Yoga Therapy as a Certified Profession!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to Heal in Yoga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yoga for Gardeners

160403-034x_webTry these yoga poses to counteract and relieve your over-worked muscles from gardening. Keep in mind, it is not necessary to do this sequence in the order written, and each posture can be done independently from one another.

Modified Eagle Pose (right) focuses on stretching the muscles of the posterior shoulder and neck. Gently draw the bent across the chest with opposite hand and add a chin tuck and forward head lean. Hold this stretch for the length of 3 slow breaths in and out. Repeat a couple times each side.

Wrist and Forearm Stretches (below)
These stretches are a very simple way to relieve any tightness formed in the forearms/wrists after using gardening tools/shovels. Use your opposite hand to flex and extend the wrist as shown, ensuring to keep your elbow straight. Hold the position for 3 slow breaths, and repeat one to two more times each side.

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Sphinx Pose (below) is a gentle back extension stretch. It is complimentary after a day of forward bending in the garden. Prop yourself on your elbows as shown, leaving your belly and pelvis on the floor. Focus on dropping lowest ribs towards floor while lengthening upwards through the crown of your head. Work on lengthening out the back of the neck and drawing the shoulders and shoulder blades back and down. Stay in this posture for approximately one minute.

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Locust Pose (below) is a back strengthening posture. It is a great pose to counteract the over-stretching and weakening of the back muscles that can happen from gardening. In this variation of the pose the hands are clasped behind the back to add an additional chest/shoulder opener; however, the arms can be extended straight along the side of the body if hands’ clasped position feels too intense. In the lift, the head and chest come off the floor as well as both legs (aiming for space under the knee caps). It is important to reach the legs backwards and the upper body forwards (through the crown of the head), finding length alongside the extension. Make an effort to pull the shoulders and shoulder blades back and down. Whether you arms are straight at your sides or clasped behind the back, Squeeze the shoulder blades together. Hold this pose for 3 – 4 breaths at the top, and repeat one to two more times.

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Knee to Chest Over Bolster (below) allows for a gentle stretch of the hip flexor region and gluteals (areas often left tensed after a day of gardening). Using a rolled blanket or round bolster placed under the hips hug one knee to the chest and extend the other leg straight out and towards the floor. Hold this stretch for approximately one minute per side.

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Bridge Pose is another back strengthener which also provides the benefit of opening the front of the hips and chest. Again this posture demonstrates the hand-clasped position as an option; however, this part of the pose can be left out by simply keeping the arms resting on the floor at your sides. When entering this posture, ensure that your feet are hip distance apart and you keep your knees directly over the ankles. Lift to the hight that feels safe in your body. If you are adding the hand-clasped position, tuck one shoulder under the body at at time, drawing the shoulder blades together and clasp the hands. Press the pinky side of the hands down into the ground to give yourself the added lift to open across the chest. Hold in this posture for 3 to 4 breaths. Repeat one to two more times.

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Recline Bound Angle Pose Over Bolster (below) is a passive back extension stretch, chest opener, and groin/hip opener. It also relieves the rounded back posture that we often do when bending over to garden. Using a round bolster or rolled blanket under the back and neck, and a smaller folded blanket under the hips, lay down such that the lower edge of the bolster curves into the low back. Arms rest out to the sides palms up and for the hip/groin stretch (optional) the knees fall out to the sides with the soles of the feet together. Stay in this posture anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes. Keep in mind you can bring the knees in together, and rest the feet on the floor at any point if there is sensitivity in the hip joints.

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Rest or Savasana With Legs Up (below) is a posture to take the pressure off the low back; it is nice to finish with this posture. Before entering this pose, especially if you have done some of the above back extensions, stretch your back by hugging both knees to your chest for a few moments. After this brief stretch, lie on the floor with your legs propped over a small stool or chair. If this feels too high, or uncomfortable for you, just use the rolled blanket or bolster under your knees instead. Rest in this position, focussing on long, smooth breaths in and out of the lower abdomen for 5 to 10 minutes.

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For those of you who found this post helpful, I am offering a more detailed workshop on Yoga and Gardening in May. For more details about this event click here.

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Memory In Our Tissues

Do you believe that our physical bodies hold memory of our past experiences? 

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I recently worked with a lady who had a painful injury to the left side of her rib cage and every time she leaned towards this area she felt pain. To avoid the pain she would chronically lean away from the pain, and over the course of a year her muscles reset to a new “normal” of her trunk leaning to the right. This makes sense that our bodies shape around physical injuries and most frequent activities.

But what about this notion of storing “issues in our tissues”… can unexpressed emotion, fears, expectations, and our beliefs about ourselves actually be stored in our bodily matrix, shaping our physical form? Take for example, the chronic hiking of your shoulders from years of taking on too much responsibility or the forward rounding of your upper back to shield your front body, the place of your vulnerability and insecurities.

To me it feels very logical that thought, emotion, and memory can affect how we hold ourselves, and over time, how this holding pattern could be memorized through repeated transfer of information from cell to cell. There is a great quote from Ken Dychtwald that considers posture in relationship to the emotional body, “The body begins to form around the feelings that animate it, and the feelings, in turn, become habituated and trapped within the body tissue, itself.”

What I find so interesting about this is how we can go months, years, and sometimes lifetimes being unaware of the storage of memory in the tissues of the body until one day, your attention is called inwards and you experience your body outside the conditioned grooves that day-to-day living assumes. So often is the case for many of us when we first start practicing yoga. As Elisa Cobb writes in her book, The Forgotten Body, “the silence and the moment-to-moment awareness cues in yoga are invitations to finally notice sensations, thoughts, and images that arise, and the physical postures, asanas, knead the body’s cells, moving energetic information and triggering cellular memories. Yoga provides the atmosphere that interrupts our patterned living and provides us with the opportunity to meet ourselves with fresh perspective at the level of bodily experience.”

I find it fascinating that yoga can teach us that a tightly held muscle or rotation in our hip stores valuable information about our past and present selves. A simple stretch or pose becomes an invitation into the psychological and physiological web that form the matrix of the mind-body… a place from which we can let our bodies speak the stories of our past and reveal the ways in which our patterns of conditioning affect us. And with this new awareness of the “issues in our tissues”, it plants a seed for a different relationship with ourselves, the possibility of change, and in some cases a whole new way of standing in the present moment.

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Gaining Connectivity Through Yoga and Fascia

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I just love the concept of connectivity in the body. If anatomy is defined as breaking things apart, then reversing anatomy the process of putting the pieces back together, and fascia is the connective tissue responsible for this return to whole.

Fascia is a popular topic these days in the therapeutic sciences and yoga – there are numerous blogs and articles describing what it is. Many are based on the work of anatomist Tom Myers, in his books on Anatomy Trains, with his underlying premise that fascia, as a connective tissue, links individual muscles into functional complexes, sometimes referred as myofascial lines or anatomy trains.

Here is an infographic showing groups of muscles being connected through fascia and other connective tissue to form some of the more commonly discussed functional lines:

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For this article, it is not my intent to delve into the anatomy of fascia, rather to appreciate its role as a connector in the body, and to consider how yoga is perfectly designed to access its connectivity capabilities.

Consider this scenario: a person gets an injury where they experience swelling and acute pain immediately after. Their natural response is to immobilize the area of injury, and while swelling and pain remain high, the individual’s posture and gait will be altered, e.g leaning away from pain, avoidance of pressure, or limping. Most of the time, the  person will gradually restore motion as pain lessens and all is good, but when these splinting or pain avoidance postures get prolonged, the area of injury and the surrounding musculature are negatively impacted as the muscles and connective tissue tighten, loose fluid, and weaken – this has the potential to affect the whole functional system. Consequently, through the connectivity of myofascial lines, a simple ankle injury can work up the chain of tissues causing pain and dysfunction at the knee, hip, back, etc.

Reverse this and consider emotional disturbances in an individual. Imagine what postural changes happen when a person is depressed – their head is usually lowered, shoulders rounded forward, their chest caved in. As Myrthe Wieler writes in her article on Fascia and Yoga, “This postural pattern will start to affect their entire system, including their fascial grid. Think of what part of their fascia is becoming restricted. Their chest cavity is closing in affecting their breathing. It sends a message to the brain … something is happening that is causing the breath to change. Thus the brain chemistry changes. It can start to release stress inducing hormones which further affects mood and stress levels – increasing tension in the body and it’s form.”

So this connectivity through fascia works in both directions… our mind interpreting tension from our body and our body reacting to our mind. Therefore, it stands to reason that if we work with our bodies, releasing and realigning our fascia, it can have a direct effect on our mind, our behavior and our emotions. This is why I find yoga so effective in helping with system/functional disturbances. By design, yoga’s postures are perfectly arranged for global, multi-joint mobilizations, therefore, poses frequently stretch chronic lines of tension along myofascial lines (see picture above for a few examples). Additionally, because yoga encourages all aspects of the individual to be present moment to moment, it affords the opportunity for emotional change as the postures affect our chemistry from the inside out.

However, as a long time practitioner of yoga, what I appreciate most about yoga’s ability to change and affect the body is how we learn to move and stretch in ways that is directed from internal awareness. Having been through countless courses on anatomy and alignment discussing the do’s and don’t of the human body, what becomes more and more apparent is that rules change, and any good rule has exceptions. So when a student of yoga finally learns how they themselves can find safety in movement by listening to their own edges, or when they realize just the slightest movement to the left gives them that just perfect stretch, they are in essence learning how to connect to and heal their own bodies. And because fascia is like a web branching in any given direction; sometimes the line of stretch matches the above listed myofascial lines, or a specific pose alignment, but sometimes it is something quite different and unique to an individual’s body. So in yoga when we learn to explore our sensations from the inside out and to be creative in our postures this can be the most effective source of change.

I often reflect on a what an amazingly complex and intra-connected system the human body is. It is fascinating to study these connective platforms, like fascia, so we can be reminded how health issues in one part the the body don’t happen in a bubble – there is a whole person to consider. And as yogis, it’s nice to know, that as we develop our yoga practice over time, we shape and shift this scaffolding of tissue known as fascia, which inevitably changes our soft-tissue body, internal chemistry, and thoughts/emotions; and sometimes, in just one pose, we gain insight into our who we were, who we are, and who we are yet to become.

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Top 10 Reasons To Try Yoga Therapy

151016-028-2Do you believe that the mind and body are connected? Most people do these days. It makes sense that whatever happens to you physically affects you mentally/emotionally and vice versa.

Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapists are mind-body practitioners. By blending supported yoga poses/stretches with non-directed dialogue, the connection between what’s happening in your body is explored in relationship to your thoughts and emotions.

To borrow a phrase from a Vancouver based yogi, Eoin Finn, “Our issues are in our tissues.” And let’s face it, we all have issues… it’s just a matter of how much and when. And when life deals you a case-lot size of them, it might be time to check in with what valuable information your body has to offer you.

Here’s a list of 10 really good reasons to try yoga therapy:

1. When you’re faced with a big decision or difficult life choice and need clarification on what the next step can be.

2. When you’re feeling overwhelmed and the pace of 21st century life feels out of balance. Like many people seeking out their first yoga class, you feel a need to slow down, reflect, and regroup.

3. If you have run into a roadblock with your healing, either physical or emotional and you want to assess the source of your obstacle or want to investigate other options for healing.

4. Because you put everyone else first. Ever sit down at the end of a day and realize that between work and family you’ve done absolutely nothing for yourself?  You’ve been taking care others for so long you’re left wondering, “Who am I and what do I want?”

5. Your body needs it. You have tight muscles and stiff joints and you feel you could use some deep relaxation and, really, when couldn’t you use some gentle stretches and traction done to your body?

6. You’re confidence is low and you’re up against feelings of self-doubt and you are doubting your aspirations.

7. Life took a turn you didn’t expect and now you’re left sorting and processing – What now? What are my options? Where do I go from here?

8. You’re in a creative slump. You feel your source of inspiration–your creative well–is all dried up and are looking for ways to access it again.

9. Your past is catching up with you. Whatever you have pushed away and avoided dealing with, whether it be some aspect of your physical health that you’ve ignored or an emotional issue from your past, it’s resurfacing again and it’s time to check in about it.

10. For the joy of Discovery. You are interested in delving into your spiritual and mindful self and seeing what might be revealed.

For more information about what it’s like to received a yoga therapy session link here.

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Road Trip to Now

What’s happening Now?

Three little words used in a yoga therapy session to anchor you into the present moment and, as I have found, tethers you to your future goals and dreams…

To read more check out my latest post at Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy here.

 

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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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Happy New Year

Here’s a fun picture Oliver caught of the the girls and I “playing” yoga in the back yard. I love this picture, not because my little squeakers are budding yogis, but because we were being silly and enjoying the simple fun of trying to balance on our bottoms. There was no expectation of technique, or a goal of any kind for that matter. That’s how I feel yoga should be for kids–pure, playful, and in-the-moment fun. Gets me thinking maybe we could all use a little bit more of this kind of yoga in our lives.

Have a look at my latest blog post giving you a yogic perspective on making New Years resolutions here.

Wishing you a playful New Year,

Renee

 

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