For those of you joining me for the online classes, especially if you are new to yoga, you’ll notice that I use yoga props in my class. When doing classes at home, especially if you are not sure if you want to invest in your own props, here are a few prop substitute ideas. Keep in mind these are just suggestions; feel free to use something different and get creative with whatever you have around your home!
A few books stacked on top of one another (non-slippery covers)
A shoe box or other similarly sized Tupperware, filled with something so it doesn’t collapse easily
Feeling ill and not fitting into easily diagnosable conditions is frustrating. One ER doctor said it best when he told me,” I can see you are unwell, but the tests we have done don’t give us a hint of what direction to keep searching…” In the worst moments of my illness, I was so breathless and weak I could barely walk from my bedroom to the living room, yet the doctors listening to my lungs would hear clear breaths. Despite this, my symptoms were very real, and the best way I could describe it was like my body forgot how to breathe on its own.
In these last 4 months, living with long-haul Covid symptoms, I began to realize it felt like my body could no longer regulate—it felt hijacked in its ability to slow the heart rate, digest, or to breathe smoothly and relaxed. Current research on the virus still has not determined if the prolonged symptoms of Covid-19 are because the virus remains in the body for an extended period of time attacking different organs/systems, or if its the body’s own immune system creating havoc on the organs in attempt to fight off this very aggressive virus. Either way, much of what I experienced felt neurologically based, and I discovered many other people describing the same experiences on the Slack Body-Politic Covid-19 Support . I also found discussions on the possibility that some of the effects from the virus could be from damaging the autonomic nervous system, and specifically affecting the vagus nerve.
The autonomic nervous system affects functions we don’t consciously think about, such as digestion, breathing, sleep, heart rate and blood pressure, and is primarily controlled through the vagus nerve. When I described feeling, “Like my body forgot how to breathe on its own,” I could see how this could relate to an impairment of autonomic functioning. On the support group, I found a self-help exercise claiming to ‘reset’ the vagus nerve’. It was a simple exercise where you place your hands behind your head and move your eyes to the three o’clock position and wait until you experience a yawn or a swallow (link to exercise video). I was surprised that I actually found it helpful and this got me wanting to understand the functioning of the vagus nerve further.
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body. It starts in the brain as a cranial nerve, descends down through the neck, then wanders around through to the heart, lungs, digestive system, liver, spleen, and pancreas. It is the main nerve controlling the regulation of all these organs through the parasympathetic nervous system (NS), (the rest and digest branch of the NS, opposite the excitatory, sympathetic NS of ‘fight, flight, or freeze’). For example when the heart rate goes up, it’s the vagus nerve which sends the signal to the heart to slow down.
The vagus nerve is also responsible for controlling the amount of inflammation in your body after an injury or illness. A certain amount of inflammation after injury or illness is normal, but an overabundance is linked to many very serious conditions, from sepsis to autoimmune diseases. A study done by a group of researchers in Amsterdam, showed when the vagus nerve is stimulated, inflammation in the body is greatly reduced. Therefore, the chronic inflammation of conditions where the body’s immune system is overactive, such as rheumatoid arthritis, can be reduced when the nerve is stimulated.
In the possible case Covid-19 does damage or affects the vagus nerve in some way, I wanted to learn how to stimulate the vagus nerve naturally. I learned the health and proper functioning of the vagus nerve is measured by its vagal tone, and the tone of the vagus nerve is key to activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Vagal tone is measured by tracking your heart-rate alongside your breathing rate. Your heart-rate speeds up a little when you breathe in, and slows down a little when you breathe out. The bigger the difference between your inhalation heart-rate and your exhalation heart-rate, the higher your vagal tone. Higher vagal tone is associated with better blood sugar regulation, reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, lowered blood pressure, improved digestion, and reduced migraines (not to mention better mood, less anxiety, and better stress resilience). Below are six techniques found to improve vagal tone.
Six ways to improve the vagal tone the vagus nerve:
1. Slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing—Breathing with good movement in your diaphragm, rather than shallowly from the top of the lungs, stimulates and tones the vagus nerve.
2. Humming/chanting/singing—Since the vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords, humming mechanically stimulates it. You can hum (try Bhramari Breathing), or repeat the sound ‘OM’.
3. Washing your face with cold water—The mechanism here is not known, but cold water on your face stimulates the vagus nerve.
5. Balancing the gut microbiome—The vagus nerve reads the gut microbiome and initiates a response to modulate inflammation based on whether or not it detects pathogenic versus non-pathogenic organisms. In this way, the gut microbiome can have an affect on your mood, stress levels and overall inflammation. Try using probiotics and working on your diet to optimize your gut microbiome (if unsure consult with a dietician or naturopath).
6. Yoga—Its relationship to its slow mindful movements and breathing make it an especially good exercise form to promote vagal tone.
My symptoms and daily functionality are improving, and I felt comfortable practicing these 6 generally safe and simple techniques. So if you are dealing with long-term effects of Covid, or any other chronic auto-immune condition, I hope they can help you too.
Hello everyone, today’s blog is not much of a “yoga blog” but rather an entry to say hello and keep you updated.
For those of you who saw my last newsletter or blog entry you know I have been unwell, and I wish I had good news that I have returned to my old vibrant self, but this is not yet the case. Life has taken me down a journey from which I know I will re-emerge very changed… For now my good news is that I have plateaued in my health – I am no longer getting worse, but also not better, and for now I am happy with that. It was very discouraging to feel worse day after day and wonder when it would end. So a plateau is good, and I still have lots of faith of better days to come.
It’s hard for me to accept that I won’t be teaching yoga anytime soon, but that’s just what’s happening now, and to fight it would use energy I need for healing. I miss you all so much, and I miss yoga so much, but that will come. For now I do daily meditations, breathing exercises, and lots of reading. I thought I would share with you a few of my healing practices that I have found helpful.
Peace & love (in these unsettling, but hopefully positive shifting times) Renee
I miss you all so much, but I have unfortunate news. I have been ill since mid March and my health continues to worsen and I have become very weak and unwell. I am fighting everyday to make it to the next medical appointment so that I can get more answers. For now, I have none. I use the mantra Time, Patience, and Deep Breaths, to help me get through the days, and knowing, at some point, this too shall pass.
I can not begin to guess how long this experience will last for me. I try to take my health one day at a time (with lots of yogic breathing exercises!). And since we are beginning to see restrictions of social distancing lighten and businesses start to reopen, I needed to let you know that I can’t promise a return to teaching anytime soon. Right now I need all my energy to get well again.
I really hope you and your loved ones have been happy and healthy over these last couple months, and continue to stay that way. I hope you have found ways to bring yoga into your days for keeping your health and spirits up.
If you have any questions, I will do my best to return emails when I can.
What does it mean to be embodied? And doesn’t yoga already take care of that? When we take a closer look, the answer might surprise us.
Think of embodiment on a continuum. On one end we have exteroception, in the middle proprioception, and on the far end interoception. Each of these points says something about where we place our attention: outside us, part of the way in, or deeply inward.
Exteroception deals with the question, “What’s happening around me?” When we’re engrossed in the latest Hunger Games film, scanning a crowd for a friend, working out and hear our favorite song, or note the tears pooling in a friend’s eyes—these are examples of exteroception.
Proprioception deals with the inquiry “Where is my body in space?” When we sense where other people or objects are, and know the relative size and movement patterns of our own body, that’s proprioception. It helps us navigate our world without knocking into things or, as often happens, other people. If you’re a weekend warrior, athlete, or yoga practitioner, you need well-developed proprioception; it’s an integral part of good movement.
Interoception addresses the matter of what’s happening inside our body. In the interoceptive space, attention turns inward. Awareness matures and becomes subtler. Interoception can be seen as mindfulness expressed in the body. And in the words of renowned researcher Stephen Porges, it can be thought of as our “sixth sense.”
Interoception has a few requirements. It asks us to:
Let go of any predictions of what we’ll encounter.
Resist becoming “fixed” on a particular sensation.
Turn down our mental chatter or narrative.
When we’re truly practicing interoceptive awareness, we enter the body without expectations. We attend to momentary sensations in the body as they fluctuate from one point in time to the next. And we can move awareness after a few moments and not become immersed in one sensation too long.
What’s the relevance of interoceptive awareness to our health and well-being? It turns out that many illnesses—anxiety, depression, gut disorders, eating disorders, and more—are diseases of disembodiment. In these illnesses, awareness becomes skewed. In chronic pain syndromes, for example, we tend to predict what we’ll encounter, but to remain there ruminating about it. “I think that shoulder pain’s about to start up,” we might say. “Yep, there it is. In five minutes it’s gonna feel sharp, like it always does, and then I’ll get that stabbing pain that lasts for hours.” Then we stay in that same area of the shoulder, refusing to move our attention. Should the pain actually let up, it creates a cognitive dissonance. We feel a disparity between the identity of pain and freedom from pain. The freedom is actually harder to integrate; it’s at odds with our pain-centered self-concept. Our mind cancels out the comfort, and wires the pain response in further.
The Continuum of Embodiment is a framework for understanding several things: First, the extent to which we inhabit our interior. Second, where we place our attentional spotlight, as it’s called in MBSR and mindfulness: outside us, on the outer layer of the body, or deeply inward. Third, the continuum of embodiment refers to the degree to which our awareness is gross or subtle.
Interoception evokes the quality of the relationship between our mind and body. Can the mind move out of its comfort zone? Can it learn to tolerate and even seek out the gentle surrender, the humility required to enter the wilderness of the body? Can it cultivate a sense of neutrality, a kindness toward the pain and suffering it finds inside?
In the end, it’s not all interoception, all the time. It’s the dynamic interchange between the three kinds of attention that benefits us. And we might ask ourselves: as yoga practitioners, teachers, or therapists, are we engaged more with proprioception as beautiful movement or interoception as deep awareness?
Our response is significant. Neuroscientists are beginning to study the effects of interoceptive awareness on our brain, in our immune system, and in our emotional lives. The results are astonishing: Embodiment, as it turns out, is vital to our health and well-being. It may also be a doorway into higher consciousness.
This post was republished with permission from LA YOGA Magazine. You can find the original post here.
When we think of trauma, we often imagine an assault from the outside. But when someone is diagnosed with a serious illness such as cancer, the attacker is on the inside. People often report feeling betrayed by their own bodies.
That sentiment is common to students in Bobbie-Raechelle Ross’s Yoga Nidra class at InspireHealth in Victoria and Vancouver. Attendees come to the centre for physical and emotional support with cancer care beyond medical treatments.
“They don’t feel safe because their body is too unpredictable. Instead of focusing on their capabilities, their view of their body becomes negative,” says Ross, a yoga teacher with 500 hours of training.
This sense of being betrayed by one’s own body is also common to people in recovery from addictions, or who have experienced abuse, says Ross. She witnessed this scenario repeatedly when teaching yoga at a mental health facility and alternative high school in Winnipeg before moving to the West Coast. Hearing positive feedback about the overall effects of yoga on her students inspired her to study the phenomenon more deeply. She embarked on a diploma in yoga therapy (almost complete), and is also working towards qualifying as a registered professional counsellor.
People with cancer or other serious illnesses may numb out, dissociate, or become hyper-vigilant – all symptoms of trauma held in the body. Like abuse or assault, a serious illness threatens personal safety, and may even attack self-perception.
Suddenly, a person becomes a patient, and the illness is in charge.There may be confusing medical tests, long periods of waiting for results, and uncomfortable or painful treatments. A person may feel dependent on doctors for access to information and specialists. Choice and personal agency are compromised.
Because symptoms in cancer patients are similar to those of other trauma survivors, Ross uses trauma-informed techniques when she teaches. For instance, she talks almost continuously throughout the class.
“Silence and stillness can be difficult for people who have experienced significant trauma,” explains Ross, “because they can get caught up in the chatter of the mind.”
To avoid this internal chatter, Ross encourages students to develop interoception – the ability to perceive sensations in your body, including hunger or thirst, muscle tension, butterflies in the stomach, or excitement. Interoception skills are strongly correlated with resilience. In other words, people who are better at paying attention to their bodies are better at bouncing back from adversity.
Where regular yoga classes may begin with a silent meditation, Ross opens with a guided grounding exercise, inviting students to notice their bodies’ contact points with the floor or chair.
During the asana portion of the class, Ross invites her students to ask themselves, “Am I in my body right now? Where am I? What am I noticing in my body right now?”
“When our interoception skills are still growing, we can spend too much time cognitively getting wrapped up in the stories [related to each sensation]. My goal is to provide a somatic experience where students can feel safe to observe their own body, the sensations, or lack of.”
Ross says it can take a few classes for students to warm up to the practice, but the difference is noticeable.
One woman was particularly frightened of CT scans, partly because of the lengthy time she had to spend inside the noisy machine. After taking Ross’s Yoga Nidra class for a month, she had a different experience.
As the scan began, the woman noticed signs of her body becoming hyper-aroused: her heart was racing and she felt sweaty. But then something new happened – she remembered Ross’s voice leading her through an exercise called Rotation of Consciousness. “Right big toe, second toe, third toe….”
“She was able to self-regulate using this coping mechanism,” says Ross. “She had no choice in the scan; it had to be done. But she could choose to tap into this tool and come out less overstimulated.”
Ross has dozens of anecdotes like this, where students share how a sensation-focused yoga class has raised their confidence.
“Having this reminder that you have a body and all that it’s capable of can be a really empowering experience moving through trauma,” says Ross. “Instead of focusing on all the negative, focus on awareness of what your body can do for you.”
In coming weeks, Ross will be taking her awareness to Turning Point Recovery Society. There, the soon-to-be Yoga Therapist will help to launch a yoga program for people building new relationships with themselves after quitting a relationship with substances. As she did with the patients at InspireHealth, Ross will be gifting her new students a safe space for connecting with their bodies.
I have been teaching a fair amount of physically challenging yoga these days. At my studio, the months of January & February tend to bring out the goal of getting in better shape, and I tend to see an interest in the more physically challenging classes… I too can relate to the motivation to getting more fit, and I go through phases of using my classes for this goal. However, teaching from the sole intention of “getting in shape” has a short shelf-life for me, at least from a yoga point of view. I inevitably crave to return to the slower paced classes which provide opportunities to be truly present to myself. It’s my experience that when classes are fast-paced and overly directive, we may be getting a good answer to our fitness needs, but we miss the depth of the learning yoga can provide us.
When we do a yoga asana (pose) we should have the time and space to truly experience it in the moment for what it is. It should never be about performing the perfect pose—a pose is like a living thing that changes and evolves from day to day, and we should be able to meet it with the questions, “What do I need to understand in this pose right now? And what do I feel?” In classes where we are rushing we miss this. Something as simple as feeling the point of resistance in our body tells us something; it creates awareness. For example, it might be telling you that this is enough for me right now, or I’m really holding on right now, or simply, I really need to pay attention to this part of my body right now. Resistance is your body’s language saying “slow down, pay attention”, and if you over-push yourself into a pose, you miss the lessons of that.
As a yoga teacher, I am an educator. My job is to help you learn more about yourself: what your natural limit is, what feels appropriate for you in the moment, where is your resistance coming from, and what it is telling you. I want you to use those internal observances so that you make a choice that is conscious. It’s not my job to push you past your limits; it’s my job to entice you into the depths of your own understanding. No one can walk your path. If you override your physical reflexes, your awareness, the speed with which you want to move, that is not about learning, it’s pushing, and it says that progress in yoga is only about going further in the pose or to look a certain way. Maybe the progress in yoga for someone is accepting themselves as they are, or believing they are good enough and can simply enjoy where they are in a pose. So if you choose to step into a deeper experience then I feel it should be from a place of readiness, and benefit in your learning of the pose.
As you read this, I hope you can relate to some of what I’m saying and have experienced how yoga can be much more than a workout (And if you can’t relate, I wonder if it might be time to try some different classes?) Yoga can be many things, and there’s no argument that it can provide you with improved fitness, but it’s my opinion the greatest benefit comes when you stop pushing and truly listen to your body and let the asana show you the questions, not the answers.
Many of you who practice yoga regularly will be familiar with Boat Pose (Navasana) and have probably come to think of it as a core strengthening posture. This is definitely true, but it’s strengthening benefits are more than just the front abdominal muscles. Boat Pose is also an excellent choice for the deep stabilizers of the back and the hip flexors.
When practiced with attention to posture, boat pose demands activation of the deep stability muscles – specifically the erector spinae muscles of the back. The erector spinae muscles are a group of paired muscles and tendons which run the length of the spine alongside the vertebral column, and when working together they extend the spine and help to maintain erect posture and stability to the spine. When these muscle get more active and strengthened in your poses, it assists maintaining better posture in everyday activities, and is often under valued.
In order to get the benefit of strengthening the back stabilizers from boat pose, start with the intention of good posture and move gradually into the pose without losing this intention. It can be very easy to get rounded in the back in boat pose, so as you first sit, generate an upward lift coming from the breast bone (the sternum) and feel a lengthening through your spine. Then feel the core engage around this posture and slowly lean into the various versions of this pose (below).
Option one: lean back with the spine straightened keeping the feet on the ground.
Option two: progress to lifting the feet off the floor, while maintain the straight back posture. If you find yourself starting to slouch, go back to the first option.
Boat Pose is also a very effective pose to strengthen the hip flexor muscles. Many of us could benefit from hip flexor strengthening but don’t even realize it. The hip flexors (psoas, ilacus, rectus femoris) are nortorius for being over tight and contracted in many people and consequently can cause posture issues (e.g. hyper lordosis) and back pain due to its attachment to lumbar spine. However, for some of us, it can be the opposite—over lengthened and/or weak hip flexors, which is often paralleled by tight hamstring muscles. When this is the case, boat pose is an excellent strengthening choice. Moreover, a lot of people don’t realized that a tight muscle can also be a weak muscle. So if you’ve been told you have tight hip flexors, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are strong.
To test for hip flexion weakness: sit and bend one knee, other leg extended out. Hold your knee and lean back with good posture. Then try to lift the straight leg off the ground. If this is challenging this could be showing you that your hip flexors are weak or that your hamstrings are very tight, limiting your hip flexion. Either way, boat pose could be a good choice for you.
This single leg version of boat pose increases the challenge of the hip flexors (including rectus femoris), and it help build the strength and flexibility for the double leg version.
When finally attempting the full version of boat pose, being well warmed up and doing some hamstring stretching in advance can help with overcoming any tension in the hamstrings. Remember, to keep the spine elongated and, in this way, you will benefit through the back, hips, and the core.
A student once asked me why some of the people coming out to yoga only come once in a while, or drop in occasionally. Being a regular attendee to the classes, he couldn’t understand what these people thought they would gain from attending so infrequently. I had a very practical answer, I said, “For some people, taking yoga classes is a luxury activity, and more “life-pressing” activities get in the way of their attendance. Some people just don’t have the privilege of time, energy, or resources to attend as they would wish.” Many people have good intentions to do yoga, but on a priority scale, it typically gets knocked down on the list. For years I thought this was very understandable and realistic way to look at it, but I have had a shift in my thoughts on this one… Reflecting back on all the positive changes yoga has given me in my mind, body, and life, since I took up practice some 20 odd years ago, none of this happened by being occasional about it. It required regular practice, effort, and sometimes making tough decisions to forgo immediate desires for the long term wellness. Yoga is a unique discipline that can affect all parts of our wellbeing and literally change your life for the better, but you will only know this experience if you practice.
Physical change is constant in the body. All the cells and tissues of the body are constantly being replaced over the months and years, and we very much are remodelling ourselves anew with the activities and behaviours we engage in. Staying consistent to the physical practice of yoga, or any other discipline/sport, over time you will literally replace the cells in your body with new memory and abilities. So despite the common belief that you are too old or unwell to start something new, your body can change; it is amazingly adaptable when you approach your practice mindfully and smartly. All it requires is repeated, gentle exposure, and tissues will gradually remold in function and tolerance. I can honestly say from yoga, I am able to move more freely and stand with better posture now than I did in my 20’s.
It’s also not just one pose. The human body is such a marvel of connectivity through its joints, muscles, and connective tissue. True freedom of the body requires all the movements; it is as equally important to stretch as it is to contract our bodies, exploring all ranges and strengths about a joint, and linking that with other segments of the body to feel the depths of physical functionality. I can no longer teach the idea that one pose will be the missing “therapeutic piece” for someone’s improvement. The body’s structure needs the totality of the experience; it flourishes in the physical variety that yoga affords. Yoga can liberate the movement and function in your body, like few other physical disciplines. With dedication to the practice, one day you will look back and say, “I had no idea I could do that.”
Freedom in the body relates directly to freedom in the mind. In yoga, when you stretch and expand the edges of your physical expression, it translates to an exploration of your thoughts and feelings. Yoga cues us to slow down our movements so we can really connect to what is unfolding in our physical experience in the moment, giving us insight into the subtleties of mind-body connection. For example, a certain movement might trigger a certain thought pattern or emotional vulnerability, and we get to step back within ourselves to objectively witness this connection. In this way, the skill of mindfulness is constantly being rehearsed during yoga class, and by practicing yoga more often it helps you shift into “mindfulness state” more easily over time. The repeated practice of this results in a gradual unfolding of knowing yourself more objectively and intimately, and just like any relationship you cannot build it with a visit once a year. It takes time and commitment, but it is so rich and fulfilling when that relationship is truly developed.
Between the relationship of mind and body, there is also the breath, and in yoga breath control (pranayama) should always be practiced. It might seem strange that we need to practice breathing, something so natural and automatic to life, but harnessing the control of our breath has more effect on your physical and mental state than most of us can imagine. Your breath is the one part of your autonomic system that can be under your control, and therefore can be used as a regulation piece to affect our internal health and energy. Gaining mastery over your breath is like learning a life hack for your nervous system, yet so many of us have poor connection and control of our breath. We assume breathing to always be there for us without any effort, yet as the mind and body get disregulated so too does the breath (and vice versa). To correct this we need to relearn and develop our breath control skills, and this requires repeated exposure in order for it to become automatic.
I read a quote that says, “Yoga is not a work out, but rather a work-in.” In this day and age where chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and feeling like we can’t keep up with the pace of life, we have become disconnected to ourselves, so it is critical we find ways to restore our balance within. Yoga is this platform; we don’t need another pill, we need connection, and this is exactly what yoga provides us. But yoga is experiential… The benefits can’t be lived in theory. The fruits of this discipline only come with investment of time (as with most things in life), and this takes dedication and ongoing practice. It will never hurt you to practice yoga occasionally, but I promise you, if you make your practice a priority, one day it will take you down a journey of indescribable depth and open new freedoms and abilities for you. Yoga is not a luxury, but rather a foundation for healthy living.
End note I am aware of the privilege that comes from being in my demographic and how this plays out in having yoga accessible to me. There are many circumstances where yoga in a studio setting is not accessible—income level, where you live, access to transportation, clothes, the internet, your mental and physical health, etc. I have so much appreciation for organizations, such as Yoga Outreach, making yoga more accessible to everyone.
This month we are looking at Aparigraha, the fifth and the last of the Yamas as we explore the moral and guiding principles of the Yoga Sutras. Aparigraha means “non-grasping” or” non-attachment.” This yama teaches us to practice moderation—taking only what we need, keeping only what serves us in the moment, and letting go if necessary.
Aparigraha is the decision to not hoard or accumulate goods motivated by greed but rather to be truly mindful in your accumulation of material stuff. This can be a tough sell in this consumer culture of ours, but when we take a hard look at why we the feel need to buy certain things, we may start to identify the reasons behind the urges… For example, the fear of not keeping up or fitting in, or, it could be an attempt to fill feelings of some other emotional inadequacy. We can get attached to material goods and find ourselves wanting more and more, and at some level thinking we are what we have. This can be an endless cycle that never really fills the void of wanting and the perpetual accumulation of material goods can become toxic to our minds and our environments. Aparigraha reminds us to practice moderation—to step back and examine the motivations of our “needs” and whether they are actually “wants.”
In our thoughts we can also see Aparigraha at play in our clinging or attachment to wanting things to be a certain way. Often, in yoga, I see students getting caught up in an expectation or comparison mindset of how they should be able to keep up in class—either comparing themselves to others or an ideal version of themselves. Maybe they suffered an injury and their body can no longer do a move they could do before. You can see how there is an easy tendency to cling to that old way of being, but when we get in this comparing mindset we are out of touch with how we are actually feeling and we can then cause harm to ourselves. We must let go of our attachments to who we think we are, and become who we truly are. And while it may be scary, it will also be liberating.
In considering emotions, becoming attached to a positive feeling or a positive experience is completely human—why wouldn’t we want to feel happy for as long as we can? Happiness, joy and peace are important emotions to feel, but so too is sadness, anger and loss. To experience only the good stuff is to experience only part of what life has to offer. The school of life exists to allow us to experience and learn from every aspect of our being, the light and the dark, and to truly live, we must not push away the things we don’t want to feel, but allow them to happen, and know that this too shall pass. When we let the moment be what it is without either trying to cling to it, or to push it away, we can really say we’re living in that moment, allowing things to come and go, without the need to possess any of it.
The Sanskrit word ‘Parinamavada’ is the teaching that ‘everything is in a constant state of flux’. Indeed, change is the only constant thing we can expect in life. Just as the trees drop their leaves in Autumn so that they may grow new buds in Spring, we too go through changes every moment of every day. Material stuff comes and goes, our physical bodies are undergoing change every second with cells regenerating and bones rebuilding, and our thoughts and emotions shift and change continuously. The truth is, clinging to past or present moments will not bring us peace. This is the lesson of Aparigraha. If we are to awaken to the fullness of our being, we must learn to let go. When we practice moderation and non-attachment we are essentially saying we trust the flow of life, and within this, lies true freedom.
This month we look at Brahmacharya, the fourth Yama as we explore the moral and guiding principles of the Yoga Sutras. Originally, Brahmacharya was translated as celibacy, but there is a much broader interpretation of this Yama which is more relatable in this day and age. Brahmacharya can be equated to “energy moderation”. It’s about preventing the squandering on one’s energy through the misuse of the senses so that we are not urge driven.
Overstimulating environments, foods, music, movies, games, and yes, even inappropriate sexual behaviour, can all cause disturbances of the mind and emotions. If we let our senses rule our behaviour and spend too much time in overstimulating activities, it can leave us feeling wasted of energy for living a harmonious and fulfilling life. It’s good to look at your energy reserve like money in the bank—you don’t want to spend it all right away so that you have nothing left. With Brahmacharya in practice, you become a good “energy” manager.
In yoga class, I often reference Brahmacharya when I teach my students to balance their effort in the poses—to learn how to find just the right amount of effort to hold the pose without forcing or over engaging. When holding a pose it’s good to ask yourself, “What would I need to do, or stop doing, to stay in the pose for 10 minutes?” Most of the time you’ll realize you are putting too much energy into places where you don’t need it. Yoga should be replenishing to your energy, not depleting.
This is a great practice that you can apply off the mat as well, especially in tense moments like a job interview or being late in traffic. Practicing letting go of tension and reserving your energy for the moment. With time, you’ll notice that by not giving so much energy to wasteful stimulation, or body tension, you are banking your life force energy and feeling more healthy and at ease in all aspects of your life.
Today I want to offer a little information on what role yoga therapy can play in helping you gain better health and wellness.
Yoga Therapy, as the name implies, uses yoga techniques—postures, breathing exercises, and meditations to assist people towards a whole-person approach to healing. A yoga therapy assessment considers your physical body (posture, movement, injuries, digestion, etc.) alongside your breathing style, emotional/mental health, and personal history and goals.
Thinking about how yoga therapy helps, you might picture the yoga stretches releasing physical tension from your body, or the relaxing postures and meditations reducing mental and emotional stress… this is all true, but what people don’t realize is the biggest benefit yoga therapy gives you is ‘embodied awareness‘.
Embodied awareness, otherwise known as interoception, is simply the practice of being with your own sensations in your physical body. It is learning to being still within yourself and noticing what you feel, and come in touch with where you are in time and space. It gives you the awareness of your own internal experience and the learning of how to be at home in your own body.
Why is embodied awareness or interoception so important for health recovery? Many times even before we have a health diagnosis or condition we are turned off from our own awareness and sensations… we become dis-embodied. Overtime, we become more externally focussed, and as a result we don’t notice what it is that our body is trying to say and we don’t identify what it is that we need so that we can take action to get that need met.
So when we practice embodied awareness we become more at home with our own experiences. We become more accepting to our internal experiences, and we learn to recognize and listen to what our needs are and then take action to getting those needs met. This is how yoga therapy helps. It can literally be the key to understanding what it is you need to move forward in your health recovery.
This month we look at Asteya, the third Yama, as we explore the moral and guiding principles of the Yoga Sutras. Asteya is translated as nonstealing, and the message is clear, for a more peaceful and harmonious life, don’t steal. When we read this, we might conjure up an image of a person stealing goods or money from a person or business, but much like the previous two Yamas, there is more to consider here.
There are lots of things you can steal. You can steal someone’s time when you are late, or when you misuse the time allotted to a project. I remember being assigned a group project in university where the two other group members didn’t take the assignment seriously. Either they wouldn’t show up for group worktime or they didn’t engage in the work when they were there. I ended up doing the whole project on my own, and in the end they stood by and took credit for being a part. This definitely felt like they were stealing my time.
You can also steal someone’s energy, and in some cases, steal their happiness. I think of the many clients I know who work in situations where duties and hours seem to pile up over the years. Bosses or corporate environments with ever-increasing demands and coworkers leaving because of the stress and the remaining employees left to fight for a breath from under the workload. These work environments are stealing their employees energy, and eventually their joy from doing their work.
I also think of marriages or partnerships where one person demands more than the other. In a healthy relationship where both people are of able body and mind, there is a balance—a give and take, a division of duties. However, most of us probably know a relationship where there seems to be an upset of power: one person coming across as the selfless soul doing everything, and the other person acting selfish and lazy… and in some cases controlling.
Asteya also calls for us to consider what you consume. Because everything is interconnectected, whatever you receive is taken from somewhere else. Most of us don’t stop to consider all the different levels of energy involved in what they consume. What comes to mind the most is the resistance for people to pay for quality goods. Consumerism is complex and we are often blind of the background story; however, I always like to consider the craftsman, the local farmer, or small businesses where you have a direct relationship and understanding of where the product comes from. In these instances its good to consider the time and energy this person/business has spent. And ask yourself, “Is this really who you want to “steal” a bargain from?” If you are taking something, you need to consider how to give back the appropriate energy or amount. Energetically and karmically, you create a major imbalance if you take and don’t pay back.
You might ask, why is it that some people allow their power and energy to be stolen by another? In my years of working with individuals with this tendency, it often stems from a history of feeling unworthy, sometimes from negative childhood experiences, which can be very troubling and enduring. When a person takes advantage of someone whom they are meant to take care of and love, stealing their energy and power, it’s very damaging and they will never have the space to heal and grow.
I personally love pondering the depths of this Yama. In considering how we govern our own lives in accordance to Asteya it brings me back to the importance of how a well rooted yoga practice can help us develop the skill of mindfully and objectively looking at ourselves to notice how we think and behave, and sometimes to reveal our dark selves. In all of us there are parts that we are not so proud of—maybe for some of us we have been stealing by taking advantage of someone or over consuming past our needs. When you recognize this within yourself, it is helpful to call upon the previous two Yamas—Ahimsa and Satya, and move forward with an earnest interest of truthfulness and kindness towards yourself, and positive change will occur.
As part of my blog series on the Yamas and Niyamas, today I’m writing about Satya, the second Yama, which translates as truth (or not lying). In its practice it means being honest in our words and actions with ourselves and those around us. Living our lives in accordance with the moral standard of truthfulness is of course a good thing to do, but can be perplexingly difficult. Satya is layered and complex, but well worth the investigation.
We are confronted with Satya hundreds of times a day, and most of us choose to be mostly honest in our daily lives in our relationships, purchases, jobs—abiding by this moral standard to keeps the world civil. However, even the most truthful of us are not unfamiliar with “white lies”. Sometimes these white lies get told because they feel fleeting or insignificant. Some get told under the guise of kindness, such as telling your friend their new dress looks great when, in your opinion, it is unflattering. In some cases we deceive to make ourselves look better, such as “stretching the truth” in a job interview. If you take notice of your thoughts and actions, do you see these seemingly small deviations from the truth and then ask, “is there a cost?” Without needing to have an answer, I simply think we would benefit from taking a closer look at why we lie, and perhaps tell ourselves more… Are we doing it out of kindness, and consider the consequences of our choices beyond the immediate moment.
Truth is not always obvious; it can be concealed by a need for protection and safety, and it is not uncommon to hide the truth from ourselves. I often ask my students in class, while in a more relaxed, restful place, to look within and ask, “What is your truth?” When we slow down and connect with ourselves at a deeper layer, sometimes nuggets of truth come to the surface. In yoga, I’ve had uncomfortable truths be revealed regarding big choices in my life, such as changing careers or ending relationships. These truths were buried deep because recognizing them came with a more turbulent path, and I think it’s human nature to avoid these stresses, at least until the time is right. This tendency to protect ourselves from big upheaval in our lives is understandable, but when hidden truths do come to the surface, it’s best to take note because I’ve found you can’t stuff them back down once they are known.
Once you have named your truth, not acting on it can manifest in a myriad of ways such as digestive issues, stress, anxiety, or a variety of physical and mental ailments. Being truthful with ourselves is best served with a little bit of Ahimsa, the first Yama we explored in last month’s blog, representing kindness. The relationship between the two Yamas is nicely explained in how one might practice yoga. If, for example, you push yourself past a level you are ready for, this is being untruthful. Some people are incapable of doing certain poses due to mental trauma buried deep within and pushing past can lead to physical injury but also reveal deep-seated fears and sources of trauma. Sometimes its hard to be in the moment and be confronted by our truth in class, but when we are confronted with the inability to do a certain pose because of a disability or emotional connection to it, we serve ourselves best by acknowledging our reality honestlyand kindly. There will be many truths about ourselves we don’t like in class or out of class; bringing a little self-compassion alongside the truth helps us move forward with it in a healthy way.
I reflect on how most of us are earnestly working towards betterment within ourselves and trying to live our best lives. However, when you do choose the path of untruthfulness, the dishonesty can come at a cost. You can try to reframe the lie or block it from your thoughts, but your deeper self knows, and bit by bit the body churns and wrestles with that untruth until you are physically and mentally unwell. I suppose the fact that it never goes away, but rather morphs into internal discord, is the karmic energy of it all. It’s been my experience in life that Satya, or living a life of truth, is very much at the core of well-being and peace…
Ahimsa, the first of the Yamas, translates to non-violence or non-harming, and is at first glance, obvious. It isn’t any mystery that in order to live at peace within our own conscience, and in the world, we should restrain from harming or violent behaviours. But there are more subtle layers to this Yama. Consider how we can hurt ourselves by working long hours and not taking care of our health, or how we can be violent onto ourselves in the negative, judgemental thoughts we say to ourselves many times a day. Sometimes it’s our lack of action that can be harming, such as choosing not to recycle or not following through on a promise. When considering Ahimsa in our lives we need to consider the whole picture of our actions and the impact they have both immediately and down the road.
To get started, it is helpful to consider the opposite of Ahimsa—kindness and peacefulness. So in every negative thought, attitude and interaction we have, we can ask ourselves how does this affect peacefulness in myself and others, and is it kind? For example, consider the rude driver who sweeps in and steals the parking space you’ve been patiently waiting for. Do you flip them the bird and shout obscenities? It’s tempting, but the spike in blood pressure, tension in your body, and the lingering feeling of agitation throughout your day, would argue otherwise. When we refrain from harming actions towards someone, it certainly brings benefit to the other person, but it karmically benefits you as well since how you treat others determines how much suffering you experience in the end. Even though the driver wasn’t kind to you, when you mirror the unkindness back, it has a ripple effect, surely to affect more negativity to you and others in your day.
This karmic relationship to Ahimsa can be even more significant when dealing with family or friends when you feel resentment towards them. Pause to consider how resentment develops from a history of negative interactions and how these past experiences are ultimately affecting your peacefulness today. This can be a tough pill to swallow when there is a lot of hurt… harbouring resentment towards another can come from a long history of really harmful behaviours, and it is within everyone’s right to say enough is enough, and I won’t be subjected to this behaviour anymore (that would be practicing Ahimsa onto yourself). However, often it is more subtle, and your feelings of resentment can come from a place of fear or vulnerability within yourself, and so you see each new interaction as a threat in some way, and sometimes it is just a threat to how your ego perceives yourself. So in practicing Ahimsa, whenever we feel that sense of resentment surfacing, we need to examine the situation for what it is in the moment. Are you resenting what is actually happening now or is your reaction based on a history of experiences that compounds the intensity? How do your negative thoughts towards that person affects your own inner peace in the moment? When you stop and examine the situation deeper and further, you can choose actions towards more kindness and peacefulness, by judging the moment for what it is now and not the past, and you are the one that will ultimately benefit in the end.
So whenever you recognize moments that take you out of your own peace and kindness, I encourage you to inquire a little deeper to the thoughts behind your thoughts, and the actions behind your actions. This will guide you on your choices and likely lead you to a more peaceful place of action. Practicing Ahimsa is sure to bring greater good to your relationships with others and all of nature, and ultimately, back around to yourself.
Modern yoga has many influences and interpretations, but in its origins, much of yoga’s wisdom is based off the Sanskrit manual, the Yoga Sutras, written prior to 400 CE by Sage Patanjali. It offers guidelines to have an enhanced and more fulfilled life emotionally, mentally, and physically. It outlines an eightfold path for self-transformation and realization through the practice of classical yoga.
If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while you would be familiar with some aspects of the path outlined in the Sutras such as the yoga postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), and meditation. However, you might not know much about the other steps, including the Yamas and Niyamas, which are ethical and core values to live by for a more harmonious and peaceful life (with yourself and in your relationships with others and all of nature).
The Yamas and Niyamas are not so much about strict “must do’s”, but rather a set of guidelines that when practiced encourage a more virtuous, contented, and spiritual life. The Yamas are divided into five categories and are concerned with restraining behaviours which produce suffering and difficulty, and to live more ethically. The Niyamas, also divided into five categories, are lifestyle observances to encourage behaviours that lead to greater happiness and ease.
Brahmacharya (energy moderation)
Tapas (self discipline)
Ishvara Pranidhana (self-surrender)
Online you can find many articles written on the Yamas and Niyamas since there are many ways in which we can interpret and practice these steps. Currently I’m in the process of reviewing them for my own study and I plan on sharing what I learn about each one from a practical point of view (both in class and in blogs). To get started I have a link to my first one: Ahimsa (non-violence/non-harming). If you are curious to learn more about this yoga wisdom please follow along!
Whether in yoga or simply standing and waiting, many of us have a habit of locking our knees. This is also referred to as hyperextending the knee joints, which is essentially pushing the knees back so far it reaches the end limit of the joint’s range of motion. Pushing the knee joint to this limit can place strain on the ligaments, tendons, and can also wear down the edges of the cartilage. Yet, when we lock our knees, there isn’t any pain, and in fact it feels effortless. This is because the damage to cause pain happens slowly overtime, and locking a joint actually requires less energy since there is less activation in the muscles than neutral posture – essentially we are riding on the structures of the joint to hold the position.
Locking the knees extends to a bigger picture of negatively affecting the whole body’s posture. When one area of the body is forced to an extreme, somewhere else in the body shifts to compensate to bring the balance back. When a person locks their knees in standing, this often forces the pelvis and spine to shift in posture. The image below shows two postural types that occur with locked knees: sway back posture and hyper-lordosis. Both can cause pain in the back (and neck) and eventually cause stress to the structures of the spine.
Unfortunately, locking the knees and the subsequent postural accommodations don’t just show themselves in standing still, they transfer to all our movements and activities, such as our yoga postures. Some commonly affected yoga postures are Triangle pose (Trikonasana) and the standing balance poses such as Tree (Vrksasana), and Dancer (Natarajasana) – see images below. By locking the knees in these postures, our alignment and safety is affected through the spine.
A Yoga Practice to Bring Awareness to Unlocking the Knees
Yoga provides us with a discipline from which we can learn to correct this habit and improve our posture. To bring more awareness to how we posture our knees start by practicing how you stand in Mountain Pose (Tadasana). In Mountain Pose, create a solid foundation in your feet: posture your feet straight ahead and ground evenly on all four corners of the foot. From your feet bring awareness to the posture of our knees, and if you feel them locked, practice generating a little give, or softness, to the joint (not bending, the legs still remain fairly straight). Then from the neutral knee posture notice how this affects your posture all the way up as you lift and lengthen.
Then choose a standing balance posture from which you can practice holding the knees in good posture, e.g. Tree or Warrior III (image above). As you challenge yourself on one leg you may realize that it’s not enough to feel softness at the knee joint, but also necessary to generate a sense of engagement of the posterior knee muscles to prevent the joint from pressing back.
Then practice Pyramid Pose (Parsvottanasa) with the focus on the front leg and the posture of the knee. As you enter the pose, find your base by grounding evenly and firmly through all sides of the front foot and gentle press the big toe mound into the ground. From there, feel the line of activation that travels up the back of the leg to behind the knee. You are aiming to have the front knee straight without locking, and see if you can sense the engagement in the posterior knee muscles at the same time. This pose is especially good because the posterior leg muscles are stretching, but we practice activating them in this lengthened position.
As we near spring some of my friends and yoga clients who love bike riding look forward to another season of getting outdoors. Cycling is excellent fitness; it can significantly improve cardiovascular health and develop leg strength. For those of you who ride often and enjoy longer distances, there is the concern, however, of developing tension in the back, hip, and leg muscles from the static forward leaning and hip-flexed posture. I have found yoga to be extremely helpful in bringing the body’s balance back. A routine that focuses on opening the front of the body, and especially the hip flexors, can ease this tension.
YOGA SEQUENCE TO EASE THE TENSION FROM RIDING
As a starting base to warm up the spine, complete a few rounds of Cat (top left) and Cow (top right) Pose. As you alternate between flexing and extending the spine, take note of the balance between these two motions and throughout the various segments of the spine. As you come across any area that feels restricted in the movement feel free to pause and hold the shape to deepen the experience into those areas.
2. Thigh Stretch
Next move to lying on your front (prone lying) and see if you are able to bend one knee and grab your foot to gently draw the heel towards your bum. If it is difficult to reach back and get a hold of your foot, you can use a yoga strap around your ankle to assist. It is important that when you come into the knee bend, the front of the hips don’t lift off the floor—you want to feel grounded through the front of the pelvis, especially on the side you are stretching. If you feel your front hip bones lifting off the floor, back out of the stretch a little and try engaging your abdominal muscles before bending your knee in. If this still doesn’t work, or if you feel any discomfort in your low back, you can do this thigh stretch lying on your side instead. Stay with the stretch for four slow breaths, and depending on the degree of tension you feel, consider doing each leg a second time.
3. Locust Pose
Next give Locust Pose a try. It is a great counteractive pose for riders as it strengthens the back extensor muscles (which may be over lengthened and/or weak from the forward leaning posture), and it opens the front body. In this pose you want to engage the back muscles to get a lift of both the upper and lower body, keeping in mind that the height of the lift is totally up to you based on comfort in the back. Also, as you lift the head and chest, let the arms come off the floor as well and draw the shoulder blades together (without shrugging the tops of the shoulders). The legs are lifting at the same time, aiming to get the knees just off the floor and creating a sense of lengthening in the body by stretching the legs back and reaching forward through the crown of the head. Try holding this pose for 3 – 4 slow breaths. As you develop your endurance for this posture, challenge yourself by staying a little longer and doing more repetitions. (Other back extensions such as cobra pose would be suitable here too).
For a progression from locust pose, you could build up to doing Bow Pose (right), which really opens all aspects of the front body. Keep in mind, this pose may be too aggressive for the individual with restricted range of motion in the hip flexors or anyone with a back condition compromising their spinal extension, e.g. stenosis. You should be able to do the thigh stretch and locust pose easefully before attempting this pose.
4. Puppy Pose
After the locust pose and Bow Pose, it tends to feel balancing to come back to kneeling and briefly stretch the back into the reverse motion. Often in class I’ll suggest doing another cat stretch or child’s pose.
For Puppy Pose (above), start on all four’s and walk the hands out in front for a long reach under the arms (hands shoulder with apart). You want to keep your hips stacked above the knees. Then let the head and chest relax downwards between the arms to feel the stretching under the arms, along the sides of the torso, and across the chest. Stay here for 3 – 4 slow breaths.
5. Kneeling Lunges
Onto the kneeling lunges—probably the most important aspect of this program in order to stretch the hip flexors. The kneeling lunges can be awkward and challenging when you first learn them, but well work the effort for cyclists! Keep in mind it is good to set yourself up for success by adding a little comfort and support in these poses. For instance, you can add padding under the knee on the floor and/or you could do these lunges beside a chair or bench to steady your balance.
First come into a high kneeling posture with one foot forward (image top left), and before you shift your hips forward into lunge, lengthen the low back by tilting the tail bone under (posterior pelvic tilt) and maintain this tilt as you lunge the hips forward (image top right). Make sure the front foot is far enough ahead that the knee lines up with the ankle below.
The second two lunges, from the images above, demonstrate additions to the basic lunge by reaching the outside arm overhead (image bottom left) and then revolving the body with one hand on the hip (image bottom right) to create greater lengthening down the lateral chain of muscles. On the revolved lunge, I rotate my trunk towards the front knee side and place my outside hand on a block. Instead of a block, you could reach your hand to the ground if this is comfortable for you, or for more height under the hand, you can rest your hand on the chair/bench. Stay in these lunge postures again for 3 – 4 slow breaths each.
6. Revolved Kneeling Lunge with Thigh Stretch
This posture is for those of you who are ready for a deeper release into the thigh and hip flexor. It is important that you can competently do the previous lunges before adding this one into your routine. With the revolved kneeling lunge, you reach back with the opposite hand to foot to add the knee bend while holding the lunge. In the image above, I am demonstrating with a block under my hand for some support and to lift in my posture.
7. Supine Hamstring Stretch
Finish on your back to stretch the hamstrings. In this pose I am demonstrating how you can use a yoga strap to assist the drawing in of the leg and use of the strap to dorsiflex the ankle (toes towards shin) for greater stretch into the lower leg (calf) muscles. Stay in the stretch for 3-4 slow breaths and do each leg once or twice depending on the level of tension you notice.
After completing the hamstring stretch, gently draw both knees towards the chest for a little hug, and then extend both legs out, arms at your sides to finish in Savasana, resting on the ground for however long feels good.
I hope this routine brings balance back into your body after those long rides and keeps your cycling pain free!
One of the popular classes I taught when I first opened the studio was Back Care Yoga. It was regularly well attended because back pain is so prevalent within our society—many of us will have troubles with our back at some point in our lives, and for many it can be a long battle with chronic pain and limitations. One of the reasons I took it off the class schedule was because I found myself conflicted knowing that not all back problem should be treated the same. This left me limiting the potential of some of the students (to err on the side of caution for those who’s condition demanded more restriction than others), and this left me feeling like I could do better for each participant.
Back pain can come from many sources. Within the spectrum of back problems causing pain and dysfunction, there are acute conditions and chronic conditions, which need to be managed differently. There are specific diagnoses, such as disc bulges/herniations or stenosis, which require their own understanding of movement limitations and treatment, while less-descript diagnoses may require less restriction and general reconditioning. There can also be a range of mechanical issues stemming from a variety of sources. For example, severe tightness in the surrounding muscles and fascia can impede functional movement and produce pain; or conversely, laxity and hypermobility of an area creates excessive movement, inflammation and pain. In these two conditions the treatment plan can literally be opposite—one needing more stretching the other needing more strengthening respectively.
Regardless of what is happening in your back, one thing is for certain, in all my years of working in the industry of physical therapy with people in pain, no two conditions are exactly the same, and the ‘one size fits all’ approach just doesn’t work. This is why I have decided to offer an educational workshop called Back Care Therapeutics where each participant will come away with a better understanding of their own unique condition so that he or she will better understand what is needed to improve their pain and function, but also have a clearer understanding of what they should avoid in yoga. This workshop will be offered in conjunction with a Back Care Yoga Series, which will allow for individual accommodations and pacing, and offer the participants an opportunity to practice what they have learned.
I am very excited about this new offering. Knowledge is power, and I truly believe, within every individual, she or he has the potential for healing themself, and yoga can an amazing tool to set you on this path.
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.
The winter solstice marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. It is at this point in the earth’s journey around the sun that our northern hemisphere leans furthest away from the light and the sun is lowest. This year the solstice occurs on Friday December 21st, and I personally feel drawn to reflect on this day, as I can’t help but marvel in the symbolism of it. The word “solstice,” in Latin, means “sun standing still”, and in some disciplines of yoga, the sun symbolizes the soul. So in a sense, we could say the soul stands still on the solstice.
The transition into winter and these darkest days gets me thinking about nature. Nature seems to remember what we humans have forgotten… That it is a natural process to shift into stillness and inactivity when the light is low and days are cold. It is in this rest of the winter season that all life’s energy recycles. The trees and plants retreat inwards to dormancy, animals rest and hibernate, and ponds freeze and suspend in time. All this is necessary for the rebirth of life and action in the spring. It gets me wondering about the consequences of forging through the season without this rest, as we humans seem to do. I wonder if we should take more notice of this phase in nature and let it be a cue from which we also take a break from the constant doing and accomplishing. It may be, that by taking the time to rest and reflect, we gather the energy to regenerate and renew.
Everything in the universe has cycles; when a star dies it produces the material for new stars. When a plant is eaten, the energy it stored from the sun is transferred to the new body. This life and death cycle exists everywhere around and within us. Every action, emotion, cell in our body, and breath we take alternates from coming to going; existing and then not. Without this shift into void and nothingness, where endings reside, the cycle of energy cannot continue. The Winter solstice is a powerful reminder that the universe needs both light and darkness to sustain. It is out of the darkness that flowers eventually emerge, life is born, and ideas are formed and nurtured.
This year, in the days around the solstice, I plan to use it as a time of inner reflection; to look back on my year and acknowledge what I have completed and the insights and understandings I have gained. In this pause from activity, I will take time to grieve my losses and celebrate my triumphs, and contemplate what it is I need new, and what it is I need to let go of. I figure there is so much richness and integration that can be received in this transition phase if we take the time to become still with ourselves and listen. Perhaps you’ll join me in this celebration of night as a time to rest your soul and re-fuel your inner light.
This pose embodies the spirit of a warrior and conveys readiness, stability, and courage. Warrior II pose (Virabhadrasana II) is aptly named after a fierce warrior named Virabhadra originating from Hindu mythology. The physical expression of Warrior II pose represents the focused attention and warrior strength required to prepare for battle. When we practice yoga, our mat becomes our battlefield, and our “enemy” becomes our mind. Over time, as we strengthen our bodies and our minds, we learn how to face and defeat all our challenges with focus and calm.
In Warrior II, the front hand reaches forward and represents the future; the back hand reaches behind, and represents the past. The head and body stay situated in the middle, and while our hands are reaching for both what was and what will be, our minds and bodies remain centered in the present moment. It is called “warrior”, but the pose is one of peace. When balanced and centered, in body and mind, we are not at war with ourselves… or anyone else.
Here is an infographic highlighting the benefits and alignment details of this beneficial pose.
The other day, some participants in class were wondering how they could relieve the soreness and tension that they seem to always have in the area running from their neck to their shoulders, sometimes referred to as the area the “upper traps.” This area is a common area of discomfort; it is known for its tendency to be sore after long durations of working at our computers or during times of stress as we might unconsciously clench or shrug our shoulders. When this area gets over-stressed or tightened up, it can cause neck and upper back pain, headaches, jaw pain, and dysfunctional shoulder motion and impingement. To relieve these symptoms, certain yoga postures can be a great help, but first we have to consider the two main reasons this area is so often problematic: poor posture and over clenching in this area.
The area of the upper traps is just the top portion of the large, diamond shaped muscle known as the trapezius (image below). Each section (upper, middle, and lower) serve different actions/functions. The upper fibers of the muscle help in the shrugging (elevation) action of the shoulders and serves a role in keeping the head and neck in position during our daily activities. The upper traps are often overworked when we stay in a forward flexed/forward head-jutting posture for long periods, such as when we are working at the computer or looking down at our devices for extended periods of time. Consider the basic physics of the matter… your head is like a 10 pound weight at the end of your neck. When it leans forward, those stabilizing muscles in the posterior neck are working much, much harder than when your head rests vertically in relationship to gravity. Common sense tells us to try to sit straighter and limit forward jutting of the head to minimize the discomfort on our upper trap area.
However, posture correction is not as simple as don’t poke your head forward (*). To correct it, we need to consider what’s happening below the neck and check our alignment of the whole spine. I like to think of it as working from base up, and the base is our pelvis. If your pelvis is tilted out of neutral posture, the entire length of the spine accommodates for this alignment. In sitting, it is common to tilt the pelvis posteriorly (see image below) and this takes the lumbar spine (low back region) out of its natural curvature of being slightly arched inwards into a flattened posture. When the low back arch is flattened out, our neck posture has no chance of proper correction.
This is especially significant in yoga since we sit on the ground. Sitting low often causes a posterior tilting in the pelvis because many individuals have tight hip and leg muscles (or hip and knee joint issues) which limit their ability to move their hips in deep flexion and external rotation. With these motions being limited, sitting cross-legged becomes straining, and other areas compensate to manage the posture – namely the pelvis tilts in response to the pull of these forces. This is why yoga teachers encourage placing a lift under your seat to ease the tension through the tight hip/leg muscles pulling at the pelvis. It may not be perfect but adjusting your seat surface a little higher to encourage a more neutral pelvis and low back posturing can be a huge piece in correcting your neck pain.
The thoracic (middle back) segment of the spine can be just as much of a hindrance in supporting our neck posture. Individuals tend to collapse through their mid backs in sitting, often viewed as a rounded or hunched back posture. This posture is so common because it requires very little energy to sit this way – the postural, support muscles get to take a break and the spine slumps in response to gravity. Then the neck posture compensates in response, and the upper traps get overworked to hold the head in place this way. In yoga we regularly cue to lengthen the spine in our poses. Not only is this a really important way to create space between the vertebrae of the spine (which is good to prevent collapsing and compression of the spine in poses), but it is the key to adjusting posture through the mid back. I encourage my students to feel the lift upwards coming from the top of their breast bone (the manubrium), which creates a lengthening in the thoracic spine. This simple action creates a more vertical head/neck alignment. So yes, it takes a bit of effort to sit up straight – but it’s worth it!
Outside of spinal posture, the other main reason for pain and tension in the upper traps is if you have a habit of being an over-shrugger. The upper trapezius is one the main muscles which elevates the shoulders upwards (the other being the levator scapulae). Tensing or shrugging the shoulders is one of those conditioned responses to stress for many people. A certain thought, an uncomfortable situation can result in the shrug and people don’t even realize they are constantly, habitually clenching this area, and eventually this causes stiffness and pain.
To undo the effects of over-shrugging and train yourself out of this unconscious habit, It’s not enough to stretch these muscles. Instead consider doing the opposite motion to release the tension from the shrug. The opposite motion is lowering the shoulders down, known as depression, and this is done by activating the lower fibers of the trapezius muscle, which moves the shoulder blades down the back and lowers the shoulders. Also, activating the lower portion of the trapezius sends a reciprocal signal to the upper traps to release and stretch. (To get a better sense of the muscles involved in elevating and depressing the shoulders, click here for a short video animation).
Returning to posture, in order for this technique of shoulder depression to be effective, it’s really important that our spinal posture is in check. For example if you are sitting slouched and move your shoulders downwards, the shoulders might pull forward by the chest muscles and the lower traps won’t get activated, which is required for the upper traps to release.
The way I describe the correct technique in class is to first sit or stand tall, lift through the top of the breast bone, draw shoulders slightly back, and then lower the shoulders downwards –feeling shoulder blades move slightly together and down the back towards the hips. This will create an open spacious feeling from tops of shoulders to ears. (Note, you don’t have to do this motion with all your might, just a little bit of activation in this direction is sufficient). Then this technique can be applied to more complex motions and postures, such as your yoga poses. Cobra and Warrior II are a couple of my favourites to practice this. With practice your mid back muscles will strengthen, and the new, lowered shoulder posture will become more automatic.
Anytime we are trying to create change in our bodies, it requires awareness of our habits and plenty of practice before the new way sets in. To minimize upper trap pain, take advantage of your yoga classes to learn how to adjust your posture for more lift and neutrality in the spine, and then apply the practice of activating the lower trapezius muscle to release the shoulders down during the poses. In time you will feel your shoulder rest easier and the upper trap pains disappear.
*It is important to remember that your computer and chair set up can be the source of your postural problems. For instance if your monitor is too low, your body will compensate in posture to get an adequate eye line and vision to the screen and in this case no amount of knowledge of the spine will help. It’s equally as important to adjust your workstation.
I often post about how Yoga provides us with a base from which we can explore the connection of the mind and body. When we practice postures, meditation, and pranayama (breathing) techniques we get direct information from the systems of our body and the relationships between these various systems. To better explain these experiences in yoga, ancient yogis devised models to describe what they were experiencing. One of my favourite models is that of the five Koshas, which first appeared in the VedicUpanishads dated around 3000 years ago.
According to the Koshas model, every one of us has five bodies, otherwise known as sheaths or layers, that make up our being. You can visualize these layers like that of an onion, with five progressively subtler bodies moving from the outside in. The onion layer analogy is a good visual of how these bodies are contained within one another; however, it is important to remember that these sheaths are not separate nor isolated. Rather, they are inter-penetrating and interdependent on one another, and in order to live a fully balanced, healthy life, all these layers need to be kept in good condition. If one of them is ignored or unsatisfied, there is a lack of harmony.
Here is a description of each of the five Koshas starting from the most superficial to the deepest layer:
1. The Physical Layer The outermost sheath, called Annamaya Kosha, is the most obvious and easily identified as it is comprised of the physical structures of your body, bones, tendons, muscles, and other dense materials. You can experience this Kosha directly. It’s your body, and you can see and feel it. This layer has structural importance as it houses all the other layers.
2. The Energy Layer The second layer is called Pranamaya Kosha, otherwise known as the energy body, which is comprised of all the physiological processes that sustain life, from breathing to digestion to the circulation of your blood. ‘Prana’, in yoga, is understood as life-force energy, and without it, our physical body layer can’t survive more than a few minutes. Prana, which is the equivalent to Chi in eastern medicine, is that which acupuncture treatment is based. In yoga we connect to this energy layer through perceiving the breath and circulation. Energy is balanced through the breath in relationship to the body and mind.
3. The Mental/Emotional Layer The third layer is called Manomaya Kosha. It is described as the psychological sheath, which includes the mind, feelings, and the processes that organize experience. Through the nervous system, this body processes input from our five senses and responds reflexively to the needs of the mind and body in its environment. Here we begin to truly understand the inter-dependent effects each layer has on then next. Imagine a person in a coma, their first and second sheath are still operating so their heart and lungs continue to function and their physical body is intact, but the person has no awareness of what’s happening and no ability to take action because the activity of Manomaya Kosha has shut down. Without the mental layer we are unaware of the first two.
4. The Higher Intelligence Layer The fourth layer is known as Vijnanamaya Kosha. It is the body of intellect and wisdom, and of conscience and will. This is the layer that is assumed to separate humans and animals. It is a higher level of awareness that underlies all the reflexive mental processes of daily living. In yoga, through mindfulness and meditation, your ability to observe your own thoughts and behaviours gets enhanced and you begin to experience the events in your life from this more objective aspect of awareness. Self study and meditation lead to clarity of judgment, greater intuitive insight, and increased willpower as your Vijnanamaya Kosha grows stronger and more balanced.
5. The Spiritual or Bliss Layer The fifth, and inner most layer is called Anandamaya Kosha. This the most subtle of the five layers which is experienced as deep contentment or bliss. For most people this sheath is underdeveloped and few are even aware that this level of consciousness exists within themselves. It is said the Anandamaya Kosha is the energetic veil bridging ordinary awareness and our higher, spiritual self. The great sages, life-time meditators, and even those who have had near death experiences, have all described this part of being where our true, inborn nature of peace and love reside. It connects us to all of universal existence. You come into this world with it.
Identifying these layers that comprise our being can aid us in learning more about our own personal existence and balance in life. Each of us has moments in our development that can enhance or impede connection to one or more of these layers. Take for example someone who sustains a traumatizing, physical injury. On the surface it affects the physical body, the Annamaya Kosha. Sometimes, the pain or mental suffering, experienced through the psychological layer, can create blocks to the awareness that flows to this physical part of yourself. Overtime the psychological block withers your connection not only to the physical structures, but also the physiological flowing and mental and emotional realization of this part of you. There lies a hole in our body/mind complex that requires reconnection, on multiple layers, to heal. This is one of the explanations for why physical pain can last beyond the healing of an injury.
The opposite can be true as well. Sometimes a newfound awareness into one layer can ignite wholeness and unity onto all the layers. In yoga when we shift into a mindful state, working from that deeper part of our consciousness (the Vijnanamaya Kosha), we can become aware of blocks in our mind-body complex. For example, in working with individuals through yoga therapy, I have witnessed how a gentle touch or stretch to a body part ignites awareness that this part was not registering in their bodily perception due to a past issue, such as an emotional trauma. In essence, experiencing a physical sensation, while being connected to your higher, intelligence layer, re-introduces the person to this part of themselves, and the re-established connection brings healing to all the layers.
There are many of individuals existing in their daily lives with healthy functioning outer sheaths (strong bodies and minds), but who are totally void of awareness to their inner sheaths. When one is disconnected to their Vijnanamaya and Anandamaya Koshas, its like leaving an empty whole in the center of their being… and these people can literally feel uncentered in their lives. When disconnected to the core sheaths, one can feel reactive to life and often feel unfocused and lost when considering their choices and goals. Personal growth and spiritual practices that connect with these deeper parts of ourselves allow us to remain fulfilled, energized and whole.
Being human is complex; as far as we know, we are the only species on earth that can experience ourselves on multidimensional planes. I liken this to the phrase, “Awareness knowing itself”, and it is through practices such as yoga that we can open this world of self study and gain better understanding of these varying layers of consciousness. The five Koshas give us a framework from which we can organize and express all these layers of our being, and in doing so, we are one step closer to enjoying the health and fulfillment of an enlightened life.
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!
Perspective, space, wisdom, peace… Equanimity is the balance in life that is born of wisdom.
Equanimity is like the secret ingredient of mindfulness, it’s the core of what mindfulness is doing for us. It’s that non-reactive quality of awareness–we are connected to what is happening in the moment without projection into the future, comparison with the past, pushing away or holding on. It’s one thing to know what’s going on in the moment as it happens, but it’s another to be aware with less bias and projection. For example, we notice our back hurts (which is helpful to know), but it’s also good to notice how are we reacting and relating to the back pain. Maybe we are filled with anticipation of an imaginary future, wondering what’s it going to feel like next week and getting concerned that this back ache is never going to go away, and how will this affect an upcoming vacation in… In this example, not only are we experiencing what’s happening in the moment but we have all that additional anticipated stress and anxiety added on top. So equanimity is about creating enough space in the moment that we notice our tendencies and get a much deeper connection to what’s happening.
Equanimity does not mean we clear ourselves of all opinion and action. Rather it is simply a way of broadening our perception such that should we decide to take some action, the action is coming from a deeper understanding. When we give space to all that we are noticing without immediately reacting, we can learn. We see layers of what’s happening: thoughts, emotions and physical reactions related to any one event and all at once. Being in this state allows us to see more clearly before we choose our response. Mindfulness is the body for understanding, and equanimity is the heart through which we find wisdom.
Equanimity helps us be more resilient. When we experience stress from wanting things to go a certain way, you can feel the resistance of not wanting certain outcomes and the intense yearning of wanting others. Yet, so often our worries and attempts at controlling the outcomes are futile. Equanimity brings us the pause to recognize we are doing this and see the thoughts, emotions and physical responses in these moments. This is not to say it is a passive act or that we just give up. We can do our best by letting go of what we can’t control. When we accept this, we become less overwhelmed by all the related unpredictable and changing circumstances and can see and calmly focus on what we can control. Knowing when and what to let go gives us peace.
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.
Traditional Pigeon Pose (right) is known for how it stretches into the posterior and lateral muscles of the hip (the buttock muscles). Many people source Pigeon Pose as a remedy for sciatic pain since it can specifically stretch the Piriformis muscle, which when tight, can compress on the sciatic nerve. As effective as pigeon pose is for this, ask any yoga teacher and you will learn that many people can’t do pigeon pose comfortably or safely for reasons such as knee or ankle compression. As a popular alternative, many teachers advise trying Supine (back lying) Pigeon, sometimes known as Eye of the Needle Pose in yoga, (which also goes by Figure 4 Stretch outside of the yoga world). This pose is a popular favourite among individuals who want to feel a therapeutic stretch into the buttocks without the compression that comes with full Pigeon Pose.
As with traditional Pigeon Pose, the supine version of Pigeon has options and modifications to choose from. Depending on where you hope to focus the stretch, and other factors such as your own personal anatomy, flexibility, or comfort can can influence the version you choose. I always like to remind my students that it’s not a matter of “right or wrong”, but, rather of asking yourself, “Is this pose meeting my intention?” Once you are knowledgeable in how to modify pigeon pose, you can choose the version best suited for you.
The most common way to teach Supine Pigeon Pose is it is with the hands threading the space between the legs, as shown in these next images. You can either hold onto the back of the thigh or over top of the knee depending on your flexibility and preference.
Holding the thigh with the hands serves a purpose of anchoring the pose in place with less effort in the hips, and you can easily deepen the sensation by drawing the leg in with the hands. However, there are some limitations with this threading version because it forces the top knee to be pressed more out to the side (external rotation of the hip⸻discussed more below), and for some of us, our arm length to hip mobility ratio may restrict our ability to comfortably reach the leg. When a person is unable to bring the legs in very far and/or their arm length is insufficient to comfortably reach through the legs without strain, then I suggest these next variations.
The above images show how Supine Pigeon can be done with the foot on the wall. Here, the closer your seat is to the wall, the shorter the angle and the deeper the stretch, so I recommend starting with a 90 degree angle in the supporting leg and moving your seat closer or further from the wall depending on comfort. In the wall version, it is also really easy to highlight how the angle of the hip creates a different effect on where you feel the stretch. When we push the knee more out to the side (top left) it focuses the stretch into the lateral hip muscles and groin more which are internal/medial rotators of the hip, e.g. tensor fasciae latae and the abductors. However, if you are aiming to get deeper into the Piriformis muscle, angling the knee in towards you more (top right) will give you a better stretch on the Piriformis muscle which is one of the external/lateral rotators of the hip.It’s important to remember there is no right or wrong here…Be playful with the angle, being careful with joint pain of the hip or knee⸻ a small shift in angle will simply highlight the stretch in different muscles of the buttocks and hips.
In this next image I demonstrate a rotation slightly off to the side with the foot of the supporting leg on the wall rolled to the outer edge. This will angle the knee even more across the body, and for me, this stretch really deepens the sensation into the posterior gluteals (Piriformis).
Sometimes when you don’t have a wall and the threading version with your hands isn’t working, you could try this next version instead.
Here I am demonstrating you can hold the knee and foot of the side you are stretching. What I like about this is the opposite leg is assisting the hold lightly while the hands deepen the experience and can direct the angle based on your needs and preferences, and there is less reach required by the arms. I personally find this one very effective.
Hopefully this article on Supine Pigeon Pose gives you a better understanding of the range of options outside of traditional Pigeon Pose. I encourage you to step outside the thinking of doing a pose based on how it “should” look, and instead find a version and creative technique that works just right in your body while still supplying the stretch you need to the muscles you intend.
One of the things I love most about yoga is how it can meet our needs moment to moment. Sometimes we need energy and strength, while other times we need stretch or restoration. The fun thing is some postures can do all the above depending on how you approach them. I can think of no better pose to explore this than bridge pose. In bridge pose you can have a range of experiences depending on the variation you choose.
Generally speaking, bridge pose, in its active variation, is a strengthening and energizing posture. Just after my first baby was born, I chose bridge pose as my first strengthening pose to do. I recall how wobbly my legs felt as I attempted to lift my hips off the ground; I remember thinking to myself, “Oh man, have I ever lost a lot of strength!” From this first attempt, I continued to practice bridge daily. By the second week I was back to my regular hip lifting height and I no longer felt weakness in my legs and hips as I held the pose longer and longer. As I began to engage the pose in more of a chest opening posture, I felt my posture improve and my breath deepen, bringing more energy into my body. This experience made me truly appreciate how this pose has great strength building potential and is fantastic for beginners as it allows for you to decide how high and how long you lift for.
Below is an info-graphic showing the technique and benefits of the active variation of bridge pose. It is important to note you can start with a lower lift of the hips off of the ground than shown. Also, you can completely leave out clasping the hands under the body (resting arms on the ground). The practice of tucking the shoulders underneath the body and squeezing the shoulder blades together facilitates a lift of the chest with the pose and engages many more back muscles, making the experience deeper and more complex. When first learning it helps to start with the hip lifting aspect of the pose, and later build on this piece.
People often ask me if they should activate their abdominal muscles in bridge, and I tell them “It depends…” You can do it both ways depending on your goal of the pose and any back conditions you may have. Generally speaking, when you tighten or activate the abdominal muscles it makes the pose feel more stable in the lumbar (low back) region. If you are one of those people who has tight hip flexors muscles you may be prone to over-extending the low back, and in this case it will likely help to engage the abdominals when lifting into bridge which can essentially help ‘lock’ the low back into position and will most likely feel better if you have this condition. However, for some people, it is possible that going into more extension in the back will feel helpful, especially if they tend to be in postures which flatten out the low back a lot. So by relaxing the abdomen and really emphasizing the contraction of the gluteal and back extensor muscles they can increase the back arch and this can feel therapeutic. Often I recommend trying both ways to sense what feels better in your body to know which way to go.
These next images (below) demonstrate variations of bridge pose which provide support with props, and with this support, comes a whole different experience to the posture. Supporting bridge pose makes it passive rather than active, and therefore it is no longer a strengthening posture; instead it becomes restorative. When placing the props underneath the sacrum (the lowest portion of the spine just above the tail bone), the props create a gentle stretch into the front of the hips and a light traction of the low back. From here you can work on relaxing the support muscles of the pose and in this way we can experience the shape and stretch of the pose without the effort, allowing our bodies to rest and release tension. In addition, when using the foam block you can also experience a light acupressure sensation against the sacrum region and that can sometimes help reduce back pain.
I have had some yoga clients in class tell me they felt so relaxed in this posture, but didn’t know why. The reason is likely because supported bridge pose is also a gentle inversion and inversions have a calming effect on the body. When the lower body is elevated from the upper body, gravity’s pull of blood towards our hearts and heads toggles our nervous systems to turn off the sympathetic “flight or fight” stress response while turning on the parasympathetic “rest and digest” response. This happens in a complicated feedback loop that starts when blood pressure accumulates in the aortic arch above the heart and the carotid arteries in the neck. The final result is reduced heart rate, reduced blood pressure, a breakdown of the stress hormones in the body (cortisol and adrenaline), and a quieting of the “chatterbox” centers within the brain itself which is hugely beneficial when we are feeling stressed and anxious.
The next image below shows a fully inverted version of supported bridge pose which helps to heighten the inversion effects. It is also different in that it focuses on opening the front body more at the chest level, extending mid/upper back. For some this feels like a really big opening experience so using a height that is lower than the bolster shown in the image (e.g. a rolled blanked) might be a way to try in the beginning.
Bridge pose is full of experiences and what I have highlighted here just scratches the surface of the myriad of ways it can be altered for varying effects. Hopefully this provides you with enough information to get exploring how bridge pose can benefit you.
For a free printable of the info-graphic shown above link here: bridge pose.pdf