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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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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Belly Breathing to Relax You

130122-022Feeling stressed or anxious? Here’s something to try
Breath work (known as pranayama in yoga) is a very effective way to reduce stress and anxiety, and calm a turbulent mind. Conscious breathing works by stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), and by helping your sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight) to become more flexible. This flexibility is essential to turning off the stress response when it’s not needed.

Here’s a simple, effective practice to get these results:
Lay on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor (or put a pillow under your knees). Rest your hands on your belly, just beneath your front ribs. As you breathe in and out through your nose (lips together but jaw relaxed) attempt to fill your belly into your hands and then gently relax your belly down as you exhale. As you practice this belly-filling breath, count how many seconds it takes for your inhale and how many seconds for your exhale. After a few breaths, see if you can get your exhales to last a little bit longer than your inhales… the hope is to gradually slow your breath, with extra emphasis on slowing the exhales.

Set a timer for 5 minutes to start, or just breath for as long as you need, in order to feel more calm and peaceful. The more often you practice, the more results you’ll feel. Remember to also practice patience and be gentle and kind with yourself. One conscious breath at a time.

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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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Self Compassion, the Sister of Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Why isn’t yoga just a stretch class?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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