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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