunched’ position most of us hang out in all day. Downward Facing Dog will help you to re-establish some opening in your chest and stretching of the side body and under arm muscles to increase your shoulder flexion. All of which helps improve your posture.
4. It strengthens the arms and shoulders
This pose is awesome for increasing your arm and shoulder strength. In downward dog we aim to balance the weight between the hands and the feet, and in order to do that, we need to press the hands into the mat and actively engage through the arms. This action shifts the upper body back and encourages a more direct overhead press. This action of pressing overhead strengthens many arm and shoulder muscles, which are often underdeveloped muscles in the body.
5. It wakes you up and boosts circulation
Downward Dog is one of the best poses you can do when you’re fatigued. It engages many muscle groups simultaneously and gets the oxygen and blood flowing to all parts of the body. Downward Facing Dog also offers all the benefits of an inversion without having to fully go upside-down. Inversions are great for returning blood flow to the upper body helping to regulate blood pressure, and in particular bring blood flow to the brain which help brings about clarity and focus.
6. It’s a good check in with your body
Lastly, once you get familiar with your body in Downward Dog, you appreciate how the sensations and effort it requires changes from day to day and moment to moment. Therefore, Downward Dog is a good way to “take inventory” about how you’re feeling. It stretches your arms, shoulders, legs and back all at once, and you can take notice of what you need to work on each day.
With September so close, it gets me thinking about transitions. There’s a big change coming up in our household this September. My youngest daughter Teagan is about to start Kindergarten, and what once was a highly anticipated event, has now become one with conflicting emotion. The other morning she asked me, “Mommy, how soon before I go to school?…I’ve been waiting since I was one years old!” Then later that afternoon, she said, “Mommy, I’m sad to go to school because there will be no more mommy and Teagan days”. Within these two statements, she captured the truth of our mixed emotions—both of us having relief and excitement of it finally being here, and the sorrow of loss of her babyhood and time spent together.
Now you might be wondering what this has to do with yoga. Well, what I realized in this recent while, is how important it is to recognize transitions onto their own entity. So often we compartmentalize events. In class we go from one pose and then to the next; we experience the pose while we are in it, and then our minds leap to then next one, rarely paying attention to how we got there. However, nearly half of the class is devoted to the time spent transitioning from one pose to the next, meaning if we don’t consider these transitions, we are barely present for much of the class!
It’s not a stretch (pun intended) to see how this plays out in our lives off the mat as well. How often do you catch yourself making big plans for the future, and the time leading up to event is just time spent waiting, or just time to get through. Yet, this time that we want to just “get through” makes up many of the moments of our lives, as mundane as they can seem at times, it can be these un-special, little moments in our day that may end up being the most precious memories in the twilight of our lives.
I had big plans for new classes and exciting changes with the studio this September, but as the time neared to plan it all out and post the schedule, I found myself feeling overwhelmed and indecisive. I realized my paralysis in planning was my body’s way of informing me that there is already too much going on—I am mentally and emotionally preoccupied soaking up the remaining time in summer, spending time with my family, and preparing for this next big milestone of Teagan starting school. So rather than jumping in with “new” and “busy” with the classes, I’ve decided to rest a while in the space before the next, absorbing all that needs to be experienced and learned right now.
In the spirit of honouring transitions, I’ve also decided to devote next Thursday’s mindfulness class (Aug 31 @ 7:15 pm) to be about paying attention to our transitions between the postures and in our lives. If this intrigues you, come on out! And if I don’t see you out in the studio, as September approaches, I wonder what it would be like for you to transition mindfully in your own life?
Injuries to the low back are common, and we want to make sure our yoga classes don’t become part of the problem. For this blog we will look particularly at seated forward bends and how to move the pelvis in a way that promotes healthy alignment.
Regardless of which seated forward bend your are doing in yoga, the common theme is that our seat is anchored on the ground so it becomes very easy to move our bodies forward without bringing the pelvis with us. (This is especially true for people with tight posterior leg and hip muscles). When the pelvis gets stuck in the posterior tilt and we lean forward, it can place strain on the ligamentous tissues around the sacroiliac joint (often referred to as the SI joint), and can cause excessive rounding through the spine, which is potentially dangerous to the discs of the low back.
So a very important skill to learn is how to tilt the pelvis forward (anterior rotation) with the spine in our bends. Here are some tips to learn how to do this:
First test yourself in Staff Pose (Dandasana)…
Are you able to sit in a tall spinal position with your legs outstretched (top left)? Or does your pelvis tip backwards and body lean as shown in the picture on the right? If the tightness through your leg muscles prevents you from sitting tall, then sitting directly on the ground with your legs straight will end up making your forward bends look like the image below. Below we see the pelvis fixed in posterior rotation and the spine having to compensate into a really rounded posture to make the bend happen.
To avoid this potentially straining posture, we utilize props to assist in the tilting of our pelvis in the anterior direction. Below, I am demonstrating Head-to-knee pose, or Janu Sirasana, (where one leg is outstretched and the other knee is bent). I modify by placing a folded blanket underneath my seat to reduce the pull on the hamstrings (note more than one blanket can be used depending on the level of tightness in the legs). Also, a rolled towel is placed underneath the knee to fill the space and reduce posterior knee strain. You can see how this has changed the posture of my low back.
In the next image, I am demonstrating a modification for Paschimottanasana (where both legs are outstretched) by using a bolster to support a good amount of knee bend. This bent-knee posture minimizes the pull from the hamstrings on the pelvis, allowing me to tilt my pelvis forward and lengthen my back. You can do this even without a bolster and just keep the knees bent without support.
In addition to the use of props, there is a specific technique to learn to help un-anchor the pelvis and this comes from freeing the sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) from the ground. A small lift and wiggle of your seat from the ground and re-situating your hips back a little will help you orient the pelvis forward. You may also need to actively engage muscles to initiate the forward tilting of the pelvis – visualize your pelvis like a bowl as if to pour contents out forward. You will know you have it correct when you are feeling like you are situated on the front edge of your sitting bones.
Outside of the propping and intentional shift of the pelvis forward, the safety for our backs also lies in the depth we try to take forward bends. You’ll notice in the last two images my head is nowhere near my knees! Don’t get caught up in making the pose look a certain way. For the sake of safety, a good reminder is sometimes less is more. As you are progress in your seated forward bends, take your time and listen to your body.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
Feeling 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.
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).