On the Other Side of Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Self Compassion, the Sister of Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gratitude Project to Improve your Health & Wellbeing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy the journey and let me know how it goes!

P.S. Get you kids involved!

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Yoga for Foot and Calf Tightness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finding Ease in Child’s Pose

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161017-010Child’s Pose (Balasana) – defined as a resting pose which helps to quiet the mind, stretch the back and hips, and promote inward reflection and caring for oneself. This description may ring true if you are one of those individuals who is blessed with ease in this posture. However, for so many individuals child’s pose is anything but comforting and restful, and instead, it can be a challenge to configure the body into that tight little package.

So in today’s blog I have collected images demonstrating the many variations of child’s pose you can try for more comfort in this frequently used posture. If you are attending a yoga studio, you’ll be able to find most of the props I am demonstrating with, and if not, folded blankets go a long way.

First of all, child’s pose is not to be confused with extended puppy pose, sometimes known as half downward dog (below). The main differences being that your hips remain above the knees and your arms extend keeping the elbows lifted off the floor. In extended puppy pose there is a more active feel and it focusses on stretching the spine, chest and shoulders.
161017-012xIn Child’s pose our hips get lowered back, bringing our bottoms towards the heels. Below I am demonstrating that the knees do not need to stay together in child’s pose. Taking the knees wide (big toes together) allows for space of the chest and tummy, and can minimize compression in the hips. This is a very valid option. Here I am also demonstrating elbows and forehead relaxed down on the ground.
161017-017For some individuals, the ability to lower the upper body to the point where the forehead reaches the ground can be limited by hip, back, or knee tightness, and other factors. In this case, it is good to note that it’s okay to have your head elevated above the ground, but for a more restful experience, or when to intention is to stay a while in the pose, grounding can be achieved with a prop under the forehead. I’m using a foam block here, but a rolled blanket works well too.
161017-026If you have tight knees and tight ankles (where the tops of the feet don’t want to lie flat on the ground) there are ways to use props to accommodate these areas. In the first image below I have a rolled towel under my ankles and a small cushion behind my knees. I also have a block supporting my forehead. In the second image, I demonstrate having a full bolster behind my knees as a way to prop my hips higher, creating even less knee flexion.
161017-018x161017-023And lastly, for a completely restorative experience, child’s pose can be done lying over a bolster. You can prop the bolster with foam blocks underneath each end and lay blankets on top to make it higher. Then with wide knees you lie your belly and chest down on the bolster, turning your head one way. This is a nice way to support the pose for extended lengths.
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I hope this post has been helpful. Please don’t hesitate to share or comment.

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Yoga Therapy as a Certified Profession!

160304-069When I first started learning yoga I knew there was something unique going on in its healing role for me personally, but I would have never predicted the momentum to which it has grown today.

Jump forward to the last few years you can find numerous yoga studios in every community, all of which are unique in their flavour, and offering you a variety of classes for your needs. Then to the rise of therapeutic classes being offered alongside the emerging profession of yoga therapy.

Today there are doctors prescribing yoga for their clients with high stress and anxiety. Other medical professionals such as MT’s, PT’s and counsellors are referring people to yoga for injuries, mental health conditions, and as a way to reconnect with one’s body. The medical field is really starting to recognize yoga’s role in the healing modalities, and this is exciting to see.

But with this privilege of caring for those who are unwell, the yoga community was forced to look at its role and its safety in the health professions. As with anything new that gains popularity, in order to move forward in a responsible way, standards and procedures were needing to be developed and training programs would need to become more stringent.

Although there is still a long way to go, I see the movement towards stronger programs producing more responsible yoga teachers. I’ve been impressed by how senior teachers and leaders of the yoga community are rising to the challenge to develop new training standards based off of research and safety for the people, and I feel we are on the right path to becoming a unified body of professionals.

Then, in the field of yoga therapy, the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) made great strides in defining what it means to be a yoga therapist, delineating the difference between a yoga therapist from a regular yoga teacher, and then to accredit certain schools with this training designation. As much as this process of defining the profession and accreditation of schools was a long and complicated process, it was an important step to ensure safety and quality within the profession.

Today the IAYT reserves certification only for those who have met the training standards and the association has just started to award the first members with the title of Certified Yoga Therapist (look for the C-IAYT designation). As I look back on my journey, first as a yoga student, next to become a certified teacher, and then to become a yoga therapist, I recognize I am at the forefront of a whole new profession gaining momentum, and one which is ever evolving as research guides its shape to serving individuals in a very special way. Now, I am very excited to say that I am a certified yoga therapist!

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Locust Pose (Salabhasana)

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Locust pose is one of my favourites. You’ll see it a fair amount in my classes because it is a fantastic back strengthener and front-body opener. Often, in our fitness or yoga practices, we focus on strengthening our abdominal muscles, while forgetting to include strengthening of the back muscles. Locust pose is the counter-pose to this tendency, it provides balance in our core strengthening.

It is also great for improving posture because the posture extends the back and opens the chest. For many of us, we suffer from the rounded upper back posture. Salabhasana pose strengthens the muscles that extend and lift the thoracic spine, as well as stretching the front chest and shoulder muscles that comes from prolonged hunching.

Lastly, this posture gives you energy; it will wake you up and bring out some yang on those lethargic days. Give it a try – it is difficult to do this pose and not feel a shift in how you feel. Take time to note the before and after effects of Salabhanasa.

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How You Know You Are A True Yogi

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Some of you are really getting it. You’re really starting to become fine-tuned yogis and I can say I’ve succeeded in my job as a yoga teacher!

How do I know this?

Well, as a some of you have probably heard me say in class… I know I’ve done my job when I see you start ignoring me and doing your own yoga. Yep, you heard me correctly, when you you do something completely different from what I’m teaching.

I’m starting to see it more and more with a few of you… first you begin your way into a longer hold than I suggest, or you shift into a different variation of the pose we are doing, eventually to find your way into a completely different posture than what I’m teaching.

These are the signs you are on your way. This tells me you are listening from the inside out… letting your body be the guide to your practice. In this way we meet our needs on any given day – some days we push, some days we rest; we opt for postures for the sake of nurturing or for personal challenge. When we move from this place of embodied presence we honour our truth in the moment and then yoga truly becomes our own.

So I am never offended when I see a seasoned student start to move outside of the box. Class structure and alignment principles in yoga are there for your safety while you begin your learning, but as we develop our fundamentals and our skill of internal listening we can let go of this a little. The only distinction here being the student that moves or tries postures free of direction, un-attuned to the body’s signals of limits and the student that adjusts and moves from a place of personal need and caring for oneself.

In a way, this learning process is about empowerment and trust. What I want, as a yoga teacher, is to support my students finding union with themselves – not with me.  I want them to feel empowered to be with themselves and their bodies from an inner source of knowing, and to trust that they know what is best for themselves in class. This may mean you can no longer just go through the motions of asana practice, and your time on the mat then becomes a partnership of what I am teaching and honouring what you need.

So the next time you are in class and the urge strikes you to stay a little longer in a pose or move and shift to something new, trust it, and let this be a signal that you too are on your way.

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How to Heal in Yoga

iStock_000011331341XSmallMary, a previous student of mine, initially started coming out to classes on the recommendation from her doctor to help her with her chronic tension and back pain. She said nothing she tried over the last year was working to help, so she thought she’d give yoga a try.

It didn’t take long to realize where things might be going wrong for Mary. In her first class she armoured and wrestled her way into every pose, holding her breath, clenching her jaw, and tensing her shoulders. Despite my cues and encouragements to practice from a place of slowness, steadiness, and ease (in breath, body, and mind), Mary continued to move through the class as though she were about to take on the offensive line of football team.

I’d love to say Mary stayed with her yoga practice, and she learned to move easier and listen from a place of inner awareness; however, Mary quit before any chance of change could take hold.

Let’s be honest, a lifetime of repeated behaviour or being a certain way with how you do things can become a well-conditioned groove (known as Samskaras in yoga), and this is very difficult thing to change. From watching Mary struggle, though, it became very clear to me that it is not enough to simply attend yoga class, it is more important to focus on the “how” you are doing it.

In order to reap the benefits in yoga it is essential to bring awareness to how you do it. The goal is to connect inwardly – listening to our bodies for optimal and safe edges in postures, and learning to be in a place where we can breathe fully, expanding and opening channels of energy to all corners of the body. When we tense and constrict too tightly around a posture, we run the risk of tensing our bodies (and our minds) further or even injuring ourselves. Not to mention we are repeating learned patterns, of possibly unhealthy ways of breathing and moving, rather than creating new habits that help us for better, healthier relationships with ourselves.

It is the slow, mindful movement in and our of the postures that helps us become aware of how we are holding and tensing our body and breath. Practicing this way gives us the opportunity to respond and adjust, and creates more openness to receiving the healing benefits the poses have to offer. Conversely, If we plow through, moving from a mental construct of how a pose should look or be, we rob ourselves of the physical, mental, and even emotional rewards. So yoga becomes very much a process of learning to inhabit our bodies, and getting out of our heads. The very nature of this shift in awareness is the impetus for change.

Of course like any new skill, learning to “be in our bodies” during yoga takes practice and time to become familiar. The more you practice with this intention of being present to yourself, allowing for space, acceptance and ease in your postures, the more you will begin to feel the true magic of yoga – a gradual shift towards a healthier, more peaceful, and maybe even a pain-free you.

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Yoga for Your Brain: What You Need to Know About Mindfulness and Meditation

110203-064Here is a little Question & Answer piece to explain some basics around mindfulness and meditation, and how they relate to yoga.

What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness simply means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.

When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future. Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment.

How are mindfulness and yoga related?
Although the term “mindfulness” has its origins in Buddhism, many yoga teachers of today have adopted the term in their teachings with its mainstream recognizability. Of course, classical teachings in yoga, specifically the eight limbed path of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, are indeed describing the practice of mindfulness/meditation. For example, the fifth limb, Pratyahara (a sanskrit word), meaning withdrawal of the senses or turning inwards; the sixth limb, Dharana, meaning holding steady concentration; and the seventh limb Dhyana, meaning contemplation/meditation.

In practice, yoga teaches mindfulness when we become the observer of what we are noticing in our bodies and minds during a pose or transition. When your yoga teacher cues you to notice sensation, alignment, breath, and thoughts during class, he or she is cultivating the state of mindfulness. This is what makes the practice of yoga different than other physical sports/disciplines — you are learning to move with conscious awareness, and you are learning the skill of shifting your attention away from the unconscious mind-chatter to that of the observer, present to all that is happening in your mind-body from moment to moment.

What is meditation?
Look up the definition of meditation and you’ll get a lot of different answers. That is because meditation has become a catch word to describe many different practices ranging from contemplation, to concentration, to even fantasizing/daydreaming (which it is not). Most commonly, meditation means the act of giving your attention to only one thing in order to work on the mind. In a true meditation practice a specific procedure is followed in order to produce transformational results in some way, such as the development of concentration, emotional positivity, self-knowledge, calm, or spiritual growth.

Also, among the many forms of meditation, the process varies – some use an object or a sensation to fix the attention to, while others use chants and mantras (sometimes having a religious connection). There are also guided or content-directed meditations with the focus of achieving a certain state of being or emotion, e.g. cultivating a state of loving kindness or relaxation.

One of the most simple forms of meditation, and the one I am choosing to highlight in this blog, is Mindfulness Meditation; it is secular, well-defined, and researched with proven benefits. Although it can be done as part of a yoga class, it is it’s own separate thing without the need of any yoga posture. Mindfulness meditation uses the process of sustained focus, specifically by focusing your full attention on your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Here are the steps:

  1. Sit in a comfortable seated position with your back straight and eyes closed
  2. Notice the feeling of your breath coming in and going out. Pick a spot where you sense the breath to be most prominent (could be nose, chest, or belly), and focus fully on the sensation of the breath coming in and out.
  3. Your mind is going to wander off in thought constantly, and when you notice you’ve lost your focus on the feeling of the breath, let go of whatever you were thinking and start again, bringing your attention back to the sensation of the breath.

Many people think meditation is about stopping thoughts, but it is not. The mind thinks. That’s its job. The purpose of mindfulness meditation is to help us unhook from our tendency to get caught up in thoughts without any conscious awareness. The first time you meditate, you might notice the instructions are simple but the practice is difficult. You may keep getting lost in thinking about the past or future. The key is to remember that getting caught up in thoughts is normal. Just make note of thinking and return to the breath over and over again.

Why should we practice mindfulness meditation?
Because it is yoga for your brain!

During the meditation practice, every time your mind wanders into thought (and you notice this), and you bring your attention back to the breath, you are strengthening your brain. As Dan Harris explains in his youtube clip, Meditation for Beginners, (link at bottom), “it is like doing a bicep curl for the brain.” This process of letting go of thought and returning to the breath, improves your concentration and focus, builds grey matter in the brain, and creates a shift in cortical processing (for a more in-depth review of the research showing how meditation positively changes the brain see these links: 7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain or Harvard Unveils MRI Study Proving Meditation Literally Rebuilds the Brain’s Grey Matter in 8 weeks.

In my opinion, the greatest benefit of practicing mindfulness meditation is the way it helps us become aware of the self talk in our minds, and specifically to gain awareness of the preoccupation of fixations to things we like, and the aversion of things we don’t like. By watching our thoughts we get insight into the frequency of rumination and projection that is constantly going on in the brain, and we learn how we talk to ourselves. Consequently, mindfulness meditation is proving to be extremely helpful for mental health conditions, specifically for individuals with depression, anxiety, and PTSD, as well as for children as it improves their emotional regulation and focus/concentration.

How ofen do I need to practice to get benefits?
As a yogi, you are likely already learning the skill of mindfulness during your yoga classes. (Ultimately it is one of the transcendental accomplishments of yoga, to adapt this skill from your class to daily life). However, if you want to take this a step further, and get the brain strengthening benefits discussed above, start by setting aside 5 – 10 minutes per day for practicing mindfulness meditation. Here is a short youtube clip to help you get started: Meditation for Beginners.

So, I hope this blog clears up some answers you may have had about mindfulness & meditation. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to comment or email!

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