Aparigraha

This month we are looking at Aparigraha, the fifth and the last of the Yamas as we explore the moral and guiding principles of the Yoga Sutras. Aparigraha means “non-grasping” or” non-attachment.” This yama teaches us to practice moderation—taking only what we need, keeping only what serves us in the moment, and letting go if necessary.

Aparigraha is the decision to not hoard or accumulate goods motivated by greed but rather to be truly mindful in your accumulation of material stuff. This can be a tough sell in this consumer culture of ours, but when we take a hard look at why we the feel need to buy certain things, we may start to identify the reasons behind the urges… For example, the fear of not keeping up or fitting in, or, it could be an attempt to fill feelings of some other emotional inadequacy. We can get attached to material goods and find ourselves wanting more and more, and at some level thinking we are what we have. This can be an endless cycle that never really fills the void of wanting and the perpetual accumulation of material goods can become toxic to our minds and our environments. Aparigraha reminds us to practice moderation—to step back and examine the motivations of our “needs” and whether they are actually “wants.”

In our thoughts we can also see Aparigraha at play in our clinging or attachment to wanting things to be a certain way. Often, in yoga, I see students getting caught up in an expectation or comparison mindset of how they should be able to keep up in class—either comparing themselves to others or an ideal version of themselves. Maybe they suffered an injury and their body can no longer do a move they could do before. You can see how there is an easy tendency to cling to that old way of being, but when we get in this comparing mindset we are out of touch with how we are actually feeling and we can then cause harm to ourselves. We must let go of our attachments to who we think we are, and become who we truly are. And while it may be scary, it will also be liberating.

In considering emotions, becoming attached to a positive feeling or a positive experience is completely human—why wouldn’t we want to feel happy for as long as we can? Happiness, joy and peace are important emotions to feel, but so too is sadness, anger and loss. To experience only the good stuff is to experience only part of what life has to offer. The school of life exists to allow us to experience and learn from every aspect of our being, the light and the dark, and to truly live, we must not push away the things we don’t want to feel, but allow them to happen, and know that this too shall pass. When we let the moment be what it is without either trying to cling to it, or to push it away, we can really say we’re living in that moment, allowing things to come and go, without the need to possess any of it.

The Sanskrit word ‘Parinamavada’ is the teaching that ‘everything is in a constant state of flux’. Indeed, change is the only constant thing we can expect in life. Just as the trees drop their leaves in Autumn so that they may grow new buds in Spring, we too go through changes every moment of every day. Material stuff comes and goes, our physical bodies are undergoing change every second with cells regenerating and bones rebuilding, and our thoughts and emotions shift and change continuously. The truth is, clinging to past or present moments will not bring us peace. This is the lesson of Aparigraha. If we are to awaken to the fullness of our being, we must learn to let go. When we practice moderation and non-attachment we are essentially saying we trust the flow of life, and within this, lies true freedom.

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Bramacharya: Energy Moderation

This month we look at Brahmacharya, the fourth Yama as we explore the moral and guiding principles of the Yoga Sutras. Originally, Brahmacharya was translated as celibacy, but there is a much broader interpretation of this Yama which is more relatable in this day and age. Brahmacharya can be equated to “energy moderation”. It’s about preventing the squandering on one’s energy through the misuse of the senses so that we are not urge driven.

Overstimulating environments, foods, music, movies, games, and yes, even inappropriate sexual behaviour, can all cause disturbances of the mind and emotions. If we let our senses rule our behaviour and spend too much time in overstimulating activities, it can leave us feeling wasted of energy for living a harmonious and fulfilling life. It’s good to look at your energy reserve like money in the bank—you don’t want to spend it all right away so that you have nothing left. With Brahmacharya in practice, you become a good “energy” manager.

In yoga class, I often reference Brahmacharya when I teach my students to balance their effort in the poses—to learn how to find just the right amount of effort to hold the pose without forcing or over engaging. When holding a pose it’s good to ask yourself, “What would I need to do, or stop doing, to stay in the pose for 10 minutes?” Most of the time you’ll realize you are putting too much energy into places where you don’t need it. Yoga should be replenishing to your energy, not depleting.

This is a great practice that you can apply off the mat as well, especially in tense moments like a job interview or being late in traffic. Practicing letting go of tension and reserving your energy for the moment. With time, you’ll notice that by not giving so much energy to wasteful stimulation, or body tension, you are banking your life force energy and feeling more healthy and at ease in all aspects of your life.

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A Closer Look at Yoga Therapy

Today I want to offer a little information on what role yoga therapy can play in helping you gain better health and wellness.

Yoga Therapy, as the name implies, uses yoga techniques—postures, breathing exercises, and meditations to assist people towards a whole-person approach to healing. A yoga therapy assessment considers your physical body (posture, movement, injuries, digestion, etc.) alongside your breathing style, emotional/mental health, and personal history and goals.

Thinking about how yoga therapy helps, you might picture the yoga stretches releasing physical tension from your body, or the relaxing postures and meditations reducing mental and emotional stress… this is all true, but what people don’t realize is the biggest benefit yoga therapy gives you is ‘embodied awareness‘.

Embodied awareness, otherwise known as interoception, is simply the practice of being with your own sensations in your physical body. It is learning to being still within yourself and noticing what you feel, and come in touch with where you are in time and space. It gives you the awareness of your own internal experience and the learning of how to be at home in your own body. 

Why is embodied awareness or interoception so important for health recovery? Many times even before we have a health diagnosis or condition we are turned off from our own awareness and sensations… we become dis-embodied. Overtime, we become more externally focussed, and as a result we don’t notice what it is that our body is trying to say and we don’t identify what it is that we need so that we can take action to get that need met.

So when we practice embodied awareness we become more at home with our own experiences. We become more accepting to our internal experiences, and we learn to recognize and listen to what our needs are and then take action to getting those needs met. This is how yoga therapy helps. It can literally be the key to understanding what it is you need to move forward in your health recovery.

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Asteya

This month we look at Asteya, the third Yama, as we explore the moral and guiding principles of the Yoga Sutras. Asteya is translated as nonstealing, and the message is clear, for a more peaceful and harmonious life, don’t steal. When we read this, we might conjure up an image of a person stealing goods or money from a person or business, but much like the previous two Yamas, there is more to consider here.

There are lots of things you can steal. You can steal someone’s time when you are late, or when you misuse the time allotted to a project. I remember being assigned a group project in university where the two other group members didn’t take the assignment seriously. Either they wouldn’t show up for group worktime or they didn’t engage in the work when they were there. I ended up doing the whole project on my own, and in the end they stood by and took credit for being a part. This definitely felt like they were stealing my time.

You can also steal someone’s energy, and in some cases, steal their happiness. I think of the many clients I know who work in situations where duties and hours seem to pile up over the years. Bosses or corporate environments with ever-increasing demands and coworkers leaving because of the stress and the remaining employees left to fight for a breath from under the workload. These work environments are stealing their employees energy, and eventually their joy from doing their work.

I also think of marriages or partnerships where one person demands more than the other. In a healthy relationship where both people are of able body and mind, there is a balance—a give and take, a division of duties. However, most of us probably know a relationship where there seems to be an upset of power: one person coming across as the selfless soul doing everything, and the other person acting selfish and lazy… and in some cases controlling.

Asteya also calls for us to consider what you consume. Because everything is interconnectected, whatever you receive is taken from somewhere else. Most of us don’t stop to consider all the different levels of energy involved in what they consume. What comes to mind the most is the resistance for people to pay for quality goods. Consumerism is complex and we are often blind of the background story; however, I always like to consider the craftsman, the local farmer, or small businesses where you have a direct relationship and understanding of where the product comes from. In these instances its good to consider the time and energy this person/business has spent. And ask yourself, “Is this really who you want to “steal” a bargain from?” If you are taking something, you need to consider how to give back the appropriate energy or amount. Energetically and karmically, you create a major imbalance if you take and don’t pay back.

You might ask, why is it that some people allow their power and energy to be stolen by another? In my years of working with individuals with this tendency, it often stems from a history of feeling unworthy, sometimes from negative childhood experiences, which can be very troubling and enduring. When a person takes advantage of someone whom they are meant to take care of and love, stealing their energy and power, it’s very damaging and they will never have the space to heal and grow.

I personally love pondering the depths of this Yama. In considering how we govern our own lives in accordance to Asteya it brings me back to the importance of how a well rooted yoga practice can help us develop the skill of mindfully and objectively looking at ourselves to notice how we think and behave, and sometimes to reveal our dark selves. In all of us there are parts that we are not so proud of—maybe for some of us we have been stealing by taking advantage of someone or over consuming past our needs. When you recognize this within yourself, it is helpful to call upon the previous two Yamas—Ahimsa and Satya, and move forward with an earnest interest of truthfulness and kindness towards yourself, and positive change will occur.

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Satya

As part of my blog series on the Yamas and Niyamas, today I’m writing about Satya, the second Yama, which translates as truth (or not lying). In its practice it means being honest in our words and actions with ourselves and those around us. Living our lives in accordance with the moral standard of truthfulness is of course a good thing to do, but can be perplexingly difficult. Satya is layered and complex, but well worth the investigation.

We are confronted with Satya hundreds of times a day, and most of us choose to be mostly honest in our daily lives in our relationships, purchases, jobs—abiding by this moral standard to keeps the world civil. However, even the most truthful of us are not unfamiliar with “white lies”. Sometimes these white lies get told because they feel fleeting or insignificant. Some get told under the guise of kindness, such as telling your friend their new dress looks great when, in your opinion, it is unflattering. In some cases we deceive to make ourselves look better, such as “stretching the truth” in a job interview. If you take notice of your thoughts and actions, do you see these seemingly small deviations from the truth and then ask, “is there a cost?” Without needing to have an answer, I simply think we would benefit from taking a closer look at why we lie, and perhaps tell ourselves more… Are we doing it out of kindness, and consider the consequences of our choices beyond the immediate moment.

Truth is not always obvious; it can be concealed by a need for protection and safety, and it is not uncommon to hide the truth from ourselves. I often ask my students in class, while in a more relaxed, restful place, to look within and ask, “What is your truth?” When we slow down and connect with ourselves at a deeper layer, sometimes nuggets of truth come to the surface. In yoga, I’ve had uncomfortable truths be revealed regarding big choices in my life, such as changing careers or ending relationships. These truths were buried deep because recognizing them came with a more turbulent path, and I think it’s human nature to avoid these stresses, at least until the time is right. This tendency to protect ourselves from big upheaval in our lives is understandable, but when hidden truths do come to the surface, it’s best to take note because I’ve found you can’t stuff them back down once they are known.

Once you have named your truth, not acting on it can manifest in a myriad of ways such as digestive issues, stress, anxiety, or a variety of physical and mental ailments. Being truthful with ourselves is best served with a little bit of Ahimsa, the first Yama we explored in last month’s blog, representing kindness. The relationship between the two Yamas is nicely explained in how one might practice yoga. If, for example, you push yourself past a level you are ready for, this is being untruthful. Some people are incapable of doing certain poses due to mental trauma buried deep within and pushing past can lead to physical injury but also reveal deep-seated fears and sources of trauma. Sometimes its hard to be in the moment and be confronted by our truth in class, but when we are confronted with the inability to do a certain pose because of a disability or emotional connection to it, we serve ourselves best by acknowledging our reality honestly and kindly. There will be many truths about ourselves we don’t like in class or out of class; bringing a little self-compassion alongside the truth helps us move forward with it in a healthy way.

I reflect on how most of us are earnestly working towards betterment within ourselves and trying to live our best lives. However, when you do choose the path of untruthfulness, the dishonesty can come at a cost. You can try to reframe the lie or block it from your thoughts, but your deeper self knows, and bit by bit the body churns and wrestles with that untruth until you are physically and mentally unwell. I suppose the fact that it never goes away, but rather morphs into internal discord, is the karmic energy of it all. It’s been my experience in life that Satya, or living a life of truth, is very much at the core of well-being and peace…

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Ahimsa

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.

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The Yamas & Niyamas

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.

The Yamas:

  1. Ahimsa (non-harming)
  2. Satya (truthfulness)
  3. Asteya (non-stealing)
  4. Brahmacharya (energy moderation)
  5. Aparigraha (non-grasping)

The Niyamas:

  1. Saucha (self-purification)
  2. Santosha (contentment)
  3. Tapas (self discipline)
  4. Svadhyaya (self-study)
  5. 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!

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Yoga For Cyclists

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

  1. Cat/Cow

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!

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Back Care Yoga – New and Improved

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.

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Your Yoga Practice Reflects Your Life

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.

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Reflections on Solstice

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.

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Learning to Take a Deep Breath

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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, the instructions from the nurse to do some deep breathing came without instructions, and as a yoga teacher who studies and teaches breathing, it got me thinking how people could use some extra education on the “how to” part since taking a deep breath is not as straight forward as it sounds.

Over the years of working with people in my classes and private yoga lessons, I’ve realized how many individuals really 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 or for 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.
diaphragm-breathing-500x313The 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

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 nervous system, 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.

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.

Diaphragmatic (Belly) Breathing Handout

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Yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind…

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

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

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

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

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Yoga As Preventative Medicine

Untitled design-5It’s interesting to me as a yoga teacher to hear the reason why people decide to come out for a yoga class. Lately I’ve had numerous students tell me they realized they needed to start yoga (or get back to yoga) because they can feel they are tightening up and getting sore from their daily life activities. This is good awareness. Often our work or choice of sport or hobby creates repetition of the same movements or postures, and unless we intentionally force our bodies to move in the opposite directions, imbalances can form in the soft tissues and joints and make us feel stiff and sore.

Having worked in the physical rehabilitation industry for years, I learned also how serious this can be. The source of our injuries often becomes the old adage, “The straw that broke the camel’s back.” It’s rarely a single incident/accident that causes an injury, but rather an accumulation, over years, of doing too much of the same thing that weakens the structures to where some very small movement takes us to the breaking point. (Perhaps, we could extend this notion to including our mental health as well).

This is where the practice of yoga can fill a void. In my opinion, yoga has become the preventative medicine of the soft tissue injury world. Personally, I know no better way to restore mobility and introduce new planes of movement in an individual than yoga. I’ve written about this before in a previous blog, Gaining Connectivity Through Yoga and Fascia, which explains how yoga’s postures are so effective because they incorporate the whole body through multi-joint mobilizations, promoting stretch along the myofascial lines. In any given yoga class, you will be given opportunity to stretch along muscle lines opposite to those found in your activities. Yoga is unique in this aspect – the entire body moves and all planes of movement are accessed.

One could ask, why not just some basic stretching on my own? Absolutely do this, it is always helpful! Attending yoga regularly, however, can help you prevent the extreme imbalances from forming, before they become an issue. There is also the more subtle practices of mindfulness and pranayama (breathing techniques) that we learn from yoga which assist us in stress reduction and internal awareness building.This combined with our point above, of its superb ability to access all planes of movement along the myofascial lines, is why a regular yoga class could prove especially effective in balancing out your physical health.

Maybe this is why we are seeing more doctors and other health professionals prescribe yoga as part of a fitness regime and healthy lifestyle. Whether the individual is stiff and sore from the type of work and activities they are doing or other symptoms from being over-stressed, yoga is benefitting all types of individuals as they seek relief in their tight muscles and tensed bodies (and sometimes tensed minds). It’s wonderful to witness those of you finding your path to yoga before the an injury occurs – creating balance in your lives as you commit to your practice week in week out.

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How Do You Move?

110203-154“Don’t move the way fear makes you move. Move the way love makes you move. Move the way joy makes you move.” -Osho

When I read this quote I thought about yoga, and the beauty I see when I watch a confident, expressive student move from one pose to another. Her body language seems to speak, “I am open, I am free, I radiate love and confidence.” Picture it: tall posture, open arms, open chest, and fluid, easeful movements – these are the postures of someone moving with joy and love.

Now imagine what it looks like to move from a place of fear. I picture staccato, hesitant, restricted, and closed movements. When you are afraid or doubt yourself, movement appears small or and sometimes even frozen.

It’s not just in our movements, when we move through life from a place of fear, we live carefully and avoid risks. We are afraid to fail so we don’t take the risk for the new job and stay put somewhere that makes us unhappy. We are afraid we won’t be good at something, so we never try that one sport or activity we have a curiosity about. So we stay complacent, comfortable, and never push ourselves to try new things. Essentially, we live our lives small.

What if we practiced moving from a place of love and joy, using the safety of our yoga mat to explore bigger more expressive movements? The next time you do yoga, try opening a little more and softening into your pose a little deeper into your poses. Don’t self limit – explore your boundaries and step outside your comfort zone. Imagine yourself emanating love for yourself and deep gratitude for the body you have. Don’t worry about how you look, just give it a try and notice how it makes you feel.

My guess is it that if you try this, even though it may make you feel a little awkward at first, you’ll get a sense of freedom, space and uplifting energy by pushing yourself to do this…And perhaps you’ll have a little awakening of realization that you can bring more love and joy to your movement.

Then consider, how could you move this way off the mat?

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Chronic Stress & Adrenal Fatigue

151110-007-2Many people have not heard of Adrenal Fatigue, but understanding this condition is important because some experts suggest that 80% of the Western world will be affected by it at some point in their lives.

The adrenal glands are located above the kidneys and are responsible for secreting more than 50 different hormones that are essential for life. Among these are adrenaline, cortisol, progesterone and testosterone. Because they regulate so many important hormones, their proper function is critical for many functions essential to life such as producing energy, balancing electrolytes and storing fat.

These glands also help you deal with stress. When you are under stress, the adrenal glands engage many different responses in your body to make it easier for you to handle that stress.

But during periods of intense, prolonged stress or chronic illness, the adrenal glands begin functioning below the level needed to maintain health and well-being in the body. They still function but at less than optimal levels. The result is adrenal fatigue.

Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue:

  • Feeling tired for no reason
  • Craving salty or sweet snacks
  • Morning fatigue
  • Mid-afternoon sleepiness
  • Increased energy in the late afternoon
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Mild Depression
  • Weight gain, especially around the waist
  • Forgetfulness
  • Low body temperature

Treatment: Treatment for adrenal fatigue should take a multi-faceted approach with whole-body wellness in mind.

Stress: One of the first things you should do is reduce the stress in your life. This may mean clearing your schedule, reworking some relationships or learning time management skills. In order for your adrenal glands to heal, the demands placed on them should be lightened.

Sleep: Sufficient sleep is also important. The main repair work on your adrenal glands takes place between 10 pm and 1 am. If you are prone to late nights, consider training your body to go to bed earlier. It is also a good idea to reduce or eliminate caffeine from your diet in order to help you sleep more soundly.

Exercise: Adrenal fatigue can also be helped by exercise. Exercise regulates cortisol, relieves depression and increases blood flow. Each of these benefits will contribute to your recovery. Try to exercise at least 20 to 30 minutes each day. Yoga is especially helpful in this manner since it teaches breathing and relaxation techniques as well as the physical exercise.

Nutrition: Finally, by decreasing ‘junk’ food as much as possible and eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet, you can improve your nutrient intake. Sometimes adding supplements to your diet can speed healing of adrenal fatigue, check with your doctor, naturopath, or dietician for advice on this matter.

Emotional Hygiene: We seem to be good at recognizing our physical ailments and seeking treatment, but we tend to ignore or minimize our mental health ailments. However, it is just as important to take care of your emotional health as it is your physical health. Improve your emotional hygiene by truthfully acknowledging your emotional status and, when necessary, seek the support your need.

Remember the first step to any change is awareness. If you think you may be suffering from adrenal fatigue, consider these lifestyle tips as part of your self-care plan in conjunction with working with your health professionals.

*For some helpful information on using yoga to reset the body’s nervous system and decrease stress hormones click here.

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Yoga Flow Video for the Upper Body

Here is a short flow sequence I use to warm-up the upper body at beginning of classes. It gently stretches the upper back, shoulders, neck and chest. It also helps to draw energy and circulation into these area, and brings focus into the body and breath.

If you find yourself sitting at a computer for long periods, this sequence is great as a tension reliever for the upper body during your workday. Simply sit at the edge of a stable chair, and move through the sequence 5 to 8 cycles.

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Diving Board

A few months ago I read this:

divingboardshelsilverstein-1024x845You’ve been up on that diving board. Making sure that it’s nice and straight. You’ve made sure that it’s not too slick. You’ve made sure it can stand the weight. You’ve made sure that the spring is tight. You’ve made sure that the cloth won’t slip. You’ve made sure that it bounces right, And that your toes can get a grip—And you’ve been up there since half past five. Doin’ everything… but DIVE.              – Shel Silverstein

After reading this I thought, this poem pretty much sums up how I feel about my yoga career, at least, at this moment in time. For years I have been planning, training, preparing, teaching, waiting, saving, and constructing… such that when I finally got nearer to officially opening my own yoga studio, it seemed to me, well…there is only one last thing to do.

Perhaps you can relate. Have you ever done a big career change, or perhaps something else like move to a new country, quit work and travel, leave a relationship, etc.? Big life changes like these have a way of making you feel vulnerable as you leave the familiar, the safe, and the secure, and sometimes it takes a lot of nerve and planning to finally getting to the point to overcome our fears and obstacles to take the big leap.

For me, it was a slow and steady climb towards my goal. There was no running and jumping – I had bills to pay and kids to raise, so I chose a part-time path. This required more time and patience than I imagined, but I kept at it, and for this I give myself a pat on the back. Ultimately, this journey has brought me to this point, at the peak of my total career change, and now I can finally say, my studio is open for business.

So if you are facing a big change in your life and you’re wondering should I or shouldn’t I? Just remember it doesn’t matter how you do it or how long it takes, it only matters that you don’t stand still. I can honestly say, being at this pivotal point, it does make me feel nervous, but I know in my heart, no matter what is to happen in the time to come, it’s true that it would have been worse to not have tried at all.

We must walk consciously only part of the way toward our goal, and then leap into the dark of our success. -Henry David Thoreau

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What Does the Evidence Say?

What does the evidence say?

With nearly 22 million North Americans practicing yoga, there’s a lot of buzz these days about what the benefits, and harms, are of yoga. You will hear and read anything from yoga cures migraines, menstrual cramps, tight hips, insomnia, rid the body of toxins, backache, anxiety to my personal favourites – yoga to flatten the abs and tighten the booty… Needless to say, one can get a little wary and mockingly ask, “What can’t yoga do?”

As much as I love yoga and do believe it provides us with many health benefits, I still appreciate everything has it’s limits, and let’s face it, yoga is a business – so a little scepticism goes a long way. Yoga is also very difficult to define due to its ever-evolving westernization of techniques and myriad of styles, making it tricky to qualify in research. However, plenty of studies have been done, and many more are underway. I recently came across this article,“I read more than 50 scientific studies about yoga. And here’s what I learned” by Julia Belluz’s, which nicely summarizes what the evidence for us. Here’s what it said:

What we know:

  • Yoga is probably just as good for your health as many other forms of exercise, but it seems particularly promising for improving lower back pain
  • Yoga helps reduce inflammation in the body, which can actually help stave off disease.
  • Yoga enhances “body awareness,” or people’s sense of what’s going on inside themselves
  • There is evidence showing that yoga helps with stress, anxiety, and other mood disorders, although, the studies thus far are limited in design and inconclusive in what aspect of yoga is actually helping

What we don’t know:

  • Whether some forms of yoga are better than others
  • Whether yoga should be prescribed to people for various health conditions
  • How yoga compares with other forms of exercise for a good many specific health outcomes
  • Whether yoga is safe in the long term. The cumulative research so far shows yoga is as safe as any other exercise, but much is still to be learned about long term safety when considering different styles and specific poses.
  • There is no good evidence yet behind many of the supposed health benefits of yoga, like flushing out toxins and stimulating digestion

My take on all this:

I always feel great in my body and mind after a good yoga class, and that’s what keeps me practicing. I’m sure the millions of other yogi’s would agree, and for this reason, I think yoga is here to stay. But with its increasing presence in mainstream society, more questions will be asked and the natural progression is for more research to be done, helping us better understand more about the what aspects of yoga are giving us the benefits, and possibly harms. This will indefinitely lead to refinement of techniques and styles and tighter regulations of credentials. Personally, I’m excited about the next chapter of yoga; no doubt there’s much to discover.

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Work Stress?… Take 5 Minutes to Relax and Restore

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Can’t keep up? Getting sucked under? How does one fit 24 hours of work to fit into an 8 hour workday?

Many of my coworkers and friends have been expressing how the demands of their workday are so voluminous, there is no longer a feeling of completion at the end of their day. As we run out of time to “complete” our tasks and projects, things are left hanging, and as they carry over into the next day, the pile gets higher…and no one likes this feeling.

I’ve discussed in a previous blog, Overloaded and Overwhelmed, how high stress, sustained over a long period of time, can negatively affect our physical health. We need strategies and healthy habits to be resilient; we want to break through this “pile” and come through thriving on the other side. For most of us, this requires a break or a step back from the work pile in some way. Even short breaks can give us a sense of renewed energy, a shift in perspective, and better mental clarity.

Today, there is plenty of research indicating a regular mediation practice can be an effective strategy in creating this emotional/physical balance and resiliency in a complex and busy world. There are many types and various lengths of meditations to try. If you want to give it a try, but are unsure where to start, below you will find a very simple and quick (5 minute) relaxation meditation that is great to relax and restore – perfect for a workday refresher.

I hope you’ll find a few moments to plug in and take a listen. Sometimes even 5 minutes can help you be more relaxed and productive in your day.

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Why isn’t yoga just a stretch class?

iStock_000003388488XSmallThe other day at work I had a client ask me why we (yoga instructors) don’t just call yoga “stretching” or “gymnastics”. Fortunately, I didn’t have to answer this question since one of my other clients spoke up for me (we will get to that part later). I work in a physiotherapy clinic where there are a lot of injured clients who have had very little experience doing physical exercise, let alone any yoga experience. In this clinic, I teach gentle yoga classes and relaxation meditations. Although, sometimes it takes a little convincing to get the clients to try the classes because they hold an assumption that they need to be some bendy, twisty super yogi to keep up; or, for the meditations, that there is some religious or “new-agey” spiritual practices associated with it. As a result,  I often advertise the classes by explaining the focus or intention of each class.  One might be a class designed to “help relax” or  another might be designed for “pain reduction,” and this usually gets a few individuals through the door.

It’s understandable that there are these assumptions and stigmas out there about yoga and meditation. We see ultra-fit and bendy individuals in the media’s portrayal of yoga and we see these Zen like poses with hands “just so” illustrating meditation. Even though yoga can be like this, it isn’t always, and doesn’t need to be. So when a newcomer to yoga asks me the question, “What is this thing called yoga?”, I tell them it is a lot of things, and that there are many styles and intensity levels out there to choose from, but one of the more important intentions behind most yoga in today’s culture is self-awareness building. That’s right, it’s not just about the physical benefits of stretching, strengthening, and breath (Pranayama) – although, all things being equal, yoga rocks in this department. It provides us with an opportunity to take a step back and be an impartial witness to ourselves.

Here is the secret that I and many other yoga instructors, and practitioners of yoga know. We teach classes intended to take you on a journey inwards. For an hour or so of your day, you are finally getting a break from your mind’s busyness of all your “to do’s,” future, and past thoughts, and instead you are transported into state where you notice your body and your breath, and are focused on the present moment. Whether you are moving or not in the class (in guided meditation you may not move at all), you are spending time experiencing what’s going on with different parts of yourself. You are discovering how you are positioned, where you are tensing your body, how you breathe, what it feels like to move or sit in a certain way, and where your mind goes as you do all this. In essence you are getting in touch with what’s going on inside – you are building awareness to your internal self and your patterns. In a yoga class, the opportunity is there for all parts of you to speak up because there is finally the space and break from the busy chatter of your mind to let them be heard. As a consequence you begin to learn about patterns of holding, and thought, which in turn can lead to a shift in perspective and how you approach the moments of your day.

So it was the best compliment ever when this client of mine spoke up for me when I was asked the question why we don’t you just call yoga “stretching” or “gymnastics”. This is what he shared: He had never done yoga before, nor had he even thought to do so, but was amazed at how it affected him. He explained how during the class his attention was drawn out of his thoughts and into noticing how he frequently tensed his shoulders and jaw in a certain way, and through the guided instructions to breathe and release he could relax these areas, which lowered his internal stress feeling. He told me how these awarenesses lingered with him well after the class was finished. Later that night, he was cooking his dinner on a grill and forgot about it, burning it. Normally he would tense up and get angry, but after the class he felt he could step outside himself a little more, notice the tension that was forming in his jaw, and by taking a couple deep breaths he released the stress of the situation rather than letting it escalate.

What this client explained so eloquently was how he exercised the use of his new awareness. This is what we do in yoga and meditation. We are teaching you, experientially, how to get in touch with your internal self, and then give you some skills of how to manage yourself in a healthier way to deal with whatever it is that you are noticing moment to moment. In yoga and meditation you learn how to pause and step outside of yourself and learn from the language of your body and breath. This is the yoga I know and love.

 

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Comparison is the thief of joy

6921-7a9d-3b36-b84fI was on Facebook the other day and a friend of mine posted a video of a swing championship dance, and let’s just say the male partner didn’t have the “typical” body composition of most well established dancers. Watching this man triumphantly and joyfully show off his moves was fun to watch. I was totally inspired by his confidence, and as my friend said in her post, “This man appears to have a lot of self-love.” Of course we can never really know this for sure, but this guy certainly did seem unabashedly immersed in his art – even if he hadn’t been a really skilled dancer, his energy would have been captivating. (To view video: Phoenix 2008 Swing Dance Champions).

When it comes to our hobbies, activities, and aspired careers, it can be daunting in this day and age to stand confidently in the sea of so much talent – truth is there will probably always be someone better at what you do than you are, and yes, they will probably appear fitter, sexier, smarter, and richer than you as well. But does this matter? Should that steal your right to just try or steal your enjoyment of self expression? I know this answer seems obvious, but countless people every day hold back the best of themselves out of fear of not being good enough. This is why I love this quote by Roosevelt, “Comparison is the thief of joy”. It provides such a great reminder of how we can let our insecurities hold us back from joyful living. Wouldn’t it be blissful to confidently act and do things out of genuine interest and passion, freeing yourself from the weight of the standard you compare yourself to?

Of course this falls under the category of “easier said than done” for many of us, and I recognize the complexity of such a task, but consider that whatever it is that is holding you back can rob you of opportunities and being present to enjoy all the precious moments of your life. It makes sense to me that this is a quest worth pursuing. Life can pass us by so quickly. It is important to figure out ways to remind ourselves that we are unique individuals made up of many parts and although there are things we might like to change or strive towards, you are still a whole being right now, and you are enough just as you are. In essence when we give ourselves permission to engage and live as our genuine selves, imperfect and learning along the way, we give ourselves room to grow, and eventually, we dance like champions.

For Your Practice

If this resonates with you, here’s something you can do to start in a small way. Take a short break in your day; just 5 minutes (you can use a timer). Sit quietly, breathe in deeply, and truly feel your breath moving in and out of your body. Just for short time, give yourself permission to lay it all aside the striving, the comparing, the self-imposed conditions and just be. Feel your body, your, breath, your aliveness from the inside out. For a moment in your day, let go of that whatever flaws, imperfections, and lack you think you have, and just breathe. Repeat these words to yourself, “I am enough, I am worthy.” Do this every day.

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Working with Mental and Emotional Burdens

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What would it be like to put it down

the regrets, the anger, the guilt

the time lost and deeds undone,

the wishing things to be different.

For there is no controlling what is done or cannot be changed.

Unwind yourself from this judgment, this fate,

and let it be independent from all that you are.

It need not define or tether your every move.

Breathe in deep and let it out,

Let your heart beat its song of wholeness,

and step lighter into this moment.

I recently wrote a blog for Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy about how we can learn to work with mental and emotional burdens (persistent thoughts of past regret, trauma, or future angst that permeate our daily presence and interfere with how we live).  To read this post visit http://pryt.com/2014/05/become-a-yoga-therapist/putting-load/

Also, I’ve included a short focus meditation to go along with this blog post. You might find this meditation useful in helping to identify and process recurring thoughts which carry the weight of burden. Link below to give it a try.

Putting down the load meditation May 2014

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Overloaded & Overwhelmed

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There seems to be so much to do. Getting it all done is a bit like conquering the beast. But is all this busyness of the 21st century lifestyle actually harmful to us? My answer to this question is it can be. Some would argue, that so long as the busyness is framed in a way of choice and personal interest than the stress is good for us to keep us fulfilled. There is also research showing us that the way we mentally frame the stress in our lives can reduce the negative impact it has on our health. (For an inspiring presentation on a new way to reframe stress in our lives check out Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk). Often though, I find, busyness and the consequent stress in our lives can be insidious and stemming from “things” in our life not so pleasant. Whether it is self-induced or outside of our control, it can leave us feeling overloaded and overwhelmed. When we feel this way, there is tendency to push aside our personal health practices (good rest, good diet, exercise, fun, etc). Left long enough, our physical bodies suffer, and eventually the body has a way of expressing itself on the matter to get our attention.

Consider chronic pain as an example. A course I attended not too long ago reviewed the anatomy and physiology of our nervous system when we are in pain (instructor, Neil Pearson offers many invaluable resources about pain on his site Life is Now). Essentially, the purpose of pain is protection, and it’s the brain’s job to determine if tissue damage or some other experience to the body is dangerous. If the brain decides that it is dangerous, it sends out protection signals that come in the way of pain, muscles spasms, weakened muscles, and a release of hormones. But the nerve signals originating from the area of injury or area of pain are not the only source of input that the brain relies on to decide on whether or not to “protect.” Factors such as our thoughts, emotions, memory of past pain experiences, the amount of stress hormones in our body, and level of fear can all add input to the brain’s assessment of the degree of protection needed, and can therefore affect how much pain we feel. So in the face of persistent pain, keeping our worrisome thoughts, negative emotions, and stress levels in check can help mitigate the urgency and intensity of the pain protection system, and being mindful that keeping these things “in check” is nearly impossible when we are constantly busy, rushed, and overwhelmed.

Add to all of this that when one system of the body is highly active, such as the nervous system when we are in pain, this affects other systems as well. The field of psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology (PNI – if there was ever a word that needed an acronym..) studies the interrelated functions of the brain, nervous system, immune organs/cells, and endocrine (hormone) glands. We know now that there is a unifying network of nerve fibres that wire together the various components of the PNI system, and that there is also constant biochemical cross talk among them. Research shows stressful events trigger cognitive and physiological responses which, in turn, induce nervous system, and hormone changes, and these can impair immune function, rendering us more vulnerable to becoming ill. Things do not happen in isolation in the human body, changes in one system affects other systems, and this can be cyclical and cumulative!

So this is what I’m learning. Adding to a plate that is already full can result in the body protesting, and that persistent pain in your abdomen or the panic attacks you recently developed don’t always seem related to that small thing you said yes to doing last week, but they can be. I like to use the analogy of the human body as being like a large container or vessel filled with various objects representing all the things we do in our lives. When your vessel is already full, it is not such a good idea to keep adding things to the to do list – adding more can result in a full vessel eruption. If there is no room for “you” in the container, some aspect of your health will protest.

Our containers can only hold so much and we can imagine that some items in our lives take up more space than others. A simple acknowledging of what’s in our containers at any given time is beneficial. Sometimes life gives us really big items that take up a lot of space in our containers. For example, the care of an ailing family member takes up a lot of space (logistically and emotionally), and we may not be able to handle as much in our container during this time. When life gives us big-ticket item such as this, it’s wise to let go of some items and ask for help. At other times we may notice we’ve filled our containers with so many small items, we’ve left no room for the more important, substance items such as our health or time with family and friends. Restructuring how we load our containers by placing foundation items as a first priority will free up space and can give us extra energy for the smaller items in our lives. When we delete excess, prioritize, and re-structure what’s inside we can take advantage of our full capacities.

So the next time you find yourself feeling overloaded and overwhelmed, let it be an amber light indicating your body has reached capacity. Any more, and your body may signal red, and your guess is as good as mine as to how this red light will manifest in your body. Maintaining a healthy balance is doable when we respect that our containers have limits, and our limits can vary at different phases of our lives. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed–it doesn’t mean you’re weak or there is something wrong with you. Think of it as being part of a sophisticated protection system, the body’s way to get you to pay attention to take a step back, slow down, and look what’s in your container and how it’s prioritized. Listen, acknowledge the signs your body is telling you, and allow for enough space that you’re enjoying the items and moments that make up your container of life.

 

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Therapeutic Edge

120905-240xI’ve always loved hiking. There’s something so fulfilling about accomplishing a long trek, especially when the destination lands you standing on a cliff edge or mountain peak; reaching that point where you can step no further and submit to doing nothing more than being present to the expanse before you. Perhaps this is why I was drawn to yoga, it’s similar in that I can take my body to places where I can explore an edge. Entering a pose, there is a point where my body naturally stops, where it meets some initial resistance, which I call the first edge. Gradually, with time, my body will settle and I will be able to move into a deeper sensation for a slightly stronger edge. Finally, to move to a point where I am at my full edge – any more and it might be painful or unsafe, and my ability to stay present to the sensation and breathe fully would be hampered.

The edge, however, is not always a well-defined line, and sometimes we underplay or overplay the edge. Our unique anatomies, personalities, egos, and histories all play a part in how we arrive at the edge, and yoga is great for revealing these patterns to us. Some of us hold back and approach hesitantly, stopping ourselves before we reach the full edge. While others, might move so quickly or aggressively that we miss the boundary and land ourselves on the other side of the edge into potentially unsafe zones. Only by moving slowly and paying attention moment to moment, can we arrive at just the right amount of edge to optimally stretch our limbs and limits, and reasonably challenge ourselves.

For those of you who have received a Phoenix Rising yoga therapy session, you will likely be familiar with how, in addition to a physical edge, there is sometimes also an emotional edge that we need to learn to navigate. I remember the first time I received a session after having my first baby. I’d been running on adrenaline with sleepless nights, and I carried overwhelming concern that this new little being wasn’t being fully attended to. As a new mom it was easy to forgo thinking about myself, but when I closed my eyes and the practitioner had me notice my body, my breath, my thoughts, my emotions… I realized how distant my mind had been to my own needs, and how strongly my body had been calling for some self-care. Feeling lost within myself, I had a strong sadness envelop me, a grieving of separation of self, which caused my eyes to well up with tears. Within this moment I recognized there was potential for the dam to break, my body yearning to sob, but I also recognized I was at my edge, my emotional edge… I was not comfortable with a full break down sob in my yoga therapy session. And so I chose to take a deep breath and pause, simply absorbing where I was without moving deeper into the exploration.

Afterwards I wondered about my hesitancy to let go fully into my postpartum sadness and I realized much of what held me back was the fear of being so vulnerable in front of another person, a stranger nonetheless. I know I’m not alone on this one – being vulnerable is scary, and in some cultures, taboo. Many of us have carried, from previous generations, the belief that holding “it” in and not burdening our woes onto another is the strong thing to do. (Which, intellectually, I find humorous, because in actuality, the real strength lies in bearing our real, raw selves.) And the paradox here is that I, as a practitioner of yoga therapy(where I have seen many tears shed), have never felt burdened by witnessing another’s emotional release. In fact, I welcome it and feel honoured in the space. But this doesn’t change the fact that I too have an emotional edge to maneuver and I’m working through this process myself. No right or wrong, good or bad… just awareness and learning.

Learning to navigate our edges takes some practice. But with time and exposure it becomes the climbing ground of possibility. We learn how the edge is a place that is neither comfortable nor painful – it is somewhere in between. For some of us, learning where our physical edge lies is new and challenging, and for others it’s the emotional edge that proves more elusive and daunting. It’s all okay. It’s that one step closer to the unfamiliar, that can be scary at first; but as long as we step mindfully, and we take care of ourselves as we near the edge we will land at just the right spot,allowing us to view new heights and perspectives. This is how we grow and stretch physically, mentally and emotionally, and maybe even, how we learn the freedom and empowerment that can come from expressing our fears and vulnerability.

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Five Life Lessons I Learned from Yoga Therapy Training

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To say my experience in Yoga Therapy training was pivotal in how I live my life would be an understatement. Here’s a few of the “ah ha moments” I took away from my journey of becoming a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy (PRYT) practitioner.

1. Words matter. Like a mirror reflecting back your deepest secrets, what and how you say reveals much about your inner beliefs about yourself. There is a technique in PRYT were the practitioner feeds back your words to you, which is done in the training as well. I started to notice trends of word usage that identified lack of confidence in myself and a tendency to soften the message. For example, “If you don’t mind, have a seat”. Rather than saying, “Please have a seat.” It’s subtle, but profound. Taking a moment to reflect on our word choices can lead to great insight.

2. Trust that you know what’s best for you. Despite what anyone else may tell you, you are your best coach. No one knows you better than you do. Sometimes the wisdom is buried a little, but it’s there. There is a Chinese parable that speaks of a man who was going to buy a new pair of shoes but forgot to bring the measurements so he went home to get them. Upon returning he found the store closed and did not get the shoes. Someone asked why he didn’t just try the shoes on, and he replied, “I would rather trust the measurements than trust myself.” This parable speaks to how often we trust some external indication of what may be right rather than trust what internally feels right. In PRYT you are encouraged to take time to connect with your inner knowing and search for answers from within, and in my experience, the more you do this, the more you trust that you do have the answers.

3. Direct experience is always best. It’s easy to fall into the trap of, “I’ve seen that before so I know all about it.” Well, no – unless you’ve directly experienced something for yourself, you don’t really know. For example, as yoga instructors we can learn that certain poses affect certain areas of our body. Camel pose, we learn, arches the back, stretches the front body, and is a great chest opener. This can all be very true, but until you are in this pose for yourself, you can never know how it exactly feels, and what it is doing to you. Each individual is unique in mind, body, and life experience, and because each moment is new, our experience in a yoga pose is truly unique and different each time. And so it is with the training to become a practitioner. Through the process of experiencing PRYT for ourselves, we learn the value of direct experience and the uniqueness of our individual experiences. Effectively, we learn not to impose direction or to assume what is best for our clients; rather, we learn to be open to the possibility of any experience, as it organically arises in the individual.

4. Much of what I was doing (or not doing) was based in fear. In PRYT we are given the opportunity to explore whatever is showing up in the session – thoughts, statements, body sensations, memories, images, etc. Staying in the space of an experience and taking the time to reflect on it can reveal new insights. Here’s an example from one of my earlier sessions. I was lying on my stomach and the practitioner took a hold of my hands, gently pulling me back to lift my chest off the ground. She asked me to tell her when I reached a spot that felt like my edge. Soon into the lift I told her to stop, but as I settled into the experience I realized I’d asked her stop well before my physical limit – I could have gone way further. This realization sparked an insight into a tendency I have in life to limit myself. And underneath this was the realization of the fear of not being enough (or in some cases, a fear of being more than enough). Taking time to experience what we notice in our bodies/minds, and pausing to sit with it, can peel back the layers of armor to reveal an inner truth.

5. It is possible to release deeply held habits and patterns. Sometimes life gives you the opportunity to get a glimpse outside yourself to learn about a pesky habit or way of being that you’ve developed. For example, in one of my yoga therapy sessions it was revealed to me that I hesitate to state my needs directly out of concern of burdening another. Not surprisingly, I started to notice this tendency showing up all over the place in my life and I wondered, “Am I ever going to stop doing this?” Fast forward a couple years and I was able to recognize this “self-imposing” issue sooner (as it was happening) and challenge myself to speak up for my needs. The more often I recognized it occurring the more I could pause, reflect and choose a different way to be. There is no shortcut to this kind of change, but PRYT sessions provide a base and an opportunity to check in as you explore and grow.

Whether you choose to receive the therapy or take it a step further into the training of becoming a practitioner, Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy is, hands down, the best method of self-discovery out there.

 

 

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The Story in Your Form

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Here’s the link to my latest post for Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy. This month’s topic is on the ways our body take shape and form from our life experiences. Like the way the  a tree becomes weathered on the side facing the shoreline and it’s branches and leaves grow in the direction of the stability and nourishment. Our form becomes a physical representation of our life’s story – a complex interplay of physiology and psychology weaving and webbing to form the shape our our beings.

Taking Shape in the Light of Yoga Therapy

Tell me the story you have not told anyone, the tale braided into your skull and tied with a string.

-Naomi Shihab Nye

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Great Fun at the Yoga as Therapy Workshop

inbalance_health-_DSC1503A big thank you to Kali Yoga for promoting and housing my latest workshop, Yoga as Therapy, where we explored the topic of connectivity in the body – first from an anatomical/biomechanics perspective and then from a physiological/energetic perspective. I’m hoping the participants left with a bit more appreciation for how every bit of our being is connected and intertwined.

Here’s an except from Elissa Cobb’s book, The Forgotten Body, that I read in the workshop to get the participant curious about the intelligence of our cellular bodies….

For some reason, unknown by modern science, at a certain point in our fetal development our tiny hearts suddenly begin to beat. Yet even before this miracle occurs, the cells of our body already have mapped out the essential framework of our bodies and have created the tin pump of a heart that will soon begin the thump-thump sound of “I am.” And all of this intelligence occurs before our brain, the part of us that we consider the be the house of such intelligence, develops. 

The human body – what a marvellous, mysterious, machine…

It was a great group of people at the workshop. Thank you all for sharing, experimenting, and discussing with me!

Namaste ~ Renée

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Your Friend the Breath

The mind is an ever-evolving, multi dimensional landscape. Moving in all directions, it’s like a lost puppy, darting from past to present to future, and back again. Alongside your busy mind is your breath–a steady companion to the wayward puppy. As the mind changes, so does the breath, as our mood changes, the breath mirrors it, as we become excited, the breath moves as rapidly as the mind. The breath and mind are inextricably linked; they dance together, mirror and mimic each other and share clues about one another.

We can experience the mind and breath partnership, for instance, when we are afraid–our breath might be held and we become very quiet, ready to flee or take action against a predator or attack (real or imagined). When we are anxious, as another example, our breath is rapid, high in the chest or in the throat. Or, if we’re depressed our breath is slower, usually lower in the body. When grieving, we sigh a lot–all of these changes in breathing patterns are caused by, or regulated by emotional or mental states. Subsequently, knowing that breath and mind are connected, we can become curious about it and familiarize ourselves with its patterns. We can become intimate with its signals, rhythms, and reactions—it’s a way to take a look more deeply into our own mind and behaviour.

Once we attune ourselves to our breath and begin to be mindful about it as we go about our day, we can recognize it’s more subtle signals. Noticing a change in our breathing pattern can alert us to an emotional state about to arise. For instance, if you are holding your breath as someone is talking to you, or begin breathing more rapidly, this can be information for you. Do a quick check in and ask yourself what is going on for in this moment–what are your thoughts, your emotions? Is it real or is it imagined? From this awareness we have choice, and by simply taking a moment to bring your breath into a more stable rhythm or relaxing the area of the body where we feel the breath being held or strained, we can alter the process and progression of the emotion.

Whatever is happening with the breath is a reflection of the mind and its thoughts and emotions; it is a profound and useful self-awareness skill. It is a key for the practice of being awake in the moment, seeing things as they are, not missing out on life, and being aware of it as it is happening. Intimately knowing the breath and mind as partners allows us to be participants in our life and all that occurs in it.

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