Your Friend the Breath

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

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

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

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

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Happy New Year

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

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

Wishing you a playful New Year,

Renee

 

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A post on creativity and yoga

Let me start by introducing myself. I’m a woman who believes “reliability and functionality” define a good handbag, I studied science in university, my favourite iPhone app is my Reminder’s checklist, and my friends nicknamed me “The Grid” for my exceptional ability to think in straight lines. Over the years, I certainly have not placed myself on the top of the creative totem pole. In fact, I used to get low grade anxiety whenever someone invited me to a crafting event. (The echo of my subconscious reminding me, “I’m not creative–that’s reserved for that other group of people–the artsy, color-outside-the-lines people”). But recently my yoga practice revealed a new possibility to me, and a whole new perspective of what defines creativity and where I stand in this definition came into colour.

It happened gradually, like the peeling away the layers of an onion; however, recently a big chunk fell off. I was in Cobbler pose–a common pose where you join the soles of your feet and let your knees fall out to the sides. This pose has been in my practice for years, but also one I have never felt satisfied with since my left hip has slowly become less and less flexible (my suspicion is arthritis). I can’t count how many times I’d done Cobbler and pressed down on my knee as if to try to force my left hip to open like the right side–the thought was, if I spend a little more energy and focus on it, it will loosen, it will improve–but it hasn’t. Then one miraculous morning, I accepted it. I sat upright, joined the soles of my feet, and let my knees fall as they would–beautifully asymmetrical and seasoned with age. For the first time, I felt at peace with it, as if to say,” This is who I am right now and there is no need to change or fix anything.” What I realized at that moment was I was finally getting out of my own way. Letting go of the old, or fixed ideas about who I used to be or how my hip should be, and opening to the space of who I am right now.

So how does this relate to creativity you might ask… Well, it was very near after this day I saw the same awareness show up in another aspect of my life. You see, I’d always written the odd poem in my journal and this recent acceptance of “this is who I am right now” gave me a green light to write more poems. I used to think they were just something I did when I needed to vent on paper (more a process of processing, if you will) and my belief that they weren’t any good because I’m not good at writing and I’m not a creative person prevented me from truly engaging in this interest. I realized I’ve been holding this part of myself back out of fixed beliefs and old ideas of self, much like the ideas that made me believe that my left hip and right hip should perform the same. My poems, my writings (interestingly about yoga), are a genuine passion for me, and right now, this is what’s in me that’s calling to be expressed. It’s time for me to let them
exist just as they are, imperfections and all.

More to this revelation of mine. Even though my breakthrough acceptance appears like a sudden epiphany, in reality, to get to this place of resolve–to be able to say my writings and poems have value and deserve to be expressed–took inner work. It took a gradual building of trust and confidence in myself. And my yoga practice was instrumental in this process (and when I say “practice”, a word to the wise, if the yoga class you’re thinking of promotes a beach-body and rock-hard abs, this is not the type of yoga practice I’m referring to).

It required what I like to call introspective yoga to cultivate this psychological growth. What I needed was a safe, slow, and quiet space where the volume of my inner knowing could be turned up. What was revealed to me was a confidence in my inner voice and the value of expressing it. Essentially, I was building trust in following my heart’s desire, and, for the purpose of this blog post, giving me the foundation from which I’d take the next step of sharing my poems. (For those of you who are interested you can read one here).

So here’s the truth I’ve come to realize–creativity evolves out of the recognition of what you do in your life that brings you joy. You need to identify the topics and activities that naturally get you curious and excited (you know, the ones you’d spend all your free time doing just for the fun of it) because this is the place from which creation is born. And no matter the end product, it’s truly special because it’s a product of genuine passion combined with the uniqueness of you. If you’re anything like me, sometimes these inner yearnings get dampened by the “shoulds and should-nots” we carry in our heads, and what’s needed is a platform like yoga to open the space for the wise body and inner voice to be present. Perhaps it’s time to get out of your own way and ask yourself, “What’s in me that’s not being expressed?”

This post was originally published on the Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy website’s guest blogs here.

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The Gateway

For the next 6 months I’ll be writing blog posts for the Phoenix Rising website. Most likely, I won’t be getting to my own posts as often so I’ll share the link for these reads here and on my facebook page. For today I thought I’d leave you with some words I wrote after a yoga class.

The Gateway

It’s not just stretching, it’s the gateway in.
The intention is to notice,
notice your body.
And bring conscious awareness to all the parts,
from top to tip and left from right.

What’s that in your hand?
A clenched fist whose memory travels your arm,
future grasping of thoughts gone past.
The invisible cloak of halted breath
shielding shadowy images in dusky passages.

But it’s been a while
so you hang your worries and step inside,
and in a breath your body claims focus.
Shifting, reaching, softening…
You notice there’s more space than ever imagined.

Palms wide open,
nature’s pull guides you softly, slowly.
Life force pulsing once again to the whole.
Your heart breathes and lets out a sigh;
you’ve returned home.

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The Uninvited Guest (It’s okay to cry)

You can close your eyes to the things you don’t want to see but you can’t close your heart to the things you don’t want to feel.

-Johnny Depp

I was just on Facebook and as I scanned through the numerous pretty pictures with inspiring quotes and affirmations, I was pleased to happen across this one post linking to Elephant Journal with an article on healing and pain, Pain is a Process; Honor It . In this article the author, Christine Gutierrez, is referring to the type of pain that comes from life’s bum deals, you know, the heartaches, failures, cruelties and unfairness, lessons of loss and grief, disappointments, etc. To heal this pain, she explains, there is a process that needs to take place, and this process doesn’t always come in the package of positive thinking and affirmations – sometimes the process needs to include the messy moments, the sadness, and hurt.  I especially like her line, “No matter how good we may get at tracking a storm, the beauty of nature is that she does her own thing. Sometimes it hurts, but it is what it is.”

Reading this article was like a sigh of relief! Tbh [to be honest] I get really disconcerted when I hear “keep your chin up”, or, my personal favourite, “stay positive” when I’m really down. It seems to me that some of this proper, tea party talk has roots in the idea that it’s not okay to show your emotions, that it’s weak and improper, and god forbid imposing on another. Or, rather, if you just wish it away it will be no longer… Really? So you just learned some really crappy news or maybe you’re sorting through some painful childhood stuff. I for one, am not going to tell you how to feel, how to be, or when to be it. I can see how it would be radically confusing to chant messages of light and optimism when every cell of your being is aching in grief. And, it’s my opinion that if you look a little deeper at this notion of “staying positive” there’s a shadow called fear walking beside the mind-set. Yep, people are afraid to feel emotions, afraid to show emotions, and afraid to witness another’s emotions because this makes them feel uncomfortable, or better yet, vulnerable.

I once read that to watch a young child be with their emotions is a good example of healthy expression. When it comes to feelings, toddlers have a natural ability to flow from moment to moment – they can go from peaceful, happy play to abrupt tears and cries, and then, like the flick of a light switch, back to peaceful, happy play. I wonder, what would it be like to let our feelings move through us in this way rather than stuffing them deep down where they can do the lethal damage? Now I’m not saying we should all regress to childhood tantrums in the schoolyard, but I am suggesting to feel is good, and to feel all of it. It’s okay to cry, to be messy, to be angry and sad. This is all a part of the human experience we call life. As Dolly Parton said, You can’t have the rainbow without the rain.” And really could we even know happiness without it’s polar opposite of sadness?

So I say befriend your emotions – all of them. Acknowledge and accept them, and when the time is right, find a place and a way to be with them. Maybe something you do is journalling; some like poetry, painting, talking with a friend or therapist, watching a chick flick… whatever opens the dam and lets you feel and express. Personally I have found my yoga and yoga therapy to be the most healthy and effective ways to get in touch with what’s really going on. My promise to you is feeling the ugly won’t make you ugly. I’m betting that if you find authentic and productive ways to be with your emotions, your body, your being, will thank you for it. To quote Ms. Gutierrez, “This to me is the true art of healing – to allow the healing to be what it is.”

 

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I bow to the wisdom of my divine self

One of my yoga therapy course work assignments is to practice certain postures and to write about what I learn about my body in relation to the pose. One of the poses I am practicing this term is yoga mudra.  I’ve chosen to do this pose while in lunge position. My body enjoys this pose; it is strangely comforting and edgy all at once. I think it’s because I fold into myself, but at the same time, I am using strength through my legs to support and balance myself while my arms extend and stretch out away from me.

One day when I was practicing this pose I realized I could stretch my arms up further than I was doing… and it was easy. At that moment I had an awareness and it brought me back to a time when I was doing this pose on the rocky shores of Maui. My husband had taken a picture of me doing it and I remembered seeing the photo thinking my arms were not reaching very high. What I have since realized was in this photo, and countless times thereafter, I was NOT demonstrating my full ability, and the awareness became: sometimes I hold back and even when I know I can push further (and when it is completely safe for me to do so!). Hmmm… what an interesting realization. So what am I holding back for?

This became a very insightful question for me to ask myself, “What am I holding back for?”, and with some space and acceptance, a big learning piece emerged. Without going into all the gloriously messy details, let’s just say I realized I was holding a fear of fully expressing myself, a coping strategy learned from my younger years which no longer serves me. Wow, what an awareness – all from the simple practice of one pose allowing my body to speak it’s wisdom.

So… back to “what I learned about my body in relation to this pose”, of course my arms can extend further, so let them… and I have.

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Aparigraha

A lone leaf cartwheels skyward, riding an updraft over the house, flying like a drunken dove to the edge of the far woods.  What a glorious end, to be borne aloft, the whole Autumn landscape spread out below in riotous gold and orange; nature caught in a flagrant act of transformation.                                                                                                         Danna Faulds

This term in my schooling, I’ve been asked to journal and practice one of the ethical principles, and I chose Aparigraha as my Yama of reflection.   Otherwise translated as non aquisitiveness or greedlessness, Aparigraha has its roots in the notion of “stuff” and not accumulating what is not essential – whether it be things I own or knowledge I gain.

There’s something about this Yama in particular that gets me thinking outside myself and the bigger picture: consumerism and materialism – you know, living a life of grasping and accumulating stuff in habitually exploitive ways.  Yes, the thought that I will be happier when I have this…  But truth tells me I won’t be happier; it will all just manifest as something new to grasp onto.  Like the beauty of autumn, the leaves will fall.  And to what end, the cost of my actions?  Environmentally and ethically speaking; it is simply unskillful to turn my cheek to the impact of my delusional worldly desires.

What stands out for me is the realization that this Yama, like all the other ethical principles studied in yoga are bigger than me.  All my actions and thoughts carry karma, and karma comes down to intention.   Surely my intention is not to harm others and the balance of nature by careless desire.  My yoga practice is not just about physical flexibility and strength.  It’s about cultivating awareness internally so that I can wake up to who I am and my place in the world.  That is why we start with the Yamas.  Without the balanced practice of all eight limbs in yoga, practice can easily become another form of materialism.  Yoga is not about passivity; it’s about being in the world and about wise action.  Reflecting on Aparigraha kicks this into gear for me – we are all interconnected and, ultimately, engagement in the world and formal practice on the mat are one the same.

*Check out more of autumn’s beauty at my husband’s Vermont gallery and blog, photography done by In View Images.

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Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy

 

Though at times we look for outside sources to guide us, somewhere deep inside we know that we must slow down, reconnect with ourselves, and listen to our own inner voice. Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, through a combination of classical yoga techniques and elements of contemporary body-mind psychology, encourages this deeper connection with self. Through this deeper connection, we are able to know ourselves more fully. And out of this knowing, we are more easily moved to embrace the opportunity for change, growth and enhanced well being in mind & body.

Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy uses yoga postures, hands-on assists, and therapeutic dialogue to facilitate growth and healing. Clients are gently guided through a meditation that brings them to a state of self awareness and inner presence, from which profound wisdom can arise. The result is clear insight and a practical, action-based approach to lasting life change.

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Your playing small does not serve the world…

Here I am into the second term of my Yoga Therapy training and I am busier that I ever thought possible (hence the lack of blog posts).  Going into the training I knew the work would be challenging and soulful, but I had no idea how powerful the training could be on forcing me to take a hard look at who I am and how I interact in the world – you know the kind of monumental shifts in one’s psyche that can occur after some huge catastrophic event.  I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say, who I am is in the process of change, and this is no small task.

I have been asked to do readings in my course work and then journal on them.  One of the books, The Forgotten Body by Elissa Cobb, is a good read for anyone interested in the world of yoga therapy.  It’s a book with lots of little nuggets of insight and it explores, from many angles, the message that in our quest for wisdom and spiritual guidance, everything you need to know is already in you, in your body.  There are numerous quotes and poems in the book, and I keep returning to one quote in particular.  I’ve journaled about it and I’ve re-read it probably 30 times.  My body and soul feel this quote, and there is a deep knowing in me that it is true, and well, maybe one day…

     Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God (fill in with your source for spirituality).  Your playing small does not serve the world.  There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so small that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We are all meant to shine, as children do.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberate others.                                                                                                                                                                  Marianne Williamson

And so it is with me, on a journey to understand, at its roots, why and where my fears come from.  This quote reminds me that sometimes fear keeps me from realizing, and consequently living, my full potential.  Am I accurately assessing my limits?  Where in my life am I holding back.  This is exactly why I come back to my mat again and again – not to achieve some physical feat, but to activate and invigorate my own self-discovery.

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More on Yoga Therapy

I just came across an article in Yoga Journal titled Emotions in Motion which discusses yoga’s potential for integration of mind, body, and emotions.  As I read further into the article, I was pleased to see it highlighted Phoenix Rising yoga therapy sessions as a way to access this integration and use the body as a source of wisdom for emotional breakthroughs and healing.  I was thrilled to come across this article and find myself “by chance” reading about the very training I’m receiving.  Specifically check out Continue reading “More on Yoga Therapy”

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Sensitive Neck and Backbends

There’s a reason why you hear the expression “pain in the neck” when someone is really frustrated.  Anyone with a sensitive neck will let you know it is very difficult to manage daily activities and get comfortable sleep when neck pain is present.   Whether it is general muscle tension with accompanying headaches or more serious conditions such as pinched nerves, arthritis, and damaged discs, neck pain can be very debilitating.  It is important to ensure your yoga practice is done with awareness of body posture and alignment to avoid further irritation to a sensitive neck.

When you look around and examine neck posture you’ll soon realize how predominant the “forward head posture” is.  Many of us sit and work in a position all day where our head pokes forward from the shoulders.  In ideal alignment, the ear is Continue reading “Sensitive Neck and Backbends”

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Yoga Therapy

I just finished the first couple levels of my technical training for Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy.  Wow, what an experience.  I really had no idea what a beautiful and in-depth practice and training I was stepping into.  I have a long road ahead of me to become certified, but it is really exciting.  I plan on blogging about my journey as I move through the course work and practicum.  To begin with, I thought it would be a good exercise to describe what yoga therapy is, as taught by Phoenix Rising

It’s body work, like receiving a massage, but instead of massaging, I am Continue reading “Yoga Therapy”

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A Maui Memoir

Here I am doing tree pose on the black rocky shoreline of Wai’anapanapa State park in east Maui.  I had been there once before, and ever since I longed to return.  I imagined myself doing yoga one day along this shoreline, standing amiss the inhospitable edges of the volcanic rock and turbulent seas.  So here I am, an intention unfolded… a friend asks me why I want to do a serene practice like yoga in such a rough and violent setting? “I’m not sure”, I said.  Perhaps I loved the contrast, no, perhaps I longed for the fear, the feeling of being alive and humble alongside nature’s raw power.

The experience was edgy (pun intended); my feet hurt, the wind blew, the water sprayed.  It wasn’t comfortable, but it was where I needed to be.   And so I did yoga, on the edge of somewhere in between, ready for the next step with fear and vulnerability as I knew it would be a leap and then a dive into waters less calm.  That day, I left Wai’anapanapa State Park, grateful for its unease, and ready to step.

Change never happens when you’re standing still, but shift does.

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Santosha

As human beings, many of us seem to be hard-wired to notice how life fails to meet our ideas of how things should be.   And when things don’t go as we would like, this leads to feelings of sadness, frustration, anger, or an overall feeling of dissatisfaction.  Fortunately, we can change these unpleasant feelings by mindfully shifting our attention.  We begin this by starting to paying attention to what you do have and to the reality of what is rather than what should have been or the desires you cling to.

In yoga the practice of Santosha helps cultivate this shift.  Santosha, one of the Niyamas of the eight-limbed path, translates as contentment or appreciation of what you have and what is.  In your asana practice there is opportunity to learn Santosha.  For instance when you find yourself getting frustrated when you can’t obtain a final variation of a pose or match abilities of another student in a class, it is helpful to check in and remind yourself that you are grasping for some mental construct of how you would like to be or how you think things should be.  Reality is that at this present moment your body is telling you what it can and can’t do and forcing or straining it outside these limits is not only unhealthy but untruthful.  Sometimes you will have breakthroughs in your practice where dedication and perseverance pay off; however, it is just as likely that your physical anatomy may never be able to perform a certain asana, or perhaps you get an injury, and what you could do yesterday, you can no longer do today.  This is reality of what is, and “what is” will continually change.   There is wisdom in recognizing this constant change, or impermanence, in your practice, and contentment comes from being present and learning how to accept and appreciate what shows up moment to moment, day by day.

Reflect on what you do have

Each time you step onto your mat, realize that because you have the health, resources, and freedom available to you to practice yoga, then you are truly fortunate.  To know that all the resources you require to practice yoga, e.g. your mat, your car, your clothes, your nourishment, etc. were all made possible by the energy and efforts of other people, animals, plants, the sun, and minerals of the earth.  And the highest wisdom in yoga is to realize the truth of our interconnectedness and interdependence.  When you start to look at all the abundance around you and your reliance on other beings for this abundance, you have much to be grateful for.

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Back on Track II – Hyperlordosis

In the last article on back health, Back on Track I, we discussed lumbar disc injury in relationship to low back posture and yoga poses.  However, as noted in the last article, this is just one of many low back dysfunctions.  There are numerous  back health conditions to familiarize yourself with.  In this post we will examine the individual presenting with hyperextension of the lumbar spine or hyperlordosis, essentially the opposite of the flattened lumbar spine covered in Back on Track I .

To imagine what hyperlordosis looks like, think of a pregnant woman who carries all her weight (baby) in her abdomen.  It’s easy to visualize how as her tummy grows, the weight of her belly pulls her spine forward, arching her low back deeper.  Of course, not only pregnant women present with this posture; look around and you will see many other examples of individuals standing with this hyperlordotic posture.

You might be wondering what causes this posture?  As in the case of a pregnant woman, it is easy to conceptualize the heavy weight of the abdomen pulling the spine forward and down with gravity.  However, this posture is not dependent on a certain body type; it can simply be the product of genetics and habit over time as our bodies holding pattern becomes ingrained and memorized like a go to blue print.   Old injury can also dictate how a postural pattern emerges.   The human body has a remarkable way of figuring out the path of least resistance; unconsiously our bodies are moving away from the pain.

Tight hip flexors and weak abdominals can also co-concur with this posture.  The iliopsoas muscles, otherwise known as the hip flexors, are often tight or shortened in people with hyperlordosis.  The iliopsoas is a name for the two hip flexor muscles, the iliacus and the psoas.  The iliacus attachment starts at the inside wall of the pelvis while the psoas attaches along the length of the lumbar spine on the transverse processes.  Both muscles come together and share a common tendon of insertion at the top anterior aspect of the femur (thigh) bone.  Biomechanically, when this muscle contracts it creates flexion at the hip joint.  When this muscle becomes chronically shortened, it heightens  the “flexed” posture at the hip joint by pulling at its attachment points – pulling the lumbar spine into greater lordosis and creating an anterior tilt of the pelvis.  This can also be heightened by lax or weak lower abdominals.

Whatever the cause of this postural imbalance, the concern is how the imbalance affects the health of the individual.  A potential hazard of hyperlordiosis, other than the regular aches and pains of tightened postural muscles alongside the spine,  is back pain from the structures of the spine as a result of being strained chronically outside of their healthful alignment.  Some individuals will experience pinching of the facet joints, the two small joints where the bony edges of two vertebrae meet one another at the posterior aspect of the spine.  When facet joints, or any bony structures, are compressed it can lead to arthritic symptoms/conditions of the spine from the wear and tear of asymmetrical force distribution.  This can be especially true when a person with this condition continually places further compression of the spine during deep back bends in yoga.

Yoga poses involving forward folds and hip extensions, however, can offer an opportunity to undo the low back stresses and strains of this posture type.  The forward bends open the spaces of the lumbar vertebrae and lengthen the tightened postural muscles along the sides of the spine, which can be very relieving to a hyperlordotic back.  And poses that extend the hip will stretch the iliospoas which can also be very beneficial for correcting this posture when shortened hip flexors are involved.

Of course each student’s anatomy and postural tensions are unique so care must be taken to ensure the forward bends and hip extensions are targeting the area you wish to affect.  In the forward bends, it is important to ensure the bending doesn’t just occur at structures above and below.  For example a person with tight muscles along the lumbar portion of the spine might overcompensate by over-bending the area of the spine above, the thoracic spine.  Or, when stretching the hip into extension, the person with tight hip flexors will need to caution against the lumbar spine being pulled into deeper extension from the pull of the psoas muscle.

A simple exercise to help teach isolation into the lumbar spine is to have him or her stand with their back body against a wall or lying flat on the floor.  Have him or her perform a gentle pelvic tilt (a posterior rotation of the pelvis), which promotes flattening of the lumbar spine towards the wall or floor.  It is helpful in this exercise that the individual utilize lower abdominal muscles to activate the motion rather than solely clenching the gluteals (buttocks). It is also important in this exercise that the rest of the body remain still and relaxed to promote the isolation of movement at the pelvis/low back. Lastly, it is helpful to encourage lengthening the spine, a gentle self-traction, with this motion.

Next, apply the pelvic tilt motion to the forward bends and hip extension asanas to maximize their benefit.  Examples of forward bends are Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend), Uttanasana (standing forward bend), Malasana (garland pose), Anada Balasana (happy baby pose).  Examples of hip extension poses are Low Lunge, High Lunge, and Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I).  Cueing suggestions might be “activate through the lower abdominals, drawing the navel towards the spine”, or “attempt to flatten the lumbar spine and draw the tailbone towards the ground”.

It is important to realize that when teaching yoga to a group of individuals, each person will have his or her own unique anatomy and considerations for back health.  In Back on Track I a flattened lumbar spine was considered, while in this article on over-extended lumbar spine was discussed.  By contrasting the two extremes, my hope was to highlight that what might be helpful cues for one individual may be the exact opposite for another individual. Since this can be the case, my recommendation is to get to know your students and overtime assist them with their individual needs and precautions to maximize health in their yoga practice.

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Back on Track I – Lumbar Discs and Yoga

I was recently at the yoga conference in Vancouver and attended a course on low back therapeutics.  The instructor, Martin Kirk, an inspiring passionate yogi, with a biomechanics background, addressed one of the most common ailments of Western society – low back pain, and specifically stress to the lumbar discs, leading to disc bulges and herniations.  Given the short two hour time span of the course and North America’s propensity towards sitting for extended periods of time, I felt this was a fair place to start when teaching low back therapeutics and yoga.  Of course having spent a few years working in a therapeutic setting addressing low back injuries, I am well familiar with the spectrum of low back disorders and the awareness that “one size does not fit all” when it comes to rehabilitating the low back… which is why this blog post will be part one of a series of low back health and yoga.  *For simplicity we will focus on the low back in this discussion; however, disc problems can be found often in the cervical spine, and sometimes in the thoracic spine – not to be ignored, but addressed in a future blog post.

Disc problems are so common in our western society largely because we spend so much time sitting – computers, television, driving, starbucks, etc.  Looking at the anatomy of the spine, there are four main curves that the vertebrae and discs follow: the cervical (the neck) curving inwards (towards the front of the body), the thoracic (mid back) curving backwards, the lumbar (low back) curing inwards, and the sacrum curving backwards.  When most of us sit, we round and slump our backs which flattens out the curve of the lumbar spine, and leads to a cascade of “misalignments” the whole spine up as the body tries to right itself like a boat.

So why is lumbar flattening a concern?  The discs, our shock absorbers, are like little tires between each vertebra.  They have an outer, thick ring of ligamentous tissue and on the inside a soft, jelly-like material to give it the “spring” when compressive forces are placed on it.  When the lumbar spine is taken out of its neutral inward curving alignment and reversed, it places a backwards pressure onto the discs, in essence bulging the disc structures backwards.  This is not to say it is dangerous to move the disc in this way, it is more an application of too much of one thing isn’t good.  In other words, it is good to know the spine can withstand forward, backwards, and side to side pressure, but constantly always moving in only one direction over extended periods of time can lead to structural changes in the discs from the unequalized pressure.

Constant or forceful backwards pressure on the discs can eventually result in tearing of the disc’s outer rings, allowing the gel in the center to push out.  This is known as a disc herniation, which is functionally equivalent to a blown tire.  And because the spinal cord and its nerve are posterior to the discs, a nasty side effect of the bulge pressing backwards or slightly off to the side is pressure on a nerve root, potentially causing nerve impairment and pain.

Additionally, the lumbar spine’s alignment is strongly affected by the pelvis and the lowest portion of the spine, the sacrum’s positioning.  It is helpful to look and the pelvis as the base from which the rest of the spine will follow.  If the pelvis and sacrum (which are secured together by strong ligaments) are positioned in one direction, the lumbar spine is also pulled in that direction.  And a common “misalignment” of the pelvis/sacrum is a posterior rotation (tail bone tipped downwards), which often correlates with tight hamstring muscles.  In this scenario, beware the forward bend (here’s where we return to yoga).  When a person with tight hamstrings bends forward, the tendons of the upper hamstrings pull at the base of the pelvis, tipping it into a posterior rotation, leaving the lumbar spine to flex deeply (reversal of its natural curve) and perform the bulk of the bend.

What we hope to teach our students is that ideal back alignment follows the natural curves of our spine (not straight), which will even-out the pressure on all sides of the disc.  In a forward bend, we can promote neutral spine positioning by making sure the pelvis tips forward with the bend.  For the person with tight hamstrings this can be promoted by bending the knees slightly, widening the feet and learning to activate an anterior tilt of the pelvis.  This is good information for general prevention of disc injury and especially for safety of those students already dealing with flattened lumbar spines or who have disc damage.

Regardless of whether the forward bend is seated, standing, or somewhere in between such as down dog there are ways to promote neutral spinal alignment in yoga either with body alignment cues or use of props.  Below are a series of pictures representing common alignment tendencies in forward bends and ways to correct or promote better spinal alignment for the student with lumbar disc concerns.

First looking at Uttanasana (standing forward bend).  The picture on the left demonstrates the appearance of a student bending primarily through the spine (rounding of the back); again, likely correlating with tight hamstrings.  The picture on the right demonstrates how a slight bend through the knees can relieve the pull of the tight hamstrings, freeing the pelvis to move with the spine and reducing the curvature through the back.  Cueing your students to tilt the tail bone or lift the sit bones towards the ceiling helps promote the forward tilt of the pelvis.  Also, a nice wide separation between the feet and cueing the student to inwardly rotate the top of the upper thighs can free the space for the pelvis to tilt in this fashion.

Next we have two pictures of Adho Mukha Svanasana (down dog).  In the picture on the left notice the rounded back appearance.  If you see this posture on a student, encourage them to move the hands further away from the feet and suggest wider space between the feet.  If back health is your goal in this pose, tell your students it’s okay to bend the knees slightly, as in the picture on the right, and work towards a straight leg/heel on the floor positioning down the road.  These suggestions will allow space for anterior rotation of the pelvis (sit bones towards the ceiling) and will provide your student greater ease to lengthen through the spine and minimize the rounding associated with posterior disc pressure.

Lastly, we look at Paschimottanasa (seated forward bend).  Again, in order to promote more neutral spinal alignment, have your student sit on a small cushion or block and bend the knees slightly to remove the posterior pull of tight hamstring muscles.  Also teach slightly wider leg positioning, lengthening through the spine, shifting the sit bones back, and leaning forward from the hips only as far as they feel a stretch into the posterior leg muscles.

If some of these postural suggestions seem mechanical and rigid to you, it is true.  Of course in yoga it feels wonderful to sometime just relax and surrender into a pose as the body naturally folds.  However, these tips are meant for education of low back health and to help you understand the why’s of certain postural alignment suggestions.  So use these tips as just part of your tool set in practicing or teaching yoga.

In part II of this post we will look at how promoting flexion or rounding of the lumbar spine can actually be relieving and healthful for other students since one size does not fit all when it comes to postural alignment and back health.

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What’s Your Song?

I had a request from a friend the other day for some yoga music suggestions.  Not being overly impressed with my music collection, I did a web search and found a few playlists recommended by other instructors.  Unfortunately, these playlists weren’t jiving with me.  It made me realize that my preference leans towards instrumental tracks or Kirtan-style music, where the lyrics are in Sanskrit (leaving me mostly unaware of the meaning of the song, which I’m not sure is a good thing or a bad thing ;)).  I realized my desire from a yoga class is to immerse myself in the present and to enjoy the meditative flow or stillness of my body in asana, and my hope for my students is the same.  You know, let  the music accompany the experience, but not take the spotlight.

This is not to say that I don’t use songs with English lyrics ever in the my classes.  I’m just very selective and considerate of the way a song might grab my students’ attention.  Perhaps that’s taking my yoga too seriously.  Some might say it’s fun to lighten up the class and “get jiggy with it” (I guess there’s no hiding my age now).  I certainly understand loving music and music diversity.  However, for yoga, I’m mostly in search of soulful, melodic, and subtle.   I’m always looking for new suggestions if you have some.

Here’s what I’ve been playing with lately… For Kirtan, I recently discovered Girish and for a more upbeat or flow class try Thievery Corporation.  Also, iTunes has a great selection of familiar songs done in karaoke tracks, e.g. I just downloaded some Jack Johnson, Jason Miraz and Colbie Caillat in acoustic guitar/karaoke.  A nice website for yoga/meditation music which samples a nice compilation of albums to browse is http://www.whiteswanmusic.com/.

Peace and harmony.

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Ahimsa

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.

-Carl Rogers

I was preparing a class with a theme of acceptance and tolerance the other day.  My intention was to have the students practice acceptance of their physical bodies, as it is in form and in ability, and to encourage reflection on the judgments that may come into their minds of themselves and of others.  As I got writing, I got thinking about the student who forces himself into the advanced stage of a pose beyond his current physical abilities, straining to achieve the final position come hell or high water… so tense that he is unaware of the sensations in his body rendering your instructions of the subtle body impenetrable even if you shouted with a megaphone (sorry, small rant).   It brought me back to contemplating Ahimsa, one of the yamas, or ethical principles, taught in eight-limb Raja yoga.

Ahimsa ultimately translates as “non violence” and to practice ahimsa is to practice compassion and kindness to all living things, which is a pretty common sense moral principle that we all know to be ideal in a peaceful society.  But I will never forget the day my yoga instructor reminded me that in yoga, Ahimsa also means non violence to oneself.  To recognize that any unkind, destructive comment or judgment we make of ourselves is harmful, and any thought or deed that prevents me or someone else from growing healthily and living freely is one of violence.  For me, this brought out a realization of how my judgmental  thoughts of myself were preventing me from living a life of freedom and growth.

Recognizing patterns of thinking, and sometimes acting, in hurtful, judgmental ways is step one of the liberation.  Pushing beyond your current physical limitations, for example, is not honoring the body, and in essence is being violent to yourself.  Also, learning to listen to negative or judgmental messages you may be telling yourself throughout a class.  For instance, “I’m not good at balancing”, “I need to lose weight”, or “I’m not strong enough to keep holding this pose” are self-defeating. Becoming a witness to your own internal dialogue and listening to the sensations in the body are critical to achieving growth in practice and spirit.

Once you’ve recognized your criticisms or, perhaps, punishing behaviours it is important to replace these hurtful patterns with an attitude of compassion and acceptance.  You may not be happy with all aspects of your self, both on your mat and your life, and some of these things are changeable while others are not.  Acceptance of how you are at this present time, however, is imperative for growth.  Who you are, right now, is all that you know to be true.  And without acceptance of the present, you have no reality or foundation from which to work on towards change in the future.

Accept yourself at least for one class, just as you are.  Be a witness to your truth – don’t hold back, but don’t push beyond your honest limits, and learn how practicing this acceptance and tolerance towards yourself puts health and kindness in your practice, and ultimately moves society closer towards peace one person at a time.  Ahimsa.

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Reset the Body

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For those of you who regularly practice yoga, especially restorative based classes, you’ll be familiar with the calming and grounding feelings you can experience after class. I remember the first time I felt this relaxed, yet focussed, state many years ago from a candle light yoga class (an instant love affair for me as my natural disposition tends to be one of a anxious Chihuahua wound up on caffeine).  It wasn’t until years later in my yoga training that I learned some of the physiology behind this process..

Part of the calming effect had been from practicing a certain pose called Viparita Karani or legs up the wall.

This pose is known for its ability to ease anxiety and stress, and I began to wonder, what is going on in this posture that leaves me feeling so relaxed? My research led me to an article on treating adrenal exhaustion, which explained how inverted poses, done in a restorative way, can calm our overly stressed and anxious bodies. Here’s how it works:

The sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the fight or flight system, is responsible for releasing adrenaline in our bodies. It winds us up by elevating the heart rate, increasing blood pressure, tensing the muscles, and increasing blood flow to the brain for increased alertness. This system is good for emergencies, but when activated chronically such as in times of high stress and chronic pain the hormones released by the adrenal glands will slowly break down our bodies and immune system and leave us feeling wound up and unable to sleep, which ultimately leads to a whole host of other problems.

When we invert our bodies there is an increase of blood flow from the lower half of our bodies to the upper half of the body and specifically to the baroreceptors (blood pressure sensors) in the neck and chest. When the baroreceptors are activated by an increase in blood pressure they trigger a reflex called the baroreflex which reduces nerve input into the adrenal glands, slows the heart rate, slows brain waves, relaxes blood vessels, and reduces the amount of stress hormones circulating in the bloodstream.  All of which shifts the body towards a calm and relaxed state, facilitating sleep and regeneration of the body (key ingredients when dealing with injuries, pain, and insomnia).

This process of unwinding the sympathetic nervous system takes time, so for therapeutic purposes, find an inverted position that is restful, such as a modified Viparita Karani where the legs are elevated over a surface such as a bolster or stool, or even over the end of a couch as shown in the image above. Aim for 15 minutes or longer and try elevating the pelvis slightly higher by placing a folded blanket or bolster underneath the hips for a more effective inversion. For further relaxation benefit, try lying a heavy folded blanket placed over you abdomen/chest (also shown above). Give this posture a try and notice how it leaves you feeling calm, relaxed, and ready for rest.

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Winging Scapulae

If you are teaching a class and you notice one of your student’s shoulder blades sticking out away from the rig cage, otherwise known as winging scapulae, this client may be dealing with weakness of the serratus anterior muscle.

The serratus anterior muscle is responsible for holding the shoulder blades snug against the back rib cage.  When activated they move the scapulae out and away from the spine.

It is not such an issue is the student’s blades are winging at rest, it is most important to identify winging during movement, e.g. raising arms over head or in plank position, since this identifies them as functionally unstable.  If this is the case, the student will benefit from strengthening the serratus anterior muscle because winging can lead to impingement (descent of the coracoacromial arch) and decreased ability for the rotator cuff and other muscles to generate normal strength – ultimately leading to shoulder problems during their asanas.

To best help the student with winging scapulae, encourage them to consult with a qualified exercise therapist or physiotherapist as he or she will likely need a comprehensive program addressing scapular instability.  However, I’ve included one exercise that you can teach your class to target this important stabilizing muscle.

Wall Pushes
Have them stand facing a wall and place their hands against the wall directly in front of them (plank position against the wall).  Instruct them to move their chest away from the wall, keeping the hands pressing into the wall.  Monitor their upper backs to confirm their scapulae move out and away from the spine, and ensure the client keeps a relaxed and even shoulder posture.  Click image (right) for demonstration.

Once the motion has been learned, have them repeat this exercise leaning into the wall on their elbows, with the elbows as high as possible. This new position removes the help from the anterior deltoid muscles and helps isolate the action to the serratus anterior.

Happy planking!

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All Push, No Pull

My last blog post about balancing the front side of the body with the back side of the body got me thinking about the completeness of asana practice on the physical body, and more specifically, can yoga address all the body’s strength needs?

My answer is… just about.  When it comes to stretching, yoga’s got it covered, but there’s  a noticeable void in the strengthening of the upper body’s muscles involved in the pulling motion.  Practicing sun salutations, as you move in and out of plank to up dog and down dog, you quickly get a sense of the demand on the pushing muscles of the upper body (the triceps, pectoralis, and deltoids), but I haven’t found any asanas to effectively strengthen the pulling muscles – namely the biceps, latissimus dorsi, and other upper back musculature.

So here are a few suggestions on balancing out the pushing and pulling muscles for our yoga students, without them requiring a gym membership…

  • Use of props such as elastic tubing anchored around the feet and add some upper body rows while holding a pose (see examples).

 

 

  • If you are so fortunate to be near a studio that provides wall ropes (Iyengar) or has TRX suspension (freespirityoga.ca), try some inverted, inclined rows by holding two ends of a rope from one wall anchor, place the feet at the wall, lean the body back in a straight line, and pull the body inwards completing a rowing motion with the arms.  Note this can be done anywhere with a skipping rope and a secure anchor point (chest height or higher).
  • Take it outside – a simple children’s playground can be a great, free location for balancing out your upper body strength.  Try chin ups or inverted rows on the monkey bars.
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Done on this Side – Flip!

“Ultimately, Yoga is about balance.  It’s important to be strong, but balanced strength is better than unbalanced strength, and strength coupled with flexibility is better than rigid, restrictive strength.”

I just finished reading an article written by Roger Cole (one of my favourite writers in Yoga Journal for tips and advice on anatomy and physiology of yoga) where he addresses the potential for strength imbalances that can come from classes which insert Surya Namaskar (sun salutations), and more specifically Chaturanga Dandasana (plank pose) throughout the sequencing.  He explains that the push-up position of Chaturanga is an excellent way to strengthen the front side of the body – namely the pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, rectus abdominis, obliques, iliopsoas, and rectus femoris; however, the muscles of the back body are often misrepresented.

The author goes on to offer Purvottanasana (upward plank pose) as an effective counter-pose to Chaturanga for addressing balance into the back-body.  I couldn’t agree more; Purvottanasana is an excellent pose to include in your class design as it can provide strength for the rhomboids, posterior deltoids, the errector spinae, gluteals, and hamstrings.

We’ve all experienced the pleasant sensations of coupling updog with downdog and child’s pose with cobra.  Whether it be strength or flexibility, your students will feel grateful  of the sensations of symmetry when you design you classes to balance the front with the back side of the body.  Here are a few more suggestions to try:

  • Navasana (boat pose) with table pose
  • Virabhadrasana I (warrior I) with Parsvottanasana (intense hamstring stretch)
  • Ustrasana (camel pose) with Sasangasana (rabbit pose)
  • Standing head to knee pose with Natarajasana (dancer pose)
  • Dhanurasana (bow pose) or wheel with  Lolasana (pendant pose) or crow pose
  • Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (bridge pose) with Halasana (plow pose)
  • Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) with Supta Virasana (reclining hero pose)
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Stretch – Relax

Warning readers… this might take some time to digest.

Working in the industry of fitness, physiotherapy, and yoga, it’s my opinion that you can have a full repertoire of excellent asanas or stretches, but the way you deliver the assignment of the asana can make or break (no pun intended) the effect on the muscles  – the optimal results being lengthening in the muscles, enhanced mobility of the joint, and a relaxation response on the nervous system.

To facilitate the outcome of the stretch for accuracy and effectiveness, here are some practical tips which take into consideration the science of flexibility:

  • Describe where to feel the stretch and how much.  Many times in the past I have instructed a stretch and asked the client where they feel it, and to my surprise find out they are focusing their awareness to a completely different area of the body then what I’d intended the stretch for.   Conscious awareness distinguishes the asana from the stretch.
  • Don’t forget about the muscle spindle…. every muscle fiber has a network of sensors called muscle spindles.  They run perpendicular to the muscle fibers, sensing how far and fast the fibers are elongating.  As muscle fibers extend, stress on the these spindles increases.  When this stress comes too fast, or goes too far, muscle spindles fire an urgent neurological signal, activating a reflex loop the triggers a protective contraction in the muscle being stretched, in essence, countering the effect of relaxation and lengthening in the muscle.  Ideally we are training our clients to retrain this reflex.  In a pose, it takes time, gentleness, and focused awareness for the muscle spindle to stop sending is protective signal. Teach your students how to be patient in their stretches and wait for the release sensation in the muscle so they can move deeper into the stretch.  This is when and where they will receive the benefits.
  • Reciprocal Inhibition – a fancy word to describe a neurological mechanism to facilitate the releasing and extending of a muscle.  In essence, in every movement about a joint there is a muscle that is a prime mover (agonist) and there is an opposing muscle the (antagonist).  In reciprocal inhibition the rule is whenever the agonist contracts there is a built in feature of the autonomic nervous system which causes the antagonist to release.  Take for example the motion of straightening the knee joint, the quadriceps are the prime movers (the agonists) and the hamstrings resist the motion (feel the stretch and are the antagonists). To facilitate the stretch you can have the student purposely contract their quadriceps to engage this mechanism, allowing the autonomic releasing of the hamstrings.  Reciprocal Inhibition can be done with any movement, and works great for stubbornly tight muscles.
  • Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) – don’t let the name scare you. PNF is a neurological technique designed to produce gains in flexibility by manipulating the stretch reflex (see muscle spindle above).   For example, by having you contract a muscle while it’s near its maximum length, you actually ease the pressure on your muscles spindles, and they send signals that it’s safe for the muscle to release a little further.  Try this with your hamstrings with Supta Padangusthasana (reclining big toe pose).  Using a strap around the foot, pull the straight leg towards you until you feel a gentle stretch in the hamstring.  Then contract the posterior leg muscles as if to push your leg away from you, creating tension on the strap.  Hold this contraction for a few seconds and then relax the leg and immediately return to the stretch of gently pulling the leg in towards the body and see if you can go a little further.
  • For stubbornly tight muscles aim for longer holds (90 – 120 seconds), or in yin yoga a few minutes per asana.  In this kind of practice you are maintaining the pose long enough to produce healthful, permanent changes in the quality of the connective tissue (facia) that binds your muscles.  Holding poses for short periods of time (20 – 30 seconds) will give the sensation of a gentle release; however, longer holds will give the structural changes necessary for a permanent increase in flexibility.
  • In a therapeutic setting, attempt to focus on one to three key stretches/asanas that will best address your client’s needs and spend time on the details of alignment and focused awareness to maximize the benefit of the therapy.
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