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 Are you open and expressive or are you withdrawn and quiet?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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A Fusion Pose For Posture And Calm

A restorative pose combining supported bridge and legs up the wall pose.

Those of you coming to my classes know I love blending and fusing movements and postures to create a desired effect. I’m not much of a traditionalist when it comes to yoga. My quest is to make yoga more accessible, relatable, and effective for all, and if that mean tweaking an old posture for something safer or just approaching something different for new outcome, I will.

Sometimes when I get experimenting I come across fun fusions. Here’s one of my latest favourites blending supported bridge pose (the restorative version) with legs ups the wall pose. It combines the benefit of improved upper back posture that you get from supported bridge pose with the relaxation/calming effects of legs up the wall pose.

The restorative version of supported bridge pose uses the bolster to help extend the mid/upper back, which helps combat the “hunching” posture in the upper back and shoulders, and opens the chest to aid in more expansive breathing. It is also an inversion, with the upper body resting lower than the legs and hips. Inversions are known to help regulate blood pressure and heart rate, and they active the “rest and digest” branch of the nervous system bringing about a relaxation/calming effect on the mind and body.

Legs up the wall pose is also a very relaxing and effective inversion pose, so combining the two poses deepens the inversion, and potentially the benefits (boosting immune functioning, reduction of stress chemicals in blood, calming of stress & anxiety symptoms, improved sleep, etc.). In addition, legs up the wall is known for reducing edema in the lower legs/feet and can relieve lower back tension.

To give this fusion pose a try, you will need a bolster (rectangular or round works), a folded blanket, and a chip foam yoga block. You could use a second blanket if you don’t have the foam block.

The next image shows the set up. The bolster is approximately a foot away from the wall, the chip foam block is laid length-wise at the head end of the block, and then you place a folded blanket over the block. The idea is to create a step off effect from the edge of the bolster that is going to create the extension into the upper/middle back.


To get into the pose sit at the end of your bolster closest to the wall and lie back with the aim to have the top of your shoulders cascading off the edge of the bolster so that the back of the shoulders rest on the blanket and your head is supported. When you lay back you should feel the edge of the bolster landing at the bottom of the shoulder blades, and you should feel a comfortable extension of the middle/upper back.

You can definitely increase or decrease the step off height at the edge of the bolster by adjusting the height of the block/blanket set up (you can remove the block underneath for a greater arch of the back, or add more blanket height for less of and arch). Remember that you should feel something interesting happening in the upper back that feels like a stretch and pressure from the bolster, but not painful. You should be able to breathe, relax and stay awhile.

Also, I am demonstrating bent legs and feet on the wall to make it more gentle, but you could go more traditional and do straight legs up the wall (in this case, you may wish to position the bolter closer to the wall). Feel free to test both and see which feels better for you.

We usually stay for 5 minutes in class, but this could be shorter or longer depending on preference and comfort. Give it a try and let me know what you think!

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Nature’s Cycles Mirrored In Our Yoga

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. – Lao Tzu

Lately in class, the idea of doing small acts repeatedly as a way getting us where we want, has kept popping up. In yoga, and in many aspects of our lives, we lack patience and want immediate results ⸺“We want it all, we want it now.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started on a project (healthy eating being a great example) and felt really motivated for a short period of time in the beginning only to lose my enthusiasm very soon thereafter, and I know many others struggle with this too. The truth of the matter is, success lies in consistency over time; the commitment to regular practice day in and day out. I also know, however, that sometimes I’m not able to, or want to, show up with full effort, and I’m starting to realize how the process of achievement can be more subtle and gentle, and not always linear. Much like the cycles in nature, progression in yoga and other aspects of our lives can unfold gradually with peaks and valleys depending on our internal and external rhythms.

When you think about nature and how things typically progress and come into maturation, there are natural stages. The baby doesn’t just walk, it first spends time learning to roll, then rock, then crawl, then stand⸺all building blocks of the final destination of walking. Yet as adults we expect to we should be able to jump to the end stage, and we want results fast. We seem to be programmed to rush and hurry, and when things don’t happen fast, our minds become impatient and restless. However this way of thinking and being sets us up for failure. Mirroring the natural process, we are more apt to be successful when we proceed with smaller chunks and achieve competency in stages. I have seen some of the greatest transformations in yoga from the students who chose only two or three poses that they practiced, as opposed to big routines with complexity. These smaller elements, done regularly, often add up to much bigger results.

We can also reframe how we think progress should look. Progression in nature is rarely linear, and progress is not without rest or pause in the seasons and cycles. In some forests, natural disturbances, such as forest fires, are good example of natural breaks in the path of progression. In the boreal forests for example, forest fires release valuable nutrients stored in debris on the forest floor for new growth and allow some tree species to reproduce by opening the cones to free the seeds. This pause in the growth of the forest is essential for it’s health and balance as it matures. Looking back on my progression with yoga, it was much the same. There wasn’t intense effort all the way along. Sometimes I had strong commitment and energy for my practice, and I got a lot done during these phases. Then there were slow phases, and even breaks in the practice. Sometimes the breaks were by choice, and sometimes not – illness, injury, maternity – regardless, I always returned to my practice.  I realized that when I came back, I hadn’t lost everything ⸺ things came back quicker, and I progressed past where I was before. In reflection I noticed, sometimes after a break, there was a fierceness of practice that wouldn’t have happened without the time away.

There are natural cycles that happen within our own physiology, unique to each of us, that we would all benefit from understanding more. Mindfulness becomes our ally in navigating this internal rhythm. As I have mentioned in many previous blogs (Walk Slowly, If You Know Better, You Do Better, Yoga for the Brain), meditation and yoga help you develop the skill of shifting your perspective to become the observer of your own thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the body. When one adopts this shift in perspective you become more attuned to what is naturally unfolding within, and you can pick up on the cycles and patterns that come and go with your motivations, energy, and moods, throughout the day, months and years. You can learn for instance that when energy wanes and things slow down, it doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. Things are constantly changing, and coming and going. Sometimes when you are down and apathy takes a foothold on you, it’s hard to remember what it was like to be up and energized, and it’s easy to get caught in thinking these feelings and low energy will last forever. But this is never true. These thoughts, these emotions, they pass through us; they are not us. There are season and cycles within us to acknowledge and embrace as well.

I think it’s time we learn to be a bit more gentle with ourselves and remember that hurrying and putting heavy pressure on ourselves rarely works out in the long run, instead it sets us up for a crash. So I encourage you to stop feeling guilty for the lulls and the pauses. Pace yourself kindly, and welcome the irregularities of progress ⸺ both high and low. If you keep taking those small steps forward in harmony with seasons and cycles of your life, both inside and out, you are sure to see the reward.

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Taking Care of Your Wrists & Hands in Yoga

I was teaching a class the other day and one of the participants asked if there was a way to protect her sore wrists in class. Let me start by saying that this is not a new question, not only do I frequently address this question in class, but you’ll find numerous articles and posts on this topic. Since in yoga, there are a number of postures where we weight bear on our hands/wrists, it’s important to strategize how we should proceed.

There are a few things you can do to support yourself through the process of conditioning the wrists and hands to tolerate the weighted extension posture on them. Notice that I used the word “conditioning”… It has been my experience that the wrists will slowly build in their tolerance for the weight bearing postures with practice, so long as it is done gradually and mindfully over time.

To begin with, if you are one of those people who have tightness in your wrists, doing a few gentle range of motion ROM exercises before the weight bearing postures is a good idea. Warm up the wrists by doing some basic circles a few times in each direction, and then try these light wrist stretches:

Using your opposite hand, lightly pull the fingers back and then press them down as shown (holding briefly for 5 – 10 sec a couple times each hand). Then try bringing your palms together at the front of your chest attempting to bring the heel of the hands together as you move your hands downwards (holding in this stretch for 3 breaths).

Next, you want to think of your hands as being similar to your feet. Our feet have arches which distribute the load of pressure and shock absorb; so too can your hands. When weight bearing on them you want to feel the perimeter of the palm and the heel of the wrist connecting to the ground with a small air space under the center of the palm. Maintaining this little “arch” in your hand activates the muscles of the wrists and hands and gives some integrity of support to the structures. The fingers should also be spread wide with even pressure into each in order to distribute and balance the forces placed on the hand.

Finally, it’s good to remember to listen to your body in class. For me, when I’m doing a class where there is a fair amount of weight bearing on my hands, I do a couple downward dogs and then rest the wrists with some gentle circles in between, or I’ll go into child’s pose turning the palms up to relax the hand/wrist muscles. Also, during the class, when you feel your wrists have had enough, know that it is time to stop the weight bearing – find an alternate way to be, for example drop to your elbows during table top or down dog, or just find an alternate pose off the hands.

Give these tips a try. If you build gradually over time and pace yourself in class then your tolerance should improve with time. If you have a pre-existing wrist/hand condition you may need more specific advice and tips for using props to support your hands, and a consult with a yoga therapist would be advised.

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How Has Yoga Changed Your Life?

I recently read an article asking the question, “How has yoga changed your life? I thought this to be a very good question, here’s some thoughts about what I would say…

Let me start by saying, when I first started doing yoga, I could not have ever imagined how much yoga would change my life. Over the years of practice, yoga became a platform of learning about myself through my body, and from that, all sorts of change took place. Most notably, things in my life that were no longer “serving me” began to fall away. People, things, and habits that weren’t healthy for me have fallen away with a quite a bit of ease. The more I practice the more clear the “next right step” is to me.

The process was gradual and somewhat complex…During yoga, the movements of the body and breath bring us into contact with habitual and unconscious patterns of movement, thought, and feeling. We start to learn about the ways in which the body is conditioned―we can extend our hamstring only so far, the breath is shallow and rapid, the spine is inflexible in certain motions, and so on. Soon after recognizing our physical limits, we also notice how these limits give rise to preferences―we like postures that give us pleasure, we resist postures that cause us difficulty. However, this difficulty is not just a physical limitation but what the mind does with that limitation. For example, when an uncomfortable sensation builds in the body, the mind might become impatient or irritated, thereby affecting the way we are in the posture. We can start to see the patterns arise, the way we interpret and react to the physical experiences, in this way yoga postures become invitations into the psychological and physiological webs that form the matrix of the mindbody.

Many of these conditioned responses that imprint themselves into the mindbody are related to our past experiences and memories, often dating far back into early childhood. Yet more and more, research is showing that our memories can be highly inaccurate. The human mind has an uncanny ability to subjectively filter and interpret what it is that we remember, and our stories about ourselves can become exaggerated or distorted to protect or to fulfil ourselves in some way. Regardless, this is what we weave into our belief systems and characters, despite sometimes leaving us in unproductive or unhealthy patterns of thinking and action. And when such patterns are revealed to us in the physical movements of body and breath, a yoga pose becomes a tool of awareness, a moment to see ourselves outside of conditioned response, and an opportunity for liberation.

Ultimately this process of shedding light into the hidden corners of our embodied psychology, teaches about the way we have built up armor of protection from the stories we have told ourselves to avoid discomfort or to appease others’ opinions. Once known, these patterns begin to shift and change, and sometimes fall away completely. What remains is an undivided and authentic self. Once this door of personal truth gets opened, who you want to be and what’s important to you gets louder and more conditioned. New grooves in mindbody get created and there is really no turning back.

Much of this relates to the concept in yoga known as samskaras (latent impressions of our past actions, forming habit in mind & body). If you want to dive deeper into the concept of samskaras have a look at this article: What are Samskaras and How Do they Affect Us. Breaking free from the negative samskaras cannot happen without self awareness and self-study, and yoga’s holistic processes ripen the opportunity for this to happen.

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Yoga for Long Days at the Computer

When we spend long hours at the computer or on our other devices, we tend to sit with our heads leaned forward and our shoulders and upper backs rounded. Too much time in this posture inevitably leads to tension and sometimes soreness around the neck and upper back. If we do this day after day, structural changes in the joints and muscles can eventually develop that leave us with imbalances and even chronic pain issues such as headaches or nerve root pain from the neck.

Getting out to a class at least once a week can make a world of difference to the build up effect of tension in the upper body. Yoga is especially good because it mobilizes the spine in all directions and promotes balance and circulation in the muscles and joints. In addition, the mindfulness aspect of yoga gives us insight about our habits, such as postural tendencies or how we might chronically tense certain body parts. It really is worth the effort to make it a part of your weekly routine.

Outside of classes, we need to take care to break up our sitting posture throughout the day. I recently read a fun quote, “Your body needs movement snacks just as much as it needs food snacks.” Take these words to heart! Whether you take a walk around the block or do a few favourite stretches, these short bouts of movement can really help break up your day at the computer.

Below I’ve included a video where I lead you through a chair yoga sequence that you can do whenever you feel tension develop in the upper body. I find this short sequence really helps to generate circulation and balance in the upper body after “computering” for too long.

*If you want to skip the introduction (described in the paragraph above), go to the 45 second mark in the video.*

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Six Benefits of Downward Facing Dog

161017-029xDownward Facing Dog, or Adho Mukha Svanasana is one of the most commonly practiced and most iconic yoga postures around. We do this pose so often because it has so many health benefits. Below I’ve listed 6 good reasons to keep working on your Downward Dog. Also, I’ve included a free Downward Facing Dog Handout describing alignment details, benefits, and modifications.

1. Downward dog opens the backs of the legs

Most of the activities we do during the day (especially sitting) brings tension to the backs of the legs. This is why so many of us walk around with chronically overly tight hamstrings and calf muscles. Downward Facing Dog is an awesome posture for opening the backs of the legs because the stretch crosses three joint lines, thereby promoting lengthening of the posterior facia connections, and making it a really effective stretch.

2. It elongates the spine

The traction you get from planting your feet and then pushing your hands strongly into your mat is one of the best spinal elongation tools the yoga asana practice has to offer. Opening the spaces between the vertebrate helps to relieve compression on the spine and promotes circulation to the discs.

3. It opens the chest and shoulders 

Most of us who sit in a chair all day have chest and shoulder muscles that are overly tight. This comes from the ‘hunched’ position most of us hang out in all day. Downward Facing Dog will help you to re-establish some opening in your chest and stretching of the side body and under arm muscles to increase your shoulder flexion. All of which helps improve your posture.

4. It strengthens the arms and shoulders

This pose is awesome for increasing your arm and shoulder strength. In downward dog we aim to balance the weight between the hands and the feet, and in order to do that, we need to press the hands into the mat and actively engage through the arms. This action shifts the upper body back and encourages a more direct overhead press. This action of pressing overhead strengthens many arm and shoulder muscles, which are often underdeveloped muscles in the body.

5. It wakes you up and boosts circulation

Downward Dog is one of the best poses you can do when you’re fatigued. It engages many muscle groups simultaneously and gets the oxygen and blood flowing to all parts of the body. Downward Facing Dog also offers all the benefits of an inversion without having to fully go upside-down. Inversions are great for returning blood flow to the upper body helping to regulate blood pressure, and in particular bring blood flow to the brain which help brings about clarity and focus.

6. It’s a good check in with your body

Lastly, once you get familiar with your body in Downward Dog, you appreciate how the sensations and effort it requires changes from day to day and moment to moment. Therefore, Downward Dog is a good way to “take inventory” about how you’re feeling. It stretches your arms, shoulders, legs and back all at once, and you can take notice of what you need to work on each day.

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Transitions

111016-138With September so close, it gets me thinking about transitions. There’s a big change coming up in our household this September. My youngest daughter Teagan is about to start Kindergarten, and what once was a highly anticipated event, has now become one with conflicting emotion. The other morning she asked me, “Mommy, how soon before I go to school?…I’ve been waiting since I was one years old!” Then later that afternoon, she said, “Mommy, I’m sad to go to school because there will be no more mommy and Teagan days”. Within these two statements, she captured the truth of our mixed emotions—both of us having relief and excitement of it finally being here, and the sorrow of loss of her babyhood and time spent together.

Now you might be wondering what this has to do with yoga. Well, what I realized in this recent while, is how important it is to recognize transitions onto their own entity. So often we compartmentalize events. In class we go from one pose and then to the next; we experience the pose while we are in it, and then our minds leap to then next one, rarely paying attention to how we got there. However, nearly half of the class is devoted to the time spent transitioning from one pose to the next, meaning if we don’t consider these transitions, we are barely present for much of the class!

It’s not a stretch (pun intended) to see how this plays out in our lives off the mat as well. How often do you catch yourself making big plans for the future, and the time leading up to event is just time spent waiting, or just time to get through. Yet, this time that we want to just “get through” makes up many of the moments of our lives, as mundane as they can seem at times, it can be these un-special, little moments in our day that may end up being the most precious memories in the twilight of our lives.

I had big plans for new classes and exciting changes with the studio this September, but as the time neared to plan it all out and post the schedule, I found myself feeling overwhelmed and indecisive. I realized my paralysis in planning was my body’s way of informing me that there is already too much going on—I am mentally and emotionally preoccupied soaking up the remaining time in summer, spending time with my family, and preparing for this next big milestone of Teagan starting school. So rather than jumping in with “new” and “busy” with the classes, I’ve decided to rest a while in the space before the next, absorbing all that needs to be experienced and learned right now.

In the spirit of honouring transitions, I’ve also decided to devote next Thursday’s mindfulness class (Aug 31 @ 7:15 pm) to be about paying attention to our transitions between the postures and in our lives. If this intrigues you, come on out! And if I don’t see you out in the studio, as September approaches, I wonder what it would be like for you to transition mindfully in your own life?

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Don’t Leave Your Pelvis Behind in Seated Forward Bends!

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Injuries to the low back are common, and we want to make sure our yoga classes don’t become part of the problem. For this blog we will look particularly at seated forward bends and how to move the pelvis in a way that promotes healthy alignment.

Regardless of which seated forward bend your are doing in yoga, the common theme is that our seat is anchored on the ground so it becomes very easy to move our bodies forward without bringing the pelvis with us. (This is especially true for people with tight posterior leg and hip muscles). When the pelvis gets stuck in the posterior tilt and we lean forward, it can place strain on the ligamentous tissues around the sacroiliac joint (often referred to as the SI joint), and can cause excessive rounding through the spine, which is potentially dangerous to the discs of the low back.

So a very important skill to learn is how to tilt the pelvis forward (anterior rotation) with the spine in our bends. Here are some tips to learn how to do this:

First test yourself in Staff Pose (Dandasana)…

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Are you able to sit in a tall spinal position with your legs outstretched (top left)? Or does your pelvis tip backwards and body lean as shown in the picture on the right? If the tightness through your leg muscles prevents you from sitting tall, then sitting directly on the ground with your legs straight will end up making your forward bends look like the image below. Below we see the pelvis fixed in posterior rotation and the spine having to compensate into a really rounded posture to make the bend happen.

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To avoid this potentially straining posture, we utilize props to assist in the tilting of our pelvis in the anterior direction.  Below, I am demonstrating Head-to-knee pose, or Janu Sirasana, (where one leg is outstretched and the other knee is bent). I modify by placing a folded blanket underneath my seat to reduce the pull on the hamstrings (note more than one blanket can be used depending on the level of tightness in the legs). Also, a rolled towel is placed underneath the knee to fill the space and reduce posterior knee strain. You can see how this has changed the posture of my low back.

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In the next image, I am demonstrating a modification for Paschimottanasana (where both legs are outstretched) by using a bolster to support a good amount of knee bend. This  bent-knee posture minimizes the pull from the hamstrings on the pelvis, allowing me to tilt my pelvis forward and lengthen my back. You can do this even without a bolster and just keep the knees bent without support.

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In addition to the use of props, there is a specific technique to learn to help un-anchor the pelvis and this comes from freeing the sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) from the ground. A small lift and wiggle of your seat from the ground and re-situating your hips back a little will help you orient the pelvis forward. You may also need to actively engage muscles to initiate the forward tilting of the pelvis – visualize your pelvis like a bowl as if to pour contents out forward. You will know you have it correct when you are feeling like you are situated on the front edge of your sitting bones.

Outside of the propping and intentional shift of the pelvis forward, the safety for our backs also lies in the depth we try to take forward bends. You’ll notice in the last two images my head is nowhere near my knees! Don’t get caught up in making the pose look a certain way. For the sake of safety, a good reminder is sometimes less is more. As you are progress in your seated forward bends, take your time and listen to your body.

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Walk Slowly

Studio interior-5

Walk Slowly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind…

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

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

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

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

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A Modified Sun Salutation (video)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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An Essay on Acceptance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On the Other Side of Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mindfulness & Self Compassion

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In my own yoga and meditation practice, mindfulness of my thoughts (becoming aware of my thoughts, as they occur), has been one of the most insightful and beneficial pieces to my personal growth. It has revealed to me habits and patterns in my thinking, such as my tendency for my mind to jump to comparing thoughts, doubting thoughts, and judgemental thoughts, and in times of stress, I noticed obsessive, worrying thoughts of the future. Although I’m not proud to admit that so many negative and worrisome thoughts frequent my mind, I also know I am not the only one with these tendencies, and many of us get conditioned in this way of thinking.

Mindfulness helped me identify the patterns in my thinking, but it wasn’t enough to change the way I was thinking. I like to compare this to being witness to discrimination against another person, and choosing to ignore it. The neutral indifference does nothing for your processing of the situation. So it was with me; there was a missing piece to my processing. I needed to acknowledge the unhealthy patterns in my thinking, but without making it another loop in negative self-judgement. That’s when I learned about self compassion’s relationship to mindfulness practice.

So what is self compassion? In its definition, it is simply the practice of speaking to yourself and treating yourself with kindness, caring, and acceptance. Or, better yet, treating yourself in a way that you would treat a dear friend. This nurturing way of being is often missing from the context of awareness, but in order to gain the benefits from our mindfulness practices, self compassion needs to be included. It is helpful to separate their definitions a little further to better understand this relationship:

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

Thich Nhat Hanh gives an eloquent description of how compassion works alongside mindfulness in his advice for working with negative emotions:

“The function of mindfulness is first, to recognize the suffering and then to take care of the suffering. A mother taking care of a crying baby naturally will take the baby into her arms without supressing, judging it, or ignoring the crying. Mindfulness is like that mother, recognizing and embracing suffering without judgement. So the practice is not to fight or supress the feelings or thoughts, but rather to cradle it with a lot of tenderness. Even if that mother doesn’t understand at first why the child is suffering and she needs some time to find out what the difficulty is, just her act of taking the child into her arms with tenderness can already bring relief. If we can recognize and cradle the suffering while we breathe mindfully, there is relief already.”

By breaking down this relationship between mindfulness and self-compassion, it became apparent to me that when we learn to hold our thoughts, emotions, and our feelings with caring acceptance, we acknowledge the bigger picture. We are saying to ourselves, this thought isn’t healthy but I acknowledge it this way and it is okay to have imperfections. Or, this feeling is uncomfortable, but it is real and it has something to tell me, and I will give myself time. It’s also about being more gentle with ourselves when habits repeat themselves, instead of beating ourselves up about it. For within the space of accepting ourselves with loving kindness, we set the stage for growth to happen, and this can make all the difference.
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Yoga for Foot and Calf Tightness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finding Ease in Child’s Pose

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

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

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

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Locust Pose (Salabhasana)

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

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

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

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How You Know You Are A True Yogi

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

How do I know this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to Heal in Yoga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana)

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As with many of the standing yoga postures, there is much to study in a single pose. I love and respect Triangle Pose as it demands strength, flexibility, stability, and ease all in a single moment, and it teaches you so much about proprioception (the sense of position of the body in space). The above diagram highlights alignment tips that will help keep your back and knees safe in this posture. There are variations and additions to play with this posture which enhance certain aspects of stretch or strength, but I love this basic form to build your foundation.

Here are some of the physical benefits of Triangle Pose:

  • It stretches the side waist and lateral hip muscles (gluteus medius, tensor fascia latae).
  • It strengthens the core
  • It stretches the hamstring and inner thigh muscles of the front leg
  • It teaches the skill of stabilizing a joint near the end range of motion
  • strengthens external rotators of back leg
  • improves proprioception and balance
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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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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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Get Grounded In 3 Short Steps

110203-064What does it mean to get grounded? To me, getting grounded means pulling ourselves out of our “heads” (out of our stories), and into the present moment. To do this we can use our physical body as an anchor to present-time awareness. When we are present to what is happening now,  in our bodies and around us, we are no longer obsessing about future or past worries, and in this way we are grounding ourselves.

Whenever you are feeling mentally overstimulated or anxious, try these three short steps to feel more grounded:

  • Pause and notice your environment. Simply take a look around and look at the details, e.g. see the colour of the walls or weather in the sky, what objects are around you, look at their shape and texture… Look around, what do you see?
  • Feel you feet on the floor. Whether you are sitting or standing, shoes or no shoes, feel the connection of your feet to the surface below. Really feel that connection. If you are sitting you can also travel your awareness to noticing all the areas of your hips and legs making contact with your sitting surface.
  • Then bring your focus inwards and feel your breath coming in and out of your body. Notice how your breath feels right now. Where in your body do your feel your breath moving…? Continue to concentrate on the sensations of your breath moving in and out of your body and see if, at the same time, you can return to noticing your feet connecting with the ground and your back body to your seat (if you are sitting). Divide your awareness on both these things for one minute.
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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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Crescent Lunge – Stretch, Stability, and Power

Crescent lunge is my go to pose these days. It’s a very similar pose to Warrior I except you don’t rotate the back foot out 45 degrees, instead your back foot remains pointing forward, grounding through the ball of your foot.

You can get so many benefits from doing this pose. Most significantly, the stretch you get through the iliopsoas (hip flexor) muscle of the back leg is greater than the one you get in Warrior I, and when done in a certain way (see infographic below for alignment points), crescent lunge allows for stretch along the whole frontal myofascial line. You also gain stability and strength around the knees, ankles and core, and energetically, this posture lends to generating a sense of power within. This is a great pose to counteract the postural stresses of prolonged sitting.

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I love this pose, but it is challenging. For a modification you can do this pose facing a wall: with your front leg position your toes to touch the baseboard and bend your knee to press into the wall ( you can use padding or a block for cushion on the knee). The back leg steps back, in a straight line, pressing through the ball of the foot. Ensure your hips are square to the wall and then concentrate on the alignment points indicated in the picture above.

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